“How to Use a Kerosene Lamp”
Covenant Baptist Church, San Antonio
November 9, 2014
Kyndall Rae Rothaus
(To listen to the audio, click “play” button above. To download audio, click here.)
How To Use a Kerosene Lamp:
Step 1: Be sure the wick fits snugly in the burner sleeve.
Step 2:Trim the top of the wick with sharp, heavy scissors so it is even with the top of the burner sleeve. (Snip off loose threads and cut off the corners of flat wicks evenly.)
Step 3: Fill the lamp font to no more than seven-eighths capacity.
Step 4: Put the burner with wick in the lamp and allow the wick to soak for ten minutes, preferably more.
Step 5: Turn the wick down so that it is just proud of the burner sleeve.
Step 6: Be sure the chimney or flue is clean and dry. (Wet chimneys will shatter.)
Step 7: Light the wick. (Place the chimney into the burner and turn up the wick until the flame just smokes. Now turn down the wick until the smoke stops.)
Step 8: Turn the wick down again if the lamp begins to smoke as it warms.
Step 9: Extinguish by turning the wick down and placing a hand just behind the top of a chimney, angled down. (Blow across the top of the chimney.)
Step 10: Wipe out or wash the chimney after each use and refill the lamp.
Step 11: Pour out the fuel and remove the wick from the burner, if you do not expect to use the lamp for a good while.
Most of us prefer light switches. And this is true not only of physical light but also of our spiritual lives. We prefer a light switch religion to one you have to work for. When God shows up, we’d like to flip on, just like that. Simple as a switch, swift as a split-second.
But most of us weren’t born with light switches in our souls. We do not know how instantly to access that part of ourselves that hears and knows God. (This is frustrating!) We do not know how to tap into our capacity for forgiveness and let go. We do not know how immediately to release worry and reach trust. This idea that we are truly forgiven? We cannot access it with any immediacy. The knowing that we are loved—not just the head-knowing, but the full-body knowing that we are loved by God—is a thing we do not quickly perceive, if we ever know it at all.
Over the years, with time and patience, slow learning and unlearning, we are given lamps, but these are not the highfalutin kind that turn on when you clap your hands. These lamps are far less modern and far more ancient, passed down through the ages, requiring the wisdom of the ages to work properly.
We would like to light up for God; we’d like a light switch religion; we’d like a well-lit God, and we’d like it our earliest possible convenience.
But sometimes instead God seems obscure, far off, dark, veiled, and even if God were to pop right up beside us, we wouldn’t know how to turn on the lights and get a good look.
There are these five foolish bridesmaids waiting for the bridegroom. They take their lamps, but leave behind the oil, which is so absurd you have to wonder what they were thinking. But here they are, lugging the weight of these lamps in hopes they will light—lugging the lamp of tradition, or lugging the lamp of regular church attendance. Lugging the lamp of religious words, the lamp of good behavior. They’ve got the device, but nothing to fuel it with it. Nothing to make it light up for God. They are hauling around the same stuff as the wise bridesmaids, only their stuff doesn’t work, won’t work, can’t work because they are missing the key ingredient.
Where is their oil, and, more importantly, what is oil? In most metaphors about fuel and God, we’d be safe to guess the fuel is God, the fuel is Holy Spirit, the fuel is Christ. But in this parable, God is still coming. Hasn’t quite arrived. The fuel has something to do with our own readiness for God. The fuel is about our capacity to flame when the time is right.
What lights your lamp? What happened to your oil, and do you know how to recover it? I don’t know what it is for you, but I can tell you what I most often leave behind. I leave behind myself. My pain? Too much. My grief, my confusion, my story—I don’t want to bring that in here to the hour of worship, I don’t want to bring that to the hour of prayer. My experiences, my wounds, my feelings, my questions—that’s just too intense, too dangerous. You never know. It could start a small fire.
It’s like you forget: you can’t ignite without you. You can’t grow without you. You can’t encounter God without you. You are the necessary and sometimes missing ingredient. If you leave half of yourself, your heart, your pain, or half your story at home, you might not have oil for burning.
Spirituality, spiritual readiness, spiritual fire takes all of you for things to happen. Otherwise, God shows up, but you’re not there. Nobody’s home. Your soul has checked out, and when God knocks, the counterfeit that opens the door is a thing God does not recognize. The person God fashioned and the life God has watched unfold is not there, and when a person is missing, no sparks can fly.
Sometimes we hide the most potent ingredients of our transformation—our own suffering, our own struggle, our own uniqueness—it is too much work and too much risk to bring these pieces of ourselves from the back of the closet out into the world of our waiting for God and waiting for healing. We’d prefer a light-switch religion, but lamp burning takes some cultivating and fuel handling requires courage. We contemplatives are trying to recover the oil and temper our fear of self. If you didn’t understand what contemplatives were up to, you might think we were involved in excessive introspection, and I suppose there is a danger of that if all we do is finger-paint with fuel, self-express with no intention of anything bigger than us ever happening. But if we are learning, over time, how to hold the fuel side-by-side with the lamp of our tradition, or the lamp of Scripture, or the lamp of the faith community, and if we hold them together, pull them close in, stay alert, and wait, we know there is a chance we will get to light up, and when the time comes, we will know how to greet God and glow.
It feels like we contemplatives are always waiting.
Patience is our MO, but that doesn’t mean we’re happy about it. We can be just as grumpy and fidgety watching the clock as anyone, but we are sometimes learning to stop watching the clock and start watching the heart. To observe at a deeper level. To alert our awareness and awaken our consciousness, that nothing flammable will remain untapped. We are learning to be less afraid of what we discover on the inside, and then remarkably we turn more fearless on the outside, ready to collide with wick, prepared to ignite, willing to encounter the sudden mystery of God.
“Keep awake therefore! For you know neither the day nor the hour.”
There is the eschatological meaning of this parable, telling us of the God who will come at the very end, andthere is the more immediate meaning, telling us of the God who will come tomorrow when you’re driving to work or at midnight when you’re trying to sleep. You do not know the day or hour. All you can do is carry your fuel close at hand. Do not separate yourself from that part of you that burns. Extinguish nothing, not even your sorrow. Let all of you into the lamp and see what happens when God comes to meet you. Amen.