A 15th century painting of St. Thomas Aquinas.

This Advent, will faith stay safe or stand tall? (COMMENTARY)

(RNS) Early on the first Sunday of Advent, I logged in to Pandora and heard the familiar chant "Adoro Te Devote."

As a child, I knew Thomas Aquinas' beloved text as "Humbly I Adore Thee." At that time, faith meant standing with my family in the family church and singing such hymns with devotion.

The joining in song and prayer drew me closer to God. Or so I thought.

Later, as my life became more challenging and as I entered a world that seemed largely untouched by faith -- a world where hatred, greed, violence and arrogance had free rein -- I wondered if faith needed to be something more.

A 15th century painting of St. Thomas Aquinas.

A 15th-century painting of St. Thomas Aquinas.

More rigorous, perhaps, deeper than a child's cozy feelings. Faith needed to embrace more than lingering echoes of days gone by. Faith needed to address today's cruelties and sadness. Faith needed to confront warfare, prejudice and unwarranted privilege.

If faith couldn't address the dark sides, then it was just ritualized nostalgia. It was an in-crowd affirming itself; it was nice people gathering for pleasing ceremonies and making no discernible difference in the world.

If faith saw only itself, then passions would be spent on internal concerns, like budgets, leadership tussles and arcane debates. Institutional maintenance would matter more than integrity and potency.

Meanwhile, human suffering would worsen, and the work Jesus actually gave us to do would remain undone. We would whine about loss of status, but not see ourselves staying safe inside.

The world around us has brought American Christianity to a crossroads. Will we stay safe or stand tall? Will we decorate our churches for Advent and Christmas or make a difference in the world?

Ferguson, Mo., is our bellwether. Its continuing drama shows that religious life is on the streets, crossing racial lines, speaking truth to power, fighting for justice. Whatever faith meant in the 13th century when Thomas Aquinas was writing brilliant essays, today faith means going toe-to-toe with the darkness.

That is dangerous work. Outside bigots will burn our churches. Our own constituents will turn squeamish. Decades of conflict avoidance will leave many Christians hesitant -- willing to talk about justice, but unable to do more than talk.

Can we do more? The answer I see in Ferguson is yes. Faith communities there are turning radically outward. They are "marching in the light of God," as the South African song "Siyahamba" puts it.

Every community in America has its own issues. Some are common, like racism, class divisions, gun violence and economic dislocations. Some are specific to a location, like unemployment due to factory closings or the influx of new immigrants.

In each community, congregations need to discern God's call. I doubt that having another perfect Christmas Eve service is that call. The prophet Amos said long ago that God "takes no delight in your solemn assemblies."

Tom Ehrich is a writer, church consultant and Episcopal priest based in New York. He is the president of Morning Walk Media and publisher of Fresh Day online magazine. His website is www.morningwalkmedia.com. Follow Tom on Twitter @tomehrich.

Tom Ehrich is a writer, church consultant and Episcopal priest based in New York. He is the president of Morning Walk Media and publisher of Fresh Day online magazine. His website is www.morningwalkmedia.com. Photo courtesy of Tom Ehrich

 This image is available for web publication. For questions, contact Sally Morrow.

God wants action, born in the transformation of our own lives and carried out in the transformation of our society. God's desire, Amos said, is this: "Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream."

As it says in Revelation, "the home of God is among mortals." Not inside the safe place, but outside, teaching nations to walk by the light of God.

We aren't to be custodians of nostalgia or sacred custom. We are to respond boldly when God says, "See, I am making all things new."

(Tom Ehrich is a writer, church consultant and Episcopal priest based in New York. He is the president of Morning Walk Media and publisher of Fresh Day online magazine. His website is www.morningwalkmedia.com. Follow Tom on Twitter @tomehrich.)



  1. Tom Ehrich you are so right. In the early 1960s when my late husband, Presbyterian USA minister, tried to get a small congregation to volunteer in community centers, homeless shelters, etc. and invite migrant farm workers to church, he was called a communist and/or socialist and fired. They admonished him to “stick to preaching the bible” which, of course, he was.
    Many churches have seen the light but too many still want only their comfortable pews and rituals and to build ornate edifices “to honor God”.

  2. “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? For I have come into this world to bear witness to the Truth. Everyone who sees the Truth hears my voice.”
    If you know your Bible, you will have already finished the sentence; for those who don’t, the three words that elude mankind are, “What is Truth?”
    Advent is a time of preparation for the birth of Truth. Where can we find today’s mythical characters, the John Does of the world, the Mr. Roberts of the world? Are they only in movies, where truth is as thin as a 35 mm film? Where have men with vision and hope and clarity – King and Kennedy -all gone? With a bullet through their brain. Paraphrasing another movie character,” We ,as people, cannot handle the Truth.”
    Today, where do you stand? Are you a high priest, fearful of losing power? Are you the mob in the street, screaming, “Crucify him! Crucify him”? Are you those who feel they have no power but just to watch? Are you the cowards who hide behind closed doors? Or just the mass of people who are more concerned who live lives in their own small world?
    Mr. President Obama, which one are you?
    Congressman, which one are you?
    Senators, which one are you?
    That all Black children and those in poverty can choose the school they wish to go to. That legislation should be enacted to tear down the dilapidated buildings and people in there that they call “Education.”
    Congressmen, Senators, Mr. President, make the cities, the neighborhoods, the streets safe for Black little children and those of color can walk in safety. Pass the legislation, sign the legislation!
    John Does of American, stand up! Jane Does of America, stand up! Text, email, help save the Future! Help save our most precious commodity America has, its children!
    The last words My Savior said was, “It’s done.” His journey, hopefully like ours, has just begun.
    PS If you’re wondering in a reincarnated world where I would have been, I’ll give you two choices: Simon or the street sweeper following behind the Imperial horses. . .

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