May 30, 2019
Jesus said to them, “Stay here in the city until you have been clothed from power from on high.”
One of my favorite poems is called “Imperatives,” by Kathleen Norris. Norris read the gospels in search of Jesus’ imperatives, or commands, sprinkled throughout his teachings. These are the things that Jesus told us to do, such as: Look at the birds; consider the lilies; stretch out your hand; enter by the narrow gate; do not be anxious; rise; love; forgive.
To that list of imperatives, the Feast of the Ascension adds another: stay here until you have been clothed with power from on high. That is, stay where you are until you receive the clarity, direction, and power that you need to move forward. You don’t have that clarity, direction and power yet. Until you do, stay put.
The context for this command is the luminous time shortly after the resurrection when Jesus had a way of appearing or showing up with and among his disciples. They were in an upper room, or on the road to Emmaus, or on the shores of Lake Galilee, and suddenly there he was. He was present, assuring them, against all evidence to the contrary, that God was in charge and all was well.
But then the time came for this phase of their relationship to end and for another to begin. “You will receive power from the Holy Spirit, and you will be my witnesses to the end of the earth,” he told them. “But stay here in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high.”
At its simplest level, the command is to wait. But it’s not like waiting for a movie to begin. This is waiting for the things beyond our reach, those things that exceed our capacity to make happen and are far from inevitable. It is waiting for what we cannot as yet see. To make it even harder, we’re waiting for this new thing while at the same time something familiar and even precious to us is ending. There we are—in the in-between time. It can be unsettling, as we feel the past slipping away while the future remains unclear.
The waiting can take many forms. Maybe we’re wrestling with an urgent question that’s really bothering us inside or causing conflict with others, but it isn’t one that we can easily resolve. Answers to urgent questions rarely come easily or quickly, no matter how hard we seek them. Thus we have no choice but to live with difficult questions for however long it takes for clarity to emerge.
We may find ourselves waiting because there is a task before us that requires skills or capacities we don’t have. Harder still, the work may require a real inner change in us, a change in attitude more costly than we’re prepared to make. Working for this kind of change involves a lot of internal waiting, as we bump up against the limits of our current repertoire of skills and attitudes and fail in our efforts to try harder with what no longer works.
Perhaps we’re waiting because we can’t see. Or because someone else holds part of our destiny in their hands. Not being able to see what’s up ahead is unnerving, particularly when other people keep asking us about our future plans. This is helpful to keep in mind when making conversation with high school or college graduates. Some may not know what’s ahead for them, and we don’t make it easier for them when we bring up the subject.
How, then, to live gracefully in a time of waiting?
The great temptation of a waiting time is to assume that we must either move full steam ahead, even when we’re not ready and don’t know where we’re going, or give up entirely, to become passive and do nothing. The dangers of either extreme are clear enough. I have learned the hard way to be suspicious of urgency, when I feel or others say that a decision must be made now. While there are times when we must take action, often, in anxiety, we rush ahead too soon. And if we can’t act, we’re tempted to throw up our hands and give up completely, a position that strips from us all moral agency and courage.
As an antidote to the temptations of a waiting time, former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams suggests that we cultivate what he calls, “passionate patience.” Such patience allows us to live grounded in where we are right now, and ready to move toward the future when it beckons. “Poised readiness,” is another way to describe this approach to life. Animals in the wild give us the most compelling image of being completely still, yet poised to move when the time is right.
There’s something wonderfully freeing about practicing passionate patience or poised readiness. In talking with a group of confirmands from St. Columba’s Church, I realized that poised readiness describes what it feels like for me to follow Jesus each day as my Savior and Lord.
I told them that each day when I rise, as soon as I remember, I pause to acknowledge Jesus as being in charge of my life. While the day almost always has a long list of responsibilities and tasks waiting for me, a part of me is waiting for guidance from Him. When the word from Jesus is “stay here,” I go about about my life, internally waiting for the power and the clarity he promised would come to guide my next steps. It helps me resist the tendency to push too hard or move too fast, and to trust that Jesus is Lord, not in the abstract, but in a way my life depends daily.
May it be so for you in your in-between times.