Rider of the Clouds

If we ever get tired of calling God “Father,” which is just one of over a hundred metaphors used to describe God in the Bible—Creator, Rock, Fortress, Mother Hen—we can use “Rider of the Clouds.”

“Sing to God, sing praises to his name; lift up a song to him who rides upon the clouds—his name is the Lord—be exultant before him” (68:4). This is a psalm of praise to God for delivering the people ruled by King David. It is a triumphant psalm, really. “Let God rise up, let his enemies be scattered; let those who hate him flee before him. As smoke is driven away, so drive them away; as wax melts before the fire, let the wicked perish before God. But let the righteous be joyful; let them exult before God; let them be jubilant with joy” (68:1-3). And then, the verse about the rider of the clouds: “Sing to God, sing praises to his name; lift up a song to him who rides upon the clouds…” (68:4a).

Some scholars suggest that the wording is not clear. The caution is that “lift up a song to him who rides upon the clouds” also can be interpreted as, “cast up a highway for him who rides through the deserts.” Who says that biblical interpretation is a dead science?

Well, the text of this verse may be uncertain, but it is crystal clear in the next two verses who this God is, this strong, militant God. “Father of orphans and protector of widows is God in his holy habitation. God gives the desolate a home to live in; he leads out the prisoners to prosperity, but the rebellious live in a parched land” (68:5,6). This God uses divine might not simply to destroy but to redeem.

By the last verse of the psalm, the people are singing, “Awesome is God in his sanctuary, the God of Israel; he gives power and strength to his people” (68:35). And we who dare to call ourselves “God’s people” have been bequeathed with the power and strength to care for orphans and protect widows, to give the homeless a place to live, and to set free those trapped by poverty. We have a voice in this world.

My phone started ringing in late May. Reporters, including at least three from national publications, called to get my reaction to the gambling expansion bill passed by the state legislature in the closing days of the spring session.

For better or worse, given my tracking of the subject of gambling in Illinois since the first casinos twenty years ago, even since the lottery back in the 70’s, actually, I now have a “voice.” God’s voice? I doubt that very much; nevertheless, I have an opportunity to say something on behalf of the orphans, the widows, the homeless, and the poor.

For what is it worth, my mantra of resistance to an expansion of gambling in the state and a casino in Chicago:

  1. Gambling costs the community more than it makes. Yes, someone makes money, but it is not you and me. The pushers of gambling always talk about the benefits in inflated terms, but they never mention that there are costs. It is not “free money.” Once we figure in regulatory costs, increased police protection, and hidden but directly attributable costs of embezzlement, forgery, theft, foreclosures, bankruptcies, lost work days, family abuse and divorce, we spend about $3 for every $1 gained. It is a losing proposition.
  2. It will not create the jobs the gambling syndicate promises. The number of employees in the nine existing casinos is going down as the establishments become more and more dependent on video machines. And there are more people in the self-exclusion plan where they register, have a photo taken, and sign a decree that they be arrested if they try to enter a casino than are employed by casinos. Over 8000 households at self-proclaimed risk, and probably much higher, while only 6800 households are supported by casino jobs.
  3. Casinos depress the local economy and drives down property values within a mile of a newly built gambling house. In Atlantic City 40% of the local restaurants closed within three years of when the first of eleven casinos was built. Las Vegas has the fifth worst urban economy in the world according to the Brooking Institutions.
  4. And then, in Chicago to have a casino run by the city makes the local government “The House,” and since the city’s own studies show that as many as 80% of the gamblers in a Chicago casino would come from the city itself, it would be a matter of cannibalizing your own people. The city would have to create new losers from among its own citizens in order to make the venture pay off. That is a cynical approach to government that I never learned in eighth grade civics class.
  5. Finally, John Kass’s researcher asked me about mob influence. “Do you think organized crime would have any impact in a Chicago casino?” I answered, “In a city that cannot hire trucks without a scandal it is hard to imagine Chicago running a casino without corruption.” The Chicago Crime Commission is my footnote on that suspicion.

“But,” the interviewers have said, “these basically are economic objections. What about the moral arguments?” “These are moral arguments,” I respond. “Every economic decision has built within it a moral decision. How we use our resources for the common good that benefits the great number of people is a moral decision.”

But gambling is not the only moral issue, or even the biggest one, in the state budget just passed. Aid to families and children in desperate need was cut by $45 million. Support for early childhood education, something we know that works, was gutted. Funds to protect some of our most vulnerable citizens were stripped. It is a brutal budget made politically expedient by the same people who miscalculated so terribly over the past several decades.

That is when this notion that we, as God’s people, have a voice to speak out, comes in to play. We are not helpless; it is not hopeless, unless we are silent. The song we sing to praise the rider of the clouds can have some pretty sharp lyrics when it comes to criticizing public policies and expenditures.

Recently I finally had a chance to watch “The King’s Speech,” the Oscar-winning portrayal of a self-proclaimed speech therapist, Lionel Logue, helping the Duke-soon-to-be King George VI overcome his debilitating stammer. It is a sensitive, moving story about finding one’s voice. The entrapment of the stammer, like being submerged under water without any way to cry out, was chillingly depicted. As Logue encouraged, goaded, and challenged his subject (to whom he was subject as a resident of the empire), he said, “Bertie, you must have faith in your voice.” You must have faith in your voice.

The Church must have faith in its voice or be deemed irrelevant by a society in desperate need of hearing the cries of the silent ones—the abandoned, the forgotten, the poverty-stricken. But let us know that when we find our voice that very same society will resent it.

It is hard work finding our voice; it is easier to be quiet and not raise a fuss, and safer, too. But it is a sin to be silent. Remember Maya Angelou’s poem, “My Guilt:”

     My guilt is “slavery’s chains,” too long

     The clang of iron falls down the years.

     This brother’s sold. This sister’s gone

     Is bitter wax, lining my ears.

     My guilt made music with the tears.

     My crime is “heroes, dead and gone”

     Dead Vesey, Turner, Gabriel,

     dead Malcolm, Marcus, and Martin King.

     They fought too hard, they loved too well.

     My crime is I’m alive to tell.

     My sin is “hanging from a tree,”

     I do not scream, it makes me proud.

     I take dying like a man.

     I do it to impress the crowd.

     My sin lies in not screaming loud.

That last line, “My sin lies in not screaming loud.” Sometimes our song to God who rides upon the clouds is a loud scream for justice, for mercy, for sanity, for doing what is right, for saying what is true, for condemning what is evil.

It is hard work indeed, sometimes made even harder because people ridicule us for it. But the psalmist promises that this soaring God, this rider of the clouds, has given us the power and strength to be God’s people, to have faith in our voice. Amen.

Philip L. Blackwell
The Chicago Temple
June 5, 2011

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