Don’t Look Up!

Image is of the ceiling of the Chapel or the Ascension at the Shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham

Don’t be troubled, and do not be afraid. I’m going away and I’m telling you this before it happens, so that when it does, you will be prepared.

Words of advance warning from Jesus to his disciples fit well with the Ascension of Our Lord coming up on Thursday this week. Because Ascension always occurs on a Thursday – the 40th day after the resurrection, the normal custom is to celebrate Ascension on the Sunday after. This year to preserve the Memorial Day weekend commemoration we are anticipating the Ascension on the Sunday before – today -Easter 6.

The Ascension of Jesus presents its own set of challenges to belief. It’s only in Luke, that the Ascension appears as a discrete event. Otherwise, it’s somewhat fuzzy. For instance it’s only hinted at in John’s gospel:

Don’t be troubled, and do not be afraid. I’m going away and I’m telling you this before it happens, so that when it does, you will be prepared.

In John, Jesus alludes to his imminent departure, but beyond offering reassurance of even better things to come – gives no further details.

I think the important point to hold onto here is not when, where, or how the ascension of Jesus took place – but that with the Ascension the pivotal transition point is reached – when the ministry of Jesus morphs into the ministry of the Christian community. Clearly Luke’s graphic account of the event is powerfully influenced by Elijah’s ascension recorded in the 2nd book of Kings. In like manner – as the mantle of Elijah fell upon the shoulders of Elisha – giving him a double portion of his master’s spirit, the double portion of Jesus Spirit descends upon the church at Pentecost – but first like Elijah, the master must ascend.

Last week I emphasized that God’s promise of a new heaven and a new earth is a vision primarily not for a future in heaven but a call to action in this life. The Revelation to John is explicit on this point:

I saw the new Jerusalem descending to earth so that from henceforth the life of God is to be found among mortals.

The function of imagination is to construct meaning out of events that are not directly observable to the human eye – and yet – events that nonetheless shape our experience. Religious imagination builds pictures that highlight into sharp focus choices to be made, actions to be taken, and directions to be followed – or avoided – as the case may be.

If the function of religious imagination is capable of multiple meanings that shape inferences of things unseen then the nature of the image matters.

Biblical imagination pictures a metaphorical ladder rising from earth to heaven – with Jesus ascending upwards before disappearing in the clouds. This is not an image that works well for the modern religious imagination. Instead of a ladder disappearing into the clouds – might we better picture heaven and earth no longer up and down but as parallel dimensions with a conduit opening in the membrane separating them. Along this conduit there is a two-way flow between the divine and temporal dimensions or between what we might call Our Space and the God Space.

The Ascension is the first stage of the pivotal transition point – when the ministry of Jesus becomes the work of the Christian community to carry forward. The image of a conduit opening between dimensions allowing a two-way flow between them better speaks to our modern sci-fi influenced imagination. Through the conduit opening between dimensions Jesus returns to the God Space – releasing his all-empowering Spirit to flow in the opposite direction – from the God Space back into the church – the divine energy of the God Space permeating Our Space.

The real question to ask about the Ascension of our Lord is – so what next?

Traditional religious imagination pictures two possibilities in answer to the question: what next? So for instance it’s interesting that Ascension Day provides two collects.

Listen:

Almighty God, whose blessed Son our Savior Jesus Christ ascended far above all heavens that he might fill all things: Mercifully give us faith to perceive that, according to his promise, he abides with his Church on earth, even to the end of the ages.

Compare:

Grant, we pray, Almighty God, that as we believe your only begotten Son our Lord Jesus Christ to have ascended into heaven, so we may also in heart and mind there ascend, and with him continually dwell.

We see how religious imagination struggles with the question: so, what next? We long to throw up our hands – giving up on the evils of the world – to ascend with the Lord and there with him to dwell. In response to experience there is something in us that longs for God to rescue us from ourselves and the mess we continue to make of the world.

This is an image that attracts us in the present time as we stare into the abyss of the pandemic, ecological collapse, and the resurgence of holy war – or sacred violence as I’ve been naming it. Things seem to be going from bad to worse according to every measure of progress. So, it’s a natural response to pray for God to – beam us up, Scotty.

Yet, in the Ascension of Jesus God promises to fill all things and to abide here with us – amidst all the pain, disappointment, and sheer messiness of this world. We must not fall into the temptation of wishing to be rescued out of this world. Instead, we must stand firm – empowered by a double measure (a reference to Elisha’s request of the ascending Elijah) of the Spirit of Jesus to face up to the challenges ahead in the knowledge that God is here  -empowering us in the age-long struggle to realize the kingdom of God – the new heaven on earth.

