Howard Thurman: Prophet of Promise

Have you noticed? Have you noticed how the days are a little shorter, the light a little weaker, the darkness lasts a little longer? Have you noticed how the chill feels a little colder, the wind cut a little deeper, the night a little darker? Have you noticed?

A scientific explanation for some of this centers on the winter solstice marking the day with the shortest period of daylight and the longest night of the year. In this hemisphere, the winter solstice arrived on Dec. 21.

But what of the ancient ones, the first people, make of this as they walked under African skies? How did their descendants, who lived without the benefit of modern astronomy, respond? For in those days, the centuries before electric lights, when the sun went down it was dark. Real dark. As in darker than the nights of those who live in this city or around the Bay Area. How did they respond to the growing, deepening darkness that may have seemed to almost threaten their very survival?

In those days, people lived – or died – based on their success as farmers. So they were deeply concerned with the natural patterns of planting, growing and harvesting their crops. Many ancient cultures saw the winter solstice as the ending of the old year and the start of a new year. The old year dies in the darkness of December and yet in the midst of the night, we rejoice in the light of a new year. All of this makes this time of the year ending seem like a season of promise.

As people who live in a Post-Edison, electric light culture, it is easy to forget the power of a single candle. Have you noticed? Have you noticed how much light shines out of one single solitary candle?

Have you noticed how much darkness that one light can dispel? On Christmas Eve here, we start our worship by carrying a single lighted candle into the darkened church. And we say we are bringing the light of Christ back into the world as a sign that Christmas marks the arrival of Christ’s light in our world. Have you noticed?

God also send people to light our path towards spiritual healing and a good life. We call them prophets: by their words and lives they can help us follow Jesus. God’s prophets come in all times and in all place. Some, like Moses and Isaiah, are remembered in Jewish scriptures we have included in the Christian Bible. Others, like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., are modern American prophets. Today we remember Howard Thurman, an African-American author, philosopher, theologian, educator, and civil rights leader. He sees this time as a season of promise for those who follow Jesus.

Thurman played a major part in the religious and social justice movements of the 20th century. His theology of radical nonviolence influenced and shaped a generation of civil rights activists, including Martin Luther King, Jr. Along with the Rev. Alfred Fisk, Thurman founded the first major interracial, interdenominational church in the United States – The Church for The Fellowship of All Peoples – right here in San Francisco. He died in this city during 1981.[1]

Thurman talked a lot about light and joy, justice and community. As a young boy Thurman experienced “a profound mystical intuition into the unity of all being.”[2]  He grew up being reminded that he and all of us are beloved children of God. He drew inspiration from the teaching of Christian mystics St. Francis and Meister Eckhart.

He was the first African American to meet and talk with Mahatma Gandhi, the man who led India to independence through nonviolent protests. Like other American prophets – including Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel and Thomas Merton – Thurman believed that “true social change needed to be grounded on spiritual experience.”[3] God, he felt, intended for us to live in community so that we could heal and be healed.

So where do we go from here in 21st century San Francisco? How can Howard Thurman help us follow Jesus in our lives and time and place? Perhaps we start by being a people of light.

Listen to what Prophet Thurman said: “I will light candles this Christmas, Candles of joy, despite all sadness, Candles of hope where despair keeps watch. Candles of courage where fear is ever present, Candles of peace for tempest-tossed days, Candles of grace to ease heavy burdens. Candles of love to inspire all my living, Candles that will burn all the year long.” So how can we keep the light of Christmas going in our lives for a whole year?

Listen to what Prophet Thurman suggests: “Don’t ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive, and go do it. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.”[4] If we can find what makes us come alive, he says, our light will last the whole year and more. And the same is true of the communities we form, even communities like this congregation right here.

In creating or building community, the Prophet Thurman suggests we ask two questions: “The first is ‘Where am I going?’ and the second is ‘Who will go with me?’ If you ever get these questions in the wrong order, you are in trouble.”[5] How often do we skip asking one or both of these questions? And how many times have we asked them in the wrong order?

These questions – and their order – are vitally important for the vitality of our church community – you’re church, my church, any church. When we stop asking the right questions, we stray off course, we become bogged down in the wrong battles, we focus on things that don’t help us follow Jesus. But Thurman says we should keep our eyes on the prize and hold on. For following Jesus is to follow a radical path.

“The basic fact is that Christianity as it was born in the mind of this Jewish thinker and teacher appears as a technique of survival for the oppressed,” Thurman explains. “That it became, through the intervening years, a religion of the powerful and the dominant, used sometimes as an instrument of oppression, must not tempt us into believing that it was thus in the mind and life of Jesus…Wherever his spirit appears, the oppressed gather fresh courage; for he announced the good news.”

Living out the Good News of Jesus, Thurman warned, leads us into conflict. “The movement of the Spirit of God in the hearts of men and women often calls them to act against the spirit of their times or causes them to anticipate a spirit which is yet in the making. In a moment of dedication they are given wisdom and courage to dare a deed that challenges and to kindle a hope that inspires.”[6]

This season of growing darkness that leads to the return of Christ’s light is often called Advent – a season of waiting and preparation. It is our time to ponder deeds that challenge and hope that inspires. And it leads directly to Christmas.

In his poem Christmas Is Waiting to be Born, Thurman writes:

“Listen to the long stillness:

New life is stirring

New dreams are on the wing

New hopes are being readied:

Humankind is fashioning a new heart

Humankind is forging a new mind

God is at work.

This is the season of Promise”

Moving on from the season of promise, he continues, we move to the time:

“Where refugees seek deliverance that never comes

And the heart consumes itself as if it would live,

Where children age before their time

And life wears down the edges of the mind,

Where the old man sits with mind grown cold,

While bones and sinew, blood and cell, go slowly down to death,

Where fear companions each day’s life,

And Perfect Love seems long delayed.


In you, in me, in all mankind.”[7]

Thurman expands on this theme in his poem The Work of Christmas. He writes:

When the song of the angels is stilled,

When the star in the sky is gone,

When the kings and princes are home,

When the shepherds are back with their flock,

The work of Christmas begins:

To find the lost,

To heal the broken,

To feed the hungry,

To release the prisoner,

To rebuild the nations,

To bring peace among people,

To make music in the heart.[8]

This is the path Thurman walked in the tumultuous times of the last half of the 20th century. His words and works cast light on a way forward for us to follow Jesus in 21st century San Francisco. May God give us the courage to do so.

Let us pray. God of hope, you call us from the exile of our sin with the good news of restoration; you build a highway through the wilderness; you come to us and bring us home. Comfort us with the expectation of your saving power, made known to us in Jesus Christ our Lord. May the church say Amen.

[1] Wikipedia,

[2] American Prophets, p. 99

[3] Ibid, p. 110

[4] Howard Thurman, The Living Wisdom of Howard Thurman: A Visionary for Our Time

[5] Howard Thurman, The Living Wisdom of Howard Thurman: A Visionary for Our Time

[6] Footprints of a Dream : The Story of the Church for the Fellowship of All Peoples (1959), p. 7

[7] “The Work of Christmas, “The Mood of Christmas & Other Celebrations (1985)

[8] “Christmas Is Waiting to be Born” in The Mood of Christmas & Other Celebrations (1985)

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