By the Reverend Canon Doris Westfall
“Then a cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud there came a voice, “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!” Mark 9:7
Clouds, mountains, and God. They go together like coffee and cream, peanut butter and jelly, bread and wine. In other words, where you find one you will often find the other. In today’s readings we have what are known as theophanies, visible encounters with God.
In our Old Testament reading, Elijah and Elisha are walking along. Elijah is going to be leaving the community that day. There is some confusion and angst felt by the accompanying prophets and Elisha. Elijah and Elisha walk from Gilgal to Bethel and from Bethel to Jericho until they cross the Jordan River and Elijah is taken up to heaven.
In the Gospel reading, Jesus takes Peter, James and John up to the mountain to pray. While Jesus was praying his countenance changed. It was still Jesus, but his face and clothing became dazzling white. Jesus’ time in prayer changed him and the divine radiated from him.
Jesus appears with Moses and Elijah, the symbols of the Law and the Prophets. We are told that the three of them were talking together.
Peter, God bless him, gets all excited. He is thrilled to be there to witness the bringing together of the old and new covenant, but that excitement was about to turn into terror as a cloud appeared and the three disciples entered it. While in the cloud they heard a voice proclaiming, “This is my Son, the Beloved, listen to him!”
Clouds, mountains and God. They go together and they can be terrifying. Entering into a cloud of unknowing, a fog where one may encounter the divine, will leave you changed from the person and the parish you were before.
I know a little something about clouds, mountains and God. I know how beautiful they can be, and how scary they can be. I know it from my time on that mountaintop in Tennessee, from my time in Sewanee.
I wasn’t the only person to go up that mountain and return a changed person. I want to tell you a story about someone else who entered into a divine fog, into a cloud of unknowing, and came down from that mountain transformed.
“It was the fog that caused us to be lost,” the wife of a friend from seminary told me. Her name was Donna and she was speaking of the incredibly dense, can’t-see-your-hand-in-front-of-your-face fog that descends on Sewanee.
The famous London fog has absolutely nothing on Sewanee fog. At 2500 ft. elevation, Sewanee gets enveloped in clouds. It can happen very, very suddenly. One moment you are standing in sunshine, and the next moment the clouds are so thick that when you stand in it the only thing you can see is the swirling of the mist around you. You could be standing next to a huge building, close enough to extend your arm and touch it, and still not see it. You know it’s there, but it is gone from view.
On time, I knew exactly where I was; I was standing next to All Saints Chapel, a tremendously large gothic style church. I couldn’t have been more than five feet from it, when the fog suddenly came in and the building disappeared entirely. It truly was that thick.
When the fog descends on Sewanee walking is perilous and driving in it could cost you your life. Are you walking towards a precipice? Will your next step take you into a hole and break your leg, or will it swallow you whole?
If you are driving in it, you very often don’t know if you are so close to the edge of the road that your car may go off the side and roll down the mountain, or if you are so close to the center line that you and another car might meet head on.
Sewanee fog is incredibly beautiful and yet dangerous at the same time. It can take your breath away one moment and scare the pants off of you the next.
Donna’s husband, Tom, was called to be a priest and he and Donna were making the rounds of different seminaries to determine which one Tom would enter to start his theological training.
Donna told me, “I was questioning decisions that had to be made about seminaries and where my place was in those decisions. I was unsure of a lot. My husband felt so very sure, and it was lonely for me. We had one final seminary to visit and then a decision had to be made. Secretly, I was hoping we could start again later, when we were older.
“That is when it happened,” she said. “We ran right into a wall, a wall of fog. We knew we were near the seminary, but we could not see anything. The lines on the road were our only guide, the only way we were even sure we were on a road at all."
"Finally we found something that appeared to be a parking lot. Not sure where we were or where we were going, we thought it better to park and walk. There was a sidewalk just off the parking lot. It seemed like a good place to start. We took the path up the hill, barely able to see a foot in front of us.”
Have you ever been in a fog so deep, so all encompassing, that there is literally nothing else you can see? Perhaps it is the fog of grief or loss, or the pain that swirls around you when you lose that job or get a bad diagnosis or a marriage dissolves. Perhaps it is the fog of having to make a life-altering decision and not knowing which way to go.
At times like these we will often take short, halting steps, gingerly feeling with our foot the next step forward, wondering if we are on solid ground or about to step off into an abyss.
I have to admit that following God sometimes feels like that. I step into a cloud of uncertainty, of wondering where that next step will take me, and like Peter, James and John, I am terrified.
But for Elisha, Peter, James and John, the story doesn’t end in the clouds or fog; it doesn’t end with being terrified. My story doesn’t end there and your story doesn’t end there, and Donna’s story doesn’t end there either.
Donna said, “As we came up the hill it seemed as if the fog vanished, the sun burning a hole in the thickness. We were standing in a shaft of fog-piercing sunlight. It was then that I saw it. A bench, just a small marble bench.” Engraved on the top of the bench were four words:
“Donna All is Well.”
Donna told me that seeing those words literally took her breath away. She said, “My husband came up behind me. ‘What is it?’ he asked. ‘Did you find a sign telling us where to go?’ ‘Yes,’ Donna said. ‘I think I did.’
“Just as the sun came through the top of the hill, it was as if the sun broke through in my mind. Everything just seemed so clear. It was the fog that caused us to get lost. Without it, we would never have been on that part of campus to see the bench.”
What Donna discovered, she told me, was that “the fog didn’t obscure the path; it opened it up.”
By stepping into the unknown, by being willing to get a little lost, Donna found that God was present in her uncertainty. Donna was to learn that without stepping into the fog she never would have discovered that all was well.
Donna All is Well. Doris All is Well. St. John’s…ALL IS WELL.
We have another sun that breaks through our darkness and pain, that shines through the fog of uncertainty and our cloud of unknowing, and that is the Son of God, Jesus Christ, who says to us, “Come to me all you who are weary and carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.” All is Well.
“Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble of heart. And you will find rest for your souls.” All is Well.
“This is my Son, the Beloved, listen to him.” All is Well.
Jesus is the light in our darkness, the sun that pierces our fog and illuminates our path.
The fog is still there. At times so dense we don’t know where we are or what we are supposed to do. But nothing can obscure our path when we listen to Jesus. Nothing.
Could it be that because of our pain, our confusion and sorrow, our path to Jesus, our path to hope and healing, and new life, is actually opened up? Certainly that is as much a possibility as that our fear will swallow us whole.
It is even more of a probability. In fact, it is a certainty; because even when it feels like our fear will swallow us whole, we are assured that in our times of doubts, uncertainties and fears that indeed, all will be well.
The Reverend Canon Doris Westfall is the Canon to the Ordinary for the Diocese of Missouri.
Various members of the St. John's congregation contribute to this blog. For editorial suggestions, contact Jeff McIntire-Strasburg at firstname.lastname@example.org