In 1873, two years after the death of his son by scarlet fever, Horatio Gates Spafford decided to take a vacation to Europe with his wife and four daughters. His family went ahead of him to England on the ship Ville de Hauvre. Horatio was to join them a few weeks later.
While at sea, the Ville de Hauvre was struck by an iron sailing vessel, and 226 people were killed. Of his entire family, only Anna Spafford – Horatio’s wife – survived.
Horatio made the crossing alone a few weeks later, along the same route on which his daughters were lost. While sailing near the spot where they had died, he penned this most famous of Christian hymns:
When peace like a river attendeth my way,
When sorrows like sea billows roll;
Whatever my lot, Thou has taught me to say,
It is well, it is well with my soul.
I don’t remember singing this hymn much while growing up in the church, and I didn’t learn the origin story behind it until much later.
In the late 1990s and early 2000s, I was part of a traveling troupe of actors. We did a lot of our performances in churches around the country, and our most popular show was an original work called “Martyred: The Chet Bitterman Story.” The play was a dramatization of the real-life kidnapping and eventual murder of an American missionary by guerillas while on assignment in Colombia. Throughout the play – as relayed by former insurgents that participated in the kidnapping – Chet is shown to display incredible faith and resilience while in captivity, going so far as to proselytize to his captors.
At the end of the play, Chet is shot and killed, and the various members of the cast give a final monologue of their experience. The lights go down, and from the back of the darkened room, Chet’s voice begins to sing:
When peace like a river, attendeth my way…
That moment never failed to bring me to tears, even before I understood where the song came from. I recognized the song for what it was – an anthem to overcoming. Of all Christian hymns, it remains my favorite.
On Monday morning, I sat preparing a humorous blog post about the 4th of July. I was perhaps 500 words in when I got a call from my wife instructing me to call my father as soon as possible. When you’re in your 30s and you receive that message, the first question in your mind is, “Who died?”
I won’t write many specifics about the tragedy that has befallen my tribe, because the tragedy doesn’t belong to me alone. I will say that I was shaken to the depths of my soul. I hung up with my father, called my wife to relay the news, and then walked into the kitchen to pour a cup of coffee. As I got into the kitchen, my breath caught, my knees grew weak, I steadied myself on the kitchen counter, and I looked up at the ceiling and said, “How fucking dare you?”
After writing about outgrowing faith, I was suddenly reminded how central it all still is to my life. Even though I acknowledge that the benevolent deity I was taught about in Sunday School doesn’t exist in that form, I still expect some rules of fair play from the Universe.
Here I am, shaking my fist at a God that I don’t really believe in much anymore. I don’t expect God to care much about the individual lives that inhabit Planet Earth, so why am I still so fucking angry that He doesn’t seem to care at all?
It turns out that my relationship status with God remains, “It’s Complicated.”
I’m no stranger to tragedy, to grief, to sudden and violent death. In fact, sudden and violent death is an Immutable Rule of the Universe to me. Most people don’t live to old age in my universe. They die of illnesses that they are too young to have. They die of IED blasts or gunshot wounds. They die in car accidents. They die by suicide. Living through combat gave me a keen sense of the fragility of my life and the lives of those around me, and it seems like I live my life with the question, “Who’s next?” foremost in my mind.
Why does it continue, then, to hurt me so much when it happens?
Horatio Spafford went on to have more children. He left the Presbyterian Church and formed a community of faith with his wife and others. They did interfaith humanitarian work in the Middle East. They adopted a teenage boy from Turkey.
There is so much life left after tragedy, but I can’t believe that it comes from calm acceptance. I can’t believe that the words “It is well with my soul” come from resignation.
It’s the punk rock of hymns. It’s the fight song of someone standing in the darkest part of their life.
Whatever my lot, Thou hast taught me to say,
I listed compassion, justice, and righteous action as the greatest lessons that faith taught me. Maybe I should add resilience to the list.
On most days, God seems like a Numinous Observer, someone who can see all the bad in the world and either can’t or chooses not to do anything about it. I’ve given up on the idea that there is a God that has a divine plan for every bullet wound or car accident. That God is too fucking cruel for me to imagine, much less worship.
But, maybe I can imagine a God that watches over the dice-throw of the Universe and really cares about what happens. The God that Jesus of Nazareth believed mourns with those who mourn, whose Holy Eye is on the sparrow and knows how many hairs are on my head at any given time.
Beyond imagining, though, I can see in real-time the human rebellion against tragedy and injustice in the Universe. Maybe they shake their fists and curse God for His perceived impotence. Maybe they pray and thank God for what they have left. Maybe they leave God or gods out of the whole thing, and just weep at how much life can suck.
But, they carry the fuck on.
Saying, “It is well with my soul,” after a life-altering, soul-shaking event goes beyond meek acceptance. It’s a snarl and an upraised middle finger at the very idea of injustice. It’s shouting, “I’m still here!” when everyone that you love is gone. It’s writing, “I am the master of my fate” while lying in a hospital bed with your feet falling off.
Maybe we can only sing songs like that, or write poems like that, or make those gestures out of the darkness.
Maybe it’s the only way we can really see God.
Maybe it’s the only way that we can clearly see ourselves.