The Hope of Hanukkah:
Keep Me Burning

By Barbara Balkus (12/05/10)


Hear an audio recording of this Sunday's reflection:

Part 1
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Part 2
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Which of the faith symbols speaks loudest to you?

I was once asked this question. Is it the Cross? The bread and chalice? The pitcher and towel? The alpha and omega? The crown of thorns? Maybe you prefer the yin/yang? There are so many to choose from.

For me it is the candle, the symbol of light. There are many reasons: light is available to all; rich or poor, young or old, the sun lights our days and the moon lights our nights. Even a blind man can experience light as warmth is another facet of its nature. The smallest of lights is visible in the darkness. Light shared increases its offering as is evident at our Christmas Eve service.

Light seems to transcend the religious boundaries as most faiths celebrate light — the Advent Candles and the star that shone in the east, the menorah of Hanukkah, the lights of Kwanzaa, and for the earth-based religions the celebration of the return of light after the longest night of the year — the winter solstice.

But maybe the most revered aspect of light is that within each of us burns a sacred flame, a light that connects us with each other and with the creative energy of life. And it is this light that I want you to consider as I share my story.

Have you ever been tired? Really tired? Physically, mentally, emotionally, spiritually. Exhausted to the point where you don’t know where you will find the energy to take your next breath?

Maybe you live in constant pain and you’re not sure you can or want to face another day. Maybe you have lost your life partner, the one with whom you laughed and cried, and the prospect of facing tomorrow and all those unmet dreams without their companionship is more than you can bear. Maybe you have battled addiction and you’ve hit the bottom; you know you can’t continue as you are but are powerless to make a change.

Many of you know that I stepped down from the Admin Board in March because I was exhausted and nearing burnout. At that time I began planning a family vacation to the coast for late May — after Michaela’s graduation. The sounds and smells and rhythms of the ocean have always re-energized me and I hoped to again experience their rejuvenating powers.

You may also know that Michael’s parents flew out from Florida for 10 days to celebrate their granddaughter’s achievement and to join us on the coast. Saturday’s graduation was wonderful, though a little damp, and we had a nice party afterward at Dick and Linda Kroll’s. I remember Mom’s fascination with the garden waterfall and Dad’s groan because she’d been wanting one for their yard for a while now.

On Sunday we drove to Lincoln City — the Balkus family, three generations, three dogs, a beautiful house with a huge deck to watch and hear and smell the ocean; for me this was a glimpse of heaven.

But that heaven was short-lived.

Mom was feeling off when she woke up Monday, and by Tuesday morning we were headed home. We made it as far as Centralia, where it became clear Mom needed to be checked out before Bremerton.

One week at Providence Hospital, six weeks at Martha & Mary for rehab, seven weeks at Harborview, two weeks at Bremerton rehab and her final four weeks at Harrison Hospital. That ten-day visit lasted over five months.

Michael’s father stayed with us throughout the ordeal, and Michael’s brother flew out from Florida every couple of weeks. Most dinner conversations centered on how Mom was doing, and then there were those nights where there would be little to no talking at all — the silence was deafening.

We’d flinch when the phone would ring not knowing who it might be and what news it would bring. Mom’s condition was volatile, with major shifts in a matter of a few hours. We jokingly referred to it as a game of chutes and ladders, where by you’d think you were finally getting somewhere and suddenly you were sent back to the beginning to start all over again.

As we were winding up week one at Harrison, I remember waking up tired. I just wanted to pull the covers up over my head and stay in bed, but I knew I needed to go to the office.

As I pulled myself from the bed, from deep within I heard myself pray, “just get me through this day.” I showered, dressed, and got in my car to head to work.

I stopped at Starbucks for a caffeine infusion and while walking out with iced tea in one hand, scone in the other, I found myself singing.

Now most folks who know me know I don’t as a rule sing out loud by myself in public, and for good reason — but I was singing, and apparently singing loud enough that the woman who was leaning on her car talking on her cell phone in the next row over, looked at me strangely.

“Dona Nobis Pachem” (Give to us Peace).

