“Why are you looking at heaven?”

letting go of the past, stepping wisely into this pandemic future

When profound changes happen to us we often find ourselves mouths agape and struggling to understand what this change is. What we had is now gone. An anticipated future will be dramatically different. Our present is a sticky pause where our self is unsure what to do next. The breath moving in and out of us fluctuates between quick and shallow as if we are getting ready to run or fight … and then a long and deep signaling that this is a time to stop, … to rest, … and to wait.

As have many with whom I sit and talk, I find myself moving back and forth from sadness about what seems to have been lost in this pandemic … to worry about what this new future will be.

And then there is that space in between, where we keep “looking to heaven” where something or someone was, some quick answer, … but now it is gone.

This past Sunday held readings about a seemingly sudden departure, the Ascension of Jesus. If one follows the liturgical calendar, you have now moved through the 50 days of Easter towards the celebration of Pentecost. This “ascension” of Jesus was his exit, a “lifting up” into the clouds as recounted in two of the gospels and in the beginning of the book of Acts.

With the chronology that we have been given, I expect that there was an ongoing sense of relief following the resurrection of Jesus. The disciples had thought that Jesus was dead and gone. But then he returned, physically among them. But now, in a twist that feels almost cruel … he is leaving again.

And as the passage from Acts recounts this leaving, the disciples simply stood there, dumbfounded. I imagine their mouths open, heads shaking, perhaps rubbing their eyes and trying to make some sense of this “lifting up”.

And as we often do, this is followed by asking the wrong questions and misunderstanding the answers that we have been given.

Perhaps they didn’t like the answer because it didn’t fit what they expected; maybe they didn’t like the answer because it meant that the hard work was just beginning.

We reach back for what we had.

When the shock of loss happens to us, we naturally reach for what was. If that is the loss of a loved one, there is the memory of their smell and their touch, the way that their voice traveled to our ears as their body moved through spaces that we inhabited together. This is a reaching back into the past, a shared past, finding simple gestures, words, and artifacts of what will now be a history of what was. Some of us will be archeologists for a time, examining every shard of a memory, becoming experts on its texture and purpose.

We long for a future that will not happen.

This loss also means that what we had anticipated will not be. Plans for ourselves with this other, hopes for what we saw ahead on the path, these are no more. And it can be hard to call it grief for a time that never actually happened, but the sadness that comes with grief is the best way to describe this feeling. Even though you never touched that new reality, we miss it (and them) as if we had already been there, as if we had walked together, shared conversations, and had in actuality experienced this now fantasized future.

And we, like the disciples, keep looking at the sky, dumbfounded, shaking our heads, rubbing our eyes, expecting something to change about the past or our hoped-for future.

And these messengers arrive to tell us “go home, there’s work to do”.

We need absence in order to newly experience presence.

Ron Rolheiser writes wonderfully how the “paradox” of Jesus’s statements that the pain of his leaving is necessary.

“Don’t cling to me,” Jesus says.

And perhaps this time of absence of people together in one place, of families separated, and even people dying, is a time for us to be re-acquainted with absence, with emptiness.

We often have to move through the space of grief, of absence, in order to re-experience the presence of our loved one … even if that presence is so very different than when they were physically with us.

The work of faith is often one of God asking us to let go of what we are holding too tightly. We keep looking “up to heaven” while God sends us messengers that tell us to go home and get to work.

We take steps into this present, with patience and wisdom.

After we have found ourselves all standing around, dumbfounded, mouths open, bleary-eyed, staring blankly into the sky, there does come a time to lower our gaze. We look around us and assess “where we are”.

And while there is something to be said for grieving for what we had and even fretting over a future that will not be the same, this path calls us to take a deeper breath and look around.

There are a lot of steps to take and a lot of work to do.

This work will not be simple. There are no shortcuts.

This challenging path will be about healing instead of blaming. This way will be about service to others who are vulnerable and hurting instead of thinking first of ourselves. This journey is about arms open instead of the closed posture of anxiety and fear. We listen to those who offer their knowledge and wisdom and then … with a prudent patience, we softly take our next steps.

clinical social worker, spiritual director, author, husband, father, son, runner in Georgia, co-author of When Anxiety Strikes from Kregel Publications.

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