“Why,” you might ask, “is this website titled Following the Cloud?” That’s a good question. Thanks for asking. This phrase has been my life motto, my personal tag line, for over 25 years. This is my experience of what it means to follow God. The spiritual journey is not a cognitive discipline of learning proper doctrine and obeying a preset list of religious rules. The spiritual journey is a wholistic process—mind, spirit, body—of discerning what God is doing in the world and striving to join God in that activity.
This is how God led people in the Bible. I draw this from two stories that stand as exemplars of the whole biblical Narrative. The first story is how God led the people out of slavery in Egypt and into the wilderness. The second story is how God led Paul to Macedonia instead of Ephesus.
The Cloud and the Israelites
“The Lord went in front of them in a pillar of cloud by day, to lead them along the way, and in a pillar of fire by night, to give them light, so that they might travel by day and by night. Neither the pillar of cloud by day nor the pillar of fire by night left its place in front of the people”(Exodus 13:21-22)
Pharaoh had finally let the people go and they headed out to the Promised Land (Canaan to the North). The logical path was to the north. It was a straight shot from Egypt to Canaan. I can just imagine all the people leaning left to begin the northern journey.
But then the pillar of cloud showed up.
God led the people with a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night. The cloud, however, must have been new to the area. It didn’t turn left and take the northern route. Instead, it took a right and headed south to the wilderness and the Red Sea.
“Um, excuse me, cloud. That’s not the right way! We don’t have a boat.”
What would you have done in that moment? You either have to believe that God is with the cloud and follow it, or trust in the conventional wisdom and set out on your own.
Paul and the Cloud
“They went through the region of Phrygia and Galatia, having been forbidden by the Holy Spirit to speak the word in Asia. When they had come opposite Mysia, they attempted to go into Bithynia, but the Spirit of Jesus did not allow them; so, passing by Mysia, they went down to Troas. During the night Paul had a vision: there stood a man of Macedonia pleading with him and saying, “Come over to Macedonia and help us.” When he had seen the vision, we immediately tried to cross over to Macedonia, being convinced that God had called us to proclaim the good news to them. ”(Acts 16:6-10)
The Apostle Paul was sent to bring the Good News of Jesus to the Gentiles. He was headed to the heart of Asia, most likely to the city of Ephesus. This makes total sense. If you want to reach the Asians, set up headquarters in the heart of the region, right? This is conventional wisdom. This is good strategic planning.
Apparently God doesn’t follow the same strategies as conventional wisdom. God set up road blocks that denied Paul access to Ephesus. Instead, God sent a vision of a man from Macedonia to beckon Paul to that region.
Macedonia?!? That was not in the strategic plan, Lord!
Yet, Paul followed and amazing things happened. See Acts.
Following the Cloud
My life experience has been like this…
I thought I was moving to Orlando after College to break into the Animation business. God sent us to Las Vegas to manage Fasen Arts, and to get involved at Central Christian Church.
I thought I was going to become a megachurch teaching pastor. God cut me from the teaching team and called me to start my freelance business and a House Church.
I thought the House Church was going to grow and become a model for how to do church. God let the church die and called me to Minnesota to get a PhD.
I thought I would sell my house, have a lot of money, get a PhD at the UofM, and start my own publishing company. God allowed us to lose our house in the housing crisis and not be able to afford…anything. This led me to discover the ELCA and get a full ride for a PhD at Luther.
I thought God would lead me to be the next lead pastor at Grace and expand the ministry in the region with my PhD and new-found theology of spiritual formation. God shut the doors and led me into the wilderness to wander a little more. Then pastor Kris called and now I’m at Easter Lutheran, and she isn’t.
I think you see the pattern. I have learned two important lessons from my 50 years so far.
- The strategic plans you make almost never work the way you think they will, so hold them palms up.
- God is present in everything, even when it seems that the wilderness will devour you.
Blessings on your journey, wherever it may lead you.