The Christmas Eve Candle

            Most Christian congregations celebrate the eve of Christmas with some sort of candlelight service. Worshipers receive a small white candle inserted into a clear plastic cup, plastic holder, or paper ring to catch dripping wax. At some point during the liturgy, all the candles are lit, the lights dimmed or turned off, and all sing Silent Night or some other Christmas carol by candlelight as they recall and celebrate the incarnation of the Light of the World. When well-crafted and executed, the Christmas Eve Candlelight Service can be the most memorable and cherished worship service of the whole year, eliciting both tears and smiles for those who attend.

            When I was much younger, say around nine or ten years old or maybe a little older, I looked forward to attending the Christmas Eve Candlelight Service not only for its message of joy and peace but also for the candle. I always brought the candle from the service home with me and used it the rest of the winter to wax the runners of my sled.

            With a fresh coat of wax on my hand-me-down sled’s old, rusty runners I could race down neighborhood hills faster than you could say Jack Frost. I would sometimes swish and swoosh down slopes in a serpentine pattern. Other times I would just make a beeline straight down the grade, trying to see how fast and how far I could go.

            One winter my waxed runners and cold, slick snow combined to enable me to sled so fast and far that I slid right off a three or four foot high stone wall holding back the hillside I had just sped down, and I landed on the concrete sidewalk below. I survived that adventure without a scratch, but my hand-me-down sled did not. The runners were bent and the wood cracked. Soon afterward I was the proud owner or a newer and even larger sled, not a Western Flyer but a Western Clipper!

            I still have that Western Clipper, though it is no longer new, and it has been years since anyone has used it. I also still bring home the candle from the Christmas Eve Candlelight Service, not to wax the runners of that old sled, but to remind me throughout the year that faith and trust in the incarnation of the Light of the World can help me negotiate the twists and turns of life, even when I find myself where I never expected to be.


Sanctified Through Prayer

“Sanctification Through Prayer”
A Sermon based on John 17:6-19
By The Reverend John Edward Harris, D. Min.
The Presbyterian Church of Cadiz
Cadiz, Ohio
May 17, 2015
7th Sunday of Easter Year B

