I love to listen to the hymns sung by the late, great baritone Tennessee Ernie Ford. One of them, “Let The Lower Lights Be Burning,” was especially haunting, but I never could figure out what the lower lights were.
It turns out that an evangelist, D. L. Moody [1837-1899], was lecturing throughout the United States. He told the story of a dark, storm-tossed night, and a ship trying to make safe harbor at Cleveland on the Great Lakes. As the captain looked out over the bow, he saw but one light, that of the lighthouse at Cleveland Harbor; other than that there were no illuminations, not from the stars or from “the lower lights.”
Moody went on to explain that the lower lights were those which came from the dwellings clustered about the city and harbor. At each port of call, harbor pilots were hired by sea captains to move their ships safely to the docks. Each of these specialists knew well the topography of their own harbors, day or night.
But at night, each of them depended, not only on the illumination from the lighthouse, but from the lower lights, for together they sketched a configuration upon which the pilots depended for navigational guidance. In that particular storm with no lower lights to guide, pilot error caused the ship to founder and fall apart upon rocks at the expense of many lives.
In the audience that night sat one Phillip P. Bliss, himself an evangelist and noted hymn writer. Bliss was so moved by the story he wrote one of his most popular and widely sung hymns titled above.
The hymn’s first words are: “Brightly beams our Father’s mercy from his lighthouse evermore; but to us He gives the keeping of the lights along the shore . . .” (The lower lights.)
Moody’s point was that the Creator will tend the upper light, but it is the task of all human kind to tend, and to keep burning, the lower lights.
Here’s to us all turning on our share in 2017.