One of the greatest secular songs ever written, Gordon Lightfoot’s The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald stands as a monument of musical story-telling. Inspired by a Newsweekarticle of the November 10, 1975, events that led to the loss of the Great Lakes’ greatest ship, Lightfoot penned a masterful poem capturing the weight of the
tragedy both lyrically and musically.
In the song, Lightfoot asks a penetrating question: “Does anyone know where the love of God goes when the waves turn the minutes to hours?”
The question is an appropriate response to the actual tragedy of the Edmund Fitzgerald. The November gale likely stirred the waves to 35 feet or more. No doubt, the 29 crew members spent the last minutes of their lives in a sinking agony which both lasted forever and ended their lives in an instant. All that remained were “the faces and the names of the wives and the sons and the daughters.” All crew members were lost.
In those last moments of terror, where was God? Where, indeed, did the love of God go as the captain, cook, and crew were drowning? Lightfoot’s question is a good one, demanding a sober assessment of our theology.
I would answer in two ways. First, the love of God was at the cross in Jesus Christ. Scripture teaches that God is love (1 John 4) and that in His greatest act of love, God sent His son to die on the cross for our sins (John 3:16; Ephesians 5:25). What this means is that God has made provision for us when the time comes to meet our maker.
Lightfoot’s rendering of the “Big Fitz” saga is an epic display of the drama of man meeting his mortality. On the one hand, Big Fitz was the largest of the Great Lakes freighters; it was a workhouse, annually resetting hauling records which it had broken the prior year. The ship was a maritime marvel of historic proportions. Yet, as Lightfoot so powerfully puts it, “That good ship and true was a bone to be chewed when the ‘Gales of November’ came early.”
Regardless of our size, success, or seemingly invincible ability to survive, we all will face death. “It is appointed for men to die once and after this comes judgment…” (Hebrews 9:27). The fact that death is in the world is undeniable for every living soul. The fact that our “appointment” with death is not ours to determine is likewise undeniable. The love of God in Christ says that God has taken note of our frames (that we are but dust) and has acted in such a way that we need no longer fear death—whenever it calls upon us to go. God did not have to act on our behalf. God loved us and sent His son as a Savior for our sins. The love of God points to the cross when death draws near.
Second, the love of God points to the Resurrection. When the November gales chewed the ship and its crew, the Resurrection of Christ was screaming the love of God for all who believe. The Resurrection speaks on the authority of God that death is not the final victor. Though death seems to win in situations of shipwreck, the truth is that Christ has demonstrated the victorious power of life (1 Corinthians 15:54-57). Christ called Himself the Resurrection and the life (John 11:25) because Christ alone has defeated death.
For all who perished on the Edmund Fitzgerald, it is true that their bodies sank in the rooms of Superior’s “ice water mansions.” But it is also true that God has spoken for any and all to hear that death need not be the end of the matter. The love of God screams of victory—of life—in the face of death because of the love of God who sent His Son that we might not ever perish but always have eternal life through Christ Jesus our Lord.
I am glad Gordon Lightfoot asked the question. I’m even more glad that the God of love has answered it in Christ.
- Top Ten Countdown – The Story Song (Toughest gig in songwriting) # 3 (thestereolounge.com)
- Split Rock Lighthouse and the Edmund Fitzgerald (knitthink.typepad.com)