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Wednesday, September 02, 2009

"When peace like a river . . ."

The above is one of the Japanese Kanjis for "Forgiveness."

I've been thinking quite a bit about forgiveness and guilt and peace - especially after the August 20th release on humanitarian terms, of Abdel Baset al-Megrahi, the so-called Lockerbie Bomber, who was convicted of bombing Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, in 1988, killing 259 people on the plane and 11 on the ground.

I've been listening carefully to the discussions about repentance and forgiveness, 'survivor guilt' and outrage, reconciliation and compassion by Christians around the world that have been sparked by this action.

Was the Government of Scotland exemplifying Christian compassion by releasing a man whose body was riddled by cancer to die in his homeland? Many of the survivors - joined by many Christians round the world - felt angry and betrayed.

Was this an example of Christian compassion and reconciliation, or was this an act of cruel indifference to the suffering of the survivors?

In these discussion, a Pennsylvania Amish community which suffered the tragic loss of five of their children, ten of whom were gunned down in their one-room school house outside of Lancaster, PA is often held up as an example of "real Christian behavior" and "true religion" because of their almost immediate compassionate embrace of the family of the gunman.

A quote from one of the Amish women is typical of the response of the entire Amish Community:
"But, see, at a very young age our parents teach us to forgive like Christ did, not man-made forgiveness. . . . Jesus still takes care of us, even if bad things happen. These children are in Heaven. We still weep and cry just like everybody else, but then we go to Christ.

"My mom and dad taught me, and now we teach our children the same, to forgive people if they hurt us or wrong us," she said. "Things are going to happen in life. We're going to get hurt. But . . . we have to forgive. . . . If we give it to God, he'll take it and make something good out of it."

Both of these incidents have been with me as I've been thinking about my own ability - and, unfortunately some of my inabilities - to forgive. To let go of the past. To let go of the sense of 'survivor guilt' which often fuels my struggle with the past. To find peace for myself about the family dysfunction which has been the primary operative dynamic in my family of origin and how that now impacts my brother's illness - and our ability to cope with it.

It's part of the human enterprise: to try and make meaning out of mystery and then gain mastery over chaos. To reconcile our human understanding with the peace of God which surpasses all understanding. Sometimes we do it well, and other times we fail miserably.

One of the stories that I keep coming back to is the story-as-parable of the origins of the great hymn, "It is well with my soul."

A short preface to put this in context: I have come to known that every life story has at least two versions.

There are some stories - the ones that are reported, the ones we choose to believe because they support our own views and reinforce our understanding of God and how the world works. This is the "public face" of the story.

Then there are the stories that can be read beyond the reported facts, between the lines of the story on the page.

Somewhere, beyond and between, is more of the truth of our human lives.

Not "the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth." Just more of it - the flesh and bones stuff of truth - which, like our mortal flesh, is far from perfect.

Both versions of our stories, together, form a cautionary parable of sorts. We neglect either part at the poverty of our minds and the peril of our souls.

The words to the hymn "When peace like a river" were written by Horacio Spafford, a wealthy, socially prominent Chicago lawyer whose life was riddled with tragedy and loss. His story - and that of his family - give us one glimpse into the parables that are at the center of the mystery of our lives - and our faith.

Horacio Spafford lost his fortune in real estate during the Chicago Fire of 1871.

Two years later, the family decided to take a luxury cruise to England as a way of healing their loss. Delayed by some business emergency, Spafford decided to send his wife and four daughters ahead, planning to meet up with them in London as soon as he could.

Unfortunately, their steamship was struck by an iron sailing vessel and 226 people lost their lives, including their four daughters. His wife, Anna, was miraculously rescued. As soon as she arrived in London a few weeks later, she wired her husband a telegram which began, "Saved Alone."

Spafford immediately sailed to London to meet up with his wife. It is said that, when the ship passed the spot which was believed to be the watery grave for his four daughters, the captain pulled Spafford aside and told him where they were.

It is reported that Spafford, unable to sleep, spent the night penning the words to the hymn that has been an inspiration of faith to many:
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 (it is well),
with my soul (with my soul),
It is well, it is well with my soul.

