Faithful Living: Wishing peace and goodwill


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!

--Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

There are no bells in my neck of the woods to hear at Christmastime, for I live at the end of a country road and the one church I know that rings bells in town is too far away for me to enjoy. But no matter! The beautiful words of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, so lyrical and grounded in sentiment, roll through my mind so wild and sweet.

I hear them as I roll my cart down crowded grocery aisles and late at night when I’m wrapping gifts. But to experience their magic entirely I must step away from the computer, turn off the TV, and stop the CD playing in the background. In the quiet recesses of my heart and memory, I give thanks for Longfellow first. Then I thank God for my wonderful dad. It was he who introduced me to one of American’s most beloved poets.

There are two places Dad read poetry to me. The first was a recliner in the family room. It was there he took cat naps, read the paper, and treated himself to his favorite poetry to relax and wind down the day. When I grew old enough to understand historic imagery and had myself collated enough life experiences on which to draw, Dad read his favorite poems to me.

He occasionally read to me at night as I readied for bed. Laying on his back, he’d stretch out atop my bedspread and hold the book of his current fascination above his head to block out the ceiling light and read out loud. Eventually I’d crawl under the covers and beside me he’d read. At first I heard the abbreviated language of poetry and was left mystified. I’d interrupt, “I don’t understand what that means!” in sheer frustration before Dad patiently explained his interpretation. In time I came to love the sound of the words, the imagery, history, and poetic conventions.

In college, my love of words overstepped practicality and any thoughts of a specific career and I eventually earned a bachelor’s degree in American literature. And it was there, in the various dorm rooms and library carrels, while toiling over the short stories, books, and poetry produced by American writers, that I came to understand the depth of Dad’s gift to me. Not only did he give me a love of words that would bring joy to me over a lifetime, but he would use the words others so beautifully penned to speak love to me.

I first understood his message of love in Longfellow’s poem, “The Children’ Hour.” It was one of Dad’s favorites and he could not read it to me without tearing up, ever so slightly. In this poem, Longfellow describes the complete joy experienced when his young children would invade his study at the end of a work day by running in, climbing over him, and offering unbridled affection. He describes holding them firmly in his arms, wishing never to let them go so he could forever possess them in the “round-tower” of his heart.

Dad’s love for me continues, even though this will be the second Christmas to arrive since his death. I will once again read “The Children’s Hour” and “Christmas Bells” without him beside me. Yet, I feel his love. And if I get quiet enough I can still feel his shoulder next to mine. The natural grace and melodies of the poems sweetly roll along in my mind, producing enough joy and optimism to outweigh my sorrow.

And certainly renew my faith.

Faith lives because the world changes little and God changes not at all. The issues of war and hate, personal loss, disappointment, ill health, financial worry and death — all that can threaten our sense of balance and optimism, were equally present in the time of Longfellow. Yet, “Christmas Bells” reminds us of two unchangeable facts: God is on duty! He is in charge!

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, goodwill to men!’

Wherever you are, I wish you peace and goodwill this Christmas.

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