This morning, as little Ben Hartzler walked carefully down the aisle with his mom, Laura, carrying an unlit candle in his hand, my mind was suddenly jolted back to a long-ago Advent season. Ben – his hand steadied by his mother’s – carefully lit his own candle from the flame of last week’s candle, then used it to light the next pillar. Whew – the wick caught the flame. I suddenly realized I was holding my breath, remembering the year that the candle wouldn’t light.
It was probably about 13 years ago, and my youngest daughter, Anne, was excited to be lighting the first Advent candle of the season. She and her mentor, Sue, had practiced their routine several times. Anne easily lit her own candle and they moved to the first pillar. It would not light. No matter how hard they tried – no go. They scraped wax from the wick, but still it wouldn’t light.
Quite honestly, I don’t remember exactly how the problem was resolved. I knew only that Anne was devastated, holding back the tears that came later. I think even Sue was near tears. I sure was. Later on, a friend who was on the Advent committee apologized, explaining that the wick had been completely covered in wax and they ended up replacing the candle. Anne vowed she’d NEVER light (or fail to light) a candle in public again.
Back to today’s service: the children were gathering at the front for the children’s sermon. The subject was “changes,” and a retired teacher was sharing the lesson. After asking the children to help her spell “changes” with some blocks, she asked the children to define changes. My stomach no longer clenches as it once did – back when my daughter, Lindsay, was a willing participant in the children’s sermons. Always extremely vocal, she never hesitated to talk and we never knew what she might say. As if to remind me of those days, Lindsay’s little cousin, Seth, responded to today’s question with his usual aplomb. “A house is just a building made of wood until a family moves in to make it a home.” Okay, it might not have been exactly like that, but he was close and his meaning was clear.
Later in today’s service, as one of the scripture readers struggled with her microphone, my mind wandered again to another Advent in which Anne had a part. This time I think she was in sixth grade and had practiced over and over for weeks, making sure she knew every word of her scripture reading. We’d worked together to design and make her black velvet Christmas dress – and yes, I know clothes don’t make the person but they sure give a little girl some needed confidence. This time, all went perfectly. Her reading teacher from the previous year told her afterward that she’d give her an A.
Back to today’s service, and the message about changes. It’s been a year of many changes – some wonderful, some not so. But each has had a lesson of its own and I’ve learned something good from each one. A wedding produced not only a terrific son-in-law, but a new friend in his mom. A graduation – Lindsay’s master’s degree – proved to her that pursuing a PhD is the right choice.
A winter of stress fractures and a shoulder injury resulting in chronic pain – not a welcome change, but one that has changed how I view life and what is important to me. It also made me much more cognizant of how others with pain and illness struggle and how important it is that I empathize with them.
My mind wanderered back to the present, and as the pastor asked for prayers for a couple mourning the death of a close relative, I thought of my own mother-in-law. At 95 and widowed, now living in a retirement home where everyone knows her because of her cheerful, caring nature, Margaret has suddenly been silenced by a body undergoing changes. Days go by with barely a response.
Then a granddaughter arrives for a visit, her eyes open wide, and together the two of them sing a perfect rendition of Amazing Grace. And in that moment, Margaret Grace Hahn Steiner is the pastor and she is delivering a sermon of her own, a lesson on living with changes.
“…‘Tis Grace that brought me safe thus far, and Grace will lead me home.”