This past weekend, Traci and I enjoyed a date, (something we try to do weekly) and after lunch, and a little shopping at Costco, we stopped by the local theater for a matinee viewing of the new Mary Poppins movie. We’d both heard reviews, good and bad, from friends who had previously viewed the film; it’s so hard to take something so iconic, and try to modernize it for a younger audience while keeping it familiar to an older audience. Some of our friends loved it, and others felt like it was a disservice to the magic Julie Andrews and Dick VanDyke had created back in 1964. (While we both loved the movie, this is not a critique or analysis of the film.)
If you haven’t seen it, I won’t ruin anything here, but in place of the Dick VanDyke chimney sweep character, a young man by the name of Jack plays a central role in the movie, and serves the community as a lamplighter. He is part of a number of fantastic musical numbers as he and his fellow lamplighters, or Leeries as they are known, start each day by lighting the city’s lamps after the sun has gone down, and end each day by putting them out, after the sun has come back up.
I’m not sure where the term “Leerie” first originated, though it is found in a Robert Louis Stevenson poem from the late 1800s. Here are the words to this short little poem, told from the perspective of a little child who longs to be a lamplighter:
My tea is nearly ready and the sun has left the sky.
It's time to take the window to see Leerie going by;
For every night at teatime and before you take your seat,
With lantern and with ladder he comes posting up the street.
Now Tom would be a driver and Maria go to sea,
And my papa's a banker and as rich as he can be;
But I, when I am stronger and can choose what I'm to do,
O Leerie, I'll go round at night and light the lamps with you!
For we are very lucky, with a lamp before the door,
And Leerie stops to light it as he lights so many more;
And oh! before you hurry by with ladder and with light;
O Leerie, see a little child and nod to him to-night!
You see, these Leeries were out at night as the sun set, and they traveled through London turning on every lamp in the city, including the ones on each street corner, on the outside walls of businesses, and even the ones on peoples’ porches. Carrying or driving their ladders and/or long poles around, they quickly turned the city from darkness to light, and then just as quickly extinguished the flames when the sun returned the next morning. It was an important job in London in the late 1800’s thru the early 1900s, until automation, and eventually electricity, eliminated their role from society.
Not only were the Leeries responsible for lighting the city at night, they were also responsible to make sure the lamps had enough wick to operate, that the gas lines were properly functioning, that the lamps and glass were kept clean, and in many cases, were the unofficial watchmen of the city in the hours of the day/night when criminals would be looking for opportunities to break laws. Leeries were considered honorable men, helping people find their way through the city, demonstrating charity to those in need, and working the odd hours of the day and night when most others would prefer the comfort of a warm and dry shelter.
There are several great lines in the movie about the role of the Leeries, but I love how Stevenson captured it: “For we are very lucky, with a lamp before the door, And Leerie stops to light it as he lights so many more…” This reminds me of the text in Matthew 5 where Jesus tells an audience, “Let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven” (Matthew 5:16).
Imagine if all of us who professed Christ demonstrated the qualities of a Leerie. We’d be packing our “equipment” with us everywhere we went, making sure we were always ready to serve when the opportunity arose. Each of us would make certain our neighborhood had a light shining bright, on the street corner, in our local businesses, and on every porch. Embracing the Leerie role, we’d help point people in the right direction, keep an eye out for danger, and do all of our work without complaint. And like all good Leeries, we’d help one another when our shift was “finished” and make sure all the other Lamplighters made it home safely at night.
I left the movie theater very satisfied with the new version of Mary Poppins, and already thinking about whether or not I living like a Leerie. The Overboard Life demands that each of us be a little Lerrie, lighting lamps for the Gospel in whatever corner of the world God has placed us. What would make you a better Leerie, today?
Go ahead and take the plunge, life is always better on the water!
(Below you can enjoy a musical version of Robert Louis Stevenson’s poem)