Category Archives: Spiritual Formation

Candlelight and Christmas

“Festival of Lights”
by John August Swanson

There’s something about candles, candlelight services, and candle lit spaces and Christmas. The soft glow of a candle’s light brings an inviting warmth to a space and a moment. Candles held, lit and clustered together in procession or praise offer an ambiance unlike any other. I have early memories of attending Christmas Eve candlelight services, longing to be old enough to be trusted with my own candle. It was a right of passage, that moment, not just of age, but of responsibility and privilege to add my own small light to the collective whole. I was represented in that light, offering worship to the newborn king.

The candlelight Christmas Eve service remains one of the most cherished of the year. It’s a congregation unlike any other all year. People typically arrive at the last moment – rushing from family gatherings and celebrations to be there just in time. Those gathered are a combination of out of town family, neighbors and community folk looking for a Christmas service, and faithful congregants who help “swell the crowd” on a weekly basis. With many of our own having traveled elsewhere, the Christmas Eve congregation often has a newness about it. These are people whom I don’t know all that well – including a few who were drug along by insistent relatives, notably uncomfortable with the idea of singing or praying. They don’t linger long after the service. But when it comes time to light the candles, everyone participates and with enthusiasm. Why is that?

Sure, there is the peer pressure of the moment. You wouldn’t want to be the dud who refused to light your candle. You’d stick out like that half-strand of lights that went out on the tree at home. And there is the emotion, drawing us in like a baby’s smile or Grandma’s sugar cookies. But I’m want to think there’s something else – something akin to what awkward shepherd’s felt as they journeyed to Bethlehem to see the babe in the manger. It’s something like what regal wise men demonstrated on their later homage to the new king. We have, in our humanity, a need to acknowledge and worship the Christ.

Holding that lit candle, if only for the duration of a few verses of Silent Night, transports us into the presence of the Light of the World. And, we too, want to shed a little light; and add our lumens to those of many others in corporate recognition that this Light shines upon us and the world we call home. This Light burns in our heart – always, often, or only on this night. This Light floods the dark corners of our selves and reveals that God knows it all, sees it all, yet loves us and comes to redeem and restore us. This light, shared in collective worship, appeals to God on behalf of the world God loves for peace, hope, healing and restoration.

How can a simple lit candle, held aloft in unison with others, represent so much? What will it represent for you this year? Many a Christmas Eve service, including our own, will be held virtually in 2020 as this horrid pandemic keeps us physically apart. But I hope we will each light our Christmas Eve candles as we worship. Perhaps we will even share their light with our neighbors – finding ways to light the windows of our homes or lighting luminaries on the sidewalk or driveway. Our light(s) will be our witness to the hope of Christ for a broken and sick world, to the promise of redemption for all of our sin-sick souls.

So, fret not, you who are mourning the loss of tradition – including the Christmas Eve service as we’ve known it. Think not of what is being lost, but of what is being kept and perhaps shared in new ways. Hold your candle high and know that in its solitary light, it joins in solidarity with a multitude of other lights to show the way to Bethlehem.

Come, O house of Jacob, let us walk in the light of the Lord! (Isaiah 2:5).

*The picture that accompanies this blog is called “Festival of Lights”. As with all great pieces of art, there is a story behind it. If you are interested in learning more about the painting and artist’s thoughts watch this video.

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Giving Thanks When You Do Not Feel Like It

As the Thanksgiving holiday fast approaches it looks as though we will be celebrating it in different ways this year. Many families will forego the larger extended family gatherings. Travel that brings households together from across the state or nation is being discouraged. Plans are being made for virtual gatherings, or smaller gatherings where check-ins can be had through Facetime or Zoom meetings. All of this is of course due to the continued spread of the Coronavirus, which is clearly in the midst of a surge in most places.

Given these circumstances, and the impact Covid-19 continues to wield on many other facets of life, I found myself thinking lately that I’m kind of over all of it. (Or I wish we could be). I never thought, as a pastor, I would discourage people from coming to church once in the course of a year, let alone twice. Just as we were enjoying and doing pretty well with some additional in-person gatherings, we’ve felt it best to pull back on those in an abundance of caution. But man, it just stinks to have to do this again! And it’s difficult to break that news to people – even people who agree with it, let alone those who have different opinions. So, for much of the past few days I’ve not been feeling overly thankful. In fact, given all that 2020 has thrown our way, I – like a lot of people – would just as soon usher it out the door; if only that would solve all our challenges.

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Weary of Waiting

Waiting can be one of the most challenging things a human being is called to do. When we are young it is especially hard to wait. We say, “I can’t wait for Christmas! or my birthday, or whatever it is we are anticipating. But, as we get older waiting doesn’t seem to get any easier, does it?

It’s hard to wait for news from the lab. It’s difficult to wait for a hoped for phone call, text or email. We may find ourselves checking our devices repeatedly, anxiously waiting when wanting to know something now.

America is currently getting a lesson in waiting. We are awaiting the results of this week’s Presidential election, after waiting all the weeks for it to get here. Several states remain in play as I write this blog, two days after Election Day. But this is not all we are waiting on. We are also waiting on some good news about the 2020 health pandemic. We are waiting on a vaccine or proven therapeutic that will hold this virus at bay and allow life to return to some semblance of pre-pandemic living. Once that treatment is approved we will be waiting for it to be distributed.

