Word of the Week

What Are You Doing? Just Stand There!

Ascension Sunday 2011: Acts 1:6-14

What Are You Doing? Just Stand There!

Ascension Sunday has been called the most popular liturgical holiday that nobody knows what it means.  And we are Baptists after all. Isn’t it a Catholic thing? Why should we care?  

For me, it’s a question I seem to try to answer for the staff every year when we’re in the process of putting together the bulletin for this particular Sunday. It’s a question I often get asked of you by your wandering eyes (like just happened a few moments ago at the beginning of the service) when I announce that it is Ascension Sunday and you look at me like I’m crazy. And, it’s a question I often scratch my head and ask myself too. And, honestly answering that I just don’t have a clue—really.

But, yet, because I’m a pastor and it is my job to say something, usually my answers go something like this: It’s a liturgical holiday that is normally celebrated 40 days after Easter. Such is the time period Jesus was said to have re-appeared on earth after his resurrection—which actually occurs on a Thursday (i.e. three days ago). Yet, many churches wait until the Sunday after to celebrate.

The Ascension celebrations exist as a remembrance of Jesus’ departure from earth and going back to heaven. It’s the time when Jesus says his last famous words that every evangelistic loving Baptist youth in the south is seemingly forced to memorize, “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria and to the ends of the earth.”  Furthermore, it’s the story that is found both at the end and the beginning of Luke’s two part volume of tales about Jesus’ life, in the gospel of Luke AND in the Acts of the Apostles. It’s a feast day for many churches that was begun with the tradition of St. Augustine himself back in the 5th century. For it is when many churches are reminded why they say the Nicene Creed and the Apostles Creed on a regular basis—for the phrase about the ascension “he sits at the right hand of the Father” is a key point in found in the theology therein.


But, yet with all of this true as we seek as a people of God in this place to be connected to the larger ecumenical community of faith AND the unending song of the faithful throughout the centuries, we still may not really understand it or find the personal connection.  In fact, our Pastor Intern, John Luft and I were having lunch this week and if you’ve gotten to know John at all over the course of his time with us—you know one thing about him—he loves his formal liturgy and formal church traditions (including the outfits)—yet I was shocked to even hear him say, “I just don’t really like the Ascension.” What??

Because the Ascension after all just seems like a mystic event of another divine light show, much like the transfiguration (the other liturgical Sunday that is often misunderstood). For as the tale goes, we find Jesus teaching and talking to his disciples and all of a sudden as verse nine of our text tells us, “he was taken up before their very eyes, and a cloud him from their sight.” And, as Pastor Danielle Shroyer writes of this event, “there are just some stories in scripture that veer into the ‘fringe’ territory; unknown supernatural stuff we don’t have names for except to say that they are strange, and we don’t know what to make of them. Welcome to the Ascension, where that kind of thing happens.”[i]

But, maybe the “strangeness” of this encounter is exactly the point. Maybe, if we stick with this day just a little bit longer we might see. . .

Imagine the whip-lash for it was for the disciples during this series of emotionally disruptive events. First, there was the crucifixion—the horrible death of their beloved teacher which they didn’t expect. Then, three days later, there was the resurrection—the surprise of Jesus’ return which they again did not expect. Then, there were the various post resurrection day appearances—in the upper room, along the sea-side among many others. As soon as the disciples thought they understood what Jesus was up to It that he was back with them (even if he kept disappearing every now and then), Jesus was gone again.

There would be no figuring out or logically reasoning this series of events. And even though, yes, the events of the resurrection had meant that salvation had come into the hands of the people—that God’s work was finished and now the possibility of new life was for all, this new twist at this moment in the ongoing story was a huge game changer.

The relationship dynamic between God and all human kind would always include a reminder of Jesus as Lord or another way of saying, “I’m God, the one in charge, I lead in this world not you.”  For as much as being a follower in the way of Christ would mean action and doing and learning and going, it would also mean a whole lot about surrender and the word that most of us have despised: waiting.

Look with me at verse 10 of our text as it speaks of the posture of the disciples after Jesus has left the earth: “Suddenly two men dressed in white stood beside them, ‘Men of Galilee,’ they said, ‘why do you stand here looking into the sky? This same Jesus, who has been taken from you into heaven, will come back in the same way you have seen him go to heaven. “ And, the story goes on, “They they returned to Jerusalem . . . they all joined together constantly in prayer, along with the women.”

So this is what the disciples knew: 1) Jesus was gone 2) he would come again 3) they needed to do something in the meantime and it might be best to follow the request of Jesus for them—if we go back to verse 4 of the same chapter we learn that Jesus told them specifically, “Do not leave Jerusalem.”

For as much as they wanted to do something—call down the fires of heaven and try to bring Jesus back or start immediately on their 5 point evangelism plan to tell their buddies about the great things Jesus had done—the request of their Lord was to WAIT. Their calling was to stand there and remain faithful to the disciplines of faith that they knew. Specifically they were to pray. Just pray. And in prayer be mindful of what would come next.

