As I was working on some of the Christmas services last week, a thought came up in my mind: Isn’t it weird that we have two Christ candles in the sanctuary over the Advent season? In the vein of “great minds think alike,” one of the first questions Nan asked me during the decorating time was about having two Christ candles in the sanctuary.
The Christ candle represents the presence of Christ. Churches do this very differently. Some churches will have two candles on the communion table; others often have a giant pillar with the candle prominently displayed. Some churches I have been to, especially in the developing world, will have a tea candle in a pretty holder. Regardless of what it looks like, the meaning of the candle is the same, and a reminder of Matthew 18:20 when Jesus says, “For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them (NRSV)." We bring in the light as a reminder that Christ is present with us, and when we go out the door, it reminds us that Christ is in the world. Thus, the presence of Christ is everywhere.
During Advent, most Presbyterian churches utilize the Advent candles as a tool to help their congregations remember that the month of December is a time of ordered preparation. Each week, we are called to look inward and ask how we are preparing ourselves for the coming of Christ. While we see that coming as Christmas, really what we are preparing for is the Second Coming, taking time to reflect on how we are living out the call to be people of hope, peace, joy, and love. The fifth Advent candle, which is lit on Christmas Eve, is the Christ Candle.
So now you might be able to see the dilemma: for four weeks, we will have two Christ candles; but there are not two Christs, so what are they symbolizing? Logically, it does not make sense until you think it through. As Christians, we believe that Christ was born into this world to save the world from ourselves.
He reminded us that we need to keep check on our humanity and recognize that we are called not to live for ourselves, but for God. In that way, we are never separated from God’s love and Christ’s grace. But at the same time, we are in a perpetual state of waiting—not just during Advent, but every day of our lives. We are waiting for the Second Coming, the day that Christ will come in his final glory to welcome those whom he has called to heaven.
So, having two candles actually makes a lot of sense. The candle we light every Sunday represents the Christ who came and his Spirit that remains. The candle that is not lit reminds us that while Christ has come, Christ will come again, and we need to always be vigilant about how we are prepared for that day.
Growing up, school was always the place where I had to be right and have all the answers, while church was the place where I could use the tools from school and really question. It was not strange that when something disturbed me or challenged me, we were encouraged to question and seek understanding. I could not tell you most of those experiences, but one of my very first was over a section in the bulletin that ran every week called “A Time for Prayers and Thanksgivings.” This is what would be our “pastoral prayer,” when I ask about joys and concerns.
The issue I had was simple: how can we celebrate thanksgiving, if it was not Thanksgiving? In my 7-year-old mind, thanksgiving was only a day, not a mindset. My mother had me take this issue to the pastor. I could tell when I asked my pastor, he was delighted to answer. He took me aside and began a conversation I will never forget about what thanksgiving was, and why it is something we should practice every day. Over the years, I have learned more and more about thanksgiving, both the day and the lifestyle.
Thanksgiving, the holiday, actually originated before the European settlements in the Americas. Linked with the early reformation and celebrations of plenty, the Puritans would often have celebrated a Thanksgiving at the end of a good harvest, though if the harvest was bad, they would fast. Obviously, this meant that it was not an annual event, nor was it an event that required sacrifice—it was a celebration of abundance, from abundance.
Like many modern celebrations, Thanksgiving is riddled with problems. Part of the problem with Thanksgiving is the disconnect between the meaning and the observance. As this holiday became secularized, some of the most important elements got lost. By the time the United States was being established, Thanksgiving had already taken on many of the mythical themes that follow the day: that the Puritans in Plymouth, after failing miserably at farming, took what they learned from the Native Americans and were finally able to have a good harvest, and were so grateful that they invited them to this grand feast to give thanks.
That is a really nice story, and to be honest, most scholars think it is more myth then reality. In fact, the materials on the “first” Thanksgiving are so sparse, it is hard for scholars to pinpoint the exact date or year of that celebration. But even though it is a nice story, it misses the very basis of what the holiday is about, which is the celebration and thanksgiving to God for giving the resources of life to the community.
The myth of the first Thanksgiving is a hard one for many in the Native American community, because it is a painful reminder that as the Europeans came in, they worked to destroy the native people, often while using them for their own gain. That is one of the great problems with the overemphasis on the myth! Whoever made that story up was trying to show a conciliar action, and how two peoples could come together to make a community thrive. Unfortunately, it illustrates one of the problems that come with myths: the myth often overtakes the meaning.
It is important for us to remember that the “first” Thanksgiving was not really the first, so that when we celebrate the day, we do not celebrate the myth. Rather, we celebrate the meaning and use it as a reminder that we need to be thankful every day of our lives for the abundance that God gives.
As Christians in the Protestant tradition, and especially within our branch, we are called to live thankfully. We are called to be thankful for the gifts of life which God gave to us, and thankful for the salvation which God extended to us. This is why it is so important for us to see that thanksgiving is not a secular celebration for one day, but something that we should remember every day, and be thankful for the abundance which God gives to us.
There is no doubt that God has given mankind the opportunity to make choices. We label this as free will. Many of the contemporary evangelical movements make a big deal of free will. In fact, some go so far as to say God has given you free will, and if you make right choices, you will prosper in this world, but if you make wrong choices (sin), you will do poorly. Unfortunately, so many traditions make such a great deal of this concept, it has become mainstream thinking. I call that unfortunate, because it misses some of the great nuances of the understanding of call and choice, and it completely misses the point of the Gospel.