The Ascension of Our Lord is a central truth of our Christian faith. The nature of this truth does not lie in the when, where, how mechanics of the event as Luke pictures it. The truth of the Ascension lies in its place along the continuum of birth, death, and resurrection of Jesus.

Let me demonstrate by tabulating the following points:

  • In the birth of Jesus, God the Creator came to dwell within the tent of creation.
  • In the death and resurrection of Jesus, God the Redeemer broke the grip of sacred violence upon the human heart. I’ve spoken of sacred violence within the context of Russia’s holy war against Ukraine. But sacred violence is all around us. It is currently fuelling the denial of a women’s access to safe reproductive health, the sacpegoating LGBTQ persons, the embrace of white supremacy, and the connivance with domestic terrorism.
  • In the Ascension of Jesus is now pictured as an interdimensional movement – the Spirit in Jesus returns to the unity of the divine community.
  • But in so doing Jesus does not discard his humanity like a suit of worn-out clothes. In the Ascension, Jesus returns to the God Space clothed in the fullness of his humanity.
  • The Ascension, allows a double portion of his Spirit to flow back through the interdimensional conduit into Our Space – where we, his body on earth become empowered to continue the work he began.
  • The Ascension is a prerequisite if Pentecost is to follow. This two way traffic through the conduit between Our Space and the God Space results in Jesus bearing humanity into the heart of the divine community, so that – as Revelation poetically phrases it – the home of God now comes to dwell among mortals. From henceforth to be human is to be most like God.

These now are the profound implications for our role in the what’s next in God’s work of renewing the creation – when we tire of gazing heavenwards – that is.

Making All Things New

In 2022, we face three mammoth challenges: pandemic recovery, averting ecological catastrophe, and combating the resurgence of sacred violence – the violence of empire – that once more has raised its head in Europe. I list these not in order of importance as each is of equal urgency.

This week we publicly acknowledged one million COVID-related deaths in the US. The enormity of this fact continues to numb us into collective amnesia. Many millions more are still dying or yet to die in parts of the world where vaccine resistance and COVID denial are still major influences on public and governmental opinion.

We continue to fiddle while the earth burns and floods – turning a blind eye to a massive environmental degradation that is fueling increasingly desperate population movements. The resurgence of sacred violence- the violence of empire – is not simply a massive shock to the European nervous system, but carries profound knock-on implications for international global food and energy stability – though in reference to the latter we can only hope that this sharp shock is enough to wean us off our fossil fuel dependencies.

In these days of the Easter Season, we remember that Jesus was a victim to sacred violence at the hands of forces driven to protect the vested interest of those who imprison the holiness of God – limiting and controlling it within human structures – the boundaries of which are always ruthlessly policed.

Yet, Easter reminds us that Jesus is raised on the third day as God’s demonstration that love is stronger than death. In the cross and resurrection God-in-Jesus breaks (present tense) the grip of sacred violence as the default of the human heart.

That love is stronger than death – this is our Easter song.

The melodic themes of our Easter song sound through the Sunday readings. Alongside Luke’s historical accounts of communal transformation, the Revelation to John take the form of the recitative:

I saw a new heaven and a new earth. I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven. I heard a loud voice saying, “See the home of God is among mortals … see I am making all things new”.

Or as Belinda Carlisle sang it:

Ooo, baby, do you know what that’s worth? Heaven is a place on earth
They say in heaven, love comes first. We’ll make heaven a place on earth. Ooo, heaven is a place on earth.

Our Easter Song opens with Luke’s central melody of community transformation – the words from Revelation augment the main theme with a recitative of divine expectation – before returning to restate Luke’s main theme, but this time in the tonalities of John’s Gospel teaching on love in action.

On Easter V it is Revelation’s recitative of a new heaven and a new earth that I want to focus attention.

In his book Surprised by Hope, N.T. (Tom) Wright writes about Jesus’ resurrection as the beginning of God’s new project – not to snatch people away from earth to heaven but to colonize earth with the life of heaven.

Many Christians today think that resurrection means spiritual life after death. They reason – we don’t need to worry too much about what did or did not happen at the resurrection of Jesus – empty tomb and all that because resurrection is an internal spiritual experience that means all of us will go to heaven to live with God when we die.

Disregarding the events at the empty tomb and the physical nature of Jesus’ post resurrection appearances is an invitation to care more about the life to come than the life to be lived. Focused on our destination in heaven we neglect the duty to leave this world in a better state than the one we came into.

