On May 5 to 7, Mennonite spiritual directors from the Great Lakes region gathered for a retreat at Lindenwood Retreat Center, near Plymouth, Indiana. Our theme was Tending the Fire -- and we had time to tend the fire that God has kindled in each of us through worship times, story sharing, experiential workshops on spiritual practices, conversations of many sorts, and sabbath time. The Emmaus road story, Luke 24:13 - 36, wove its way through our worship gatherings: Were not our hearts burning within us while he was taking to us on the road?
The room for most of our large gatherings looked out over the lake and the beginnings of spring -- flowering trees, tulips, baby geese. Our visuals required some creativity. We had chosen the theme of Tending the Fire before we knew that Lindenwood has a policy of no open flames, for insurance reasons. So we improvised with fiery colors, salt lamps, paintings, figures, and flowers, changing with each worship time.
The visual center below has a story of its own. Jane Halteman brought a number of things to be used for the visuals. At the last minute she threw in this red and blue cloth, one that she had purchased from the Congo Cloth Connection at Mennonite General Assembly last summer. She choose it for the colors, not aware that the pattern was of candle flames until she opened it at the retreat. It immediately struck us as just what was needed for our main gathering space, along with a contemporary icon of the Emmaus encounter and some light from a Ten Thousand Villages salt lamp.
If you count the candles on the cloth, you'll find 30 whole flames and 3 partial ones (allowing for a bit of imaginative stretch in the case of that right uppermost flame). There were 33 registrants at the retreat, with several who were not able to be there the whole time. A lovely synchronicity (even if the numbers don't quite match -- there should be four partial flames!).
And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid. And the angel said unto them, "Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord. And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger."
And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying, "Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward all." And it came to pass, as the angels were gone away from them into heaven, the shepherds said one to another, "Let us now go even unto Bethlehem, and see this thing which is come to pass, which the Lord has made known unto us." And they came with haste, and found Mary, and Joseph, and the babe lying in a manger. Luke 2:8-16
I grew up with the tradition of an Advent wreath -- four candles, one for each Sunday of Advent, and a candle in the middle. In my childhood, the central candle was always a countdown candle, thanks to the artwork of our neighbor, Grace Krabill.
When our children were little, I went back to her and learned how to paint the candle with a spiral of numbers from 1 - 25 and a scattering of holly leaves and berries. At supper each evening, the children took turns lighting the countdown candle or blowing it out. Then on Sunday evening, we'd carry the wreath to the living room, turn out all the electric lights except for the little ones on the tree, light candles around the room, and ceremoniously light the Advent candles for that week. And we would sing the appropriate number of verses from "O come, O come, Immanuel."
Now that the children are grown and out on their own, we have a Christ-candle in the middle of the wreath, and we sing "O come" in other settings.
On this third Sunday of Advent, I'm hearing the third verse of "O Come" singing through my heart, with its rather mournful melody.
O come, thou Dayspring, come and cheer
our spirits by thine advent here;
disperse the gloomy clouds of night,
and death's dark shadows put to flight.
I'm grieving the deaths in schoolrooms in Connecticut and China. I'm holding awareness of others' gloomy clouds and dark shadows -- illness and loss of loved ones, depression, work and family stresses, discord in home or church or nation, the pain of past events, the challenges of the jolliness of this season.
I'm savoring the words of Zechariah's prophecy from Luke 1:78:
By the tender mercy of our God,
the dawn from on high will break upon us,
to give light to those who sit in darkness
and in the shadow of death,
to guide our feet into the way of peace.
The dawn, or in the words of the King James Version, the dayspring.
For those who sit with the shadow of death this day:
O come, thou Dayspring.
O come, O come, Immanuel.
Immanuel, which means God-with-us -- and which brings me back to the Christ-candle, and the phrase that the Children in Worship program has given us, the phrase that is always repeated at the end of their worship time, as the candle flame is extinguished and the smoke swirls through the room:
The Light that was in one place and one time
is now in all places and all times.
It feels very right to have a Christ-candle in the middle of our Advent wreath, and to be lighting it each evening, even as we also light the Advent candles one at a time, week by week, waiting to celebrate Christmas and the arrival of the Christ-child, the Light who was in one place and time, and now is in all places and all times, the One who can guide us into the way of peace.
Yesterday was the first Sunday in Advent, and also our annual Messiah Sing at Assembly Mennonite. As always, the lighting of the Advent candle was a light-filled moment. The fourth and fifth graders ushered the candle lighter in with a simple procession/dance; the banner and the table visuals were created by the MYF. Later the rafters rang as over 200 people filled the worship space to join in singing excerpts from Handel's Messiah.
