The song my dad sung when my siblings died

The phone rang and my mom answered. She never imagined the horrific news my grandfather was about to share: My dad’s two children from his first marriage had died in a plane crash. 

Scottie and Rhonie Rogers (ages 10 and 14) were last seen with their mom and stepdad on July 5, 1981, when they took off in a light airplane en route to Florida for a vacation. The plane never made it there.

The newspaper reported that the plane was flying through a thunderstorm when it plunged from 11,000 feet to 4,000 feet. It dropped off the radar and crashed into the Gulf of Mexico, leaving no trace of wreckage.

When my mom got off the phone and told my dad, he walked out of the room and found a cassette tape with the old hymn “It is Well with My Soul” on it. He pressed play and sang the song, which was written in 1873 by Horatio Spafford, a prominent Chicago lawyer whose four daughters drowned in the Atlantic Ocean when their ship crashed into another vessel.

Spafford’s song starts with a verse that is fitting for a father who has lost his children at sea: 

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 

Spafford actually wrote the lyrics to the song while crossing the Atlantic to meet his grieving wife. He never dreamed that the song would bring comfort to a dad who was grieving a similar loss over 100 years later.

Thirteen years after Rhonie and Scottie died, my dad spent a frigid day with my brother Caleb and me in Biloxi, Mississippi. After eating breakfast at Shoney’s, we walked to the beach, stopped, and looked out onto the Gulf of Mexico — that same, vast space where Dad’s children had disappeared.

We talked and sang old hymns together until suddenly my dad halted, unable to sing or speak anymore. He then put his short arms around our teenage frames and pulled us close to him, squeezing a little too tightly. And then I heard him gasp for air, with an achy cry coming from somewhere deep within him, like he was dying of a heart attack.

Tears streamed down his face and then they began streaming down ours as well. We somehow understood that we, his two remaining children, were standing next to our siblings’ graveside, that we were hearing the sounds of a grown man’s broken heart.

Looking out onto the Gulf, Dad finally managed to sob the words, “Ain’t God good, boys?” and wept some more. We shook our heads up and down and let him hold us tightly.

Later on that night, Caleb was driving home with me and suddenly, he blurted out with a sob: “That’s screwed up! His kids are dead and he’s talking about how good God is.” 

Caleb’s outburst is the cry of so many people whose hearts who are breaking over their own losses. It might be the loss of innocence, the shame of unemployment, a devastating diagnosis, rejection by people you love, your failures as a parent, all kinds of open wounds that haven’t healed. Whatever your loss may be, it will be a test of faith — yours and mine — as we ask ourselves: Can God really be good if He will allow me to hurt this much?

When some of Jesus’ disciples deserted him, Jesus asked Peter, “Do you also want to go away?” To this, Simon Peter responded, “’Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life” (John 6:67-68, NKJV).

And so we must ask ourselves: If there’s no good answer for our pain, will we leave Christ behind? God forbid. Jesus is the only one who can speak authoritatively into our pain. He is “a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief” — the one who willingly plunged into suffering, drowning in our sin in order to save us (Isaiah 53:3, ESV).

Surely, we can wait with heartbroken anticipation, trusting that Jesus will return to make every sad story come untrue, that resurrection will finally be realized upon His return. Until then, we stand on the shore of our own grief, singing:

And Lord, haste the day when our faith shall be sight,
The clouds be rolled back as a scroll;
The trump shall resound, and the Lord shall descend,
Even so, it is well with my soul

Check out my book, “Confessions of a Happily Married Man,” which tells the story of how God has worked in the ordinary (and extraordinary) of my marriage — and how you can see the ways He’s working in yours too.