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Called to keep the light

Grand Haven lighthouse

Everyone has a favorite hymn or two. Kay DeMoss shares the story of one she loves; a piece of Great Lakes’ history that continues to challenge and inspire us today.


Senior Content Editor

Last week we featured a story in mifaith from the Hymn Society of the U.S. and Canada. Members of that organization named, “Holy, Holy, Holy,” as the greatest hymn of all time. That set me thinking of my favorite hymn, “Let the Lower Lights be Burning.”

I’ve lived in Michigan all my life. It seems inevitable that a hymn about a lighthouse would speak to my spirit. After all, Michigan has 3,288 miles of shoreline, second only to Alaska. The historic count of lighthouses along those shores is 247, of which 124 still appear on the Michigan State highway map. Anywhere you live in Michigan, you are not too many miles away from the nearest lighthouse. The one closest to my house is the Grand Haven light pictured above.

But there’s another reason I love that hymn. That’s the true story behind it, a story that both inspires and challenges.

It happened in 1868. The ship was experiencing one of the worst storms that Lake Erie ever spawned. The crew and the passengers must have thought they were experiencing “the darkness on the face of the deep” talked about in the opening chapter of the Book of Genesis.

The boat rocked and plunged as it neared the harbor in Cleveland. The captain looked out from the bridge and saw the lighthouse, but he was doubtful. He called to the ship’s pilot, “Are you SURE this is Cleveland?” “Quite sure,” the pilot answered. “But I don’t see the lower lights?” the desperate captain replied, referring to a series of guiding lights that usually burned beneath the great light in the Cleveland harbor. “Gone out with the storm I expect, Sir!” “Pilot. Can we make the harbor?” “We must, Sir. Or we perish.”

So, with a strong hand and a brave heart, the pilot turned the ship’s wheel.” But he missed the channel and the boat hit the rocks. The storm raged on. The next day’s headline in the Cleveland Plain Dealer read, “Two hundred go to a watery grave.”

This account was told and retold by the great evangelist of that day, Dwight L. Moody, as he barnstormed the country. Musician Phillip B. Bliss travelled with Moody, writing hymns to compliment Moody’s messages. “Let the Lower Lights be Burning” was one of those hymns. Moody’s message, based on the headline in the Plain Dealer and the scripture, was this: “Brothers and Sisters, the Master takes care of the great Lighthouse; but it is up to us to keep the lower lights burning.”

How do we do that? Back in the day the lights were kept on with wicks and oil and the diligent work of a lighthouse keeper. Today lighthouses are automated and rely on electric power. But our work as lightkeepers is not fueled with oil or electricity. There’s another song that gives us a DYI about light-keeping in this or any century.

Back in 1944 jazz greats Duke Ellington and Harry James composed a tune, and Don George wrote these words to go with it:  

I never cared much for moonlit skies I never wink back at fireflies But, now that the stars are in your eyes, I’m beginning to see the light. Used to ramble through the park Shadowboxing in the dark

You came along and caused the spark That’s a four-alarm fire now! I never went in for afterglow Or candlelight on the mistletoe But now that you turn the lamp down low I’m beginning to see the light.

The Bible is filled with references to light. The Bible is not a physics text book. It’s a love story! It’s a story about a God who wanted something to love. And so, God created the world … in a flash of Light. And when that world did not love God back and the darkness seemed to be winning, God, so loved the world, that he sent the Light … AGAIN. It was truly a four-alarm fire kind of love with which God sent his Son to be the Light of this world. And now that his son has gone home to God, God comes along and causes a spark in us, his disciples. That spark encourages us and enables us to shine his Light along the shore, in our homes and in the street.

We go through life shadowboxing in the dark, don’t we? We let our fears, our pride, and our doubts dictate how we see ourselves and others. We have stars in our eyes, all right, the Hollywood kind of stars that keep us running after glitz, glamour and glory. But when the Star of Bethlehem gets in our eyes, that’s when we begin to see the light.

  • I’m beginning to see the light, when I look beyond my own self- interests and put the welfare of others ahead of myself;
  • I’m beginning to see the light, when I realize that my own self-sacrifice will build up the community around me;
  • I’m beginning to see the light, when I understand that I will enjoy the greatest blessings myself, by being a blessing to my neighbors.

The next step after seeing the light, the critical step, is to BE the light and to commit to tending those lower lights along the shore. When the hymn reminds us, “Some poor fainting, struggling seaman, you may rescue, you may save,” it’s not just talking about sailors and life rafts and flotation devices. It’s talking about all God’s people who are living lives full of pain and struggle. It’s talking about sharing God’s love with those people and helping them find wholeness, hope and healing.

You may rescue! You may save! In the beginning God said, “Let there be light! And there was light.” Today God continues to say, “Let there be light! And there is light, when people like us allow that light to burn through our lives. You are partners with God in the business called salvation. So, “Trim your feeble lamps, my brothers and sisters!” Even a feeble lamp is better than no lamp at all. A feeble lamp can become brighter when it’s fueled with God’s love, prayer, and our commitment to sharing that love with others.

We’ve considered a classic hymn and a classic love song. Here’s a classic poem. When you think about Robert Louis Stevenson, you may remember Long John Silver or Dr. Jekyll or Mr. Hyde. When I think about Robert Louis Stevenson, I remember a humble man named Leerie. Leerie was a very ordinary person … ordinary like you and me. Leerie was not a pirate or a mad physician. Leerie was a real person working in Edinburgh, Scotland in the era of gas lamps, about the same time that ship was careening toward the Cleveland Harbor. Leerie now lives forever in Stevenson’s Child’s Garden of Verses in the poem, The Lamplighter. Meet Leerie…

My tea is nearly ready, and the sun has left the sky. It’s time to take the window to see Leerie going by; For every night at teatime and before you take your seat, With lantern and with ladder he comes posting up the street.

For we are very lucky, with a lamp before the door, And Leerie stops to light it as he lights so many more;
And O! before you hurry by with ladder and with light, O Leerie, see a little child and nod to him tonight!

Now Tom would be a driver and Maria go to sea, And my papa is a banker and as rich as he can be; But I, when I am stronger and can choose what I’m to do, O Leerie, I’ll go round at night and light the lamps with you!

What does God want from you and me? God simply wants you to go into the darkness of this world, saying: “O Jesus, I’ll go round at night and light the lamps with you.”

When you and I light the lamps with Jesus, the Lower Lights of the Michigan Conference of The United Methodist Church will burn bright indeed.

Last Updated on October 31, 2023

The Michigan Conference