“Is it well?” Why we should stop trying to explain tragedy.

Frederick Buechner wrote, “Here is the world. Beautiful and terrible things will happen. Don’t be afraid.” And at times it seems that the “terrible” looms a bit larger than the beautiful. The news of late has been as perilous and unpredictable as the rise and crash of ocean waves in a hurricane. Each report seems to be followed by a slow pull back up to the crest of another breaking wave; if you listened closely as you read this sentence, you might even have heard the slow inhale of the next bit of tragedy swelling to crash into the news cycle.

We could drown in the gloomy headlines and to make matters worse, I know quite a few friends fighting for breath in the midst of unbelievable adversity this very moment: the kind that can’t be lightened with the most Pinterest-worthy bit of wisdom or Tweetable quotation, the kind that won’t be explained with any Bible verse, sermon, or religious doctrine.

Here it is all at once: the beautiful AND the terrible. Buechner’s lines aren’t easy to dismiss.  They make me think of a famous Gospel tune written by a Chicago lawyer named Horatio Spafford.

In 1871, Spafford had his entire fortune wiped out in the great Chicago Fire.

If that weren’t enough, just four years later the boat carrying his wife and four daughters from England to New York City (the de Havre) tragically sunk killing 226 passengers including ALL of his children… Only his wife, Anna, was spared.

Spafford immediately sailed from New York to meet his bereaved wife. In the middle of the journey, it is said that the captain of the ship called Horatio to the bridge.

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

As they sailed over the waters where his four girls had perished, the grieving Horatio returned to his cabin and penned the lyrics of the famous hymn, “It Is Well with My Soul.” I am always amazed at the power of Horatio’s words in the face of devastating circumstances:

“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.

It is well, with my soul, 
It is well, with my soul,
 It is well, it is well, with my soul.”

Consider the gut-wrenching grief Horatio must’ve felt as he passed over the sunken graves of his four precious dreams. “Whatever my lot” he writes, because there really is no explanation for the tragedy. I’m amazed that some holy incursion took place in his cabin as he sat down to write. It is often in the midst of the chaos, under waves of tragedy, beneath what Buechner identifies as the “terrible” of life, that we are buoyed by a strangely settling presence, a force so inexplicably calm and good that we might say, even if just for an instant, “it is well.”

I’ve experienced moments of that settling grace, but must confess I often cannot articulate it as much as I don’t thoroughly grasp why God tolerates the presence of the “terrible.”

This is the world, filled with the beautiful AND the terrible… I cannot think of anything this anxious world needs (or our grieving friends need) more than for us to stop trying to explain tragedy and begin to hope and pray for the same holy invasion that prompted Spafford’s words: “It is well.”




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