Wednesday, May 04, 2005

Ascension Day

In my last night in Halifax before moving to Lethbridge, I slept on the floor of my bedroom in a borrowed sleeping bag. Everything else was on its way to Alberta. My wife Rebekah and our daughter Sophie were staying with friends and I had to mind the dog.

I really didn’t like staying in the house alone, even though I had the dog for company. The house was so empty. This was the house where Rebekah and I began our marriage. Where we welcomed our first daughter into the world. Where the memories of a thousand meals, conversations, fights, celebrations, and all the other stuff of life lay embedded in the wood work. The barren walls told stories of our lives; absent was the stuff, but alive were the ghosts, the dusty old memories that had been packed away.

Barbara Brown Taylor says,

“One thing is for sure: there is no sense of absence where there has been no sense of presence. What makes absence hurt, what makes it ache, is the memory of what used to be there but is no longer. Absence is the arm flung across the bed in the middle of the night, the empty space where a beloved sleeper once lay. Absence is the child’s room now empty and hung with silence and dust. Absence is the overgrown lot where the old house once stood, the house in which people laughed and thought their happiness would last forever.” (BBT Looking Up Towards Heaven)

I often hear people say things like, “Grandma is close to the Lord.” Or “God told me to water my plants,” and, to be honest, I don’t really know what they’re talking about. I don’t know if I’ve ever had the experience of “closeness” to God or of hearing God speak to me. But the mystery of that is: I miss God’s closeness and God’s voice. It is said that, “You cannot miss what you’ve never known.” And I wonder if my experience of God’s “absence” is a yearning for something I once had but was lost, or stolen, or simply forgotten. I don’t know.

The disciples knew what they lost. They watched it leave. They must have been deeply conflicted. One the one hand, they must have been astounded by the power of God to raise Jesus into heaven. On the other hand, they were probably sad to see him go. Maybe, every so often, they would return to the hillside where Jesus was lifted up into heaven and think wistfully to themselves, “This is the last place we saw him; this is the place we lost him.” Maybe they would tell and re-tell the old stories, reviving their numb spirits, if only for a minute. Then, they feel the ache return. Jesus is gone.

But then they remember what Jesus told them: "…you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you and you will be my witnesses."

“Us? Your witnesses? We can’t get it together enough to organize a two car parade, without you, Jesus, how are we going to be your witnesses without you to guide us?” they might have blurted out in protest.

Jesus was telling them that is was time to take off the training wheels. They were on their own. But they thought something bigger was happening.

“Is this the time you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” they asked, hopefully.

“Umm. No. You don’t understand. You will be doing my work from now on.”

You can probably see why the disciples were a little panicky at the thought of doing Jesus’ work. They had seen him raise the dead. They watched with eyes and mouths open as he healed blind folks. They probably had no idea how they were going to pull off those sorts of miracles. They weren’t about to venture out into the big bad world without some back up. This “Holy Spirit” thing was good, but they wanted something more concrete. They didn’t want to be left to their own devices.

Annie Dillard writes:

”A blur of romance clings to our notion of these people in the Bible as though of course God should come to these simple folks, these Sunday School watercolor figures, who are so purely themselves while we now are complex and full at heart. We are busy. So, I see now, were they. Who shall ascend into the hill of the Lord? There is no one but us. There is no one to send nor a pure heart on the face of the earth but only us, a generation comforting ourselves with the notion that we have come at an awkward time. But there is no one but us. There never has been. There are generations which remembered, and generations which forgot; there has never been a generation of whole men and women who lived well for even one day."

“There is none but us,” she says. It’s frighteningly true. "You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you and you will be my witnesses," Jesus promises. You, with all your holy imperfections and sacred impurities, will tell the world about Jesus. Together, you will serve a broken and hurting people. Sometimes you will get it right and sometimes you will mess up completely. That’s because the Holy Spirit does not remove our human blots, but uses them and re-uses them, re-filling the treasure that keeps falling out of the cracks in these clay pots.

I’m thinking of the woman whose husband had been diagnosed with a difficult illness. Taking care of him has become a full time job. Her back is always sore. She misses her friends. One day she resents her husband’s illness so much that she decides she’s walking out the door. She’s simply exhausted.

But she stops at the doorstep, sighs, wipes a tear from her eye, turns around, and puts in another load of laundry. Her life continues.

After her husband’s funeral, she looks back and wonders where she found the energy and strength to carry on all those long days and months caring for a sick husband. Then she remembers, O yeah, the Holy Spirit was working yet another silent miracle, turning the simplest of chores into a means of grace.

Or I’m thinking of two church members, one a liberal and one a conservative. They sit down for coffee to talk about the hardest issue facing the church: same sex blessings. They share openly and honestly. They pray. Then they shake hands and agree that no matter the outcome, whatever the church decides over this issue, they will still be brothers in Christ, because baptism trumps politics.

Or I’m thinking of the teenage mom who stumbles unexpectedly into the church one day. She hasn’t been to church for years. She has little money. No clothes for the baby. Some women of the church conspire together and throw the young mom a baby shower. Nothing big or extravagant. Just enough to get her started. The women do this because she is one of their own, no matter where she came from.

To the casual observer, these may not sounds like good examples of “the Spirit’s power.” Upon closer inspection; this is the greatest power there is, because illness, conflict, unwanted pregnancy, the list can go on and on - these are the tools that the Spirit works with. This is where life is lived, with silent miracles working all around us. Amen.


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