Soft, billowy clouds danced across the expansive Midwest sky near the farm where I grew up. They were mesmerizing. As children we studied them to see if they resembled a dog or pig, or maybe grandmother leaning over her hot stove. These intriguing clouds beckoned us to see, conjecture, wonder.
Sometimes though, when hot and humid days wore on, clouds turned ominous when they coalesced on the western horizon and began marching across the wind-swept prairie. As the dark banks rolled toward us, we scurried to get tractors and trucks safely in the shed before they released their fury.
Cloud watching was also something the ancient Israelites knew well. When they left home to wander in the desert, they had to pay attention, scanning the sky for the leading presence of God imbedded in a cloud. Pleas for freedom had been answered, but part of the bargain included trusting an always recalibrating sky compass.
I wonder what it must have been like to slowly realize the pathway out of slavery was anything but carefree or clearly marked? Following a cloud, even a divine one, requires some skill. How did they know which particular cloud held the divine presence? What about the days when no clouds emerged or when all of the clouds formed into one long gray day? What direction was right then, and what were the sources of confirmation other than the manna and quail that spoiled overnight?
When I was young, my Sunday school teachers told me the Exodus story was about trust: being willing to put faith in God to make good on a promise. I am inclined, however, to also see within this narrative, the process of discernment; of people using their God-given intuition to uncover the way forward.
Perhaps this journey from enslavement to liberation is not unlike what we face as we emerge from this Covid-19 pandemic. We have experienced a long night where we have been brought face-to-face with the staggering inequities pervading our society. No longer are we able to say we didn’t know, for we have seen with our eyes, heard with our ears, witnessed in multiple ways, how those on our margins have been left in Egypt to fend for themselves.
Like the Israelites of long ago, however, we can discern a way to a future of freedom.
Making our way out of the Pandemic Desert
In 2019 Sister Simone Campbell, director of NETWORK, when given the Clare Award in Clinton, Iowa, listed what she identified as elements of a feminine intelligence, a disrupting force in the midst of the status quo. The insight she shared then is still relevant because, as she noted, the old ways are clearly not working. These guideposts can help us find our footing beyond Egypt.
We begin, Sr. Campbell said, by being inclusive.
We must learn to listen to all and not merely those whose voices clamor most loudly. Our transgender friends, for example, are helping us to recognize their struggle. Are we willing to hear them? Will we step out of our echo-chambers to consider the perspectives of those we’ve not heard before?
Our listening must be of the deep and soulful kind, not seeking to spout off in return but instead to take full account of what is being said.
Bearing witness is a crucial aspect of listening and it requires us to hold space for another’s experience without seeking to insert our own in its place. The platinum rule explained by Dave Kerpin in The Art of People, gets to this point. We should seek to treat others as they want to be treated. In so doing, we will find this might require us to learn new words, identify our pronouns, and, for those in the majority, to feel a little uncomfortable in our skin for a change.
Sr. Campbell also said we need to recognize that all things are connected.
One of the biggest lies we have told ourselves is that we are separate, that the goal of rugged individualism is somehow holy and right when instead it is unholy and utterly wrong. Jesus’ teaching that the greatest love is to lay down one’s life for another might mean Christians need to quit being complicit with dominant culture and instead lead in efforts for reparations and other ways of acknowledging and repairing the sin of racism.
Empathy must become the guiding principle of our action.
For too long we have worshipped at the golden calf of capitalism and in its wake we have lost sight of compassion, the great commandment Jesus taught, an action that de-centers ourselves. Erich Fromme once said, “in spite of the deep-seated craving for love, almost everything else is considered to be more important than love: success, prestige, money, power.” And yet, in the end, it is only love that endures. “Tell me to what you pay attention” José Ortega Y Gassett said, “and I will tell you who you are.” Are we committed to reorienting our lives to reflect this reality?
Regeneration, life emerging out of death, is the great unending promise of faith.
When we feel exhausted from this arduous and unending journey to justice, we must remember that what we see is not the end of the story. As Richard Rohr remarked, “In the larger-than-life, spiritually transformed people I have met, I always find one common denominator: in some sense, they have all died before they died. They have followed in the self-emptying steps of Jesus, a path from death to life….” Like Moses, we may not make it to the promised land, but our hope resides in the humble walk toward justice.
Today as I write this ending, the sky is gray. There are no white, puffy clouds to study, no thrill from staring through my window to be inspired by what I see. This dismal view accurately reflects what I’m feeling about the pandemic. This year has brought not only national division, but personal, familial strife: differing politics, faith commitments, Covid precautions, vaccine use. In 2019 at the Awakening Soul retreat, Barbara Brown Taylor invited her audience to reflect on clouds as movements of unknowing. They are, when you think about it, opaque containers whose presence could be designed intentionally to increase our unknowing. This is after all, she remarked, “when we are most open to hear the voice of God.”
May we be disrupted enough to find the liberating path.