Jesus’ ascension receives little attention these days. The way we often tell the story, the whole affair is mostly anticlimactic. We tend to think of the ascension as this brief, strange moment when Jesus pulled off one last spectacular feat, vanishing into some distant place. Or worse, the story leaves us empty. What kind of good news is this? He simply bolts after promising a new life and a new world?
One evening, after everyone else in the neighborhood had packed off to bed, I walked into our backyard under a hazy, moonlit sky. None of the deer, rabbits, or squirrels that regularly parade across our lawn was there. There was only a brilliant full moon and dark silence. Due to my own internal noise and a hectic day, I hadn’t been aware of God’s presence. But there I was, suddenly immersed in gratitude and awe. I looked up at that magnificent sky and offered God two words: “Thank you.”
A poll released in early 2017 revealed that nearly one in five Americans define themselves as “spiritual but not religious.” Though it’s difficult to nail down what exactly that means, the phrase generally reveals a person’s subjective sense of some higher power or essence but no commitment to any tangible religious tradition or community.
Gordon Hempton, an acoustic ecologist who seeks to find and preserve that “one square inch of silence,” recounts how it typically goes when he takes someone into the Hoh Rain Forest in Olympic National Park (the place Hempton calls his “cathedral”). On the hike into the lush, dense timber, there’s often chatty conversation as they ease their way out of urban life and into an entirely other ecosphere. Yet on the return trek, after their encounter with God’s amazing creation, they share barely a word and even then only in whispers.
One of my favorite moments of the year is on Christmas Eve when, at the conclusion of our church’s candlelight service, we erupt with the powerful song “Joy to the World.” Because our church practices Advent (the four weeks leading up to Christmas) as a season of preparing our hearts to celebrate Jesus’ birth, we wait to unleash this song until that holy moment—then our voices raise the rafters. The song is the perfect conclusion to Advent, since joy is at the heart of everything Jesus does for us.
One summer break during college, I went with three friends to the Grand Canyon for a rim-to-rim hike. Carrying a sixty-pound pack through suffocating heat, we trekked mile after mile, snaking down the Kaibab Trail and across the scorching canyon floor. At one point, I blacked out and awoke moments later with my friends gazing down at me. They pulled me to a safe spot, took the pack off my back, and had me eat Starbursts candy (sugar was just what I needed). That escapade could have gone very differently if I’d been hiking alone!
In 2017, when a hurricane levelled the island of Puerto Rico, millions were without electricity, clean water, medicine, and food. And since most of the country’s mobile phone signal had gone down, the majority of people had no way to communicate. However, a pharmacy owner discovered that her satellite, intended for transmitting prescriptions, was still receiving a signal. For days, the woman’s neighbors lined up to call their friends and loved ones to let them know they were okay. This working phone tucked behind a pharmacy counter provided a lifeline. The phone didn’t mean they avoided hardship, but it did provide help as they endured the devastation.
Writing in the heat of the American Civil Rights Movement, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. penned words regarding how we must go about the work of justice: “I am concerned that Negroes achieve full status as citizens and as human beings here in the United States. But I am also concerned about our moral uprightness and the health of our souls. Therefore I must oppose any attempt to gain our freedom by the methods of malice, hate, and violence that have characterized our oppressors. Hate is just as injurious to the hater as it is to the hated. . . . Hate is too great a burden to bear.”
When I first recognized that the Psalms were not nearly as ‘tidy’ as I’d imagined—but were immensely human and raw—it opened up new ways for me to encounter God. While the Psalms provide us with words to express robust conviction, they also give us words—and permission—to express our doubts. When a child dies or a parent leaves or God seems a million miles away, the Psalms teach us how to gather our fears (not ignore them) and carry them to God.
When I graduated from university, I enrolled at a Bible college that was considered unacceptable by pastors who were friends of my dad (also a pastor). Some of the leaders criticized me for my choice while others looked with disdain on my dad because of my decision. In that circle, there was pressure to conform to the group’s opinion (always cast as God’s opinion).
I found myself in a tense, combustible situation—standing between two groups of angry people who were nose to nose, boiling over with rage and hatred. One group spewed vile, dehumanizing words at the other; then that group spewed vile, dehumanizing words back. In that volatile space, both groups completely lost perspective of the other’s humanity. Locked in an intractable posture of opposition, neither side would acknowledge any common ground. Neither side would consider there might be some way to resolve their differences or even begin any kind of constructive conversation. Both sides felt wronged and wanted only to punish their foe.
On 30 April 2019, Japan’s Emperor Akihito will mark his 85th birthday with a historic act: he will abdicate the throne, something that hasn’t happened in the nation for more than two centuries. While the emperor’s plans are controversial, the larger concern is that the royal line has a diminishing number of heirs, a situation that may eventually develop into a constitutional crisis. These realities are all the more unnerving because the Japanese dynasty is the oldest monarchy in the world, tracing its lineage back to the year 660.
Many years ago, a hurricane forced my wife Miska and me to evacuate a resort in Cancun, Mexico, where we were celebrating our tenth anniversary. On our way to the airport, I got lost and stopped for directions. Unfortunately, I couldn’t understand the people who tried to help since they were speaking in Spanish. Finally, I called a bilingual friend and had them talk to the clerk at a service station. Fortunately, we made it in time for the last flight out that day.