An Advent Journey, 2013: Looking for the Light – Day Ten



I am fully convinced, my dear brothers and sisters, that you are full of goodness. You know these things so well you can teach each other all about them. Even so, I have been bold enough to write about some of these points, knowing that all you need is this reminder. For by God’s grace, I am a special messenger from Christ Jesus to you Gentiles. I bring you the Good News so that I might present you as an acceptable offering to God, made holy by the Holy Spirit. So I have reason to be enthusiastic about all Christ Jesus has done through me in my service to God. Yet I dare not boast about anything except what Christ has done through me, bringing the Gentiles to God by my message and by the way I worked among them. They were convinced by the power of miraculous signs and wonders and by the power of God’s Spirit. In this way, I have fully presented the Good News of Christ from Jerusalem all the way to Illyricum.

My ambition has always been to preach the Good News where the name of Christ has never been heard, rather than where a church has already been started by someone else. I have been following the plan spoken of in the Scriptures, where it says,

“Those who have never been told about him will see,
and those who have never heard of him will understand.”

Romans 15:14-21 -NLT

“A special messenger to the Gentiles. . . ” It is the apostle Paul who picks up the thread woven into the fabric of the Incarnation by those wise men from the east, who came seeking a new king. I suppose this story is really more of an Epiphany tale than an Advent one, but here we are with this passage on the 10th day of our Advent journey.

Perhaps those who laid out this list of readings wanted to be sure this small, golden thread was right up front, where it would be noticed. Because, you see, we are the recipients of this particular gift of grace. We are the ones who walk in the shadow of those ancient seekers from the east; we are the ones who follow along with Paul as he rounds the Mediterranean Sea, leaving depositories of gospel grace everywhere he goes.

It’s a thread worth noting, an essential slice of the light we are seeking as we turn round one more bend in the road, journeying toward Christmas Day. We, too, are part of this story.

We, too, are marked by the Spirit as ones who are ‘full of goodness,’ simply because we know Jesus.

Humble Savior, will you help us to know you better as we travel this road? Shine your light on us, lead us into truth, help us to see your goodness shining out of our lives, even in the midst of the holiday crazy.

* As an added Advent bonus, I heartily recommend you click on this link and meander over to SheLoves fine post on Random Acts of Advent Kindness. I’m going to try and do this as often as possible and I encourage you all to check it out for yourselves.

31 Days of Giving Permission . . . TO STOP

31 days of giving permission 200x130

There’s never enough time to do all the nothing you want. 
~Bill Watterson,Calvin and Hobbes

Here’s to enough time to do nothing this weekend.
Because it’s the ‘nothing’ time that allows
the seed to grow,

the ideas to blossom,
the Spirit to be heard.

Blessed Sabbath, friends. 

31 Days of Giving Permission to . . . REMEMBER

31 days of giving permission 200x130

Sometimes, it’s good to remember where we’ve been and to look for the connections
between there and here. I was searching for a completely different document on my hard drive (one that I did not find, unfortunately) and came across a sermon that I had written six years ago, a sermon that for some reason did not get filed in the folder marked ‘sermons.’ (Don’t ask about my document filing system. It’s a mess and I don’t really know how to fix it.)
I actually enjoyed reading it, something that doesn’t always happen.
And I remembered where I was back then — in the middle of a family tragedy, in the middle of a massive re-model, in the middle of my husband’s retirement planning.
It was good to see that some things have changed significantly.
It was a little hard to see that some things (mostly inside me!)
haven’t changed quite enough.

Do you have ways to look back on your life and reflect on where you were and where you are? Scripture admonishes us to remember. Over and over again, we’re encouraged to remember the good and build on it, and to remember the not-so-good and release it. Sometimes in the busyness of our over-full lives,
we don’t give ourselves permission to stop long enough
to be reflective about our own journey.
Maybe something in this sermon will help you to do that.