Resurrection as an internal, individualized, spiritual experience is the theology of pie in the sky when you die. Pie in the sky when you die may be clever alliteration – where each succeeding word repeats the sound of the proceeding one – but it is truly, terrible theology. In fact, this is not a Christian theology at all because it severs resurrection hope from its context in God’s age-long promise. In other words, it breaks the continuity linking the resurrection of Jesus from God’s ultimate goal – which is the resurrection of the whole of creation.

Through the Hebrew prophets, God continually affirmed the goal for the resurrection project – as it were – which is nothing short of the repair and renewal of the face of the earth. It’s only within the continuity of this promise for the whole creation that the resurrection of Jesus on Easter Day makes any sense.

The melodic cadences of Revelation’s recitative boom in our ears:

See! the home of God is among mortals … see I am making all things new”.

Tom Wright speaks of the resurrection of Jesus as a foretaste of the future brought into real time as God’s promise of the kind of future we should anticipate in the present. To anticipate the future is to work tirelessly in the present to not simply prepare for the future, but to realize the promise of the future in the present.

Anticipation is fruitless without present time action!

Jesus’ resurrection is not an individualized spiritual experience but a collective and collaborative enterprise of next steps in the real time unfolding of God’s future purpose – our collective realization of God’s dream of a physical renewal of creation in a new heaven and a new earth. Future anticipation requires decisions made and actions taken, now! Our urgent need to slow and reverse the process of the escalating climate catastrophe is the primary imperative of living out in the present time the blueprint for the future hope of a new heaven and a new earth.  In that project we have a vital role to play.

See the home of God is [and will always remain] among mortals!

Or as Belinda Carlisle sings it: Ooo, baby, do you know what that’s worth? Ooo, heaven is a place on earth. They say in heaven, love comes first. We’ll make heaven a place on earth, Ooo, heaven is a place on earth.

Our Easter song concludes with a restatement of Luke’s main idea of  the transformation of community. In the tonality and rhythm  of John the Evangelist we hear Jesus’ solo voice ringing clear:

Where I am going you cannot come so I give you a new commandment that you love one another as I have loved you. By this will all know that you are my disciples.

Remember love is not a sentiment – it’s an action – and Justice is its name.

I am the Good Mother: 2022 Mother’s Day thoughts

Image: Suffer the little children, Lucas Cranach-the-elder

We hear Jesus’ voice -the voice heard, and yet not heard, remembered, and yet not looked for but viscerally felt; a voice we trust because it resonates through the finely tuned strings of memory. For the divine voice first enters our lives through our first hearing our mother’s voice.

 

John paints Jesus through the power of visual metaphors – Light of the world, Lamb of God, and throughout his 10th chapter, the Good Shepherd. Through these skillfully drawn word pictures John seeks to etch arresting images of Jesus that stick in our imaginations.  

Throughout chapter 10, John portrays Jesus playing with the metaphors of sheep, shepherd, wolves, hirelings, and sheep pens to offer images through Jesus of the relationship between God and humanity. Jesus is the true shepherd as contrasted with the hired hand. He is the defender of the sheep against the ravaging wolf. He lies down on the ground to become the gate opening of the sheep pen – through or over which the sheep tramp into the safety of the pen.

In the last section of Chapter 10 John continues to develop his metaphor of Jesus the Good Shepherd in four key statements.  The key identity statement – I am the Good Shepherd is amplified by four actions – hearing, knowing, following, and giving.

My sheep hear my voice. I know them and they follow me. I give them eternal life.  

We hear his voice like a continuous heartbeat, the familiar sound of his voice. We hear his voice, not with our ears but echoing in our minds and beating with the yearning of our hearts. To borrow from T.S. Elliot for a moment – we hear Jesus’ voice as the sound of a voice … not known, because not looked for -but heard, half-heard, in the stillness between two waves of the sea. (Little Gidding)

In 2022, the good shepherd imagery of Jesus in John’s Gospel occurs on the second Sunday in May, otherwise known as Mother’s Day. Whether it’s by design or not, it’s an interesting coincidence that begs for a reframing of the good shepherd metaphor.

Jesus says I am the good mother; my children hear my voice; I know them, so they trust me. I give them eternal life. Here, eternal life means life both now and life to come. The life God gives is life that cannot be segmented into past, present, and future. It’s life here, now, and still to come.

We hear Jesus’ voice -the voice heard, and yet not heard, remembered, and yet not looked for but viscerally felt; a voice we trust because it resonates through the finely tuned strings of memory. For the divine voice first enters our lives through our first hearing our mother’s voice.

Nurture echoes nature – but not always.

Jesus the good shepherd – the image of divine love as the good mother evokes in us the most profound image of the nurturance. We learn to love because we were first, loved. Yet, the process of learning to love through first being loved may encounter many vicissitudes along the way. Many of us enjoy the gift of love and loving because of the indelible memory of first having been loved. Others of us find love and loving to involve a risk – felt to dangerous to take – a lifelong struggle to trust when our experience of early mothering proved untrustworthy.

