There’s a story in this month’s Living Lutheran online and print magazine that tells about how Lim Forgey, the music minister at Christ Lutheran Church, Visalia, California, noticed children playing outside the dumpster by the church. Lim noticed that one of the children wasn’t even wearing shoes. (Living Lutheran, Nov. 2018)
Now there are many stories in the news about children in need in this country and around the world, stories of families stuck in hard times because of job loss or illness, because they’ve had to flee violence and are stuck in refugee camps or at borders. It can be easy to lose heart when we read or hear or watch about such stories day after day.
Yet as we come into the season of Advent, which begins today, we hear from the writer of Luke, “Be on guard so that your hearts are not weighed down…” (Luke 21:34a)
“Be on guard so that your hearts are not weighed down.”
When Jim Forgey of Christ’s Lutheran in California noticed those children playing by the church’s dumpster he could have let his heart be weighed down and then continued to go about his life such as it had been, albeit maybe with shoulders a bit more slumped down. Instead, Jim got talking to the people of Christ’s Lutheran and God in Christ who is a God of new life, who brings life out of the dead places of the world and us; God got working through the people of Christ’s Lutheran and they formed a new ministry.
The Lutheran Institute for the Performing Arts, known as CLIPArts, is an “after-school program for neighborhood children from low-income households (that) offers instruction in singing, theater and dance. The classes are free to qualifying families.” Their last production of The Lion King brought in over 300 people to see the show, but more importantly, it brought together children who needed support and help and gave them a leg up in life.
And there was another dimension to God working through Jim to help these children. Jim’ own childhood had been fraught with troubles of which those of the struggling children reminded him. So not only did God work to help those children by the dumpster, but in helping those children God also worked to help Jim move into new levels of healing with his own struggles.
That’s the kind of God we praise, a whole picture God who seeks to bring healing to us even as healing is brought through us.
Indeed, this season of Advent is an excellent time to remember to “be on guard” for our hearts. To be on guard for the hearts and lives of others in need. As I said last week, this is why, in partnership with the Crosstraining Gym, we’ve adopted a family of six plus several more individuals. This is why, several years ago, we started our Arts, Hands, and Heart week-long summer arts program to serve not only church children, but children whose families might never otherwise bring them to church. To be on guard for the hearts and lives of those in need.
The writer of Luke says, “…stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.” (Luke 21:28b)
“Stand up and raise your heads.” This phrase can seem ridiculous in the face of all the suffering of the world and our lives. Sometimes I think it’s no wonder that there are people who don’t look each other in the eye any more; maybe it seems easier to shuffle or rush along with our faces glued to our phones; maybe we’re afraid of what we might see if we look, really look at each other.
Carly Simon, a singer and song writer from the 70s and 80s, wrote a song with the lyrics, “I haven’t got time for the pain,” and indeed, it can sometimes feel like that in our lives, can’t it? It can sometimes feel like we don’t have time, or want to make time for the pain of others - or even our own pain. The suffering can seem like it will be too much.
Yet as Christians – those trying to follow the Christ – we profess that God in Christ has and continues to do exactly this: that Christ makes time for the pain and suffering of the world. This is the Christ upon whose birth we wait: Immanuel, God-with-us.
While the “why” of suffering and pain is a mystery we struggle to understand, and while blessings and guidance and new life and hope may not come as we want them to or how we’d expect them to, we only have to look around us to begin to count stories of how God in Christ does not stay distant from the suffering of the world!
How different the world might begin to look if we spend the season of Advent telling each other stories such as this one from Christ’s Lutheran Church in California, or the stories of how God is at work through Redeemer, New Paltz. How different the world might begin to look if we turn our worries and sorrows into action for the sake of making the world a better place, and along the way build the practice of trusting that God is at work. Today may be the day when our hands hearts get to work for the sake of God’s will being done in earth as it is in heaven. God’s will for new life and new love and forgiveness and hope – enacted by the power of the Holy Spirit through our hands.
You and me, imperfect and bruised and battered as we may sometimes feel ourselves to be; we are called to stand up in the faith Christ in planting in us, and to stand guard for our hearts and the hearts and lives of others. We are called to stretch the muscles of our hearts and minds and souls and bodies as we wait and long for Christ to be born into this world again, revealed as the prophet Jeremiah foretold and known as “The Lord is my righteousness.”
If we look for righteousness fashioned by this world we will not find it. When we raise our heads we may indeed come face to face with children playing by the dumpster. But by the grace of God we can also come face to face with God’s righteousness, God’s right love in and through Christ Jesus, and this love - that is big enough to encompass the past and the future and the heavens and the earth and every corner or the universe - this love is big enough to encompass even our own lives, joys and sorrows included. This love is big enough to hold the sorrows of the children by dumpsters and even, by the grace of the Holy Spirit, change their lives and ours.
For God is a whole picture God and a life-changing, world-changing God. Just ask those children helped and supported by the CLIParts ministry in California or the children of Art, Hands, and Heart.
Advent is a time for waiting and watching. Recognizing the hunger inside ourselves and this world, we tell stories of hope and look with expectation towards the birth of Hope in Jesus. This Hope shall come, and has come even now. And so we wait, and we stand guard, and raise our heads as we watch for the coming of the Messiah.