I don’t know if you are from a family of “fixers” like I am, but I’ve learned through the years never to pose a problem to my parents or others, unless I am ready to hear an unsolicited opinion about the 10 things I need to try to solve whatever is troubling me. At the mere mention of symptoms of an illness, for example, there’s a package in the mail with my name on it with samples of remedies that I should try from my nurse mother.  Everything I need to get better as soon as possible is found within. For her and others like her, there’s no end to the conversation until a solution is suggested—there must be a solution and solution soon.  Just stand there? This is not acceptable.

But according to the instructions of Jesus, such kind of “immediate gratification” attitude was not going to work if the disciples were going to keep following in the way of Jesus. Because sometimes they were going to have to be ok with the unknowns of just standing there, living through the discomfort, enduring the unknown, yet keeping an open mind through prayer to the new life and possibilities just around the corner given by God to them.

I don’t know if many of you are familiar with the meditation tool, the labyrinth, whose origins date back to Greek mythology or have had a chance to walk on one any time recently. A labyrinth is a maze like path that is used as a centering tool when one is seeking to clear your mind or seek direction about a specific topic. Churches of all kinds are often these days painting or creating them in their wooded lots or asphalt of their parking lots as an ancient modern renewal of a spiritual practice. Often prayer retreats include a trip to a labyrinth of some sort during the course of the weekend—for many often find them as the only place where they are able to center themselves and find God.

On Thursday evening in Georgetown DC talking a walk by the Potomac River, I was surprised to find a labyrinth painted on the ground in the park. (I’m always amazed when the spiritual invitation shows up among the secular). I wasn’t really in the meditative mood to walk it myself, so I found a bench and observed others going through it: some with great intentionality, others not.

Yet, most moving of all was watching one young man about my age walking through the labyrinth with his cell phone in hand.  I’m no labyrinth expert, but having a cell phone in tow seemed to be breaking the rules. Yet, if this was not enough, soon thereafter, I saw this same guy texting as he walked.  Soon he was stumbling over a five-year old girl seeking to walk it with her mom simply because he wasn’t paying attention.

What a picture of modern prayer life, I realized. That yes, while most of us realize that there are times in our lives when we are hit in the face with crisis our response looks a lot like texting while trying to walk the labyrinth (or whatever your modern form of distraction is).

Yet, the problem with all of this become we are denying ourselves the focus that spiritual formation could bring us,  so that our “just standing there” waiting periods in our lives become for us as frustrating as they can possibly be. For, not only are we a bit lost and bewildered because of the situations on our path, but we are left without any tools that actually help us. We think that our grasping, our striving, our actions of trying to fix our problems will somehow get us somewhere as if we were the One who created the universe and spoke it into being in the first place.

The gift of this strange story called the Ascension becomes a reminder that we are not God and because of this the journey of our lives, just like it was for the first disciples is going to include waiting. So that we find ourselves enduring one of these “Just Stand There” times in our lives, we can take heart knowing that it is all a part of the formation process.

 No we aren’t crazy. No we aren’t as lost as we feel. No all our hopes and dreams for a good future aren’t to be trashed . . . but to the contrary, when we get sent back to our Jerusalems, our hometowns, our home bases to wait, watch and pray as to what comes next there is great purpose in this time.

Such time is not to be overlooked. It is not to be avoided. And certainly, it is not to bring out the “how to fix-it” tendencies in all of us. Rather, as we stand there, we are to develop mindfulness, a connectedness, a patience that no other time in our life can offer us. 

In times in our lives without clear direction, we are to return to our community: loving and being loved dearly by those close and accessible even in our confusion.

We are to return to practices that ground ourselves in the present tense: taking care of our bodies through eating well, taking more walks than sitting on the couch, stopping to notice the flowers in our yard, and always remembering to breathe.

We are to pray: to pray not only in the formal ways that we hear in church, but in spoken and unspoken words of a life lived. Prayers like that of writer, Anne Lamott, “Help me, help me, help me.” Or, “Thank you, thank you, thank you.” Or, praying through the act of doing the dishes, changing the sheets on our bed, or washing our faces—remembering life’s simple rhythms of work and play.

For the real good news is that God does not ask us to be completely idol in our “just stand there” moments. There’s work to do in the waiting. Not work in the sense of causing something to happen, but preparing our lives to recognize and channel God’s work through our very being when it comes. For yes, eventually, yes, there will be a time for the words we like the best “solutions” “actions” and “resolution” but God knows, I think, we won’t have eyes and ears to see and hear what is coming up if we don’t just stand there first.

So, this morning as we prepare our hearts to come to receive at this table, I would invite you to just stand here first . . . to remember and to gaze upon the elements that remind us of the power, and love and grace of our Lord, so that when you taste them, you’ll be ready to receive.

Thanks be to God for the gift of just standing here in this communal place of worship.




[i] “New Testament Reading: Acts 1:6-14 For Sunday, June 5, 2011 Year A- Easter 7” www.thehardestquestion.com