“It is Well with My Soul” has long been a favorite hymn of mine, but it has taken on a new twist for me in this year of apocalyptic election scenarios. Twice in recent months I have been in worship services where that great old hymn has been part of the liturgy. All of the lyrics to that hymn are powerful statements of faith, but the verse that has caught my ear in this election year is the last verse which says:
“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.”
In particular I’m referring to the phrase, “The trump will resound, and the Lord will come down.” Sorry, but I can’t hear the word “trump” without being reminded of the Republican Presidential candidate. And the eschatological imagery in that line reminds me that many on both extremes of the political spectrum are feeling like the world may come to end if the “other” candidate is elected. I don’t really expect the end of the world on November 9, but regardless of your feelings about Trump or Clinton, most of us would agree the outcome of this election will have serious consequences for the future of our nation and the world. As an antidote to our anxieties about that, Horatio Spafford’s great hymn repeats the refrain, “It is well with my soul.”
If you don’t know the story behind this hymn, it was written in 1873 by Horatio Gates Spafford, a prominent American lawyer, after he had experienced multiple tragic events, including the death of a son in the great Chicago fire, financial ruin, and a storm at sea in which four of his daughters died. (More details at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/It_Is_Well_with_My_Soul.) Knowing the history of Stafford’s Job-like tragedies, any one of which could undo most of us, we know lyrics like these are not merely pious platitudes.
“When peace like a river, attendeth my way,
When sorrows like sea billows roll,
Whatever my lot, thou hast taught me to say
It is well, it is well, with my soul”
At different times in my life words of faith like this speak more to me than others. This is one of those times, in part because of my grave concern over the deeply divided world we live in typified by the Presidential election rhetoric and the hate inspired violence from Syria to San Bernardino and far too many points in between. And on a more personal level I’m dealing with some chronic pain that makes it hard for me to function, including finding time and energy to write.
I was humbled and shamed about how easy I give into pain or despair over the state of the human condition the other day in physical therapy. A young woman was there who could barely walk, even with her cane. As she slowly made her way from the aquatic therapy pool through the main therapy room I noticed she is bald and wore a colorful bandana on her head. I assume she has lost her hair from chemo therapy. And beneath that colorful bandana she smiled at me, and that smile lit up the room as a powerful witness that though her body is betraying her, it is well with her soul.
This stranger’s smile and Spafford’s 143 year-old words, written out of tragedy and sorrow far greater than mine continue to comfort, challenge and inspire me. They remind me of a very helpful definition of faith I read many years ago by a Canadian theologian, Wilfred Cantwell Smith. At the risk of oversimplifying, my summary of Smith’s thought is that he delineates an important difference between belief and faith. We sometimes use those words synonymously, but they are not. Belief is an intellectual ascent to a proposition or idea, while faith is a deep trust in a power that can give us the “peace that passes understanding” (Philippians 4:7) no matter what external circumstances threaten to make us fearful and anxious, be they personal, existential or political.
One of my favorite stories that illustrate the difference between belief and faith as trust is this one by an unknown author about Charles Blondin, a famous French tightrope walker:
Blondin’s greatest fame came on September 14, 1860, when he became the first person to cross a tightrope stretched 11,000 feet (over a quarter of a mile) across the mighty Niagara Falls. People from both Canada and America came from miles away to see this great feat.
He walked across, 160 feet above the falls, several times… each time with a different daring feat – once in a sack, on stilts, on a bicycle, in the dark, and blindfolded. One time he even carried a stove and cooked an omelet in the middle of the rope!
A large crowd gathered and the buzz of excitement ran along both sides of the river bank. The crowd “Oohed and Aahed!” as Blondin carefully walked across – one dangerous step after another – pushing a wheelbarrow holding a sack of potatoes.
Then at one point, he asked for the participation of a volunteer. Upon reaching the other side, the crowd’s applause was louder than the roar of the falls!
Blondin suddenly stopped and addressed his audience: “Do you believe I can carry a person across in this wheelbarrow?”
The crowd enthusiastically yelled, “Yes! You are the greatest tightrope walker in the world. We believe!”
“Okay,” said Blondin, “Who wants to get into the wheelbarrow?”
The story says no one took Blondin up on that invitation. But when things are truly well with my soul I know it’s safe to get in God’s wheelbarrow, even if I have to muster my courage like the father whose epileptic son had just been healed by Jesus. He said, “I believe Lord, help my unbelief!” (Mark 9:24).
Which is to say that faith is a journey, not a destination. John Wesley, founder of Methodism, knew that well. He asked new clergy as United Methodist Bishops still do today at ordination, “Are you going on to perfection?” That’s a not too subtle reminder to walk humbly with God and other faith seekers who know that faith and doubt wage an eternal battle in us all. Wesley also advised preachers to “Preach faith until you have it.” I believe that’s why the word “retirement” does not appear in the Bible. We’re all still preaching and seeking that trusting faith that no matter what curve balls life throws sings out, “It is well with my soul.”