Moving On: An Ascension Sunday Reflection

By Joe LaGuardia

I once watched my father knock his brother half-way across a boxing ring with a single right cross.

I saw it on one of those old black and white films, homemade from some ancient camera and later transferred to a DVD.  There they were, sparring: My dad, the short, stocky 18-year old with what we–his kids–liked to call his Popeye arms; and my uncle, the tall, athletic Golden Gloves champ.  They were both in their signature Everlast trunks.

My uncle had the awards, the height and the reach.  He is beautiful to watch in the ring, like Muhammad Ali, “Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee.”  My dad, however, was the slow one, more passive.  All he had to go on were the size and strengths of his short arms.

In the film, I saw my uncle dancing around my dad.  Jab, jab, jab.  Body blow, slap to the helmet.  Jab, some missed crosses.

Then I saw it: a split second and a misstep by my uncle.  He got too close, and bang!–my dad’s right cross, like a cobra strike.  My uncle went across the ring into the ropes.  I’d never seen anything like it.

****

When I was young, I asked my father why he didn’t become a boxer like his brother or his father, Grandpa being the one in the family who coached his kids and the neighborhood kids, who trained the likes of Tony Danza and others who lived in their Brooklyn community.

Dad gave all kinds of excuses: bad knees, too smart to box, too busy, spending too much time chasing the women and marrying my mother.

When I pressed him again years later, the truth finally came out:

“I couldn’t hit another man,” he said, “I felt bad about it.”

The fact is that the man, my father, had hands of stone, but he couldn’t put them to good use in the ring.  He wasn’t at home there.  It was familiar, but foreign.

That’s how I feel when I look at the disciples on the day of ascension in Acts 1:1-11.  There Jesus was–back from the dead, a miracle, and the disciples did what all of us who lost a loved one only dream about doing: they held his hand again, was able to hug him and heard his voice.

But just as soon as Jesus came, it seemed, he left again and they thought all was lost.  It happened again, but this time Jesus whisked away into thin air.  Jesus couldn’t stay; he wasn’t at home on earth, not yet at least.  It was time for him to ascend to his father in heaven.  Just as Christ birthed the divine life into this world, it was time for him–as Barbara Brown Taylor once noted–to birth flesh into God’s world.

And just as my father wondered what good it was to have hands of stone without being able to use them, the disciples were left with hopes and dreams and an anticipation that seemed all but lost yet again.

They asked Jesus, “Now will you restore God’s kingdom of earth?”  And Jesus left them.

How do you live after a miracle like that?  How do you take the next step when that kind of question goes unanswered?

It was at that very moment that two angels showed up and tapped the disciples on the shoulders.

“What are you doing?  What are you looking at?” They asked, like divine security guards waving people on, “Nothing to see here, folks, keep it moving!”

The disciples, however, were just in the ring with Jesus.  Jesus was on their side, a spirit of stone, but now Jesus was gone just like that.  No butterflies and no bees.

*****

I think that the disciples did what any of us would have done: They headed back to a familiar place, an upper room in Jerusalem.  Maybe they figured that since Jesus appeared to them in this room after he resurrected from the dead, that maybe he will appear to them there again.  They stayed there and devoted themselves to prayer.

Peter seemed to be the first to speak, but its not about the future and there is no sign of some anticipation of things to come–that doesn’t come until Pentecost.  Rather, Peter seems to be just filling the time to do something, which is often better than doing nothing.  He speaks about Judas, talks about the scriptures for a few minutes, and gets down to business.

There, between Jesus’ ascension and the downpouring of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost, we have what may have been the first Nominating Committee meeting in the church: They have to replace Judas, twelve is such a godly, biblical number after all.

There doesn’t seem to be any power in it, though.  There is no life, no authority–and theologically, that’s correct.  Jesus had yet to send the Spirit, the Comforter, whom Jesus promised would give the church power and authority to do what Christ did, to change the world, and continue to bridge heaven and earth.

The disciples had hands of stone, but no use for them yet.  They had a ring, but no authority to wipe the floor with their greatest nemesis, Satan.  And, although we feel badly for them, we get this eerie feeling that we somehow know exactly how they felt.

Who among us hasn’t had a dry spell?  Who hasn’t had a day or even a season in which we felt powerless, short-sighted, a day in which we only piddled around with busy work rather than anything exciting that has the power to change the world?

