December 14, 2011

Hope: To Expect With Confidence

"Hope is some extraordinary spiritual grace that God gives us to control our fears, not to oust them." ~ Vincent McNabb

Sometimes I wonder if our collective memories are all shot. We seem to have forgotten much of our (relatively) recent history.

Exhibit A:  Readers of Men's Health magazine recently voted Jennifer Aniston  "The Hottest Woman of All Time". All time??? OK, it turns out that they only included women who had been photographed, but still, it seems that Jen beat out a lot of other women from decades past. I will confess that I found a certain satisfaction on Jennifer's behalf when I saw that she had garnered the Number 1 spot while Angelina Jolie came in at Number 10. Then I realized that Madonna came in at Number 5, further evidence that I have no earthly idea what men find appealing. It's not that I begrudge Jennifer Aniston's placement at the top of the poll but I wonder if it's a sign that the men who voted have frightfully short memories...or maybe they are all just very young.

I see evidence of our short memories everywhere. I see it in the endless political polls. I see it in fashion. (Five inch heels will mess up your feet in ways you've never imagined, they're bad for your knees, and we've known these things about five inch heels for a long, long time.)

People seem to be particularly downcast these days and as the effects of the recession linger on, many seem to think things are the worst they've ever been. Christmas is just a few days away, and it seems that far too many people are filled with despair. It's more than the economy. It's the sense that we don't quite know what our place is in a rapidly changing world. There is fear for the future. There are people who are convinced that things have never been this bad when the truth is that there have been times that were far worse, and yet people got through them largely because they never quit dreaming of a brighter future. They never gave up hope.

I wonder how my paternal grandparents dealt with the worst period of their lives. Beginning shortly after Pearl Harbor, they watched as all of their sons and some sons-in-law left home to fight in World War II. They faced Christmas of 1944 with the realization that their oldest son would never come home and undoubtedly feared for the safety of their remaining sons. It was the most painful loss that any parent can experience and I'm sure they felt the full depth of that pain with every breath. If hope was gone for them that Christmas, it would return as their faith played a significant role in leading them to find hope and healing.

Source: Google Images
All four of my grandparents struggled to raise their families during the Great Depression. They went through year after year of lean times. Any gifts were modest, and each Christmas the stockings were filled with fruit and a few pecans. They felt blessed, never giving up hope that things would get better.

Their own grandparents had lived through what were truly the darkest days of our nation's history, a time when we were at war against ourselves. As I write this post, there is a Victorian loveseat just a few feet away from me that was in my great-great-grandparents' living room parlor during the Civil War. I wonder what their feelings were as they sat on that loveseat...were they filled with hope, or did they feel despair? Did they turn to God for comfort, or were they consumed by fear?

The journal of poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow makes it clear that he was filled with despair during those years. Shortly after the war began, Henry lost his wife when her dress caught fire and she was soon consumed by the flames. That Christmas he wrote in his journal, "How inexpressibly sad are all holidays." The next Christmas, in 1862, he wrote, "'A merry Christmas' say the children, but that is no more for me."  There was no entry for Christmas of 1863. Not long before that Christmas, Longfellow had received the news that his eldest son had been injured in the war. Perhaps it was because Lt. Charles Longfellow survived his injuries, but by Christmas of 1864, Henry was evidently feeling more optimistic. That was they year that Longfellow wrote a poem that has become a favorite for many, Christmas Bells.  In 1872, John Baptiste Calkin set the poem to music, deleting verses specific to the Civil War. Today, we know the poem as I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day.

This is the poem with all seven of the original verses. It echoes the ups and downs of Longfellow's life and his reflections on the war, ending with that glorious verse brimming over with hope.

Christmas Bells
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!

"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!

The last verse is one of my favorite verses of any hymn. "Then pealed the bells more loud and deep: 'God is not dead; nor doth he sleep!'" May those words encourage anyone who looks to the future with trepidation to remember that God is in control, and that with Him there is always hope for the future.

Until next time,

Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid or terrified...for the LORD your God goes with you; he will never leave you nor forsake you. ~ Deuteronomy 31:6

For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the LORD, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.” ~ Jeremiah 29:11


  1. I had forgotten how wonderful the words to that song are and the time in our history it represents, although they're timeless. The last verse is a powerful message of why we have hope.

  2. Thank you for sharing the poem and the uplifting post.

  3. Yes, most of us are too young to remember the dark days of the depression or WWII. Many of us are too young to remember even the stories of such times. I, at least, remember those. So, fact is, these are some of the toughest days that a vast majority of us have ever known. Times are tough. The pain is real. Your encouragements are wonderful!

    Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, a son of Maine, is one of my favorites and I have long loved this piece. There are so many others that are faith and hope filled as well, though this certainly shows the progression through dark times to that bright hope. Thank you so much for featuring it!

  4. I don't think I'd ever heard all of the verses to that song! Very profound. Great post :)

    I think Jennifer Aniston was number 1 because her laid-back personality appeals to a lot of guys. I would have put Raquel Welch at number 1, but Jennifer Aniston is up there! (surprised Angelina made it to 10... don't know many guys who find her attractive anymore)

  5. Virginia, it's amazing how the verses can fit any era.

    Thanks, Amy.

    Vee, your point is well-taken. For anyone who has had long-term unemployment, it is the worst time of their lives.

    Laura, I had forgotten the Civil War verses so it was interesting to read them again. And those of us who are regular women should find encouragement in Jennifer Aniston's high ranking because she really does come across as the girl next door. =)