by Michael K. Marsh
“Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven?” – Acts 1:11
One minute Jesus was standing with and talking to the apostles. The apostles can see him. They can hear his voice. And if they had reached out they could’ve touched him. The next minute, “he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight.” It’s as if they were watching a gap open between him and them, between the seen and the unseen, between their life as it was and as it is now.
I don’t know why the apostles “stand looking up toward heaven” – they don’t answer the two men in white robes – but I can tell you about the times I’ve stood looking up toward heaven. And I have a hunch it might be why the apostles were.
The times I’ve stood looking up toward heaven were times when a gap was opening in my life. When I feel the tension of the gap I look up toward heaven. When I feel pulled between this and that I look up toward heaven. Sometimes the gap feels like an ever widening chasm that I will never be able to bridge or cross. Other times it feels like an abyss into which I am falling and will never get out of. Sometimes that gap is about a longing and desire for something new, something different, something more. Other times that gap is about pain, loss, and heartbreak.
Does any of that sound familiar? When have you stood looking up toward heaven? And what was going on?
I remember the gap between being divorced and wanting a deep and meaningful relationship. I felt the gap open the night our older son died and life would never be like it once was. I remember the afternoon our younger son went to Marine bootcamp and feeling the gap between wanting to hold on to my little boy and my joy and pride in the man he was becoming.
It seems there’s always a gap between the pain and hurt in the world or other people’s lives and my prayers for justice, healing, and peace.
For years I lived with the gap between being a lawyer and wanting to be a priest. And now, as a preacher, I feel the gap between my faithfulness to the gospel and my wanting to be liked and approved of.
I experience the gap between my life as it is and as I want it to be. I see the gap between the man I am and the man I want to be.
And most recently I feel the gap between wanting to resume in-person worship and wanting to keep everyone safe and healthy. I feel the gap between wanting to be with friends and not wanting to endanger them or myself. I feel the gap between what I know (or think I know) about COVID-19 and what I don’t know.
Those are a few of the gaps in my life. What gaps are in your life today? In what ways do you feel pulled or torn between two realities? What chasm or abyss are you dealing with today?
At some point we all come to a gap in our life. It takes us to the edge of what we know, to the border of what we believe, to the horizon of what we can see, to the limit of our self-sufficiency. The gap is paradoxical. It looks like two opposing edges and feels like we are being pulled two different directions, but paradoxes remind us that there is more there than what we can see.
And it’s in that moment that I look up toward heaven. I pray. I wait for God to act. Please give me what I ask. Provide what I need. Fix it. Make it better. Do something. Be with me. Give me a word.
I want God to fill and close the gap. Don’t you?
Maybe that’s why the apostles were looking up toward heaven. Maybe they too want a God of the gaps, a God who will fill and close the gap they are experiencing.
But what if God doesn’t fill or close the gaps in our life? What if, instead, God calls us to stand in the gap? What if we are the ones to fill the gap with God’s presence through our faith, hope, and love; through our mercy, compassion, and generosity; through our forgiveness, hospitality, and justice?
What would that mean for the gaps in your life today? How might you stand in the gap?
More and more I am coming to see that Jesus’ physical withdrawal from this world is less about his absence and more about our presence. I think of it like a parent teaching a child to walk. At first the parent stands over the child holding his or her hands. Then the parent faces the child and shuffles backwards while holding the child’s hands. But at some point the mom or dad lets go of the child’s hands and backs up, withdraws from the child. To the child it looks like distance or absence but to the parent it’s a calling, an invitation, for the child to step forward and fill the gap between them.
“Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven?” That’s not a question to be answered. It’s a call to fill the gap.
Stepping into the gap will not resolve the tensions we feel. It lets us hold those tensions. That’s what Jesus did with the gaps in his life.
Remember when he was twelve years old and Mary and Joseph thought he was lost but he had stayed behind in Jerusalem? He was holding the tension of the gap between his life in their house and his life in his Father’s house. When the Syrophoenician woman asked him to heal her daughter he confronted a gap in his identity and mission. He held the tension between the children of Israel and the one he called a dog. The Garden of Gethsemane was a gap experience in which he held the tension between his will and his Father’s will. And maybe the most graphic image of the gap in Jesus’ life is the crucifixion: Jesus pulled between heaven and earth, his arms stretched apart embracing the world, praying to the Father by whom he felt forsaken. Jesus never sidestepped the gaps of his life. He always held the tension.
To stand in the gap and hold the tension won’t fix anything, but it changes everything.
Whether it’s the sweet ache of longing and desire for what we most want or the bitterness of a heartache we never wanted or asked for, gaps are not just openings in our lives. They open us to something new and they open something new within us. Gaps offer possibilities of transformation – for ourselves, for others, for the world.
Whatever the gaps of your life and my life might be today, we have a choice to make. We can keep looking up toward heaven, toward that which is unseen and intangible, or we can turn our eyes to the neighbor who is visible, reach out our hands to the circumstances that are tangible, and step into the gap.
I want to make a difference and I want St. Philip’s to make a difference. Don’t you? I want us to stand in the gap and be a public face of Christ to the world.
What will you do with the gaps in your life?
Click here to learn more about the author, Michael K. Marsh