From one lower light to another: keep shining

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Leaving Dexter, Mo., on Highway 25 the other day, our church's youth director, Dave Wiant, spotted a lighthouse. Given that there is no significant natural body of water in that Stoddard County city, the lighthouse's placement seemed odd. Further inspection revealed that the impressive tower is on the property of a church that uses "lighthouse" in its name: Lighthouse Christian Center.

Lighthouses today, if not abandoned entirely, are generally unmanned and automated. A technician may stop by at regular intervals but as a functioning part of sea navigation, these often beautiful structures are no longer needed. The last U.S. manned lighthouse was built in 1962 in Charleston, S.C.; it is the only one with an elevator. Today it is automated. The U.S. Coast Guard maintains these towers today. Technology, though, has passed them by. Besides, lighthouses can be expensive to operate. In a time of economic retrenchment, they can seem to some an extravagant luxury to keep around.

In their day, however, lighthouses kept seafarers alive and helped avoid shipwrecks that might sink valuable cargo. Coastlines can be dangerous to approach at night. Hazardous shoals or reefs may abound. A lighthouse also served to signal safe entry to a harbor.

Until the 1920s, until ground-based acetylene became available, a lighthouse keeper had to carry oil (whale oil, lard oil, kerosene) up the tower to maintain the light.

Like slide rules that gave way to calculators, lighthouses ceded their function first to radio-based navigation and later to satellite technology. Lighthouses continue to live on in popular imagination. In movies, lighthouses are used as backdrops. On television, the soap opera "Guiding Light" prominently featured a lighthouse in the opening credits. Some adventure video games also use this architectural marvel as symbolism.

One of my favorite Christian hymns has a lighthouse as a central image. It's a beautiful tune and we will sing it today in our traditional service at church. It is called "Let the Lower Lights Be Burning."

"Brightly beams our Father's mercy from His lighthouse evermore/But to us He gives the keeping of the lights along the shore/Let the lower lights be burning! Send a gleam across the wave!/For to us He gives the keeping of the lights along the shore."

In a sense, Christ represents the upper lights of a lighthouse, the shining beacons that give illumination to the spiritual walk each of us takes every day. "As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world." (John 9:5) But in a former day, a navigator needed also to see the lower lights to make safe entry to harbor.

We are those "lower lights" spoken of in the old Philip Bliss hymn. The lower human lights -- demonstrated by our Christian walk each day -- are needed in tandem with the upper lights of Jesus. "May your light so shine before men and women that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven." (Matthew 5:16)

From one lower light to another -- keep shining.

Jeff Long is pastor of Centenary United Methodist Church in Cape Girardeau. Married with two daughters, he is of Scots and Swedish descent, loves movies and is a lifelong fan of the Pittsburgh Steelers.

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