My little church is having a growth spurt, and some of the new folk have begun to attend groups that were previously pretty static. This is good news! But I noticed at Bible Study, which has been a solid group of half-a-dozen men and women, that having a new face makes people more reticent to respond. The first new person was very open and talked a lot, but the newest sat silently throughout the session. It got very quiet while we were studying Acts 1:6-14, the text about the Ascension of Jesus. I was asking many more leading questions than are usually needed. And maybe, just maybe, Denise Levertov’s poem was too heavy for this crowd.
Then I decided to re-read verses 9 and 10:
“When he had said this, as they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight.
While he was going and they were gazing up toward heaven, suddenly two men in white robes stood by them.”
Everyone was listening earnestly, and then I said, “Suddenly two men in white coats stood by them.”
Someone looked surprised. Someone else laughed. New person was still silent, but things began to flow again.
Seriously, if you had just seen your friend and teacher, previously dead, whisking away into the sky, wouldn’t you wonder if those guys in white were there to take you away?
Levertov imagines the ascension as Jesus giving new birth to himself, as a seed case split open. Think of the time it takes a chick to peck its way out of the shell–it’s fun to watch in time-lapse photography, but if you have ever stood watching an egg and waiting for the chick to hatch, you know it’s not an easy process. And who has the patience or the subtle discrimination to catch a flower in its moment of blooming? Jesus in that moment broke free of gravity, broke free of body, broke free of living, cracked the shell and became something new.
One of the things that troubles me about a literalist interpretation of the Bible is the idea that you can know the “truth” as a list of rules or a set of facts. Truth is so much more than that. Apprehending truth requires reflection, imagination, flexibility, humor. Truth demands as much of us as it gives us. It requires leaping to conclusions, then falling away to reconsider.
The first card in the Tarot is The Fool. In traditional decks, he is pictured as a young man merrily on his way, followed by a little dog, blissfully unaware that he is about to step off a cliff. You can’t find truth without taking that fall.
And if it means you’re a little crazy? Don’t worry, the men in white robes will be there for you.