Part 2: a close reading and my reaction to Prof. Willie James Jennings’ commentary on the Acts of the Apostles:
We are going, heaven knows where we are going (Woyaya – UUA Hymnal)
Because I most often read Acts as someone who knows the end of their story, it feels to me as if it’s all certain and sure. Prof. Jennings calls me back to a time and place where the endings are totally unknown. He reminds us that in the world of Acts, the apostles know only where they have come from and what happened back then. But they do not know where they are going, and they’re not yet clear as to what “there” will be.
In the last years of Andover Newton’s life in Newton, Mass, the song Woyaya was popular in chapel services. Listen to it here <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CWzQKjSn4Cc>, and you’ll hear why… for the song speaks of an “Acts” time, when all that is sure is yesterday, and tomorrow is completely unrevealed. In those days, all we knew for sure was that change was coming; all we had to hold on to was a past of blessed memory.
And here’s a big problem: everything that is tied to yesterday is tied to death and decay. I don’t think that means that everything from yesterday is bad; it simply means that it was part and parcel of a time that is gone and that when we focus on that, we lose sight of this present day. When we hold on too tightly to yesterday, we find tomorrow is more and more frightening. Jennings reminds us of God’s constant presence in the in-between times.
My father’s family lives on a farm in northeastern Connecticut; we’ve owned the land, parent to child, since the late seventeenth century (though not always with the same last name, as the farm has had a habit of passing from father to daughter). In my father’s mind, the farm was always sort of like the first photo – in my mind, it’s more like the second…. In reality, it’s a constantly evolving place. Barns go up, barns come down. Porches are added, then removed; the cows are a constant, but they’re not always the same breed. The farmer who sticks to the first picture farm is a farmer who’s about to go out of business.
So, to get back to Professor James’ book, are we still listening for yesterday’s word, or are we open to today?
Acts is a testimony to the way that Jesus – and Jesus’ Resurrection – changed the world. So we do look back, we do pay attention to the past, but we do not stay there. Jennings suggests that the reality of Resurrection is that Jesus is right here, right now; we are not left with dim historical stories, but are companioned by a living reality.
Jesus’ presence with us calls us into our present and asks us to face forward into the future. In following Christ, we are not trying to reanimate the past but to see and really understand what living here and now asks of us.
The story of the Ascension reminds us, again, that it’s a waste of time and effort to look for Jesus in the past, to stare hopefully up to heaven as if it’s his job, and his job only, to live in that way which makes for community, builds peace, creates love.
In ascending, Jennings says, Jesus pulls us up after him, raising us up into heaven – if we can only see it.
As I read this I wonder, just how much of my beloved past will I have to leave behind to follow Jesus into this new future? It’s easy to write that all I have to put aside are those things which prevent me from seeing the future, but which are those things? I can put aside racist attitudes (or at least I can aim to do that) and I recognize that those are bad things, but do I have to put aside the kind of music I’ve always loved, the music which brings me close to God? I can leave behind my cultural attitudes about tattoos, but what about my love of peace, my desire for intellectual stimulation in worship?
Is this only about those major, public issues such as racism, or is it also about the teeny household idols we hold in our hearts?
Everything I read in Jennings’ commentary tells me that replacing Jesus Christ with “me” – my likes, my family, my town, my country,….. my race is wrong, wrong, wrong. All my life tells me that it all becomes enormously hard when you’re faced with giving up something that you really really love; all my faith tells me that sometimes that’s required. And all my experience tells me that knowing when to hold on and when to let go is never going to be easy.