“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!”
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
I once felt peace in the month of Christmas. It was both a personal feeling of peace and a global one. As I’ve aged, I must confess that this feeling of peace has been rocked at times, leaving me with an unsteady sense of peace, tenuous at best. At times, the fourth stanza of the song made of Longfellow’s poem seems to stand out above all others. There have been Decembers where I thought it was the only thing Longfellow ever wrote and “I heard the Bells on Christmas Day” the only Christmas Carole.
My sense of peace was first rocked in December 1991. My father lay bedridden in the hospital, dying of cancer. I will never forget the cold December day when the oncologist called me to explain that there was nothing more that could be done for dad. She explained that dad had a few weeks to live and that his already painful and delusional state of existence would only worsen as death traveled to him. As a family, we had already felt that we had lost dad because the cancer stole his mind before it took his body. One of the commonly assumed “benefits” of cancer is a time to say goodbye to a sick loved one–to converse, to cry, to tie up loose ends. My father, my mother, my sisters and I were all robbed of that “benefit”. The pain and agony of the demon cancer came like a thief in the night and stole my dad’s mind shortly after his initial diagnosis. My mother, my sisters and I were rendered numb. The only agony that exceeded ours was that suffered by my father.
Even though dad was only with us physically, I visited him almost daily in the hospital. As I walked from the parking ramp into the hospital that December, the Christmas music was always playing over the sound system, soothing for many, tormenting to me. In December 1991, Christmas music, not God, seemed omnipresent. For the first time in my life, I barely had a Christmas or a father. Dad died January 2, 1992. I learned to hate Christmas music.
Ironically, I had been starting to get to know a young lady around that same time. I didn’t know it then, but she would become the love of my life, the women I would marry. That December and January, I only had the capacity to think gray, sad thoughts. I have always carried scars after the loss of my father but, over time, even with the scars, I found that I was dating the most wonderful women imaginable. Since I fell in love with Joanne, a day hasn’t passed when I haven’t considered myself the luckiest man on earth.
Over time, Joanne and I had four boys. Four wonderful boys. Despite the challenges of fatherhood, I consider myself blessed beyond measure. Being around my wife and children let me start to enjoy Christmas music again.
On December 20, 2003 peace was rocked again. On that day, I started off enjoying the Saturday before Christmas with excitement and a contented peace as strong as anything I had ever felt. By ten o’clock that morning, I was in a helicopter, being airlifted to the same hospital my dad was in twelve years earlier. At age 41, I suffered a hemorrhagic stroke, apparently due to a malformation in my brain. Fortunately, I survived but I was paralyzed and cognitively impaired. I was told that my hospital stay would last for weeks or months and my hopes for any significant recovery were slim. Same hospital, same month, same Christmas music. I learned to hate Christmas music again. Only the fourth stanza of one song played in my head. There was no peace on earth for me.
It is now December 2015. My mother is still with us but she is physically frail and severely cognitively impaired. She will never be able to read these words. Yet, what little that is left of her is an organic sweetness. She is a kind and loving spirit, even as both her body and mind seem to have not lasted her full allotted time on this earth. I write these words on a Sunday, having come from church. Church was full of Christmas music. Longfellow’s poem was put to music and the fourth stanza was not sung but it is the only Christmas music now playing in my head.
Globally, we seem to be in a time of perpetual tension, if not war. Terrorism and mass killings seem to be reoccurring stories as front page news. I realize war and tragedy are not just recent phenomena. After all, Longfellow wrote his poem in 1863 at the height of the Civil War. Even so, I don’t recall such a sense of unease in America that we seem to be experiencing now. I don’t know of a time when we have ever had peace on earth and I sometimes think that we never will, at least not by human design. Then I think of what the Apostle Paul said to the Ephesians:
“For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places.” Ephesians 6:12 (King James)
I would be a liar if I said that I fully felt peace on earth. I would be a liar if I said I always felt peace myself. I have been in pieces but peace has often seemed elusive. So perhaps Paul is on to something in his letter to the Ephesians. Granted, things like “principalities” and “spiritual wickedness” are difficult concepts to accept. In fact, it seems that our 21st century western minds are obligated to reject such notions. Yet, I know of no other or better explanation for the elusiveness of peace, personally or globally.
As a Christian, sometimes I have been challenged to “prove” the Christian faith. I’m not sure that I am up to that task. However, I think such a challenge misses the point. There are a great many things that we humans are incapable of proving. That does not mean that those unprovable things do not exist. If the cause and cure for cancer are unknown and if the rupture of a malformed brain is unknowable in advance, maybe “principalities” aren’t such a far fetched thing. Perhaps it is a sensible thing, after all, to have a little faith and exercise a little hope in things I don’t understand and can’t “prove”. What better alternative exists? Why not be a Christian because I need to be one?
Then, as to peace, maybe I can take some comfort in Longfellow’s poem and the Christmas Carole it became. After all, Longfellow was a much more accomplished writer than I and he wrote one more stanza:
“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.”
It is not always easy to say this with a heavy heart but maybe it’s still worth closing with these words, even out of necessity. Peace on Earth.
Copyright December 13, 2015