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Signposts: Daily Devotions

Written by Susan Hanson

Thursday, November 12

[T]he LORD lift up his countenance upon you, and give you peace.
—Numbers 6:26

As a college student in the late sixties and early seventies, I was drawn to liturgy that could accommodate the complexities of the times—that is, to music and prayers that acknowledged the conflict and paradox of those years. I’m sure this has always been the case, but for me it had just become apparent that good people could disagree in very fundamental ways. 

The legitimacy of the war in Vietnam, the push for civil rights, even the controversy over change within the church—once seemingly simple issues, they had evolved into moral quagmires. It was no longer realistic to expect that “doing the right thing” would result in peace.

Among the hymns I came to appreciate during this period of my life was “They Cast Their Nets in Galilee,” a deceptively straightforward song that recounts the calling of the disciples. Though it offers hints of irony early on, noting how the peace of God both filled and broke the apostles’ hearts, it was the last verse that always touched me:

       The peace of God, it is no peace,
       But strife closed in the sod;
       Yet, brothers pray for just one thing:
       The marvelous peace of God,
       The marvelous peace of God.

These words were written in 1924 by William Alexander Percy, a man who knew the contradictions of life all too well. A native of Greenville, Mississippi, and member of one of the area’s leading families, Percy was in many ways a misfit. To begin, by both temperament and talent, he was a poet, and yet he ceded to his father’s wishes that he study law and practice in the family firm.

Then, during World War I, after working for the Commission for Relief in Belgium, he served with distinction in the infantry, coming home a decorated hero with the rank of captain. It was only in doing the latter that he finally gained his father’s respect.

A self-proclaimed idealist, Percy worked with his father in 1922 to keep the Klan out of Greenville. In 1927, however, the two men went head-to-head over the handling of the devastating flood that hit the Delta that year. Will, who had been put in charge of relief efforts, had wanted to evacuate the African-Americans who had been stranded in a makeshift refugee camp on the levee. 

His father, fearing that the sharecroppers would never return to the area if they were given permission to leave, coaxed Greenville’s planters into rejecting the younger Percy’s plan. In the end, many in the African American community died, and the rest were forced at gunpoint to stay behind and work.

Despite his attempts to ensure the safety of all the town’s citizens, Will Percy was outnumbered by those who put their own welfare first. Consequently, his relief efforts were a failure, and blame for that failure was attributed solely to him.

On one level, Will Percy was a man who experienced little peace. And yet, as I read his words once again, I sense that it was there, keeping him centered through the most unsettling of storms.

O God, grant me the peace that only you can give, to quiet my anxious mind, to warm my disaffected heart, to ease my troubled soul.

These Signposts were originally published on in 2005.