****

In a sermon on this passage of Scripture, one-time priest Barbara Brown Taylor commented that we feel for the disciples because we are no different from them half of the time.  We join them on that mountain with our necks crooning up towards heaven, and we wait.  We become aware that, at times, God seems absent, as if we are left in the ring to fight life’s fights alone.

But it is that very absence that also has the power to provide a sense of wonder and awe, that, in Taylor’s words, “brings us to church in search of God’s presence,” to go back to that sacred, familiar place again and again, where we saw Jesus last, “to recall best moments and argue about the details, to swap all the old stories until they begin to revive again,” to remember, to pray and rejoice.

Another scholar, John Polhill affirms that this text reveals a major plot thread in the book of Acts.  Acts does not have endings or conclusions.  Even as far as the last chapter, the book does not really end.  Rather, the book shows intermissions, followed by opportunities, promises, and new beginnings.   We are never sure whether church is an intermission or a new beginning, or both.

It is in that very search as a community of God’s people, however, in that recollection and retelling of the old, old story, that extraordinary things begin to happen because we do have an Advocate who fights on our behalf.  In a week, when we recall another old story of Pentecost, we will be reminded that we are not in the ring alone — we have all the power and authority that heaven can muster.  We will learn how God will put our hands of stone back to work, not to harm or punch or hurt, but heal and deliver and reconnect.

****

For now, I guess we just have to live with the fact that we are looking up.  Angels may come and tap us on the shoulders and tell us to move on, move on because when we get stuck looking up, we fail to look around.

When you look around, that’s when you start to notice things–that’s when you begin to see Jesus working in your midst, when you sense the Holy Spirit ready to empower you.

It may not lead to living into the New Heaven and the New Earth that is promised us just yet, but we’re getting awfully close.  Awfully close.

“People of God, 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….Keep it moving, keep it moving.  Nothing to see here.”

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Focusing on God’s magnificence

magnificentBy Joe LaGuardia

Psalm 90, penned by Moses according to the superscription, is a reflection on humanity’s fragility and God’s omniscience.  It challenges us to meditate on God’s magnificence, providence, and gift of time.

The first verse affirms that God is our dwelling place–a safe refuge for all generations.  But then the psalm quickly moves to a meditation about the frailty of humanity, the brief existence we all share, and the toil that consumes most of our days.

Whereas one day is as “a thousand years” in God’s sight, a person’s life may span seventy to eighty years and then “fades and withers.” Our days are but a dream.

Although Psalm 90 seems melancholy at best and depressing at worst, the poem is actually a reflection not to be taken as negative or morose, but as a re-focusing on God’s intimacy with us.  Yes, our lives are but a breath, but God pays attention to us anyway.  The hours of the day may pass by quickly, but God’s love still kisses us awake every morning with new life (v. 14).

The challenge is one not of resignation, but of focus.

Psalm 90 challenges us to focus not on our lack, but on God’s magnificence.

The creation theme that runs throughout the psalm reminds us of God’s majesty and power.  God’s careful attention to us brings with it awe, as well as a sense of discipline and testing (v. 7).

This is an attribute of God’s magnificence, an acknowledgement that the same God who created the heavens and the earth cares about us, cares so much in fact, that God is willing to keep us accountable to being holy and a righteous people.  What parent who cares for her child does not discipline that child and invest in the character and integrity with which that child approaches all of life?

God is so amazing, even God’s discipline inspires a sense of magnificence of who God is in our life, the world, and all of history and the cosmos.

Psalm 90 challenges us to focus not our limits, but on God’s providence.

According to vv. 5-6, God has the power to sweep away all our days.  With a divine thought or a command, God can end everything right here and right now.  What is to say that we don’t deserve it, with all of the messes we get ourselves into — from our inability to fight on behalf of justice for the oppressed, to form a comprehensive and intentional approach to ecological sustainability, to combating poverty and oppression that wreaks havoc on communities local and global, to our penchant for violence in the face of adversity or war?

Yet, God chooses (I think) to renew our days as grass is renewed in morning.  God gives us new life in which to flourish, to experience steadfast love and have a second chance.

Satisfy us, O Lord, in the morning with your steadfast love…” (Ps. 90:14)

Although we may blow our opportunity at joining God at work in the world over and over again (“For we are consumed by your anger!”), we have the ability to learn what the Spirit will have us to learn about our world and our neighbors (v. 12).  We have to be open to the lessons God has in store for us: “Teach us to count our days that we may gain a wise heart.”

