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Talk: The clouds ye so much dread

Education is a central aspect of the Cathedral’s mission.  We offer opportunities for learning, dialogue and engagement with issues of public debate.

At the Cathedral, people of all ages can learn about faith and discipleship. We run a Sunday School and are developing work with young people; there are occasional study groups and Lent Lectures.

The Cathedral is a theological and educational resource for the Diocese, supporting the work of clergy and parishes. The Cathedral works with the Diocese in planning and delivering an annual summer school.

Working with other institutions in and around Stag Hill, for example the University of Surrey, the Cathedral is committed to engaging with issues in the public sphere (including social responsibility, science, ethics, the arts and inter-faith dialogue).  There will be an annual series of talks alongside seminar based groups.

Transcripts of these talks are, where possible, included below.

For details of forthcoming talks, please see the Cathedral Diary and What's On 



Derek Holbird
Thursday 5th March 2015
Lent Talk: Do not be afraid

We decided to use as titles a line from a hymn and I’m sure you know the first line…Cowper’s God moves in a mysterious way his wonders to perform.  I will come back to that later.

Last week the Dean began our Lent Talks with a study of the relationship between fear, being afraid and courage, as seen in the latest understanding of our emotions, and as seen through the experience of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Maya Angelou and Jesus. 

I want to continue the theme tonight under this great banner headline Do not be not afraid.  The clouds ye so much dread…

That huge banner at the West End of the Cathedral…Do not be afraid, I have been thinking what the effect would be if we placed it at the bottom of the hill, where the banner for the concerts and events are placed.  What would constitute Surrey’s fears, Hampshire’s fears?  The fears of those driving to work, or to the hospital, or to Tescos.

There is a spectrum of fears.

From worries and niggles through to abject fear and naked terror.  Taking the middle of that spectrum what would the good people of Surrey or Hampshire be worrying about?
Fears of holding it all together…work, relationships, family?
Fear of job security (the man in last Sunday’s service), paying for modern life, pressures of work?
The fear of loneliness
And for the many children and young people passing our banner…of bullying, falling out with friends, doing well at school.
Fear for our children, and especially grandchildren. (the Bishop’s pastoral letter)

There are old fears, and there are new fears.  A Post Office survey tells us that 56% of adults in this country have nonophobia, fear of losing their mobile phone.

The boy in school whose mother was worried that…he was not worried!  Phobaphobia?

The clouds ye so much dread...I want to use Clouds as a metaphor this evening.

The twins and metaphor. Imagine we could talk to twins in the womb and we wanted to tell them what the world they were about to come into was like in all its complexity and richness.  There would be hardly any frame of reference.  Somehow we would have to start with what they knew and could experience already.  And for twins in the womb that would be limited in the extreme!

That gives me some idea of the task the Holy Spirit has in exploring and describing to us something of the things of God.  His character, His love, His plans, His ways.  The Spirit has to resort to what we know, and that means we have to work through metaphors and symbols.  Some of these metaphors are word based, some are musical, and some are based in art forms, art forms of all kinds.  That is why it is so helpful for great places of worship like Cathedrals constantly look for works of art and symbols that help lead us from what we know, or what we can see and experience to the numinous and the heavenly and the divine.  That is why the Bible is full of metaphor.  Why our hymns and songs are full of metaphor.

So tonight I want to dwell on one particular metaphor, something we are all familiar with, in order to grasp something we certainly cannot grasp or understand.  The metaphor as the title suggests is Clouds.

I see them in all of Catherine’s paintings.  They are there brooding, gathering, dwarfing, changing.  Looking at her work they can overpower us with their presence. They confront us and they can speak to us.

So let us dwell for a while tonight, after our title and after the paintings, on Clouds; a word about the meteorological phenomenon and their metaphorical allusions.  Then let us look at the truths the scriptures link to the appearance of clouds.  Then try to summarise those elements in the life and person of Jesus Christ.  Then bring this back to ourselves, and our experience throughout this Lenten period and on into the year.

Clouds, meteorologically speaking:  The different levels
Discovery of a new cloud
Clouds like a sea at Newlands Corner.

The emotions they can elicit, fluffy pretty, sunlit uplands, imagination
(Cathedral logo)
…through to menacing, brooding, threatening, dramatic.
Total cloud cover—miserable, disappointing, depressing.
McCartney’s Calico Skies.    Sigur Ros. Nordic Noir.

