It is Well with My Soul

It is Well with My Soul

Liturgy Lessons: May 17, 2020
Call to Worship – Matt. 11:27-30, Jn. 16:31-33, Ps. 5:11, Jer. 32:17
Prayer of Invocation
Hymn of Adoration – Praise to the Lord, the Almighty
Confession of Sin – Psalm 38:1-4, 17-18, 21-22 and prayer song
Assurance of Pardon – Psalm 32:1-7
Hymn of Assurance – My Soul Finds Rest in God Alone
Reading of the Word – Luke 15:3-32
Doxology: #731
Sermon: Rev. Eric Irwin, “The Humble Way Home”
Account of the Lord’s Supper – Matt. 26:20-29
Prayer for Communion and Reunion
Closing Hymn – It is Well with My Soul
Sung Response – This is My Father’s World (final verse)

In a powerful article for the online journal First Things, the British theologian and historian Carl Trueman connects the coronavirus pandemic with the moment Jesus arrived at Bethany and wept over the death of Lazarus.

“The coronavirus pandemic has brought us all a little closer to Bethany. Death, for the moment, is nearer to most of us than we like to think. It is no longer hidden away in hospices and care homes or domesticated by the cartoonish violence of the movies. It is real. And in this climate, the Church has a moment to think about her priorities. Your best life now? Funerals as celebrations? Liturgies and praise songs that focus on the feelings of the congregants as they struggle with first-world problems? That is not biblical Christianity, and it is wholly inadequate to the current situation, and therefore to our ultimate fate. It is unfortunate that the sense of loss and longing that the thought of death brings us should be better expressed in the poetry of Dylan Thomas or the films of Ingmar Bergman than in the contemporary liturgies of many Christian churches.

Can the Church be honest about death in an era addicted to the pleasure of the moment? That is the challenge we face, and it demands that we reorient our thinking from this world to the next, that we prepare ourselves not just to live as God’s people but to die as God’s people. Death should not be, but it is. Only the Church understands this, and only the Church can provide the answer through her preaching, her sacraments, her liturgy, and her pastoral care. But first, she must acknowledge the unfathomable and inevitable nature of the final enemy. COVID-19 poses the question in an acute and unavoidable form. It is doubtless severe, but in pressing the cruel reality of death upon us all, it is a severe mercy.”

I encourage you to read the whole thing (see here). Carl is speaking truth to fantasy. His voice is a wake-up call to a culture that would rather hit the snooze button and fall back into a pleasure-induced slumber than strive to wake eternally. There is a reason why the Irish use the term “wake” instead of “funeral” (literally ‘death’ or ‘corpse’). Perhaps we should revive the term.

I have had the privilege of singing at hundreds of funerals wakes. I can count on one hand the number of them that had a palpable sense of peace and hope in the face of death. Most memorial ceremonies seem thick with desperation. I keenly remember the eulogy given at a country club wherein the speaker pointed toward the windows facing the 18th green, raised a glass, and said, “Here’s to you, _____, I hope you are enjoying the great golf course in the sky. Swing away!” This is what happens when Jiminy Cricket replaces Jesus. Faced with the storms of life and staring into a dark horizon, those who do not have a sure and steady anchor are left to wish upon a star. Perhaps we like to gloss things over because it maintains the sheen. If things glow brightly enough, they not only dazzle, but they blind; and benumbed souls accustomed to the endless morphine drip of modern life would rather be blind than truly see (see Eph. 4:18-19).

Carl Trueman is able to see the inherent blindness of our age because he knows his history. He proposes that the church can provide hope in this moment through “her preaching, her liturgy, her sacraments, and her pastoral care.” I would add one more item to that list—her hymns. Thumb through the hymnal and you will find verse after verse of gathered wisdom and encouragement from many past saints for whom death was a familiar foe. During these past few months, I have been so grateful to have the emergency response team of Drs. Wesley, Newton, and Watts tending to my soul each day. My spiritual, emotional, and mental health would be far worse without their counsel and courage. The great hymns are infused with the light of Christ, the truth of the gospel, and the hope of heaven. This means that they flower in the dark. In times of crisis, they flourish. It’s almost as if they were penned with invisible ink, the kind of writing that only shows up when the page is put to heat. During this corona crucible I have seen many familiar verses in our songs as if for the first time—all of a sudden, they are in HD.

For eight weeks now we have watched the words of our hymns scroll across the screen and then disappear. The irony of this is that the ephemeral text is speaking of eternal truths. Let’s not miss the message because of the medium. My friends, I’d like to share a “screenshot” from each of the past eight weeks as a reminder of the truth we profess and the hope we sing in the face of death. Listen to the way that we, God’s singing army, have defied the enemy in the past two months.

March 22 (our first livestream)
“The body they may kill, God’s truth abideth still, His kingdom is forever.”

“Be still my soul
The hour is hastening on
When we shall be
Forever with the Lord.
When disappointment
Grief and fear are gone,
Sorrow forgot,
Love’s purest joys restored.”

March 29
“I fear no foe with thee at hand to bless;
Ills have no weight, and tears no bitterness.
Where is death’s sting? Where, grave, thy victory?
I triumph still, if thou abide with me.”

April 5 (Palm Sunday)
“He comes with comfort speedy to those who suffer wrong;
to help the poor and needy, and bid the weak be strong;
to give them songs for sighing, their darkness turned to light,
whose souls, condemned and dying, are precious in his sight.”

April 12 (Easter)
“Lives again our glorious King, Alleluia!
Where, O death, is now thy sting? Alleluia!
Once He died our souls to save, Alleluia!
Where thy victory, O grave? Alleluia!
Love’s redeeming work is done, Alleluia!
Fought the fight, the battle won, Alleluia!
Death in vain forbids His rise, Alleluia!
Christ hath opened paradise, Alleluia!”