Luke 24:50-53, Acts 1:1-11
Preached as part of the “God’s Big Story” series
Montecito Covenant Church
April 29, 2007
By Diana R.G. Trautwein

It’s been quite a week for me. How about you? Three long car trips — miscellaneous family woes, including some really scary and sad health issues for people I dearly love; the constant noise, dust and confusion of the re-model from planet weird, which goes on and on and on . . . making me more than a little bit crazy and cranky; navigating some tricky interpersonal waterways in my work week – not always terribly successfully; meetings up the wazoo; trying to listen attentively as my husband thinks out loud about some of the complications and decisions associated with his retirement in five weeks.

And then there was this sermon to think about — on the Ascension, of all things. Not something I think about a whole lot, to tell you the truth. Oh, I occasionally refer to it when we recite the creed together: “I believe in Jesus Christ . . . Who ascended into heaven and sitteth at the right hand of God the Father Almighty from whence he shall come to judge the quick and the dead . . . “ But it’s not a topic I tend to think about a whole lot.

Doesn’t seem to impact my life much — not like the crucifixion or the resurrection or even the story of Jesus’ birth or the various details of his ministry Nope. Don’t think about the ascension too much. So, adding into an already heavy-duty week the thinking and study required to piece together 20 intelligible minutes on that very subject seemed a daunting and even frustrating task.

But here’s what I want you to hear from me today, before you hear anything else – maybe even if you don’t hear anything else, please hear this: After a week like the one I’ve had – and maybe after a week like the one you’ve had – the ascension is EXACTLY what I needed to ponder, EXACTLY what I needed to wrestle with a little, EXACTLY what I needed to hear from God about.

And, as always, that came as a big surprise to me. Because it never ceases to amaze me that the sermons I preach are always, and I do mean ALWAYS, preached to me first, preached to me and in me – right smack dab in the middle of this messy, ordinary, sometimes glorious, sometimes trouble-filled life I lead. Whatever the topic of the week may be – whether I’ve chosen the text or it’s been given to me – it seems as though the first work of the Spirit needs doing in me before I can even begin to contemplate unpacking the word for others.

And this week, despite my fears and rather listless energy for the topic at the beginning of the week, the same thing happened again. I was reminded one more time, of who I am and who I am not, of who we together are, and who we are not, and, most importantly, of who God is and how Jesus continues his salvation work in me, and in us, minute by minute, day by day, week by week.

Because there are just some weeks when I need a whole lot of saving, a whole lot of shaping and forming and learning and stretching. I need a whole lot of hearing and reading and reflecting and reveling in the story of God’s love, God’s mercy and God’s power. And this week’s scripture just knocked me upside the head and made me say, “Thank you, Jesus!”  and “Help me, Jesus!” and “Lord, have mercy.”  And “Amen!  Yes. Yes. Yes.”

Will you hear the word of the Lord as it is recorded for us by the person we know as Luke – the author of the gospel that bears his name and the author of the book that immediately follow the 4 gospel accounts, the Acts of the Apostles.

Reading first from Luke 24 and then from Acts 1:

Luke 24:50-53:

   When he had led them out to the vicinity of Bethany, he lifted up his hands and blessed them. While he was blessing them, he left them and was taken up into heaven. Then they worshiped him and returned to Jerusalem with great joy. And they stayed continually at the temple, praising God.

Acts 1:1-11

In my former book, Theophilus, I wrote about all that Jesus began to do and to teach until the day he was taken up to heaven, after giving instructions through the Holy Spirit to the apostles he had chosen. After his suffering, he showed himself to these men and gave many convincing proofs that he was alive. He appeared to them over a period of forty days and spoke about the kingdom of God. On one occasion, while he was eating with them, he gave them this command: “Do not leave Jerusalem, but wait for the gift my Father promised, which you have heard me speak about. For John baptized with water, but in a few days you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.”

    So when they met together, they asked him, “Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?”

    He said to them: “It is not for you to know the times or dates the Father has set by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”

    After he said this, he was taken up before their very eyes, and a cloud hid him from their sight.

    They were looking intently up into the sky as he was going, when 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 into heaven.”

This is indeed God’s word for us today.

We have been looking this whole year at the story of Jesus, beginning last fall with the birth narratives and moving through his teaching, healing, disciple-making ministry, his trial and crucifixion, his death and resurrection. Today we arrive at an important point of transition in our 3-year preaching series which Don has entitled, “God’s Big Story.”

