For J, on the day he departed

A few years after the Civil War, enacting a tragedy that had occurred hundreds of mournful times throughout the nineteenth century, a steamboat on Lake Erie sank on its approach to the Port of Cleveland. Though the main lighthouse was operating normally, for uncertain reasons the lower lights—flames kept by houses along the banks to illuminate the location of channels and treacherous parts of the shoreline—were not visible to the ship’s crew. Unable to see the dark shore, the steamboat struck ground and sank, with significant loss of life.

In the aftermath of the Cleveland steamboat tragedy, the mega-evangelist Dwight Moody reflected to his bard Philip Bliss that these lower lights were the lights individual Christians were to keep. These would be small, weak, pale compared to the Light of the Savior, but without them our sisters and brothers might perish even as they approached the brighter light of the lighthouse.

Much to the delight of Moody and generations of worshipers since, Philip Bliss promptly turned these reflections into the hopeful and inspiring hymn “Let the Lower Lights Be Burning.” In his hymn Bliss calls to us to keep aflame our “feeble lamp[s]” in the hopes that some “poor fainting, struggling seaman” we “may rescue,” we “may save.”

Shortly before 2am today a lower light whose pale fire rescued and saved me almost twenty years ago sputtered and then died.

For me, as for many others, adolescence was a time of great anger and struggle and rebellion. I rejected my family’s faith, rejected all faith, and sought the passing pleasures some call hedonism. I was never guilty of any particularly heinous civic crime, though I did run from the police on more than one occasion and almost got expelled from my public high school. But abiding civil law was not the problem. I was estranged from God. The horrifying severance threatened by Eve’s and Adam’s expulsion from the Garden was the life I had chosen for a million confused reasons that made sense to my young mind.

Even during my estrangement from God and the Church, I always felt great affection for J and his wife. An unsentimental, analytical man more comfortable with numbers and ledgers than tear-filled testimonies, J loved muscle cars and root beer floats. He was more likely to be reading Hot Rod than Mormon Doctrine when I stopped by. Never sanctimonious, he was more likely to teach me how to drive a muscle car with a suicide knob on the racing steering wheel than to tell me to get a haircut. The former, J demonstrated, was to be done exuberantly, accompanied by the glorious stench of tire rubber melting onto asphalt. The latter, I later discovered, was being urged on J by ward members who complained that my long hair was a public health risk on par with Typhoid Mary. He refused adamantly and then waited to tell me what he had done on my behalf until their complaints were funny rather than cruel.

In complex ways, God drew me back to Him in the summer between high school and college. He drew me through the LDS Church, through our almost rural ward in a town almost entirely Mormon. He drew me to Him through J, by then my bishop.

J was never terribly comfortable as a bishop. He confided to me later that he often felt inadequate to the task, that he felt more comfortable with numbers than with people. He was neither the overwhelmingly pious sort many of us associate with the Church Educational System nor the model of youth pastor so visible in current Protestantism, sporting a goatee, surf shorts, and a Volkswagen convertible. He was an analytical man with a gently crooked nose and a slightly mangled thumb who loved God and had a gift for helping me believe that Mormonism could include me. He did not do so with impassioned testimony or irresistible sermons, or even with tender words, but with a sympathetic ear and a curious mind, and with a love for impious things like a vintage Chevy Nova with an engine displacement larger than my entire body.

As part of my return to God, I had decided that I needed to come clean, to confess my disbelief, my impieties, my dissolution. I called J and asked to meet with him. He welcomed me into his office. I remember best two things about that day: J, and his large black filing cabinet. My elbow against the impassive filing cabinet, I told J my story, and we made a plan for my return to church activity. The awareness of having disappointed God, of having chosen what soon disappears instead of what persists forever, is intensely painful, but with J’s gentle certainty of the path ahead, I found the courage to confront my betrayal. I have known many bishops before and after J, and I cannot imagine this conversation, at that point in my life, with anyone else. J was the lower light on my perilous approach to the harbor.

The plan J and I made that day brought me to a miraculous Eucharistic experience in August 1990, an event that has echoed across these last twenty years as a boundless certainty of God’s existence, a spiritual birth that has made me forever a Latter-day Saint.