Within the teachings of Christ, we can pretty fervently state that a choice to follow Christ is not a choice to better yourself in this world, but it is to prepare yourself for the next. Jesus spoke against the religious zealots who put the law before compassion. He spoke against those who lost sight of God in the midst of their practices of faith. His wrath was shown when he saw the temple working to profit itself over celebrating God.
When one comes to believe in Christ, they welcome a life that will undoubtedly be difficult. But before there is the choice, there is the call. Calls are always difficult. Whether it is the call to go on a mission or the call to raise a family, calls should never be entered into lightly, or for reward. That never works out well—just watch the movie Mommie Dearest. Our great examples of the reluctant prophets, who by speaking the word of God often risked their life and comfort, teach us that to take up a call, we have to make the choice to put ourselves within the hands of God, knowing that it will work out in the direction God has planned.
This is different from the understanding of election and predestination, since it is your choice whether or not to accept the path that has been laid out before you. When that choice is made, one must learn to trust and know that in the end, it will work out to the good. And if the wrong choice is made, we ask God for the grace to reopen the door to allow us to find the right choice again. I think of that when I think of my colleagues who joined the clergy later in life: they could mark all the times God had called them, but they turned the other direction.
At the end of choice and call comes thanksgiving. Ultimately, we realize that in the midst of our choices and our life, God is ever present, and though we may not receive the glory and reward in this life, we will certainly find it in the next. Thus, giving time to give thanks to God is very important, because to avoid it is to leave God out of the equation and lose sight of the role God is playing in your life. Though we have free will, that does not make our lives devoid of the presence of God. In fact, if we learn anything from Christ, keeping God central to our life changes our priorities, challenges us in our relationships, and leads us to see the love that God truly has for us.
Though it is once a year, don’t forget God while celebrating the Thanksgiving holiday. Rather, let yourself be transformed by the grace and love that God has given to you through the presence of the Holy Spirit in your life
This Sunday, we will have our second annual meeting of the year. The focus of this meeting is the leadership of the church. While the church will be introduced to the budget, the focus is on electing our leaders and confirming the pastor’s call. It is one of those important Sundays that really puts a mark on the life of the church and how we move forward. For us, we have met the difficult days in our past head on, and are beginning to progress to a new reality. However, even with our growth and stability, we are still impacted by the reality of the world that we are in and the trends that affect all congregations.
One of the most difficult trends of the church over the past 20 years is the fact that church has become a passive experience. With the rise of what I used to call Walmart churches—big churches with lots of activities and little commitment—many congregations rely on a small, select group leading, and the rest passively absorbing. This is disconnected from what the church is supposed to be like. The church is not about what one receives; rather, it is about how we grow together in relationship with God.
When I have worked with other congregations, and even with some individuals, often I find that this disconnect is at the root of many problems the church faces. The easiest example is to think of many financial debates that happen in churches. Thankfully, we have overcome this trend, for the most part. However, when the discussion arises, issues of faith in budget are more often than not reduced to quantifiable numbers like attendance, budget, etc.
While numbers can be helpful tools, the numbers can, and often do, become the driving force of the church, instead of the mission of God. This means that when the numbers become the basis of a church’s life, it loses itself and its identity to the whims of a society that ultimately values itself more than God. The dialogues that are part of these decisions are often far more about function and corporate issues, rather than grounded theology and propagation of the mission of God.
Here lies the great problem of the church, faith, and all of Christianity. The loss of a connected story, and subsequently, theological reasoning, devalues the message of the church and relegates it to merely a social institution. Some even equate the church with a museum of an arcane and dead religion, not something that is active and alive.
Whether spoken or not, many wonder if the church can ever even see growth. To this end, I like to say a big No and Yes, but it has to start with a serious reordering of values and discussion. In other words, I believe that the church must regain the art of telling stories and listening. The story is the most powerful way that one can embrace and grow in both faith and life. In this section, I will explore the social and biblical foundations of narrative, and the need for story and narrative for a grounded faith within the life of the church (local and global). The power of story is something that people often underestimate.
As a respected writer and psychologist, Mary Pipher demonstrates a persuasive understanding of narrative and the great meaning and power of the words we use. She states, “With both written and spoken words, people remember stories. Savvy speakers tell and retell narratives that quiet a room and elicit laughter or tears.” (Pipher, 190) Words have power, and a good storyteller can make a huge difference in people’s lives.
When discussing Martin Luther King Jr., historians often will cite the many people involved with the Civil Rights Movement, but it was his eloquence and ease of speech that brought his message out and thus impacted the lives of so many. The witness that King brought connected with people because he often retold the stories of the struggles of himself and others. He also allowed the story to be owned not only by him, but by those who were gathered. MLK knew that the only way to create change was to speak in powerful ways that connected people not to power, but to God, and that with that connection to God, they could take down any oppressive power that came in their way. He did this through story and a narrative that spoke a truth that was not passive or comfortable, but one that was life-changing.
As we gather next Sunday to elect our leaders, we will be charging them to lead this congregation with imagination and energy, looking to ways in which we can really make a difference in our community and connect people with God in a much deeper way.
Rev. Dr. Bryan James Franzen