Book one of Luke – the gospel, the good news, the snapshot story of the life and ministry of Jesus Christ in 1st century Palestine – book one is finished. And book two of Luke – the Acts of the Apostles – is beginning. And this strange little story that reads like watching Jesus sort of floating off into the ether is the monumentally important turning-point – transition point – transformation point –  between the two.

In the opening words of Acts, Luke writes to his friend Theophilus that his first volume, his gospel record, was, “about all that Jesus began to do and to teach until the day he was taken up to heaven . . . “ certainly implying that book two is about what Jesus continues to do and to teach as the story of Jesus, of salvation, of revolution is carried to Jerusalem, to Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.

So, to summarize in a pithy way, the story of the ascension tells us these important things as we transition from one phase of God’s salvation story to another:

Jesus is moving on,

the church is being born,

the Spirit is soon to come.

And it’s all right here, in these words we’ve just heard.

First, Jesus is moving on:

“It is finished,” not “I am finished.” 40 days of ‘convincing proofs’ of his resurrection, 40 days of reminding them there was work ahead of them, important, life-changing, world-changing work for them to do. And how is that going to happen? Well, according to Acts 1, it will happen in two important ways: first by waiting, and then by witnessing.

And that order is so important – for those 11 gape-mouthed disciples on the hill near Bethany, and for all of us gape-mouthed disciples on this hill near Westmont. The first thing we must do – and the last thing we usually choose to do or even think to do – is to . . .


Don’t go anywhere. Don’t do anything Just WAIT.

For what? For the gift, that’s what. Hmmm…pretty broad category there. Pretty general statement. So Jesus gets a little more specific. Wait for . . . The gift my father promised, the gift you’ve heard me talk about, the baptism I told you was coming. And don’t wait for it all by your lonesome, each of you in your own closet. No, wait for it together.

Now, in a couple of weeks, we’ll look more intensely at the particular form of the gift that Jesus promises here in chapter one of Acts.  At that time, we will remember and celebrate Pentecost – that wonderful, awesome, strange and even scary visitation of the Holy Spirit on the early church.  That promised baptism that would bring power and the skills and gifts that would make witnesses of all those gathered in the upper room.

But, the witnessing will come later, it is the waiting that begins now.

And while we wait, even as they waited those centuries ago, we need to remind ourselves and one another of what we know, of what the ascension so magnificently reminds us : that God is God, that God is on the throne, that Jesus is now there with him, still wearing our flesh, and that Jesus continues his work of kingdom-building by praying for us, by whispering into the Father’s ears on our behalf, and by releasing, again and again, the great, unfathomable gift of the Holy Spirit, who comes in power and in love to fill the church and to continue the work of the kingdom of God through the church.

For the church, despite its flaws and foibles, despite its foolishness and feebleness, despite the pettiness and the entitlement and the one-upsmanship that can so often rear its misshapen little head in even the most mature of Christian fellowships – the church is God’s chosen vehicle, the church is Christ’s body in the world, the church is the recipient of God’s Spirit of grace and of power and the church is where the kingdom is caught in glimpses while we’re still on this side of heaven.

And there are three important things that the church is given to do, all of them either explicit or implicit in Jesus words to his disciples as he ascended to the Father:

We are to wait,
We are to worship,
And we are to witness.

The waiting is clear in our Acts passage for the morning, but you’ll notice from the lighthearted sense of Luke’s closing words in the gospel reading today that the most natural response to the ascension of Jesus is the worship of Jesus – Luke 24:52 tells us that after Jesus was taken up into heaven, the disciples who watched him go, “worshiped him and returned to Jerusalem with great joy.” Probably the earliest recording of a distinctively Christian worship experience. And it happened while they were waiting, while they were waiting together.

Wait, worship, witness. All of those ‘w’s’ are important – they each continue to play important parts in the kingdom work that the Spirit of Jesus is doing today, in and through and sometimes, in spite of the church. They need to be remembered, and they need to be practiced, and they need to be kept in sequence.

Because here’s the heart of it all, the thing that we so often lose sight of, that we so easily stop tracking with, that we too often fail to remember, or that we simply choose to ignore – here it is, are you ready for it?

