I invite you to close your eyes and imagine yourself in a room in your house at night. Do whatever you can to make it as dark as possible — shut the door, close the curtains tightly — and now light a match. Watch its flaring flame, its flickering dance along the walls, and its slowly fading light, its going out. Notice the glow in your mind’s eye that remains even as your room returns to black. You can open your eyes.
I strike a match in a darkened room every night during Advent, the season of the church most fascinated by light and dark — though I keep the candle lit during the short prayers we do as a family before bed. Just lit matches demand a significant and quite immediate decision, don’t they? After their flare, we have only seconds to transfer the flame to a sustaining home if we so choose. Such is the church’s Advent invitation to each of us.
As today marks a new beginning in the church calendar, I’d like to begin fresh with you by sharing my conversion story. Pay attention to the pattern that emerges: the fire of my faith flared when in relationship with the faithful. It begins the summer after third grade when I spent a week at a Bible camp with my friend Doug near Julian. Our parents didn’t realize how theologically conservative it was. We were just excited about capture the flag, s’mores around the fire, and playing in the dirt all day. But we found out that we were to memorize a Bible verse and participate in nightly worship — and by the end of the week, I had accepted Jesus into my life as my Lord and Savior.
I remember that last night well: We kids packed row after row of chairs inside the brightly-lit assembly room, its glass walls separating us from the sound and tumult of the gusting wind outside. The sermon included a story about a soldier who dove on top of a live grenade in order to save his friends. Stunned by the haunting imagery, I sat through the minor and percussive guitar chords of the following song keenly aware of another unseen dimension surrounding us, just as real as my seat and my friend next to me.
I don’t know how I got into a prayer circle off to the side with one of the counselors after the lights dimmed, but his words stuck with me: he spoke of the devil just outside the doors, waiting for us to emerge unprotected so as to pounce. Looking out at the aspens and pines swaying crazily in the wind, I was convinced. My eight-year old self chose Christ as my guide through such treacherous terrain.
My family hadn’t been much in the habit of going to church, so the flame that had flared unexpectedly that summer died down. I’d read the Bible in mostly random fashion at night, and then forget all about this Christian thing until I saw the Bible on my nightstand the next night. It was a frustrating and lonely time — I felt like a spiritual yo-yo.
In the meantime, as adolescence dawned, something more frightening began to happen. In the minutes after the lights switched off and before I fell asleep, I would sometimes find myself envisioning a starry night. At first I’d imagine myself laying down on a field and looking up into the vast expanse, but then I’d feel drawn deeper into the darkness, and, gaining speed, would begin sweeping past stars and planets. Soon there was nothing left: I had passed even the universe by. Only the dark remained. I was all alone. And then my still-fragile sense of self began slipping away, and I felt an existential, visceral terror like I’ve never felt before or since.
I remember that the only way I could “get back” after coming so unhinged mystically was to think of my relationships with those I loved. These associations with family and friends were an embrace of sorts that would rock me to sleep.
Then the flame of my fledgling Christian faith flared up again, this time through a middle school Presbyterian youth group. We spent a year preparing for confirmation and I got into the habit of going to church with my friends — the flame had found a sustaining home. From there, my mom and I began going to a Roman Catholic church together throughout high school; and in college, I continued going to Catholic mass with friends, including with Laurel my senior year. Some months into our dating we prayed together out loud for the first time, a decidedly scary experience — but that marked the beginning of an entirely new dimension of our lives together — it had become safe to share the state of our souls with each other. Though my life of faith has had its natural ups and downs since, I have come to see and profoundly appreciate the critical roles that others have played in my spiritual well being. I could not have made this walk alone.
This is no coincidence, of course, this fact that my salvation, my ongoing journey of conversion, seems to be so intimately tied up with yours. That’s how this whole Christian enterprise works — according to God, not me. God saw God’s wondrous Creation flailing under the weight of separation between God and each other, and God thought it best to insert God’s very self right into the heart of the mess. God through Jesus saw and met our loneliness and walked with us until we had found ways to share and sustain our flaring flames of faith with one another.
Besides wanting to share a bit more about my spiritual journey with you and hoping that in it you find echoes of your own struggles, doubts, and insights; I share this story with you because it speaks to a central purpose for our gathering together here each Sunday. Surely many reasons draw us into this sacred space. But at least for me, I have been and I am principally drawn to worship every Sunday with you because I need your care for me and I need to be strengthened by your faith, by your hope, by your stories of God at work in your lives. You are the antidote to my depressing reading of the newspaper every morning — this community of faith is the living text that reminds me that God is still with us in the midst of this mess that we’ve made of the world, and what’s more, that God is using we very imperfect tools to redeem this world and diminish its suffering for good.
What each of us needs is a candle, a nurturing home for the flaring match just lit anew. This nurturing home may very well take the form of a relationship as it has with me. If you have already been blessed with such a spirit-sustaining friendship, thank God for your good fortune and be alert for the person God will soon invite you to befriend so that you might serve as a candle for him or her. And if you have not yet found a person with whom to share your spiritual story, talk to me or another priest, tell a greeter, get a coffee mug outside and share your contact info so we can begin to get to know you. We cannot make this journey alone. We were not meant to.
Advent begins the church year by inviting us down a dark path together holding matches just lit. What will we do with this promising but failing fire? Hold vigil with us — grab the candle that is handed to you and wait for the coming of our Savior, the man God became to reach into our deepest loneliness and remain, awaiting a relationship with each of us.
The Rev Colin Mathewson