Candles or Coals?

This little light of mine
I’m gonna let it shine
This little light of mine
I’m gonna let it shine
This little light of mine
I’m gonna let it shine
Let it shine, let it shine

Don’t let Satan poof it out
I’m gonna let it shine
Don’t let Satan poof it out
I’m gonna let it shine
Don’t let Satan poof it out
I’m gonna let it shine
Let it shine, let it shine

Hide it under a bushel – NO!
I’m gonna let it shine
Hide it under a bushel – NO!
I’m gonna let it shine
Hide it under a bushel – NO!
I’m gonna let it shine,
Let it shine, let it shine

If you immediately went into song after reading the first line, there is a good chance you grew up with this hymn in children’s church or in Bible school. This gospel tune, written circa 1920, by composer and teacher, Harry Dixon Loes (1895–1965), echoes verses from the New Testament that focus on light (e.g. Matthew 5:14–16 and Luke 11:33). It found new life during the 1950s and 1960s, becoming one of the anthems of the civil rights movements. Fannie Lou Hamer, whose story so deserves to be told in light of what is happening in the U.S., became famously tied to this song. On August 31, 1962, Fannie Lou boarded a bus with 17 of her neighbors and headed to Indianola, Mississippi, to register to vote. Officials at the county seat blocked most of the group from filling out the paperwork. The story goes on to recount that only Fannie and one man were allowed to fill out the paperwork and take the literacy test, which they both failed. On their way back to Ruleville, their bus was stopped and the driver arrested. The reason – the bus was too yellow. As the passengers dug deeply to scavenge enough money to cover the driver’s fine, Fannie began singing This Little Light of Mine, adding verses such as Ev’ry where I go, I’m gonna let it shine; All in my house, I’m gonna let it shine; and my personal favorite, I’m not gonna make it shine, I’m just gonna let it shine. Fannie became a leader as a community organizer for desegregation and voter registration, as well as relief efforts for the poorest residents of the Delta.

Little did I know as I sat in the church pew, cupping my hand over my candle-like index finger, the incredible history attached to this song. The second and third verses I listed are from Loes’ original version and remind me of the actions that accompanied this song. Somehow, I assumed the light referred to in this song was a candle. It made sense at the time because of the actions as well as my fear that Satan really might poof out my candle or that someone might not be able to see my light under the bushel. My misunderstanding of this song was magnified by the word bushel. The only definition of bushel I knew was a unit of measurement. How do you hide light under a unit of measurement?

Maybe I totally missed the meaning of this song due to my interpretation of the light as a candle. Maybe this little light should be interpreted as a piece of coal, the anthracite kind. Anthracite coal has the highest heating value and highest carbon content. It is very hard, deep black and looks metallic because it is brilliantly glossy. It takes a while to be formed and shaped, requiring heat and pressure to produce chemical and physical changes. Anthracite coal burns hottest when it is surrounded by other pieces of anthracite coal, the kind of coal used as fuel for power stations. I like this analogy for Christian schools, places where students can be formed and shaped, becoming brilliant through the right amount of heat and pressure.

Or maybe this little light is the kind of coal or ember that we see in the backyard firepit, the kind that becomes bright when it is fanned or blown upon. That type of coal that glows hot, as hot as the fire that created it. I like this analogy for Christian schools as well. Could our students be those small red, orange, and yellow lights that when blown upon combust into a flame. Is my Christian school a hotbed of these coals – teachers, students, parents, staff, and community members – creating the right wind conditions to blow these embers out into the world as ambassadors for Christ, part of the renewal and restoration of all things?

Maybe the next time you sing this song, hold that hot coal in your hand instead of the candle. Candles get poofed out when blown upon, coals burn brighter.

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