How much pain can one person handle?
How much loss can one year include?
What does a person do when it feels like the grief just won’t end?
I believe those were the questions that Horatio Spafford asked himself. In 1871, Spafford buried his four-year-old son who passed away from pneumonia. That same year, The Great Chicago Fire destroyed much of the family business. In 1873, the United States was facing an economic downturn, which cost Spafford even more. The family had planned a much-needed vacation, but Spafford ran into issues as he tried to rebuild from the fire. He sent the family ahead, hoping to join them once the problems were resolved.
While traveling across the Atlantic Ocean, the family’s ship collided with another ship and sank, and Spafford’s four daughters passed away. His wife, Anna, survived and sent him a telegram that became famous for its emotion and brevity. “Saved alone…”
After receiving his wife’s telegram, Spafford got on a ship to cross the Atlantic. As his ship was nearing the place where his daughters had passed away, Spafford was inspired to write the lyrics of what would become an incredibly famous hymn, “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 know
It is well, it is well, with my soul.”
Spafford chose to worship through his grief and loss. In the midst of his pain, he sensed God’s presence in the series of consecutive losses, and he trusted in God’s sovereignty over these painful events. His attitude mirrored the words of Job. “‘I came naked from my mother’s womb, and I will be naked when I leave. The Lord gave me what I had, and the Lord has taken it away. Praise the name of the Lord!’ In all of this, Job did not sin by blaming God.”
Because of God’s faithfulness and His power, Spafford was strengthened, and he worshiped through grief and loss. His testimony led to an incredible song that’s been used by God to minister to millions over the last 150 years.
Do You Feel Like Horatio Spafford?
Many of us in 2020 can relate to Spafford’s emotions, if not some of his experiences. We’ve lost money, people, and maybe even hope. We’ve walked through loss and disappointment. We’re faced with ungrieved losses that could derail us if we don’t experience God’s presence and peace in those places.
Spafford didn’t see his losses coming when the 1870s began, and we didn’t see ours coming when this decade began. We all had a map for where we thought this year was headed. None of this was on the map.
Maps are helpful when you’re traveling from one place to another—that is, if the locations and topography don’t change. However, when navigating unexpected and radical changes, maps aren’t so helpful.
I’ve wished for a map more than once this year. I’ve wondered where the manual was to navigate leading a church through a pandemic, homeschooling my kids while trying to do my full-time job, and maintaining my integrity while scrolling through the chaos of my Facebook feed.
But I sense that God isn’t so interested in giving us a map for this season. I think He’s more interested in giving us a compass.
Worship as a Compass
My mentor, Dr. Maxie Burch, once told me something about worship that I’ve never forgotten. He said, “Worship is God's compass for people continually reorienting themselves as they live a summoned life." He told me he’d rather live a well-planned life of control, where he set the agenda, and there was a clearly defined map for what lay ahead. “But,” he said, “God never lets me get that comfortable. He summons me out of my control and comfort to follow Him into the unknown.”
As I look back on those words, they feel as relevant today as the day he spoke them over a decade ago. I feel like this year has been a “summons” from comfort and control to chaos and courage.
In a moment like this, what do you do?
Well, in a word…worship.
When life takes us off the map and into unknown territory, worship is the way we get through it. Worship is the way we find God meeting our needs.
In Hebrews 4:15-16, we read, “So then, since we have a great High Priest who has entered heaven, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold firmly to what we believe. This High Priest of ours understands our weaknesses, for he faced all of the same testings we do, yet he did not sin. So let us come boldly to the throne of our gracious God. There we will receive his mercy, and we will find grace to help us when we need it most.”
The good news of this verse reminds me of one of my favorite definitions of worship (which comes from Webster’s Dictionary) - a reminder of why worship is the only worthy response to an encounter with God. “Worship means to honor with extravagant love and extreme submission.”
In God’s presence, through worship, we find the “grace to help us when we need it most.” God is so good and faithful to us - His mercy is available to us, and His grace helps us when we need it most. Worship, then, is our way to recognize and honor Him as a result. This experience of worship, like a compass, reorients us in disorienting times. Worship reminds us of what is true and guides us to what we need most when we need it the most.
How Can You Worship Through It?
If worship is the way we navigate the unknown, the compass which reorients us to God (our true north), then how can you worship through it? How can you practice worship in ways that light your path, strengthen your courage, and guide your feet?