“Crown him the Lord of life, who triumphed o’er the grave,
and rose victorious in the strife for those he came to save;
his glories now we sing who died and rose on high,
who died eternal life to bring, and lives that death may die!”

April 19
“Glorious things of thee are spoken, Zion, city of our God;
He whose word cannot be broken formed thee for his own abode;
On the Rock of Ages founded, what can shake thy sure repose?
With salvation’s walls surrounded, thou may’st smile at all thy foes.”

April 26
“In death’s dark vale I fear no ill,
With thee, dear Lord, beside me.
Thy rod and staff, my comfort still,
Thy cross before to guide me.”

May 3
“When I walk through the shades of death,
Thy presence is my stay.
One word of thy supporting breath
Drives all my fears away.”

May 10
“O Father, you are sovereign in all affairs of man;
No powers of death or darkness can thwart your perfect plan.
All chance and change transcending, supreme in time and space,
You hold your trusting children secure in your embrace.

O Father, you are sovereign, the Lord of human pain,
Transmuting earthly sorrows to gold of heavenly gain.
All evil overruling, as none but Conqueror could,
Your love pursues its purpose – our souls’ eternal good.”

This week, and in the weeks to come, we will add to this list by bringing our hymns to life in our respective homes. May we remember that though we are outside the walls of our promised city, we can (and must) still loudly proclaim our Jericho battle cries. It may feel like we are going around in individual circles, but in actuality we are in lockstep marching to Zion. One day, at the sound of the trumpet, the walls will crumble and we will enter paradise. Keep singing. Keep singing. Keep singing!

“My heart is steadfast, O Lord! My heart is steadfast! I will sing and make melody with all my being.”
– Ps. 108:1

It is Well with My Soul
Text: Horatio Spafford, 1873
Tune: VILLE DU HAVRE, Phillip Bliss, 1876

Many of you probably already know about this one. It is arguably the most famous hymn story ever told. If you don’t already know the story behind “It is Well with My Soul”, then I suggest you sit down now, grab a box of Kleenex, and be prepared to catch your jaw after it drops.

Horatio G. Spafford was a successful lawyer and businessman who lived with his wife, Anna, and their five children in Chicago. In 1871 tragedy struck…twice. Their only son died of pneumonia, and then the great Chicago fire destroyed most of Spafford’s business. Two years later, seeking a fresh start, the family decided to travel to Europe. In November of 1873, Anna and the four girls boarded the French ocean liner, Ville du Havre, preparing to cross the Atlantic. Horatio had to stay behind to take care of some business, but he had planned take another ship a few days later to join his wife and daughters. About four days into their crossing, the Ville du Havre collided with another ship and sank in only 12 minutes. Among the victims were all four of the Spafford children. Only Anna survived. When she landed in Cardiff nine days later she wired her husband, “Saved alone, what shall I do?”

Horatio got on the next available vessel across the Atlantic. When the ship was about four days out, the captain informed Spafford that they were over the place where his daughters perished. The ship apparently stopped for a brief time, and it was there in that ocean of grief that Horatio Spafford penned the famous words to this hymn:

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.

How is it possible that this modern-day Job would say “It is well” a mere two weeks after such unspeakable loss?
How did he not curse God or descend into pity? Anchored in the kind of hope that only Christ can give, Horatio Spafford was a living testament to Philippians 4:7. “And the peace of God which surpasses all understanding, shall keep your hearts and your minds through Christ Jesus.

I will never forget singing this hymn at the bedside of a dying man a few years ago. The family called and asked if I would pay a visit to his home. The medical team had done all they could do, and this elderly gentleman was now resigned to spend his remaining hours in the peace and comfort of his own bed. “He’s fading pretty fast,” his daughter told me on the phone. “He’s pretty unresponsive, but I just know your music would bless him. He used to love it when you would sing at church.” I agreed to come over the next day, cramming the visit in the middle of many other commitments, none of which I can now recall. The only thing I remember about that day was the 45 minutes I spent with this man. One moment, in particular, is forever etched in my memory.

I was sitting next to him, one hand resting on his left forearm, the other on his shoulder. His face was pale and slack-jawed. His head, clearly now too heavy to hold, was awkwardly arched straight up in an unintentional nod to Eric Liddel’s running style. I think he knew he was almost at the finish line.

Most of the time he was unresponsive, save for short, audible exhales. But when I started singing “It is Well,” his eyes opened and colorful expression returned to his face. When I got to the first chorus, his chest expanded, and I could tell he was attempting to sing along. He was unable to form the words, but he groaned out each and every echo of “It is well” in the refrains. During the subsequent verses he would sigh and smile through tears. Then, with the return of the refrains, he would take up his echo part, louder and louder each time. With me on the melody, and this faithful man providing the harmony in a sustained and pseudo-rhythmic groan, the chorus of “It is Well” must have been sweet childlike music to the awaiting Father’s ears.

In recent weeks, this hymn has been a popular choice for churches around the world. I have seen countless new recorded versions on the internet. Though it’s 150 years old, “It is Well with my Soul” is powerfully relevant in this moment. It is a timeless example of unshakeable faith. This hymn is both a song of comfort and a shout of triumph in the face of death. It reminds us that no matter what we have endured or are enduring, we are more than conquerors through Him who loved us. “Death has been swallowed up in victory” (1 Cor. 15). Hallelujah!

Though Satan should buffet, though trials should come,
Let this blessed assurance control:
That Christ has regarded my helpless estate,
And has shed His own blood for my soul.
It is well with my soul!

Sheet music
Recording 1
Recording 2