While we all sup sorrow with the poor
There's a song that will linger in our ears;
Oh, hard times come again no more.
'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 come again no more."
As we were moving from one place to another the saddest thing happened. My cousin, my good friend--took his life. He was in his fifties with a great deal of promise. He left me a note that said he wanted me to have his funeral in our church in Birmingham. He lived out of town but loved our Church and he loved its openness--he loved the fact that we took in all kinds of people.
As I struggled with what to say one of his nieces called me and wanted to use a particular song at the funeral. I was not sure--often people suggest music that is totally inappropriate for the occasion. But that was not the case--she wanted us to use Stephen Foster's plaintive, hopeful song: "Hard Times Come Again No More."And so at the end of that service we played this most appropriate song. The music could not have been more fitting.
I remembered that occasion as I turned to to this week's lectionary passage in Isaiah 35. I was struck by one word that is used over and over throughout the chapter like a mantra. Shall is repeated 24 times.
- The wilderness shall be glad...
- The desert shall rejoice...
- The glory...shall be given...
- The lame shall leap like a deer...
- Waters shall break forth in the wilderness
- A highway shall be there...
- And it shall be called the Way of Holiness...
- Sorrow and sighing shall flee away...
Isaiah wrote in a bitter time for God's people and gave them a word of hope. So this wonderful word, shall is reiterated over and over. The door to their present and their future was not shut tight. Exile was not the last word. And today? Neither will suicide or a mean-spirited time or continual gun violence be the last word. We put this five letter word down beside the heartbreak on every street. We use the word at a time of terrorists threats--real or imagined. And certainly we could use the word out there for all the grievers. In the middle of whatever we deal with--or the world struggles with--embedded in it all is this hopeful word: Shall.
It is a word for people whose lives feel like a wilderness. The word speaks to the weak , the fearful, the blind, the deaf--all the broken people.
Is this shall just a mirage? We keep coming back to this word Advent after Advent. So we put it down beside our newspapers and the web and that family down the street and all those widows whose husbands or wives will not be coming home from Afghanistan--ever.
Like Foster's song that emerged from that terrible time of slavery. Isaiah also proclaimed: hard times will come again no more Our task, the text says in verses 3-4 is to help one another. "Strengthen the weak hands," he writes, "and make firm the feeble knees. Say to those who are of a fearful heart, 'Be strong, do not fear!'" This is not only a personal word for us but it is also a challenge fore us to respond to but all those out there without jobs or enough to eat or sleeping under the interstate bridge. We are given a mandate. Our task is to make the word shall become a reality for us all.
And so, like other hard times, we pilgrims light three candles. We whisper shall. For we believe, deep in our hearts, that this hard, hard time is not the last word. Say it over and over as did the Prophet. Shall...Shall...Shall.