It’s not up to us.

Did you hear me?

It’s not up to us.

Do you see that crown back there? There’s only one crown on that table, and there’s only one person who wears that crown, and it sure as shootin’ ain’t me. And it ain’t any of you lot either.

Jesus Christ is now ascended. Jesus Christ is now exalted. Jesus Christ, still robed in our flesh, is now with the Father,

Ruling in majesty,
Working in mystery,
Loving in perpetuity,
Praying in sincerity.
For us. For you and for me and for this world.

That’s what the ascension is about.

That’s why I can come to the end of a rotten week and say,
“Thank you, Jesus,” and
“Help me, Jesus,” and
“Lord, have mercy,” and
“Amen. Yes! Yes! Yes!”

So…as we come to the close of our time together this morning, I am going to ask you to take just a couple of minutes to WAIT, to wait together on the Lord. And then we’re going to worship with the singing of the last hymn. And then we can leave this place better prepared for all the messy, ordinary, sometimes glorious, sometimes trouble-filled life that we each are called to live. And we can witness to the mysterious, and revolutionary presence  of the kingdom of God, right here, in the midst of it all.

Will you wait on the Lord?




“Own Your Anointing” – Reflections On Sunday

I must admit that most days, I move through life in a very routine sort of way.
I try to keep up with my family,
to take care of my husband,
to do the errands necessary for the running of a home.

In the midst of all that ordinary,
I sometimes forget who I am.
I slide into the habits of the day like a pair of comfy sweatpants,
and I don’t think about it very much.

Yesterday morning, who I am sort of stepped up and slapped me ‘cross the face.
Kindly, of course. But ever so firmly.
“Wake up, Diana. Wake up!
Remember who you are.

This is the phrase that did that slapping for me:

Own it.
Live it.
Believe it.

Because that is the most central truth about me,
and I so often slough it off, set it on the back burner,
submerge it beneath the detritus of daily living.

I am anointed.
I am anointed for a purpose.
I am anointed to proclaim and to live the very same
Isaiah-message that Jesus himself read out in that Nazareth synagogue,
over 2000 years ago.

Do you believe this?
That YOU are anointed?
Set apart?
Marked by God?

“Hey,” you  might say to yourself. “Not me. I’m just an ordinary pew-sitter.
Sure, I go to church. I read the Bible . . . once in a while.
I even try to pray. But anointed?
Hey man, not me. I’m nothin’ special.”


Have you been baptized?
Said ‘yes’ to the call of Jesus, that call that invites you to ‘follow?’

Then you are anointed:
bought with a price,
marked by love,
commissioned to be those who
* announce good news
*proclaim release to the captive
*help blind people see
*free the oppressed.

 As part of our worship experience,
we were privileged to meet two powerful people,
I mean POWERFUL people.
People who wholeheartedly own their anointing,
people who ARE good news as well as bring good news,
people who work hard every single day to
free those captive to ignorance, confusion and fear;
people who bring light to the darkness in the fields of
education and high finance;
people who seek to set the oppressed free. . .

And they live in Uganda.

Dr. John Senyonyi is the President of Uganda Christian University,
an education and training center for over 12,000 students from nearly 20 countries.
The University is located in East Africa,
but draws students from all over the continent.
Many of those students are pastors-in-training,
who learn from skilled teachers how to ‘rightly divide the word of truth,’
before carrying it back to their home churches.

His wife, Dr. Ruth Senyonyi,
is Chief Counselor to the Federal Reserve Bank of Uganda,
with responsibility for the mental health of over 1200 employees.
Everyday, these two people step into their anointing,
living out the gospel in ways
I can barely imagine.

So what, I wonder, does ‘anointing’ look like in my life?
When I write in this space,
or when I comment on others’ writing in spaces much like this one,
I try to maintain an irenic spirit,
to offer words of encouragement and affirmation.
And I think that’s a good thing, an anointed thing, to do.
Most of the time.
But I’m becoming more convicted and convinced
that from time to time, I need to speak with a little bit more . . .
I search for the right word here.
Perhaps that word is ‘anointing?’