Psalm 90 challenges us to focus not on our toil, but on God’s gift of time.

Sometimes we forget that work and toil are God’s punishment for Adam’s sin in the Garden of Eden.  Although many of us enjoy our jobs, we still complain that working means spinning our wheels, trying to make ends meet, belaboring day after day to provide for our families, our retirement accounts, even our churches.

Yet, the emphasis of this psalm–from God’s point of view, and ours–is that of time.  Time is short, time is valuable.  Time is a gift, and we are to make the most of our time by responding to God, living for Him (v. 16a), and living in the power of the Spirit that we might prosper in both our mission for God and our ministry in life.

Let your work be made manifest to your servants…Let the favor of the Lord our God be upon us, and prosper the work of our hands.”

In closing, there are three major movements in Psalm 90: One, of God’s power and majesty; two, of our fragility; and, three, of the fact that as a people of God, we still have work to do and can do it joyfully.

It is about focus and intentionality, about acknowledging that God still cares deeply for us.  Let us, in the wake of Psalm 90, meditate on God’s magnificence, on God’s providence, and on God’s gift of time.

Coloring Books in Cutting Edge Adult Spirituality

colorBy Joe LaGuardia

Every Wednesday at Trinity, an intergenerational group uses the church’s art studio at the church to paint, sketch, play card games, and fellowship.  I visit every now and then, sometimes joining in the fun or crafting a bulletin for a special service.

One time, however, I was caught off guard.  When I arrived, I did not see anyone painting or drawing or talking.  Rather, people were coloring pre-printed pages from a coloring book.  These were no mere children, and the pages were not from a coloring book intended for young audiences.

The coloring pages consisted of elaborate designs and wildflowers.  One lady–an octogenarian whose original artwork adorns Trinity’s hallways–was coloring one such page of a floral design.

I always enjoyed coloring with my children, and the fresh smell of new crayons and feel of a new coloring book always brings back childhood memories.  This, however, was a craft entirely intended for adults.  It was more than art or recreation, the group colored for the sake of worship.

Trinity is not alone in offering this type of artwork; in fact, several articles published in the last year–one from Baptist News Global and another from Religion News Service–outline a new movement in creative churches that utilize coloring books in its liturgy and special services.

Leslie Miller quoted well-known Episcopal priest, author, and spiritual director Lauren Winner in Winner’s declaration that coloring (or, “prayer by color”) has been a significant spiritual discipline in her life.

The medical community is finding the act of coloring to have both spiritual and therapeutic benefits. Cathy Malchiodi, writing for Psychology Today, claims that coloring is reminiscent of the Tibetan practice of mandala art and ancient disciplines that incorporate the fine arts, liturgical movement, meditation, and centering prayer.

It taps into a basic spiritual longing that connects people across cultures and time–from those who value iconography in the Christian cathedrals to our earliest ancestors who drew crude sketches in the caves of France and Africa concerning battles against the elements and wild beasts.

The discipline of coloring also crosses generational lines.   Ministries similar to Trinity’s provide safe spaces for older members and children of a church alike to express themselves without fear of “staying in the lines” that make too many worship services formal.  (How many of us spent time doodling on tithe envelopes in the pews during service as kids anyway?)

Coloring benefits older saints by improving concentration, decreasing anxiety, and mimicking the effects of meditation, according to Priscilla Frank writing for the Huffington Post.  It benefits children in helping them feel included in an otherwise esoteric service largely intended for adult audiences.

As anything else in the Christian community, coloring will have its critics.  Controversy surrounding the place of fine arts in church is nothing new for Christians; and, like the iconoclasts of yesteryear, many will claim that coloring strange patterns in general and mandalas in particular will have an adverse–even satanic–impact on the Christian mind.

For others, it will invoke adolescence and will be too juvenile to incorporate into any “serious” worship service in which the soul should focus on God, the heart on worship, and the ear on the proclamation of God’s Word.

My guess is that the groups who utilize coloring as a way of prayer and worship will be in the minority, but will greatly benefit from it.  And for churches searching for creative ways to engage young and old alike, it may provide an activity that brings people together, opens up informal times for the sharing of testimonies, and affirms churches as adventurous, artistic sacred spaces in local communities where resources for art have all but dried up.

At Trinity, my hope is that the arts will continue to play a central role in the life of the congregation, not to detract from the traditional worship experiences for which the church is known, but to broaden the mission and ministry of a God who is our Creator creating still.