Dom Bede Griffiths, an English Benedictine, went to India, saying he was, “looking for the other half of [his] soul.” Something of the Christianity of his very English upbringing did not resonate fully. I’d venture Bede would have said the same about American Christianity. Something would have been missing for him. He would have gone to India, looking for the other half of his soul.
Bede often told a story that illustrated why he came to India. He talked about teaching elementary schoolers at a Catholic school, not long after arriving in India. He asked his class, about half Hindu and half Christian the simple question: “Where is God?”
The Christian children pointed up, toward heaven. The Hindu children pointed at their own hearts.
Where is God?
Today we celebrate the feast of the Ascension. We read about Jesus walking with his disciples to Bethany. The great work is done. Jesus has preached, and healed, and announced the reign of God. Jesus has set forth teaching about a way of living, a way of beloved community, that could change the world. In response the religious authorities and the Roman governor conspired to have him killed. He was executed on a cross. Three days later, God raised Jesus. He appeared to the disciples. Life won. Love won. Jesus met them at Galilee, back where it all began. The work is done. Now Jesus takes his leave. He tells the disciples to get to work. And Jesus is lifted up.
Supposedly Bishop Jack Spong was once talking with the astronomer Carl Sagan about the Ascension. As they were speaking, Sagan did some math in his head and told the Bishop: Even if Jesus’ velocity had increased to the speed of light, he hasn’t yet left the galaxy. He’s somewhere in the Milky Way.
That’s an astronomical take on the ascension. The image of Jesus’ being lifted up, has permeated our Christian consciousness. It’s all over Christian art. Even in our stained glass window there in the South Wall. Blonde-haired Jesus floats among the clouds. There are problems with the image, obviously. Jesus wasn’t German. But the biggest problem I want to approach today is the understanding that comes from images like this, the idea that is built into the ascension: hierarchy. Often the ascension is depicted and Jesus is at the top, and then there are angels, and then the disciples, and it flows dowon from there.
Hierarchy or Presence?
Rabbi Lawrence Kushner, scholar of Jewish mysticism explained the tension to Krista Tippett this way:
There are two ways to understand our relationship with God. I’m going to say right up front that they are both just metaphors, relax. The first one, picture a big circle, and the big circle represents God. And then picture below it a very tiny little circle. And that represents you in the world. And because the big circle is above the little circle, it’s naturally hierarchical, and therefore it’s generically masculine, and welcome to Western religion.
All of Western religions have this thing, “God’s up there and we are down here, and we talk to God, and God tells us what to do, blah, blah, blah.”
… Now I’m going to give you another metaphor. Just another metaphor, relax. Same big circle that represents God, but the only difference is that the little circle that represents you and me is inside the big circle. And that strikes us as a more Eastern model, but…it’s widely available in Western religious tradition as well. And the goal in that model is not to pray to God or have God tell you what to do, but to realize that you have been all along, contrary to all of your illusions, a dimension of the divine, and in moments of heightened spiritual awareness, the boundary line, which is the little circle defining you inside the big circle, momentarily is erased. Momentarily is blurred, and it’s no longer clear where you end and God begins.
I think the rabbi has something there. In the typical teaching of Christianity in the United States and Western Europe, we have been taught a hierarchy. Whether that is a church hierarchy, where we’ve been told to believe the teachings of a bishop, or a more evangelical sense of hierarchy, where we submit to the so-called “Biblical Truth” which stands over and above the ways of the world. God is above us, looking down, often disapproving.
Even some of the better intentioned Christian art includes this hierarchical assumption. Think of Bette Midler’s hit “From a Distance.” Great song, bad theology. God looks down. God is distant.
As Rabbi Kushner points out, the idea that God is close, God is here, God is present, you don’t need to go to so-called “Eastern” traditions to find this teaching. We’re not so different. God’s ongoing presence is part of our own tradition.
Why are you standing here, looking toward heaven?
After Jesus launches off the mountain in Bethany, an angel asks the disciples: “Galileans, why are you standing here, looking toward heaven?” Why are you staring at the clouds? Why do you keep looking up? God is not up there. God is coming down here. God is with us even now.
Our collect, the prayer at the beginning of the service, puts it this way. “Almighty God, whose blessed One our Savior Jesus ascended far above all heavens that he might fill all things.” Christ went up so that he might spread out. As the letter to the Ephesians has it, Christ “fills everything in every way.”
What would it mean to trust that Christ is present with us, not looking down from above. Not judging from heaven. Not even smiling down on us, but present with us? What would it mean, if we asked “Where is God,” and we pointed at our own hearts?
What if we trusted that we were, each of us, caught up in the life of God? How would we see ourselves? How would we see our neighbor? How would we see God?
