Inspired by Acts 1: 1-11
The beginning of the Book of Acts begins with a scene much like the beginning of our current pandemic; an experience so unbelievable that all are left standing dazed and confused, struggling to make sense of all that had been taken from them. Jesus, resurrected and returned just forty days early, is now taken from the disciples leaving them only with an uncertainty about their timeline and a laundry list of work left undone. The promise for the Spirit looms in the atmosphere but the abrupt absence of their friend, leader and savior shades any hope for clarity as to how their ministry will go on.
I receive this story as a relatable loss in a climate harshly reflecting back to us the absence of so many things, people, experiences, routines and rituals…that we too loved. More than a similarity grounded in that which has been taken from us, there is also a parallel precursor to the unwelcome nature of our collective loss. Like the disciples, we too long to know the date upon which we can count down the days until our restoration will occur. We too have little conclusive evidence of a date for which we could predict reliefs arrival. And it seems to me that the weight of our waiting for that which we long for increases according to the depth of the uncertainty we wade in. It is a cause of human suffering for which Jesus shows little mercy in our time of need.
We witness Jesus’ tough love in his response to the disciple’s reasonable request to know the time when restoration will take place. Instead of responding to the Disciple’s speculation of what the future holds, Jesus grounds them in engagement with a mission that is “right now.” Before he ascends, Jesus redirects the disciples away from the delusion that they are somehow waiting for the Spirit within some apocalyptic time zone, where saving events come from heaven and erupt into human history. Without offering any set date to anticipate for the finality of their waiting, Jesus’ final words pull their gaze to the promise of what is right now, having confidence that it will be the Spirit which equips them to continue the missional work which he had begun.
In the Women’s Bible Commentary, Gail R. O’Day explains that:
“The period of the church, the time between the ascension of Jesus and his return, is not understood simply as a waiting period, but is a fruitful time in its own right. Neither is the period of the church to be esteemed for its antiquarian value, because the church is the basis and vehicle for the ongoing proclamation of the gospel. Luke’s purpose in writing Acts is not to point the church backward, to the church’s past but to use the story of the church to point forward to the ongoing witness of the gospel” (p395).
We are all quite aware that for both the disciples in Acts and for our faith communities today, these forward-thinking instructions to work within the parameters of an uncontained waiting, this commitment to stay employed in the terrain of ‘what is,’ remains harder than we perhaps would have predicted. Knowing these difficulties all too well, I appreciate the commentator for this morning’s scripture for articulating what to all of us is fairly obvious: That the succession from the Messiah to his apostles was not without problems. Likewise, I would add, that the succession from the apostles to the people of faith we are today is not without problems.
While we rarely celebrate the presence of perpetual problems, it is this continuity of an insatiable appetite for certainty which also reinforces the common inheritance of a mission extending over thousands of lifespans. The inheritance of the problem, adapting and rooting our work and mission in the present moment, is also evidence of our inheritance of this very same mission. A mission creatively expressed according to time and place for the purpose of sharing the witness of Christ’s love to the ends of the earth. A sharing made possible through the gift of the Holy Spirit working through the collective across all boundaries of our physical existence.
Although I am quite certain this is not what Jesus was referring to when speaking of the Comforter, I do find comfort in this connection with the first followers of Christ. We, too, exist as a community of faith with our fair share of problems; manifest in practices handed down from generation to generation that we find ourselves helplessly loyal to regardless of their effectiveness in the mission for which we are working toward. The obstacle of an unavoidable temptation to wander off into a world that does not yet, and may not ever, exist. It is a habitual weakness that we have been unable to overcome or evolve beyond.
Lacking this development of the necessary evolutionary adaptations, our posture becomes quickly accustomed to accommodating a skyward search for the expression of a love long ago carried away. We stand looking for a manifestation of Love so expired that others walking by could not recognize if they tried. The strain of a stare for something that is no longer there holds a promise to push each of us to the edge of our longing where grief greets us, buckles our knees and pulls our face flat against the fertile soil of a rich, new question; what is the work we are left with? And, how are we to go about waiting as workers on this ground where we now lay?
In Part 4 of Tara Brach’s series, Sheltering in Love, Brach shares the story of a committee from a congregation ensnared in a bitter debate regarding the way one of the core religious rituals was to be conducted. The debate encompassed diverse viewpoints concerning who would perform the religious ritual and how often the religious ritual should be performed. The argument was dividing people, creating hostilities and testing friendships …and, instead of evolving toward a solution, everyone kept circling their same ideas of ‘I am right, and this is how things should be.’
Finally, one person from the congregation suggested that they seek the counsel of one of the oldest living members in the church. The man agreed to offer counsel and a couple from the congregation went to speak with him.
Sitting with the man, the couple began asking him, ‘well did they do it this way back then?’ and they described what they were thinking was one of the approaches to the problem.
The old man listened and said, ‘nope, not that way.’
So, they said, ‘well what about this way?’
The man shook his head, ‘no, not that way.’
After awhile of asking questions and receiving the same response, the couple became exasperated and finally gave up offering their possible solutions and asked the man, ‘Well, what are we supposed to do? The entire congregation is arguing and accusing.’
The man smiled and said, ‘that’s the way we did it.’
