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.