Nineteenth century evangelical preacher D.L. Moody once told the following story,
On a dark, stormy, night, when the waves rolled like mountains, and not a star was to be seen, a boat, rocking and plunging, neared the Cleveland harbor. “Are you sure this is Cleveland?” asked the captain, seeing only one light from the light-house.
“Quite sure, sir,” replied the pilot.
“Where are the lower lights?”
“Gone out, sir.”
“Can you make the harbor?”
“We must, or perish, sir!”
And with a strong hand and a brave heart, the old pilot turned the wheel. But alas, in the darkness he missed the channel, and with a crash upon the rocks the boat was shivered, and many a life lost in a watery grave. Brethren, the Master will take care of the great light-house: let us keep the lower lights burning!
I have no context for the original telling of the story, so I don’t know what Moody was subsequently using it to say (a safe bet I probably wouldn’t have agreed), but it is a powerful gem of a story. Contemporary Christians in the West are preoccupied with trying to manage the great light-house–“saving” society from the great “evils” that modernity and post-modernity have brought in the wake of social progress. They are busy being cultural warriors when we should all be resolutely committed to being humble servants. Yet we find little such service and even less humility amongst our ranks.
It seems that the reason for this is we have been wrongly led toward false vocations within our Christian life. Our job is not to save other people’s souls. We can’t even save our own. Salvation seems like a great light-house kind of matter to me.
Our job is not to keep society from “going to hell in a hand-basket,” the public life of billions of people around the globe sounds like great-light house stuff too.
But the lower lights, those we can turn on anew each morning. We can show kindness to friend and stranger. We can yield our own interests to the needs of others. We can humbly serve the people around us. We can be beacons of peace in a world torn apart by violence. Yet all too often we do not do these things, because as it turns out, keeping these lower lights aflame is a lot harder than it sounds. So we would rather give up trying entirely or else dress up in spiritual warfare fatigues that make us look like some sort of Christian Don Quixotes and pretend we are holy and righteous in the way that we wring our hands about the loss of God in society.
This is a grave hypocrisy, the gravest hypocrisy of the Christian today, and it is no wonder that the Church is being evacuated en masse in the West. The outside of the bowl is clean, but the inside is filthy. We must reconsider what it means to be a Christian, because our current Western cultural conception of it is bankrupt both spiritually and ethically.
We need a more humble Christian to match the humility of the suffering God we find on the Cross at Calvary.
We need a more loving Christian to match the sacrificial love of our Lord in his death.
We need a more accepting Christian to match the way Jesus kept company with tax collectors and prostitutes.
We need a more meditative Christian to match the Christ who withdrew himself from the presence of others in order to defeat the temptations of Sin.
We need a more giving Christian, one who can keep the lower lights burning as Jesus himself met the temporal needs of the hungry, the sick, and the lonely.
If we do not become this kind of Christian, the Church will fade from memory within another generation. If the leaders of the institutional Church led the way, much of the remaining membership would no doubt make their way to the exits. This kind of Christianity will run off most church-attending Christians in the West. But such a purge is urgently necessary. The dead branches must be pruned away. The demagogues and pharisees need to be shown the door.
Then, perhaps, the ear of the world will be open to the message of love, forgiveness, and adoption of the Jesus I know.