Slightly truncated weekender today, as we’ve been up to our ears prepping our big Spring newsletter/appeal, which just went to the post office. Needless to say, we need your help more than ever (and hope you’ve appreciated our stepped-up efforts during these past few months!). If you’d like to receive a copy of the letter, be sure to sign up for our mailing list. Or if you’d like to give online–one-time or monthly–click here. If not, Cliff Richard may come after you:

1. I’ll be honest: I’m not sure I’ve ever read anything about The Ascension of Christ that I’d characterize as exciting. Maybe that says more about my own reading life than anything else. Or maybe the Ascension is one of those doctrinal watersheds that’s difficult to comprehend, let alone write about. As far as I can tell, most writing on the subject boils down to some version of “it was necessary”–which may be beautiful and true, but it doesn’t quite get the pulse racing. I guess it’s hard to care about The Ascension in the way one cares about, say, Pentecost. But that’s also why Chad Bird’s piece on “Ascending Downward” is worth highlighting a full year after it first hit the web (and a day after Ascension Day in the church calendar):

Down is bad, up is good… We associate “down” with sickness, collapsing in exhaustion, and dying, while “up” is iconic of vivacity, standing strong, health. Our positive and negative experiences are mapped onto the metaphorical language we use. Even heaven is “up there” and hell is “down there,” right?

We all get this. But helpful as it may be, it really screws with our heads when it comes to something very important: the ascension, the “going up” of Jesus.

Some theological explanations of the ascension resemble a man climbing a tree to search for gold. Of course, the fellow’s gone in the completely wrong direction. He’ll never find gold “up there.” He’ll only find it “down here.” By mining, by digging, by channeling into the earth, he’ll discover gold.

So it is with the gold of the ascension. It’s not about what’s happening up there in heaven but down here on earth. Christ’s sitting at the right hand of the Father, his enthronement as King of Kings, is his climactic, regal descent. [On Ascension Day] the church celebrates the Downward Ascension of her Lord.

You see, dual things are happening simultaneously at the ascension. On the one hand, yes, Jesus does go up. While his disciples crane their necks to the skies, Jesus rises like a hot air balloon and slips inside a cloud (Acts 1:9-11). On the other hand, he goes up precisely in order to do what? To come down, to permeate all creation with his presence, to rule over all things in such a way that no place is outside him…

Christ ascends into heaven in order to descend fully into this world, into the lives of his people. The ascension is the dénouement of the incarnation. Jesus has entered his glory “in such a way that he knows everything, is able to do everything, is present for all his creatures, and has under his feet and in his hands all that is in heaven, on earth, and under the earth, not only as God but also as human creature” (Formula of Concord, Epitome, VIII.11). In other words, because of the ascension, the manger has become the cosmos… It doesn’t matter how far down we go in this life, we cannot go so far down, that Jesus is not there to meet us face-to-face.

2. Next up, The Wall Street Journal published a probing overview of The Science of Prayer, courtesy of Elizabeth Bernstein:

“I would never advise a patient who doesn’t want to pray to pray,” says [Dr David H. Rosmarin, assistant professor of psychology at Harvard Medical School], who incorporates prayer into the treatment programs for some patients with anxiety, depression or other mental-health conditions. Dr Rosmarin tells people who are curious about prayer to imagine a heart-to-heart conversation with someone they haven’t talked to in a while. “If you think, ‘Yeah, I should probably pick up the phone but am not sure what to say,’ then it might help.”

Dr. Rosmarin says that the research that has been done on prayer shows it may have similar benefits to meditation: It can calm your nervous system, shutting down your fight or flight response. It can make you less reactive to negative emotions and less angry.

A 2005 study in the Journal of Behavioral Medicine comparing secular and spiritual forms of meditation found spiritual meditation to be more calming. Imagine carrying a backpack hour after hour. It will start to feel impossibly heavy. But if you can hand it off to someone else to hold for a while, it will feel lighter when you pick it up again. “This is what prayer can do,” says Amy Wachholtz, associate professor and clinical health psychology director at the University of Colorado Denver, and lead researcher on the meditation study. “It lets you put down your burden mentally for a bit and rest.”

Interesting enough but the article, er, descends to a deeper place when Bernstein relates her own experience of prayer:

I turned to prayer one day last summer—one of the worst of my life. My father, who had suffered a heart attack and a stroke a few weeks earlier, had a cardiac arrest in the hospital one morning. I have never been someone who prays much, but as I paced the hallway outside my dad’s room while doctors worked—for four long minutes—to jump-start his heart, a nurse asked if I wanted to pray. I told her I did, but wasn’t sure how. She took my hands in hers, bowed her head to mine, and began praying out loud for both of us. “Dear Lord, we ask for your support…”

The medical staff was able to revive my father. He was intubated and rushed to the ICU, and a doctor explained that my dad was not out of the woods. So I went down to the small chapel at the hospital and called for a chaplain.

