How great

Our little band of singers and friends (taken in Rauma, Finland)

Our little band of singers and friends (taken in Rauma, Finland)

In about 1958 or 1959 my uncle, the Rev. Troy Noland, came to Scottsbluff, NE, to visit us. Uncle Troy and his family came to stay for a week (or more), and he was the main preacher for a week of services (I don’t remember what they were called—revival?) at our Baptist (not Southern) church, of which my father was pastor.

The visit is the stuff of family legend, more for the trouble the teen-age cousins managed to get into than for the number of souls saved in the nightly meetings.

The visit was more important to me than either the services or the teenage escapades (I was barely a teenager, but I was in on the escapades). Uncle Troy was married to my father’s younger sister Doris, one of the most naturally gifted musicians I have ever known. For the evening services at the church, I played the organ, and Aunt Doris played the piano. If I have any ability to accompany singing (hymn singing in church or operatic arias in the concert hall), I owe it to Aunt Doris and her working with me that week. All she said was that I had to learn to set the rhythm. And a new world opened to me because she showed me how to do that.

Mia Brodin and me

Mia Brodin and me

At the time, the hymn “How Great Thou Art” was everyone’s favorite because George Beverly Shea sang it at every Billy Graham Crusade. I still own the copy of the sheet music from which I played with Aunt Doris. It’s purple and has Shea’s picture on the front. (Shea, by the way, only recently died in April of this year.) For many years, I thought the hymn with its somewhat overly romantic description of the wonders of nature was beneath my dignity. The tune, however, a Swedish folk tune, is one of those that pops up in my unconscious and then presents itself to my conscious thinking on a regular basis. There is a reason the hymn is so popular, and it’s not really the words.

On Sunday, June 23, of this year, “How Great Thou Art” was sung (in English) at Eda Church (Church of Sweden) near Arvika, Sweden. The congregation and our little band of singers from the Ft. Worth/Dallas area of Texas belted out the hymn as if we were all native Swedes as the church’s organist Han Young Kim accompanied. It was a moment of grace and clarity as I have seldom experienced.

This is, I remind you, my personal blog. I am not trying to make the Calvary Lutheran Church Musical Mission Tour all about me. I simply need to put into writing something of the enormous importance of that moment for me. And it begins with Aunt Doris and “How Great Thou Art.”

Our concert at the church had been the evening before. We had spent Saturday sight-seeing and having the first of our amazing Scandinavian and Russian meals together. I was somewhat stranded in Arvika and needed to get out to the country church to acquaint myself with the organ. The priest of the church, Mia Brodin, agreed to come to fetch me and drive me to the church. She and I were almost instantly engaged in the kind of deep conversation one usually has only with one’s closest friends.

The heart of the conversation was her response to my explaining the current profoundly unsettled and unsettling place of my spiritual quest. Her response was simple. She told me of her coming to the priesthood only four years before after a long career in business. And her reason, she said, was that she understood and accepted her own need to be connected to the tradition, the 2,000-year tradition, of the church, especially the Church of Sweden.

I heard her. I understood the connection. I understood that belief, faith, all of that “religious” stuff is simply part of the connection. She does not know it (that’s not true-I’m sure she does) but she gave me permission to breathe deeply and simply accept the connections of my youth, the connections of my career, all of those paths that are greater than I am. And then we sang “How Great Thou Art” the next morning, and more paths connected than I can begin to say.

The tour to Scandinavia and Russia was, in my mind, supposed to be a great adventure, a musical highlight of my senescence, a chance to see part of the world I never imagined I would see. I did not expect, at the very outset of the tour, to find grace (not religion, not faith, not belief, but grace) in an out-of-the-way corner of Sweden. “Then sings my soul. . . “

A snippet of my iPad recording of “How Great Thou Art” with Mia Brodin’s speaking at the end.

5 Responses to How great

  1. bobritzema says:

    What a wonderful experience for you, Harold. Conversions away from Christianity (and maybe from other faiths as well, but Christianity is what I know) often have to do with crises of belief, ending with some sort of conclusion like, “I don’t believe in the divinity of Christ or the resurrection anymore, so I’m not a Christian.” Belief is certainly a part of the faith–Paul emphasized that, and Jesus certainly wanted people to believe in him. I wonder if faith isn’t bigger than belief, though. I wonder if what Christ most wanted was disciples–those who were willing to learn from him and to live in all their relationships as if the kingdom of heaven was at hand. Perhaps in reconnecting with the traditions of your childhood (and, as you talked about in your previous post, experiencing a sense of transcendence) you’re coming to a form of faith that you can be at peace with, one that doesn’t rely on belief in particular points of doctrine.

  2. Nancy Noland Powell (cousin) says:

    Harold, Thanks for this beautiful memory of my mom. She was a fantastic pianist — played by ear and by printed music as well. And she had quite a beat about it, too, which did make her an excellent accompanist for congregation singing. Mostly, she loved the hymns, and other church music as well, because she loved the Lord and knew fully how much He loved her. “How Great Thou Art” was on my mind when I visited Niagra Falls. Sounds like you had great trip this summer.

  3. Jan Noland Naredo (cousin) says:

    Alas, Harold, I can barely remember the trip our family made to Nebraska that long ago summer. I will never forget, however, listening to my mother sing and play the piano. Being a Southern Baptist to this very day, “How Great Thou Art,” is heard and sung in my church frequently. I particularly cherish the following two verses:

    And when I think that God, His Son not sparing,
    Sent Him to die – I scarce can take it in:
    That on the Cross, my burden gladly bearing,
    He bled and died to take away my sin:

    When Christ shall come with shout of acclamation
    And take me home – what joy shall fill my heart!
    Then shall I bow in humble adoration,
    And there proclaim, my God how great Thou art!

    The words fill me with gratitude for the salvation that I have received through Jesus Christ.

    I am happy for you that you have begun your summer with a wonderful trip.

  4. Pingback: “. . . a lantern, burning in the midst of parenthetical opaqueness. . . “ (1) | Me, senescent

  5. Pingback: “. . . does its beauteous ray aught of joy or hope foretell . . .” | Me, senescent

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