Paying Attention
Bill McDonald’s Website Newsletter
September 2019 - Volume 19, No. 9
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Lighthouses have long been vital means of navigation for seamen, as well as symbolic of rescue for ships and sailers in times of trouble. “...for those in peril on the sea.”

Since I moved to Michigan in 1967, I’ve been aware of the lighthouse as an integral part of life and lore on the Great Lakes. The shores of my own state of Michigan boast 247 of them - second only to the State of Alaska. Also they’ve long been a part of religious iconography, symbolizing the guiding and rescuing work of the Church, and of Christ.

Some years ago, I was reading something written by a local clergyman of my acquaintance who referenced the lighthouse as a beacon guiding souls to rescue and salvation (or something of that particular matter). That’s when it first occurred to me that there’s a double meaning here, and therefore an obvious danger as well. The lighthouse is a tool of navigation. But if you guide yourself directly to it, you’ll most likely crash. Much of the guidance of it’s light in the night (or its often colorful presence in daylight, is to warn the sailor also where not to go. A lighthouse is very often built on a pile of rock or rocks as a warning “go not here.”

The light and presence of a lighthouse is primarily useful in the context of a larger map of the territory.

Sometimes in moments of a darker humor, when the lighthouse and the Church are equated, I’ll mention the moth and the candle. The the moth is by it’s inherent nature, drawn to the light only to crash and burn (literally) - not a vital metaphor for the serious spiritual pilgrim.

Yet there’s something else to consider, in fact as well as by tradition, a third thing[1]. In addition to the the seafarer, and the lighthouse, there’s the lighthouse keeper. That’s the man or woman who keeps the light burning, all through the night. And in times of storm or other terror of the sea, the keeper him or herself will venture out to rescue, even including when possible, bringing those in peril to the comfort and hospitality even of the keeper’s own quarters beneath or beside the light itself. It’s a rich and perilous tradition.[2]

There are the words of a 19th century Church hymn chorus:

Let the lower lights be burning,  (the smaller lights along the shore)
Send a gleam across the wave.
Some poor fainting struggling seaman,
You may rescue, you may save.[3]

The third thing is what takes place beneath the lighthouse light

The church can exist for both guidance (navigation) and rescue. (And in my way of thinking, they are separate, yet intertwined with each other. Like the human tradition of the lighthouse, they exist hand in hand. (Akin to the tradition of the Coast Guard.)

And yes, sometimes the church exists to nurture the wounds, then send the healed back out into the world to pursue his or her greater life purpose. That’s why most church services end with a ‘benediction’ (a form of ‘sending out with blessing).

It’s sort of like “now get out of here, there’s work to be done out there.”

You can see the dual meaning and purpose of the lighthouse has been one of my teachers.

Now to bring this writing to a conclusion.

Ending #1

One purpose of a lighthouse is to mark the entrance to a harbor. So there are additional lights along the shore, the. “lower lights” of the hymn chorus I’ve just noted. And I have read of the responsibility of the lighthouse keeper to maintain the lower lights as well.

In political history, there is (too) frequently the autocrat; the absolute power person. He or she desires to be the only light - and in the long run, those who steer themselves directly to that type of leadership usually crash and burn on a pile of rocks - even if the entrance to a harbor is close by. Leadership which is primarily for the sake of the sailor and steers others to the safety of a harbor, do not shine their lights upon themselves. But instead manages (tends) the great light, as well as the lower lights, so the sailor can safely steer between to safety. The true story behind the ‘lower lights’ hymn had to do with a ship captain in a storm on Lake Erie, trying to make harbor in Cleveland, but the ‘lower lights’ had somehow never been ignited or tended that night by the ‘keeper,’ leading to the destruction of the ship and significant loss of life.

Most of us are ‘lower lights’ -  but oh so important for the guidance and safety of many ‘others’ who navigate the larger territory of our common lives.

Ending #2

A story (I heard this years ago, and have long loved it.):

It’s said that one semi-foggy night on Lake Superior, an ore carrier out of Duluth, encountered a light directly in its path. The Captain radioed ahead commanding the unknown vessel to move aside from the ore carrier’s trajectory. The Captain, a man known for his temper and arrogance, was himself at the helm, announced he was proceeding full steam ahead and the offending vessel best quickly take evasive action and not “prove itself the fool.” Whereupon a message returned through the airwaves, “You Captain are much the fool. I am a lighthouse.”

Both stories teach and encourage me

Pay attention


[1] Readers may recognize my philosophical proclivity for resolution by way of ‘a third thing.’

[2] A long-ago close acquaintance was once married to a lighthouse keeper on Lake Michigan, and her husband and sons were themselves all in one night lost at sea. (Information from many years ago, never validated by personal conversation.)

[3] Here are the words of the hymn:

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.

Dark the night of sin has settled, loud the angry billows roar;
Eager eyes are watching, longing, for 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.

Trim your feeble lamp, my brother, some poor sailor tempest tossed,
Trying now to make the harbor, in the darkness may be lost.
Let the lower lights be burning! Send a gleam across the wave!
Some poor fainting, struggling seaman you may rescue, you may save.

Philip P. Bliss

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Bill McDonald
Fenton, Michigan

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