Greatness isn’t about ascent, it’s about how you deal with imperfection.
One of the central tenants of Christianity, is this: greatness is not about ascent. Jesus often talked about this counter-intuitive greatness. The first shall be last and the last shall be first. As you do unto the least of these, you do unto me. For Jesus, there was a clear identification not with the exalted, but with the downtrodden.
This is the contradiction at the heart of our faith. We exalt a poor and broken savior. The one thing most of our Christian art gets right about the ascension is this: Jesus is risen with his scars. Even in our window, the painful wounds are there in Christ’s hands and feet. Marking that blonde haired Jesus. Even when we got things wrong, we didn’t get it all wrong.
For us directional humans, the Ascension holds a contradiction. Perfection comes with scars.
Richard Rohr, the Franciscan priest, writes in his book “Falling Up” about human perfection. He has this to say:
“If there is such a thing as human perfection, it seems to emerge precisely from how we handle the imperfection that is everyone, especially our own. What a clever place for God to hide holiness, so that only the humble and earnest can find it! A ‘perfect’ person ends up being the one who can consciously forgive and include imperfection rather than one who thinks he or she is totally above and beyond imperfection.”
Isn’t that true? In my life, the healthiest, happiest people, the people I most look up to, often have overcome the greatest odds. When we think about it, we don’t really admire the image of “success,” not really. What makes someone great is not the right job, the right car, the right house, the right spouse. What makes someone great is how they respond when the chips are down.
The Ladder of Success?
And, following Jesus, what makes someone great is how they treat their neighbor. We lift up, we follow a Savior who consciously identified with women, children, Samaritans, tax-collectors, outsiders. Jesus made all the wrong choices on the ladder of success. Yet he is lifted up.
Thomas Merton, the American monk, had a great saying about the “ladder of success.” He pointed out that we could spend our whole live climbing that ladder. We could spend our whole lives climbing the ladder of success, only to realize it was leaning against the wrong wall.
So quit climbing. Look down. You will find out you’re not so high up after all. Notice the people you have assumed were “beneath you.” Let them help you off that ladder, welcome you back to the common ground of being.
Christianity is a religion concerned with those at the bottom. Our faith believes God is there, among those who have been mistreated. Our faith asks us to listen to those who have been marginalized. If God is in my heart, then surely God is in the heart of the person next to me on the bus. God is there on the street corner. God is there with the person waiting to get into Planned Parenthood. God is with the people of Virginia beach, just the latest community to experience a mass shooting. God is with the suffering. God is with the outcast. God is with all of us.
Rethinking “Christian Politics.”
“Christian politics” so often invokes the hierarchical understanding of our relationship to God. So-called Christian lobbyists push for a legal framework which they believe comes down from on high. Gun ownership is a “god given right” and abortion and same-sex marriage are “contrary to God’s will.” These are the most salient issues for many who proclaim a so-called “Christian politics” today, and they are invoked as though God’s teaching can be known and should be brought down here to earth.
Let me offer another way of thinking about Christian engagement in the political realm. Professor Obery Hendricks likes to point out: The Gospels themselves are pretty fascinating documents. They are perhaps the best preserved and richest collections of stories, not just about Jesus, but also about the people Jesus associated with. The Gospels are filled with stories of the lower class of the Roman empire. Zealots, Samaritans, disabled folk, folks with developmental delays, women, slaves, they all have stories, and words in the Gospels. The Gospels tell the stories the official historians of Empire left out. This is a collection of stories about the people who were subjected to the power of the Rome. The Gospels lift up their voices, their role. The Gospels are about claiming space, claiming voice.
What if we saw the work of ascension differently?
What if we saw the role of Christians in our political landscape differently? What if the church were known for lifting up the voices, the stories, the political power, lifting up the votes, of those who are marginalized. What if the church were known for proclaiming the stories of women who weren’t allowed a choice? What if the church were known for lifting up the stories of those who have been trodden by our broken immigration system? What if the church claimed space in the public square for those who have been victims of gun violence? What if we stopped staring toward heaven, and instead, like Jesus, started lifting up our voices and the voices of our neighbors?
Bede Griffiths marveled at the faith of Hindu Children, who pointed to their own hearts when they were asked, “where is God?” Learning to trust that God is with us in an important first step, especially for those who have been mistreated. But what if we taught our kids, when we face the question “where is God” to keep moving their fingers? To point at their own hearts, and to point to their neighbors, to point to the homeless neighbors, to point to the trans folk leading the pride parade, to point to the women, organizing to be heard, to point beyond themselves. What if we trusted God had been lifted up, and that the work of God was to continue to lift up, to lift up the voices of those who suffer, of those who have much to teach? Perhaps then we might be able to better answer the question, “where is God?”