The first week of December, as I sat on my couch untangling Christmas lights, I saw the breaking TV news of two active shooters in San Bernardino.
It was terrible. My first reaction was shock. I saw the confusion, the horror.
But as the news unfolded, my second reaction was dread—dread of what I knew would follow. And sure enough, instead of a focus on compassion and support for the victims, their families, and the first responders, immediately there sprang up arguments about how to fix it.
As the victims bled, pundits began talking on every network, while ordinary folks started blowing up the Internet. All were commenting from comfy remote locations; none were in the path of danger, surrounded by death and destruction or risking life and limb to help. Yet—while police cleared the site, helped the injured, and searched for the shooters—these people who weren’t there, who didn’t hear the screams or see the blood or feel the bullets, promoted sure-fire solutions on TV and shouted each other down in social media.
I kept wishing we could take a moment to feel the shock and truly grieve together, before we started destroying each other with zingers and blame.
Then it got worse. The next day, the cover of the New York Daily News blared, “GOD ISN’T FIXING THIS.” In other words: Screw God; either he doesn’t exist, or he doesn’t care. We must fix this ourselves.
The problem is, we can’t.
As the aftermath played out in San Bernardino, my growing frustration was that we truly don’t have a solution to the terror. No matter how many laws we pass or therapists we hire, determined criminals and mentally ill people will still make deadly choices. From the moment Cain killed Abel, violence has been and will always be a tragic part of human nature.
And I feel helpless to stop it.
Deep down, I think we all do. In the big picture, we know there are no permanent, failsafe solutions that will end all violence and killing – so, instead of letting ourselves feel deep sadness and grief, we immediately jump to anger, frustration, and debate.
However, in my own small way, there is something I can do. And, no matter how trivial it may sound amid mass killings (and believe me, there is nothing trivial about that), it is a symbolic gift to the world.
I can hang Christmas lights.
Jesus told his followers:
“You are the light of the world. A town built on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven” (Matthew 5:14-16, NIV)
My house is not “built on a hill.” In fact, it is hard to see—it’s off the street, behind other buildings. But it does have two stories. So I climb up there and hang the lights as high as I can, where they can be seen over the other rooftops. My lights are mostly the standard ropes and icicles –but at the very top, I hang a silhouette of the star and the Holy Family to shine out in the dark, watching over the neighborhood.
Compared to other light displays I have seen, mine is nothing extravagant—in fact, it’s quite modest—but in the darkness of a long December night, it shines very brightly. Its light can be seen from far away throughout Advent.
It’s no mistake that Advent occurs during the darkest time of all. In the northern hemisphere, late December has the least light and the shortest days of the whole year. For many, the lack of light is most depressing. But Advent means “coming.” So Advent is a time of hope, anticipation, and waiting in the darkness—a time which reminds us just how helpless we are. The world is broken and, contrary to humanistic Enlightenment thinking, there are some things humans just can’t fix. So, in our darkness, we groan and cry out for God to step in and save us.
In my neighborhood, there isn’t much light. Instead, there is brokenness, abuse, and addiction behind covered windows. Very few homes sparkle with Christmas cheer. Although there are many good people here, there is also a lot of darkness.
Yet it is only in the dark that light has value. Christmas lights can barely be seen in the brightness of day. They only dazzle in darkness. And the deeper the darkness, the more the smallest pinpoint of light attracts the eye. Likewise, in the darkness of our world, I am called to be a pinpoint of light that will draw eyes to my Savior.
So, as I untangled my light strings and crawled out on my roof with a staple gun, thinking of San Bernardino, I realized that although I can’t undo that tragedy, I can add light to this messed-up world—both literally and figuratively. My Christmas lights may be somewhat dim and crooked with a few bulbs missing, yet they still shine through the dark to all who pass by. In the same way, my reflection of Christ may be flawed and spotty, but to the best of my ability, I can still shine his light into this dark world.
No one can fix everything. In fact, most of us can’t fix much of anything.
But each of us can do something. We can light the darkness. Individually and in our faith communities, we can engage with the needs all around us. Feed the hungry. Befriend the lonely. Clothe the threadbare. Comfort the broken.
And above all, we can pray. There is power in prayer and, despite headlines to the contrary, prayer is the primary action we should take before anything else.
During Advent, as God’s people have always done, we groan and cry out for our Savior to enter our darkness.
Our greatest need is not political solutions.
Our greatest need is Jesus.