After the terrible tragedy, Anna and Horatio Spafford moved back to Chicago and gave birth to three more children. Unfortunately, their son, Horatio Goertner Spafford, died at the age of four years, of pneumonia.

Moved by a series of profound tragedies and fueled by a sense of religious purpose, in 1881, the Spaffords led a small contingent of American Christians to Jerusalem to form a Christian Utopian society which they named "The American Colony."

Spafford, his family and sixteen followers believed that the Second Coming was upon them. Horatio felt he had received a personal prophecy that they needed to go to Jerusalem to meet the Messiah.

It was 1881. Post-Civil War America was ripe for the kind of religious fervor that gripped the nation at this time, and the Spaffords felt the evangelical calling and responded to it wholeheartedly.

A quote from Alexis de Tocquerville, a French political thinker, historian and theologian, may help to put the situation into better perspective:

Touring the United States in 1831, de Tocquerville had observed that
"the prevailing passion" seemed to be "acquiring the good things of the world," but he had also be fascinated by a second powerful theme.

"In the midst of American Society you meet with men full of fanatical and almost wild spiritualism . . . From time to time strange sects arise which endeavor to strike out extraordinary paths to external happiness. Religious insanity is very common in the United States."

These two themes seemed to have collided and conflicted with each other in Spaffords life at the intersection of overwhelming tragedy and loss.

While "inner tensions" (more on this later) within the community brought about its eventual demise in the 1950s, the Spafford Children's Center provides medical treatment and outreach programs for Arab children and their families in Jerusalem which continues in existence today. The American Colony Hotel, which had been the site of their orginal home, has become a luxury hotel in Jerusalem.

The internet resources I found all indicate that Mr. Spafford died in 1888 of malaria and was buried in Jerusalem.

We all know, however, that the 'cause of death' listed on the death certificate does not always tell the entire story.

Stories among some Jewish communities relate that Horatio Spafford was known as a 'fanatic' in Jerusalem, the head of a religious cult known as "The Overcomers" and "The Saints". He was absolutely convinced of his prophecy and poured all the resources of his mind, strength and body into his mission.

In 1879, he wrote the hymn "Next Year in Jerusalem," which explored the belief, held by some Christian sects, that the return of the Jewish people to Jerusalem was a sign of the imminent second coming of Jesus Christ.

Spafford was reported to have roamed the streets of Jerusalem at all hours of the day and night, searching for Jesus, whom he was certain would come in his life time. He worked feverishly to assist the return of the Jews to Jerusalem, believing that his works of kindness and mercy would usher in the Parousia.

His personal journal is a remarkable record of his life and ministry. In August of 1882, he wrote:
"Lord, I have always up to this day been holding on to something of the flesh. I crucify the flesh with its affections and lusts. Henceforward I live a eunuch for the Kingdom of Heaven's sake. I rely exclusively, exclusively on the power and grace of God in [Christ]. I am a miracle of grace! Blessed God how patient thou hast been with me!"

Religious fervor can sometimes be the 'outward and invisible' sign of an 'inward and spiritual' crisis. It is easy to ascribe a descent into madness to the delirium that is part of the end stages of untreated malaria. It is even easier to miss the signs of severe depression when they are masked with religious piety.

The real danger comes when we take the story only on face value and romanticize the intersection of profound grief and theology.

After his death, his wife, Anna, picked up the pieces and hammered them together to build an even more rigid reality. That's one way to contain the chaotic mixture of so many profound losses - grief, survivor's guilt, anger - that was brewing in her soul. On one level, it makes perfect sense: the more rigid their life's structure, the more secure they felt.

According to the book, "American Priestess: The Extraordinary Story of Anna Spafford and the American Colony in Jerusalem," under Anna's rule, nearly every follower was separated from his or her money and had to rely on the colony for even the most basic necessities.

Ever stranger directives were passed down by Anna. Marriage was abolished. Husbands no longer slept with wives, and children were separated from parents. The sect members didn't allow any sort of medical interference from doctors. Those of school age were taught communally (if at all--they would receive knowledge with the coming of Christ).

Eleven years before his death, Spafford had written,
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!

