There is a phrase I often think of this time of the year. It’s associated with my dad in my thinking. “What do you want for Christmas, daddy?” was our childhood question. To which he almost always replied, “Peace in the valley.”
As children we did not find that answer to be particularly helpful, nor easily understood. I can remember puzzling over it in my thinking: Where is this valley? Why isn’t there any peace there? We did not live in a valley, though we lived near one – Chad valley. Dad’s workplace was located, more or less, in that valley. Maybe that was it? We’d been through valleys on family vacations. The one that comes to mind is Maggie Valley in North Carolina. It was located on the Blue Ridge Parkway. Perhaps they needed peace? But the ease with which dad let his seasonal response roll off his tongue led me to believe there was more to this – this peace, in the valley; this valley peace.
Those of you who know gospel music will recognize this phrase as the title of a song.It was written by Thomas Dorsey and first recorded in 1937 by Mahalia Jackson. But “Peace in the Valley” became a hit in 1951 when Red Foley and the sunshine boys recorded it. Several other artists took it up in time including Jo Stafford, Little Richard, George Jones, Dolly Parton, Johnny Cash (no relation) and even Elvis. These were things I did not know as a child, and am mostly discovering just today. But isn’t this how language and life works? We take a pre-existing phrase, maybe even one that’s familiar in culture, and use it as our own. That’s kind of how “Google” seems to have become a verb. Just google it!
I suspect what my dad was doing was making “peace in the valley”, something he’d heard at church or on the radio, his own expression. Goodness, maybe it was what his dad told him we he was asked what he wanted for Christmas. In the end the origin of the phrase is not nearly as significant as the meaning and purpose for which it was used. “Peace in the valley” was a phrase used by a man who’d known war – having served in the Korean conflict. It came from a man who, as a small business owner, knew what it was to negotiate contracts with the union who represented his work force; and what it was to manage that small but diverse work force of unique personalities. It was from the lips of a guy who had been raised with three brothers and a sister, and had five children of his own. That alone would qualify as reason to wish for peace.
Then again (and I’ve learned this as a middle-aged dad myself) a response like “peace in the valley” to the question, “what do you want for Christmas” might just have been a way to point beyond self and the consumer side of Christmas. Perhaps it was his pointing to a worldview (or at least a neighborhood view) of life that seeks to rest in God’s goodness and love. Maybe it was Bethlehem’s valley that dad had in mind, home to the promised Messiah – the same one who walks with us through the valley of the shadow (Psalm 23).
Did he consider all of the above, some of the above, any of the above in making this frequent Christmas wish? Was it a conscious choice, this phrase and response? That may be doubtful, but I cannot help but think that subconsciously much, or at least some, of that was there. My dad was a thoughtful guy.
There’s another phrase that I’ve been thinking about this week. It’s from the prophet Isaiah, found in chapter two, verse four: “and they shall beat their swords into plowshares”. Swords into plowshares, wow! What a conversion that would be. Can’t you just imagine the old poet-prophet Isaiah going around saying that?
It turns out this was a pre-existing phrase as well, not original or unique to Isaiah. We find it again in Micah 4:3, and (with reverse usage) in Joel 3:10. Must have been a mid-8th century BC tune that stuck, at least among the prophets. It was a visionary image of what might be, of what could be – even what would be. It represented the rejection of strife, war, violence and conflict in both word and weapon; in favor of peace. After all, what’s more peaceful than a plow? A simple agrarian implement designed to cultivate the earth, allowing persons to live a settled and sufficient life dependent upon God’s provisions and hard work. Sounds like “peace in the valley” to me.
Vision is such a funny thing. For a while there (and maybe yet today) it was all the rage. You had to have a vision; for your church, your business, your life, your future. We heard it preached and proclaimed (Proverbs 29:18): Where there is no vision, the people perish. (Or, they will go to another parish). But often this talk was the talk of human effort, the strong leader coming in with all the answers, providing the vision.
“Swords into plowshares” and “peace in the valley” that’s vision of another kind. It’s vision from above – the product of hard work, maybe even suffering and sacrifice. If vision is a picture of a preferred future, let me be so bold as to suggest that God’s vision for you, and me, and all human kind is found in the words of a mid-8th century poet-prophet from Judah; and a mid-western small business man from Chad valley who was in his prime in the mid to late twentieth century.
Swords into plowshares. Peace in the valley. Peace, be still. Sleep in heavenly peace. Can’t you picture that?
May your observance of these days of Advent lead you to that place of God’s enduring peace, and the ability to see what God sees.
This Sunday, December 4th
9:30 a.m. (EST) in person or on live stream
“Plowing for Peace”