Thursday, September 8, 2011

Let The Lower Lights Be Burning!

S.S. Edmund Fitzgerald, 1958 - 1975[1]
10 November 1975 was a dark, cold and stormy night on Lake Superior just off Cleveland.  As sometimes is the case, 80 mile per hour winds and 30 foot waves sprung up without warning.  The now iconic ship S.S. Edmund Fitzgerald sunk just short of reaching harbor.  All 29 crew were lost without a trace with the cause of the wreck unknown until this day.  She lies in 530 feet of water just 15 nautical miles from the safety of Whitefish Bay.  In her day she was the largest ship ever to sail the Great Lakes. The maritime tragedy, is memorialized by Gordon Lightfoot in his moving 1976 ballad, The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald.[2]  Such losses of men and ships are nothing new off Whitefish Point.  In fact, from 1816 until 1975 some 240 ships perished![3]  One such loss in the middle of the 19th century moved song writer and missionary singer, Philip Bliss (1838 – 1876) to write a moving hymn; Let the Lower Lights be Burning.  While in Chicago, Bliss heard a preacher tell of a similar tragedy that took place on Whitefish Bay off Cleveland more than a 100 years before.  The preacher told of a ship in a violent storm one stormy night trying to make Cleveland. 
As he drew near, (the captain) shouted to the lighthouse keeper, “Is this Cleveland?”  The lighthouse keeper shouted back, “Quite true, sir!”  The captain asked, “Where are the lower lights?”  The lighthouse keeper said, “They have gone out.  Can you make the harbor?”  The captain replied, “We must, or we will perish!”  With that he sailed his ship into the harbor, passed the lighthouse, missed the channel, and was dashed against the rocks.  It was a terrible tragedy.  Many people were killed.  The preacher brought the story home with these words; “Brothers and sisters, the Master will take care of the lighthouse.  Let US keep the lower lights burning!”[4]    
The prospect of a shipwreck due to extreme weather and darkness is clearly revealed to us in Acts 27:39 – 44.  Life knows few terrors more desperate than a shipwreck in the dark of night.  We can easily visualize such trauma by remembering the opening scenes of the Disney classic Swiss Family Robinson.  The Edmund Fitzgerald had radar and she knew her heading but the storm was just too great to overcome. In years past, before the advent of radar and sonar, ships had to rely on lighthouses at the harbor entries for direction.  These lighthouses had both upper and lower lights.  The upper light is what we normally think of when we think about lighthouses.  It is that light up top of the large brick structure that shines several miles out to sea.  It gave general direction to ships seeking harbor.  However, the upper lights by themselves became useless when the ships drew close.  They would be blind without the “lower lights burning.”
Just what are the “lower lights?”  The “lower lights are those lights in those buildings surrounding the harbor illuminating the narrow channel and entrance to the safety of the harbor, where the wind and the waves subside, eliminating the terror and danger of the open sea.  Without the “lower lights burning,” the helmsman is blind and in grave danger.  “Light” is biblically linked to safety and salvation.  It is the singular most visible attribute of God Himself!  It is our duty and privilege as Christians to carry the light of God’s saving gospel to a lost and dying world, much like those who bravely man the “lower lights along the shore.”  As the upper light and the lower lights strive together to bring the lost and stranded sailor to the safety of the harbor, so it is with God and His children.
In Scripture, the primary Hebrew word for “light” is or which means “illumination in every sense including lightning, happiness, bright, clear, day, morning, sun.” [5] [See Exodus 10:23, Psalms 27:1 et. al.]
The primary Greek word for “light” is phos which means to “shine or make clear by rays, fire or light.”[6]  [See I john 1:5, John 8:12, Matthew 5:14 et. al.]
Metaphorically speaking, God provides the “upper light” of salvation which we then carry to a lost and dying world as His “lower lights.”  The essence of these thoughts are all covered by Paul’s wonderful words in II Corinthians 4:4 – 7 where Paul uses “light” to describe both the glory and the Word of God, God Himself and the Light of knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ, light that is then distributed by jars of clay!  My friend, you and I are “lower lights” housed in “jars of clay” lining the harbor of God’s salvation!
Jesus Christ, the (upper) Light of the World, gives us the His gospel through the light of the knowledge of His Word & then gives us (lower lights) “…all authority to speak, exhort, rebuke and to be disregarded by no one!”  (Titus 2:15 (ESV)  “Let the lower lights be burning, send a gleam across the wave.  Some poor fainting, struggling seaman, you may rescue, you may save!”                          
[The gospel of Jesus Christ (I Corinthians 15) is the fact that Jesus Christ died on the cross for our sins, that He was buried, that He rose on the 3rd day and appeared to over 500 witnesses.  The free gift of God's salvation through Jesus Christ is available to all who HEAR the Word of God (Romans 10:17), who BELIEVE that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the Living God (John 8:24), who REPENT of all sin (Luke 13:3, Acts 2:38), who CONFESS that Jesus is the Son of God before witnesses (Matthew 10:32), who are BAPTIZIED in the Name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins (Acts 2:38) and who LIVE FAITHFULLY from that point forward until death (I John 1:7).]

[1] Photo from the Minnesota Historical Society via:


[5] According to Strong’s via

[6] Ibid.

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