I will Light Candles this Christmas

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.

16 thoughts on “I will Light Candles this Christmas

  1. Have become more familiar with Howard Thurman during 2020. Serving on the Racial Dialogue Team of the Peacemaking Ministry Committee in the Presbytery of Eastern Virginia, has been the incentive for an upswing in my reading of more theological and socio-cultural works from our BIPOC communities. A personal blessing for me was finding this year’s inspiration for my annual Advent devotional booklet in Thurman’s, “he Moods of Christmas” Several days’ pieces reflect on the lighting of specific candles mentioned in his poem, “I Will Light Candles.”

    Your words are always engaging and joyful, Laurie. Thanks for keeping the lighting of Thurman’s faithfulness in spreading the gospel light as your lift our Lord’s Advent for public notice.

  2. Thank you for the gift of these newsletters all year long. Our church chose “The Work of Christmas” as the theme for Advent by Candlelight this year. It’s a wonderful poem, calling us to year-round ministry and service, following in the footsteps of our Lord. Wishing you and your family a very blessed Christmas, and may the new year bring many blessings.

  3. Thank you for this. “The Work of Christmas” is probably my favorite piece that I have ever sung in my church choir. The words are applicable for all year long, not just at Christmas. May we all hear and heed them.

  4. I worked as janitor at Marsh Chapel Boston University when Thurman was Dean of the Chapel and also worked in the Thurman home nearby. His class on Spiritual Disciplines plus informal conversations with him greatly influenced my life. Years later we visited the church he founded in SanFrancisco. Howard Thurman was an incredible man and great teacher who seemed to have a direct connection to God. I asked my Barber who’s shop was a block from Marsh Chapel if he would cut the hair of a negro and he replied, “I would cut his hair but he would never return again!” Yet Marsh Chapel under Thurman attracted people of all races and beliefs or unbelief.

  5. Hi Laurel. I never seem to get a message to you. wanted to say I have a little ceramic Christmas tree as you have shown here and I ask children do you know what makes the little lights? Then I left the tree and tell them God does….. we are all the little lights. I love Thurman too and have at least one book written by him. Love and prayers Bunny

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