Popular music, ‘So many things I could have done but clouds got in my way’.
Poetry: The Cloud, Shelley
Classical music: From the Pastoral Symphony.
Shakespeare: Now is the winter of our discontent…..the ‘lowering’ clouds.
Hymns.  O Lord the clouds are gathering. 
Guide me O thou great redeemer.  The fiery cloudy pillar…
O love that will not let me go. (I trace the rainbow through the rain)

And in scripture, right through the Bible we have the appearance of clouds.  Surprising meanings.  So different from our experience of clouds.

Genesis 9: After the flood of judgement God says:

This is the sign of the covenant I am making between me and you and every living creature with you, a covenant for all generations to come: I have set my rainbow in the clouds, and it will be the sign of the covenant between me and the earth. Whenever I bring clouds over the earth and the rainbow appears in the clouds, I will remember my covenant...

The first reference to clouds in scripture refers to God’s deliverance, protection and, in particular his covenant

At the point of clouds gathering, with the renewed fear that must inevitably come…devastating memories…the rainbow appears.  They remember God’s promise.

As fear rises we look for God’s promises.

The story of the Exodus.  Exodus 13: 20-22

After leaving Sukkoth they camped at Etham on the edge of the desert. By day the Lord went ahead of them in a pillar of cloud to guide them on their way and by night in a pillar of fire to give them light, so that they could travel by day or night. Neither the pillar of cloud by day nor the pillar of fire by night left its place in front of the people.

Exodus 14: 19,20.
Then the angel of God, who had been travelling in front of Israel’s army, withdrew and went behind them. The pillar of cloud also moved from in front and stood behind them, coming between the armies of Egypt and Israel. Throughout the night the cloud brought darkness to the one side and light to the other side; so neither went near the other all night long.

Pursuit.  It made me think if I had ever really been pursued in anger.  How awful must it be to be hunted.
Using imagination.  The pillar of cloud.  Fascinating that it is vertical…so personal and particular
Interesting the pillar moves from in front to behind.  A shield and a barrier.  Darkness to one side, light to the other.
God’s presence and protection. Then in the wilderness…guidance. 

The next time we meet the cloud is at Sinai.  Exodus 19.9
God says to Moses...I am going to come to you in a dense cloud so that people will hear me speaking with you and will always put their trust in you….v16.
On the morning of the third day there was thunder and lightning with a thick cloud over the mountain. The people remained at a distance while Moses approached the thick darkness where God was.

24.15  When Moses went up the mountain the cloud covered it and the glory of the Lord settled on Mt Sinai…he stayed on the mountain 40 days and 40 nights.
….Presence, Glory, Guidance

The Tent of Meeting Exodus 33.9-11.
As Moses went into the tent, the pillar of cloud would come down and stay at the entrance, while the Lord spoke with Moses.  Whenever the people saw the pillar of cloud standing at the entrance to the tent, they all stood and worshipped, each at the entrance to their tent.  The Lord would speak to Moses face to face, as one speaks to a friend.

Setting up the tabernacle  Exodus 40, 34, 35  
Then the cloud covered the tent of meeting, and the glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle. Moses could not enter the tent of meeting because the cloud had settled on it, and the glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle.

Numbers 9. 19, 22
On the day the tabernacle... was set up, the cloud covered it. From evening till morning the cloud above the tabernacle looked like fire.  Whenever the cloud lifted from above the tent, the Israelites set out; wherever the cloud settled, the Israelites encamped.   Whether the cloud stayed over the tabernacle for two days or a month or a year, the Israelites would remain in camp and not set out; but when it lifted, they would set out.
Presence, Protection, Guidance.

The temple.  I Kings 8. 10,11
When the priests withdrew from the Holy Place, the cloud filled the temple of the Lord. And the priests could not perform their service because of the cloud, for the glory of the Lord filled his temple.

Then Solomon said, “The Lord has said that he would dwell in a dark cloud; I have indeed built a magnificent temple for you, a place for you to dwell forever.”
Glory, presence, power, holiness.

The Prophets
Zephaniah 1.15.  The great day of the Lord, a day of darkness and gloom.  A day of clouds and blackness.
The Lord coming on a cloud in sudden judgment to fight for us and come to our rescue and help.
Victory, judgment

The Gospels.  The clouds re-appear

The transfiguration Matthew 17.5
While he was still speaking a bright cloud enveloped them and a voice from the cloud said, ‘This is my Son whom I love, Listen to Him’.
For veiling / protection, glory and presence.

The Ascension Acts 1.9  A cloud hid him from sight.

