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Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Thinking About Suicide

Three events in the last few days have compelled me to consider the Church’s position on suicide. First, I was required to participate in a suicide prevention seminar developed by the Mississippi Department of Education. Secondly, I watched a Law and Order episode in which physician-assisted suicide was the issue at trial. Finally, Vermont’s legislative declaration on physician-assisted suicide was ratified on May 20th.

I personally have a hard time talking about suicide from a theologically informed perspective, a struggle that I share with the Church at large. It wasn’t too long ago that suicide was categorized as a mortal sin, an act equitable with murder in its danger.[1] Christians who ended their own lives were not permitted burial in their own parish cemetery because suicide cut them off from God, and therefore also cut them off from the blessings of the Church.

In a more contemporary frame of reference, my Baptist peers have said little on suicide, opting instead to stand on pro-life issues like abortion.[2] Further, advances in medical technology have allowed us to prolong the life of many who would have otherwise died of injuries or illness, therefore creating entirely new ethical dilemmas that are infrequently addressed by the Church.[3]

What has been on my mind in the last two weeks, though, is a question of foundations. What is the fundamental, ground level motivation that informs our opinion of suicide? Regardless of my position on abortion, euthanasia, the death penalty, or suicide, I have a fundamental assumption about human life. That assumption is grounded in the Christian doctrine of humanity usually referred to as Christian Anthropology.

Allow me to illustrate this idea by means of contrast. In my state-mandated suicide prevention workshop my colleagues and I were required to answer a “myth or fact” questionnaire about suicide and to watch and discuss a video addressing how to recognize suicidal tendencies among students.[4] The seminar was necessary and useful, especially in our school’s context.[5] A student’s friends and teachers are certainly the first line of defense against suicide and therefore need to be aware of warning signs and tendencies that might help counselors assist the student.

I came away from the seminar asking why; why should a school be so involved in protecting the lives of its students from self-inflicted harm?  The only answer that the video and accompanying discussion gave was that suicide is a liability to the school district and therefore should be avoided. That’s it. We must prevent suicide because the institution is liable for the lives of the students within it.

This is not the fault of the school, or the state. Public schools cannot approach suicide or other moral issues as the Church does, because at its heart the public school is a secular institution that cannot promote any particular view of humanity other than that permitted by the terms of the state. In short, liability is the rationale of the suicide prevention training I underwent because the categories within which the school operates are legal and financial. It is not the state’s prerogative to make statements about the value of human life; it is the state’s prerogative to maintain the state.

I applaud my school for being vigilant and for keeping a keen eye out for emotionally distressed students. I am led to wonder, though, just how the church’s treatment of suicide would be different in such a seminar given that the Church has a much different foundational belief system than “mere” liability.

The church treats suicide differently than a state institution because the church is built on the theological position that human life is better than human non-life. I chose these words because I have become convinced in recent days that the Church should be about the work of humanizing people, for no fewer than two reasons.[6]

First, the church has an authentic word to speak about the nature of humanity, a word that a state institution (by definition) cannot utter. The Church sees human beings as created in the image of God, and therefore treats people as beings of great worth to God. This is not the language of “you’ll throw your future away” or “you’ll hurt your friends and family;” rather, this is language of the inherent value of every human being beyond the financial or legal value they represent to an institution. If, as we believe, every human being is created in the image of God, and that every person is the object of Christ’s atonement, then the Church has a unique word to say to suicide and to end-of-life issues and all of the other ethical issues that surround those things.

Secondly, the Church has a word to say to the de-humanizing powers of the world that lead to non-life.  When Jesus said to his disciples that “the thief comes to only to steal and destroy; I have come that they may have life and have it more abundantly” he is talking about humanizing people.[7] The Church’s mission, at least in part, is to demonstrate that real life is possible through the relentless seeking after God. It is the Church’s mission to stand as a witness against those things that de-humanize people by calling their attention to the life-giving Creator and Savior.

We are helpless in the face of depression and circumstances that lead people to suicide without this foundation. We have nothing to say about the worth of human beings if we do not first say a word about their value as human beings rather than their value to society.  I do not fault the state for doing what it can; I challenge the Church, though, to do what it must.

[1] See Nichols, Terence, Death and Afterlife, Grand Rapids: Brazos, 2010.
[2] The great irony of the typical pro-life position is that it generally only concerns abortion and ignores the death penalty, euthanasia, and quality of life issues related to persistent poverty.
[3] See Soulen, Kendall R. and Linda Woodhead, God and Human Dignity, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2006. Also, we recall the Terri Schiavo case ( and the Kavorkian case (
[5] See my previous post, “On Hope and Disappointment” for a glimpse of our school’s operations.
[6] Thanks to Chuck Poole for his recent sermon “A Little Lower Than God” delivered at Northminster Baptist Church in Jackson, Mississippi.
[7] John 10:10.

