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Related Bible reading(s): John 17.1-11

PostScript: Looking up and looking out

A reflection for the Sunday after Ascension Day (Easter 7).



This week, we celebrated Ascension Day, albeit with the COVID-19 restrictions in place. This festival marks Jesus’ ascension to heaven and, in Acts 1.10, we read that the disciples ‘were gazing up towards heaven’ as Jesus was going. In John 17.1, it says that Jesus ‘looked up to heaven’ and spoke to his father, delivering what was arguably his most extensive and profound prayer. (I’ve always envisaged Jesus having his arms outstretched as he did this, which is probably due to me watching the Hollywood film, King of Kings too many times, in which actor Jeffrey Hunter plays Jesus.)

While many Bible scholars suggest that only a matter of several weeks separated these two instances of ‘looking up’, there are numerous references in the Bible to prophets, priests and kings looking to the heavens for inspiration, guidance and signs. Indeed, some climbed mountains in the hope of getting closer to the one from whom they sought answers.

Unless you’re a farmer or meteorologist, the concept of ‘looking up to the heavens’ tends to be more of a metaphorical one. We speak of ‘looking up’ the answer to a question or pondering whether things are ‘looking up’ – showing improvement.

However, in both readings, ‘looking up’ meant focusing on a God who has all the answers. In John 17.1-11, Jesus asks his heavenly father to protect his disciples and all those who seek to follow him. I like to think that the Lord had his arms outstretched – Jeffery Hunter-style – when he said this because it would be a clear indication to us that, as we look to God for guidance, we should also be reaching out to others, especially at this time.

In Caribbean culture, people often talk about ‘looking up’ someone, which means visiting a person to make sure they are alright. Currently, this is still difficult, despite the easing of the lockdown. Yet, one of the most inspiring developments of this crisis has been the way people have been ‘looking out’ for one another, and showing a hitherto unknown form of neighbourliness, especially in big cities like London.

So, as we slowly emerge from lockdown as a country, may we also continue ‘looking up’ to God for the inspiration and ideas as to how we can better look out for those who will be unable to take advantage of the easing of these restrictions.


A personal prayer

When we grow tired of looking out on a world of desperation,
may we look up to a God from whom we can seek inspiration,
and to the skies that God created.
May we find hope in what we see above,
whether viewed by day or night.

In those skies we see migrating birds and moving clouds,
which are no respecters of boundaries.
Unlike our world, defined by borders that can exclude some –
though not viruses.

In those skies we now glimpse an occasional airplane,
perhaps carrying returning passengers, stranded overseas,
or those coming to help with the harvest. 

In those skies, we consider the joy of a child flying a kite,
watching as it twists and turns on the winds;
appearing as free as a bird, yet shackled by a string.

And in those skies, there are things that we struggle to see,
especially with the naked eye:
rain clouds emerging from the sea,
or tiny ice crystals forming snow.
Much like life, some things are not easy to comprehend. 

Yet, in all of this, we thank you Lord, for life
in all its beauty,
in all its complexity,
and pray for the strength to cope with all its challenges.


A family activity

Looking up and looking out – by day and night

One of the unintended (but pleasant) consequences of the present crisis has been the greater opportunity to experience the natural world.

On a clear sunny day (of which quite a few are expected in the UK over the next couple of weeks), and as a family/household, go out into the garden or onto a balcony – or simply look out of a window. Look up at the sky. Avoid looking directly at the sun, of course, but observe the clouds. Mark 13.26 speaks of the ‘son of man coming on clouds with great power and glory’. Look for birds, butterflies and bees and all that is great in God’s creation – and give thanks. Go back inside and do a quiz which involves the numerous references to nature in the Bible e.g. Nature in the Bible Pop Quiz from Heavenward Youth.

In the evening, after the sun has set, do a similar thing but focusing on the night sky. Wait until it is quite still, and your ears are accustomed to the silence. Look out for the moon and reflect on its shape or phase. Then, make a heart-shaped figure using both hands and see how many stars you can ‘gather’ inside this handshape. As you do this, ponder the God who created the stars and the fact that all of what we see is held in God’s hands.


Richard Reddie is Director of Justice and Inclusion at Churches Together in Britain and Ireland. He attends St James Church (CofE), in southwest London, where he worships with his wife and son.


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