About a decade ago, J was diagnosed with a difficult-to-treat cancer. This week the disease and its painful treatments had finally run their course, and I felt that I should see him in the hospital, drawn with the unobtrusive clarity that only in retrospect appears to have been God’s guiding hand.

Since 1990 I have become many things by the grace of God imparted to me by J and others. Professionally, I have gained considerable experience with people in the borderlands between life and death—what to expect, how to treat their symptoms, how to negotiate the tensions between medical and personal approaches to terminal illness, what therapeutic options exist in particular types of cancers and infections. Over the course of the last two days, J and his family have allowed the pale fire of my lower light to shine, however tentatively, in their lives. Last night, in that same house where J and I mapped out a path for my spiritual future, I was able to help his transition to a more glorious realm be more peaceful, to reassure his wife truthfully that she had done everything J could have wished for, to smooth the logistical bumps in their transition home from the cancer ward.

And I cried (I’m still crying today, if more quietly), cried for J’s aching bones, for his new physical absence in that special home, for those sacred moments twenty years ago, for life’s fragility, for the potent yearning for God and for each other that stokes the flames of our lower lights, for my own father whose light had been extinguished long before he died miserably on a dialysis unit, alone but for the medical professionals who undoubtedly battered his chest with their fists and shocked his body with the contorting electricity that sometimes revives a dying heart, for Christ whose mutilated body groaned in pain as he called out for the God that had apparently forsaken him. I am also weeping with gratitude, though, gratitude that God allowed me to serve J when he needed me, allowed me to honor what he did for me all those years ago.

The early Latter-day Saints understood an obscure prophecy in Obadiah in a way that still boggles the minds of Protestants. Through a patriarchal priesthood revealed by Joseph Smith and made marvelously real in the ordinances of the temple, they discovered that they could bring salvation to their lost loved ones, that they could become “saviors on Mount Zion.” While we have come to see this as a specific reference to the performance of proxy temple ordinances for the dead, my research in the early Restoration has suggested a broader view. As the literal children of God, we are all of us involved in the process of saving each other. God’s Plan of Salvation has always intended that we would reflect and amplify the Light of the Atoning Christ to each other, that our personalities, our idiosyncrasies and even sometimes weaknesses could be of use to God in the great work of reconciling us to Him, to ourselves, and to each other. In these interactions of shared salvation and protection, our lower lights burn brightly. I thank God that He has seen fit to reveal Himself to me in a Church of such “saviors,” that he has allowed these lower lights to pierce the cataracts covering my spiritual eyes, that we have made a communion together in a new and everlasting covenant that spans life and death, past and future, the glorious and the mundane.

So God bless you, J, as you continue your journey. God bless you for rescuing this “poor fainting, struggling seaman” who could barely make out the Lighthouse in the distance, and God bless you for letting my wan light help to guide you and your family in a moment of struggle and uncertainty. I hope you get that Chevy Nova back in the celestial worlds.

Comments

  1. Beautiful thoughts, and beautiful writing. God bless, Sam.

  2. Kevin Barney says:

    A beautiful post for a beautiful death, Sam.

  3. Steve Evans says:

    Sam, you’re the best — thank you for something I needed.

  4. Such a nice remembrance. Thanks for sharing it.

  5. Sam… thank you.

  6. Cynthia L. says:

    Very nice, Sam.

  7. Your post Sam is exactly why I come to the Bloggernacle. Thanks so much.

  8. Thanks, Sam.

  9. beautiful, Sam; thanks for sharing such personal and reverent thoughts.

  10. Absolutely beautiful.

  11. What a beautiful post

  12. Touching stuff. thanks

  13. Powerful. Thanks, Sam.

  14. Thank you for this beautiful and inspiring post.

  15. Thank you, Sam.

  16. Mark Brown says:

    God bless you, Sam. And thank you for this glimmer of light to us all.

    And God bless bishops who understand muscle cars, suicide knobs on the steering wheel, and scorching streaks of Firestone.

  17. I will be thinking about this all day, Sam. I’d like to share a portion of it with my missionaries. (Yes, I still have missionaries. Just because I’m no longer at the MTC doesn’t mean I don’t have missionaries.) Thank you! So much to ponder.

