Yesterday was my day off. I try as hard as I can to ensure that as little of my life is consumed by ministry on Mondays as possible. I don't usually answer the phone, don't usually go the office, or work on anything remotely pastoral. Instead, I spent the day hanging out with Karen, going for a run, and taking a nap. It's my small attempt at maintaining some helpful "margin" in my otherwise crazy life. As part of the day, we watched a little Michael Strahan and Kelly Ripa, who were interviewing Hugh Jackman (Valjean in the Les Miserables movie) and listening to Richard Marx (last seen in the 80's doing Right Here Waiting for You). Jackman was engaging, funny and, in the clip of film I saw, amazing as Jean Valjean. But what was really interesting was Richard Marx. He sang Casting Crowns' version of I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day. As long-time readers of this humble blog know, this is my all-time favorite Christmas hymn. The lyrics are based on a Longfellow poem written in 1863 at the height of the Civil War, after Longfellow's own son had gone to join the fight for the Union.
The carol's third verse is: "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 goodwill to men.' And this is the verse that concluded Marx's rendition for Kelly and Michael. It ended despairing, with perhaps a glimmer of hope in the chorus about "peace on earth, goodwill to men," but without any real basis for that hope. For some reason he left off the final verse, which is: "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.'" Without God, there is no hope. Without a living God, able to help, desires for peace and goodwill on earth will remain that, simply desires.
I think that in many ways, this rendition of the song is a metaphor for our culture here at the end of 2012. We still love the ancient traditions, the old songs, and the old ways, but without the substance on which they are based. We want "peace on earth, goodwill to men," but without the intervention of the Savior on whom that certain, though yet future, hope is based. We want brides in white dresses and church weddings, but without the chaste living the dress symbolizes. We want a middle class lifestyle, but without the work such a life requires. We want a powerful nation without any sacrifice of life or treasure, liberty without responsibility, and the whole world to bend around our individual desires. These are hopes and dreams that are bound to be dashed because they do not align with truth or correspond to reality.
Yet here at Christmas, the pull of the old ways is perhaps at its strongest, because even as we dash around making merry, we remember what really matters: faith in God, family, and living well by doing good. My Christmas prayer is that the old ways would not be forgotten when the last of the lights are stored away, that the basis for our hope at Christmas would not go unmentioned, and that we as a people would once again "seek for the ancient pathways" and find our Lord and Savior standing at the end of them.