Mountain and Cloud Moments
by The Very Rev. Steve Carlsen
When you are on a mountain, you pay attention to the clouds. The times I have hiked up mountains in the Adirondacks or in Colorado and Utah, we always paid close attention to the clouds. We would make sure that we began early in the morning, so that we could reach the summit before the thunderstorms rolled in. Sometimes we could see them building in the distance. Sometimes they could literally take shape right around you. It was a little disappointing not to see the view, and eerie to know that on the summit surrounded by clouds, there were steep drop offs plunging off around us.
In Scripture, this image of clouds and mountains occur a few times. When Moses is on the mountain receiving the law, Mt. Sinai is cloaked in thick clouds, and God speaks to him from the cloud. Our first lesson is from that story, when Moses’ face is still glowing with God’s glory. Elijah also encounters God on the mountain and in a cloud. On Mt. Horeb, Elijah experiences first a whirlwind, than an earthquake, then a fire, before he encounters God in the sheer silence.
That is why both Moses and Elijah appear with Jesus in our Gospel lesson. It is the same setting, cloud and mountain. In fact they seem to be talking about the same thing, departure. The literal word is exodus, which brings with it rich meanings of liberation, wandering, struggle, change and transition. Moses was setting out toward the promised land, receiving the Word of God in the Law. Elijah had fled for his life. A new prophet was to be chosen to succeed him. Soon Elijah would be transported into the heavens. In Luke’s Gospel, this 9th chapter where the story of the Transfiguration takes place is the chapter in which Jesus foretells his own death and sets his face toward Jerusalem.
In Scripture, these mountain and cloud moments are powerful moments of promise and encounter and transition. This is not the clear vision from the mountain top; this is being caught up in the clouds on a mountain, knowing that you are high above but with only passing glimpses around you through the shifting clouds. It is a promise and assurance, but without the clear vision of the future.
On retreat with the Vestry two weekends ago, Jim Lemler shared a model of transition with us. It is from the organizational development writer, William Bridges. His insight was that a transition is not just an ending, followed by a new beginning. In between endings and beginning, there is a transition period. He called it, the neutral zone. Between an ending and a beginning, there is this neutral period that is experienced with ambiguous feelings, of both anxiety and excitement, of resistance and anticipation, and frustration and also creativity and innovation.
Our human tendency is to rush from an ending to a beginning as soon as possible, to get out of the neutral zone as quickly as we can. We try to avoid this neutral zone, by holding on to the past, or by rushing to the new beginning as soon as possible. Bridges’ work however, says that staying in this neutral zone for a while is what makes for a good transition. This ambiguous time allows us to see the past with a rich understanding, not just a nostalgia for good times, but with a thick description of good and bad together–the only kind of history worth having and using. This ambiguity of the neutral zone, also allows multiple good ideas to bubble up, multiple good ideas, important choices, new innovations. The longer we stay in the neutral zone, the less likely was are to take the first, easy, shallow, obvious way forward, and instead find a creative, innovative path ahead.
Here is the key to the neutral zone: be quiet, be still, listen.
Now Bridges’ theory of transition is not religious. It is used for businesses, nonprofits, community groups and for parishes. But is does coincide in a powerful way with these stories from Scripture about clouds and mountains. Being high on a mountain, but caught up in the clouds–clouds drifting, changing, sometimes revealing, sometimes concealing–is a great image for where we, both you the people of Christ Church, and also for Jen and myself in our transition.
Let us learn from St. Peter. We are so fortunate that the New Testament so candidly records the failures as well as the greatness of Jesus’ disciples. That way we can identify and learn from them. Peter, James and John accompany Jesus and they were weighed down with sleep.
Beginning transition is hard; it is tiring; the oblivion of sleep can make seem pretty tempting. But only because they resisted it, did they see the glory. In this glory they see a hint of the resurrection. Being with Moses and Elijah shows them that they too are encountering God, in a cloud-wrapped mountain, seeing the glory.
So far so good. But then Peter, always Peter, has to say something. He wants to preserve the moment, to pin it down, to hold on to it, “not knowing what he was saying.” But after hearing the voice from the cloud, Peter, James and John do finally get it right. They become silent, they reflect on this moment–at least until much later. They let it be.
I had a wise person once who used to tell me, NOT “Don’t just stand there, do something!”
INSTEAD, she would say, “Don’t just do something, stand there!” Be still and wait. Be silent and listen. Be.
We hate the transition time, the neutral zone. We want to rush out of it, into a false past or a simplistic future. But being in a cloud on the mountain is a faithful place to stand, to listen, to be. It is the purest place of faith, when we can realize and accept that any control we ever thought we had, was always mostly an illusion, and a simply reliance on God and responding to God’s grace, is all we ever had or ever will have.
One of the greatest spiritual writings in the English language, is the anonymous 14th century contemplative work, The Cloud of Unknowing. Just this title is the perfect description of where we are right now. We don’t know where God is taking us next. Transition, the neutral zone, is hard because we precisely in the not knowing. Our future is uncertain. Even our past looks new to us. We want to act, to do, to speak, but we are bidden to wait, to silence and even to unknowing.
If we can stand it, can stay awake, can wait and listen, we might just find that it is not our knowing, acting and speaking that matters. It is God’s knowing us, God’s loving, God’s blessing, alone that matters.
This faith and trust that can emerge on the mountain, in the cloud, that will make all the difference. As I prepare for an interim period in Key West, discerning my next ministry; as you all bid me farewell this month, and enter your own interim; and as each of us in our own lives might be going through individual neutral zones, our own transitions, we are bidden to wait, listen and trust.
As the disciples reflected on this, eventually they told this story, they remembered, both Peter’s error and their eventual silence. We can and we should remember these times of change, because in some ways, the mountain and cloud, the neutral zone, are the truest spiritual state, the best representation of the life of faith. We are always between the Already of God’s Kingdom and the Not Yet of its breaking in. As we heard in the wonderful sermon at Lauren’s ordination, we are between the world as it is, and the way we know it should be. Old things are always passing away, and behold, all things are being made new. We are dying, and see we are also alive. We are always in Holy Saturday in this life of faith.
Eventually, God will give us a new understanding of ourselves and a new direction. We will take action, step out boldly. But right now, don’t just do something, stand there. And when we begin to go forward, never forget the mountain and the cloud, and the gift that all we do, is only by God’s grace and love.