From the 2011 ForeWords archive:
Way back in the late 1950s and early 1960s the United States was locked in what now seems a rather silly race with the Soviet Union as to which country could launch astronauts or cosmonauts into orbit around the earth the quickest, the highest, and the longest. I suppose it made some sense at the time, considering the mindset of both countries’ leaders to prove their way of life the best. Or not.
Anyway, as I recall the incident, the first man in space, Cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin, reportedly said he had looked and looked around while in space but he could not see God. Premier Nikita Khruschev liked to tell that story in boasting of Soviet achievements and the triumph of atheistic Communism.
Could there be a better example of “modern man” than someone able to escape, even for a short time, the grasp of earth’s gravitational pull? And so it would be “modern man” who put to rest the ancient worldview of three tiers of existence: heaven (up there in or beyond the clouds), earth (what we can experience right here, right now), and either chaos or the underworld (depending on how you want to look at it) down below.
Later in the 1960s as U.S. astronauts circled the moon on Christmas Eve and, with the beautiful blue-and-white orb of earth in the distance, they recited the opening verses of Genesis: “In the beginning God…. And it was good.” Take that you Commie atheists!
It all made for great theater, the godless Soviet empire locked in battle with Judeo-Christian America. But, we now have learned, Gagarin never said anything of the sort. Gagarin was actually a devout member of the Russian Orthodox Church, but most likely he realized that he’d best keep his religious beliefs to himself if he ever wanted the chance to go beyond the clouds into space.
Yet it’s a curious phenomenon that the three-tiered understanding of the universe has survived within modern and even postmodern times. For many folks, heaven is still “up there”; hell is “down there”; and we’re all stuck here in the middle waiting for the great culmination of history–Jesus returning back down through the clouds to meet his faithful disciples.
And that brings us to the opening chapter of the book of Acts:
So when they had come together, they asked him, “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” He replied, “It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” 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. They said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.” Then they returned to Jerusalem from the mount called Olivet, which is near Jerusalem, a sabbath day’s journey away. When they had entered the city, they went to the room upstairs where they were staying, Peter, and John, and James, and Andrew, Philip and Thomas, Bartholomew and Matthew, James son of Alphaeus, and Simon the Zealot, and Judas son of James. All these were constantly devoting themselves to prayer, together with certain women, including Mary the mother of Jesus, as well as his brothers. –Acts 1:6-14 NRSV
That’s a pretty remarkable story. What I find most intriguing is that even though Jesus told the disciples they couldn’t go with him, that his return was on a need-to-know basis (and they didn’t need to know anything about the details!), and that their responsibility was to get to work as his witnesses in the world, how did they respond? They just stood there looking up into the clouds, probably with their mouths open and totally bewildered as to what was going on and what they should do next.
This somewhat pathetic sight called for two men in white robes to suddenly appear next to them, basically kick-starting their witnessing and evangelistic efforts.
All this would appear to be pretty straightforward. Don’t try to understand what happened in the clouds back then, people. Don’t speculate about when Jesus is coming back, how that’s going to happen, who will be around to greet him, or what happens right after that. And still right here in the year of our Lord 2011 people like pastor/radioman Harold Camping think they’ve got it all figured out. In one way or another people think they’ve peered into the mind and will of God and/or that God loves them more than everybody else. Give me a break. Come to think of it, those two men in white robes may well have uttered something along the lines of “Give me a break,” too.
Maybe it’s just more interesting or fun to keep our minds fixated on the clouds, imagining details we’ll never truly know anything about. In an odd way that’s kind of how I feel about the latest rage in computer technology that I keep hearing about: cloud computing.
I’ll spare you my simple-minded attempt to explain cloud computing (okay, that’s mainly because I can’t). Apparently it’s what makes this blog possible and how a non-geek such as I can keyboard a bunch of words that are sent off into the Internet ether (is that a redundancy?) and it all ends up as a modestly attractive Web site. I don’t have to worry about acquiring or, heaven help me, understand the software or any of the technology involved. WordPress has made the process simple enough for an old guy like me. Thank you very much, WordPress!
And it’s because I don’t have to worry about all those details “up there in the cloud” that I can concentrate on what is actually my task: writing and editing, telling stories, and offering symbols and metaphors and the occasional piece of artwork to make the page prettier. I don’t know where these words go (or how they get there), but I have faith they go somewhere. One reason I know that is that people actually subscribe to this blog! Crazy, eh? And with a little cruising around the various sites available to me as site administrator, I can access numbers and tables and other miscellaneous stuff that shows me nonsubscribers come here, too.
Obviously, I’m comfortable with the whole idea of mystery. That doesn’t mean I’m stuck in an ancient worldview. More and more I’m affixing “post-” to other words, in particular postmodern and post-Christendom. What that means is for other days, other blogs (and, by the way, it’s what my next book will be about). In the meantime I need the occasional nudge to get out of the clouds and back to work.
“Even so, Come Lord Jesus.”