Sunday, May 19, 2013

What Was Accomplished at Pentecost?

What Was Accomplished at Pentecost?
Delivered at Madison Chapel, Madison, MS
Pentecost Sunday

            In his 2003 book Their God is Too Small, Bruce Ware counters what he sees as a troubling theological trend in the doctrine of God, namely, Open Theism.[1] Without parsing this esoteric theological position, suffice it to say that Ware considered the “openness” of God too undefined and unbounded to be an accurate depiction of the God of Jesus Christ as revealed in Scripture.
            Ware and others like him find more theological stability in the certainties of God, especially those certainties that are deduced from a propositional interpretation of Scripture. This is the “the Bible says it, I believe it, that settles it” crowd. Everything in Scripture is neatly laid out for us like a cross between a how-to manual and a 9th-grade novel.
            However we interpret sacred Scripture, though, we must approach any reading, study, or sermon with humility. Whether God is too big to not know the future or whether God is too small when we reduce God to propositions about God in Scripture will not be settled in this life. What must be the case for us is that we leave room for the Spirit of God to do the unexpected among and within us when we pray, preach, or meditate.
            Today is Pentecost, celebrated around the world as the “birthday of the Church.” It is the inauguration of the Spirit’s presence with the believers and was marked by the miraculous events that took place in Jerusalem on that day. It is the day of the first great revival, we might say, since so many people were added to the church’s number on that day, although something tells me there was no giant tent involved.
            In many cases we understand that Pentecost was at the same time a beginning and as a completion. We read the story of the outpouring of the Holy Spirit and see that Luke uses this event to springboard the narrative of the spread of the Gospel. Pentecost drives the missionary movement of the New Testament from the travelogues of Acts to the Epistles.
            Pentecost is also read as a completion of sorts. For many prominent Biblical scholars, the events at Pentecost are the reversal or the completion of the events at Babel in Genesis 11. Whereas God confuses the language of the people trying to “make a name” for themselves at Babel, God pours out his Spirit on the disciples so that everyone can understand God’s saving work. Many, like Ware who was mentioned above, see the events of Pentecost as a fulfillment, as a tidying up of the loose ends created by sin in the first pages of Scripture. This view envisions the redemptive work of God in the shape of a parabola, or “U.” We started in the pristine Garden, sinned and fell down low, then were offered salvation through Jesus Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection. The impartation of the Spirit was the penultimate restoration of God’s presence with people, only to be eventually outdone by the day when “all things are made new.”

