Thursday, May 14, 2015

Ascension: Bearing Witness to the Unseen; Making the Invisible, Visible

Life today presents particular challenges. First, while we live in an age of plenty the truth is that many-too many-are deprived of having enough. Second, while we live in an age of unprecedented innovation in which new technologies are born every day the truth is that many-again, too many-are left out of being able to benefit from those innovations due to the widespread poverty that runs rampant around us.

When I was a young man, my father-a sociologist, and I were watching television. This was during the 1980s when the famine in Ethiopia was raging. That was the famine that inspired the music-centered "Let them know it's Christmas" and "Live Aid" music campaigns. My father, seeing my interest, looked up from his paper and said in a calm voice, "You know, compared to most of the people on this planet, you count as one of the wealthiest and most advantaged, most educated people in history. In fact, you are in the top 2%.

In my desire, greed really, for things I could not have because of our household budget I did not believe him at the time.

After all these years, I not only believe him, I have seen that disparity face to face. We all know want in our lives, but there are people for whom our want feels like wealth. While there is always someone doing a little better than we are, the reality is that MOST people on this planet struggle to get by on the equivalent of less than one dollar a day. From that small wage, a person must pay for housing, food, education for their children, clothing, medicine, etc....or, often, wind up not being able to afford them on a consistent basis, if at all.

Every Ascension Day, I find myself ruminating on this experience of disparity, this wide spectrum of want in which we encounter most people-our neighbors, friends, family, even the most remote of strangers. We are all here in this world, and our position is precarious. Only a precious few don't.

This day finds us in the waning days of Eastertide, the Great 50 Days of celebration in which we commemorate the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead. That resurrection rang in a new era of human experience. We no longer see death as an end. It is a doorway into new life. It is also an affirmation that with God the worst thing is never the last thing. That's glorious.

It is also a challenge.

With that promise of new life, of the proof that God's love and desire for us is so great that even death must give way means that we are now called to become something more than "just" people struggling with want, worry, hunger, fear, famine, injustice and oppression. We are called to overcome those things which deprive ANY human being of the dignity, grace and peace of knowing that they are loved and desired by God....and BY US as the Body of Christ in this world.

Talk about the binding chains of oppression being broken.

Christ rising to heaven in the Ascension represents two physical manifestations of what that sort of justice might look like, if we are willing to commit to it in our lives, and in the life of the communities we live in, today:

  • The first is that when we are in Christ, we are lighter than air. Nothing can hold us back or down. Christ ascending means that the sky is literally the limit in what we can accomplish as the Church. So, let's get to it....and feed the hungry, console the sick, visit the imprisoned, etc., etc.
  • The second is that you can't chain that ascending grace to the ground. It can't be tethered. That can be scary for many, for those whose poverty has bound a leaden weight to their hearts. Instead, the call is to be light, to embrace and love and understand that no matter where you are, what you have (or do not have) and how you might be bound the call to serve the other in the name of Christ is an achievable end. It's as simple as just being willing to love, and to give, from what we have....even when that isn't much at all.
What does that look like in real time, in real life? 

I experienced it yesterday at our Community Soup Kitchen. I attend regularly, and join our guests to eat. At the table I was sitting at last night, one woman is still recovering from the death of her son last year. She has been a regular for years...and this meal had been a "night out" for her and her adult son (who survived for over 50 years with Down's Syndrome). Now, this meal is one of her lifelines. She is not alone in her grief, and she can be here and know that not only is she loved but that also her son is remembered. The person across from me is a trained chiropractor who struggles to find work. He knows he can come and not be judged as a professional man who is down on his luck. The three others around the far corner of the table are kind souls who attend the supper together, and 12 step meetings on other nights. There is no judgment here, nor there...and they welcome all with joy to the feast. One of their number is a woman whose retirement income pays her rent and nothing else. She survives on toast and butter for most of the week....but on Supper nights, she eats like a queen in her court.

We sit together. We laugh and tell stories. We thank the volunteers who give of their time to serve us with dignity and respect. We extend that same dignity and respect to each other and to the rest of the guests. Someone is always offering to clear my plate, if I don't manage to finish and get up first. 

Each week, we hold life's as if for a brief moment we can feel that same lift that took Jesus up into heaven....that gentle breeze that inexorably drew him up and toward the right hand of the Father.

That is what Ascension means to is a reminder that while we are not quite to the point where the equity and justice of the kingdom of God are here and now quite yet, the kingdom of God is still all around us in those small gestures that break down divisions and proclaim release to all who are bound in poverty. 

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