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A Glimpse of Heaven, Part II: Peace

December 2, 2019

The wolf will live with the lamb, the leopard will lie down with the goat, the calf and the lion and the yearling together; and a little child will lead them.” (Isaiah 11: 6)[1]

Horatio Spafford was a wealthy and well-respected Chicago lawyer and an elder in his church when his substantial portfolio was decimated.  His son tragically died of a childhood disease.  Two years later, all of his remaining children—four daughters—drowned on a holiday cruise to England.  Only his wife survived.  By most standards, he should have been an angry, embittered man—shaking his fist at the God he worshipped.  But instead, when he sailed over the part of the Atlantic where the girls died, he penned these words:  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.

Who can do that?  Who could write “All is well with my soul” after losing most of his wealth and five young children?  The answer: a person whose sure hope and belief is in Jesus Christ.  Spafford left the practice of law and devoted himself to full-time ministry—eventually moving to Jerusalem, where he spread the gospel until the end of his life on earth.

The loss of my best friend of 27 years, Stephanie Burke, doesn’t compare with the losses that Spafford experienced.  And yet I was still grieving her death several months later.  Stephanie died suddenly on September 20, 1997, from complications after sinus surgery.  Stephanie was 55 years of age when she died.   We worked together in the insurance industry for several years in the 70’s right out of college.  We carpooled and lunched together every day while we worked together at Liberty Mutual.  We often dined together.  I stood by her when she went through her divorce. She attended my law school graduation at the Greek Theater and a few years later we saw Nureyev at the Greek. She took me shopping for my wedding dress, and gave her stamp of approval on THE dress.  She had been my maid of honor at our wedding in 1980.   We celebrated many birthdays, holidays, and baptisms together.  She was the godmother to our youngest child, Peter.  She was the sister I never had.  We had been through a lot together.  I missed her terribly.

On New Year’s Eve, 1997, we left our home near Los Angeles to drive to our condo in Mammoth to spend a few days skiing.  I had been thinking a lot about Stephanie over the week-end.  Our friends, Gerhard and Romana Pichel and their daughter, Karin, were our guests over the New Year’s holiday.  I found myself telling them about Stephanie at dinner on January 2nd, our last night together. The five children were watching T.V. or playing games downstairs, leaving us free to enjoy a quiet dinner and to linger over the red wine and panforte. We were sitting around the pine table, relaxing and talking only as good friends can, about our faith, and other things that were important to us.

It had been a great skiing and sledding week-end.  We woke up the next day on January 3rd to a beautiful day– blue sky, sun, and fresh snow.  Bob and kids couldn’t turn down the chance to ski another day—so instead of leaving at noon, as we had planned, I cleaned and packed up the condo while they skied another day.  We left Mammoth just after sundown, stopping at Burger King in Bishop for a quick dinner, then at Schat’s Bakery next door for cookies and fresh bread.  We were back on the road within an hour.  As we barreled down U.S. Route 395, I found myself thinking about the dinner conversation about Stephanie with Romana and Gerhard the night before. I thought about the simple little acrostic poem I had written about her on the eve of her funeral, as I sat grief- stricken and bleary-eyed at the computer:

Steadfast friend, in

Times of joy, and

Especially in times of

Pain.

How I will miss you.

And

Now

I must say good-bye, all too

Early

 Spafford knew what Isaiah taught—that the kingdom of heaven is a kingdom of peace where enemies will live together in peace, and children will play with formerly dangerous reptiles: “The wolf will live with the lamb, the leopard will lie down with the goat, the calf and the lion and the yearling together; and a little child will lead them . . . The infant will play near the cobra’s den. . . They will neither harm nor destroy on all my holy mountain” (Excerpts, Isaiah 11: 6-9).

Paul assures us that we can have peace within our souls here on earth.  As we discussed last week, our hope and belief that Jesus died for our sins and claimed victory over death is the basis for our faith.  John Ortberg explains, “Saving faith is faith that allows me to engage in an interactive, grace-powered life with him beginning here and now, which death will then be powerless to interrupt. It is faith that allows me to know union with Christ.”[2]

Authentic faith results in a peace that Paul described as passing “all understanding” (Philippians 4:7).  That was the peace that Spafford had.  He described an overwhelming flow of peace that “attendeth my way.”  His soul was at peace in spite of the overwhelming waves of sorrow.   It was a peace that saturated his being.  He was so full of God’s living water—his love and grace– that he was able to withstand the fires that raged about him.  He had complete confidence that his children were in heaven with Jesus, and that he and his wife would be reunited with them one day.

Jesus gives us the peace of soul and mind that comes with being his follower: “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid” (John 14:27).  God imparts his peace to us and encourages us to pass it on to others.

I missed Stephanie terribly in the months following her death. While she had been a Catholic most of her life, and was delighted that our children attended Catholic schools, she had not been a church-goer for many years.  But she lived a life of service to others—fed from a deep well of love within her soul.  She followed Jesus’ example of caring for others.  Her life had not been easy.  She had an unstable home environment while she was growing up, worked her way through college as a waitress, weathered a difficult marriage and divorce, suffered financial reverses, and faced other challenges.

The losses, anxieties, and problems that crop up in our everyday lives can become obstacles to a peaceful life, and can disrupt the peace we do enjoy.  In addition to the loss of cherished loved ones, other problems come between us and the tranquility we so yearn for—relationship conflicts, family feuds and other family problems, natural tragedies such as the fires, earthquakes, and hurricanes as well as disappointments, addictions of many kinds, and mental and physical health issues, to name a few.  In times of trial we can depend on our Savior to restore peace to our souls: “[T]he peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” (Philippians 4:7).

This is the season of peace and goodwill.  Just as I was suffering from my loss of Stephanie on January 3, 1998, many are suffering from personal losses of loved ones, and other losses this holiday season.  And many people and families will be in conflict during the holidays.  In his letter to the Romans, Paul encouraged us to do our best: “If possible, on your part, live at peace with everyone” (Romans 12:18).  Paul understood that reconciliation is not always possible, but as a peacemaker, you are required to do your best to resolve differences.

Making peace with others and finding peace in our souls is a divine activity; it requires the involvement of the Holy Spirit.  If you depend on the Prince of Peace, he  will lead you away from loss and conflict to a peace that will help you withstand whatever life throws at you, and will help you help others make it through the challenges of their lives.

Prayer:May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in him so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit” (Romans 15:13).

Diane Cieslikowski Reagan

[1] The Scripture texts for next Sunday are Isaiah 11:1-10; Psalm 72:1-7; Romans 15:4-13; Matthew 3:1-12

[2] John Ortberg, Eternity Is Now in Session (Carol Stream, Ill.: Tyndale Publishers, Inc., 2018), p. 35

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