The past few weeks, I have presided at more funerals than I have in any six-month period in my ministry. In so doing, I have witnessed grief so deep that I have been shaken, humbled, and reminded how quickly life changes. The story of Horatio Spafford came to mind more than once over these weeks.
In 1873, Spafford, a Chicago lawyer and philanthropist, decided to take his family on a nice vacation; they were going to Europe by ship. But just before departure, Spafford was delayed with work. So, he sent his wife and four daughters ahead; he’d catch up.
Their ship, the Ville du Havre, never made it. Off Newfoundland, it collided with an English sailing ship and sank within 20 minutes. Horatio’s wife, Anna, miraculously survived by clinging to a piece of wreckage. Horatio received a horrible telegram from his wife, only two words long: “saved alone.”
Spafford boarded the next ship to be near his grieving wife. He asked the ship captain to tell him when they came over the spot where his daughters died. When they reached the area of the wreckage, Spafford went to his cabin and wrote these words:
“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.”
In the end, faith is stronger than grief. That inspires me, encourages me. And to be honest, in the end, isn’t that really all we have — our faith? In the end, aren’t we left with nothing but the comforting, deep conviction that, despite our grief, God has our back?
Elie Wiesel, survivor of the Nazi death camps, wrote “The Trial of God” in 1979. In it, he recounts how a group of prisoners at Auschwitz put God on a mock trial for breach of covenant with the Jews. They convened a three-man rabbinical court in their cells to determine how such evil could exist in a universe God controlled as they awaited the determination of their own fates — death or hard labor. The Jews failed to see any reason why God was not coming to their rescue despite the Covenant He made with Abraham and Moses. The extreme suffering of Jews in the concentration camp was undeniable.
The rabbinical court found God guilty. But, before a sentence could be pronounced, court had to end because it was time for their evening prayers.
I have found this to be the journey of faith — to be able to weep and even be angry at God. And yet still, secure in His love for us, to know He is God, that He has overcome death and the grave, and though I often cannot make sense of the events that occur around me, to be able to say, “Even still, it is well with my soul.” That is where I want to be. God help me to get there.
Rev. Dr. Bob LeFavi is pastor at Bethel Lutheran Church, Springfield.