Because that water on my head when I was an infant,
those words seared into my brain tissue as an adolescent,
that Spirit that enlivens me,
when I make space for that enlivening —
it needs to make a difference.
A difference in me, a difference in the small spheres in which I move,
a difference in the very air molecules I inhabit.
And that difference is this:
I am one who is called to bring and to be
I am one who is called to proclaim it,
to preach it — not with words alone, but with the very air I breathe,
the steps I take, the hands I offer, the prayers I raise,
the stands I take, the friendship I extend,
the money I have,
the time I live in,
the energy I expend,
the life I live —

ALL OF IT . . .
all of it.

And that means that when I see or hear something that
‘offends one of the least of these;’
when I witness abuse in any form,
when I see others doing battle, real battle,
against ‘principalities and powers,’
then I need to be the gospel there, too.

And to tell  you the truth, that scares the crap out of me.
I want people to like me, to see me as a person of positive impact and insight.
I care what people think of me.

God help me, I do. A lot.

So, if I am to ‘own my anointing,’ I think it means I’m going to be scared
a lot more than I’m comfortable being scared.
I think it’s going to mean speaking more firmly than I am sometimes
comfortable with speaking.
I, in no way, wish to cause or give offense,
but there is a time and a place to say, ‘enough.’
I can still do my darnedest to say it graciously, kindly, humbly.
And those adverbs are going at the very top of my personal prayer list
every time I open this laptop to write a single word.

But . . .
I am anointed to bring good news,
to proclaim release to the captive,
to offer sight to the blind,
to set the oppressed free.
And people may not always ‘like’ what that looks like.

When Jesus began to speak out his anointing,
the people in Nazareth disliked it so much,
they threatened to throw Jesus right off a cliff.

I am, as always, a work in progress.
So this will take time, thought, prayer and practice.
I’m hoping you’ll help me to embrace
the full extent of my own anointing.
And I am promising to help you to do the same.
Because we need to OWN it.

Yes, we do.

Signing on with the usual Monday crowd, each of whom I love a lot. Michelle, Jen, Ann, Laura:

Why I Am Hopeful for the Future of the Church: a Photo Essay

Four days at one of the most spectacular Catholic retreat centers in the country, just outside the great city of Chicago.

Four days of some of the most intense work I’ve done since my retirement at the end of 2010.

Four days living in a small dormitory, individual rooms, shared bathrooms, one large living room with a fluorescent light buzzing loudly enough to wake the dead and a heater occasionally cranking out warm air with a deafening whoosh.
Four days with nine other people, only a few of whom I knew at all, each with their own ideas/opinions/working styles/life experiences/biases/favorite talking points.

The work was exhausting, confusing, challenging, amorphous, multi-layered, intense, demanding and important. It was also rich, rewarding, exhilarating, and very, very good.

While breathing in a glorious whiff of springtime in the Midwest, walking to the dining room, finding long-time friends by accident, discovering shared connections with new friends, hearing stories of gospel good news from all corners of this country we share, somehow – by God’s grace – we became a team. 

Not always in agreement, sometimes dissatisfied with results, often overwhelmed by the task – we joined hearts, heads, prayers, and vision to do the work before us.

Our task? To create a weekend retreat experience as part of our denominational tool-kit; something that could be led by a trained facilitator in a variety of church settings; a brief slice of time in which people might begin to discover what it feels like to truly listen and to be fully heard.

How often do we come together with other followers of Jesus and feel as if we are invisible? Not seen, not heard, not understood. Very little in our day-to-day living – filled as it is with tight schedules, too much ‘should’ and ‘ought’ and ‘How are you?’ and ‘Oh, I’m fine…just f.i.n.e’ – very little in our lives allows enough space to practice listening well. 

We wanted to create something that would help people to find and nurture true spiritual companionship as we journey together through life. Something that would introduce the basics of attentive listening, something that would encourage the thoughtful sharing of stories, something that would include an enlivening thread of liturgical worship, a shared meal, the sacrament of communion.

We hammered away at it from Sunday night through Wednesday noon, sampling things like dwelling in the word, taking a Cleopas walk, using art or music to fill in the gaps, thinking about lifemaps and technology and crafting a blessing. 

