Clouds, coincidences, and my turtle problem

It’s funny that I should post that cartoon about signs from God falling from the sky. This morning, I sent a friend an essay I had written, in case she might publish it somewhere, and I was reminded of how I’d come to write the essay in the first place.

I had been sitting at the edge of a wide, grassy space, mulling stuff over and wanting to pray, but not knowing what to pray for.

When I looked up at the sky, I saw that the clouds were lined with pleasant pinks and oranges. Then, one of the clouds rolled out of the line of trees and into view. It was in the shape of a turtle, and there was a city on its back.

I was dumbstruck; I’d never seen a cloud so detailed. Were those spires? And windows? Windows that sparkled?

The turtle raised its head a bit, and then the wind rushed at me out of nowhere.

After that, paragraphs of my essay began to form themselves in my mind.

Call me crazy, but I took it as a sign from God/Heaven/ the Universe.

You see, earlier that year, I had participated in a student writers’ workshop, and the fellows had been codenamed after Hindu deities. I was Akupara, the World Turtle. I hadn’t written much after the workshop, but after seeing Akupara in the sky, I was able to start and finish a new piece. It felt as if the turtle was saying, “Don’t worry. Go write; go write some more.”

Was it really a sign from Heaven, or just a trick of the light, wind movements, and my imagination? Could God have played that trick on purpose?

Who knows? I’ve heard believers say that non-believers are so blind to God’s movement that he might rearrange the stars to say “I’m Over Here,” and they would still call it coincidence. I know non-believers would call it coincidence. Perhaps an incredibly bizarre and happy coincidence, but still a coincidence.

The thing is, my speculations about coincidences are part of the reason that I can still believe in a God of some sort controlling the universe. I look back at my life and see chains of seemingly random, insignificant, and unrelated events. In a few months, I’ll look back and be astounded by the fact that, if those events hadn’t occurred, I wouldn’t be where I’d be.

Is my tendency to see some sort of God-movement in these events a part of the conditioning I got from the evangelical love for Jeremiah 29:11 and Psalm 139:15-16? Or have I always liked the idea of an involved God; was this idea only helped along by my time as an evangelical Christian? Or — my favorite question — is there really an involved God after all? I’d like to think so, but I know I can’t be sure. I don’t mind not being sure. (And there’s a definition of agnostic theism for you.)

For the heck of it, I went to Wikipedia this morning to see what it had to say about Akupara. There wasn’t much, but I spotted the related link to the “Turtles all the way down” entry, which defines turtle problems by anecdote (you should go read it). It reminded of my biggest turtle problem, which is nicely summed up by d-C contributor Brian*:

Praying wasn’t working. The Bible wasn’t working. Talking to other Christians had proved fruitless years ago because they kept shoving increasingly useless books in my face and telling me to “just have more faith.” I know they meant well, but none of them could realize I’d reached a point where I had nothing to base my faith on. If I couldn’t base it on the Bible and I couldn’t base it on personal experience, was I to base my faith on faith? But how was I to know I was basing my faith on the right faith? Through faith? None of them could see the circular logic in that. Does one believe in something because they have faith? Or do they believe in it because it’s the Truth? And how do they know it’s the Truth? Faith?

How do I know that cloud Akupara was a sign from God? I don’t. I would like to believe it was, but wanting to believe something doesn’t make it true. However, this doesn’t mean I can’t continue to remember it as a spiritual experience. I am fully aware that the comfort and renewed confidence I felt in that moment might only have been a result of an internal chemical and psychological process triggered by the image of something meaningful — my old writing codename come to life. That doesn’t change the fact that those good feelings were there, and I was able to make something of them.

How is this different from the burrito thing? Well, I went to that retreat expecting — kind of demanding, really — God to give me a very special, specific kind of gift. When I didn’t get it, I mentally bent over backwards to make the experience fit satisfactorily into my evangelical paradigm, a lens through which I might have looked at my life only because it made me feel more unique. Everyone is gifted in their own way, but only by participating in that retreat, and buying into this church’s idea of baptism by the Holy Spirit, could I be gifted divinely.

But in the case of the clouds, I went to sit on a rock by a grassy place not knowing what to expect. I just felt like wandering away from the house, sitting somewhere, and emptying my head for a while. Deep down, I was looking for an affirmation — of some sort; I wasn’t conscious of this desire and so didn’t hope for the affirmation to arrive in a specific form, much less seek it at all. Whatever I prayed that day must have been something like, “Oh, hey, God. I’m just sitting here, watching ants, looking at this lichen, crumbling this leaf, and all. Maybe I should be praying to commune with you here or something, but I don’t feel like it. I keep thinking about school and this boy and life and stuff, and uh, so… yeah.” Cicadas or crickets might have struck up at that point.

And then Akupara.

I went home that day feeling not new or incredibly gifted, but just fine with who I was already. I’d go so far as to say that I’d received a cosmic blessing to be myself. Whether the blessing came from God or from my human imagination doesn’t seem to matter right now. It was all divine enough for me.


*The story of how Brian gave up his faith has a lot of parallels to my own. It wasn’t secular ideas that caused it, but our own desires to dig deeper into the beliefs we so cherished. Our stories end differently, however; Brian gave up belief in God entirely, while I continue to look around for him.

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