(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.
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.”
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.)
YS/MG END EHRICH