“I wish I had a magic wand”. I don’t know how many times I’ve said that in the course of my ministry to people facing sorrows and troubles that feel overwhelming to them. I’d love to be able just to make it all better for them. But I can’t bring back the loved one they’re mourning. I can’t cure their illness. I can’t rebuild the relationship they’re struggling with. I can’t stop their business going bust. I can listen, and pray. It’s a huge privilege to do so, and it often seems to help. But there’s almost never anything I can do materially to change their situation.
I’ve come to the conclusion that that’s probably just as well, though. Trying to “fix” things for people usually fails, and often makes the situation worse. It’s what I call “anxious activism”, that frantic desire to do something – anything – whether it’s the right thing or not - in the face of trouble. When I find I am feeling like that, I usually have to ask myself who I’m trying to help. Is it the person in front of me, or is it myself? Am I trying to meet their genuine need, or just my need to be needed?
I’ve sensed quite a lot of that “anxious activism” in people at the moment, the desire to Do Something – capital D, capital S - in the face of the coronavirus. “What did you do in the war, Daddy?” said that famous World War one poster. Perhaps for us it’s “What did you do in the coronavirus epidemic?” We wonder how we’ll feel about ourselves, how we’ll be judged at the end of all this, especially if we aren’t one of those key workers whose jobs are demanding so much courage of them anyway.
Many people I talk to feel frustrated that they haven’t been able to help as much as they’d like. Over 750,000 signed up for the government volunteering scheme, but apparently most haven’t been called on, and I think some have felt quite put out about this. There are probably all sorts of reasons for the apparent low level of call out. The bulk of the volunteers may not be in the same place as the bulk of the people who need help. People may not know how to ask for help, or prefer to cobble something together unofficially. In many cases, people need professional help from people with the training and experience. Their needs are beyond the scope of volunteers to respond to, no matter how willing. And some things need structural change, political change, to sort out. For most of us, the help we can offer is always going to be undramatic, small scale, unseen by everyone except those directly involved. Added together those small actions are just as important as the big things, but they feel like a drop in the ocean, insignificant in the face of this worldwide challenge.
The Bible story we heard today features some people who probably felt equally helpless. When Jesus led them out to Mount Olivet, to the East of Jerusalem, overlooking the city, they thought they knew what was coming next. Tradition said that this was where the Messiah would appear before he entered Jerusalem to announce the Kingdom of God. That’s why they’d got so excited when Jesus rode into Jerusalem from this same place on Palm Sunday. They thought the moment had come when God would intervene in history, throw out their Roman oppressors, restore Israel’s self-government. All it had led to then was a cross, but perhaps now things will be different. “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?”
I can imagine Jesus heaving a heavy sigh. Have they still not understood? They’re still expecting him to produce that magic wand for them. “Lord is this the time when YOU will restore the kingdom to Israel” they’ve asked, but actually it’s they who are going to be doing the work now. “No” says Jesus,”You will be my witnesses” says Jesus. It is their work in living out his Gospel message of love that will matter now, in Jerusalem and Judea, in Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.
Just at that moment, when they are trying to get their heads around all this, a cloud comes down, and Jesus is gone. No wonder they stand gawping up into the empty air … What are they going to do now? How will they go about this daunting, demanding task? Normally, they’d have asked Jesus, but he’s not here– definitely not here – nowhere to be seen, however they strain their eyes into the distant heavens.
But what they do next shows that they have learned at least something from being with him. Because instead of rushing into that “anxious activism”, I talked about earlier, they stop, and remember that Jesus didn’t just tell them about the work they would be doing, but also about the power that would be given to them to do it. He didn’t just say, “you will be my witnesses”. Before that he said, “you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you”. Then, and only then, will they know what to do, and have the ability to do it. Before they act, they must wait.
And that’s what they do. They don’t start flapping around making action plans or arguing about who is working hardest or being most heroic. They wait, and while they wait they “constantly devote themselves to prayer”. They pay attention to their own inner lives. They spend time with themselves and with each other in the presence of God. They listen for what God is saying to them. They recall what Jesus has taught them. They give themselves time and space to acknowledge that they don’t know what to do, or how to do it, that this work can’t be done in their strength, but only in God’s. They listen for his call, which will be different for each of them. Some will be called to work in their own backyard – in Jerusalem and Judea, in their own home towns and villages. That may not feel dramatic, but there’s a real challenge in living out our faith among the people who know us best. Some will be called to Samaria, a place they’d normally try to avoid. Samaritans and Jews didn’t get along. The challenge there will be to overcome their prejudices. And some will be called to go to the ends of the earth, to strange places they have no experience of at all. One calling isn’t better, or worse, than another. All are needed.
This time between Ascension Day and Pentecost was a time of waiting for the disciples, and it’s good if it is for us too. I’ve created a series of reflective podcasts you can use to help you spend time with yourself and with God - links are on the church website – but it doesn’t matter how we do it, so long as we do. It’s not time wasted. It’s not self-indulgence. It’s the way we guard against anxious activism, and make sure we are listening for God’s call, the call that is right for us, the call we were made for. That might be a call to do great things, but for most it will be a call to do small things with great love, to be faithful in supporting others, to be patient with those around us, and patient with ourselves, to be content with what we have and who we are, and trust that God will do the rest.