            Let’s step back from this for a moment. As a former student of English literature, I can appreciate a good narrative arc as well as anyone. Yet when we allow the narrative of Scripture to so tightly define God I fear we enclose our expectations of just who God is and what God can do. When we say that Pentecost = Babel in the same way that we read Paul arguing that Old Adam = New Adam we run the risk of putting all of God’s redemptive work in the past tense, something to be believed and acknowledged mentally and perhaps emotionally, but never experiencing for ourselves.
            Notice the details of Babel and Pentecost. In the story of Babel we first learn of a unity of language, God intervenes and confuses their language, and eventually the people all go their separate ways. The flow of that story is from unity toward diversity. In the Pentecost narrative, God’s intervention also causes confusion among the crowd. At the beginning they "were all together in one place," presumably speaking the same language. At the end, these same people are speaking a variety of languages, and they have caused confusion and even division among those who hear them. Again the flow seems to be from unity toward diversity.
            Certainly the ability of the disciples to proclaim the Gospel in many languages is the plan for God’s redemptive work, but let us not be so quick to conclude that God has undone God’s previous action at Babel. Rather than unifying the languages and the understandings of the people at Pentecost, God built into the shape of the Church a fundamental diversity. This fundamental diversity was, at its heart, the beginning of a new unity in the Gospel.
            What does language do for us? It is a necessary and essential part of our humanity in that to communicate is part of the essence of being us. To speak is to give meaning, to define reality, to create, to destroy. Language is the ultimate marketplace; we use words to express what we feel and think in hopes that we have enough of a shared vocabulary to convey meaning to someone else.
            Language is therefore both unifying and diversifying. In the Babel narrative, the confused languages of the people prevented them from cooperation in their great task, leading them to for tribes among themselves and define borders and nations and governments and Departments and the like. So profound was the experience of Babel that later the author Josephus would cite that event as the starting point for the nations of the world in his own day.[2] The diversity of language at Babel led to diversity and ultimately a segregation of ideas and expression.
            We must not vilify diversity, though, for it is the tool through which the Spirit operates at Pentecost. As we have seen, the Spirit works in both stories as an agent of diversity out of unity, a reversal of our tried-and-true “E Pluribus Unum.” The diversity of Pentecost serves to demonstrate that the Gospel is bigger than the borders and systems that the world creates in the name of our “language barriers.” Gonzalez artfully describes what happens at the Spirit’s outpouring, ““In Babel, God intervenes to confuse the unity of a rebellious humanity. In Pentecost, God's intervention confuses the unities that empire has built. What is new about Pentecost is not that they all speak the same tongue. They do not. What is new about Pentecost is that God blesses every language on earth as a means for divine revelation, and makes communication possible even while preserving the integrity of languages and cultures.”[3]
            God blesses the diversity because the Gospel will be advanced regardless of what our little tribes may do. The Gospel trumps even our attempts to define reality through our language; rather than taking over the speech of humankind God transcends our provincialism with the Spirit!
            God blesses unity through the diversity that we naturally create with our languages and cultures and political parties and social barriers. Pentecost obviously did not unify humanity either in language or in intention – that would have been a true reversal of Babel – but instead demonstrated how humanity does not need to be of the same tongue to be of the same Spirit! We may go so far as to say that unity is not something that the Church does on its own, but that through the events of Pentecost is has been demonstrated that unity is God’s desire for the whole of Creation. There will be diversity and diversity is good, but it is unity in the Spirit that drives the redemptive plan of God.
            I would point out that in the Pentecost passage there are also those good Baptists observers who sneer at the preaching of the disciples.  Why can’t they see that a miracle has happened? Gonzalez is helpful here, too, “Those who sneer do so because they do not see the miracle. They do not see the miracle, because to them there is nothing extraordinary happening. There is nothing extraordinary happening, because to them being able to understand what is being said is not unusual. All hear what is being said in their own native tongues. So do these mockers. But they don't see the miracle, precisely because they are natives. They are used to hearing everything in their own native tongue.”[4] Those of us who are so accustomed to hearing about the Spirit moving and the work of God are often those who ignore the Spirit’s actual moving and working. We are “those who know it best” and are “hungering and thirsting to hear it like the rest.”[5]
            We become “natives” when we become the very provincial disciples who are separated by language and culture and habit from the rest of the world. It is not enough to be “missional” or “ecumenical;” we must intentionally and constantly examine what we are assuming in our evangelism and just what Gospel we are proclaiming. Is it our provincial, American understanding of the Gospel? Are we practicing colonialism in our mission strategies?[6] Are we the very “Gospel natives” that sneer and call the Spirit-filled disciples drunk?
            Let us be people of Pentecost, then, who understand that God’s work is not to baptize and beatify our social constructs, even our church constructs. The work of God is to bring about the redemption of all creation through the Spirit. We, though agents of that redemption in a way, do not have the privilege of defining what the Spirit does or says by our own provincial understanding of the Gospel. We cannot enforce uniformity on a culture that tends toward destructive, sinful diversity in the name of a God who “tidies up” everything with the Spirit.
No, we serve a God who tends toward human diversity through the unity of the Spirit. The same Spirit that blew at Pentecost blows today. The same fire that ignited the Church sparks within our fellowship this morning. We are sent out, across boundaries and beyond the resistance of language and culture, to proclaim that God is at work redeeming all of creation. We go, separated by our own tribal assumptions and cultural lenses, knowing that there will come a day when we shall “know fully” what we “now only know in part.”
Gonzalez concludes, saying, “At Pentecost, the Spirit gathers those whom the Spirit will also disperse in preparation for a greater gathering.”[7] Until the day of that great gathering, let us find ways to proclaim the Lordship of Christ in words, gestures, and symbols as diverse and powerful as those at Pentecost. Let us be blown from this place by the wind of the Spirit like embers of God’s love. Amen.

[1] Ware, Bruce; Their God is Too Small: Open Theism and the Undermining of Confidence in God, Wheaton, Il: Crossway, 2003.
[2] Antiquities 1:109-147.
[3] Gonzalez, Catherine and Justo, “Babel and Empire: Pentecost and Empire,” Journal for Preachers, 16 no. 4, p. 22-26.
[4] Ibid.
[5] “I Love to Tell the Story”
[6] Thanks to Carlie Gray for being the presence of Christ for me this week and shaking my understanding of missions.
[7] Gonzalez, 26.

