It Is Well

“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.’ “

–Words by Horatio Spafford; Tune, “Ville du Havre,” by Philip Bliss

I consider “It Is Well” my favorite hymn because it resonates so powerfully in my life.  Something solid and true about the hymn appealed to me even before I learned the story of its writing.

Horatio Spafford, a Presbyterian elder from Chicago and friend of evangelist, Dwight Moody, had a successful and lucrative law practice.  Spafford and his family experienced an epic series of tragedies, starting with the death of a son, followed by tremendous loss of property in the great Chicago fire of 1871.

Desiring rest for his family and planning to participate in Moody’s evangelical efforts in Europe, Spafford booked Atlantic passage on the S.S. Ville du Havre.  Due to a last-minute business commitment, he was unable to leave with his family, and sent his wife and four daughters on ahead, planning to join them later.

In a chilling development, the ship sank after being struck by another vessel, and all four of Spafford’s daughters died.  When his wife reached Wales, Mrs. Spafford wired her husband the following message: “Saved alone.”

It is said that the hymn’s words came to Spafford as the ship upon which he was sailing passed over the spot in the sea where his daughters were lost.

Though no tragedy as heart-rending as Spafford’s has befallen me or my family, life has seen some depths and darkness.  Some of these lows have been due to my own inner struggles and poor choices.  At times, I’ve sought to captain my own ship, setting a wayward course from God’s will, and winding up adrift.  Alone in a sea of sinking hopes, as the psalmist wrote, “out of the depths” I cried to the Lord.  He saved me and my family through his great mercy, compassion and love.

Philosopher Joseph Campbell said, “where you stumble, there lies your treasure.”  Returning to the place of my sinking, now with Christ as captain, I receive faith’s treasure by the grace of a God whose suffering love brings salvation and new life to his children drifting bereft on a sin-stained sea.

I, too, must wire, “Saved alone.” But here the loss is that of the self at enmity towards God – the saved life arising is Christ, who lives in me.  Now I pray the words of Paul, the apostle: “And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.” (Galatians 2:20)

“It is Well” because you and I are safe aboard God’s vessel, never to be separated from his Love and direction.

May it be so for all of us, dear Lord.  Amen.

Lester Potts 27

Watercolor by Lester E. Potts, Jr., an artist who had Alzheimer’s

I Will Lift My Lamp

When you look at me now –
Me, as close as your own breath –
what do you see?

They say there’s no recognition,
no spark left in those brain cells
that know a mouth, eyes and cheeks
make up a face; much less, mine.

But what do you say?
After all, you’re the only one
who knows what you know.

Your eyes, hot spirit springs
that have always healed me
go cold and still as lakes
just nigh of freezing.

How could they not tell me
a day would come when
I’d be unable to see my reflection
in your waters? To feel your warmth.

But where is your soul
in all this forgetting?
Where is mine? Where is…

A place where hearts are one,
where good names are remembered,
a space beyond sparkless brain cells
and unspeaking eyes.

Can we find it if we draw near enough?
I will ask God to show us the way.
Come close. Let’s be silent and still.
I will lift my lamp for us to see.

What Can I Do?

I woke today and rose to meet
a world of disconnection.
So many stare but cannot see
themselves in their reflection:
A child, now old, that was not held,
still longs for validation.
A youth whose life unfolds without
adults’ participation.
A victim of some middle-aged
retreat into addictions.
An elder left alone to deal
with frailty’s ill afflictions.
What can I do, how can I show
the light of love to others?
How can the story of my life
inspire my sisters, brothers?
In truth and authenticity
I’ll tell them of my struggles,
of grace found in surrendering,
of trust made strong through troubles.
I’ll look inside myself to find
the child not shown affection,
the elder struggling all alone,
the youth with no direction;
the man or woman too ashamed
to leave the road to nowhere,
with sight too dimmed to recognize
the ladder up to somewhere.
And most importantly I’ll spend
time looking in the mirror,
to find the one God sees in me,
to make that image clearer
so many disconnected souls
can raise their hands together,
and lift the candles lit by Love,
drawn in the spirit’s tether.

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Sunday’s Lament

Today is a beautiful day.  Joy is deep and true.  Yet with it, there is sorrow.  Many are grieving losses this day, even as the blessing of life is celebrated.  Are you experiencing grief or loss today?  This poem is for you.

Sunday’s Lament

Their names and spirits run the meadow green
among its mist and flowers,
where all our joys had been.

The moon weaves threads of silver from their sight
into the coal-gray cloth
with which it drapes the night.

Each song sung by those gathered ’round a grave
becomes a heart-wrapped rose,
a memory to save.

May sorrow, in its sharing, lift the soul;
burdens, through their bearing,
grieving kindred console.

Then when life’s sunset takes a bow to night,
all crowns are cast aground,
all turning comes aright,

the treasure of each life is then revealed:
love of sisters, brothers;
Love dead.  Love lived.  Love healed.

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“Peace, Be Still”

When I turned the corner into the ICU, I saw him. He was not an attending physician, charge nurse or therapist. He wasn’t an administrator or a chaplain, a resident or a fellow.

He sat and rocked, covered with a blanket. I barely could see what he was holding. Then it came clear.

At that moment, in my mind, he was the most important person in the room.

At Children’s of Alabama (and I’m sure at other children’s hospitals), people can volunteer to rock and hold newborns who have had toxic exposures (such as cocaine) in utero, who have other conditions that might cause them distress, or who have no available parents. Many of these babies cry incessantly – a particularly agonizing sound to this adult neurology resident on the first day of his pediatric neurology rotation.

As many of you know, ICUs can be loud and very busy, with alarms, ventilators, monitors, and staff moving very rapidly to take care of their patients.

Like a sailboat in safe harbor, the old, blanket – draped man sat smiling in his rocker, his hands cradling a little lost person fighting for her life as a neurochemical storm raged inside her brain.

“Peace, be still, little girl. I’ve got you safe and warm here in my blanket. It will be all right.”

He rocked and rocked. The little body trembled and contorted. He kept rocking, whispering, singing. He looked like he had done this many times before. Perhaps he thought of his own little girl or boy at a time when they had needed comfort. Perhaps he thought of himself in his own mother’s arms. Maybe he dreamt of the child he never could have.

Before I left the ICU that day, the little lost daughter had stilled, and was quietly asleep.

So was the old man.

And the chair kept on rocking.