Detours, False Finales & Another New Beginning

by susan on May 2, 2016

ascension 2In the first book, Theophilus, I wrote about all that Jesus did and taught from the beginning 2until the day when he was taken up to heaven, after giving instructions through the Holy Spirit to the apostles whom he had chosen. 3After his suffering he presented himself alive to them by many convincing proofs, appearing to them during forty days and speaking about the kingdom of God. 4While staying with them, he ordered them not to leave Jerusalem, but to wait there for the promise of the Father. “This,” he said, “is what you have heard from me; 5for John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now.”

6So when they had come together, they asked him, “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” 7He replied, “It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority. 8But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” 9When he had said this, as they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight. 10While he was going and they were gazing up toward heaven, suddenly two men in white robes stood by them. 11They said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.”  – Acts 1:1-11, NRSV

In your life right now, what does a perfect day look like?

Maybe it’s a day when things flow smoothly: you don’t forget, mess up or run late for anything.  Maybe it’s a day when there’s no bad news or no glitches or no stay-in-the-left-lane while driving 5 mph drivers on the road.

I don’t know what your perfect day looks like, but we all have one, don’t we?  We also know there’s a big difference between perfection and reality.

In Small Victories, Anne Lamott tells the story of one of her infamous imperfect days. She began the day with the best, noblest of intentions. She and her friend, Janine, were traveling to visit a mutual friend who’d been struggling with depression, had become suicidal and was now staying in a halfway house.

Everything was lining up perfectly for their trip. Pulling away, she acknowledged feeling very “superior and organized in Janine’s perfect car, with their map, directions, water and almonds.”

detour signWell, the hour-long trip ended up taking them so long they almost missed visiting hours completely. There were detours and construction. They passed their exit not once, but twice. The trip was interrupted by several phone calls, including an awkward call from Janine’s husband. The two of them were obviously having some issues. Anne even got a text from the wife of her halfway house friend, wondering why she didn’t get invited on the outing.

It was one thing after another. So much for perfect.

By the time they arrived, their friend had almost given up on them [exactly how you want to make someone with depression feel…] and most of the visitation areas were full. Thankfully, an employee noticed their distress and led them to the garage, where they made the most of their few minutes together.

Reflecting on the day, she observed how often this is the case – how often we have the perfect plan laid out and yet,

“ … something in life, on the highways or in our hearts, is always being installed, or being repaired or being torn down for the next installation. Or the mess of the repair is being cleaned up and cleared out.”

Instead of smooth sailing,

“the messes of our lives pull on our hems like sticky two-year olds”.

Sound familiar?

I wonder if that’s how those first followers of Jesus felt by now. They left to follow a master teacher and healer, perhaps looking for a better way themselves, only to get caught up in a controversy that ultimately took their leader and Lord and left their lives in jeopardy.

Looking back, it was no wonder things wound up this way:
the miracles they witnessed were messy,
the teachings hard,
sometimes they had enough food to eat &
other times they had to go searching.

This had been no easy ride, no “say a prayer and you will succeed” fairy tale.
There was grit & grime, disappointment & discomfort.
No one wants or plans for that.

And, then, we come to today’s strange and rather unnerving experience recorded in the Acts of the Apostles, the continuation of the gospel of Luke. Jesus has been resurrected from the dead, had appeared to his followers a couple of times and now he begins telling them what they have to look forward to next.

Jesus tells them to stay in Jerusalem once he leaves, and to wait because the Spirit will be given to them and they will be filled with power to be witnesses to the kingdom of God.

I’m pretty sure that all I would have heard was: Jesus is leaving…again.

We do have to laugh a little at this whole scene. I mean, there they just listening to Jesus when suddenly he begins to ascend further and further away. Like a hot air balloon. But just before lift off, still curious about when that perfect ending is going to come, his followers ask: “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” Because you know, now would be a really good time.

Subtlety was never their gift. We know what you’ve been telling us, Lord, but we just gotta ask one more time – is today going to be that perfect day?

Looking up, Jeuss’ llittle band of misfits were still hoping this was it: the spectacular finale. And, just like that, he’s gone. Instead, two angels appear like they did at the empty tomb. At the tomb they were asking the women, “Why do you look for the living among the dead?” and now they ask,

“Why do you stand looking up toward heaven?”ascension 3

Such a powerful question.

Why are you always looking to another time, another place, another way? They may not have known the answer to this question, but I sure do – it’s much easier to look outside of our ourselves than to be and do the things that Jesus taught us to do, like:
Love one another.
Forgive those who hurt you.
Heal the sick.
Love your enemies.

All of these challenges, along with the detours, imperfect days, hard things, and the messes of life can make us long for somewhere or something else or someone else to walk this road for us.

As Jesus left them yet again, I imagine the disciples felt this longing. How, after all of the doubts, betrayals, disappointments and failures could they carry on?

Yet, they did.

The story of the ascension was the end of Luke’s gospel, but it also seeds the start of the Acts of the Apostles. What seemed like the end was only the beginning.

Most people point to Pentecost (that day when the spirit came in a wild way) as the birth of the church, but I wonder if this was the less than perfect beginning. As Jesus left those first followers, I can’t help but imagine that after they stood there long enough, they finally looked at each other and said, “ok, it’s up to us now. Let’s get about the work that Jesus began.”

I saw the most amazing thing this week. Driving down the street, I noticed a man pulling something behind his bike. I couldn’t tell what it was at first, but the closer he got I noticed he was pulling a fairly good size cart full of lawn equipment. I wondered what kind of detours might have gotten him caused him to get this creative – maybe no job, no car, no money, I really have no idea. While I’m sure there are still obstacles, it was a powerful picture of how God is always creating a way forward.

Don’t look up.
Don’t look to another time or another place.
Don’t obsess about the end times,
the end of the church, or
what may seem like the end of your dreams.

Instead, look around.
Look here, to this moment.
Look to these people.
That’s where you will find God and that’s where you will
continue the work of the kingdom in the craziness of this world.

Images: top right: from The Life and Passion of Jesus Christ (1902-1905); bottom right: The Ascension of Christ by Hans von Kulmbach, 16th century

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