As a full-fledged citizen of contemporary culture I too wish we didn’t have to wait so long. Like you, I’m used to day of results, quick service and timely outcomes. Yet, as one who reads and studies Scripture and strives to follow Christ, I know that God often reveals things through waiting. Just consider how many times the people of God endured long periods of waiting. Generations of Hebrews waited for deliverance in Egypt (430 years). Then they waited 40 years in the wilderness. Later it was 70 years in exile. Then they waited 400 years from the last Old Testament prophet to John the Baptist’s announcement of Messiah Jesus. Waiting has been baked into the faith experience. God is seldom in a hurry. Faith is a long obedience in the same direction.

In truth when we follow Christ all of life is about waiting. We await the full coming of the Kingdom of God. We wait for creation to be restored. We wait to join the company of all the saints. We wait for Jesus to come again.

So, this waiting thing, while tiresome and a bit tedious, is not new. We should be well-practiced in it. It’s what we do while waiting that may be more important. Do we fret? worry? complain? whine? Not too much will come of any of that. Do we pray? ponder? reflect? listen? Probably a much better set of choices. Do we trust? Put our faith in God’s future? Prioritize not according to this world’s powers and principalities, but those of the kingdom of heaven? Do we sit with the one who is anxious? Console the one who is grieving? Encourage the one who is despondent?

Waiting could be a productive exercise if only we had the patience to do it well.

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Crisis Fatigue

In a recent article, author Jake Owensby uses the term “crisis fatigue” to describe the tumultuous climate we are living through today in the world.

He says, “Confronted by a relentless barrage of stress-inducing events, we respond with a draining mixture of exhaustion, rage, disgust, despair, anxiety and grief. We want things to change, but the problems seem so huge that we don’t know where to start. We begin to wonder if we could make a real difference anyway. We’re overwhelmed.” (Ministry Matters: “Do the right next thing”)

Owensby’s words resonated with me as I consider my ongoing response to 2020, and as I walk alongside many others who, like me, are trying to faithfully follow Jesus in the midst of a global pandemic, struggling economy, racial unrest, natural disasters and contentious election year. People are simply tired. In fact, “tired” doesn’t do it justice. “Fatigue” is a much better word. Fatigue carries in its meaning the accumulative effect of tiresome events, issues, and engagements. Tired is overcome by a good night’s rest. Fatigue is only overcome by a more intentional and lengthy response.

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Inch by Inch, Row by Row

“Inch by inch, row by row; gonna make this garden grow. All it takes is a rake and hoe and piece of fertile ground.”
Those are the opening lyrics to David Mallet’s folks song often performed by John Denver. They’ve been in my mind and heart this summer as I have been giving effort toward tending a new garden plot.

Gardening is part of my therapy – my mental health therapy. When I’m in the garden, planting seeds, pulling weeds, tending plants or picking produce; my mind is not occupied with outside worries. For some reason working in the soil and watching the wonder of plants grow, blocks out all the other stuff. I think I inherited this behavior from my dad. He used to tend a large garden, spending hours in the summer evenings cultivating produce that blessed our dinner table. Now, as I look back, I wonder what kinds of things he was working out during his gardening therapy?

This season I’ve been breaking in a new garden plot – or is it breaking me in? We moved in the late winter and I converted some of the new home’s landscaping area into my flower and vegetable garden. It’s worked out pretty well. Early spring lettuce and spinach have been followed by bush beans, carrots, green peppers, summer squash, a variety of tomatoes, pole beans, and an abundant crop of butternut squash. The Covid-19 pandemic made it difficult to procure all the seeds I had hoped to sow in the spring, but I’ve enjoyed tending what’s come up.

I have also enjoyed having a new gardening buddy, our grandson Oliver. He is my produce picker. At 2 1/2 he has great enthusiasm for picking a tomato and digging a carrot. It’s fun to see the growing season through his eyes. I’m hoping we’re planting the seeds of new generation of gardener in this young lad. He does like to water the garden, so maybe that’s a start!

Granted my generational effort at gardening is less industrious than was that of my parents. For them, a big garden was a means of helping feed a family of five children. All of the canning and freezing of vegetables was a lot of work. In our household it’s really just a pick it and eat it endeavor. In that respect we enjoy most of the produce in the moment, while holding on to what will keep (without much effort on our part) for later. Any extra the garden produces is given away – which is fun as well.

“Inch by inch, row by row. Someone bless these seeds I sow. Someone warm them from below.”
This prayer reminds me that gardening, for me, is not only practical work and mental health therapy; it is spiritual practice. My image of God is often that of a gardener, working in the midst of our lives, cultivating, pruning, training, producing, and harvesting. God invites us to grow and asks that we yield to a Gardener’s best practices when it comes to bearing fruit.

Maybe this is why the garden is for me such a natural place of prayer. Life began in a garden and I believe will begin again in a garden. God has never left the garden of Creation, but waits in eager expectation for the sons and daughters of creation to come into their own.

The work of discipleship is the tedious, enjoyable, cultivating work of tending – cultivating – training – pruning – producing – bearing and harvesting. Time to get back to the garden . . . . .

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