By Cathy Norman Peterson
When a friend came to town a few weeks ago, we visited a church I’d never attended. The worship service was different from what I’m used to in several ways, but one thing especially struck me. They really prayed.
In most areas of my life, everyone in the room avoids eye contact when someone asks for a volunteer to pray. At work, in small groups—even sometimes at the dinner table with my family—the collective instinct is to look away and hope someone else will volunteer.
But that Sunday in the middle of a high school gym that doubled as a sanctuary, we prayed. For a long time. It was passionate and pleading and prophetic—as if God was actually in the room listening. As if we expected God to hear us. As if God was eager to respond.
I was struck by how unusual that felt to me. How have I fallen into a place where praying feels perfunctory, or even worse, unnecessary?
I’ve been thinking about that question a lot these days. It’s the second week of Advent—a season I have always loved. I cherish the opportunity to resist commercialism, to step out of the chaotic busyness and be still, to delay the rush toward Christmas. I love the candles, the reflective devotionals, and the chance to practice liturgy in new ways with my kids.
But today, that approach to Advent feels too insular. It is four weeks since we elected someone to be our next president who seems intent on dismantling the core of our social fabric—someone who has shamelessly mocked people who are weak, who has fanned the flames of misogyny and exclusion and racism. Our national divisions destroy my quaint approach to Advent. Suddenly our need for prayer is urgent. Our longing for Christ in this season cannot be reduced to a romantic ideal. Our waiting is about far, far more than getting through a stressful December.
Since the election, more than one friend of color has told me they walk down the street differently. They wonder if the person they pass on the sidewalk is looking at them with hate. Others have told me about seeing neighborhoods with Trump signs in nearly every yard and wondering if they should be afraid. Are they physically unsafe now? Another friend said to me, “Well, now we know it’s okay to grope women.” He meant it to be funny.
It’s possible that Mr. Trump is not as filled with hate as his words and decisions convey. It’s possible that he doesn’t really mean what he says or think about the connotations of his words.
Yet his candidacy and election have given license to misogyny and bigotry and violence. For the past eight years it was possible to believe that acts of hatred or racism in our society were anomalies. I could hope, even when systems were clearly broken, that we all wanted to be better, that we could be better. I have to confess that I still thought there might be ways to believe in the system on some level.
Even though 700 people became victims of homicide in my city this year (with another month still to go). Even though Muslim people are vilified here, in our so-called land of the free. Even though our black and brown brothers and sisters continue to be attacked and profiled. Even though the system is very, very broken.
What a time to wait for Christ. This year reducing Advent to a pursuit of moments of peaceful reflection makes a travesty of the gospel. This year Advent feels dangerous. Prayer is not for the bored or disinterested. We cannot come before God with perfunctory resignation. Rather, we cry out with desperation and pleading. We groan so deeply that we have no words. This year, the church cannot afford to stand on the sidelines. We cannot remain insular, caught up in our own self-preservation or comfort. This year, we remember that Christ came to a downtrodden and hopeless people, to rescue us from sin, from oppression, from evil. This year we long for God Incarnate, the Word made flesh among us. “Are you coming soon?” we sing. “Are you coming soon?”