When there are repeated, unthinkable - indeed, unfathomable - personal tragedies, to whom do you ascribe blame? Who is responsible? How does one make sense of the incomprehensible? How does one forgive?

Grief, like forgiveness can not be rushed. When grief is combined with 'survivor's guilt' healing can be a particularly difficult, exquisitely painful, intentionally deliberate process.

It's enough to drive one mad.

I have come to believe that the greatest gift we can give ourselves, and each other, is to be true to the truth of the fullness of our humanity, including its frailties and mortal limitations.

Our religious and spiritual beliefs can - and often do - provide the blessings of comfort and solace, shoring us up so that peace, like a river, can attend to our souls which are being tossed about on the turbulent waters of tragedy and loss.

The work of grief and the process of forgiveness can provide blessings of their own. If we are willing to take the risks of what it is we say we believe, then we may be able to reach the spiritual maturity that enables us to say with integrity, "It is well with my soul" and more fully enjoy the peace of God, which, as Washington Gladden wrote "is no peace, but strife clothed in the sod. Yet let us pray for but one thing - the marvelous peace of God"

The truth of our lives of faith lies somewhere in the midst of the stories we tell and the stores we know about what we believe to be true. Or, as Frederick Buechner, a man who has walked the path of personal tragedy and into the dark night of the soul, would say:
"It is important to tell at least from time to time the secret of who we truly and fully are — even if we tell it only to ourselves. If we don’t, we run the risk of ourselves losing track of who we truly and fully are. Little by little we come to accept instead some highly edited version which we do reveal from time to time in the hope that the world will find it more acceptable than the real thing.

It is important to tell our secrets too because it makes it easier that way to see where we have been in our lives and where we are going. It also makes it easier for other people maybe to tell us a secret or two of their own. Such exchanges have a lot to do with what being a family is all about and consequently what being human is all about.

Finally, I suspect that it is by entering that deep place inside us where our secrets are kept that we come perhaps closer than we do anywhere else to the One who, whether we realize it or not, is of all our secrets the most telling and the most precious we have to tell."


Kirkepiscatoid said...



I think 2009 is going to go down in my life as "The year everyone I know, including me, fell into the Well of Grief and started to transform."

I guess this is a "be careful what you ask for" prayer. But I prayed that on my 49th birthday, the beginning of the 50th year of my life--my "Jubilee Year"--that I could set free some the slaves on my property. I had no idea that one of the slaves to be freed was to learn to feel the letting go of guilt and shame through the mechanism of grief--both mine and that of others--and for the tears to flow more freely from me than they ever have in my life.

And now you've done it to me again. Snif.

Unknown said...

I disagree with you - the real danger comes when you take on face value the salacious details of a book authored by an erstwhile reporter aiming at the best seller list. Her research was minimal, and when presented with conflicting testimony, she chose the most sensational, to fit her purpose. It was designed as a expose... so you should be suspicious of those details and her motives.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Thanks, sojourner. I didn't know that about the book.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Tears are a real blessing, Kirke. I've cried boatloads in the past three weeks.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Sojourner - I meant to ask: What is the source of your information about the author? Just a link will be fine. I first heard this story from a pastor in Chicago who knew the family. I don't believe he had read the book. Thanks again.

Unknown said...

My information comes from the family. The author stayed at the hotel, befriended the elderly matriarch and, under false-pretenses gained access to private family archives (if she'd been honest about the expose-nature of her work, it's hard to imagine her gaining that kind of access). It's very sad that the reputations of good people and ongoing good charitable work should be so harmed by this kind of greed.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Thank you, sojourner, but, with all due respect, the family is hardly a reliable source. No family wants its dirty laundry aired. There may not be other books, but there are other credible, reliable sources, including investigations of the community under Horace and then Anna's leadership by the State of Israel. The author's motives - or not - notwithstanding, it's as I said, one has to read behind and beyond the facts on the paper.

One final note: This is not an essay about The Staffords. It's about much, much more than that.

Unknown said...

..."it is about much, much more than that" What is that?

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Sigh. Read it again, sojourner.

Kay & Sarah said...

