“When Peace Like a River…”

John 14:23-29

I have it tucked away somewhere, a newsletter article written by a colleague and friend some nearly thirty years ago. Although I cannot lay my hands on it now, no matter, for the gist and the import of it has never left me.

George was undergoing treatment for cancer.  The words he wrote were to the last congregation he served as visitation pastor — a place and a people we had served together.  In it he detailed where he was on the journey then — how he was experiencing his days and nights as turned around. And of how when he lay awake at night he would remember and would sometimes sing aloud the words to the beloved hymn, “When Peace Like a River:”

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.”

O Lord, hasten the day when our faith shall be sight.

the clouds be rolled back as a scroll.

the trumpet shall sound, and the Lord shall descend,

“Even so, it is well with my soul.”

I can hear his quavering voice singing those words even now, especially now, it seems, these decades later when I discover more deeply with every passing year the power of the gift Jesus offers today.  This gift of peace unlike what the world gives.  This wondrous gift of peace in the face of all that would steal it, if it could, and honestly, too often does.

Indeed, the world is in powerful need of peace, isn’t it?

For peace is shattered daily in the community where I live and serve, as it is in yours as well:

  • Driven by forces named and unnamed, understood and not, where too much, too often we visit violence upon one another instead of healing.
  • Where peace of mind and heart and body are too hard to find for so many needs, physical and otherwise go unmet.
  • And even if all else seems to be going well, still we struggle through our personal, sometimes private heartaches which threaten our peace, our sense of wellbeing.

And yet, I picture George and his beloved wife, Mary, sitting up in the darkest hours of the morning intoning these words together.

And I consider the one who first wrote the words of this familiar hymn, Horatio Gates Spafford, and how he wrote these stanzas in the wake of unspeakable tragedy.  Indeed, the story has it that they came to him on the very spot where his four daughters were lost to a shipwreck, leaving only his wife to return to him.

And I realize, I do, that these words when first written and every time they have been sung since, are a melodic statement of faith.  And yet, read closely, they also hold such yearning, don’t they? They are believing and yearning to believe, both at the same time, aren’t they? I hear this especially in the last verse of the hymn where the writer speaks of his longing for that final ending when ‘faith will be sight’ — when we will be able to finally make sense of so much in this world now which simply does not make for peace.

Only the promise in this week’s Gospel, a promise that Horatio Gates Spafford and George Nelson and countless, countless other people of faith have clung to through all of our lives is that peace is not only ours to be embraced in some far distant future, but is already ours.  Even now. For the promise of the hymn rooted in the promise of Jesus to his disciples then and now is that God has already laid claim to us and with that claim comes peace beyond our understanding, peace that is always ours for the receiving.

And there is no ‘magic formula’ for receiving it, for knowing its presence and power is there? And yet, somehow, or at least this is how it has been for me, in the hardest of times, in the hugest of challenges, when my heart is most tender, it comes:

  • Through terror and tears it comes.
  • In hope and despair it comes.
  • When the path and your place on it is clear and when you can hardly discern the next step, it comes.
  • When faith runs deep, and sometimes when it is hard to believe, still it comes, this peace.

I do not know how this is so, I only know that it is.

And that it is so again and again.

Or at least it is when I pause long enough to recognize it. For it is already there, already here … I expect that often you and I just need to make space so that we can take it in.

  • And while the peace of which Jesus speaks and the hymnwriter writes and people of faith still sing, is highly personal as it is extended to each of us;
  • While this peace would seem to be first the sort one senses in the depths of one’s own very human heart;
  • While one might wonder what difference it makes for such a broken world where peace is too distant too much of the time, surely it is with each of us that it begins.  One at a time and then one gathering at a time as this peace of Jesus is received and peace is shared and this peace finds a way to be lived out.

Indeed, as we are surely changed by this peace, it is then that the world has a chance to be changed as well. And to also know the peace for which it was made.  Even as you and I were and are, one at a time.

Or so it seems to me.

I’m not sure what all this means for proclamation this week, but if you have read this far, I expect you also know something of this peace.  Indeed, I wonder what it will look like if we should get up this week and simply tell those stories:

  • Of when and where and how this peace came to you and what it meant.
  • Of when and where and how you yearn for it still.
  • Of times you have known others to be embraced by it and how that strengthened you in your own journey through times when “sorrows like sea billows roll” in the words of Henry Gates Spafford.
  • Indeed, where have you seen, known, been embraced by this peace? And what might that witness mean to those with whom you gather in the days to come?