Today’s Gospel Reading is part of a prayer known as Jesus’ final or High Priestly Prayer, a prayer which constitutes nearly the entire 17th Chapter of John’s Gospel. In the first part of the prayer, verses 1-5, Jesus prays for himself. In the second part, verses 6-19, which is today’s Gospel Reading, Jesus prays for his disciples. In the final section, verses 20-26, Jesus prays for future believers.
The entire prayer contains over 640 words but the section we read today encompasses only 330 words. Our typical Prayers of the People, the prayer after the Sermon and middle hymn, are usually about 370 words in length. The versions of the Lord’s Prayer we use in worship, by comparison, contain between 60-70 words.
Even though John’s Gospel does not contain the Lord’s Prayer, which we find only in Matthew and Luke, we can hear echoes of the Lord’s Prayer in today’s Gospel Reading. In the Lord’s Prayer Jesus asked that God’s name be hallowed. In today’s Reading from John we hear Jesus say in verse 6 that he has made God’s name known and in verse 12 that has protected his followers in God’s name. In the Lord’s Prayer Jesus addressed or prayed to God as “Our Father.” In verse 11 of today’s Reading from the Fourth Gospel he addresses God as his “Holy Father”. In the Lord’s Prayer Jesus prayed that we be delivered from evil. In verse 15 of Today’s Gospel Reading Jesus asks that his followers be protected “from the evil one.”
The Greek word translated in Matthew 6:9 as “hallowed” when Matthew tells us Jesus prayed “Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name” and in Luke 11:2 where Luke tells us Jesus prayed “Father, hallowed be your name” is translated in John and most other places in the New Testament as “sanctify”, as when in verse 17 in today’s Gospel Reading Jesus prays that his followers be sanctified, and in verse 19 notes that he sanctified himself so that we also may be sanctified.
While “sanctify” is a very religious or churchy word it is not a word we use as often as we used to. It is not a very popular word. In fact I wondered whether or not I should even use it in today’s sermon title. From the Latin word sanctus, sanctification literally means “made Holy” or “set apart for a holy purpose”. Our word “sanctuary,” referring to a place “set apart” or “made holy” for worship, comes from the same Latin root, and we do not hesitate to use that word.
As Daniel Migliore notes in his Introduction to Christian Theology entitled Faith Seeking Understanding, a text used by many seminaries for their Introduction to Theology courses, “the word ‘Sanctification’ means ‘to make holy,’ but for some people that definition may be more a hindrance than a help.” Writing in 2004, he notes “We should not understand holiness here in the sense of moral flawlessness or religious otherworldliness. It certainly has little to do with the smug attitude of a so-called Moral Majority. Becoming holy or sanctified in the New Testament sense means being conformed to the image of Christ by the working of the Holy Spirit in our lives.” “Sanctification is the process of growth in Christian love.” (pp. 240-241).
Drawing upon the writings of John Calvin, Karl Barth, and Paul Tillich, Migliore enumerates six “marks of growth” in Christian life or in the process of sanctification; 1) maturing as hearers of the word of God, 2) maturing in prayer, 3) maturing in freedom, 4) maturing in solidarity with others, 5) maturing in thankfulness and joy, and finally, 6) maturing in hope. (pp. 239-247). It is the second mark in the process of sanctification or growth in Christian life, maturing in prayer, that I want to focus on today. The other five marks will have to wait for another day and another sermon, perhaps.
As Migliore notes:
Prayer is a concrete expression of our love of God. It is personal communication with God, calling upon God as a strong and caring father or mother (cf. Matt. 6:9; Rom. 8:15; Isa 66:13). For the Christian, God is not something but someone—and primarily someone who is spoken to, rather than spoken about. Moreover, this someone addressed in prayer is not feared as a tyrant but genuinely loved as the sovereign and free God who exercises dominion with astonishing goodness and mercy. Prayer is thus our acceptance of the invitation to call upon God in confidence. Maturing in prayer does not mean mastering certain techniques or becoming virtuosos of the spiritual life. It means, on the contrary, being open and honest to God, praising God but also crying to God in our need, and even crying out against God. (p. 242)
While I generally agree with Migliore or else I would not have quoted him, I disagree with him on two points. First, I think that God is not someone whom we speak to but speak with. Secondly, I think that while maturing in prayer does not mean mastering certain techniques, most Christians can always learn more about prayer, including ways to pray they may never have been exposed to.
We should not feel belittled or inadequate if we sense that we really do not know how to pray. While the desire to pray may be innate, the ability to pray is something than can be taught. For instance, the New Testament tells us that John the Baptizer taught his disciples how to pray and I think we can assume he would not have taught them if they had already known how to pray. Likewise, Jesus disciples asked Jesus to teach them how to pray, just as John the Baptizer taught his disciples, and I think it is safe to say that Jesus disciples would not have asked for instruction in prayer if they felt they already knew how to pray.
The first and foremost school of prayer is the Book of Psalms. The Psalter is not only the hymnbook but the prayer book of both ancient Israel and the early Church. By reading the psalms, or better yet praying the psalms, we learn the language, the vocabulary, the cadence, and the topics of prayer. That is why I think it is important to include a reading from the Psalter in worship almost every Sunday. So pray the psalms as if they were your own prayers. Commit your favorite Psalms or some of the verses of your favorite Psalms to memory.
Another school of prayer is common or public worship. Because, as our Directory for Worship notes, “Prayer is at the heart of worship” (W-2.1001), our Sunday liturgy includes a Prayer of Confession, a Prayer for Illumination before we hear God’s Word, Prayers of the People in which we petition God for ourselves and offer intercessions on behalf of others near and far, and after the offering a Prayer of Thanksgiving, or the Great Prayer of Thanksgiving when we celebrate the Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper, in which we thank God for all that God has done for us. Following the Thanksgiving we pray in unison the prayer of all Christians, the Lord’s Prayer.
Unfortunately our expectation that Worship is more or less an hour long limits us to how and how much we pray in any particular service. A century or two ago, when worship services were traditionally two or even three hours long, it was not uncommon for the Prayers of the People, what used to be called “The Pastoral Prayer” or “Long Prayer”, to last an entire hour. Even I can remember squirming as a young child sitting next to my father in the pew wondering when the black robed preacher would ever stop praying. It seemed to me that his “Pastoral Prayer” was longer than his sermon. I hope that none of our younger worshipers think that about me.
Some forms and types of prayer, however, take longer than others and are not suited for common worship. Devoting only about an hour a week to be with God, and only part of that hour to prayer, may not offer us enough time to intentionally “be conformed to the image of Christ by the working of the Holy Spirit in our lives” (Migliore p. 240), or to be sanctified through prayer. So unless you attend some sort of prayer services, take classes or workshops on prayer, read books about prayer, or participate in some sort of experimental and experiential prayer group, you may never be exposed to the a full breadth and depth of Christian prayer. Moreover, relying just on the types and forms of prayer we use in common worship may not be enough to sustain you in your personal prayer life. Such a diet of prayer may not be enough to help you grow in your Christian life, especially when you remember that pray is about talking with and not always to God.
Bradley P. Holt, in his book Thirsty for God: A Brief History of Christian Spirituality, writes “Most of us think of prayer as talking to God, and most often we do so when we need something, so our prayers become requests. This is an authentic form of prayer, but it is a very narrow type.” (pp 18-19) And Gordon Wakefield, in The Westminster Dictionary of Christian Spirituality, notes that “Prayer in Christian Theology and experience is more than pleading or petition; it is our whole relation to God. (v.) The section of our Directory For Worship that talks about “Prayer in Personal Worship” states that “Prayer is a conscious opening of the self to God, who initiates communion and communication with us. Prayer is receiving and responding, speaking and listening, waiting and acting in the presence of God.” (W-5.4001).
We are often too preoccupied acting in the presence of God to set aside a time and a place for waiting in the presence of God. We are often too concerned speaking to God to listen to God. We are often too busy responding to God to receive from God. We are often much like Martha who was distracted by her many tasks and not enough like Martha’s sister Mary who chose the better part by sitting at the Lord’s feet simply listening to what he was saying. (Luke 10:38-42).
One form or style of prayer known as Contemplative Prayer of Centering Prayer traces its roots back to early Christians but for a while was more or less forgotten in the west while continually practiced in the eastern or Orthodox Church. It was eventually reintroduced in the west but for centuries its practice was more or less confined to monasteries and convents. In the past few decades, however, it has been rediscovered not only by many average Roman Catholics but even Main Line Protestants. “Through books and conferences” Roman Catholic Priests, including Basil Pennington and Thomas Keating, and others, have been “teaching people how to center themselves by quietly being in the presence of God, without petition” or even words. (Bradley, p. 148)
Somewhat akin to the ever more popular Mindfulness Meditation and other forms of mediation, both secular as well as from Hindu and Buddhist origins, Contemplative Prayer , Centering Prayer, or Christian Meditation offers Christians who desire a closer and more intimate relationship with God to quiet the outer and inner dialogue as one avenue for the Holy Spirit to work in our lives to conform us to the image of Christ, or to Sanctify us. But such prayer usually takes, at a minimum, twenty minutes, and can easily expand to thirty minutes or even a full hour, not something we have time for in a hour long service of worship.
In today’s Gospel Reading we heard Jesus, in one of his longest known prayers pray that we might be sanctified. While we cannot sanctify ourselves, for only God can sanctify us, through our own prayers, common prayers in worship and private prayers at home, especially contemplative or centering prayer, we can open ourselves to being sanctified, to be made holy, to be conformed to the image of Christ by the working of the Holy Spirit in our lives.


