Fear Not: An Advent Call

starry sky

It seems fitting that the Winter Solstice marks the seasonal culmination of darkness just days before Christmas, since it is in our darkest moments and our longest nights when we most need the Messiah. Here, Rachael Clinton, a member of The Allender Center’s Teaching Staff and Assistant Director of Admissions for The Seattle School of Theology & Psychology, writes about what we do with the fear that comes with the darkness. Do we let it dictate how we live and relate to others, or do we choose to believe that there is something deeper, fuller, and more true than fear?

The light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it. -John 1:5

Yesterday was the Winter Solstice, one of the shortest days of the year and therefore also one of the darkest, at least for the Northern Hemisphere. As a stormborn woman of the Oklahoma plains I have learned to watch the sky and have cultivated a curiosity and a love of its nuances. For me it has become a spiritual practice, a way to listen and to pay attention and to encounter the Spirit.

Here in Seattle the sun rose at 7:54 a.m. and set at 4:19 p.m. Since the beginning of October we have only had about 10 days without rain, so with all the grey and the shortening of days, the darkness has felt more ominous. Compounding the literal lack of light with all that is unfolding in the world, it seems as though there is a spiritual darkness taunting, mocking, and threatening to stay, positioning itself as more powerful than the light. I can feel fear and despair in my bones, and I can see it taking up residence in the hearts of others.

And the truth is, these are turbulent and terrifying times. You only have to turn on the news for a few minutes before being haunted by images of ash-covered children crying for their mothers in the wake of another explosion in war-torn Syria (or Iraq, Afghanistan, or Palestine for that matter), or exhausted refugees fleeing the violence of their homeland, or another mass shooting at a school or workplace or gathering space in the U.S. The list goes on and on. It’s overwhelming and it does not take long for despair to creep its way in (and I haven’t even talked about racism, sexual abuse, climate change, economic disparity, and the personal tragedies we face).

I don’t say all of this to incite fear or stir up abstract political debate, but to simply name what is true. These are dark days.

I can’t imagine a more fitting time for the season of Advent, a season for lighting candles and remembering and anticipating Jesus, Emmanuel, God with us, bringing peace, hope, joy, comfort, and love. It has always been such a grace to me that as we move into some of the darkest days of our rotation around the sun, we also enter into the season full of light and hope. It’s typically a season that beckons one to sing hymns, to connect with family and friends, and to contemplate and to wonder.

But this Advent, I find myself questioning if we really believe the story we are celebrating. To be quite honest, even as a woman of unrelenting hope and profound courage, what has brought me the most despair in the past weeks has been the ways in which I have seen my fellow Christians allowing fear to blind them and fill them with hate. How are we supposed to be light and testify to light if we join or give into the darkness? This week alone, over 19 hate crimes have been committed on U.S. soil toward Muslims and their places of worship.

In my more honest and compassionate moments, I get it. I am a woman well acquainted with fear. I know how binding and haunting it can be. It’s too much—and when we feel powerless, we grasp with wildness for some sense of security, even if it means  dehumanizing the person or people we perceive to be a threat or advocating for violence and justifying oppression. So as much as I want to blame Donald Trump for promoting and normalizing hatred and violence (which I do), I also know he is revealing and exploiting what is true in many of our hearts: we are deeply afraid and we have competing stories.

We have forgotten who we are. We are no longer slaves to fear. We are children of God. We are resurrection people. We’re wild, expectant, irrational, and some might even say foolish. We are not called to vengeance but forgiveness and even the radical call to love our enemies. When we enter those waters of baptism, we say that we give up our life and find it in Christ. We have not been promised that we will be protected from suffering or that hardship or peril will not come. We have been promised that there is nothing (not even a terrorist or a racist or a maniac with a gun—not even death) that can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus. We have been promised that when we don’t know how to pray, the very Spirit of God groans and intercedes on our behalf with language too deep for words.

We are people of the Spirit, filled with the fruits of the Spirit: Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, faithfulness, and self-control. We are anointed to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim freedom to captives and release from darkness to prisoners. We are called to be a light to the world.

We are people of the Spirit, filled with the fruits of the Spirit.

We know our battle is not against flesh and blood but against principalities and powers. This does not mean that we compartmentalize the physical and the spiritual—that tendency is part of what the Incarnation, the whole reason for the season, speaks against. But I want to say out loud that I believe we are dealing with something demonic that people with a lot of power are inviting us to join. Evil wants us to cower in fear and to turn our hearts toward our own mechanisms of security and safety which will always elevate one life over another.

It is in these moments where we are once again asked to put down our weapons of hatred, our weapons of false security, and to put on the armor of God. It is in these moments that it’s okay to say, “God, I am afraid.” It’s okay to cry out, “How long oh Lord.” It’s okay to feel grieved in the places we believe and need help with our unbelief. It’s okay to admit that we need the Spirit’s help in loving our enemies (whether they be an ISIS terrorist or a Christian white supremacist). Love is not passive or docile, it’s active and provocative and transformative.

Love is not passive or docile, it’s active and provocative and transformative.

I long for the day when all will be well and evil will be dealt with, but until that day comes, I want to be a woman who lives as though death is never the end of the story and in truth, I cannot do that without you, my fellow brothers and sisters. May we encounter the radical presence of Jesus this Christmas, the one who knows what it is to live in this world, to encounter fear, to ache, to overcome death and to shine bright.

I love that the sky right now is telling the story. Light will come when we need it most. Here in the Pacific Northwest, we’ll gain between one to three extra minutes of sunlight everyday, starting today, until the Summer Solstice in June. This year, more than ever, I need to be reminded that light does indeed shine in the darkness and will not be overcome. More than ever, I need to celebrate that Jesus has come and will come again. May it be so.