I will light candles this Christmas,
Candles of joy despite all the sadness,
Candles of hope where despair keeps watch,
Candles of courage for fears ever present,
Candles of peace for tempest-tossed days,
Candles of grace to ease heavy burdens,
Candles of love to inspire all my living,
Candles that will burn all year long.
~ Howard Thurman
Howard Thurman lived during the most amazing time in the history of our world. Born in 1899 in horse and buggy days and the grandson of a former slave, Thurman died in 1981, the year the IBM personal computer debuted. In 1953 Life magazine named Thurman one of the twelve greatest preachers of the century.
A Baptist pastor, Thurman led a delegation of African-Americans to India in 1935 to meet Mohandas Gandhi. Gandhi’s influence led Thurman to understand Jesus as liberator, and he subsequently worked to bring together the gospel and non-violence resistance to combat white racism.
As one who always sought common ground, Thurman co-founded San Francisco’s Church for the Fellowship of all Peoples in 1944, the first integrated, interfaith, intercultural religious congregation in the United States. Seventy-six years later, this church is still bringing people together to worship, seek common understanding, and unite together in promoting love and reconciliation.
Thurman’s theology is best represented in his most well-known book, Jesus and the Disinherited, published in 1949. The book’s thesis is that Jesus taught the “the disinherited” a faith-based, unconditional love that would enable them not only to endure oppression but to resist and even transform their oppressors.
From 1953 to 1965, Howard Thurman was the dean of Marsh Chapel at our United Methodist Boston University of Theology. He was the first black dean at a mostly white American university. During that time, Thurman mentored Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who received his Ph.D. at Boston University in 1955. Thurman and King’s father were friends, and Thurman was often at the King home when the younger Martin was growing up.
King carried a copy of Thurman’s Jesus and the Disinherited while he was leading the 1955–1956 Montgomery bus boycott. Thurman also influenced Jesse Jackson, who wrote a 1982 tribute to Thurman a year after his death. Jackson said that he was attracted to Thurman, who always insisted, “If you ever developed a cultivated will with spiritual discipline, the flame of freedom would never perish.” Howard Thurman lit candles that burned all year long. Will you, too, light candles of peace and hope in these challenging days?
In an interview shortly before his death, Thurman referred to the influence of his grandmother. “She would talk about the times when a slave preacher was permitted to hold services for the slaves of her master’s and all the neighboring plantations… She would say, ‘He would then look around to all of us in the room, and then he would say, “You are not slaves, you are not niggers – you are God’s children.”’ And you know, when my grandmother said that, she would unconsciously straighten up, head high and chest out, and a faraway look would come on her face.
“Now that transmitted an idiom to me. And there was nothing that could happen in my environment that could ever touch this. It gave me my identity, so I didn’t have to wait for the revolution. I have never been in search of identity.” Thirty-nine years after his death, Howard Thurman’s legacy continues to burn brightly all year long, for each person is a child of God.
Thurman’s book The Mood of Christmas and Other Celebrations not only contains “I Will Light Candles This Christmas” but also perhaps his best-known poem, “The Work of Christmas.” I invite you to listen to a choral version of this poem by composer Dan Forrest.
When the song of the angels is stilled,
When the star in the sky is gone,
When the kings and princes are home,
When the shepherds are back with their flock,
The work of Christmas begins:
To find the lost,
To heal the broken,
To feed the hungry,
To release the prisoner,
To rebuild the nations,
To bring peace among others,
To make music in the heart.
As we light candles this Christmas, we remember that in the midst of isolation, love has no boundaries. We give thanks that the light of the world has guided us in our journey through this past year and that we have been forever changed. And we celebrate the opportunity we have each day to embody the hope, peace, joy, and love of Christ.
How will you make music in the heart of our world when the work of Christmas actually begins? When the gifts are unwrapped, and Christmas dinner is over, how will you keep the candles burning? Come, Lord Jesus, come. May you have a blessed Christmas.
P.S. The next Leading from the Heart will be published on Monday, January 11.