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Pastor Glenn McDonald: Christmas Bells

Updated: Dec 8, 2023

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow was sick with grief as Christmas approached in 1863.

He was still mourning the death of his wife Frances, who had died in a house fire. His oldest son, Charles Appleton Longfellow, or Charlie, had enlisted to fight for the North in the Civil War – against his father’s wishes.

On December 1, Longfellow got word that Charlie had been severely wounded at the Battle of New Hope Church in Virginia.

While personally tending Charlie in the days that followed, Longfellow often heard church bells. Conflicted and disillusioned about his faith – especially the seemingly empty promises of a so-called Prince of Peace – Longfellow wrote a poem called “Christmas Bells.”

I heard the bells on Christmas Day, their old, familiar carols play

And wild and sweet their 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!

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!”

Longfellow goes from joy to despair to hope in just a few short stanzas, reflecting a universal human longing: Since God has promised to heal our broken world, why hasn’t he done so already?

If you do a quick survey of friends, family, and total strangers, it won’t take you long to hear exasperated sighs that 2023 can’t end soon enough – accompanied by the creeping suspicion that 2024 may turn out to be even worse.

The world is a total mess and going downhill, right?

In the words of a certain sportscaster: Not so fast, my friend.

Data from scores of reliable sources suggest that we are living in the healthiest, safest, and most economically vibrant time in human history. Ronald Bailey and Marian L. Tupy make that clear in their 2020 book, Ten Global Trends Every Smart Person Should Know, and Many Others You Will Find Interesting.

Here are a few well-documented facts that should challenge our fear that all is lost:

Poverty is on the run. Two centuries ago, an estimated 84% of the world’s population lived in extreme poverty. By 1950, that had dropped to 50% - the basis of the truism that the world is divided between the Haves and Have-Nots. Today only 8.6% of the world’s citizens are in grinding poverty – and that number continues to decline.

Since the Industrial Revolution kicked into full gear about 250 years ago, the global standard of living has increased tenfold – and much more than that in the richest countries. The number of people living in urban slums has “decreased sharply on every continent since 1990.”

Trees are making a comeback. The acreage covered by forests in North America, Asia, and Europe has been steadily increasing for decades. There are more trees now in Europe than during the Middle Ages.

Global conflict is in remission. I know, I know. Every news broadcast this fall has begun with horrific images from Israel, Gaza, and Ukraine. And those conflicts have indeed been horrific. But we are currently living in an amazingly long period of peace between the world’s most powerful nations – almost 80 years since the end of World War II – which is something civilization has not seen for more than a millennium.

The chance that someone will die because of natural catastrophe – earthquake, flood, wildfire, tsunami, drought, or volcanic eruption – has declined an astonishing 99% since the beginning of the 20th century. Give credit to the technologies that help us predict disasters, then help us respond quickly to those in need.

In 1820, global literacy was 10% and average life expectancy was 30 years. Today, global literacy is 90% and life expectancy has soared to 72.

Author and pastor Kevin DeYoung writes, “Technologies that no one had in 1900 are now in virtually every household in this country and in many countries around the world: electricity, refrigerator, car, indoor plumbing, radio, air-conditioning, washer/dryer, dishwasher, microwave, television, cell phone, digital camera, computer, Internet.”

The world is safer, richer, healthier, and blessed with more technological conveniences than ever before.

So why isn’t that the lead story every night on the national news?

For one thing, there are still some serious problems out there. Climate change, oceanic pollution, and nuclear arms stockpiles are among the issues that will continue to demand attention and action from the world’s leaders. Likewise, there’s something inherently more dramatic about bad news than good news. A shooting, a mugging, a bombing, and a plane crash will always grab more headlines than the news that millions of people just experienced another routinely happy day.

Still, in the light of so many positive storylines, why do our hearts so often feel so heavy?

DeYoung observes, “It’s one of the great paradoxes of our time: almost everything is getting better, but we keep feeling worse.”

At the root of those feelings, almost certainly, is disappointment. We’re disappointed in other people and disappointed in ourselves. Poverty may be diminishing, but selfishness is definitely sticking around. So are pride, greed, anger, and the rest of the so-called Seven Deadly Sins. Technological conveniences are wonderful, but they don’t fill our hearts with love or generate the capacity to forgive.

Only God can do that.

Longfellow, for his part, experienced disappointment with God. Ringing church bells became a reminder of what he saw as God’s unkept promises. “Peace on earth and good will toward men.” Really?

Then it dawned on Longfellow that God often takes “the long way.”

It was a long time before God’s people left their lives of slavery in Egypt. They had to journey a long way through the wilderness to reach the Promised Land. It was a long time – almost a thousand years – before one of King David’s descendants finally emerged as the true heir to God’s throne. And it was a long time before the prophets’ words about the Messiah were fulfilled.

The Christmas story is Exhibit A that God often takes the long way.

He favors long periods of time in which we learn how to pray, to trust, and to follow him even when it appears that all is lost and hope is nowhere to be seen – even as we learn that microwaves and washing machines, blessings that they are, can never meet the needs of our souls.

Longfellow would probably have been surprised to learn that his private reflections in 1863 would one day become a Christmas carol.

But his words of hope still ring true:

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!”


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