It was tough sledding at a few points and there is much still to be done. 

But here’s the greatest gift of this time away, this intense stretch of little sleep, lots of questions and not quite enough answers:  

I discovered a beautiful sprouting thing in the center of my spirit – a thing with wings and light-filled, buoyant beauty. And it’s name is HOPE. 

And right here is where much of that hope is centered: three women who are pastors. Three beautiful-to-the-core, loving, creative, committed, intelligent, Jesus-loving, kingdom-building, forward-thinking, open-hearted, life-giving leaders in our denomination who will change the church as we know it. ALL FOR THE GOOD. Becky from Ohio, Diana from Illinois, Michelle from Massachusetts – each of them gifted by God and called ‘for such a time as this.’ Each of them eager to follow the Nazarene wherever he may lead them, each of them fearless in their faith, pushing the envelope of ‘that’s how it’s always been done,’ seeking the pearl of great price, no matter the cost.

So, as I flew home on Wednesday night, I gave deep thanks for the work of the Spirit in our midst. I basked in the afterglow of new-found friendship. I rested in the knowledge that the God we serve is ever-faithful, ever-present, ever-guiding and guarding the church.

As the California ground got closer and closer, I marveled at the rich communion just enjoyed in Chicago, all of it centered around our shared commitment to the deep ways of God. I rejoiced in the wisdom of older saints, in the commitment of denominational leaders to finding new ways of going ‘higher up and further in,’ and the energy and probing thoughtfulness of the entire group. One woman ran a marathon on Sunday and flew west that night. One man participated in a spiritual directors’ graduation ceremony on Sunday and took the red-eye east to join us on Monday morning.

We all thought this was important work, creating the last in a set of three retreat options for the broader church, this one focusing on leaning into and learning from one another. That sense of shared values and high commitment fueled each piece of the discussion and experimentation of our time together.

Over the next two months, I must assemble all our notes, all our thoughts and prayers and goals and guesses into some sort of cohesive whole. This will be a work in progress for a number of months, with pilot experiences in the fall.

We hope to end up with something that encourages people to journey more deeply together. For if there is one thing I know at this end of life’s twists and turns, it is this: there truly are NO ‘Lone Ranger’ Christians. We need each other, we are better together, we are meant to be a living body of believers, connected 
by the binding, energizing power of the Holy Spirit, 
by the shed blood of Jesus Christ who shared our flesh, 
by the creative, living presence of Almighty God.

My deep thanks to Doreen Olson, Executive Minister of the Department of Christian Formation of the Evangelical Covenant Church, to Millie Lungren, Director of Covenant Resources and overseer for Prayer Ministries for the DCF, and to Diana Shiflett, spiritual director and Associate Pastor at Naperville Covenant Church, for her skill and grace in facilitating this experience.

The rest of our team consisted of:
Ron Ferguson, Associate Pastor, and spiritual director from Keene, New Hampshire
Jim Gaderlund, retired pastor, spiritual director, coordinator for Re-Visioning and Sabbath Retreats for the denomination from Mountain View CA
Letha Kerl, spiritual director and Regional Co-Director for Missions in Europe and Africa from Lyons, France and the Seattle area while on home assignment
John Kiemele, spiritual director, Founder and Director of Selah Contemplative Retreats, Seattle WA 
Becky Przybylski, Associate Pastor, Toledo OH
Michelle Sanchez, Associate Pastor, Medford MA, in training for spiritual direction 

I will be posting this with Michelle at Graceful, with Jen at Finding Heaven, with Laura at The Wellspring and with L.L. at Seedlings in Stone. You can find their buttons on the sidebar to the right.