A pastor arrived. He taught me the serenity prayer, then recited it with me until I stopped crying: “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.” When we finished, I felt stronger. Now, I return to the serenity prayer again and again.

3. Amen to that–and an extra special amen to the original version of The Serenity Prayer. Next, moving from the lofty to the mundane, there’s “The Dishes Will Never Be Done” by Ellen McCarthy in The Washington Post, which highlights the kitchen sink’s strange ability to serve as both mirror and courtroom–doubly so when you’re stuck at home:

…the sink, I am sorry to tell you, is full of dirty dishes. Again. A side effect of the fact that we’re all eating three meals a day (plus snacks) at home — with school cafeterias and restaurant kitchens and fast-food garbage bins no longer absorbing their share of the aftermath.

Dirty dishes are the least of all problems. The very least. And so easily fixed: soap, water, a little mindless scrubbing. Come to think of it, how dare we lament this simple chore in light of everything else. And how dare you nod in recognition!

Still, a sink perpetually brimming with dirty dishes is a proxy for all that is tedious and tiresome about life at the undramatic edges of this crisis. It is incessant, like the quarantine. Repetitive, like our days at home. Demanding and messy, like the tasks that fill those days. And somehow fraught with shame and judgment: Who can claim to have their act together if they can’t fit their Brita pitcher under the faucet?

“How can I have control over my life?” [27-year old actor Benji Kaufman] told The Washington Post. “I don’t even have control over my own dishes.”

4. Humor-wise, the Internet yielded a classic with the new “Antidepressants or Tolkien?” game. I know Tolkien fairly well and lost immediately. The Ringer brought the goods with ‘House Hunters’: The Overlook Hotel Edition. My inner teenager thought this was hilarious. The Onion made me chuckle with their “So-Called Hero Puts Eggs At Bottom Of Grocery Bag.” And back in 2017 they posted the prescient “Study: ‘Hangin’ In There’ Best One Can Now Feel”:

“Although a very small subset of subjects reported occasions of having dispositions elevated to the point of ‘can’t complain,’ this was considered to be an anomaly and not statistically significant.”

5. For The Week, Bonnie Kristian hovers dangerously close to #seculosity when she asks “Is QAnon the newest American religion?” I haven’t familiarized myself with the phenomenon enough to comment but nevertheless found the following of note:

Traditional religiosity is declining in America, but humanity will not cease to be religious. It will merely diversify its sources of increasingly customized religiosity. From lapsed evangelicals, as many QAnon adherents seem to be, to religiously unaffiliated “nones,” people crave the community, meaning, and purpose church provides, even if they abandon or reject its teachings.

Satisfying that craving with politics and conspiracy theories isn’t new, but the QAnon church’s self-description as a church stands out. It’s one thing for outside observers to characterize a political movement as religious in its enthusiasm or expectations of loyalty; it’s another for participants to explicitly brand their own community as religious and start holding services.

A Bundle of Strays

Probably bears repeating that performancism and its discontents span socio-, ethnic-, economic- and class- boundaries. Writing for Zora, Britni Danielle highlighted how, for many women of color, The Pressure to Perform Is Wearing Us Down.

Facebook people, if you’re not following the account for upcoming film Electric Jesus, you’re missing out on a consistent (and affectionate!) stream of fantastic CCM kitsch like the two videos at the top. Could not be more excited!

Along those lines, Todd Alcott’s cultural mashups are my new favorite thing. See above and below for examples.

Over at The NY Times, Amanda Hess noted that “It’s jarring how easily the virus has been fused with branding and processed into the optimistic language of advertising”:

The coronavirus ad represents a pure feat of branding, of messaging freed from merchandise. Uber even ran an anti-Uber commercial that thanks its customers “for not riding with Uber.” These ads aren’t selling things so much as they are selling the idea of producing things.

The New Yorker reports that The Children Are Swearing More During Quarantine. Yours truly pleads the Fifth.

The Overstory author Richard Powers was interviewed by GQ and had some trenchant thoughts to share, for example:

“The coronavirus is just a very rapid refutation of this idea that we live in a completely human-moderated, human-mastered, human-controlled world, and that all the stories will basically be about ourselves. We haven’t even begun to see the ways in which that notion is going to fall apart in the years ahead.”

Those who’ve ploughed through the final episodes of The Last Dance (Gus Lett! Steve Kerr!)–after they’ve let the mighty loneliness of those final shots of MJ wash over them–should head over to VOX to read Alissa Wilkinson explain why “Space Jam Is Visionary.”

Last but not least, Bryan Owen penned a stirring ode to “God’s Amazing Grace,” both the attribute and the hymn.