As I fumbled to fill the church’s Advent candles with oil on Sunday, I found myself snagged by the grief’s sneaky undertow. But that is how grief often operates. It is much less a sequence of predictable events we can check off than it is a series of repeating waves that rise and fall according to their own somewhat random design.
Here’s what happened: about a half hour before worship, I remembered the Advent candles needed to be filled with liquid wax. Our refillable Advent candles have been a fixture of our worship for many years. What little maintenance is required of them was most often undertaken by Bob—a wonderfully dear church member who died a few days after Christmas last year.
Bob was the sort of church member pastors dream about. He was faithful, present, and available. His interests in life were wide, ranging from photography to fly fishing, trumpet playing to ham radio, and so much more. As his children have told me, “Pop never did anything halfway.”
His involvement in the church was so extensive that it was hard to remember he had only been a member for less than a decade when he died. He was dearly loved and is dearly missed—especially when it comes to making sure the wicks of the Advent candles stay put.
Our candles are wonderful in every way, except when it comes to making sure the silky, slippery wicks do not slip through the candle tip’s tiny openings. It sounds so easy, but my experience is it is a task that can consume hours. Bob, however, was an expert at tying fishing flies. That was the gift he brought to make sure nothing slipped out of our Advent lights.
There are good reasons why pastors should not fool with candles, and managing to get the wicks pulled out wrong is just one example. Some years ago, Bob saw me struggling with this task and volunteered to relieve me—presumably to maintain the sanctuary’s decorum. From that point on, I trusted Bob to fix my candle mishaps. Until last Sunday.
That’s when the sneaky undertow of grief grabbed me and tried to pull me under. Those gravitational forces pull against and are especially pronounced during the holiday seasons. But grief and loss are never solitary memories or experiences. Losses are layered on top of each other. For that reason, I found myself pulled into a spin cycle of grief that included other deaths I’ve experienced this year.
The list is lengthy and includes my sister and five other long-time church members. I grieve the death of the spouse of one colleague, and parents of others. I’m reminded of dear friends whose careers were interrupted by job loss, and church members swept away by the pandemic and have yet to return. All these losses intersect with our Advent expectations and images of creating a perfect holiday. The ever-churning propellers of the Christmas engine spit us out and leave us lost in choppy waters.
We long for the prophet’s words: “Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that she has served her term, that her penalty is paid, that she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins.”
Isaiah cries out to people whose experience of exile has been long and grueling. They have faced generational trauma and dislocation and are now being invited back to a home where none of them have ever lived. Those whose lives have been cut low by grief and loss are summoned toward a new, nearly unimaginable, future.
Generations later, another prophet would be summoned out to the wilderness and given a message to proclaim. You won’t find too many kids clamoring to play John the Baptist in the Christmas pageant, if only because his clothes were itchy and his diet weird. But despite the oddity of the messenger, the message remains fresh. John’s call to turn back to God resonated within the hearts of many. Depleted by grief and exhausted by oppression, they opened themselves to the liberating possibilities of God.
Think about what it would look like if the churches of our presbytery would embody that sort of message this Advent. Not just individually, but collectively. Imagine how our congregations might be awakened to new hope through sharing words of comfort. Imagine how that would cut across the many divisions we experience in both the church and culture to calm the rising tides of despair.
I’ve been wondering about what it might look like if Presbyterians reclaimed our identity as a “connectional” church. Too often those bonds have become nothing more than lines on an organizational chart or mechanisms for recruiting volunteers to serve the larger church. What would happen, however, if we re-imagined connectionalism this Advent to include speaking words of comfort to our region? The challenge becomes helping each other through prayer, worship, and acts of social witness that declare God’s gift of comfort.
I wonder. Perhaps someone could even teach me how to thread wicks into the smallest orifice ever imagined.
Rev. Dr. Christopher Keating
Pastor, Woodlawn Chapel Presbyterian Church
Chaplain, St Louis County Police, West County Precinct