The deliverer who was to come on the clouds is now departs, veiled by a cloud.

Rev 10.1  The angel robed in a cloud; 14.4  One like the Son of Man seated on a cloud
Majesty, Kingship and Victory

Drawing together the words we have extracted from the clouds in the OT
Promise, Presence, Protection, Guidance, Glory

But not all clouds carry such a sense of glory and holiness.  There are clouds of a different order.  Trouble is trouble.

With Jesus….a different sense; the gathering storm clouds.
His baptism and confirmation by the Father, by the Spirit and the Voice.
His temptation in the desert
His inauguration of ministry in Galilee
His ministry develops
The gathering clouds of opposition
The gloom of anguish in Gethsemane
The hurricane storm…the arrest, the trial, the cruelty
The crucifixion…the darkness.  What was it?  Eclipse? A fading sun?  Or a deep cloud?   The finish

Then, on the third day: The clouds lift.
Then bursting through in glorious day
light, clarity, a new order. 

So even with clouds of trouble, threat and disaster, in Christ there is a new day.  The clouds can disperse.

So for this Lent let us consider the clouds that can affect us.  The experiences that obscure the light, obscure the Lord’s presence and  drag us down, either slowly, wearing us down, or suddenly.

  • Clouds of confusion, or gloom, or a gathering storm. Perhaps a growing build up of trouble, or confusion.
  • Clouds of relentless hard work.  The demands of others. A heaviness.
  • Clouds that keep us from flourishing.  ‘So many things I could have done…’
  • Heavy cloud barriers.  The heavens seem as brass.  Endless prayers seemingly to no avail.
  • Clouds of failure. Or discouragement. Or disappointment.

 (youth leaders, according to +David Shepherd…have to have an infinite capacity for disappointment)

  • Clouds of identity, of transition, who am I now?  I have lost my job; I have retired; I have moved home.
  • Clouds that obscure direction.  Or confuse direction.
  • Clouds that have suddenly hit, a sudden change bringing challenge, perhaps trouble.
  • Clouds of ill health
  • …of depression.  1 in 4 people in church will have a mental health problem in their lifetime.  1 in 10 will be taking anti-depressants

…of loneliness

…of bereavement

Fear of death itself

Looking at these paintings…is there a cloud that illustrates my position, or that of a loved one?

Let us bring back those words we have extracted.
Promise, Presence, Protection, Guidance, Glory

Can we bring these clouds, these divine clouds to bear on our mortal situation?  Expose our human condition to these divine clouds.

Confusion, discouragement, disappointment
Can there be beneath all that God’s protection, prevention, His presence?
Is he saying something through this?
Where is the big picture, high above the immediate perplexity?

No easy answers…yet there resources for the journey.
A painting: The wanderer above the sea of fog, Caspar David Friedrich
Effort, getting up there, There is a price to pay.
Keeping the big view.

Hard work.  Exhaustion.
Often the demands of others.  The relentless cloud. 
Seeing our work as a sacrament. My work pile…certain things we have to convert in our minds to see them in the light of the Kingdom. 
Ps 23.  He makes me to lie down…
Take this moment time and space… John Bell

Take the tiredness of my days, Take my past regret, Letting your forgiveness touch, All I can’t forget.

Sickness  Quotes from Michael Mayne’s A Year Lost and Found
Sickness and fear
And then recovery. Nietzshe quote

Transition.  We talk much about this in our house.  And it is good to.  I talk to new head teachers about inhabiting their new office.  It feels awkward and ‘not me’.  But gradually it feels more comfortable…like a familiar garment.  In transition I suppose all those outer garments of office -our title, job, and status- can fall away.  We are left I some sense naked.  And that is uncomfortable.  It has worked the other way. It is the reverse of putting on garments of office and significance.

Stripped down and ready for action.  A new race.

Bereavement. Mrs C.  All I have is time Lord

Our hymn.  Ye saints of God fresh courage take…
William Cowper.  There is a story that the greatly depressive poet decided to commit suicide.  He hired a cab to take him to the river Thames. It was so foggy they could not fid the river. He found himself back at his own door.   How factual that is not certain but what is certain is that he was a deeply troubled man who had nevertheless found a haven and a friend in the Lord.

Ye saints of God fresh courage take the clouds ye so much dread are big with mercy and will break with joy upon your head.

The pastor and the prison.

When we put these words, these divine cloud words together what do we find?  We find they are all encompassed in the Cross. May we bring the cross in all its power to bear in our lives and situations this Lent.