Thursday, December 13, 2018

Advent Reflections: Being a Light in the Dark

For the past several months, I've taken to wearing plain dress. Solid-color button-down shirts, black pants, black suspenders, black socks and shoes, and usually some sort of hat. Some people have asked about my choice, and I know others have wondered, why I prefer a plain-dress appearance, complete with the beard-sans-mustache that characterizes married Amish men.

There are a few reasons, but of primary importance to me is that I want to be a peace witness. I'm an affiliate member of a Conservative Quaker meeting, where some Friends still dress in the olde style, and I have quite a few Anabaptist sympathies as well. Both traditions hold fast to the commitment to nonviolence that the early, pre-Constantine church embraced.

To a lesser extent, though no less important, plain dress reminds me of the Anabaptists' commitment to keeping the Sermon on the Mount front and center, as they do their best to live out those values in the world. I'm in complete sympathy with that effort. For me, Matthew chapters 5 through 7 sums up what it means to live a Christian life -- the rest is commentary. 

I've long believed that if we all tried to live out the values laid out in the Sermon -- essentially, embracing an ethic of nonviolent enemy-love -- we could transform the world. Not into some horrifying kind of dystopian fundamentalist theocracy, but into a kindgom of love. Because as far as I'm concerned, the point of walking the Christian path isn't simply to "go to heaven when you die," to say you believe so you can get your ticket punched, but rather to put in the hard work of actually being Christ-like. To follow his example. To bring the kingdom of heaven to this world, by leading with love, compassion, forgiveness. To be his hands and feet in a world that needs a lot less hate and lot more tenderness. We'll fail in our efforts, over and over, but it doesn't mean we ought to stop trying.

And that brings me to an excellent, if not exactly optimistic, article by Andrew Sullivan I recently read. It's a long read, but well worth the investment of one's time, as Sullivan gets to the root of what ails our society. In a nutshell: If Christianity was the root of Western culture, as it arguably was, and that same Christianity is now on the decline in the West, as it most certainly is, then we're losing one of the things that bound us together as a people. Even if some were only nominal Christians, perhaps only going to church at Easter and Christmas, there was still a shared sense of basic existential values among most people. In the wake of Christianity's decline, because most people seem to have both a deep-seated religious impulse and a tendency toward tribalism, we now see other things trying to fill the vacuum. 

For example, we have leftist political factions -- "social-justice warriors" in contemporary parlance -- that squelch free expression and seek to destroy the reputations and lives of those who don't conform to their orthodoxy. For all practical purposes, they're every bit as rigid, fanatical, and fundamentalist as any extremist religious group, even as they rail against the perceived oppressiveness of religion, unaware of the irony.

Or, conversely, we end up with people who claim the mantle of Christianity but couldn't act any less Christ-like if they tried. In a recent article on Thomas Merton, Richard Rohr warned against what he called the "Kindergarten Christianity" that makes idols out of things like nationalism and political affiliation and that cheers on violence, endless war, acquisitiveness, and hatred of the "other."

The decline of a shared spiritual/religious vision is certainly not the only thing that's gone wrong with our world, but it does seem increasingly clear that there's little to hold us together anymore. Just as churches are dying, so are civic organizations, and getting to know our neighbors, and having friendships that are able to transcend personal differences of opinion. We build echo chambers around our micro-cultures and see others not as people with a different point of view but as enemies to destroy. 

We're more narcissistic, yet at the same time we seem to suffer from more self-loathing. 

We're the "home of the brave" that wants to fortify ourselves behind walls and guns and bombs. 

We fill our lives with fleeting pleasures, wondering why they don't make us happy.

Something is deeply wrong. 

And as we lose a sense of any greater meaning or purpose in our lives, we take comfort in the tribalism of politics. Or, worse, we descend into a helpless spiral of substance abuse and suicide, because we can't find any other way to deaden the pain inside -- all exacerbated by a system that's just as dead and decaying, serving the wealthy and powerful, ruling with violence, while the cost of living climbs and wages stagnate and the average people see a bleak future for themselves and their kids. Having lost the hope that a religious grounding might offer, they place the only hope they have left in politicians, knowing that the politicians don't really care about them and never will.

In the midst of all the confusion, anger, and despair, it becomes ever harder to find where the good guys are, as both "sides" become more strident, more desperate, more intolerant.

The older I get, the more I understand why Lao-tzu, the mythical sage of Tao Te Ching fame, decided to hop on his water buffalo and head for the hills, never to look back. 

I don't despair. Things will be what they will be. But it is hard to see how things will get better without first getting a lot worse.

Yet this is exactly why faith is so important in seeing us through such times as these. Perhaps it's difficult for our modern, rational, scientific minds to embrace the idea that a God-man rose from the dead and floated off to heaven. Maybe people simply don't want to be associated anymore with those who give Christianity a bad name. But if we can put all that aside, and open ourselves to the greater truths of the Gospel accounts, we find ourselves coming face to face with the greatest story ever told. 

Just think about it. Think how amazing it is that the God of the universe would love us so much that he would humble himself for our sake, to come down to Earth and become not just one of us, but an innocent, defenseless baby, completely dependent on his earthly Mother Mary for his sustenance and survival. 

There's a lesson in there for us, no matter our religious views. And it's not just a lesson about humility. it's a lesson about how we can follow in Christ's footsteps, in bringing the kingdom of heaven, the love of God, into this world. That is a story that will never lose its appeal and will never stop giving us hope, no matter how bleak the world has become.

And for those so inclined, we can also see that if the God of the universe gave himself over to the care of the Virgin Mary, trusting her completely with the biggest job any human has ever been asked to take on, then we, too, can surely take heart in knowing that we can place our cares in the arms of our Heavenly Mother, and that she will comfort and nurture us, her spiritual children, with just as much love.

Amidst the bad news of the day, the Good News springs eternal, as we draw ever closer to the day our loving Mother brought the light of hope into the world. May we carry that light faithfully, even through the most difficult times, as we lean on our Mother, who will always be there for us, for the strength and courage to press on.

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