The importance of Big Red

Big Red Holland Michigan

Everybody knows “Big Red.”

Everybody who has ever lived or vacationed in Holland, Michigan, that is. Big Red is the lighthouse that marks the entrance to the channel linking Lake Michigan to Lake Macatawa (and thus to the City of Holland).

Every summer for more than 30 years I have vacationed within sight of Big Red, and even though the lighthouse no longer carries out its original mission, it has become an important landmark, very nearly synonymous with the City of Holland.

When I arrived in Holland a couple of weeks ago for my summer vacation, I changed the cover photo on my Facebook page to the photo you see above, letting everyone know, I suppose, that I had arrived. Many of my Michigan friends immediately “liked” the photo because Big Red has that effect on many of us.

It’s not the most beautiful lighthouse we’ve ever seen, but it’s our lighthouse, visible from our beach, located in our part of the world. Soon after I arrived I went to the beach, looked to the south, and – sure enough – there it was. For me at that moment vacation had begun.

One friend who is a serious sailor wrote in response to my Facebook photo to tell me that lighthouses are now obsolete because of GPS . He pointed out, further, that “lighthouses act now as museums and nice old things to look at as we walk down the beach.”

Thanks for that astonishing information, Andrew.

And then he mentioned that “lighthouses are bad images for churches.” Say what?

I should explain that Andrew is, like me, a Presbyterian minister. And this, like it or not, is how we think. We see a lighthouse, or a ship, or an anchor, and immediately we think about images and metaphors. We think about sermon illustrations. And in the process, I suppose, we can be guilty of telling people some pretty obvious stuff. (Please forgive me, if you’ve had to sit through one of my sermons thinking, “Gee, Doug, I never knew that before.”)

But I think Andrew got that last statement wrong, and I’ll tell you why.

The church at its best, of course, is very much like a lighthouse, helping weary travelers navigate through the storms and fog of life. But lately the church – in the West, at least – has become culturally irrelevant and obsolete, like the lighthouse. Fewer and fewer people look to the church anymore for guidance, and now the church – sadly – is often no more than a museum or “a nice old thing to look at.”

And the church – unlike the lighthouse – is partly to blame. (As ashamed as I am of so much in church history, I don’t think it’s fair to say that the church is entirely to blame for what has become of it. Cultural and historical forces have also played a role. But let’s not quibble.)

I’d quit there, but I’m a preacher. And on vacation I feel a little lost without a pulpit. So, let me make this one last point.

I think the church still has a role to play – and not as a museum or a nice thing to look at. I think the church, if it wanted to, if it could find the moral courage to do so, could become a beacon for justice and righteousness. And I’m not thinking about the silly issues that so many Christians waste their time with. I don’t have the energy, for example, to boycott stores where clerks fail to say “Merry Christmas.” Please.

What I have in mind are the larger cultural issues that have led to the situation we find today in Ferguson, Missouri – to give just one example. The gospel has something to say about issues like that. And it’s not always what we want to hear. But often it’s what we most need to hear.

Maybe – this is really dreaming, I know, but indulge me – maybe people will look one day to the church the way I look at Big Red. In other words, as a reminder of something.

Maybe people will look to the church and remember that we can be better, that we’re called to be better, than we often are.

Maybe people will look to the church and be reminded of the one who lived with more moral courage than any other human being who has ever lived.

Thanks for the email, Andrew. Just what I needed.

About Doug

I have been a writer ever since fifth grade when I won second prize in a “prose and poetry” contest. I am also a Presbyterian pastor, and for several years toward the end of my career I lived and worked in Zürich, Switzerland. I am now retired and live just north of Holland, Michigan, along the lake.

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6 Responses to The importance of Big Red

  1. Georgia Hamilton August 14, 2014 at 10:02 pm #

    Great piece, Doug. That is the question tho—how do we make the church more relevant, more like a beacon to lead so many segments of our world who are lost?

    Enjoy your vacation!


  2. Carter August 14, 2014 at 11:54 pm #

    I have a next door neighbor who is a full Professor at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. He agreed to sponsor me so I could swim in the University pools. I suppose I was seeking a pass to the athletic facilities on campus, but the only intent I had was to swim. Oh, I wanted a locker too. He asked me to draft a letter that he would submit with the request. He was expecting to only have to sign his name. He read the salutation that I wrote, and threw out the rest of my carefully worded letter, because I had addressed the letter to the Recreation Department at the given campus address for the pool.

    As he was typing his letter he clearly instructed me that He was not going to address a building but the administrator of the building

    When a Roman Catholic theologian came to our church in Doug’s old haunt in Ann Arbor, maybe before you got here Doug, I wanted to hear the man refer to faith as a Presbyterian calls it and not as an institutional short hand for their Church, even their denomination.

    Words matter and it is simply not the church that is at issue, it is the leaders in the church. Like the administrator who had the authority to grant me a locker and access to the university facilities, the minister, yeh even the priest’s role is not to be the church or act as Father, the bible even warns against that one, or even to represent The Faith as out Catholic brethren wished to, it is his or even her role to serve, aka. servant leadership, the legitimate needs of those seeking God.

    There was a church that was exceedingly successful with young people when you joined us Doug, where in your first sermon you gave, you expressed a wish or even a mission that we would not just live, I believe you said but Thrive, under your leadership and you sent a mission to that church to discover and develop a dialogue with the people there who ended up informing and populating our campus ministries at different levels because you wished to know just how they did what they did

    That my friend by any definition is leadership and when the spirit called you away, we soldiered on, but make no mistake, we knew our leader had left the field and to till that garden in his absence, was no party; well, what was felt on the part of the disciples when the ascension was underway? We have grown, the churches you have gone to, even the mountain tops you are reaching now a ways to the east of us, have benefited from a rare and gifted man, a leader whether our church is big and red and sits on a hill or on a dock near the bay or is little and seemingly inconsequential. A leader …

  3. Andrew August 15, 2014 at 1:37 pm #

    Well said Doug, love it that I was able to make you think a little. I do love lighthouses when sailing on Lake Michigan because they do a wonderful job marking progress. The key to successful sailboat racing is observing all that is revealed to you. I also love Christ’s church and the ministry he has invited me into has I seek the light found in the Word.

    Now more to think about. The bow pulpit is the part of the boat that protects the sailor but also faces the force of the sea before the rest of the boat and it’s occupants. Pastor often feel very comfortable in the pulpit, but my sailing experience there is a lot of yelling and large cold waves trying to throw me out.

    Peace Andrew Gifford

    • Doug August 15, 2014 at 3:50 pm #

      So, you’re a reader, Andrew! If I had known, I would mentioned a few nice things about you, like your brand-new doctorate. Anyway, thanks for the inspiration to write this post. I’d love to sail again with you and won’t forget the dinner cruise a few years on the lake near Chicago. Blessings on your ministry!

  4. Karen Parkinson August 19, 2014 at 12:09 pm #

    Doug, Back at work after a long weekend in Michigan City. Heard a Great Sermon on Sunday. I appreciate all your Blogs. Karen Parkinson, Wheaton

    • Doug August 20, 2014 at 12:09 am #

      Karen, I’ll bet I know the fine preacher you heard last Sunday. I would love to hear her again.