This problematic pattern of working together in ways that are ultimately against ourselves is neither limited to the Church nor the human species. An example of the power of ritual triggered without attention to relationship or reality comes from the community of the honeybee.
In Ann Druyan’s sequel to Carl Sagan’s, “Cosmos,” she explains that, “a dying honeybee releases a special chemical called oleic acid. The odor of this ‘death pheromone’ alerts the hive mates that whichever bee is wearing that scent must be carted outside by pall bearers.” The unproductive nature of faithfulness to this hormonal signal was discovered in the confines of a scientific experiment, where scientists found that even a healthy bee dabbed with a smidgen of oleic acid was carried off as a corpse, no matter how vigorously it protests. Scientists found that this was also true of the queen bee, who plays such a critical role in the survival of the hive.
The scent of the oleic acid erased any possibility of changing their behavior in response to evidence contrary to the ritual of removal. While the honeybee has no need for a nuanced response to oleic acid (due to the reality that in the many tens of millions of years of their collective experience, no bee has ever given off oleic acid except in the last throes of death), this same reality is not true for the deaths of rituals in our own Churches.
In our Churches, oleic acid is dabbed on religious institutions in the form of innovation and adaptation, cueing the buzzing of the hive and rallying an automatic response whereby the competencies gifted by the Spirit are taken out to the trash to preserve the expired fruits of a nostalgic past. Positioned on autopilot, religious worker bees look to the wrong places and wait in the wrong ways, as they seek to restore a solution to circumstances that have long ago gone extinct.
In an environment such as ours, that uses the climate of pandemic to normalize fear-based responses, rituals become a placeholder for purpose when true connectedness to one another feels no longer accessible. Tara Brach suggests that this ritualized undoing, this self-induced suffering, is a result of having forgotten our belonging to one another. A tragic forgetting in which we become stuck in our ideas which turn us against ourselves and others as we revert to a dependence on our primitive psyche which needs to fight and defend and conquer others. It is a reactive ritual driven to obtain power over, sabotaging the full potential of the beating heart of the body of Christ which releases us from fear so that we can wait and work for the greater good, living from our most awake being.
In this framework, we understand the challenge of our hive not as evolving past the experience of death, but evolving toward acceptance of that which has already died. To acknowledge what has already been taken from us, so that we may again learn how to live. It is a process of reawakening to that which is right now, promised in the surrender of what we had hoped someday would be. It is an adapted ritual articulated in the words of Albert Einstein who taught us long ago that, “we cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.” We must look to the heavens and back again to regain a clarity too easily lost in our searching for that which is lost in the only place we know it has not been found.
Just as the Disciples in Acts begin their mission out of the grief that Jesus is no longer there, so too do we begin our journey with the grief that it is not safe to gather in rooms where we once worshipped, celebrating rituals we believed held all of us together. The inability to gather in a space designated as sanctuary for rituals defined as worship, is an invitation to find new ways to come back together where we value relationship over ritual and mission over monuments.
That which has been taken from us now functions as a catalyst to return to an inherited mission in a new way. A way that finds its genesis in a solidarity of experience with those for whom the church defined as a building and worship designed in ritual was never a safe place. As inaccessible, as unsafe, as worshipping together feels to each of us in this moment, perhaps this is how unsafe and inaccessible worship had already become to the woman who filed for divorce or had an abortion or felt called to preach, to the little girl who grew up to become a generous man, to the loving couple who shared not only love but the commonality of pronouns …
Maybe, in our own forced diaspora we can see clearly the privilege of our rituals of belonging and risk imagining what it feels like for people who were told to stay at home long before there was ever a pandemic. Perhaps, in our own fear of gathering, we can understand the lifelong reality of those for whom the church has become and remains an unsafe space. Maybe now that we have been gazing up for the return of something that no longer existed, we can look back down to see and hear and know what it is like to live in a landscape where church has too often become an unpredictable minefield of harmful theology and privatized practices.
We are called to wait together but also to work in this waiting in new ways. And, the commentary today reminds of this:
“Waiting for God to act is also a community’s project. Waiting with others is an act of solidarity with friends. The apostles do not scatter and go their separate ways to await a private Spirit-filling or a personal experience of divine faithfulness. They were “joined together” in a specific place to await God’s action on them all (p45).”
The apostles were together in their waiting but they were also joined together in the struggle to accept and understand a mission that changed the framework of everything that they thought they were working toward. And, so too, do we wait together in this same predicament.
People across the internet have been sharing meme’s stating that, “the Church was never closed,” and I agree but let us not forget that Churches were closing before this pandemic began. There is a reason for that, and in this place and in this moment we find ourselves forced out onto the margins. Unexpectedly, we now stand in solidarity with those who are the most vulnerable. The possibility in accepting what has been lost and the hope in moving forward into a new way of belonging is that we might pull ourselves back in toward an expanded center. A reimaging and a restoring of the power of the Holy Spirit in our Churches if we are willing to re-engage definitions of worship and reclaim pathways to gathering that all people can walk.
In this time of pandemic, when so much has been taken from us, let us accept that in our loss, there is a call to evolve toward a compassionate common life.
Let us struggle to accept and ascend beyond where we have been so that wherever we arrive, all might belong when the work of this present waiting is behind us.