Leaning into the Light

by Christine Sine

Ellen Haroutunian.001by Ellen Haroutunian

Our church has a tradition of creating an Advent “waiting room” which is simply our church courtyard lit with white mini bulbs. The light is soft and dim, and the air is cold. We shiver together and sip hot chocolate as we wait to be invited inside. Last Sunday evening I distinctly remember thinking that what made this cold and dark wait tolerable, even enjoyable, was sharing it with friends as we recalled our week’s journeys, and teased and chatted. But waiting is rarely so easy.

Those simple memories of moments shared became a warm wrap of assurance for what was to come. There were two mass shootings in the following week, one in Georgia and then in San Bernardino. This year there have been more mass shootings (defined by 3 or more victims) than there are days in the year. This is one of the darkest and coldest Advents I can remember.

I had had a pretty Advent blog post all ready to go. But I felt despondent and angry. The senseless and violent loss of life was abhorrent enough, but this last heartbreaking event seemed to only serve to polarize people even more than ever. Many seemed to entrench themselves even deeper into their ideologies, wearing them like bulletproof vests as if they have the power to save. Most disturbingly, the resoluteness of what is now so much of American Christianity – this civil, nationalistic religion that is so often diametrically opposed to the ways of Jesus – seemed to become more unyielding.

I resonate with Karl Rahner’s cry, “You were supposed to redeem us from ourselves and yet you, who alone are absolutely free and unbounded, were ‘made’ even as we are. Of course I know that you remained what you always were, but still, didn’t our mortality make you shudder, you the Immortal God? Didn’t you, the broad and limitless Being, shrink back in horror from our narrowness? Weren’t you, absolute Truth, revolted at our pretense?”

I am revolted by it.

This American “Christianity” has lost its way. It has shrunken its identity to being defined by an orthodoxy test. One can say they believe in Jesus Christ the Son of God, and that he was crucified and raised from the dead, and then live as if that great love has no further bearing on our lives.

Most people recognize by now that the religious right was formed in the 1980’s largely as a political ploy to guarantee the conservative Christian vote. That group has now become utterly consumed by right wing politics and ideologies. It has become thoroughly individualistic in focus through the emphasis on a personal ticket to heaven and a blessed life if you have enough faith. The needs of the world are not secondary; they barely even matter except to serve those two points.

The way of Jesus moves in a completely different way.

In a culture where his own brethren were oppressed by the violence and power of the Roman Empire, Jesus taught the mystifying way of peace.

American “Christianity” clings to its guns like a golden calf.

In a culture where only those who were deemed worthy and clean by religious leaders could enter the temple and worship God, Jesus touched a bleeding women, healed those deemed unclean by disease, and welcomed the sinner.

American “Christianity” defines itself by who is allowed in and who is not.

In a culture where the high religious scoffed at the poor openly, Jesus showed no preference for the “deserving poor.” He fed the hungry and healed the sick.

American “Christianity” applauds spending more than half the federal budget on war machine, and strains at gnats: the relatively small amounts of money for food stamps and health care subsidies. We turn our backs on the poor and hungry.

In a culture where the highly religious could easily pass by a wounded man in the road, Jesus applauded the love of an outsider – a Samaritan- for his genuine care for him.

American “Christianity” wants to withhold healthcare from those who have not earned it in their eyes.

In a culture where the stranger was always suspect, Jesus made space at his table.

American “Christianity” has turned its back on the refugee who is fleeing unspeakable violence due to political and military unrest in his homeland. Like Jesus, the refugee has nowhere to lay his head.

In a culture where strict adherence to the practices of the religious law could bring power and honor,
Jesus made it clear that what we do to the least of these – the suffering one, the hungry and thirsty one, the outcast and stranger, is what we do to him.

American “Christianity” has become an allegiance to dogma and behavior that makes us feel upright and safe. It circles the wagons of loyalty around us. It also protects us from God and all that the Kingdom asks of us. We remain safely unchanged.

So waiting outside in the cold, aching to get inside, aching for things to be made right I hear the Advent story ask, “Do you see?” Advent is, above all else, a call to consciousness, says Richard Rohr. It is meant to wake us up.

Indeed, in this time of waiting, we can attune to profound ache of the world and let it be a harsh and wondrous wake up call. Many are beginning to see that this civic, nationalistic religion is not the way of Jesus. Many are weary of a religiosity that marginalizes the poor and less advantaged, that cares little for the plight of the refugee and stranger, and has what Ben Corey calls a “sadistic fetish” with guns. Many are waking up and seeing that we have exchanged the truth of the Good News for the lie of a civic religion. Many are awakening to a longing for Shalom, peace on earth.

