IT IS WELL WITH MY SOUL
In the Name of the one holy and undivided Trinity: Creator, Redeemer, and Sustaining Spirit. Amen.
It is wonderful to be here with you this morning. And yet, the conditions under which we are worshiping remind us that our world is in great turmoil at this time. The pandemic is still growing all around us; the economic collapse that followed it is still affecting lives and futures. and now we see that the frustrations and disappointments of these and other terrible events are manifesting themselves in protest, violence, and death.
It is a troubled time. It’s a dangerous time. It’s a sorrowful time. It’s a scary time.
And so it’s not surprising if we ask questions such as,
Where is God in all this?
Why does God cause or permit all this to happen?
These are challenging questions, and we are not the first to ask them. The Book of Job was written more than 2600 years ago, and its answers are still not satisfying for us.
As a pastor and a preacher, I share the grief, frustration, and weariness of this day and age, and I feel a calling to try to offer some words of hope, words of encouragement, words that will help all of us get through this time.
So, in an effort to do that, let me tell you a true story. In 1828 a boy named Horatio Spafford was born to a well-to-do family in Troy, New York. Horatio always did well in school. He graduated from Princeton University. He joined a law firm in Chicago and quickly rose to senior partner.
In 1861, he married his sweetheart, Anna Larsen, and they had a son and four daughters. The Spaffords became close friends of the famous evangelist Dr D.L. Moody. Another friend once described Horatio as a “man of unusual intelligence and refinement, deeply spiritual, and a devoted student of the scriptures.”
It sounds like Horatio had everything going for him. Like Job, he seemed to enjoy God’s blessing and favor. But 1871 proved to be a terrible year for the Spaffords.
In the spring, Horatio invested in real estate on the shore of Lake Michigan north of Chicago, but the Great Chicago Fire that same October wiped out his entire investment.
Shortly after that financial disaster, their four-year old son died of scarlet fever—a disease that was spread by coughing and sneezing for which, in that day, there was no cure nor vaccine.
But Spafford’s strong faith in Jesus helped him and the rest of the family weather the two tragedies.
Four years later, his friend Dr Moody went to preach in England. He invited the entire Spafford family to join him there to help him with the evangelistic campaign. So the family made plans to sail in November of 1873.
Last-minute business developments forced Horatio to remain in Chicago (planning to take another ship a few days later) as his family departed on a wooden steam-powered ocean liner.
As it neared the Irish coast, their ship entered a thick fog. Suddenly, an iron-clad sailing vessel appeared out of the fog and rammed the wooden ship, which sank in only 12 minutes.
When the survivors were finally on land, Anna cabled her husband just two words, “Saved alone.” All four of their daughters had died in the shipwreck.
Horatio boarded another ship and made his way to join his grieving wife in England. Out of sympathy for the bereaved father, the captain of that ship let him know when they were passing over the site of the collision in which his children had died.
After spending some time at the railing, Spafford returned to his cabin and wrote this poem:
When peace, like a river, attendeth my way, When sorrows like sea-billows roll;
Whatever my lot, thou hast taught me to say, It is well, it is well, with my soul.
Though Satan should buffet, though trials should come, Let this blest assurance control,
That Christ hath regarded my helpless estate, And hath shed his own blood for my soul.
My sin—oh, the bliss of this glorious thought—My sin—not the part, but the whole—
Is nailed to the cross and I bear it no more, Praise the Lord, praise the Lord, O my soul!
That phrase, “sorrows like sea-billows roll” must have been painfully poignant to the grieving husband and father.
It is a tribute to his faith, and to the faith of Christians everywhere that, even in the face of devastating personal loss and disaster, this man could still proclaim, “It is well with my soul.”
But it is perhaps the words of the third stanza that speak most truly of Spafford’s feeling, as he writes that his sin has been nailed to the cross and ends with “Praise the Lord, praise the Lord, O my soul!”
But our story doesn’t end with that tragic shipwreck.
In the years that followed, Anna gave birth to another son and two more daughters. But when he was three, the boy, also named Horatio, died of scarlet fever, as had his brother.
And still the story of faith goes on.
In 1881, Spafford fulfilled a life-long calling, taking his wife and two daughters to Jerusalem to set up a small American colony that cared for the sick and destitute among the people of Jerusalem, without regard for their religion and without trying to convert them.
Horatio Spafford died in 1888, and was buried in Jerusalem, but his ministry lived on through his daughters and friends. During and after World War One, his American Colony supported the Muslim, Jewish, and Christian communities of Jerusalem by building soup kitchens, hospitals, and orphanages.
That, my sisters and brothers, is the inspiring story behind a poem that also has become one of our hymns. [cf. LEVAS II #188]
But, more than that, It is a tribute to how people of faith—people who know and love Jesus—can face disaster, loss, and even death, and still keep their love of God and neighbor strong.
Sometimes it may seem that life gives us nothing but hardship and suffering, piled on and bearing us down. Often, one calamity follows upon another, until we cannot see how we can bear it.
At times like those—like these, it is easy to wonder where God is, why these tragedies are happening, and how God can be present in our suffering and loss.
But I can tell you that, as he promised in today’s Gospel lesson, Jesus is with us always, even until the end of days.
Horatio Spafford’s faith in Jesus’ presence in his life was so strong that, standing at the rail of the ship, passing over the sunken wreck containing the bodies of his four daughters, thousands of feet under the water, he was still able to say, “It is well with my oul.” And he set the example, the standard, the challenge for you and for me.
I pray that his faith, and the faith of those who went through life with him, will be our inspiration—today, in our time of suffering and turmoil, and in all our days to come. I pray also that we will have the courage and peace to face our trials and to say with faith and trust, “It is well with my soul.” Amen.