I thought little of this when I arrived at work, and I went about doing my normal daily routine — keeping busy kept my mind occupied so I didn’t think so much about what was happening.

I left work at the end of the day, and I am not exactly sure at what point I realized I was again singing, but I was aware that the song started very weakly and gained strength the further I drove.

Give me Oil in my Lamp,
Keep me Burning, Burning, Burning …
Keep me burning 'til the break of day.

I couldn’t stop singing; the song had a life of its own.

I arrived at the light at Luoto Road and Viking Way. If you are ever searching for God, I suggest looking at this intersection. We meet there often — God is the one usually carrying a 2×4, asking “Barbara, do I have your attention?”

But this time there was no 2×4. Instead God met me with a strong and compassionate embrace and gently said, “One cruse of oil, enough to fuel the lamp for one day, and I kept it burning for eight. I can do the same for you.”

Hmmmm . . . .

The light changed — both the traffic light and the light that burns within. I felt a fresh energy and renewed spirit — the tightness in my chest eased and breathing became easier — and I knew that whatever happened, I would be able to face it. This was no guarantee that things would go the way I wanted them to, and they certainly didn’t. But it was a guarantee that I would find whatever I needed to deal with whatever happened and I wouldn’t be alone.

But I needed to find out about that oil. The only oil story I remember from my church school days dealt with bridesmaids waiting for the bridegroom, and I knew that wasn’t what I was supposed to find. I didn’t remember a story about a cruse of oil fueling a lamp for eight days, so I had to do some research.

The Macabees story tells of Judah and his brothers, outnumbered and out-armed, up against the armies of Gorgias, but Judah and his brothers — armed with their faith and the knowledge of their ancestors safely crossing the Red Sea — didn’t give up, called upon God, and defeated Gorgias’ army.

But their joy was short-lived. When they went to the temple to cleanse and rededicate it, they saw how the Greeks had defiled their sanctuary.

How devastating to find your sacred space violated — if you’ve ever had your home broken into you might begin to relate to what they might have felt.

The Talmud offers the continuation of this tale, and here I found the one cruse of oil and the lamp that burned for eight days. The story behind the Menorah . . .

Tom has stated that the value in scripture is not what it tells us of the past but what it speaks to us today. What does the story of Hanukkah offer and what does it have to do with me?

Hanukkah is one of the minor Jewish festivals, a little more noteworthy in this country probably due to its proximity to Christmas and the related gross commercialism. But there is no major feasting and celebrating, just the simple lighting of candles in the menorah, allowing them to burn for about an hour for the sole purpose of remembering.

And remembering what? That the massive Greek armies invaded and persecuted their ancestors, violated and desecrated their temple? Is it that Judah and his brothers defeated the great army of Gorgias, reclaiming, cleansing and rededicating that same temple?

No, the remembering is much deeper and much older.

Judah calls upon the memory of the words carved on the stone tablets of Moses, “I am the Lord your God who has taken you out of the land of Egypt” and prays that God will show them the same favor.

I almost hear him crying out, “give us the strength to make it through this.”

And God did.

And as they reclaimed the temple and saw the violation, I hear them cry out, “Give to us peace.”

And again God did.

And as they went to light the oil lamp during the rededication and discovered they had insufficient oil to keep it burning, they again cried out.

And God again answered.

It is with this remembering that our Jewish brothers and sisters light their menorahs this week, remembering how God shone favor upon their ancestors and hoping they too can call upon God to see them through life’s challenges.

The miracle of Hanukkah is that God is still listening for our deep cries for favor. God is still listening for our souls to cry out for the strength to make it through the day, the peace to face the overwhelming task and the fuel to keep the sacred flame burning. And God is still responding with a resounding "YES, I’ve been waiting for you to ask."

Next time you find yourself tired, really tired, physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually — exhausted to the point where you don’t know where you’ll find the energy to take your next breath — listen. Listen to the song that your soul is praying . . . .

Give me oil in my lamp,
Keep me burning, burning, burning
….keep me burning 'til the break of day.

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