Friday, May 17, 2013

On Hope and Disappointment, or, "I Know the Guy Who Made the Bomb Threat"

It is public knowledge now that one of my students, Rae’Jonn Higginbottom, was arrested on Thursday by a combined team of Clinton Police and the FBI in connection with the bomb threats that were called in concerning Clinton High School. Just an hour before he was picked up he was sitting at my side doing Algebra 2, wrapping up his last assignments before the end of the year. He had picked up his cap and gown the night before.

Rae’Jonn is now held by Clinton Police on $100,000 bail, which he certainly will not be able to meet. Therefore he will sit in jail awaiting the conclusion of the investigation that will certainly lead to more arrests and will miss the graduation that he was so excited to experience. It is as though one stupid decision, a prank, has dissolved all of the work that he and I have done this semester.

For a little context, let me explain the situation at the Clinton Alternative School. Many public school districts have an alternative education program that meets the needs of the district in educating students in need of remediation and in situations when certain students will do better academically if they are in a much smaller class or separated from their peers. Our school provides both of those services.

Our faculty is composed of the most patient, resourceful, and nurturing teachers in the district. At any given time one of my fellow educators could be responsible for a class of students working in many different courses. For example, at one point in my regular day, I have a class of eight students, three of whom are in Algebra 1, one working on Geometry, two practicing Algebra 2, and two studying Transitions to Algebra. Each gets a lesson and assignments, and each is expected to make significant progress each week toward completing their course.

Of course there is more to it than just small, mixed-discipline classes. At the heart of the Alternative School is the student body, which is composed of those who have fallen behind for various reasons, those who have been incarcerated, those who are otherwise unable to learn in a traditional classroom, and those who are transitioning into the district mid-year. One of the great ministries of our school is our participation with the Methodist Children’s Home. Several MCH residents have attended our school to become acclimated to Clinton Public Schools and have then transitioned into their appropriate campus. I’m very proud of the work we’re able to do with these students.

The summary of this context is this: in our building we are all ministers, counselors, experts in our disciplines, and, above all, conveyors of human dignity. Ours are the students who need the most care, the most patience, and the most attention. Ours is the task of the long-suffering teacher who must find appropriate expectations for these students and work and work and work to see them succeed. Above all, we are a faculty established on hope.

As I consider the circumstances of Rae’Jonn’s prank call that has landed him in jail facing federal charges, I’m caught between the hope that is inherent in the mission of our school and the disappointment of the reality of many of our students, especially Rae’Jonn.

The Scriptures declare that hope is one of the three great features of the Gospel[1], and that hope is instrumental in the Christian understanding of faith itself.[2] We often trumpet hope as the great ally of the believer in the face of trial or suffering. We sing about how our hope is built on nothing less than Jesus’ blood and righteousness. We hope for glory[3] and even for salvation.[4] The Church, then, trades on hope; in the midst of a world groaning under the weight of sin and need for salvation the Church stands as a witness to the hope that all is not lost.

I think, though, that believers should practice a little hope-as-protest.

Hope is defiant. It is contrary. Hope is against the status quo and keeps one eye on the horizon. Hope is the realist’s impression of events painted with colors that seem more cheerful than they need be. Hope is having 40 acres of the worst land in the state and sowing seed anyway.

Hope is not impervious, though, at least in the human heart. Disappointment is one manifestation of the many things that combat hope in my soul, much like grief and pessimism do. Disappointment is the substitution of an unexpected reality in the place of a well-constructed optimism. It is the pouring in of our time, effort, and prayers for a student who is a hair’s breadth away from graduating against all odds only to have that opportunity snatched away by that same student’s foolhardy choices.

I am disappointed. I love Rae’Jonn and the rest of my students, and I earnestly pray for them daily. We have seen so many students fall away from their academic path this year; those who remain are like those soldiers who have survived a firefight and are almost home again.

Can the Christian honestly feel disappointment and hold to faith, hope, and love simultaneously? Yes. I am personally caught in the tension between those two poles, knowing that there is nothing I can do to bring Rae’Jonn back to school and also hoping for him and praying for his success and that he encounters the living God.

