Longfellow heard the bells on Christmas Day. It changed everything.
The life of one of America’s great poets, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, is a life with whom many can relate: a life-altering event leading into a dreaded rabbit hole; an event so impactful it takes you to deep waters— really deep and fast (against your will, too). For Longfellow, there were actually two events. The first was the death of his wife of 18 years (Frances). While sealing envelopes with hot wax in July of 1861, somehow Frances’ dress caught fire. As the fire engulfed his wife, Longfellow, awakened from a nap by horrific screams, tried to smother the flames. Eventually the flames were extinguished, but the damage was done: Frances died the next day. Widowed and with six children, Longfellow began that dreaded descent into the “dark night of the soul” (can you relate?). As Longfellow’s “night” continued, it was darkened by another event: his eldest son, Charles, joined the fight with the Union Army in a war that was spinning out of control and had become very bloody affair. In November of 1863, Charles was seriously wounded and faced a very difficult recovery. The widow Longfellow struggled to see the goodness of God with so much hate, carnage, and personal pain. Then on December 25th of 1863, the extraordinary happened in the ordinary: Longfellow heard church bells. It changed everything. Oh, he had heard them before, but this time was different. Through the bells, Longfellow sensed God speaking to him and was inspired to write the beautiful poem “Christmas Bells”. The last two stanzas read:
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."
As we look at the state of our union (riots, vitriol, disease, immorality) or, perhaps, the state of our own life (in a rabbit hole?), it is easy to bow our head in despair. Oh may we listen for God! He will speak to you. Maybe in a song. Maybe in scripture. Maybe in a whisper. Maybe through the ringing bells of a nearby church. Be reminded that “God is not, nor doth he sleep.” Let Him lift your head!
(By the way, isn’t it interesting that difficult seasons often led to beautiful poetry in the Bible—just read the Psalms. Listen to Casting Crowns sing “I Heard the Bells”—it’s amazing.)
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