The song written by Horatio G. Spafford as he sailed over the waters that had claimed four of his children, but spared his wife runs constantly through my head. I suppose in some ways it is why I understand mantras, there is nothing as clearing as well turned words. “It is well, it is well with my soul”, even when it clearly is not. Even when you are grieving, even when your heart is buried in the ocean.
The first thing I know about Spafford is that his successes were destroyed by fire, the second that most of his children tragically died in various ways. The most important thing I know about Spafford is that he wrote possibly the best hymn of his era and then moved to Jerusalem where he worked philanthropically across religious and racial lines in service to God. Notably, he did not serve in the proselytizing manner that was de riguer for “missonaries” at his time, despite his clear belief and aim of of salvation:
But, Lord, ’tis for Thee, for Thy coming we wait,
The sky, not the grave, is our goal;
Oh, trump of the angel! Oh, voice of the Lord!
Blessed hope, blessed rest of 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,
Even so, it is well with my soul.
I can’t help but wonder if the sensitive nature of the artist, one so attuned to the triumphs and grief of life and the melody of existence allowed Spafford to decline the “rice bowl Christianity” so touted in his era and get to the heart of the gospel. It seems to me that it takes some imagination and perhaps some pathos to balance the evangelical imperative with the humble service we are equally called to.
As a songwriter, I continually marvel that along with prayers, and scripture, when my heart is burdened I find myself unconciously singing or humming “When peace like a river attendeth my way, when sorrows like sea billows roll…” One of my best friends and former singing partner hated the song because to her it was what one sang at funerals. To me it is not so, it is the hymn of the living. It is the hymn of carrying on. The lyricist does not discount his pain or forget it, just acknowledges that Satan’s slings, the trials of life and loss do not shake with their impermanent bluster the eternity of God inside of him.
I do not know where I get the image of God breathing His essence into me, whether I found that in the Bible, or music, or somewhere else… I would have to think on it longer… however, I feel it the most keenly in Spafford’s lyrics, that over a century ago recognized the regard of Christ in his helpless estate who shed His own Blood for our souls.