I think of the story of Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead.[5] In that narrative we can feel the tension between disappointment and hope laid out for us as plain as day. We learn that Jesus wasn’t far from the dying Lazarus.[6] Further, Martha, sister to the dead Lazarus, passively blames Jesus for allowing her brother to die.[7] In that moment between Jesus promising Martha that her “brother will rise again…I am the Resurrection and the Life; he who believes in me will live even if he dies, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die”[8] and Lazarus actually stumbling out of his four-day-old tomb, Martha must have experienced the soul-stretching doublethink that hope and disappointment can synthesize.

We must find a way to protest against the darkness with hope as though we were participating in a spiritual sit-in. Hope is found in that moment when our work has evaporated and we yet persist in our prayer and faith. Hope is a rallying cry in the face of folly at the federal level. Hope as protest lives in the tension between reality and our Spirit-enabled vision of the way things could be. On the one hand is the reality, a reality that threatens to break the armor hope provides. On the other is the hope of those who believe Jesus’ words and resurrection. In this middle ground we are often left saying, “God have mercy.”

That’s where I am today; caught between hope and hell.  God have mercy.

[1] See 1 Corinthians 13.
[2] See Hebrews 11:1.
[3] See Ephesians 1:12 and Colossians 1:27.
[4] See 1 Thess. 5:8.
[5] See John 11.
[6] Cf. John 11:18.
[7] Cf. John 11:21-22.
[8] John 11:23-26.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Apparently I'm Not a Baptist

I learned today, somewhat to my surprise, that I’m not a Baptist. The surprise came because I’m an ordained Baptist minister, a graduate of a Baptist Seminary, the son of a Baptist pastor, the grandson of a Baptist pastor, and because I have 31 years of experience in Baptist life. I learned the hard way, though, that these things are not enough to make one a Baptist, much to my chagrin.

The source of my revelation was an article[1] by Dr. Kevin McFadden, formerly of Louisiana College. He was one of the three professors at that school who had their contracts “not renewed,” a thinly veiled attempt to fire those who didn’t toe the political line of the administration and trustees of LC. His firing is unfortunate and demonstrates the continuing cannibalistic nature of fundamentalism in the SBC. Once the moderates were excluded, there was nothing left to do other than to exclude those who were less doctrinally pure than those in power. McFadden was let go because he held to a particular theological position that is well within the bounds of Orthodox Baptist life, namely Calvinism. However, it has been made clear by reports in Baptist media and from personal conversations with at least one now-disenfranchised Trustee of LC that politics was the issue more than theology.

Yet it is theology that McFadden claims to be the cause of his dismissal. In his article the professor explains a three-tiered approach to theology. His hope is to demonstrate that there are some things at the foundational level of faith, specifically, those things that lead to Christian orthodoxy. The other two levels of theology are, in McFadden’s mind, less important than the first. He comments, “Not every disagreement over doctrine is important. Some are more important than others.” He leaves room for disagreement over non-essential doctrines, which is essentially his plea for academic freedom in his now-vacant post at LC.

McFadden’s argument betrays his position, though. He contends that Calvinism (not Hyper-Calvinism, which he claims is not an authentic Baptist position) is Biblical and in line with historic Baptist principles. However, to support this position McFadden does not rely on Calvin, Zwingly, Luther, Mullins, or even Scripture to make his point; rather he relies on his theological position being consonant with the Baptist Faith and Message 2000. He says, “The Baptist Faith and Message comes from a line of Calvinist confessions, rooted in the Second London Baptist Confession and the Westminster Confession of Faith. This is our theological history as Southern Baptists. Our confession has been modified over the years to allow views that don’t fit strictly within the Reformed tradition, but it was certainly never modified to exclude Calvinists, because the current revision of the Baptist Faith and Message included five-point Calvinists on the committee. You can be a Calvinist or a non-Calvinist and be a Southern Baptist. Both views are permitted under the umbrella of our confession.”

This is an unfortunate move, but it is telling of McFadden’s real point. McFadden and the other professors who were let go are victims of political maneuvering rather than theological boundary setting. By relying on the BF&M McFadden is attempting to restore his SBC orthodoxy in the eyes of those who fired him.

Here’s where I learned that I’m not a Baptist. In his argument about theology (which is really about politics within the Convention), McFadden describes his position within the faculty of LC. He says, “…not every teacher at Louisiana College has to agree with the second level doctrines—that is, you don’t have to be a Baptist to teach here. However, to teach in the religion department, you have to agree with everything in the Baptist Faith and Message. In other words, you have to be a Baptist.” To be a Baptist, therefore, is to adhere to the Baptist Faith and Message, and to be a Baptist professor at LC is to teach from that perspective.

