Is It Well with your Soul?

“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 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.”

Going with the Easter Tide

Eastertide 50 daysEastertide = the ebb and flow of the ocean level on the first Sunday after the first full moon after the vernal equinox. Not exactly! But that’s a more likely answer than most people might give if asked for a definition of that word. Eastertide is in fact the liturgical season in the Christian calendar that begins on Easter Sunday and ends seven weeks later on Pentecost. (April 5 – May 24 this year). Just as Christmas doesn’t officially end till Epiphany, the season of Easter lasts much longer than the peeps and chocolate bunnies, but one would never know it to observe most Christians or most churches.

The standing room only crowds last Sunday will shrink to a “low Sunday” attendance like that first big drop on a roller coaster, the lilies and Easter finery and decorations will be gone. It’s almost as if Jesus goes back into the tomb like the groundhog that sees his shadow on February 2nd.

The resurrection of Jesus is central to the Christian faith and ironically one of the hardest things for Christians and non-Christians to believe. St. Paul says, “But we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles.” (I Cor. 1:23). The original version of Mark’s Gospel, the earliest one written, ends with the women fleeing from the empty tomb “because terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.” (Mark 16:8).

Do we do the same thing by failing to move into Eastertide with no significant changes to our way of living? Do we struggle with the resurrection because it defies all scientific and logical experience we’ve had with death? We’ve all lost beloved relatives, even pets that leave a huge hole in our hearts, and no matter how much we wish it weren’t so, they don’t come back.

So often we approach Eastertide from that perspective, and it keeps us from being able to trust the unbelievable news that resurrection is real, that it can make a lasting difference in our lives. We want to change, we want to live by faith, we want to take that leap of faith; but we don’t want to look foolish, we don’t want to be disappointed.

I remember a day many years ago when I was a student at the Methodist Theological School in Ohio. I don’t remember details of what happened in class that day, but I remember the ecstatic feeling of something extraordinary being said or done that transformed deadness in my heart and soul to a new enthusiastic spirit-filled joy. As I was leaving class that day I came out the front door of the building where we had met onto a large front porch of one of the beautiful Georgian buildings there so excited and full of life that instead of going left and down the porch steps I ran forward and took a flying leap over the large hedge that grew along the length of the porch. As I was air-born I remember suddenly realizing I wasn’t sure what was on the other side of that hedge.

So it is with death-defying faith. Faith is not intellectual belief – it is radical trust in a wild and crazy God who rolls away any boulder that keeps us imprisoned in doubt and fear, that keeps us from taking the leap of faith. When we play it safe, when we go along to get along, when we refuse to challenge political, economic, and environmental practices that kill dreams and perpetuate injustice, we are in effect rolling the stone back in front of the tomb and trying to keep Jesus from challenging the status quo of our broken world where fear silences faith. Just celebrating Easter Sunday and ignoring Eastertide is like locking the barn door after the horse has already escaped. It’s too late. God’s verdict has already declared life the victor over death and nothing we do or fail to do can ever put that genie back in the bottle.

One of my all-time favorite statements of what Easter living means came from the late Dwight Loder who was my bishop here in Ohio from 1976-1984. In a sermon he preached in the mid-1980’s Bishop Loder said, “Jesus was not resurrected by the church. Jesus was not resurrected for the church. Jesus was resurrected as the church.” Faith in resurrection is so much more than a personal assurance about our own salvation and eternal life. If we as individual Christians and collectively as the church, the body of Christ, fail to be changed by Easter, we are sending a terrible message to the world and to those longing for Good News that it’s back to business as usual after Easter Sunday.

Don’t believe it. Those frightened women at the tomb and Jesus’ other followers were scared into silence for a while, but God wasn’t finished with them. God always has the last word, and the stories in the Gospels during Eastertide are even more remarkable than the empty tomb. Skeptics could say the tomb was empty because someone simply came and took the body away. But the risen Christ appears over and over again to those who have eyes and ears to see and believe — on the road to Emmaus, in a locked upper room, on the beach. He continues to challenge his followers to be living witnesses that his spirit endures as the resurrected, life-giving, justice and peace promoting force for all that is good and pure in a world dying for Good News.

Easter Sunday is over, but Eastertide has just begun; and the life-giving Holy Spirit is waiting in the wings to blow into our lives with full force on Pentecost if we dare to believe. Resurrection is a spiritual event and how we live our lives in the crucible of the here and now is a witness to the world that we have either had our Easter fling and retreated back into the tomb, or we are boldly living as resurrected people. Easter people witness by every decision and act we take that the tide has turned and the light of the world has not and will never be extinguished by the darkness of death.

By the way, the landing on the other side of that hedge was nice soft grass; so it was OK to leap. And the message of Eastertide is “Go ahead, it’s safe to trust in Resurrection!”