“God Is in the Clouds”
The fields of Central Texas range over softly rolling topography. Crops of wheat, sorghum and cotton take their turns maturing under skies of blue that blaze white hot from May to late September. My daily walks as a young pastor took me past fields that stretched to a horizon bounded to the West, North and South only by the curvature of the earth, and to the East by “the Mountain,” a hulking mesquite-covered plateau notorious for harboring rattlesnakes.
If the scenery did not stop your heart, the occasional flock of birds would, as they exploded from a field on your approach. Midday often found me standing, watching birds break into the sky, turn and turn and turn again, like a cloud alive with wings until they settled in a distant field, or dipped to follow a tractor furrowing the black earth. There were moments when the only sound was a driving Texas wind, dry and hot, when the air was charged with the aromas of snuff and wildflowers, and the reign of God seemed to embrace creation right down to the roots of the blanched grass at my feet. In the midst of the land, a collection of houses and buildings rose like stubble in a gleaned field, and in the midst of it all an old church tower, white as bleached bones, marked the gathering place of the congregation I served.
I was not a stranger to the country, having grown up on an East Texas farm. But I was a stranger to the world of vast family farms that made up my parish, a world largely vanished now. I had lived in larger towns and in cities for more than ten years as a student and in my first pastoral position. Here, I had to become reacquainted with the agricultural calendar, the rhythms of the worked earth, of tilling, planting, cultivating, harvesting, lying fallow and tilling again.
The first time I visited the small town of Itasca, Texas, I was struck by how far it was from any metropolitan area. It could not even claim the distinction of being in the middle of nowhere. It was just on the periphery of nowhere. It wasn’t in the middle of anything. Most travelers knew Itasca only because there was a Dairy Queen and a state-maintained rest stop (now gone) on the interstate where you would turn to go into town. Few turned. Most Presbyterians knew Itasca simply because of the Presbyterian Children’s Home nearby.
Frankly, at first, I worried about the remoteness of the parish. I wondered if my family and I would fit in, if we would get bored with the slower pace of life, if we would find the kinds of friends there we had known and loved in the city. My concerns on these scores were quickly put to rest. When we eventually left Itasca, after some five years as their pastor, we experienced a grief that took years to get over. We had become part of the community, the people and the land.
“Someday you’re going to look back on this time as the best of your life,” a judicatory official said to me as we walked along the sidewalk in Itasca. He had made the trip from Dallas to visit with me about some Presbytery committee work, and I had taken him to Rotary (it was Thursday, and I never missed the Rotary Club if I was in town). It was also the week before Christmas, and we had sung Christmas carols accompanied by an ancient upright piano played by the wife of the Baptist preacher. The piano’s sustain pedal was broken, so every carol sounded like a polka, even “Silent Night, Holy Night.” My colleague winked at me as we walked along the sidewalk to my car. “Someday you’re going to look back on this as the best time of your life.”
Oddly enough, there have been few times in my life that I don’t look back on as the best time of my life, including last week, or yesterday. Usually I feel like “this moment, right now” is the best time ever in my life. But I have, in fact, looked back on this first solo pastorate as particularly wonderful, and I have often wondered why it was so good. I think there are basically two reasons, and they are related to two things I learned then.
First, I discovered in that first solo pastorate that the great voices of the church’s past, including its distant past, are a living cloud of witnesses, that they are our “exact contemporaries” (to adapt a phrase from Sǿren Kierkegaard), that they have something to tell us and something to teach us that we would be infinitely poorer if we did not know.
Second, I realized that the people with whom I served, the members of the congregation I knew and loved and cared for, were also among the great cloud of witnesses. I learned that sainthood is a living category, that one does not have to die to be canonized.
These two discoveries transformed my ministry right at the beginning and made me understand that our salvation is a matter of our long-term transformation, and that this transformation occurs in real, concrete communities of faith. We are shaped as pastors by the congregations we shape. We change them (we hope, for the better); and often they transform us redemptively.
I think my learning these two things was somehow connected with the geography, the place, we inhabited together. Somehow I was able to focus on the sacrament of human community because distractions were subdued. I do not mean to idealize or sentimentalize or romanticize the country parson’s life. To do so would diminish its sacred quality. The people I served were not paper cutouts. These were real people, often leading difficult lives. People suffered irreparable losses in that community. There were divorces, bankruptcies, illnesses, injuries, deaths. There were betrayals small and large. All of humanity, its good and bad, is concentrated in a village. We knew each other well – sometimes too well. However, there was integrity to the life, wholeness of earth, sky and community that made our churchly life come into focus.
The ancient formula extra ecclesiam nulla salus (“outside the church there is no salvation”) took on new meaning for me as a statement of the most common and obvious sense: we are called into wholeness by God, and we become all God created us to be only in communion with others. This is much more than a Christian belief. It is a human reality; we become what we were created to be in relationship. This may not be what the church fathers meant by this statement, but I came to believe it is the doctrine’s truest meaning. God calls us from disintegration into a community that is grounded in the very being of God’s own communal being. Father, Son, and Spirit, Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer: these halting attempts to speak of God’s own plurality in union, name the relationship that God is, in the image of which we were created. We were made to be together (this is the character of the God in whose likeness we were made), and without this togetherness we can’t become who we were created to be.
I learned these lessons, the first about the contemporary nature of past saints and the second about the sanctity of my contemporaries, simply by paying attention in the particular setting in which we lived as a congregation, by allowing the classical witnesses to Christian faith to become my conversation partners and by privileging the wisdom of those with whom I broke bread. Of all the things I learned as a young pastor, these are the lessons that remain.
Clouds of witnesses surround us like mists rising early before the day settles in. Clouds of witnesses break from fields of stubble like birds on the wing. And God is in the clouds.
This blog is based on my essay, “Ministry and Clouds of Witnesses,” a chapter I contributed to a book edited by Allan Hugh Cole, Jr., From Midterms to Ministry: Practical Theologians on Pastoral Beginnings, Michael L. Lindvall, foreword (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2008). Used with permission.