The Source of Life…a Guest Post

I am writing with the good folks over at today about some of the words in 1 John 5…

When you stop to think about it, the longevity of the church of Jesus Christ is pretty remarkable. Over 2000 years and the church still stands, proclaiming the miracle of transformation through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Jesus – who was, is and will always be the Son of God, embodying for the world the essence of God’s love. Just last week – churches all over the world walked through Holy Week, climbing to the cross in remembrance of Jesus’ sacrificial death. And just yesterday, we celebrated the glory of the empty tomb – the perfect picture of the new life found in Jesus. The vitality of our story is unchanged over time; the center remains.
Because let’s face it, without Jesus right there at the center of it all – the church is not the church. And the writer of 1 John wants to remind these early believers to hang onto to Jesus for dear life. He writes from the loving heart of a concerned pastor, someone who cares deeply about the believers in and around Ephesus. And he writes to remind them to be the church…
Joining the Community Bible Study series on 1 John today – over at The Bible Dude’s good space. Join me over there to read this whole reflection?  


Say what? I’m preaching again, for the first time in 9 weeks, and I’m acutely conscious of how very rusty I am – especially when the assigned topic is the ascension…something I’ve never studied in detail and have reflected on very little in my lifetime. And I’m working off some painful comments from a friend who informed me, that while he remembers every sermon I’ve ever preached here, he thinks I’ve gotten too dependent on script and, as a result, have ‘tightened’ in the pulpit, rather than ‘loosened.’ Ouch.

Hmmm…I preach pretty sporadically – to be expected in the ministry of a part-time associate. And preaching is serious stuff – after all, you basically stand in the pulpit to proclaim the word of God. And at the end of the day, I am a dreadfully insecure and anxious person. Put it all together, and it spells WRITER’S BLOCK. Top that with soul-searching about whether or not to experiment with a completely new style/mode of presentation…and you have your basic 5-car pile-up.

Now I’ve made progress in the insecurity stuff. Grace has touched my life through scripture, prayer, therapy, good friends, loving family, words of affirmation here and there. But, if I cut to the chase – I’m still pretty much a basket case as I contemplate this calling God has sent my way. What in the world can I possibly say that hasn’t already been said and said a whole lot better elsewherer?? Nevertheless, the task is mine and the sermon must be written.

It never ceases to amaze me that the sermons I preach are always, and I do mean ALWAYS, preached to me first. Whatever the topic of the week may be – whether I’ve chosen the text or it’s been given to me – it seems as though the first work of the Spirit needs doing in me before I can even begin to contemplate unpacking the word for others. And this week has been a doozy – 3 car trips of 100 miles +, difficult crises in our wider family circle on multiple levels, tension and fatigue at home, most of it due to this crazy, over-long remodeling process, and interesting cross-currents at work. All of it combines to create a sense of helplessness and hopelessness in me, a deep-seated feeling of abandonment, loneliness and weariness. It seems I need a good dose of the ascension to remind me who I am and who I am not.

Luke is the only gospel writer to include any description of the ascension in his account of Jesus’ life. Mark has the story end with the women running in fear from the empty tomb; Matthew has the disciples gathering on a mountaintop in Galilee to hear the Great Commission, John has an encounter at the beach, where Jesus joins them in a fish barbecue. Luke is the only one to mention Jesus floating mysteriously upward, disappearing into heaven from a hill near Bethany, as the disciples worship him and then joyfully return to Jerusalem. It is only in Luke’s second volume – the book of Acts – that a little more detail is provided. Because it is Acts that tells the story of the Holy Spirit and of the church, and the ascension is a key piece in that larger narrative.

As Luke says in verse two of chapter one of Acts, the first book (the gospel) was ‘about all that Jesus began to do and to teach until the day he was taken up into heaven.’ All that Jesus began to do and to teach…implying that there is much more to tell, don’t you think? And somehow that bit about ‘until the day he was taken up into heaven’ is a kind of dividing line between that beginning (the gospel) and now (the book of Acts). Something happens in that strange, apparition-like moment. Something happens that changes the shape of the ministry of Jesus, but not the content. An important transition is being made, a re-formation of Jesus himself, in a sense, a transformation from a single adult male walking the dusty roads of Palestine in the 1st century world of the Roman Empire to a multi-faceted, multi-cultural, multi-ethnic, multi-multi organic union that surrounds the globe and transcends time.