In a period when as a culture we are struggling to delineate the biological hardwiring of gender from gender identity, something psychologically and culturally softwired and amenable to fluidity and change – it’s important to draw another distinction – that of between birthing and mothering.

In the most usual course of events, being pregnant triggers the instincts of mothering – giving birth ushers woman and infant into the complex and sacred relationship of mothering. We are fortunate if we experienced the nurturance of being loved because the woman who birthed us was also the one who mothered us. Unlike Jesus who is the good (perfect) mother, human mothers only need to be good-enough, not perfect.

The concept of the good enough mother is a psychological one that originated with the great 20th-Century British father of Object Relations – Donald Winnicott. Winnicott combined the rare skills of being both pediatrician and psychoanalyst. By good-enough, Winnicott meant that mothers did not need to be perfect. The mother-infant relationship, though vulnerable to mishap is also robust and able to withstand a variety of imperfect conditions. That mothers needed to be good-enough but not perfect, is a reminder for us all that in the arena of love, the quest for the perfect is certainly the enemy of the good.

The essence of a good-enough mothering lies in our experience of love that is consistent and not excessively conditional.

Good-enough mothering teaches us how to love through the experience of being loved. In the usual course of events, good-enough mothering is found in our early experience with our birthing mothers – but not always so. Good-enough mothering is also a human capacity that need not be gender specific to either birthing women or women in general.

I recognize there’s a great deal of complex and highly contested opinion in this arena and I cannot seek to do justice beyond painting in the broadest of brushstrokes. Human beings are resilient and highly adaptive. Early experience of good enough mothering can be provided by a father who stepping out of the usual supportive role for fathers around the birth of a child -enters the sacred space of mother and infant to compensate for post-partum and other emotional difficulties preventing early bonding between a birthing woman and her infant. Although they do not benefit from the hormonal triggers of pregnancy, at birth a man can enter into what Winnicott termed the relationship of primary mother-infant preoccupation. This will necessarily be the case for one of the partners in male same gendered relationships.

Let me restate that human beings are highly resilient and adaptive.

For it is also the case that for some, interruption in the early learning to love through the experience of being loved can be later compensated for in the love of a grandparent or other close relative. Although of a clearly different order, early difficulties can be repaired through the love of a teacher or mentor, through the redeeming love of a spouse or significant other – relationships in which we experience the essential quality of unconditional love.

As a society, we frequently fail the women and men who are responsible for good enough mothering through our failure to promote social and economic policies supportive of family life and child development. In a country that eulogizes mother and apple pie, the US ranks very low on the scale of nations where public policy concretely supports family life and child development.

On Mother’s Day 2022, I’m writing in the days following the leak of a Supreme Court opinion calling for the overturn of 50 years of legal precedent established in Roe vs. Wade. In a recent PBS Newshour interview with the Arkansas Attorney General defending her state’s zero abortion legislation -while fiercely decrying abortion for any reason save that of the medical necessity of saving the mother’s life – note, not an insignificant concession among anti-abortion state officials – she was asked about her state’s child welfare provisions.

Despite her steel magnolia smile honed for the camera, and her peon to the thwarted potential of each unborn life, she struggled to make a convincing defense of child welfare support in Arkansas. Arkansas presents a fairly typical picture of child welfare and family support provision among states seeking to abolish the right to abortion. The KIDS COUNT Date Book of 2021 – is a 50-state source for the most recent childcare information available. Using the key indices of economic well-being, education, health, family and community context, Arkansas ranks 34th,35th, 41st, & 42nd, out of 50, respectively across these indices.

Survey data from the last year add to the story of Arkansas’ children and families in this moment. When viewed through the lens of racial equity an even more dispiriting picture emerges with 39% of Black children and 27% of Hispanic children living in poverty. By comparison, only 16% of Arkansas’ non-Hispanic white children live in poverty.

On Mother’s Day 2022 it has to be asked yet again why those who most loudly extoll the preciousness and unique potential of each unborn life seem on the basis of statistical evidence to care so little about the born lives of the children born into the systemic injustices of racism – children deprived the privileges of the much-touted level playing field of American life?

Jesus said: I am the good mother; my children hear my voice; I know them, so they trust me. I give them eternal life. Here, eternal life means life both now and life to come. Even though the life God gives is life that cannot be segmented into past, present, and future – whatever the joys of the life still to come might be, it’s the quality of life in the here and now that should matter most to us – and by which, Jesus makes clear, we shall be judged.

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