“It is well with my soul – the story of Horatio Spafford”

Many people find great help and comfort in the words of well known hymns. They express the experience of the hymn writers and are memorable because they are written in poetry and set to music. Hymns enable us to declare our faith and to rest in God and his wonderful promises in Jesus Christ.

One much loved hymn is “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.” The hymn was written by Horatio Spafford who had experienced several traumatic events in his life. The first was the death of his only son in 1871 at the age of 4. Soon after that the great Chicago Fire ruined him financially. He was a successful lawyer and had made big investments in property in the Chicago area.

In 1873 Horatio made plans to visit Europe with his family on the SS Ville du Havre. At the last minute, however, he was unable to accompany them and send them on ahead of him. While crossing the Atlantic the ship collided with another ship, the Loch Earn, and quickly sank. Horatio’s 4 daughters died but his wife, Anna, survived. She sent him a telegram which simply said “Saved alone.” Horatio made arrangements immediately to travel to see his grieving wife. As his ship passed near the place where his daughters had died he wrote the hymn.

Horatio knew that in times of tragedy and sadness it is important to remember God’s love revealed in the Cross of Jesus, his Son, who “shed his own blood for my soul.” Through Jesus we experience God’s amazing forgiveness, “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!”

Jesus also gives us hope in the darkest times. Passing the place where his daughters had died Horatio wrote, “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; O trump of the angel! O voice of the Lord! Blessed hope! blessed rest of my soul.”

In the midst of life

Last week I was visiting the United States of America and landed at Miami on Monday afternoon. As I waited for my next flight news of the bombs in Boston began appearing on the television screens. People in the airport were shocked as information about those who had died and been injured emerged. The Boston marathon is held on Patriots’ Day each year and is one of the world’s biggest marathons. It attracts 20,000 runners, from all over the world, and up to 500,000 spectators.

One hour after the first runners completed the race, and many were still running, two bombs were detonated near the finishing line. 3 people died and nearly 180 were seriously injured. This was the first major terrorist incident in the USA since 9/11. The bombs were intended to cause maximum damage. Two Chechen men are suspected of being responsible for the bombs, one is dead and the other is in custody.

Events like this remind us of the uncertainty and fragility of our lives. None of us knows what a day may bring. As people enjoyed a happy holiday event in Boston in an instant, without warning, some were killed and many more were maimed through the actions of total strangers. The Book of Common Prayer burial service which is used at the graveside includes the words, “In the midst of life we are in death: of whom may we seek for succour but of thee, O Lord.”

Death is always an unwelcome intrusion into life, and especially so when it is violent and tragic. How important it is at such times to know that we can turn to the living God. He is a refuge and strength in times of trouble. Comfort from family and friends gives us strength, doctors and nurses can tend our injuries, the security services can deal with those responsible for the bomb, but only God can meet our deepest needs.

Just a few weeks ago many people in Boston were celebrating a greater event than the Boston Marathon. At Easter, churches were packed as Christians rejoiced in the resurrection of Jesus. He died and rose again to give us a living hope. He said, “I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me will live, even though he dies; and whoever lives and believes in me will never die.” His words speak to the people of Boston now in their trauma and sadness and also speak to us all amidst the uncertainties of our lives.

God forgives and forgets

The death of Margaret Thatcher has stirred strong feelings for and against her and the very great influence she had when she was Prime Minister. She was removed from office not through losing a general election, but by a leadership challenge from her own MPs. Some of her cabinet colleagues played a key role in this and made it clear they thought she should step down. She was deeply hurt by what happened through what she described as “treachery with a smile.” In an interview some years later she said, “I will never forget, I will never forgive.” It is not known whether she reflected on this before she died.

The greatest act of treachery in history was the betrayal of Jesus by Judas Iscariot. It was “treachery with a kiss.” Judas was one of Jesus’ closest disciples, the Twelve. It seems he was disappointed that Jesus had not taken political power on a wave of popular support. So he made an agreement with the religious leaders to betray Jesus for 30 silver coins.

While Jesus and his disciples were in the garden of Gethsemane Judas came with a crowd of soldiers and religious leaders. In the darkness he betrayed Jesus into the hands of his enemies with the words, “Greetings Rabbi!” and a kiss. Later when he saw Jesus had been condemned he was seized with remorse. He returned the 30 silver coins and said, “I have sinned, for I have betrayed innocent blood.” Then he hanged himself.