I have a new Macintosh laptop computer, courtesy of the church. It is a wonderful little machine, the operative word for this story being ‘little.’ I am a large person, with big hands, and not a particularly light ‘touch.’ So I find using a pad to move the cursor awkward and difficult . I invested in a wireless mouse, which comes in two parts – the part you plug into the laptop that provides the signal, and the small mouse, which moves the cursor in a way that is easier for me to manage. Last night, I packed up my computer and took it home, thinking I might get some work done there. I packed up the plug-in device for the mouse, but not the mouse itself. The wireless sending device did nothing for me without that mouse, I’m sorry to say. It was back to the touch pad if I wanted to do anything on the computer. This afternoon, I came back to the office to work because it is quieter than the hammering going on at home. The mouse was right here, sitting on my desk. But….the sending device didn’t make it back into my bag, I am also sorry to say. I need both pieces to effectively work on this machine with ease and comfort, the one that sends the signal and the one that receives it.

In a very crude, analogous way, that’s what the ascension is at least partially about. The work of salvation for which Jesus came to the earth was completed by his ministry, his death and his resurrection from the dead. He accomplished the ultimate expresstion of God’s love for our broken and fallen humanity both on the cross and through the empty tomb. “It is finished,” Jesus cried from that cross. The job is done, the debt is paid, the love of God is spilt for the whole world to witness.

He did not say, “I am finished,” because he is not. Jesus is still at work in the world – only now the more hands-on part of that work is being done by the Spirit, in and through the church and the individuals who make up the body of Christ in this post-ascension age. In the gospel of John, Jesus tells his disciples that he must return to the Father (read ‘ascend to heaven’) so that the Comforter can come. And several of the epistles tell us that Jesus, in his resurrected and ascended humanity/divinity, is now seated ‘at the right hand of God,’ interceding for us, his church, as we continue to do the Jesus-stuff he commissioned us to do – announcing the kingdom of God, making disciples and working toward that day when God’s kingdom will be fully realized.

And how do we do this work? By the power of the Holy Spirit, that sweetly personal and fearfully omnipresent third person of the Trinity, sent with love by both Father and Son, to fill the saints with light in every generation. There is a beauty and a symmetry to this plan – a wonderful way in which the persons of the Trinity work together to make sure the ‘signal’ is made available to all of the body of Christ. You need the mouse, you need the transmitter, you need the computer to make it all work well. I’m going to stop there, rather than trying to pair images and lapse into either blasphemy or triviality! But i think you get the picture.

Jesus, in his magnificently glorified humanity (worthy of crown-wearing) breathes his life and teaching into the church through the Spirit, who moves unhampered by the limits of flesh in and amongst the millions of persons who together form Christ’s body here. And that together part is pretty key. In former times, the Spirit of God lit on individuals, anointed for specific, often short, periods of time to do special work. (Each of the judges, all of the prophets, an occasional king or two are noted as having the Spirit of God anoint them for very particular purposes.) Only after the completed work of Jesus, eternally incarnated in form, could the Spirit be released in multiplicity and in perpetuity to continue doing the work that the incarnate Jesus began. There are 11 of them gathered on that hillside in Bethany and there are at least 120 of them gathered in the upper room 10 days later when the Spirit descends in power to ignite the newly forming church of Jesus Christ. Wow! What a picture, what a truth.

So, after a particularly hairy week, this is very good news for me. Jesus is King, sitting at the right hand of God, praying for me (and, of course, the entire body of Christ :>). Praying for my daughter and her husband, praying for my mother and my brother, praying for our church, praying for all of the burdens I carry around, so often under the impression that they are mine to solve, to fix, to rescue. The ascension of Jesus reminds me, once again!!, that there is a God, a God who is sovereign, a God who is engaged with creation, a God who knows what it is like to wear this frail human frame, a God whose frail human frame has been transformed into that of an eternal co-regent with the Father who prays not only for me, but for all the church in every corner of this world, praying for the coming of the kingdom in each one of those corners.

And the ascension also reminds me that I am not alone, that I am never alone. God’s Spirit is with me – through the Word, through prayer and through the gathered body of Jesus, the church – that community that is flawed, imperfect, sometimes recalcitrant, often shortsighted and frequently prone to wander, yet still wondrously, miraculously, by the grace of God, the church, the together-people who form the body of Jesus to do the work of the kingdom on planet earth. Thanks be to God!