The Lower Lights

Rick Ward
April 27, 2014
Matthew 5:14-16

Hello, I’m Johnny Cash.

My apologies to the disciple Thomas. As you may have noticed we’re straying away from the Lectionary today and we’re going to revisit the Light. My apologies to Johnny Cash for that matter.

Do any of you remember The Johnny Cash Show? It ran from 1968-1971. It was on once a week and featured a variety of other fellow musicians, comics and other well known names in show business. He started each show by introducing himself.

Johnny Cash is an American institution. His life, his struggles and his walk with God is a sermon in itself. He identified with the common man and I think that’s why so many took a liking to him. He passed away in September 2003, 4 months after his wife June Carter Cash had passed. In November of 2003 American Recordings released a box set Cash Unearthed. The first three discs were outtakes and alternate versions of songs he did earlier for American Recordings, the fourth disc was entitled “My Mother’s Hymn Book.” My favorite in the set. It featured favorites like “I’ll Fly Away,” “Do Lord,” “In The Garden,” ones most of us know and are familiar with. But the one I liked the most was the one I knew nothing about. “Let the Lower Lights Be Burning.”

It goes like this:

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!
Some poor fainting, struggling seaman
You may rescue, you may save.

I’ve always been fascinated by lighthouses. Growing up in New England it’s hard not to run across some of these beacons while traveling and on vacations along the shore. We’ve seen Edgartown Light in Edgartown Harbor on Martha’s Vineyard, played golf around Highland Light in Truro on the Cape, taken in the beauty of Nubble Light in York, ME. My parent’s loved lighthouses as well, my mother has a beautiful rendition of Portland Head Light up in Cape Elizabeth on her gravestone. Debbie and I visited Portland Head Light on a beautiful sunny day last summer. So I’m familiar with lighthouses but never fully understood the role of the “Lower Lights”

It wasn’t until recently when I was viewing a sermon by one of our potential Interim ministers on DVD that I found out about the lower lights. She referenced a sermon by Dwight L. Moody in which Philip P. Bliss heard and as a result composed the Hymn “Let the Lower Lights Be Burning.”

So I turned to the internet to research (in the words of Paul Harvey,) the rest of the story. Why I didn’t do this before is a mystery to me, anyone who knows me knows I Google everything. I really am too dependent on that. “Hello, my name is Rick and I’m a Googler.”

What I found out is that the author of the hymn, Philip P. Bliss attended a service that the American Evangelist Dwight L. Moody was presiding at. In his sermon Moody told the story of a ship that was on Lake Erie during a turbulent storm as it was nearing the Cleveland Harbor. As you may know storms on the Great Lakes can be very treacherous, sometime even rivaling storms on the open sea. The Captain noticed that there was only one light as they neared the Harbor, that of the lighthouse. The Captain asked the Pilot who was on board if he was sure this was Cleveland. Now the difference between a Captain and a Pilot for those of you who don’t know. (Yes I Googled that too,) is that the Captain is in charge of the ship, the Pilot is someone who is an expert on the port and insures that the ship docks safely. The Pilot assured the Captain that this was Cleveland. The Captain asked, “Where are the lower lights?” The Pilot replied, “Gone out sir.” The Captain said, “Can you make the Harbor then?” To which the Pilot said, “We must sir or perish.” But in the darkness they missed the channel and crashed upon the rocks. Many on board were killed.

As Moody states, “The Master will take care of the Great Lighthouse. Let us keep the Lower Lights burning.”

Friends we do need to keep the Lower Lights burning. God uses us as the guides to safe harbor. Whether it be visiting with a friend, helping a stranger in need, a kind word, inviting someone to Sunday Services, showing love in a number of different ways. There is great need in the world today.

I asked my wife to look this over and after she did I said, “well?” She said it’s good, but you should share some examples of those who keep the Lower Lights burning in your life. Personalize it. I always do what my wife suggest, so here goes.

Not in any particular order.

My maternal grandparents - they loved me unconditionally. They never told me they did, but you knew it. I know they continued to pray for me throughout my college years even though they were concerned about some of the paths I had taken.

Norm Barstow - I’ve said this before but it bears repeating. Norm was the first one that greeted us as we came through those doors, (well besides the greeters.) He and Margaret made us feel welcome and a part of the First Church Family. We need/I need to continue to follow that example and make all who come through those doors feel welcome.

A Mystery Santa - who sent a box of toys to our kids during one of the financially worst times we had seen up to that point. It wasn’t so much the toys, but it was that someone was paying attention and someone cared. We still do not know to this day who this person was.

My Wife - who has been and continues to be a Lower Light in my life and keeps me from crashing on the rocks.

Let the lower lights be burning!
Send a gleam across the wave!
Some poor fainting, struggling seaman
You may rescue, you may save.