“God is not dead; nor doth He sleep.” (Revision of an earlier post.)

San Bernardino, Paris, Umpqua Community College, terrorism, hatred, fear. Personal loss and pain, whatever it is you have experienced or are experiencing. Cancer, pediatric cancers, Alzheimers, other debilitating and life threatening diseases, debilitating and life threatening injuries. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow speaks for many with his words written on Christmas Day, 1861. “How inexpressibly sad are all holidays.” The sixth verse of his poem, “Christmas Bells”, also speaks for many.

And in despair I bowed my head;
“There is no peace on earth,” I said;
“For hate is strong,
And mocks the song
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!”

During the years of the American Civil War a darkness covered the heart of Longfellow. Grief, despair, and hopelessness found a home in his soul. Students of Longfellow’s died in the war. His son Charles sustained crippling injuries in battle. On July 10, 1861 his wife Fannie tragically died. She cut the hair of their seven year old daughter, Edith, on July 9. Fannie wanted to save the clippings of Edith’s hair in sealing wax. While melting a bar of wax some hot wax fell on her dress, catching the dress on fire. Fannie ran into the library to her husband. Longfellow desperately tried to extinguish the fire. He was finally able to extinguish the flames. It was too late. Fannie died the next day. Longfellow bore scars on his arms and face the rest of his life, constant reminders.

Overwhelmed with grief, Longfellow’s writings became darker. One year after Fannie’s death he wrote, “I can make no record of these days. Better leave them wrapped in silence. Perhaps someday God will give me peace.” On Christmas Day, 1862, his journal entry reads, “‘A merry Christmas’ say the children, but that is no more for me.” Longfellow’s son Charles was shot between the shoulder blades in battle in 1863 causing a crippling spine injury. Christmas Day 1863 Longfellow’s journal is silent.

On Christmas Day 1864 Longfellow opened a window. He heard the church bells ringing. Remembering the angels’ song to the shepherds in Luke 2:14, Longfellow wrote the poem “Christmas Bells.” (The complete poem is found at the end of this post.)

The poem begins with the beauty and wondrous hope of the angels’ song to the shepherds. As the poem continues, the sounds, sufferings, and horrors of war drown out the angels’ song. There is no peace. Nothing had changed. Longfellow’s wife was still dead. Charles, his son, was still crippled. The war was still raging. Longfellow expresses despair and hopelessness. “And in despair I bowed my head; ‘There is no peace on earth,’ I said; ‘for hate is strong, And mocks the song Of peace on earth, good-will to men!”

Centuries before Longfellow another poet wrote words of despair and hopelessness. “Awake, O Lord! Why do you sleep? Rouse yourself! Do not reject us forever. Why do you hide your face and forget our misery and oppression? We are brought down to the dust; our bodies cling to the ground” (Psalm 44:23-25).

Longfellow listened to the song of the church bells on that Christmas day in 1864. He wrote of despair and hopelessness. The song of the angels was not true. As he listened to the bells, in the midst of the darkness, a light began to shine in his heart. Despair and hopelessness gave way to faith and hope. The final verse proclaims:

Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
“God is not dead; nor doth he sleep!
The Wrong shall fail,
The Right prevail,
With peace on earth, good-will to men!”

In the song of the psalmist the light of faith and hope in God began to shine in the midst of the darkness. “Rise up and help us; redeem us because of your unfailing love” (Psalm 44:26).

The angels’ song was not in vain. With the Child born in Bethlehem came the light of God’s grace and the hope of his salvation. God’s light came into the darkness. In the great battle on the cross and in the grave, Jesus Christ won the victory. The chains of death have been broken. The hope of life has been given.

The Enemy is still lurking. Skirmishes are still being fault, often fierce and deadly. Yet for the children of God in Christ there is light and peace in the midst of the darkness, in the midst of the raging sounds of war. Their hope in Christ is sure. The apostle Paul writes of God’s wisdom, power, and love at work through Christ. “And through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross” (Colossians 1:20).

So often in Scripture the strongest statements of peace and comfort, of hope and life, are made in the midst of suffering. For the sake of space I ask you to read in your Bible Lamentations 3:19-25. Also read the words of the apostle Paul in 2 Corinthians 12:7-10.

Notice the change in Paul’s attitude in the 2 Corinthians text. Paul knew peace and hope through the assurance of Christ’s presence even in the most difficult times. By His presence Christ was strengthening Paul, enabling him to persevere. Paul was not alone in the darkness. Rather within the darkness the light of Christ shone in Paul’s heart. “God is not dead; nor doth he sleep!”

For many Longfellow’s words of despair and hopelessness are so familiar to their hearts. Yet in the midst of the darkness the light of Christ shines. It is light seen only through faith, but it is bright. For this faith hears Jesus’ words of encouragement. “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Corinthians 12:9).

Faith can be a strange thing. Faith summons every ounce of strength we have to trust when it seems there is no one to trust. The peace and hope, the strength, depend more on the One in whom faith is placed, than in the strength of that faith. No matter how weak you feel, how weak you are, even with faith as small as a mustard seed, trust in Christ. In the deepest darkness, His grace is sufficient. As difficult as it is to grasp in a world where power and might are worshiped, Christ’s strengthening power is perfected in your weakness.

Don’t beat up yourself thinking, “I must be stronger.” Trust Christ. You are weak but his strength sustains. Open your heart to God. In your despair shake your fist at Him. He understands. When the crying and anger reach their peak, God takes you in His arms and holds you tight.

As you face the holidays, as you walk numbly through life, remember. Remember the past–the bad and the good. They are all part of who you are. As painful as even the good memories can be, oh how you need those memories. Do something loving and unselfish for somebody. Draw on the strength and hope that comes from good friends and family.

No matter where you have been, here is where you are now. Know, believe, trust. Christ has not forsaken you. Yes, He gives you strength, peace, and hope, now. Keep going forward, reaching out to Him, and trusting Him. “God is not dead; nor doth he sleep!”

 

“Christmas Bells” by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

I heard the bells on Christmas Day
Their old familiar carols play,
And wild and sweet
The words repeat
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

And thought how, as the day had come,
The belfries of all Christendom
Had rolled along
The unbroken song
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

Till, ringing, singing on its way,
The world revolved from night to day,
A voice, a chime
A chant sublime
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

Then from each black accursed mouth
The cannon thundered in the South,
And with the sound
The carols drowned
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

It was as if an earthquake rent
The hearth-stones of a continent,
And made forlorn
The households born
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

And in despair I bowed my head;
“There is no peace on earth,” I said;
“For hate is strong,
And mocks the song
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!”

Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
“God is not dead; nor doth he sleep!
The Wrong shall fail,
The Right prevail,
With peace on earth, good-will to men!”

John Baptiste Calken put Longfellow’s poem to music in 1872. It became known as the Christmas carol, “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day.” I have not exhausted the search for a rendition of the poem in song which includes all the verses. So far I have not found one. For now my favorite rendition is that of Casting Crowns. Here is a link to video of Casting Crowns sharing the story of the poem and their moving version of the song.

_______________

I do not remember my source for the events of Longfellow’s writing of “Christmas Bells.”

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This entry was posted in Christmas, Faith, Good and Evil, Grief and Faith, Hope, Sovereignty of God, Suffering and Faith and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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