President Eisenhower was sitting his first term in the Oval Office when my Grandpa Fielder meandered out to his backyard workshop with a special building project on his heart and mind.
Recently retired from a long career as a papermaker for Kimberly Clark, he relied on carpentry to fill his days with renewed purpose and meaning in that first decade after World War II.
His only daughter, my mother, had just married, and she and my father were setting up housekeeping in the modest ranch-style house they’d built on a quiet street in a newly platted subdivision on the west side of town.
For the newlyweds’ first Christmas together in their new home, Grandpa resolved to build some holiday decorations to grace the outside of their new home and complement its deep-red, cedar-shake siding and crisp, white trim.
From his stockpile of scrap wood and salvage he would craft a pair of three-foot-high candlesticks. Electric cord snaking up from the base and concealed within the candle cores would power flame-shaped bulbs screwed into sockets on the tops. To finish the project, he chose paints in bright red for the sticks and snowy white for the bases.
And thus for 30-some-odd Christmases the candlesticks flanked the front door of my parents’ home.
When I came along, early in the Kennedy administration, and my little arms reached sufficient length, it became my nightly job to flip the switch and set the candlesticks aglow.
After my mother died in the mid ’80s, my father sold our home. Not long after, I purchased my first home. So, Dad spruced up the candlesticks with fresh coats of red and white paint and passed them on to me, returning the candles to their holiday call of duty with all the faithfulness and sentimentality that my grandfather intended in their creation.
But over the years, the relentless passing of time and the harsh elements of Midwest winters took their toll on the candlesticks, and eventually, the bulbs of their electric flames no longer would light.
Given their connection to a grandfather who died when I was a mere 10 months old, the candlesticks absolutely could not be thrown away. Instead, they sat furloughed and forlorn – out of sight but not out of mind – in the dusty corners of several garages that my wife, Julie, and I called our own.
A couple years ago, energized by the spirit of Christmas and wanting to gift me something special, Julie quietly rescued the candlesticks from their ignoble fate.
She ferried them to Lydon Electric in Waukon, where capable hands more accustomed to working on bushings and busbars managed to rewire the candlesticks and restore their light.
Fittingly, on our front porch again this Christmas stood my grandfather’s candlesticks – analog dinosaurs somehow clinging to life in a digital world, the simple flicker of their bulbs paling in neighborhood comparison to flashy holiday displays powered by newfangled microchips and strands of novel LED lights.
In the side glances of Main Street motorists passing by our house, the small flickers of light from my grandfather’s candlesticks really don’t provide much to write home about. Ours will never be one of those must-see holiday displays that makes the front page of the newspaper.
Nevertheless, it’s the small light we’ve been given, and it’s the small light we feel my grandfather – and God – calling us to share. To riff on an old adage, better to light a single candle than curse what these days feels like immense darkness.
In the end, that’s really about all any of us can do.
We’d all dearly love to do something that stems the repulsive violence and senseless death that darkened the streets of this country for much of 2020. That asinine, godless behavior finally, sadly, but not surprisingly made its way the U.S. Capitol just days into a new year.
But, fact is, the only behavior that we truly can control is our own. Or, perhaps better said in terms of faith and belief, the only behavior that can be controlled to the glory of God is that of those whose hearts and minds, hands and feet, are inspired by the light of Christ and kindled by the power of the Holy Spirit.
Last Wednesday, the Church celebrated the annual Feast of Epiphany, one of the oldest festival days in Christianity. Among other things, Epiphany celebrates God taking on human flesh and pitching his tent among us in the person of Jesus. That moment marked God’s revelation of hope to the Earth in Jesus Christ.
His humble arrival in the backwaters of a corrupt empire was a game-changer that that pierced the darkness of the world’s brokenness with glimmers of heavenly light. And by his Spirit, that same light now dwells within each of us. It was – and is – a light of grace and peace, truth and justice, mercy and forgiveness, healing and hope.
As the child of Bethlehem grew and became strong, Jesus was filled with wisdom, and the favor of God was upon him. That wisdom and favor were on display when, during his ministry, he several times cautions those with ears to hear against hiding one’s light under a basket or bed – or for Julie and me, in a forgotten corner of a garage.
“Let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven,” Jesus commands in Matthew 5.
“For there is nothing hidden, except to be disclosed; nor is anything secret, except to come to light,” he declares in Mark 4.
Keep those sacred challenges in mind, and let them be the guardrails that keep you on a holy path moving forward, as you listen for the Word of the Lord that begins the Gospel of John:
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.
He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.
There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light. The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world. He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him.
But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God. And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.
John testified to him and cried out, “This was he of whom I said, ‘He who comes after me ranks ahead of me because he was before me.’” From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace. The law indeed was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known. (John 1:1-18)
In the hours before her death in the Capitol riots that smeared this year’s Epiphany with bloody violence, a woman posted to her social media that the insurrection would transform “dark to light.”
A fellow hooligan urged like-minded thugs to “load your guns and take to the streets!”
John’s Gospel illuminates a Jesus who would have nothing to do with such nonsensical drivel. The only Son of God, who is close to his Father’s heart, implores each of us to harden not our hearts and let the brightness of his presence be reflected in the light of our reconciling love for friend, neighbor and stranger.
The light of Christ within our souls and spirits compels us to put the needs of others before our own, and the light of Christ illuminates a path to liberty and justice for all.
In the coming days, Julie and I will be unplugging my grandfather’s candles and tucking them back into the corner of our garage for another year. But their light re-kindles our resolve as we continue the long, hard slog:
As for us and our house, we will serve the Lord by being the Light.
For indeed, like the small boy of my far-off memory, the nightly job of everyone whom the Lord claims is flipping the switch and setting the light of Christ aglow to pierce the shadows of a broken and fearful world with glimmers of hope.
May it be so, for Christ’s sake. For that is the Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God!
Pastor Grant VanderVelden shared this message for at-home worship, reflection and devotion on Sunday, January 10, 2021. Our song for the day is Arise, Your Light Is Come, sung by the virtual choir at Grosse Point Memorial Presbyterian Church in Grosse Pointe, MI: