During this week 5 Black Lives Matter protesters were shot by white supremacists in Minneapolis. 3 were killed at a Planned Parenthood in Colorado Springs. With congress threatening a government shutdown if we allow any Syrian refugees in our country, we discover all along that threat we face are not refugees fleeing terror groups, are not immigrants seeking a better life in this country. The threat is us, it is white, often male, and loaded with a gun and a set of grievances.
During Thanksgiving I promised myself to not read online news sources, to let the day go by without being caught up with the news of the day. The hope was to have one day where family and friends was enough. But coming back home from the Holiday, my news feed reminds me that the world continued on its way, oblivious to our need for respite.
It is a world that the hymn O Holy Night identifies as weary. Weary of the violence, weary of the hate, weary of problems we thought were solved only to find another avenue to express itself. An anti-Semitic rally in Poland, a presidential candidate open to slavery, a call for IDs against a religious minority, what did we learn from the 20th century so that we won’t repeat those mistakes again?
In all these news stories we ask the question: what is our hope? And what is the basis for our hope? Robin Meyers, when asked the question whether he had hope that things would become better in our country and world, said no. He did not see what elements were at play which could turn things around. But he added a curious proviso. He said, as a minister, that whether he could see those elements or not, he was in the professional hope business. I think the same could be said for the church. That this is our calling.
So what is our hope? Well It would be in response to the needs of our world. But unlike those awaiting for the end of the world. We are not expecting one single event to address these needs. And those waiting for the world to end, can’t be said to be practicing hope. They have already given up on the world. Hope is hope only if it seeks the world’s redemption. And no single event can do that.
As Gordon Kaufman writes “salvation should no longer be conceived as a singular process or activity. Rather, it comprises all the activities and processes within human affairs which are helping to overcome the violence and disruptions and alienations, the various forms of oppression and exploitation, and all the historical and institutional momentums today promoting personal and social deterioration and disintegration. In short, wherever a spirit of creativity and liberation and healing, of reconciliation and reconstruction is at work in the world, there is to be seen saving activity”
We do have a single word for this, Christ. For the apostle Paul, Christ is the power of God working for our salvation. But a single word is not the same as a single event. If the power working for our salvation is a reality, it would have to be closer to what Kaufman is describing. It would have to be whatever is at work in the world bringing healing, wholeness, growth, the possibilities of a shared world. And that is a gradual, multifaceted process, involving so many players, many institutions, much knowledge, many decisions and acts made by individuals so as to develop a shift in our world.
So we have a name for our hope, Christ. But clearly we do not have a world that is fully saved. So what does it mean talk about the arrival of Christ, as if it was a past event, 2000 years ago? I think the problem happens when we identify Christ solely with the person of Jesus. If we identify Christ as the name for God’s work of salvation in us and the world, then Jesus participated and revealed this reality.
But the work it promotes continues to this day. This is why I think it is possible to think of the arrival of Christ as both a past, present and future event. If the power of God working for our salvation has been at work throughout the world’s history and through many humans in many places through many means, then there is no one single time you can freeze frame this and say; there is our ultimate salvation.
But maybe there is a usefulness in freeze framing salvation. In taking a moment of time and saying, this is what salvation looks like. Because if we can see it in one past event, we might be able to discern it in our midst, we might even be able to anticipate it in our future. I think of Christmas in that way. As taking a moment in time, where we get to see what God is up to, freeze frame it, then with that focus on mind, carry that with us as we continue the work that must be done, now in our world and for our world’s future.
Our scripture does this. It takes one moment: the end of the Babylonian captivity, the arrival of Israel back to their home and their temple as indicating God’s salvation. The refugees are home, the political tyranny and exile are at an end. Ultimately? No, the history of Israel would be marked by other imperial powers and forms of persecution. But for this moment of time, Israel had a sense of God’s ultimate aims.
But if Christmas is a time where we free frame salvation in the past, Advent is the time we get to speak of anticipation for the future. It is that one time where we look for salvation to come, not what has already arrived. So what when we pray and work for a just and humane world we do so with anticipation for what is to come. We look for divine activity afoot that is making a difference that is salvific.
The Christian church has developed many rituals for advent, the lighting of candles, being a potent expression of what happens when the light has come into the world and the darkness has not overcome it. But I want to add a new one. As a spiritual practice for Advent, my proposal is that each one of us look for a news item or maybe an event in our own life that indicates divine work in the world. That indicates that salvation is afoot.
The 7 year old who gave his life savings to respond to the vandalism of a mosque in Texas, the OU students who organized a rally for Muslim students and then later for refugees, those activists out on the streets for the climate change talks in Paris, the work of the Equality Center in Tulsa to host a Thanksgiving dinner, especially for LGBT folks who often have no family to go home to this season, the work of Food and Shelter, PFLAG and those raising transgender visibility, the list goes on.
Just keep note of them. Maybe write them in a journal. And if no good stories or events come to mind in a given week, then you have to become a divine sleuth. Up worthy is a good website for such stories. Huffington Post has a Good News section on it’s site. To take note of such stories is not to deny the problems of the world. It is to take a moment to look at what salvation can look like. This does three things a) prevents us from despair b) gives us an idea of what to work for b) gives us confidence that the constituent elements that are needed for a new world are taking shape.
This is a way of saying that our hopes are not done despite the kind of world we live in but because of it. Because it is only the actions being done now and the past that can serve as the raw materials that God has to work with for a new world.
That divine movement from the past to the present and into the future is captured beautifully in It Came Upon the Midnight Clear
- It came upon the midnight clear,
- That glorious song of old,
- From angels bending near the earth,
- To touch their harps of gold:
- “Peace on the earth, goodwill to men,1
- From heaven’s all-gracious King.”
- The world in solemn stillness lay,
- To hear the angels sing.
- Still through the cloven skies they come,
- With peaceful wings unfurled,
- And still their heavenly music floats
- O’er all the weary world;
- Above its sad and lowly plains,
- They bend on hovering wing,
- And ever o’er its Babel sounds
- The blessèd angels sing.
- For lo!, the days are hastening on,
- By prophet bards foretold,7
- When with the ever-circling years
- Comes round the age of gold8
- When peace shall over all the earth
- Its ancient splendors fling,9
- And the whole world give back the song10
- Which now the angels sing.
Dwight Welch is the pastor at the United Church of Norman, Oklahoma