We blow out candles at our church during Lent.
It’s a tradition I’ve not seen anywhere else. One of the members of the church who is an excellent woodworker created a cross that lays at about a forty-five degree angle and has enough holes to represent each of the Sundays in the Lenten season. Each Sunday Don begins the service by extinguishing one of the candles, a reversal of the growing glow of Advent. Each week he asks the children to help identify things we do as people to put out the light of Christ in the world. Last Sunday it was greed; this week it was stealing. The smoking candles always set me to thinking.
Don and I are taking turns preaching a series on the “I am” statements of Jesus in John’s gospel. Today, Don combined “I am the good shepherd” and “I am the gate” to look at how God loves and leads us. I know the shepherd metaphor is big in the Bible, but it doesn’t grab me like it does a lot of people. I understand it, but I am not moved by it partly because I think we have overly romanticized it. The shepherds that show up on Christmas cards and those portrayed by towel-headed third graders in their bathrobes were not the shepherds of Jesus’ day. They were poor people with an odor that preceded them.
As Don was preaching (and not overly romanticizing the shepherds) I wrote on the back of my bulletin, “We romanticize shepherds, but we would not listen to them today. They may make for a cute Christmas card, but who in the church at large really lives as though the poor have anything to say on God’s behalf now?”
I live as a part of two churches: the one where I serve as associate pastor and the church where Ginger pastors. When I took the associate position, my biggest hesitancy was not being able to go to church with her. I love being at church with my wife, both as the woman I love and as my pastor. The search committee offered to let me go to Ginger’s church on the Sundays I was not preaching (I preach once a month). Since we have two services, I go to the 8:30 service at Hanover and then alternate at 10, depending on my preaching schedule. As the associate job has grown, I’m at Ginger’s church far less often than I would like, but that’s not my point here. What I’m getting at is today was one of the Sundays when I got to worship in both places. I drove from Hanover to Marshfield with the image of the extinguished candles in my mind.
During Lent, Ginger is doing a series of sermons on “Simple Truths.” Instead of “I am” statements, she’s preaching on “You are” statements. Last week the truth was “You are loved.” This week it was “You are called,” which begs the question, called to what? She did a great job answering. Her text was Jesus’ call to take up our crosses and follow. She went on to talk about Martin Luther King, Mahatma Gandhi, Oscar Romero, Tom Fox, Rachel Corrie, and others who have incarnated the call Jesus was articulating.
As she talked, my mind circled around the image of cross-bearing. The Romans were the Texans of ancient times when it came to capital punishment. If someone was a problem, they killed them and made it slow and painful; the more cruel and unusual, the better. Before Jesus died, crucifixion was not a metaphor of faith. It was the way criminals died. Yes, the gospels were written after Jesus’ death and the writers’ understanding of events surely influenced how they told the story, but I kept thinking about Jesus’ words when Jesus said them and how those who were with him might have internalized them.
Jesus was saying live the kind of life that will get you in trouble with the authorities. Love so emphatically, so prophetically, so audaciously that you could be construed as criminally subversive. When we talk about the “crosses we bear” as the hardships we live with, or the difficulties we face we are missing the power of the image. The call is to be holy terrors, to make nuisances of ourselves and wreak havoc in Jesus’ name.
Oscar Romero understood. He said, “I must tell you, as a Christian, I do not believe in death without resurrection. If I am killed, I shall arise in the Salvadoran people.”
“It seems easier somehow to confront anger within my heart than it is to confront fear. But if Jesus and Gandhi are right then I am not to give in to either. I am to stand firm against the kidnapper as I am to stand firm against the soldier. Does that mean I walk into a raging battle to confront the soldiers? Does that mean I walk the streets of Baghdad with a sign saying “American for the Taking”? No to both counts. But if Jesus and Gandhi are right, then I am asked to risk my life and if I lose it to be as forgiving as they were when murdered by the forces of Satan. I struggle to stand firm but I’m willing to keep working at it.”
I left my second service of the day holding in tension the two disparate images of blown out candles and the raging fires of love set by those who claimed their calling. As I drove home, I remembered a poem I wrote when I was still teaching high school. It came about after a discussion one day with a colleague over our concern for one student who was one of those who seemed diminished by just being in the building: high school was killing him. I wrote:
start with a thousand candles
tiny little beacons beaming
together in brilliance
blow out one no one
will notice this one here
on the edge in the back
blow out one no one
will notice one each night
just one – how could it matter
come back in a thousand nights
and stand alone in the dark
no one will notice
the light over the kitchen sink
goes out with the flick of a switch
the light inside dies incrementally
The poem came to mind, I think, because much of our discussion centered around how we dealt with being a part of the dehumanizing system that is American high school education. As the ones with the relational contact, we were called to relight as many candles as we could everyday, even though it never shows up on the standardized tests.
“Make me an instrument of thy peace,” prayed Saint Francis of Assisi.
Praying like that will get us in trouble. Good. Let’s pray.