I never tire of listening to Gordon Lightfoot’s song The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald. I’m hooked from the first strum of the Asus2 chord to the ninth time the haunting guitar riff is played as the song fades out. The lyrics contain striking lines like this metaphor: that big ship and true was a bone to be chewed when the gales of November came early. But for me as a believer in Jesus and a student of the Bible, the most significant part of the song is the question Does anyone know where the love of God goes when the waves turn the minutes to hours?
Launched June 7, 1958 (video here), the 729 foot Fitzgerald was still one of the largest and fastest ore carriers on the lakes when it went down on November 10, 1975. Although many theories have been proposed, to this day no one knows for sure why the ship sank when other similar ships were able to survive the storm. As Lightfoot said,
They might have split up or they might have capsized.
They may have broke deep and took water.
And all that remains is the faces and the names
Of the wives and the sons and the daughters.
Curiosity over the technical details about why the ship sank has been widespread, leading to the publication of numerous books. People crave answers, but these intellectual questions pale when compared to the personal grief caused by the tragic death of the 29 crewmen.
Storms and Shipwrecks in the Bible
The Bible contains several references to storms on the sea. King Solomon built ships to acquire gold from Ophir with the help of King Hiram (1 Kings 9:26-28; 10:11-12). Later, King Jeshoshaphat built ships to seek gold from Ophir, but his ships were wrecked in port at Ezion-Geber (1 Kgs 22:48). Nearly everyone has heard the story of the storm at sea which caught up Jonah, the runaway prophet. Saint Paul experienced shipwreck three times (2 Cor 11:25; Acts 27).
Psalm 107:23-32 speaks at length of the thanks due God from sailors who cry out to God for deliverance from a storm at sea. As God calmed the storm in this Psalm, so Jesus calmed the storm in the Gospels (e.g. Matt 8:18-27; 14:22-36). Although the Sea of Galilee is only a drop in the bucket of Lake Superior, violent storms could occur there. Matthew 8:18-27 uses such a storm as a lesson in discipleship. Jesus proposes a journey to the other side of the Lake, and then discourages two would-be followers from making the voyage. Then Jesus’ disciples follow him into the boat, only to encounter a severe storm that is about to drown them. They cry out to Jesus, who calms the storm only after challenging them about their puny faith.
One of the most puzzling statements in the puzzling book of Revelation is 21:2, which says that when God someday renews the heavens and the earth, “there was no longer any sea.” In ancient times the sea was feared as the realm of chaos and evil (Ps 74:13-17; Isa 27:1; Dan 7:2-3; Rev 13:1). When Lightfoot compares the Fitzgerald to a bone to be chewed, he also pictures the sea as a monster. But God will one day slay all such monsters and wipe away every tear from the eyes of God’s people (Rev 21:4).
The Legend Lives On
This year I’ll be attending the annual memorial service at Whitefish Point MI for family members of those lost on the Fitzgerald. For these family members November 10, 1975 is so much more than a reminder of a great song and the philosophical problem of why bad things happen to good people. It’s a bitter reminder of deep grief that doesn’t go away as the years pass, proof that we live in a broken world where disasters can suddenly rip away one’s family and friends. In such experiences faith in a loving God is either shattered or deepened.
For me as a follower of Jesus Christ, God’s love was demonstrated most clearly in the cross and the empty tomb of Jesus. Perhaps Paul’s three shipwrecks were on his mind when he wrote in Romans 8:39, Nothing will be able to separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus our Lord. The contemporary Christian song “His Love Never Fails” celebrates this invincible love of God. Paul’s point is obviously not that God always delivers his people from adversity, or that he will do so if we have enough faith. We know better than that. Our Lord Jesus himself was crucified and felt forsaken by God during that horrible experience. But God raised him from the dead, and he will also raise followers of Jesus from the dead. God’s faithful love love never fails whether we experience adversity or not, or whether we survive the adversity or not. We are more than conquerors since we share in Christ’s resurrection, whatever our momentary circumstances.
Once after I had spoken on Jesus calming the storm on the Sea of Galilee and alluded to Lightfoot’s song, a person came to me and spoke of his own harrowing experience while sailing through a storm on Lake Michigan. He proposed a change to Lightfoot’s lyrics, one that reflected his experience as a Christian. He suggested changing “Does anyone know where the love of God goes . . . ” to “Does anyone know how the love of God grows” during life’s trials. I have to admit that I don’t think enough about the love of God during adversity, but afterward it is clear that my understanding of God’s faithful love has grown. As the author of Hebrews said, hardship does not seem pleasant at the time, but later “produces a harvest or righteousness and peace” (Heb 12:11).
It seems like there are a lot of songs about shipwrecks, but few songs about ships being salvaged from the depths for further service. The late Canadian folk singer Stan Rogers (1949-1983) wrote and performed such a song, “The Mary Ellen Carter.” The last verse of the song takes the ship’s salvage as a metaphor of resilience during adversity, and one shipwrecked sailor credits the song with saving his life as he sang the refrain “Rise again . . .” while awaiting rescue.
And you, to whom adversity has dealt the final blow,
With smiling bastards lying to you everywhere you go.
Turn to, and put out all your strength of arm and heart and brain
And like the Mary Ellen Carter, rise again.
Rise again, rise again—though your heart it be broken
Or life about to end.
No matter what you’ve lost, be it a home, a love, a friend,
Like the Mary Ellen Carter, rise again.
As a follower of Jesus Christ, I can’t help but think of his resurrection from the dead as the power that continues to raise people today from the death of trying to live without God. The resurrected king is resurrecting us.
I pray that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened in order that you may know the hope to which he has called you, the riches of his glorious inheritance in his holy people, and his incomparably great power for us who believe. That power is the same as the mighty strength he exerted when he raised Christ from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly realms, far above all rule and authority, power and dominion, and every name that is invoked, not only in the present age but also in the one to come. And God placed all things under his feet and appointed him to be head over everything for the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills everything in every way.
As for you, you were dead in your transgressions and sins, in which you used to live when you followed the ways of this world and of the ruler of the kingdom of the air, the spirit who is now at work in those who are disobedient. All of us also lived among them at one time, gratifying the cravings of our flesh and following its desires and thoughts. Like the rest, we were by nature deserving of wrath. But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions—it is by grace you have been saved. And God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus, in order that in the coming ages he might show the incomparable riches of his grace, expressed in his kindness to us in Christ Jesus. (Ephesians 1:18-2:7 NIV)