As a believer who cannot place a “confession” over the Spirit-revealed truth of Scripture that is expressed and made real in the person of Jesus Christ, I have a hard time framing my life of faith in terms of the BF&M, especially on the sections that are contrary to historic Baptist principles of church polity and autonomy. I must, therefore, not be a Baptist.

In a pitiful attempt to reclaim some ground in the eyes of his political persecutors McFadden comments “the Baptist Faith and Message explains the doctrines which are important for us to agree upon so that we can work together in churches and as a denomination. It also allows disagreement on other doctrines that are not as important. It protects us from forcing others to agree with our theological pet-peeves and from being forced to agree with the theological pet-peeves of others.” Unfortunately, as he demonstrated in his citations of Creedal statements in his article, pet peeves are the forte of such statements. As he has learned the hard way, theological orthodoxy is a fire that will burn even those who think they are a part of the pure crowd.

Maybe I can still be a Baptist in spite of McFadden’s confession that to be a Baptist means to adhere to the BF&M. Maybe he meant that you can’t be a Southern Baptist without such slavish adherence. Certainly there are faithful Baptists who thrive in both ecclesial and academic circles without need for that document!

I find confidence in the fact that I can be a Baptist without the BF&M, and, in fact, can be a more spiritually and intellectually honest one in such a state. The real issue here is not theology, creedalism, or even foundational Baptist principles. Instead, the issue is how we use magisterial documents as litmus tests for orthodoxy rather than the testimony of transformed hearts and lives by the Spirit of God.
McFadden’s conclusion is telling of this point. He recognizes the inherent danger of the Fundamentalist position within the SBC. He calls it the “conservative resurgence,” but he’s living out the fundamentalist takeover. Sadly, he probably never thought he’d be a victim. Here is his conclusion in full:

“And this is what some who opposed the conservative resurgence in the Southern Baptist Convention prophesied would happen. They said in effect that if you cause divisions over first level doctrines, then the divisions will never stop. This prophecy is beginning to come true. I hope you will see that the situation at Louisiana College didn’t have to happen, and it doesn’t have to happen in the future.”

No, it doesn’t. Faithful Baptists have known that for decades, and we’ve found faithfulness to God through Jesus Christ. I pray that the bloodshed will cease and that theological, intellectual, and political freedom will once again be the theme of Baptist life at LC and in our nation. As for me, I’m a Baptist. God have mercy.


Saturday, May 11, 2013

On the Ascension of the Lord

On the Ascension of the Lord
Delivered at Madison Chapel, Madison, MS
The Seventh Sunday of Easter
Mother's Day

            My mother is a wanderer.  She is one who can lose herself in the going and the watching and the looking around the corner. Her wanderlust was always getting me into trouble, too: when we would go to a store together she would inevitably wander off when I went to get something to contribute to our basket, causing me to learn a weekly ritual of part panic and part comic frustration. I would find her in some random section of the market, breathe out a sigh of relief, and latch on to her for the remainder of the trip.
            On some of those days I’d be able to find her by looking up and down every aisle of the store or in every section or garment rack. Other times I’d be able to quickly find her by a unique sound she would make when she coughs. It’s a sound that has been in my ear since I was very small, and it served then and now as a disembodied marker of my mother’s presence.
            There are many was in which my mother’s voice, too, has set up a residence in my mind. No one in this world reads Scripture aloud like she does. When I hear someone read Luke chapter 2 in December it conjures the sounds of Carol Ann reading about the birth of Jesus with authority and tenderness. In more ways than one, her voice has become a presence in my own mind, reminding me of how precious and tender the Scriptures are.
            We joke that the voices of our parents are in our heads and occasionally on our tongues as we grow into adulthood. Sometimes we’ll use a phrase that has no meaning in our own generation or use a tone of voice that we were all too familiar with as children. Other times mom or dad might play the role of Jiminy Cricket when we’re about to make a questionable decision.
            Our best psychologists and sociologists point out that the process of parenting is to gradually separate children from their parents into adulthood where they can be independent and autonomous. While parenting styles widely differ, it is certainly the case that parents are concerned with the formation of identity within their children that is (in varying degree) disjoint from their own. One recent article in the New York Times Sunday Review concluded that, “by all means, parents, help your children. But don’t let your action replace their action. Support, don’t substitute. Your children will be more likely to achieve their goals — and, who knows, you might even find some time to get your own social life back on track.”[1]
            It is this idea of a separate identity that is so difficult. The years of experience and knowledge and wisdom that parents have relative to their children makes fostering autonomy that much harder. I would rather allow my children to walk protected in my shadow than to have them suffer the slings and arrows of this life. But that must not be. It is a detestable thing to smother the image of God made real in a child in the name of the parent’s own inability to separate their identity from their offspring’s.

