You light a lamp for me. The Lord, my God, lights up my darkness. [Psalm 18:28 (NLT)]
When Robert Louis Stevenson was just a boy, he was gazing out the window one evening and saw the lamplighter lighting the street lights. The future poet is reported to have said, “Look, Nanny! That man is putting holes in the darkness.” While it makes for a good sermon illustration, a more accurate version of his words is found in an essay he wrote in 1878, “A Plea for Gas Lamps,” in which the man expressed his opposition to the “ugly blinding glare” of the electric lights that were beginning to replace the gas lamps of Edinburgh. After asking God to bless the lamplighter, the poet described him as “speeding up the street and, at measured intervals, knocking another luminous hole into the dusk.” The lamplighter, said Stevenson, “distributed starlight, and, as soon as the need was over, re-collected it.”
The first gas lighting systems in Edinburgh were installed in 1819. At dusk, teams of lamplighters called “Leeries” would stream through the city. Using long poles, they’d ignite the gas in every lamp, whether on street corners, in front of businesses, or on people’s porches. After turning the city from darkness to light at dusk, the men would return in the morning to extinguish the lights. Responsible for trimming wicks along with cleaning and repairing the lamps, theirs was an important job until automation and electricity eventually eliminated the need for them.
A few years after his plea to keep the gas lamps, Stevenson published his poem “The Lamplighter.” In it, the speaker is a boy who says, “My tea is nearly ready and the sun has left the sky; it’s time to take the window to see Leerie going by.” Picture the boy looking out into the dark and, even before he can see the lamplighter, he sees the lamps Leerie illuminates as he approaches. Once past the boy, the lamplighter will have left a trail of lights behind him that will be visible long after he’s disappeared into the dark.
Before gas lamps became common, the streets were dark and dangerous. Pick-pockets and robbers roamed freely and people were afraid to go out at night. Although they could pay a “link boy” to guide them with a torch, there was a real risk the fellow might lead them into an alley to be robbed. When gas lamps were first introduced, The Westminster Review reported that they would do more to eliminate immorality and criminality on the streets than any number of church sermons.
Our pastor frequently closes services with the reminder to be light into darkness. Indeed, we are to be like the lamplighters who illuminated the darkened streets of the 19th century. Turning night into day, we are to put “holes in the darkness” of the world and let God’s light through. As Christians, it’s not enough that we bring the light. Like the Leeries of old, ours is an important job—we must light the lamps of others and help to keep them lit. As we point their way to Jesus, people should be able to trace the course of where we’ve been by the light we’ve left behind us. Like the lamplighters, our actions will speak louder about the light of Christ than any number of church sermons.
Unlike lamplighters who snuffed out the street lights in the morning, we must never extinguish the light of Christ or the flame of God’s love. With the advent of automation and electricity, there was no more need for lamplighters and they disappeared, except for a few whose job has more to do with tourism than bringing light into darkness. Our job as bringers of light, as the people who distribute God’s light by knocking luminous holes into the dusk, will never end. Like the lamplighter of old, let us poke holes into the darkness of the world and leave a trail of light and love wherever we’ve walked.