In the middle of the American Midwest, Kansas City, Missouri, simmers an amazing phenomenon— A twenty-four/seven prayer ministry and Bible College, that has become increasingly known around the globe. My exposure to this ministry, brief as it was, when our fledgling family lived in Missouri, added uniquely to the breadth and depth of my Christian experience. One song—of the beautifully passionate style of worship music which has flowed out of this school, into the larger Christian Body—could have sprung from the lips of Jesus’ disciples, as they no doubt floated down the hill, following the amazing experience of Jesus’ Ascension. They had had to be almost rudely jerked back to earthly awareness by the words of angels, immediately following, but then had set their faces to carry out Jesus’ instructions to wait in Jerusalem. The song’s lyrics reflect the ministry’s mandate and captured my attention from the first listening. It pledges,
“We will watch/We will pray/We will wait for that Day/Lamps are lit/ Oil is stored/ Hearts are burning, Bride-groom Lord.”
The twelve closest followers of Jesus had spent three years with him, observing, questioning, learning and practicing. They had experienced revelations, partaken of awe-inspiring miracles and floundered in their share of inglorious failures. Yet He had instructed them to wait on this Gift of the Promise of the Father which would, “imbue them with power from on High”. The wood was dry, fueled and arranged in place; all they awaited was to be kindled upon. Till then they sang and declared the wonders and glories they had experienced when He walked with them.
Likewise, the Missouri friends of the Bridegroom—alluding to Jesus’ teaching about His end-time return, in the parable of the waiting virgins, as well as to the worshipful labour of the disciples which preceded the birth of the Church at Pentecost—sing of both repeated and ultimate comings. They join a long line of waiting ones, such as Isaiah who prophesied of the “Great Light” that was seen by the ones who walked in darkness; like John the Baptizer, who having waited, joyously hailed Him, “Baptizer with the Holy Spirit and fire”; and like even the “lately born” Paul, quoted by the beloved physician, Luke, in his Acts epistles, proclaimed Him the One who sets boundaries and times for peoples, “in the hope that they might grope for Him and find Him… near.” Even so, as a tropical girl turned harried young mom, out in the Mid-West, my sleep-deprived senses yet recognized the sound and taste of that longing and raising a smoldering wick re-membered…and waited for the Lamplighter.
One could hear a pin drop. Attentive silence was the expectation of our teachers as closing exercises commenced, properly ending another day at the St. George’s Anglican Primary School for Girls, Kingston, Jamaica. Soon, Ramson Hall, divided into six classrooms, by green or black moveable chalkboards, quietly rumbled with the voices of over three hundred fourth to sixth grade girls united in rote prayers, our green gingham tunics, white blouses and brown shoes and socks mildly rumpled at the end of a full school day:
“Lighten our darkness, we beseech Thee, Oh Lord.
And by Thy great mercies, defend us from the perils and dangers of this night.
For the love of Thy Holy Son, our Saviour Jesus Christ, Amen.”
Had I not been a mere child, I might have wondered then, at the solemn content of that petition which our school had us intone at the end of each day’s attendance; after all, we were simply going home.
Filling Childhood’s Lamp
But someone knew the dark alleys, the even darker tenement yards, as well as the deceptively well-kept dwellings, into which many a school-girl innocently traipsed each evening. Someone understood the perils and dangers of the night that surrounded. Someone cared who had probably read Jesus’ words, in His high-priestly prayer to the Father, for “those who would believe because of the words” of His disciples; and knowing that they could neither accompany each of us home, nor escort us into the shadows of the future, sought to release us with a lamp full of faith in the love of God’s Holy Son, the Saviour, Jesus Christ, who was here and there, able to impart light for life.
So, with our teachers and the visiting rector—in a year-long ‘show and tell’ rife with memory verses, hymns, straw hats, palm branches, carol and chapel services—we pondered the gladness and sadness of God living, dying and rising to life again for us. The lamp was lit and the oil was poured but the flame requires tending—trimming, watching and refilling— for wick and oil are consumed with the burning, and oil will yet seep from vessels made of clay, though unlit.
Keeper of the Home-Fire
Home for me, however indirectly, tended my lamp and in due course it flamed into personal faith: The sound of my paternal grand-mother’s voice in the early morning hours, petitioning the “sympathizing Jesus” to remember, redeem and otherwise rescue any family member, errant from the fold of faith, stirred my own awareness of the need for such prayers and drew me to do the same. Her keen sense of God, in the everyday things of life, made being around her a constant catechizing process—the onion or potato that was found to be rotten at its center, though appearing good on the outside, became an illustration of the deceptiveness of the unregenerate human heart. The ant labouring across the wash-table with a large crumb, the busy bee, the tottering fence, the hawk hovering overhead in hope of snatching a wandering baby chicken; all became proverbs and illustrations of faith in life, through Grandma. And every holiday gathering of family and the faithful, was a joyous occasion to celebrate and imagine the joy that will be heaven when we all get there.
I never registered any conflict between my school’s Anglican training and that of my Grand-parent’s more indigenous transfer of faith. Each was part of the whole that shaped my view of God and practice of faith.
The formally ordered, liturgical training was complemented perfectly by the more earthy, intimate, personal and expressive practice of faith that was associated with home. The former I received as a matter of course, and the latter the simple heart language of the familiar.