Our congregation has explored this idea of identity separate from parents and from children through the insightful work of Richard Rohr in his little book Falling Upward.”[2] While not specifically a text on the nature of parenting, Falling Upward reminded us that the first stage of our lives is the creation of a container, that is, an identity that we progressively define as independent and autonomous people. The second half consists of living out of the resources we’ve poured into that container, be they time, money, education, family, or whatever else makes us who we are.[3] So many of us are stuck in the first phase of Rohr’s schematic, handicapping our identities and our spiritual maturity as well.

The Ascension of the Lord is precisely about this issue of identity. Certainly the event of Christ’s departure from our sight and his seating “at the right hand of the Father” is a historical, theological, and spiritual event, but we are greatly helped in our discipleship to see the Ascension as a necessary event in the birth and progress of God’s redemptive plan for humanity.
            Consider the first-century experience of those following Jesus. They had been called by him, seen his miracles, heard his teachings, witnessed his crucifixion and experienced his resurrection. The Lord himself sums up these things, saying "This is what you have heard from me; for John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now…and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth."[4] And in another place, saying, “Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things. And see, I am sending upon you what my Father promised; so stay here in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high.”[5]
            He has set the stage for the disciples to receive the Holy Spirit and begin the spread of the Gospel to all the nations. But the critical moment of the identity of the believer is also here, buried in the implication of Jesus’ words. As long as Jesus remains with the disciples, whether in his pre-crucifixion state or his post-resurrection form, the movement that would one day be called the church could not exist. So long as the disciples knew Jesus as the wise rabbi whom they followed and to whom they listened was present with them, they had neither need nor desire to depart from him. He was the Way, Truth, and Life; he was the Vine; he was the Good Shepherd. So long as he was with them they would be, at most, a congregation in Jerusalem following the Lord on his itinerant ministry.
            The nature of Christian discipleship in the ministry of Jesus was limited by the disciples’ understanding of just what constituted a disciple. They understood a “follower of Jesus” to be, quite literally, one who had followed Jesus and experienced his teaching and miracles.[6] Even those who had not committed their entire lives to Jesus’ itinerant ministry could be considered disciples if they had been involved in the Jesus Movement temporarily.[7] Discipleship meant proximity to the master, and as long as Jesus was present with his disciples that is all it could be.
            What the Ascension of the Lord does is revolutionize the potential of the Gospel. In no way does the Ascension add to or take away from the saving power of the Cross or the confirmation of Jesus’ divine identity in the Resurrection. Rather, the Ascension is a necessary corollary to those crucial events. Consider the ministry of Jesus after the resurrection without the Ascension: the disciples’ minds would be opened to the Scriptures, but they would have no need to preach such an understanding. Instead, curious seekers could attend the next seminar put on by the increasingly popular resurrected Jesus. The people would have ultimately tried to “make him king by force” and possibly would have started a revolution more serious than what eventually led to the destruction of Jerusalem.[8]
            No, the glorious Ascension of the Lord was absolutely necessary for the fulfillment of God’s plan of redemption for the entire world. His disciples, whom we find gawking at the heavens[9] and worshipping the Lord as he goes,[10] are forced to reinterpret what being a disciple means as soon as they lose sight of the Master. We find them in the spiritual tension between the power of the Lord’s resurrection and the fulfillment of Jesus’ promise to send the Holy Spirit. Wayne Weissenbuehler comments that, “By uniting what precedes and follows it, the ascension is a signal of both continuity and discontinuity. It is the same Jesus who began to do and to teach who now continues in the proclamation and deeds done in his name. Now, however, the manner of his relationship to the mission of the Kingdom of God is through the Holy Spirit and the witness of the apostles. The continuity and discontinuity must be clearly seen if the mission is to remain on track.”[11]
            How the disciples will respond to the absence of Christ’s presence will define how the Church will exist for the next 2000 years. The struggle to understand their identity as followers of the Way is wrapped up in their heartfelt desire to see Israel restored and the Day of the Lord to arrive; it is mixed in with their terror of being left alone knowing that they do not clearly understand what it means to be “baptized with the Holy Spirit.” Weissenbuehler continues, “The apostles must be turned from a longing for consummation and for fulfillment of their needs to the need and plan of Christ's intended mission and their place in it.”[12]
            How will the disciples reinterpret their roles in Christ’s absence? Clearly they cannot follow Jesus around the Sea of Galilee anymore; he has gone from their sight and will not return for a long time. Certainly they cannot rely on him to clean up their messes or ineptitude as they did before.[13]They have been ordered to remain in Jerusalem until the Holy Spirit comes upon them, at which time they will not only be informed about the work of the Gospel, but also empowered to complete such a transformative task.
            We join with the disciples in this already-and-not-yet moment between our experiences with the risen Christ and the fulfillment of his promises. We wait, not on the coming of the Holy Spirit, but on the consummation of all things under the rule of Jesus Christ who will certainly come in glory in the same way he departed. We live in this undetermined state; we are on one moment the inheritors of the triumphant name that is above all names and in the next we are the harried, hurried, and harassed disciples waiting on the Master to show us the most excellent way. We must hear the words of Paul writing to those first generations of Christians as he earnestly prays that they would receive a “spirit of wisdom and revelation as you come to know him, so that, with the eyes of your heart enlightened, you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance among the saints, and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power for us who believe, according to the working of his great power.”[14]
             A disciple must learn to form their identity in a way separate from the immediate presence of the risen Lord. A disciple must learn to shape an identity through the working of the Holy Spirit that will surely come upon the Church and imbue each believer with that sweet priesthood which helps us to work out, with fear and trembling, what our hope of salvation really means. The disciples living in a time without the physical Jesus must learn a new way to be believers. We must learn to mature into spiritual adulthood without the constant presence of Jesus by our side.
            But how? Surely spiritual adulthood is too lofty a goal to attain by walking the Way without the Master. In a culture such as ours when being young at heart usually means being immature in spirit, we are called to do what seems impossible. Even our beloved Protestant identity is becoming more and more ossified in youth, creating “a self-centered, emotionally driven, and intellectually empty faith.”[15]
            The Church needs more mature believers who have invested the hard time of what Rohr would describe as building and filling the container of our spiritual identity. We need to be nurtured by our spiritual elders and by our communities of faith toward the fullness of the spiritual life that is made possible through Christ.
We can confidently take on this task, for we are surely not alone. No, Jesus’ Ascension did not end God’s work among humankind; the Ascension of the Lord provided a necessary and strategic point of maturation for the disciples.  Just as so many are even now graduating from various schools and preparing for college, career, seminary, or whatever is next, so, too, does the Ascension mark a transition, a maturation, a graduation in our relationship to God and God’s great work. To see it though, Jesus promised the Holy Spirit. To see us through, we have not been abandoned but have rather been empowered and equipped by that same Holy Spirit to fulfill the work of Jesus Christ, that same work so faithfully reported to us by Luke and the others.

