August 01, 2008

Should I Stay or Should I Go?

by Jessie Shuman Larkins
When I read the Ascension texts for today (or this upcoming Sunday if you are in a Protestant tradition that celebrates the Ascension on the following Sunday), my tendency is to immediately jump to the conclusion of Luke’s report in Acts 1 when the angels appear to ask the disciples: “Why do you stand looking up at heaven?” I hear in this question an affirmation of my own need for action—the angels are telling those disciples to get on with it already. There is work to be done witnessing, proclaiming, releasing the captives, caring for the sick, and forgiving enemies, among other things!

We disciples have been charged with Kingdom work and we certainly aren’t going to accomplish it if we stand around with our heads in the clouds. I think of the Johnny Cash song whose lyrics critique its subject for being: “So heavenly-minded that you are no earthly good.” Don’t we so often allow ourselves to become pre-occupied with the “things of heaven” that we miss the opportunity to witness to the Kingdom of God on earth?

Many of us (pastors and laypersons alike) who maintain an ungodly level of busyness in our lives find that we justify many of our “doings” because they are “church things” without ever considering that much of our church activity might yet be lazy cloud-gazing and in-action. Looking at my own calendar, I cringe at the thought of adding “witnessing to the Kingdom of God through acts of justice and peace” to the already growing number of committee meetings and church activities.

Re-reading the Ascension texts, however, I discovered what is perhaps my (and my congregation’s) problem—it is those convicting little words “stay” and “wait.” We are guilty of jumping on the church band-wagon very quickly, assuming that whatever idea or activity is cooked up at church must be God-ordained and worthy of our time and attention simply because it is church and we are a heaven-bound people.

Do we ever, though, sit with our ideas and activities long enough to discern whether or not they are filled with the power of the Spirit OR whether or not they do truly witness to the Kingdom of God (as opposed to witnessing to our ability to plan events and sit in meetings)? I confess that I too often rush through my prayer time because I’ve got “things to do.”

Perhaps my best witness to the Kingdom is not in the doing but in actually taking my Sabbath day when it comes. Perhaps my congregation would discern with a bit of time in prayer (not the kind of prayer that asks God to ordain what we’ve already decided to do or the prayers we rush through in order to begin a meeting) that some of our events and activities do not point us or our neighbors towards the Reign of Christ.

Yes, we are a people called to action. We are a people that are called to go to the world with the good news of Jesus’ death, resurrection, and coming return in glory to eradicate the power of sin and death. Yes, we are called to get our heads out of the clouds and out into the streets where Christ’s reign is most powerfully proclaimed.

Yet, in all our action we must realize that it is action that is effective only when it is Holy Spirit inspired and charged by the power of God. The Kingdom to which we witness (not create) is God’s Kingdom and will not come about by our power. In all of our itchiness to get out into the world and “do,” perhaps the lesson of this Ascension/Pentecost week is hidden in those short little words, “stay” and “wait.”

(Originally published Thursday, May 1, 2008)

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