Journey to the hearth of a faith community
A special holiday trip for a few Summers of my youth was to travel to church conventions in rural parishes overseen by my minister grand-father. One such, which made significant impression on my own spiritual life and pursuit of the Holy, was a tiny sugar economy township in the south-west, called Siloah:
Our arrival at night, after the long drive, would kick off a flurry of hospitality, Jamaica-style. A hot meal, a hot beverage, and a good night’s sleep in an immaculate bedroom on line-dried bed linen, made you ready for the early morning prayer meeting. Prayers both launched and punctuated a week that would involve impassioned teaching, preaching, exuberant praise and testimony sessions accompanied by pump organ, guitars and the ubiquitous goatskin tambourines. The whole would be laced together with anticipation of an encounter with God. The holy hush on the early morning walk to the church, with the others joining along the way, dew dripping from trees, and grass dampening our sandaled feet, felt Edenic, like God might have come walking along any minute in the fresh morning to pour on us the oil promised in Psalm 133 to those who dwell together in unity.
I recall a setting that was almost Hobbiton-like, where everything felt rounded and welcoming. The vivid-red compacted clay paths, worn smooth by the thousand steps of seekers over years from country and town, led down from the road to the sanctuary. Set in a dip in the landscape surrounded by rich tropical growth, the small structure, whether peppered with the first faithful in the morning or crammed at night with all the saints, pulsated with hunger for God.
Supporting structures on the property provided living accommodations and an always-working kitchen. Prayers, Psalms, hymns and spiritual songs intermingled with the sounds and delectable smells emanating, as a breakfast feast of the humblest yet most tasty sort was prepared—pickled mackerel, simmered long in coconut cream seasoned with escallion, thyme and pimento seeds, served over boiled green bananas, and flour dumplings, with a few slices of fried plantains on the side. Massive pots seemed to always be steaming with the best tasting hot chocolate, made from hand-rolled balls, of the seed of locally grown cocoa pods, dried, pounded and formed which— when boiled with coconut milk, nutmeg and cinnamon leaves and sweetened with sugar— produced what Jamaicans call chocolate tea.
The natural and rustic beauty of the people of the Siloah Conventions of the Church of the First Born made my oil lamp overflow in days of my youth. I came to realize that the good, the true and the beautiful were not dependent on wealth, material possessions or even advanced education. Whenever I would leave Siloah it was with the taste of God in my mouth and a deeper yet more satisfied longing to encounter the One on whom humble, big-hearted grown-ups waited and wept at a wooden altar, on a red-stained floor.
De-Lighted and Re-Kindled
Then, almost as sudden as the shifting of the trade winds that each year transform our ninety degree tropical temperatures into ones requiring sweaters in December, it seems our simple world drastically changed—I remember a drought, because Grandma’s front garden eventually dried up and city water lock offs in the ‘land of wood and water’ became the norm. The created order donned mourning garb in preparation for what was to come—National elections became fearful violent times. Migration became the norm, either of people fleeing more dangerous neighborhoods to ones less so, or of school-friends and neighbors migrating to America. As my island world quaked in less than one generation of independence from Britain, so my faith quaked.
But the prayers of the faithful who formed the backbone of the nation, also rose up and spiritual revival broke out in various ways across the land. My own store of oil, was refilled and my faith restored as I came under the influence of flame-keepers in para-church organizations on my school campuses. Discipled into leadership, my flame was nurtured, tried and proven, then commandeered and brought to help light the way on my high-school campus, as I became both a student body leader and a school Christian fellowship president of the zealous community of faith which the prevailing crisis produced. Hastening to the red-stained ground of the altars made of our Science labs, fellow students met en masse in lunchtime gatherings, eager to hear and bear testimony of a personal and powerful God. Praying with and for each other, we learned of how our faith applied and triumphed over the everyday perils and dangers of the night we now all faced.
Path of the Lamplighter
Our gathered lamps flamed in fresh communities of worshipful song, reflecting vibrant faith which helped illuminate many communities of our land, as the hymns and rhythms, passions and truths of Scripture made their way down dark alleys, into tenement yards and scattered the darkness that lurked in even well-kept homes.
O Light that follow’st all my way,
I yield my flick’ring torch to thee;
my heart restores its borrowed ray,
that in thy sunshine’s blaze its day
may brighter, fairer be. *
This Light follows us all our way! This One has pursued us on gentle wings of a dove, swept us up in moments of ecstatic worship, pulled back the veil and given us glimpses of heaven. He is the Mighty Rushing Wind for whom the Disciples tarried in Jerusalem, which instead of extinguishing, lit flaming faith in their lives. This Light will kindle upon our meanest store of oil, and answer our weakest yes. He may wait to come in the wake of personal or national pain, through the tragedies of international crises that foster heroic sacrifice, or even through persecution. But when we feel the brokenness of the world, and see the darkness deepening, the message of prophets, saints and angels still rings true: Look up! The Lamplighter cometh!
* “Oh Love That Wilt Not Let Me Go” —George Matheson; 1882
The featured image titled “Cambridge Street by Lamplight 1” is by Lancia E. Smith and used with her glad permission for Cultivating and The Cultivating Project.
I am Denise Stair Armstrong; born and raised Jamaican. I received all my formal academic education in the land of my birth at Shortwood Teachers’ College and the University of the West Indies, specializing in English Language & Literatures in English. The remainder I’ve gained home educating our three wonderful children – Joseph, Charis and Timothy, parenting them with my husband Claude, and in caring for my wheel-chair bound mother. I enjoy reading, cooking, gardening, theatre and ballroom dancing with Claude (only!) and digging into the Word of God.
My passion is worship expressed primarily through writing inspirational pieces that urge readers not to miss how much the Lord has “cramm’d earth with heaven”. My heart is to encourage them to traverse the gap between all our hearts and the cultures that shape them, via the Bridge that is Calvary’s cross.