The Ascension of the Lord is a hinge-point for disciples. It is that historical moment when the Church begins to realize that things will not be business as usual, that it is time to begin living out of a “second-half” pattern of life. Further, the Ascension also serves as a spiritual metaphor for disciples today. We came to faith through the knowledge and spiritual testimony of the Cross and the Resurrection; we came to faith through the Gospel. As we mature from that moment of belief we are pulled forward, pulled onward into spiritual maturity. We cannot stay at the kerygma, that proclamation of the fallen state of humanity and our need for a Savior. As comfortable as such a place is, as familiar as it is, we cannot stay. We must, must “come to know him” and move ever closer toward maturity in Christ.
But we are not alone. Even in our spiritual adulthood we hear the voice of that Holy Spirit and feel that Holy breeze along our journey. We must find the spiritual maturity to wander, knowing that our motherly God has gone before us and who, if we listen, will sound out telltale notes of the Spirit that we may find our way. Thanks be to God for a mother who taught me these things even before I was ready to know them. Amen.

[2] Rohr, Richard; Falling Upward, San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2011.
[3] See Rohr, chapter 1, “The Two Halves of Life.”
[4] Acts 1:4-8.
[5] Luke 24:46-49.
[6] See Wilkins, Michael, Following the Master, Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1992, 98-121.
[7] Ibid. See also Wilkins, Michael, The Concept of Disciple in Matthew’s Gospel, Leiden: Brill, 1988.
[8] Cf. John 6:15.
[9] Acts 1:10-11.
[10] Luke 24:52-53.
[11] Weissenbuehler, Wayne, “Acts 1:1-11,” Interpretation, 46 no. 1, 1992, p. 61-65.
[12] Ibid.
[13] Cf. Mark 9:14-29
[14] Ephesians 1:17-19.
[15] Bergler, Thomas E., “When Are We Going to Grow Up? The Juvenalization of American Christianity,” Christianity Today, 56 no. 6, 2012, p. 18-24.