a cloud came and cast a shadow over them,
and they became frightened when they entered the cloud.
God certainly demonstrates a flair for the dramatic in this Sunday’s readings: grand gestures toward the stars, flaming torches, speaking clouds. And for the most part, our protagonists respond appropriately. Separated by centuries, Abram, Peter, James and John are all, as they say in my neck of the woods, wicked scared.
(Could I perhaps be reading too much into Abram’s response? I suppose the text only tells us that the darkness was terrifying. I’m willing to assume that Abram was not above being frightened by it).
Aren’t we all terrified of experiences that might changes us forever?
While on retreat last week I prayed quite a bit about the ways that I sin through my speech. I’m hardly unique in this regard, but I participate in enough gossip and negative speech that I know I should be rueful of it.
I remembered a time many years ago I was pulled over at the tolls going into the Ted Williams tunnel. I was going too fast through the automated toll lane, and when the cop pulled me over he told me “the toll takers in the other lanes don’t feel safe when people drive that fast.” (Then he let me go with a warning).
Had he not given me a good reason why I should follow that particular rule, I’m not sure I would be so careful as I am now when going through toll booths. And that’s what I thought of on retreat, as I wondered how I was going to adopt more gentle speech. I need to know why I should speak more kindly of people, and the only way to know that in my heart is to love them.
So I committed to praying for love of others to grow in my heart. And just as I began to pray a voice asked “Are you sure you want to do this?”
If God enters my heart in a way that causes it to expand toward other people, I sacrifice the fun of gossip. I give up the rush of satisfaction from a clever, biting comeback. Maybe I give up some of my social activity. Maybe I give up some of my sense of superiority.
Could this have been part of why Peter, James and John were so frightened and flummoxed by being surrounded by God’s cloud? That’s the kind of thing you can’t unknow. And can you imagine the befuddlement of Abram, who has just hitched his wagon to a God who makes promises that sound like lunacy?
Even the beneficent promises can sound like curses when they mess up our plans or ask a lot of us. The Hebrew Scripture is littered with stories of those who were blessed with visits from God only to say “thanks but no thanks” (always to no avail).
Being surrounded by God’s holy presence, isn’t this what we’re supposed to want? Isn’t this what we’re always praying for? But we can surmise from Peter, James and John that when, God willing, we are surrounded by the divine presence, we still might have a few moments of wondering “what have I gotten myself into?”
And if we’re lucky, we’ll recognize that we have gotten into the marvelous mystery of a God who changes everything on mountaintops, in starry skies, in human hearts.
Have you ever been frightened to know God better?