I heard the Hallelujah chorus from the kitchen, where I was helping ready a plenitude of potluck dishes -- casseroles, crockpot concoctions, salads, breads, desserts, and more. Some dishes were familiar -- Dana's semeles with honey butter, carefully prepared by his Sunday School class, Steve's massive cooker full of rice and chicken, Lois' taco salad, Joy's quiches. Others were new and tempting --shrimp salad, lemon cardamon rice pudding, variations of rice and bean dishes from many lands. The wealth of diversity was echoed in the ages and faces of those that soon sat down to enjoy the feast. I wish I had photos, but I was too busy helping refill the tables.
Thinking of the seasonal metaphor I explored last week, Assembly is in the spring paradox stage. We've come through a period where death touched us closely and where new life has also been vibrant. We have ten babies born in 2012 among us, and several more on the way. Thanks to the baby boom and to newcomers to Goshen who have joined us in recent years, we face all the challenges and opportunities that such growth brings.
One of those opportunities has been "Assembly North." With the support of the Assembly Leadership Group, a group of about 20 people began meeting this summer to explore the possibility for another Assembly-related worship group. Rather than working out all the details ahead of time, we took on the mantra "The Way is made by walking" and set out to see what might happen.
This fall we began meeting regularly at 11:00 on Sunday mornings at Faith House for a time of worship and a simple meal together. During the month of November, about half of us shared about the invitations from God that we've sensed as individuals, and ways that we are living those out, or new invitations we're beginning to glimpse. It has been a good way to learn more about each other and the 'sparks sown in us like seed,' to borrow a phrase from "What is this place," the first song in the Hymnal Worship Book.
A week ago we culminated that sharing with a candle lighting ceremony. Erin placed the peace lamp/Light of Christ in the center of our circle and invited each of us to light a tea candle from it on behalf of the person to our left, with the group joining in to say, for example, "May Sally's light shine." Each person was named, as well as those who were out of town celebrating Thanksgiving with their families. We had time to sit with the Light, noticing the way the tea candle flames all leaned in towards the lamp, and the way that the lamp flame danced in response.
What Assembly North will become is still unknown (a 2nd Assembly campus? a house church? a new congregation?). It is good to be part of that unfolding, just as it was good to be with the whole Assembly yesterday, joining in with song and feast. Here, too, what we will become is still unknown, as we continue the journey together. But both are places of light and welcome, and the Holy Spirit blows in our midst, bringing comfort and challenge and transformation -- a fitting awareness to carry into this Advent season, as we wait and we watch.
During second hour on Pentecost, we celebrated Heidi's years of pastoring at Assembly. Carmen Horst, one of our interim pastors, told of being invited, along with other friends, to send a bead as a way of accompanying Heidi as she gave birth to her first child. We were invited to present Heidi with a bead and a written blessing as part of this celebration. These were later strung together as a gift for Heidi and the family.
I posted about seeing tadpoles at the Calendar Garden in late April. Heidi told me later she immediately took the boys out to see.
The cycle of life -- empty chrysalis cases on the crumpled leaf and a bright monarch butterfly in flight.
A candle for those Heidi leaves behind. That's a hazelnut on the base, to remind me of the words Julian of Norwich heard Christ say:
All shall be well, and all shall be well,
and all manner of thing shall be well.
Candles have been an important part of our walk with Heidi and her family, from a candle vigil soon after word of her diagnosis to the song and candle vigil just before she died Sunday night.
One of the stained glass windows Wilma Harder made for the Assembly meetinghouse, on a rainy November day
Mary Gilbert, Anne Graber Miller and Sibyl Graber Gerig created a comforter for the Siemens-Rhodes with scraps that the congregation donated. Many have stories behind them -- the blue scallop one near the upper right corner came from material I got on a trip to Japan. Heidi, having lived there several years, provided helpful tips and a sackful of books before I went.
The light shines in the darkness
and the darkness can not put it out.
I began this blog nine months ago partially in response to the news of Heidi's cancer (see the first entry Watching for Light, on 9-29). With Heidi's death Sunday, I have been going through the photos I've taken these past nine months, looking for ones that speak to me of Heidi.
There are none of Heidi herself. I have been taking very few photos of people, since it hasn't seemed right to post those without asking permission and that added an extra layer of work to a blog entry. So even though interactions with people are often the source for sparks of light in a day for me, I have not emphasized that here.
