12/27/2011 06:29 pm ET Updated Feb 26, 2012

The Hopes and Fears of All the Years (A Lament at Christmas)

This Christmas season I yearn to hear the good news -- perhaps a little more than most years. Perhaps it is because I grieve the fracture of good will in our American Congress. Perhaps it is because many Christmas trees (if folks can even afford those) will be pretty bare and more than a few homes are empty because some families can't even afford them anymore. Maybe it is because, even though thousands have returned from Iraq, hundreds of thousands continue to mourn the maimed and dead in Iraq and in the U.S. And no confession or apology will ever be offered by those who pursued self-interest more than peace.

As my children and I have sung Christmas carols this year I take comfort. I hear the yearning of the words in "O Little Town of Bethlehem" written right after the Civil War and my soul echoes the words: "The hopes and fears of all the years are met in Thee tonight." So many thrill to the song "O Holy Night" but don't realize the words are written by Placide Cappeau (influenced by the French Revolution) and translated (loosely) by John Sullivan Dwight (a Unitarian minister) in the decade prior to the Civil War as the country began to fracture. The third verse reads: "Truly He taught us to love one another; His law is love and His gospel is peace. Chains shall He break, for the slave is our brother, and in His name all oppression shall cease."

This Christmas swords continue to clang in Afghanistan, Syria, Sudan, Congo -- and plowshares seem to continue to be few in too many places. The Horn of Africa continues to suffer from drought and I fear the "developed world" won't care until it is too late (again). In the Sudan and Somalia, one in seven children die before the age of five -- chiefly from preventable disease. China prosecutes people like Liu Xiaobo for "inciting subversion of state power" because he wrote and used his voice -- and most of the American press won't even cover this (because we're too busy with "celebrities.")

So for those who live with me "between laughter and lamentation" (as a dear preacher friend observed), I remind us of the words from Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. He wrote these words in his despair during the Civil War in 1863 after receiving word that his son was wounded in the War. He had already been in a state of "melancholy" after his wife died in a fire in 1861. (By the way, the most popular tune of these words were written by Johnny Marks, the same composer who wrote "Rudolph, the Red Nosed Reindeer" -- just thought it might make you smile as you read):

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.

I thought as now this day had come
The belfries of all Christendom
Had rung so long the unbroken song
Of Peace on earth, good will to men.

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.'

Morning after morning during this Advent season I have woken with these words in my head --but with a drumbeat in the back of my imagination. I watched one of my favorite Christmas specials, "The Little Drummer Boy," and wept (as always) but that wasn't it. Then I remembered the Drum Major Instinct. I went back to Dr. Martin Luther King's sermon and re-read it (give yourself a gift and read it again). Mrs. King had it played for Dr. King's funeral. He closes his sermon with this: Yes, Jesus, I want to be on your right side or your left side, not for any selfish reason. I want to be on your right or your best side, not in terms of some political kingdom or ambition, but I just want to be there in love and in justice and in truth and in commitment to others, so that we can make of this old world a new world.

Perhaps as our nation continues to fracture, as parties claim superiority over national cohesiveness, we could refer to the songs of those who watched the nation learn the hard way a century and a half ago. And if nothing else, we can harken to the words of a man who gave his life in pursuit of justice and truth to "make of this old world a new world."