The response of Jesus to Judas, and to those who plotted to kill him, is very striking. In the upper room, before Judas went out to betray him, Jesus appealed to him not to do it. It was an appeal of love which, tragically, Judas did not heed. The first words Jesus spoke while he hung on the cross were, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.”

An unforgiving spirit, which dwells on the past and harbours resentment, creates deep inner bitterness. It is good for us all to reflect on our own failings. None of us is without fault. When we become conscious of our own failings we are humbled and are better able to understand the actions of others. It also brings us to the point where, as we realise our own need for forgiveness, we can rejoice in God’s promise in Jesus, “For I will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more.”

God is working his purpose out

North Korea is in the news. Kim Jong-Un, the new, young leader of North Korea is flexing his muscles. The North Korean people are isolated from the outside world. Many of them are poor and hungry, yet North Korea is developing missiles and nuclear technology. The United States is committed to defending South Korea and is also aware of possible threats to their own country. There is real concern that one rash action could start a very serious conflict.

Jesus was once asked by his disciples about the signs of the end of the world. He replied, “Wars will break out near and far, but don’t panic. Yes, these things must come, but the end won’t follow immediately. The nations and kingdoms will proclaim war against each other, and there will be famines and earthquakes in many parts of the world. But all this will be only the beginning of the horrors to come. Then you will be arrested, persecuted and killed. You will be hated all over the world because of your allegiance to me.”

The words of Jesus certainly have a contemporary ring. There are tensions and conflicts between nations. International terrorism has become part of our lives. Natural disasters are common with devastating consequences for hundreds of thousands of vulnerable people. Intolerance of Christians is also now more common and in some countries Christians experience serious persecution.

Yet the teaching of Jesus gives real hope. He clearly taught that the history of the world is guided by God. We are not at the mercy of the whims of political leaders and dictators. The end of the world will come in God’s time. He will deal with all evil and will usher in a new heavens and new earth where righteousness, not evil, will pervade everyone and everything.

In the midst of the traumas of history the message of God’s love for the people of his world is also being proclaimed. Christians have sent sacks of rice into North Korea with the words, “With love from Jesus” printed on them. Those who received the food, who have never heard the name of Jesus, realised that he loved them. Against the background of all the bad news, a message of good news is being proclaimed to the nations, by word and deed. Jesus said “The Good News of the Kingdom will be preached throughout the whole world, so that all nations will hear it; and then, finally, the end will come.”

Mary Magdalene – the true story

Mary Madalene couldn’t sleep as she remembered all that had happened. So early on Sunday morning she got up and made her way to the tomb where, on Friday, she had seen the body of Jesus being laid. She had stood with the other women by the cross watching him die. She had experienced the 3 hours of darkness and heard his cry, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Then, after the darkness, she heard his triumphant affirmation, “It is finished!” Just before he died she heard him say, “Father, into your hands I commit my Spirit.” She was overwhelmed with grief as she saw his lifeless body hanging on the Cross. The man who was more full of life than anybody else she had ever known had died! It seemed as if the powers of evil had won!

Before she met Jesus, Mary’s life had been sad and tragic. She had been possessed by seven demons. Her life was dominated by these evil spirits and there was no way of escape. Then Mary met Jesus. He cast the demons out and set her free. Her life was transformed and she became one of a small group of women who provided help and support to Jesus and his disciples. In this way Mary expressed her love for Jesus and her gratitude for all he had done for her.

When she arrived at the tomb she was dismayed to see that the stone had been removed from the entrance. She assumed that the enemies of Jesus had taken his body away. She stood outside the tomb weeping. When she looked into the tomb she saw two angels who asked her, “Woman, why are you crying?” She replied, “They have taken my Lord away and I don’t know where they have laid him.” Then she turned round and saw Jesus standing there, but didn’t realise it was him. She thought he was the gardner. Then he said, “Mary”, and she recognised him and was filled with joy.

Mary Madalene was an ordinary person, just like you and me, who experienced the pure and selfless love of Jesus. Like Mary our lives may also be in a terrible mess. We may feel powerless to change things. Yet experiencing the power and love of Jesus will turn our lives around. He gives us a new start. Because he died and rose again we, too, can experience God’s forgiveness and have a sure hope for the future.