Instead I have focused on nature, and on objects that in some way show a spark of light, either literally or metaphorically. Sometimes it is a physical object that illustrates an interaction or an event that was a spark of light. With the latter, I often have told a little about the event.
I decided to put together a slideshow of photos that speak to me of Heidi -- sometimes due to comments that she sent me, or because the object pictured is from an event related to Heidi, or simply because the photo seems to fit in some way today.
I put this series of photos together, but instead of doing a slideshow here, which may take too long for some computers to download, I have divided it into five segments, one for each day until Heidi's memorial service Saturday, beginning today.
I'm thinking of the intertwining of light and shadow again. Today there was retreat space set up at the meetinghouse, so that people could come as they were able, and spend time in Advent space.
There were tables set up with supplies for folding origami cranes or working creatively with paper supplies or decorating candles with malleable colored beeswax. And there was a large spiral laid out on the floor, outlined with pine branches and tree stumps for setting candles on, with the path leading in to the glowing Christ candle at the center.
We were invited to spend time in prayer or pondering questions such as:
In what ways are the Darkness and Light interacting in you and in the world this Advent season?
How have you seen darkness becoming the "cradle of the dawning"?
Can you name the spots of light and the dark places of this past year?
If we chose to do so, we could carry an unlit candle into the spiral, slowly, mindfully, prayerfully, light it at the Christ candle and then carry it out, placing it on one of the stumps.
On the way in with my unlit candle, I noticed one golden origami crane catching the light as it hung on the mobile that has been made of many origami cranes folded in prayer for Heidi's healing.
And I noticed the dance of the light and shadow of candles that others had left on the stumps of wood.
I didn't have my camera along, so this is a re-creation at home. I looked down at flames that were flickering slightly in the movement of air in the room. Beneath them, the white candles glowed in their wooden holders.
Beneath each holder there was a pool of light, dancing a bit as the flame flickered. And at the center of each pool of light, there was a dancing shadow, cast by the candle itself. In one case, the drips and decorations on the side of the candle were such that the cast shadow looked like a bird, moving gently in its pool of cast light.
On the way out, my attention went to the flame I carried. When I held it at eye level, I could see the beautiful clear blue at the base, then the warm dancing light above. And at the center of the flame, a shadow that was part of the flame and so of light, and yet still a shadow, around and above the wick.With each step I took the flame bent and bowed regally, first to one side, then to the other. I soon had the verse from the old Shaker hymn singing through my head:
When true simplicity is found
to bow and to bend we shan't be ashamed,
to turn, turn shall be our delight,
till by turning, turning we come round right.
How appropriate to accompany a spiral walk. And how fitting with the last questions we were given to ponder: Have any new insights emerged [as you walked the spiral]? Are you feeling called to any new action, to a shift in your current practices, or to letting something go?
Before I entered the spiral, I had folded an origami crane of black paper shot with black threads that caught the light and shimmered. It seemed fitting for this season of ruminating on darkness and light. I left it on the art table.
As I finished the spiral, I realized I wanted to fold another crane to go with it, one of some light colored paper. I shuffled through the papers that were there, and chose a light blue, sprinkled with lighter blue strands. It reminded me of the blue of the flame, and the blue light that Heidi has written about experiencing during her radiation treatment.
I finished folding it, and reached across the table to put it beside the black crane -- and discovered someone had already folded a tiny blue crane and placed it lovingly on the wings of the larger black crane.
Darkness and light.
Dark paper with light threads, dancing candle shadows and flames, and a tiny blue bird of hope.
"Joy is a candle of mystery and laughter, mystery of light that is born in the dark..." (from Hope is a candle by Richard Leach, #15 in Sing the Story)
It's the third Sunday of Advent, and my moments of light today are snippets here and there --
-- the light shining on Karen's head as she sang the solo during communion
--light from the stained glass windows dancing colorfully above Wilma's head as she played the guitar
-- Carmen's and my shared laughter as she stumbled over this line in her blessing for me: "May your mouth be filled with laughter ... (from Psalm 126)
--candles, fire, and laughter at Faith House
--a just past full moon seen through the branches of the neighbor's trees
-- lights on the Christmas tree we put up yesterday
-- the wonderful illustrations in Julia Vivas' book, The Nativity, especially the angel, with his colorful, tattered wings and his army boots
". . .laughter at hearing the voice of an angel, ever so near, casting out fear." (from Hope is a candle)
My approach to contemplative photography --
Tell about it."
Mary Oliver in "Sometimes"