Meeting Jesus on the Beach

I recently participated in a spiritual formation event where the leader invited participants to close their eyes and through guided imagery imagine meeting Jesus on a beach. I guess I should not have been surprised that the Jesus I encountered resembled the fictional character Aragorn as portrayed by Viggo Mortensen in Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings film trilogy. After all, I had watched all three films over a four of five night period just a week or two before. While the character Gandalf is often interpreted as the Christ figure in Tolkien’s epic tale, it is Aragorn who is the king, the king who at first appears as a recluse ranger, often serves others rather than seeking to be served, defies death, and, appears to be resurrected, and ultimately receives the crown that acknowledges his kingship.

I first read Tolkien’s The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings trilogy when I was in high school. Once I started reading them I could not put them down. Eventually, one evening as I was reading, I realized that parts of the Lord of the Rings reminded me of parts of Scripture, especially the Jewish Scriptures or Christian Old Testament. It was then that I gained a new appreciation of Scripture, viewing it not as some dry, boring, religious text from the ancient past but as a spiritual story filled with epic adventure, ancient archetypal myth, conflict, love, betrayal, and struggle. It is no wonder then that decades later, when I imagined meeting Jesus on the beach, Jesus looked an awful lot like the character Aragorn portrayed by Viggo Mortensen.


Meditating Along the Ohio

To paraphrase Heraclitus,

one cannot meditate by the same river twice.


A cool spring breeze caresses my right cheek

while the warm noonday sun kisses my left temple.

Water passing through a fallen elm branch,

rippling like a mountain spring cascading over rocky ledges,

and a crow calling from upstream,

offer an outstanding outdoor orchestra,

a natural ambient soundtrack for twenty-five minutes of mindfulness.

The roaring of trucks barreling along the highway across the river

fails to disturb spring’s sensual serenade.


Lewis and Clark floated past here,

as did Native Americans and pioneers before them.

The queen of the delta and her sisters also paddled by,

floating monuments to the age of steam.

Now barges full of coal, oil, and gas navigate this river,

this once beautiful river,

leaving behind diesel fumes and oil sheens upon her surface, that

when combined with the plastic trash littering her banks,

serve as a testament to our throwaway, petrochemical culture.