Frederick Buechner wrote, “Here is the world. Beautiful and terrible things will happen. Don’t be afraid.” At times it seems that the “terrible” looms a bit larger than the beautiful. The news has been as chaotic and unpredictable as the surge of a hurricane. Each sad report seems to be followed by a slow pull back up toward 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.
Sometimes it seems we could drown in the gloomy headlines. But to make matters worse, I know quite a few friends fighting for breath in the midst of unbelievable adversity. 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. 226 passengers died, including ALL of Spafford’s 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’m always stunned at the power of Horatio’s words in the face of such 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.”
And a parent, I can’t imagine the gut-wrenching grief Horatio must’ve felt as he passed over the sunken graves of his four precious children. “Whatever my lot” he writes, I supposed because there is no explanation for the such a random tragedy. I find it so interesting that in those darkest moments of his life, sailing over the place his family had perished, there seems to have been some holy visitation in his cabin as he sat down to write.
It’s really the only explanation I can find for a grieving father to write down those words in that moment.
Isn’t it true though that it is in the midst of the chaos, under waves of tragedy, beneath what Buechner identifies as the “terrible” events 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 have to confess that I usually can’t articulate it and I will never understand why God tolerates the presence of the “terrible.”
This is this world, filled with the beautiful AND the terrible…
And I simply can’t think of anything more timely than for us to stop trying to explain tragedy and begin to pray for the same holy invasion in the lives of our neighbors who are suffering that prompted Spafford’s words: “It is well.”