Lighthouses are more helpful than churches...

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Lighthouses are more helpful than churches. - Benjamin Franklin, 1706-1790

Old Ben was raised an Episcopalian but in his adult life was a Deist. His sentiment in the quote above is provocative. How do lighthouses function? Here's a definition from an informative site:

- A distinctive structure, built on or near a shore, which exhibits a light of distinctive characteristics to serve as an aid to navigation. Lesser lights may be displayed from fixed structures called beacons or from floating buoys or lightships.

- The characteristics of the lights displayed by lighthouses are given in light lists available to mariners and, in abbreviated form, on charts. Some lights have one or more sectors in which the light appears red, usually to warn of some danger in this sector. In other sectors most lights are white.

As I read over those two paragraphs of definition, I'm inclined to debate Franklin's statement that lighthouses are better than churches and say that in so many ways churches are lighthouses - or at least, are intended to be:

- A distinctive structure, built on a firm foundation, exhibiting distinctive characteristics for the purpose of aiding the navigation of people through the sea of life with its calms and storms.

- The characteristics of the light shed are given in the Wisdom of the Word, from which proceeds the law; sometimes the light appears red, warning of some danger ahead although most of the time the light is white.

The Franklin quote displays some dissatisfaction with churches, implying that they fail at guidance and protection from danger. We in our own times know how very right Franklin's words can be. But we also know how much wisdom rests in the church's word even when she is sinful in how she lives it. We know how much light can come from her tower even if at times the darkness near eclipsed it... And we know how many generations of faithful mariners, tossed on life's waves, have been saved from foundering on the rocks by the beacon whose radiance is the Light of the world, the Sun of Justice, the refuge of all who seek safe harbor.

Lighthouses are very fine, indeed, but the House of Light is still the seamark by which I chart my course.

By what light do you sail and keep safe your voyage?


  1. Concord Pastor, I left a comment with some questions under "Planning for Tomorrow's Church" a few days ago. When you have a chance, could you look at it and try to answer my questions. Thanks!

  2. My house of light continues to be church, where I find peace and seek insight and wisdom each week through the readings and homilies. I have other "houses" of light that are my family and friends; but it is in church where I find peace and that offers me quiet,music, prayer, and reflection time. There are weeks the insight and wisdom I'm looking for doesn't hit me, but then there is a Sunday like last Sunday, where the homily "made a difference." It made me more aware of how many things I have to be grateful for. I should dwell on these things, rather than what I do not have in my life. Hopefully, this piece of wisdom will ingrain itself into my everyday life!

  3. Ben Franklin certainly ranks as one of America's wise men. But to me, that the light of Ben's Deism is simply that enlightenment form of human reason called rationalism is nicely illustrated in the following quote from Avery Dulles:

    "The beauty and variety of the system, Newton believed, was irrefutable evidence that it had been designed and produced by an intelligent and powerful Creator. Close though he was to deism, Newton differed from the strict deists insofar as he invoked God as a special physical cause to keep the planets in stable orbits. He believed in biblical prophecies, but rejected the doctrines of the Trinity and Incarnation as irrational."

    and by a story about the French mathematical genius Pierre Laplace. When Laplace complained that Newton's mathematical theory of the planets was not exact and led to a growing discrepancy over time, Newton's reply was that God made the necessary corrections to the planetary motions to keep them in agreement with the theory (Newton was better known at the time as a theologian). This did not satisfy Laplace, and when he found the necessary mathematical correction to Newton's theory, Newton asked "What about God?". To which Laplace answered: "I have no need of that hypothesis !.".

    If I may make bold to slightly modify the description of the characteristics of ecclesiatical light houses from: "The characteristics of the light shed are given in word and wisdom, even by law" to: "The characteristics of the light shed are given in the Wisdom of the Word, even by law." To which I would add that the law comes from this Wisdom. Also, the Light continues to function even when the structure will inevitably be scarred by sin as it is battered by the storms of history, and will need maintenance and repair, keeping the Light in view.

  4. Grace: a preacher is always delighted to know that his/her words have "made a difference!"

    Just thinking: thanks for your suggestion - I've edited the post in light of it.

    daisy: I won't usually have the time to respond to individual questions here but I've given my best effort to yours and hope you find my responses helpful back at the post on Pastoral Panning.

  5. I think Grace has responded in a beautiful way. The peace and closeness I find in church is my beacon of light. But there are also those beacons of strength and encouragement outside the church setting through family and friends that shine through every day. My belief is that these people are special to us and that God puts them in our lives simply because we can't always find what we need in church each and every day. Your homilies, especially when you are "right on" are special words that give me comfort and peace, that I can carry with me as I travel different roads. Thank you for your beautiful homilies. They sustain me and give me hope especially in times of greater need.

  6. Here's the rest of the quote:

    “Lighthouses are more helpful than churches. The way to see faith is to shut the eye of reason.”

  7. Benjamin Franklin never said any of the things listed on this entire page, including the page's title and every quote listed in the comments section. After narrowly avoiding death by shipwreck, he did say in 1757:

    "Were I a Roman Catholic, perhaps I should on this occasion vow to build a chapel to some saint; but as I am not, if I were to vow at all, it should be to build a lighthouse."


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