God of hopeful signs and careful plans: as our initial panic subsides and the itch to get back to normal replaces a fear of spiking fevers, keep us wary and alert. May we carry a parcel of humility to remind us we are human. We are still not immune to the dangers of overconfidence and impatience. We are just as susceptible now to the invisible sway of hubris, and the make-believe of thinking that we’ve done all we can do. May your enduring presence provide the stamina we lack so our confidence can increase with grounded joy. Amen.
We often treasure the last photos we have of that moment, or that summer, or that conversation, before everything changed. At the time, of course, we could not have known that something was about to end. Or that ever afterwards we would think only in terms of before, and after. And now we treasure those last photos for their unknowing, for the blurred faces of the people we once were, who had no idea of what was coming. Today, on Ascension Sunday, we are given that last treasured photo of a world that was about to end. The risen Jesus, who has just eaten a dinner of broiled fish in the presence of the disciples, walks with them out into the evening; then raises his hands high to bless them. The shutter clicks. And then, somehow, he is no longer there. But they have that one last photo. His arms outstretched, the light fading, he turns toward them, again and again, in blessing. This is the deal, Jesus had told them. You are witnesses. I will send to you what God has promised. You stay in the city. There is a reciprocity here, an assumed friendship, which is already a kind of blessing, long before Jesus raises his hands. The shutter clicks. And now, suddenly, they can no longer see him, for he has taken them by the shoulder and turned them back to Jerusalem. The risen Jesus is carried up into heaven, the gospel tells us. But all the evidence now suggests that the focus of heaven is not heaven, but earth. And so the disciples return to Jerusalem, to be present and accounted for, and to witness these things. And now it is our turn, and we too reach back for those last photos, for the moments before everything changed. We are not ready, any more than they were. And yet we are taking tentative steps back into a world that is newly strange, and filled with confused longings, including our own. The disciples, Luke tells us, were disbelieving and still wondering, even as Jesus ate his fish. But once again it’s at the point of our greatest disorientation, when hope and incomprehension, despondency and expectation, fill us in turn, that something opens up. A new perspective, from the slopes of the Mount of Olives, as evening falls. A promise that now seems possible, when we are no longer confined in our own heads; that we will be given the strength to do these things. And so, like the disciples then, we the church await the power which will once again be given, to wait, and then to bear witness to these things. To testify that resurrection faith is a long and winding road, a journey never quite finished, and often interrupted. That you can only bear witness to what you yourself are still learning to grasp. That the story will always go on beyond what you or I are able to tell. That is the deal. We are witnesses. The focus of heaven is not heaven but earth. So it’s back to Jerusalem, back to a newly strange and strangely new world in which the church is actually already deployed: worshipping wherever we find shelter, praying for the world, honouring our neighbours with new inventiveness and familiar care. By the time the disciples head back down the road into Jerusalem, night has fallen. But the lamps of the city, here and there, open up before them, lighting their way through the darkness. It looks like an ending. But it is only the beginning. And to God alone be the glory.
The deepest conversations are not about finding certainty; they are about finding one another. And so it is with prayer. You do not always have to ask for anything; you can simply hold a moment in time, an encounter, a memory, a face, in the presence of God, for it is what you have to bring. Everything is raw material for the new creation, and we will all be changed. The short form of haiku can thus be a prayer, a tiny psalm. So hold your moments high in these days, for who knows what new thing God is already drawing out of the moments we bring.
With thanks to Ruth Whelan for this week’s haiku offering