I have long loved this little invitation in Luke’s Gospel for the way in which it stand at odds with all one might expect. In the wake of signs and distress and confusion. In the midst of the experience of people fainting in fear and forboding. In a time when the very powers of the heavens will be shaken. It is then that the Son of Man will be seen coming. And it is then ,in that very time, that we are told to stand up and raise up our heads.
It makes no sense, of course. The logical, the prudent thing to do is to cower, to run for cover, to keep our heads down, not up. Only heroes, the foolhardy, the powerfully courageous, those who love deeply, and yes, people of faith who can, by the gift of grace of God see what others cannot see, raise their heads in such times. Indeed, in times like these.
For I have found myself among those who have hardly been raising their heads at all. I have, in these last years, found myself too often weighed down by fear, by despair, by disgust, and yes, sometimes by hatred, or at least rage. The sort of rage which too much has me claiming my place in an “us vs. them” world. The sort that is death dealing at worst and is paralyzing at best. Oh, it is so that I watch too much news these days, more than ever before, trying to make sense of a world gone awry. So much so it may not be helpful for from there I get the resounding message that greed and violence and poverty and racism and on and on and on seem to be having the last word. And then in these last days, I spent a little time in Anne Lamott’s newest book, Almost Everything: Notes on Hope. I was especially taken by her self reflection on her own journey in these last years and how it has affected her, for I saw myself in her words:
Hate weighed me down and muddled my thinking. It isolated me and caused my shoulders to hunch, the opposite of sticking together and lifting our hands and eyes to the sky. The hunch changes our posture, because our shoulders slump, and it changes our vision as we scowl and paw the ground. So as a radical act we give up the hate and the hunch the best we can. We square our shoulders and lift our gaze. (p. 84)
So very many things conspire to keep us from lifting our gaze, but when we do, it is often then that we can see the promised “Son of Man coming.” Indeed, it is only when we stand up and raise our heads that we recognize the presence of Christ among us. In spite of it all.
And so here are some small examples of moments when I have thought to stand and lift my head, instances of where I have seen, heard, tasted, deeply known the presence of the returning Christ among us in these last days:
- Last Sunday I found myself at church all day. In the afternoon, I had a few minutes between meeting with grieving families to plan the funerals of their loved ones and I wandered back to the kitchen where one of our own was watching over the turkeys for our annual Thanksgiving Dinner. He shook his head at me. He said, ‘You know we only have six turkeys. I am afraid it will not be enough if we get the numbers we expect.’ A few hours later 140 had eaten their fill and more. And no, there was not much left over, but still there was some. Who knows. Maybe those gathered looked around to see the crowd and decided to take a little less turkey and a few more mashed potatoes. And maybe the hand of Jesus was in it echoing the gift experienced on a hillside long ago when thousands showed up and were all fed and satisfied by a small boy’s lunch. But this is also so. When another one of our own took the carcasses home and boiled them? There was enough for a few more casseroles to feed the hungry at our local homeless shelter or some of our own who may be going through a hard time. Oh, in leftovers where there shouldn’t be leftovers, and in casseroles which feed the hungry, surely we find reason to stand up, raise our heads and anticipate the coming of Christ once more. Don’t we?
- And this. Anyone walking close to me a few months back recognized my discouragement when our seminary intern concluded this was not the time or place for her to be about the work of learning to be a pastor and decided to leave. It leaves a hole in our ministry, to be sure, but it also leaves a much loved home empty. One that a hundred people and more worked to rehab and make ready for this ministry. Indeed, in a world where too many have no place to sleep tonight, we had an empty house. And then. And then the opportunity came to open it up to host extended family of the congregation — loved ones traveling here to tend to heartbreak — to give a place to rest and a haven for the start of healing. An empty house and hearts open to making it happen and some so very vulnerable are given a look at what can be that is not yet fully so. Who knows what opportunities remain for that empty house in the weeks and months to come! And in this don’t you know that once we have stood up and raised our heads, we see the signs of Christ’s return?
- And this. Oh, this. On Tuesday this week we gathered for the funeral of Matt who was but 41 years old. Born with a number of chronic health challenges, Matt would not ever have the future is parents imagined for him before he first he burst into the world. But they kept hope always before him. They kept seeking out doctors — looking always for those who would believe along with them. They traveled the country with him, ensuring that his world would be bigger than it otherwise might have been. And because of his dad’s work as a firefighter, Matt was given a connection to a world of heroes who made him their own. On Tuesday afternoon before the funeral began, I stood in the back at the funeral home and watched as more than fifty firefighters from all over the county stood in line and processed to his casket and one after another saluted him. And oh, there was not a dry eye in the room as we saw this amazing reversal of how the world measures things. That one after another in their dress blues and in their work clothes, they stepped away from work — some of them literally running in at the last minute to join the procession — to honor one who the world would too often ignore. And in that moment I found myself wondering at this — that if I, if we, had not simply stood up and raise our heads we might have missed this altogether: this living witness to a promised world where the lowly will all be lifted up in Christ’s return.
In the words of today’s Gospel we are invited to set aside our discouragement, our fear, our anger, our hatred born of self-righteousness, and to stand up and to raise our heads. We are urged to be on the watch, because ‘our redemption is drawing near,’ in spite of all evidence to the country. The small things I saw in these last days do not change everything that is wrong with the world, but they do give me the courage and the hope to keep trying to shape a different one. And very often? That starts awfully close to home.
- How do you hear today’s words from Luke? Does the world Jesus describes that is marked marked by ‘fear and forboding’ sound like anything you have known or experienced?
- How does one ‘stand up and raise their heads’ in the face of every instinct which urges you to do the opposite? How have you been able to do so in spite of that which would have you cowering in fear or despair?
- What might you see if you just stood up and raised your head? Where might you see the promise of the coming Christ?