Rahner continues, “Slowly a light is beginning to dawn. I have begun to understand what I have known for a long time. You are still in the process of your coming….It is said that you will come again and this is true. But the word again is misleading. It won’t really be another coming, because you have never really gone away. In the human existence that you made your own for all eternity, you have never left us.”

We wait for the Light to come, and yet the Light is already here.

Advent allows us to re-examine our own ache that longs for the coming of God in our midst, not just for ourselves, but also for the flourishing of all. Advent opens up a space in us to receive God who is not revolted by our narrowness and pretense, but who is pleased to be with us, as us, as we are. It can even open up that space in me for them, lest I cast them out as they cast out others. In this time when so much of Christianity has lost the plot, Advent is opportunity for us all to begin anew. Then, like Jesus, we can dive right into the world with only faith, hope and love as our accoutrements. This is when I can believe again that God’s love will always have the last word.

Welcome Advent, welcome Christmas. May the Christ, the God who loves in flesh and bone, right here, right now, be birthed in us this season.


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Beth December 23, 2015 - 6:55 am

I was surprised to see this here. This sounds like a caricature of American Christians based on a media that only wants to show the most radical. This does not sound like the many Christians I know. And I live in a conservative town with a church on every corner. We care for our neighbors like inviting new mothers to breakfast on Sundays for companionship, someone to hold the babies and then moms get to pick new items like clothes and diapers. We send backpacks of food home to kids that need it at four area schools and hope to expand to other schools. We mentor elementary, high school and adults to help them through school and tough times. We have an after school program for kids to have a safe space to play and study. Our worship director gave concerts to raise money for water systems in Africa and then a group from our church built them. Nurses in our congregation went to Haiti after their disaster. One of my friends invited a teenage orphan from Eastern Europe to come live with them. Two others have been involved in helping with Human Trafficking victims. And there are many other ways our church and neighboring churches care for the poor, the orphaned, the ones in prison, the ones at nursing homes, the heart-broken. Most of the people I know are volunteering at at least one place, many are doing more volunteering than that.

The only time the gay community has been mentioned at my church and neighboring churches was in classes on how to be more inclusive and reach out. None of my friends are bashing gays. And only one church in the area had one sermon against the gay life-style and it was not well-received in the community. Many left that church.

All the churches I have heard about are all saying yes to refugees. And many are doing something about it. Our church is working with a converted Muslim missionary to set up welcoming places for refugees in the U.S. and others are already helping the people in the camps.

Just because many believe that expanding the food stamp program was not the way to go does not mean people don’t care. I personally know many people scamming the system in ways that are actually hurtful to themselves. Churches and local communities do much better at figuring out needs and then developing relationships and resources to help than a federal government.

Just because people didn’t approve of the health care law, does not mean we don’t believe in helping people get health insurance. The bloated system that was proposed is unsustainable (note the insurance companies backing out or collapsing), hid extra taxes all over the place and was making health care worse not better. Not one of the proposals the Republicans put out was even discussed before the law was passed by changing the Senate rules and with only Democrats signing on. Republicans had a different way of solving the problem and were shut out. It wasn’t that they didn’t try to solve the problem. (Although the media makes it sound like they had put no ideas out there and still don’t. Untrue.) People aren’t anti-healthcare. They are anti policies that don’t work.

The vast majority of American Christians are not bigoted, hateful people that don’t care. They are just played that way on TV. It distresses me that so many of the good, helping people I know are painted with this brush that none actually represent.

ellenharoutunian December 23, 2015 - 8:36 am

First of all I commend you and you community for offering so many loving things to so many. My post is not saying there aren’t a whole lot of Christians who do good things in this world, but that there are enough of those who have so conflated their religion with political points that they can and do effect public policy. This is why I speak out. For those who follow Jesus of Nazareth we can be a third voice, a new voice. His paradigm is much bigger than what any party or organization can hold! We can be free from the left vs. right, us. vs. them, Democrat vs. Republican polarities. We can refuse to get caught in political talking points, but instead work to make policies better for all. We can learn more about the things we don’t fully understand so that we gain gain new empathy and enter in to people’s stories, as Jesus did.
The Advent story is one of losing and hope, but it does not shy away from pain. Our willingness to ache with the pain as well as celebrate the hope is our message.

ellenharoutunian December 23, 2015 - 8:39 am

Oops, typo. The word should be longing, not losing, LOL.

Rosemary December 25, 2015 - 1:14 pm

I am grateful for this essay as I too feel “angry and despondent.” I have entered the Advent season only marginally. I’ve been trying not to get depressed, and the mass shootings, protests over police brutality in Chicago, and other injustices against African Americans, have worn me out emotionally. What individual churches do about various social problems is good and offers hope. However, until people of faith get involved in policy-making organizations and take public, unpopular stands against injustice in all its manifestations, and this includes running for public office, not much will change.

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