It Is Well, Fourth Sunday of Advent
1. Tired and Weary
The fourth Sunday of Advent meditates on peace. This sets me to thinking of all the ways the idea of peace has been given to me through music and literature throughout my life. When I was a child, few songs at church moved me more than “There Will be Peace in the Valley”. The image of being in the valley suggests being between high ridges, a familiar setting for me, so I always assumed the song had been written especially for my place and my people. The moving song that has been recorded by everyone from Mahalia Jackson to Elvis to Loretta Lynn was written by a Black Appalachian evangelist and composer from North Georgia, Thomas Dorsey, who wrote over 3,000 songs including another masterpiece, “Precious Lord, Take My Hand”. “Peace in the Valley” spoke perfectly to the working class people of my church who were often fighting their way out of poverty with its opening, fatalistic lines:
Well, I’m tired and so weary
but I must go along
till the Lord comes and calls me away (oh).
Where the morning so bright
and the lamb is the light
and the night, night is black as the sea (oh).
But it was the promising chorus that roused the whole congregation to stand up and raise their arms in praise: “There will be peace, peace in the valley, someday.” In this promised valley there would be no sorrow, no troubles. At some point as a child I realized that the valley in question was not the Cumberland Valley, where I lived, but Heaven itself, and this image—wide pastures, high ridges, tens of thousands of trees, a meandering creek—was a Heaven I could relate to much more than the one the pastor preached about, since his was always a jasper-walled city paved with streets of gold.
2. The Least Sound
I was in high school when I first read “The Peace of Wild Things” by Wendell Berry, and I was overcome by it. The poem had a physical effect on me; I felt it from the top of my head, to my stomach, to the bottoms of my feet. I bet I have read it a hundred times by now, but every time I do it makes me want to sit down if I am standing or stand if I am sitting. First of all, there is that beautiful admission of depression in the opening: “When despair for the world grows in me/and I wake in the night at the least sound”. Then, amazingly, the speaker crawls out of bed and goes out into the night, finds a body of water, and lies down. There he is comforted by the wild things, by the heron, the wood-drake, the stars. I thought I was the only one who did such things. To know that there was someone else out there who felt the natural world so deeply and someone who also felt the need to put it into words, to set it down on paper. To know someone else felt drawn to water in this same way, for comfort. To know this was life-changing for me.
I’ve come to find this same kind of resonance again and again in music and poetry. When I want to study on the peace of wildness I often turn to Berry or Mary Oliver. Oliver’s poems “Wild Geese” (my favorite poem, ever) and “Invitation” are touchstones for me when I am longing for peace. “Wild Geese” is the more complex of the two and is a call for a ceasefire on the judgment so rampant in the world: “You do not have to be good,” the poem begins. “Wild Geese” is about the peace that can come to someone when they accept themselves, but it is also about the peace that can descend upon the judges when they decide to just let people be.
3. You Do Not Have to Walk On Your Knees, Repenting
This is something that has been on my mind very much over the past few years. In this time I have witnessed a great change come over many people I know and love. I’ve seen too many give themselves over to the mean and growing rhetoric of anti-immigration, blatant racism, a celebration of discrimination against LGBTQ people, and the glorifying of misogyny, fueled by those at the height of power. I’ve seen folks I used to respect become people who say they are being victimized because they’re being asked to be silent and listen to people who are experiencing injustice or who cry about their freedom being under attack because they’ve been asked to protect others by practicing social distancing and wearing masks. Time and again I’ve had to turn back to those bodies of water, to the peace of wild things, to the balm of poetry and books to keep from losing my mind due to the lack of logic and compassion on display. Over and over I’ve had to find peace by not being around the people who exhibit this behavior.
I’ve found that I cannot possess peace in the presence of people who see me as their enemy because I believe that I should leave the judgment to God, because I am aligned with a belief system that chooses community protection over individual comfort. We can’t always offer blatant grace to those who are dangerous and damaging to us, nor should we. I enable their behavior by sitting by silently when they are doing harm to my children by way of their rhetoric yet to always be the one who points out their meanness makes me the one who is disturbing the peace. Sometimes we have to live apart from those we love to keep that love alive.
4. Quiet Love
This is the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life. My reaction to it all has become a concept I call quiet love. These people accept me so long as I am quiet about being a gay man, accept people of color so long as they are not expecting justice or equity, accept trans people so long as they don’t have to acknowledge their true pronouns or true selves. So my love will be quiet for them, too. A small, silent flame, but still lit. The important thing is that hatred not beget hatred. I wrote about this at length for the Southern Foodways Alliance in my speech and essay “Crowded Table”, in which I sum it up this way: “I believe in forgiveness and offering grace. I do not believe in offering myself up for a beating, neither physical nor spiritual.”
In troubled and divided times like these I do not want to make divides wider. But I do want to have some peace. It reminds me of the song “Let There Be Peace on Earth”, a prayer for patience and humility that suggests that the peace should always begin with each of us. It’s a wonderful concept and one I try to live by, but occasionally you have to either stand up for yourself or walk away. “Let us walk with each other in perfect harmony,” the song goes, and I believe in that, completely. But the other person has to be willing to walk the walk, too.
Sometimes you must step away from the battleground to find the quiet. Sometimes you have to just go to music and poetry and books, to the wild places. And sometimes you have to fight back to get your peace. We can’t just shut down and take it when injustice and judgement come our way, but we also don’t always have to be on the front lines. It’s alright to find the riverbank and just sit down for awhile. Get rejuvenated and then rise up singing.
Another favorite hymn of mine is “Peace, Like A River”, sometimes known as “It Is Well”, which teaches me that sometimes I just have to talk to myself and say “It is well, it is well with my soul.” That song reminds me of My Morning Jacket’s “Like a River”, a prayer and a meditation that is basically calling us back to Berry’s idea that to go to the water, to go to the wild is the way to peace. It also reminds me of “All Will Be Well” by The Gabe Dixon Band, which tells us that the way to peace is to not be so hard on ourselves:
All will be well,
Even after all the promises
You've broken to yourself.
This Christmas, this new year, I’m wishing for more peace for all of us, however we can find it. My hope is that each of you reading this can sing the African spiritual "I've Got Peace Like a River" throughout the new year:
I've got peace like a river in my soul.
I've got love like an ocean in my soul.
I’ve got joy like a fountain in my soul.
I've got peace and I wish it for you.