One of my friend’s writes personal essays. Today he titled his ‘When the roll is called up yonder, or queer confessions of an ex-evangelical’.
Even before I read his essay the song When the Roll is Called Up Yonder started playing in my head and rapidly turned into an earworm. I had to open my Johnny Cash gospel playlist to dislodge it while I was working.
The song that next caught my ear was his rendition of Let the Lower Lights be Shining by P. P. Bliss.
1 Brightly beams our Father’s mercy
From His lighthouse evermore,
But to us He gives the keeping
Of the lights along the shore.
Let the lower lights be burning!
Send a gleam across the wave!
Some poor fainting, struggling seaman
You may rescue, you may save.
2 Dark the night of sin has settled,
Loud the angry billows roar;
Eager eyes are watching, longing,
For the lights along the shore.
3 Trim your feeble lamp, my brother;
Some poor sailor, tempest-tossed,
Trying now to make the harbor,
In the darkness may be lost.
I loved the image of God’s powerful steady light shining on us while still expecting us to shine our own, much smaller lights, out into the world.
This got me thinking about one of the bible passages that I have always had a hard time with, the parable of the ten bridesmaids:
“Then the kingdom of heaven will be like this. Ten bridesmaids took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom. Five of them were foolish, and five were wise. When the foolish took their lamps, they took no oil with them; but the wise took flasks of oil with their lamps. As the bridegroom was delayed, all of them became drowsy and slept. But at midnight there was a shout, ‘Look! Here is the bridegroom! Come out to meet him.’ Then all those bridesmaids got up and trimmed their lamps. The foolish said to the wise, ‘Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.’ But the wise replied, ‘No! there will not be enough for you and for us; you had better go to the dealers and buy some for yourselves.’ and while they went to buy it, the bridegroom came, and those who were ready went with him into the wedding banquet; and the door was shut. Later the other bridesmaids came also, saying, ‘Lord, lord, open to us.’ But he replied, ‘Truly I tell you, I do not know you.’ Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.
This passage has always seemed fundamentally unfair to me. It is the delay of the bridegroom that causes the so-called foolish bridesmaids to lose their chance to come to the banquet.
Maybe this is because I see myself, not as one of the wise bridesmaids, or as the bridegroom, but as one of the foolish bridesmaids. I am, perhaps, organized enough to show up for the wedding and I might be able to afford enough lamp oil to last until midnight, but maybe not.
I understand why the so-called wise bridesmaids might not share their oil. It makes sense to take what they do have and make it last as long as possible, but there is no reason in the story why the wise could not have paired up with the foolish. After all, the arms of the wise might have gotten tired holding the lantern all night. If they paired up with the foolish, they could take turns and not have sore arms the next day.
If we are commanded to be prepared to go with Jesus even though we know not the day or the hour, it seems to me that it is also our duty to reach out with the little bit of light we do have to help our fellow mortals find their way back to shore in safety to and into the the house of the bridegroom in joy.
In the gospel for Friday. We see Jesus calling Levi the tax collector. He doesn’t just call Levi he pulls him away from his work in the tax booth. Like the other disciples before him, Levi walks away from his work to feast with Jesus.
Unlike the bridesmaids of the parable, the various followers of Jesus weren’t waiting around for someone to come and call them into service. They were living and working and, like the foolish bridesmaids, weren’t expecting the call to come when it did.
I wonder if the parable of the bridesmaids is almost wishful thinking on the part of Jesus. None of his own followers were exactly waiting for him to show up. None were buying extra lamp oil because he was late. He wasn’t expected at all.
Still, they found a way to follow Jesus and to use their own, feeble, and wholly mortal lights to bring others to him in their own life and beyond through the writings the early church left behind.
So as the song says, “Let the lower lights be burning,”. It takes all of our tiny lights to bring the steady beam of God’s light in to the world and even foolish bridesmaids and silly disciples can contribute for as long as their lights last.
All bible quotes are from the NRSV text at Bible Gateway.
A pdf of the Book of Common Prayer which contains both the lessons for Sundays and the Daily Office can be found at: https://www.episcopalchurch.org/files/book_of_common_prayer.pdf
Mission Clare is a good resource for daily morning and evening prayer online.
Kristin Fontaine is an itinerant Episcopalian, crafter, hobbyist, and unstoppable organizer of everything. Advent is her favorite season, but she thinks about the meaning of life and her relationship to God year-round. It all spills out in the essays she writes. She and her husband own Dailey Data Group, a statistical consulting company.