“Do not leave us comfortless,” bids the collect for this Seventh Sunday of Easter (Book of Common Prayer, 226). Do not leave us comfortless. I wonder if these words also voice our heartfelt prayer. At this time. In this place.
Do not leave us comfortless on the Sunday in between Ascension and
Pentecost. After the God of glory has exalted Jesus Christ with great triumph to God’s kingdom in heaven. But before God sends the Holy Spirit to strengthen us and exalt us to that place where Christ has gone.
Our church calendar sometimes interrupts the regular succession of Sundays across a liturgical season with something odd. We light a pink candle among the blue ones on the Third Sunday of Advent. The Fourth Sunday in Lent encourages rejoicing: even though it falls after Ash Wednesday, but before Easter Sunday. And during this Easter season we have marked Low Sunday and Good Shepherd Sunday. Let’s call today In Between Sunday. After Ascension, but before Pentecost.
Now I know God’s Spirit has been hovering over creation since before the
beginning, like a mother caressing her unborn child. And of course, the Holy Spirit has already been bestowed upon us – communally and individually – as Advocate. Lifegiving Breath. Strong Wind blowing through and blowing out the staid and the stale. I know. But play along with me a little and live into the oddness of In Between Sunday. After Christ’s ascension, but before the descent of the Spirit.
Because it’s so emblematic of our lives.
Don’t most of us live in between most of the time? Day by day? Week after
week? Year in and year out?
Oh God of glory, do not leave us comfortless.
After but before .
Life in between.
For me, these days, it means: After my mother’s death and funeral, but before knowing what to do with her ashes – let alone her absence.
Maybe your life in between amounts to: After diagnosis, but before the
completion of treatment. In between accepting the job offer and the first day of new work. After a big decision, but before implementing it.
Our scripture readings this morning sketch scenes of life in between. The gospel of John: in between Jesus’ promises to his disciples and their fulfillment (17:20-26). The book of Revelation: in between the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. After washing one’s robes, but before entering the city gates to taste from the tree of life (22:12-14, 16-17, 20-21).
And that amazing story about Paul and Silas in the Philippian jail from the Acts of the Apostles (16:16-34). All the characters find themselves somewhere in between bondage and freedom. Everyone who appears to be free and in control of their own destiny betrays deeper complicity with systems of injustice. Those enslaved or imprisoned receive from the Lord Jesus true freedom. The girl who had a spirit of divination, doubly unfree: a slave and demon-possessed. Paul, slave of the Most High God, frees the girl of the fortune-telling spirit–only to be beaten and imprisoned for interfering with her owners’ money-making. Magistrates bound to the will of the crowd. Owners, authorities, and crowd slaves to fear and hatred of foreigners who don’t look and sound and act like good Romans. But Paul refuses to be prisoner of that empire. He sings and prays at midnight in the innermost cell.
Paul and Silas and the other captives, in between. After the earthquake, after the doors have been thrown open, but before they leave their prison behind. After everyone’s chains have been unfastened, but before they move on. The jailer ready to turn the sword with which he subdued others against himself. The jailer and his entire household saved as Paul helps expand his Lord’s community of freedom and service. The jailer puts his new-found freedom in Christ Jesus to work dressing and redressing wounds he helped to cause. No longer dangerous foreigners, but honored guests, Paul and Silas are invited up into the jailer’s house to share a meal of thanksgiving.
I wonder where we find ourselves in these scripture readings. Or where they find us?
After Mother’s Day, but before Father’s Day; Memorial Day and the Fourth of July.
In between: Relationships? Projects? Cities or continents?
In between then and now; already and not yet?
In between the familiar we once cherished and the unknown possibility that still lies beyond?
After learning the science of climate change, but before seeing much change in human behavior?
After the 2016 and 2018 elections, but before 2020?
After waking up a little to white privilege, but before making America great again for the first time in terms of racial justice?
So, it’s one thing to read ourselves into stories from scripture. How do we
actually live into life in between? Isn’t that the question all great spiritual writers have wrestled with – from the desert mothers and fathers to Thomas Keating and KristaTippett?
Here’s an approach. It comes from the Ignatian spirituality of the Jesuit brothers and Holy Names sisters. It involves a practice called the examen. The examen is a prayerful review of today and look toward tomorrow. After the day just past, but before going to sleep and the new day to come. It can be done alone or in a group. In wordless contemplation or by writing in a journal, maybe even with appointment calendar in hand.
The examen invites a person to pay attention to the feelings that surface when looking back on today and ahead to tomorrow. Above all, feelings of desolation – of moving away from God and others; and consolation moving toward God and growth in faith, hope, and love. Consolation is more than superficial happiness or peace. In fact, sometimes when we are doing precisely what God leads us to do, we experience resistance or opposition. Desolation also comes in many guises. In a state of desolation, we might try to alleviate our discomfort by drinking too much or seeking distraction through too much work, too much entertainment, too much social media.
Such “false consolations” cause us to forfeit the true consolation of God’s presence.
I like the way Margaret Silf describes desolation and consolation. She says:
Desolation turns us in on ourselves and cuts us off from community.
Desolation takes over our whole consciousness, crowding out our distant vision.
Desolation covers up all our landmarks, the signs of our journey with God so far.
Consolation lifts up our hearts so that we can see the joys and sorrows of other people.
Consolation generates new inspiration and ideas.
Consolation shows us where God is active in our lives and where God is leading us.
You might want to try out this daily approach.
I’ll be in the entryway after mass with more information on practicing the examen, including Margaret Silf’s words on consolation and desolation – along with a playful drawing I made for In Between Sunday. Come check it out!
Oh God of glory, you have promised never to leave us comfortless. Increase our capacity to notice the signs of your ever-present comfort. That we might truly live life in between.
Margaret Silf’s descriptions of consolation and desolation are quoted in the following article by Vinita Hampton Wright:
https://ignatianspirituality.com/25557/consolation-anddesolation-2 (accessed: 05/24/19).
Dennis Hamm offers a method for practicing the examen:
Additional materials mentioned in sermon: