I've always loved the hymn, It Is Well With My Soul. In case you don't know this hymn, here are the lyrics:
It Is Well With My Soul
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.
Refrain: It is well, with my soul, It is well, with my soul, It is well, it is well, with my soul.
Though Satan should buffet, though trials should come, Let this blest assurance control, That Christ has regarded my helpless estate, And hath shed His own blood for my soul.
My sin, oh, the bliss of this glorious thought! My sin, not in part but the whole, Is nailed to the cross, and I bear it no more, Praise the Lord, praise the Lord, O my soul!
For me, be it Christ, be it Christ hence to live: If Jordan above me shall roll, No pang shall be mine, for in death as in life, Thou wilt whisper Thy peace to my soul.
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 my 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.
The story behind this hymn is pretty interesting. The lyrics were written by Horatio Spafford in 1873. Spafford was a lawyer from Chicago who suffered a series of calamities, including the loss of his four daughters when the ship they were on went down at sea. His wife was also aboard the ship (the Ville de Havre) but she survived - miraculously - as a plank floated under her unconscious body and kept her afloat until she was rescued.
Upon receiving word of the terrible tragedy (which claimed the lives of a total of 226 people) Spafford boarded the next ship in order to join his distraught wife. The captain of the ship called Spafford to the bridge as they were passing the site at which his daughters had died and then Spafford returned to his cabin and wrote this hymn. I should mention that this was simply the precipitating loss from which the hymn was written - but there were tragic events both before and after this one which give some indication of the depth of Spafford's faith.
All that to say, this has always been for me a powerful hynn. And I've loved to sing it, always feeling that it is a testimony of my faith, regardless of the immediate circumstances of my life. It is well with my soul... There's something profound in this statement. I like this hymn so much that my husband knows that I want it to be sung at my funeral.
Lately I've been thinking that it's a very good funeral hymn, but maybe it's use between now and then may not be such a good thing. Let me explain.
It seems to me that we - and by "we" I really mean "I" but with the suspicion that what is true of me is also true for many others who have been raised in the cultural context of this era and place - have tended to put perhaps too much emphasis on our "personal relationship" with God. This seems perfectly natural - after all, we are each one made in the image of God and each one of us is of inestimable value to God. The health and vibrancy of our relationship with God is quite naturally something to pay attention to. But I'm wondering how much our cultural promotion of individualism might also be at play.
I think that one of our blindspots in Christian thought and practice in North America is our over-emphasis on the individual at the expense of community. If we think for a minute that there might be a "soul" that is not confined to the individual - a social soul or a church soul or a kingdom soul - then there is a disturbing paradox for me. How can it be well with our collective soul when there are so many injustices in our world? And, to take it a step further, maybe our failure to think or feel or act out of our collective soul is a fundamental reason that the church as we know it is not more actively engaged in promoting justice as an expression of our love for our neighbours.
Perhaps the wellness of our collective soul has lulled us into a sense of complacency - a sense that life is hard and that unanticipated perils await us on our journey through this life, but God is good and faithful and he will neither leave us nor forsake us. All of this I think is perfectly true, but in the absence of attention to our collective soul it is easy to think that there is nothing that we need to DO. And yet, as I read the Scriptures, I struggle with this presupposition. I see in the Gospels and in the writings of Paul and other New Testament authors all kinds of direction for putting our faith in a sovereign and good God to good practical use.
Jesus weeps over Jerusalem (see Luke 19:28-42). In the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7), Jesus says that those who mourn will be comforted. We often hear this quoted at funerals, but what if Jesus was not talking so much about personal loss and grief, but the grieving of our collective Christian soul over the multitudinous abuses - abuses against the poor and marginalized, against creation, against God, against our own humanity...?
There is a sense in which I long to feel that even in the midst of these kinds of abuse, I can sing to God, proclaiming that I know him well enough to be able to say, it is well with my soul. But I also want to be part of a movement of people who know that God is grieved by the state of our world, and to know him is to share in that grief. Yes - Jesus has shed his own blood for my soul and that gives me great comfort and hope - and one day the trump shall resound and the Lord shall descend. BUT we're in this together.
Let's not kid ourselves. God IS grieved by the socially manufactured poverty and the socially acceptable forms of greed and exploitation that are often the basis for worldly "success". Most of us haven't faced the kinds of consecutive tragedies that Horatio Spafford endured leading up to and following the writing of It Is Well With My Soul and perhaps we are a little too quick to claim this hymn as our own testimony when we are actually guilty of twisting and distorting and diminishing the lesson of the pearl of great price (see Matthew 13:45-46).
I started this post with the assumption that it was the loss of his four daughters that really inspired Spafford to write this hymn, but maybe this really was just one of a series of events that so demanded his attention that he could finally see through the circumstances of tragedy to behold that pearl of great price. As usual, more questions than answers...!
The big question for me is whether we are in error - and if that error is a small error or a very large error - when we default to thinking of the state of the soulas a fundamentally individual matter as contrasted with a more collective sense of soul - the soul of the body of believers (i.e. the church universal). And, almost as an after thought in this post, now I'm wondering anew about the pearl of great price. What is it exactly and how is it attained? Or is it?