Tuesday, August 14, 2012

'It is well with my soul'

Psalm 146:1-2 (NIV)

Praise the Lord.
Praise the Lord, my soul.

I will praise the Lord all my life
   I will sing praise to my god as long as I live.
I have mentioned at least once the popular hymn often published with Psalm 146:1 as a reference. I’m not sure the first time I heard this hymn, but I remember quite clearly the day it became one of my favorites. We were living in Clinton, Iowa, and worshiping at Second Reformed Church in Fulton, Ill. At the start of a Sunday morning service, the pastor began with the story of “It Is Well With My Soul.”

It is very likely I’d heard the song before, probably several times. But no one had ever told me the story of the composer. I wish I could repeat, word for word, how I heard it that Sunday morning, because it was hauntingly effective. But the best I can do is try to rehash the basic facts — thanks to my memory and some handy websites.

Horatio Spafford, born in North Troy, N.Y., in 1828, was in his late 30s and early 40s a wealthy Chicago lawyer with a thriving practice. He and his wife, Anna, had five children — four daughters and a son. Spafford was at the peak of his wealth and acclaim during a similarly robust period for his adopted hometown — the narrow window between the end of the Civil War and the great fire of October 1871.

The Spaffords were reportedly devout Christians, and counted as close friends gospel singer and composer Ira Sankey and famed evangelist Dwight L. Moody (founder of, among other entities, Moody Bible Institute). Their happy, prosperous life encountered tragedy in 1870 when their son died of scarlet fever. He was four years old.

The next year, the Spaffords’ wealth literally went up in smoke as nearly every real estate investment they’d made — prime Lake Michigan shorefront property — was destroyed in the fire.

Two years later, Horatio’s friendship with Moody aligned with his desire to give the family a break from the reality of all the loss they’d endured. Moody and Sankey were traveling throughout England evangelizing. The Spaffords traveled to New York in the fall of 1873 with plans to board the French steamer Ville de Havre for the trip to England, where they would join Moody and Sankey. When a last-minute business issue arose, Horatio encouraged Anna to take the girls on the trip herself; he would return to Chicago and join his family as soon as possible.

On Nov. 2, 1873, the Ville de Havre collided with the Loch Earn, an English ship. The French steamer sank in 12 minutes. Nine days after Horatio Spafford helped his family board the ship bound for Europe, he received a telegram from Anna in Wales containing only two words: “Saved alone.”

Some 226 people died in the wreck of the Ville de Havre, including the Spaffords’ four daughters, their only remaining children. According to various accounts of the wreck, Anna Spafford had stood bravely on the deck, with Annie, 11, Maggie, 9, Bessie, 5, and Tanetta, 2, clinging desperately to their mother. She said later her last memory was of Tanetta being torn violently from her arms by the force of the waters. Anna was saved by a plank that floated beneath her unconscious body and propped her up.

When the survivors were rescued, Anna Spafford's initial reaction was, understandably, complete despair. But, she reportedly said, a voice spoke to her, saying “You were spared for a purpose.” That prompted her to recall the words of a friend: “It’s easy to be grateful and good when you have so much, but take care that you are not a fair-weather friend to God.”

Horatio and Anna later had a three more children, including another son who died at age four, ten years after his brother. Their daughter, Bertha, wrote a book, “Our Jerusalem,” that included the now well-known account of her father’s trip to England to be reunited with Anna. During that journey, the ship’s captain called Horatio to the bridge.

“A careful reckoning has been made,” he said, “and I believe we are now passing the place where the de Havre was wrecked. The water is three miles deep.”

After that conversation, Spafford returned to his cabin and put pen to paper, trying to convey the scope of his emotions. This is what he wrote:
When peace like a river attendeth my way,
When sorrows like sea-billows roll,
Whatever my lot, Thou has taught me to know;
"It is well, it is well with my soul."

Tho' Satan should buffet, tho' 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 in part but the whole,
Is nailed to His cross and I bear it no more;
Praise the Lord, praise the Lord, oh my soul.

And, Lord, haste the day when the faith shall be sight,
The clouds be rolled back as a scroll,
The trump shall resound, and the Lord shall descend —
A song in the night, oh my soul!
Bertha’s book recounts a letter Spafford wrote to Bertha’s Aunt Rachel a few days after he wrote the poem, recalling his emotions as he sailed past the spot where his young daughters drowned.
“But I do not think of our dear ones there. They are safe, folded, the dear lambs, and there, before very long, shall we be too. In the meantime, thanks to God, we have an opportunity to serve and praise Him for His love and mercy to us and ours. I will praise Him while I have my being. May we each one arise, leave all, and follow Him.”
Sometime not long after, composer Philip Bliss penned a tune (and named it “Ville de Havre”), lightly altered Spafford’s poem, added a chorus and, with Sankey, published “It Is Well With My Soul” in 1876. Bertha was born in 1878, her sister Grace in 1881. Later that year the Spaffords, having split from the Presbyterian church, formed a Messianic sect and moved to Jerusalem as party of an entourage with 11 other adults and one other child. They helped establish the American Colony and engaged in philanthropy for all people, regardless of faith. Four days before turning 60, Horatio Spafford died of malaria and was buried in Jerusalem.

I cannot adequately convey the scope of my feelings as I heard this story the first time and revisited it again tonight. The hymn has found its way to my heart several times during periods of loss and tragedy, each time calming me when all my instincts run counter to serenity. Thinking about the Spaffords’ children, all close in age to my own, only enhances my understanding for the sense of loss they must have felt so many times.

When I read this Psalm, I think of this hymn. When I hear this hymn, I think of this story. And when I think of how blessed I have been with health and wealth and loving family — my life has been much more peace like a river than rolling sea billows — it is obvious how much I should be able to praise God. If while, as Bertha wrote, Spafford was passing through the valley of the shadow of death he yet could find it within himself to give thanks to God, surely I can do the same with every ounce of my being.

It is well, it is well with my soul. There is immeasurable power in those words.

A prayer for August 14:

Lord, every day is an opportunity to serve and praise you for your love and mercy. Please don’t ever let me forget the source of all good things. You have blessed me and my family so many times over, I will never be able to repay you in full. I want to make my life a testament to your goodness and to live in full knowledge and acceptance of your amazing grace. And I want to teach my children how lucky they are to be alive and to be surrounded by your love. Amen.

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