Lighthouses speak to me. The first one I remember seeing as a little boy is the Biloxi Lighthouse on the Mississippi Gulf Coast. Later, when my family moved to Pascagoula in 1970 and I began to sail, the Round Island Lighthouse just off the coast fascinated me. Long out of service by the time I first saw it, the old brick tower still stood with the top intact. It was there without glass or the lens that rotated a beacon of white to sailors at sea and those who lived along the shore of the Mississippi Sound. The interior where the burned out spiral staircase once stood was now charred black as the result of many impromptu bonfires started in the base by beer-drinking overnight island visitors.
The stilts that held the lighthouse keeper’s home off the sand still stood, though the home was only a memory to a few when I, as a teenager, first came to revere that old lighthouse. I remember sailing out to Round Island alone many times in my twelve-foot Singing River Pram called the Half Moon. I stood in the base of the lighthouse wishing that, somehow, it could share its storied history with me. I would stroll around the beach that surrounded the stand of pine trees that held just enough ground together for it to be called an island.
Hymns speak to me, too. Within the last few months, I have become obsessed with one that uses lighthouses, and the lower lights around them, to illuminate the light of the Lord and the responsibility to help others see it. Let the Lower Lights Be Burning was written in 1871 by Philip Paul Bliss after he heard an inspiring sermon by legendary preacher Dwight Moody. The song is known far and wide. Yet, I had missed it completely until this year when I read the lyrics without hearing the music. In search of something to augment my “morning read,” I began thumbing through an old hymn book called Triumphant Service Songs. I read the lyrics on any random page during my devotional time to help set a more spiritual tone for my day. Ironically, many of the selections of Triumphant Service Songs seem to be out of service, themselves.
The title, Let the Lower Lights be Burning, drew me in immediately and there, in the first line, is a lighthouse. The song describes a sailor caught in a turbulent sea. He sees the lighthouse but needs help in getting his ship to the safety of the harbor marked by its beam. Without guidance, he’ll never make it to shore.
It’s the description of the sailor fighting the angry ocean that I seem to relate to most. Perhaps I have too frequently seen myself as lost and in need of a skillful navigator to show me the way, whichever way I may have been seeking at the moment. Many times I have felt bombarded by the waves of life which have pounded upon me like the tempest tosses the seaman’s vessel in the song. That feeling still occurs more often than I prefer.
It is safe to assume that I am not the only one who has felt a little lost at sea during the journey through life. Like the blues, confusion and lack of direction happen to everyone. Nagging old uncertainty that just settles in, sometimes for no apparent reason, causes those of any cultural, ethnic or economic background to founder a little. Or a lot.
While the composer’s image of the lighthouse as the Lord’s word makes a lot of sense to me, I think another picture could be added. I look at people I have known and know now, those solid, dependable ones, who are able to offer calm stability in the in the middle of my personal tempests, as lighthouses, too. My grandfather comes to mind. You have them in your life. Seek them out when you need them.
The words of some who sent signals for safe steerage in the past are still with us, even if they are not. I look to The Preacher who wrote Ecclesiastes. And Paul, in his letter to the Ephesians. Mark Twain, Hunter S. Thompson, Will Rogers, Robert Service, Rudyard Kipling and others. In reading their messages, I sometimes feel as if they know what what is happening in my life and are speaking only to me.
The beacon of a lighthouse showing you exactly where to steer may also sing the proper course to follow. Listening to song lyrics by Kris Kristofferson, Randy Newman, W. C. Handy, Jimmy Buffett, Jimmie Rodgers, Johnny Mercer and so many more also gives me guidance that I need now as much as I ever did. Like many an old lighthouse, they are within sight and sound for a reason and they are built to serve.
Text and photo copyright 2018 by Les Kerr.