Friday, December 2, 2011
Advent Two--A Word for Hard Times
Months ago when my cousin took his life, following the sad path of first his father and then his brother—so many of us were in shock. He left me a note. He wanted me to have his funeral. He wanted it to be in church I had served in Birmingham. And so fifty or sixty of us gathered to weep on a sunny October afternoon. One of my cousin’s nieces told me her family wanted a particular song played at the funeral service. Having had some terrible experiences with music at funerals I was dubious. But not this song. They had chosen Stephen Foster’s beautiful and plaintive: “Hard Times, Come Again No More.” The words go like this:
“Let us pause in life’s pleasures and count its many tears,
While we all sup sorrow with the poor;
There’s a song that will linger forever in our ears;
Oh, hard times come again no more.”
And then the chorus:
"‘Tis the song, the sigh of the weary,
Hard times, hard times, come again no more.
Many days you have lingered around my cabin door,
Oh, hard times comes again no more.”
The words were written in 1854. It was a difficult time for the country. Though President Lincoln would not be elected until 1861—the war clouds that would bring on the Civil War were already forming. It was a restless time for the whole nation. And this was the setting of Stephen Foster’s song.
That song could have been a background for Isaiah 40. 1-11. God’s beloved were in Exile—at least the best and the brightest. Back home their temple had been ransacked and destroyed. Many of their old parents had been left behind. Many others had died in the wilderness somewhere between Israel and Babylon. God’s people were afraid. And one of their own, Isaiah began to speak. It was word of comfort. It was a promise that hard times would one day end. In the middle of that cursed desert, a wilderness—God would come. Valleys would be raised up, hills and mountains would be made low, the rough places—some called it rough ground—would be smoothed out. Isaiah was saying there will come a better day: hard times would come no more.
Our age is beset with negativism. The climate of our country is hostile. We are afraid of immigrants, of terrorists, of the economy. We are afraid of our pensions and health and a multitude of things. Some wonder if our best days are behind us. Ask that great horde without jobs and they will speak plainly.
And so we light two candles. Some call this foolishness and wishful thinking. But just as Foster’s song was written in a hard age, and Isaiah’s words emerged from a rocky soil—we dare to open the old book and listen closely. Even today—especially today. Could those old words do for us what they have done for so many others through the hard years of their lives?