You do have a heavy load now. The year 2000 was the most difficult and transformative of my life. Through all the difficulties there came a time of healing and forgiveness I will be forever grateful for. I pray for that forgiveness and healing for you.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Thanks, TA. I appreciate your sensitivity.

Unknown said...

According to your own rules, please abide by rules of tolerance, avoid bigotry and prejudice.

The Episcopalen Church already supports the work of the Spafford Childrens Center in East Jerusalem.
You have some "tricky" programing operating on your site that will not display content as displayed. If that is the way you want to play, I exit. I have no doubt that you will not allow my post to stand. It's your site.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

sojourner - I have absolutely no idea what you are talking about. If there are "tricky" programs on this blog they are tricks put here by blogger, not me.

I hold no animosity toward the Spaffords or you. This is not about intolerance, bigotry or prejudice.

I used the story of Horace Spafford and his wife, as I understood it, as a way to talk about my own internal struggles given my brother's diagnosis with Alzheimer's Disease. He's 56 years old.

That's all. You are welcome back any time.

Unknown said...

Elizabeth: The internet is a communication tool: a way to bring people together, or a curse by republishing lies; a viral marketing tool to increase sales.

The Random House publishing/sales machine is formidable. They have SO much money at their disposal, what chance does a person have against that? The internet, I believe, is the clue. One post, one blogger at a time. The truth will out, and that is the only way.....

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Thanks, sojourner. Obviously, you are very deeply committed to this cause which, unfortunately I think, obscured your ability to see the larger purpose of this post. I quoted one book - the one about Anna - but I had several resources which I consider credible. And anyway, the purpose of this post was not about the Spaffords. My point is that the "truth" or "lies" of our stories - my story, your story, the Stafford's story, anyone's story - is that the fullness of that truth or untruth is somewhere between the public and private versions.

I hope that's helpful to you.

C.W.S. said...

Thanks for this. Our individual "truths" have as much to do with the stories we leave out as the stories we tell. Spafford's shipwreck story is widely known; that of his later years, hardly at all.

Just as the friends and family members who won't visit my mom with Alzheimers in the nursing home: "we don't want to remember her that way." They want the tragic-but-noble "it is well" story alone.

P.S. The "strife closed in the sod" quote is by William Alexander Percy. Washington Gladden's great hymn is Behold, a Sower from afar.

MadPriest said...

I think the releasing of Abdel Baset al-Megrahi had more to do with the Scot's ability to face up to reality rather than some inherent trait in the Scots to be merciful (I doubt that they are any more or less merciful than the people in most countries).

It is extremely likely that Abdel Baset al-Megrahi was involved in the atrocity but the Scots are not a two faced people. They have always thought it wrong, and useless, to punish a hireling whilst doing business with the real culprit.

The Americans, on the other hand, seem to want revenge rather than justice and any scapegoat will do. So you end up with the gross hypocrisy of Obama condemning the Scottish action whilst promoting his country's interests in Libya by the appeasement of the monster who was responsible for all the Lockerbie deaths.

Scottish people are not easily fooled. The bereaved American families were because of the American legal system that is based primarily on vengeance.

Once you take the need for revenge out of your thinking then mercy automatically follows.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

CWS - oops, right. I looked at the hymn just above it in the 1982 Hymnal.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

I can't comment on the nature and character of the Scots, but I fear you are spot on with your critique of some Americans, Johnathan. It is hypocrisy writ large - nothing any of the Brits would know about, eh? ;~D

Fran said...

This is a tremendous post - so far reaching and it seems some comments have run off the rails!

Not to belabor that, but in a splurge, because I had a free plane ticket to Israel and because I was going to spend a week in Jordan for free, I booked myself at the American Colony.

There is quite a story there and one we will never likely know fully.

In any event, the larger context of this post, with all its depth and glory, really have me thinking.

Thank you for this generous piece, thank you.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Thanks, Fran. When you finally come to Chatham, we'll have lots to talk about over lunch - this being one of the topics we'll discuss

Brother David said...

It is Well With my Soul is indeed one of my most favorite hymns in English.

I believe that the chorus (refrain?) speaks with a particularly spiritual quiet, tiny voice to GLBT folks.

Case in point: The MCC people go ever-freakin, charismaticly nuts when they sing it!