[from June 2009]
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.
The Gospel can provide succor in the face of tragic bereavement, both in the doctrinal truths it presents to us and in the communities that it creates and sustains—the living to “mourn with those who mourn,” and the dead to be bound to us in a perfect chain of priesthood. There are times, though, when these supports tend to fail. Not just the normal imperfections that prevent any belief system or community from entirely eliminating the sting of death and loss, but substantial failures that threaten our ability to cope with the death of a loved one at all. (more…)
The Sunstone session memorializing the Cambridge, MA LDS Chapel featured Claudia Bushman, Phil Barlow, Mary Webster, me, and audience participants (including Morris and Dawn Thurston, Charlotte England, Richard Bushman, and a variety of others). The session was a wonderful time of remembering, with important contributions from all participants. Because I have severe limits on my time right now, I’m unable to summarize much the fascinating content of the panel, but I will post the text of my talk here. (Claudia’s lively reminisces are slated for print publications, and Phil’s and Mary’s thoughtful and engaging talks were not written.)
Last week I discovered that my grandfather had given my family one final gift. My aunt has been settling his estate, and despite the many outflows that accumulated over the years, there was enough left in my grandfather’s estate to patch a few roofs, repair a few cars, and replace lost furniture (or a rug), kindnesses spread across the lives of my siblings and their families. My grandfather died just after August ended this year, in the drug-induced stupefaction that American hospice workers seem to favor (we didn’t get the call that he was terminally declining until they had already knocked him out with lorazepam and morphine). In the haziness of his last week or two, there were two overarching themes in his conversations with my aunt. He worried that he had not lived up to his family name (he was the son of a mid-twentieth-century church leader), and he worried about his namesake son, my father.
I spent the weekend analyzing John Harris’s diatribe against the poignancy of mortality (Enhancing Evolution) and caring for patients at a remote hospital in northern Idaho. Harris, in arguing for the moral necessity of medical immortality, is adamant that we have deluded ourselves into thinking that the fact of our mortality is central to our identity as humans, openly mocking the emotional language of various ethicists and philosophers. Harris’s rebuttal, both flippant and vitriolic, is that only puritanical dimwits find beauty in the rich transience of physical life. His harangue, balanced against millennia of religion, literature, and folklore placed these questions squarely in my view. (more…)
I have just completed a sabbatical from blogging related to pressing professional obligations. In the time away I have made good progress on a variety of work projects such that I think I can once again contribute at BCC. I have decided to return with a monthly post on Fast Sunday at least initially including meditations on fasting.
Fasting means a lot to me. It was 20 years ago this August that I engaged in a fast that changed the course of my life. (More about that this August.) (more…)
I have twice been mistaken for a homeless person. Once was funny, the other devastating. Both happened in college. The first time, I was wandering from my dormitory to the Student Union for breakfast, when a pleasant middle-aged woman started chatting with me about the Boston area. After several minutes of gentle circumlocution that left me uncertain what she wanted, she revealed that she needed advice on where best to solicit donations (“panhandle”). I was so delighted that she had thought I was homeless and been such a pleasant companion on my walk, that I tried to take her out to breakfast (she was embarrassed despite my reassurances, so I brought her breakfast outside the Union).
The second experience was devastating. (more…)
My dad was a troubled man. If he had lived in the time of Christ, I think he might have undergone an exorcism of the melancholy devil that short-circuited his attempts to be good and prevented his participation in meaningful relationships. Since he was born in the baby boom of the 1940s, he was instead diagnosed with manic depression and a personality disorder. We are all of us inclined to embellish in retrospect, to amplify faults in our cloudy memory—my father had moments of love and kindness that blessed the lives of the people around him. But his mind was broken, and his broken mind generally seemed to keep his soul hostage. (more…)
As a close friend has suffered a particularly difficult miscarriage recently, I want to pause from the usual vocations of life to express solidarity to and love for the many women who have similarly suffered. (more…)
A sermon delivered in my congregation in 2008.
Many of you know that I often worry about how careful we are to nurture women of all physical, emotional, social, and familial descriptions. As I began to think through a talk for Father’s Day, I was filled with ideas about how best to explain ways we could improve many of our older traditions about fatherhood. As I thought and prayed over my message for today, though, I felt to reserve such proposals for another setting. Instead, I hope to share today that fatherhood is both a communion and a community. (more…)