  18. Margaret, J would be honored to be useful though I’m sure he’d be a bit mystified by all the sentimentality.

  19. God bless J and all the J’s across the world.

    Thanks.

  20. Smb-I read the lyrics during the sacrament today. I teach the 17-year-olds in my SS class. Today the bishop visited. I had him sing the song to us. (I have amazing pull with my bishop.) I promised him chocolate if he could tell us what the “lower lights” referred to. He made a good guess, but was wrong. No chocolate for him. But I have sent him your post, which I think will be wonderful for him to read when he has a moment. We read Psalm 23 for our scripture reading last week, and I commented to the bishop (who always joins us for scripture reading) that HE was officially a shepherd now, so the psalm should have special meaning to him. I don’t know everything my bishop experiences in his shepherding, but I know that he sometimes comes home from interview night with tears still on his cheeks. I doubt any bishop feels fully “comfortable” in the calling. I am so grateful for bishops I’ve had to take me through some rather dangerous moorings.

  21. J. was a good man, I loved him and his whole approach to our family. This is a great tribute to him Sam, thanks for writing it.

  22. Incidentally, I didn’t use footnotes because of the personal nature of tribute to J, though I think he would have wanted me to get the facts just right. The story is recounted in the Memoirs of Philip Paul Bliss, a collection of reminiscences about Bliss and his hymns put together by his friends. Apparently the train crash that killed his wife (and Bliss, as he attempted to save her) happened somewhere near Cleveland, which made the story that much more poignant for followers of Bliss. Although I looked through a variety of sources, including one of those ludicrously morbid precursors to the History Channel, an early twentieth-century history of shipping accidents on Lake Erie, I was unable to positively identify the steamboat that went down. I am relying on the 1877 account of the incident in the Memoirs. The hymn was first published in 1871, and Bliss was prolific, so I assume the hymn was penned within a couple years of 1871. I’d be glad for any further input from evangelical historians. Moody is a very controversial figure, btw. The ways we can use Bliss’s hymn makes me all the more aware of how diverse the lower lights can be. These lights do not need to be of our own confession or even always our close friends. We all have lights that will shine in myriad sometimes unanticipated ways.

  23. Oh, and I bought Johnny Cash’s version from his My Mother’s Hymn Book and have been listening to it this weekend. Cash’s interpretation of the hymn isn’t a perfect fit for my ear, but I love his voice and haven’t yet found a better performance of the hymn.

  24. Sam, that’s one of my favorite hymns. This just made it all the more meaningful. Thank you for sharing this.

  25. Researcher says:

    Your story reminds me in a number of ways of various bishops and other people I have known through the church who have been very influential in my life. Thank you.

  26. Thanks for sharing that beautiful tribute; it was very touching.

  27. CS Eric says:

    I’m overwhelmed. Thanks

  28. This account touches me on two accounts. First, I currently live in Cleveland just a ten-minute walk from Lake Erie. And second, while we lived in Sydney, Australia, we sang that hymn quite frequently. I hadn’t been familiar with it as it’s relegated to the Men’s Choir section, but it became a fast favorite.

  29. Thank you for posting this, Sam. It was a beautiful and moving tribute. I love the image of us all standing at the feet of Christ, reflecting His light to each other, assisting Him in His work. God bless.

  30. Another gorgeous post from Sam. Thanks.

  31. Proud Daughter of Eve says:

    Posts like this are what keep me coming back to the Bloggernacle too. That was a very moving tribute, Sam.

  32. Thank you Sam! This tribute is incredible. Thank you for be a willing instrument through which the Lord could bless our lives!

  33. Thanks Sam. Pardon the selfishness, but I would love someday to tell you and others about R.; the fine man that kept those lower lights burning for me. Perhaps not in an identical way, but the similarities exist all the same. He finished up here over 20 years ago and rode his motorcycle to the other side complete with his trademark toothpick coming out the right side of his mouth. Was privileged to sing “Because I have been given much” at his funeral. Rarely has a song title been so emblematic of a life lived.

  34. Thank you Sam. May the lower lights be ever burning.

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