Saturday, November 21, 2015

Blowin' in the Wind: J.A. Hultman and "Thanks to God for My Redeemer"

("Blowin’ in the Wind" is a regular feature on my blog consisting of an assortment of nature writings – hymns, songs, excerpts, prayers, Bible readings, poems or other things – pieces I may not have written but that inspire me or have given me joy. I trust they'll do the same for you.)

Just in time for Thanksgiving, I'd like to share one of my absolute favorite, old Swedish hymns from my Covenant denominational heritage. I actually don’t know much about the text’s author, a Salvation Army poet by the name of August Ludvig Storm, except to say that he lived from 1862 to 1914 and resided in Stockholm. The one I want to say more about in this post is the author of the music, Johannes Alfred Hultman. I feel I know the man.

“J.A.” Hultman, as he was publicly known, was a wildly popular musical entertainer among the Mission Friends of Sweden and the USA in the late 19th and 20th centuries. (“Mission Friends” was a colloquial name for early Covenanters, I name I still dearly love and wish we used more often!) Born in 1861 in the poor, central Swedish province of Småland, his family emigrated to the states when he was eight years old and settled in rural Southwest Iowa near Essex. Early vocational ministry found him directing a church choir in Chicago (Douglas Park Covenant), and later pastoring churches in Nebraska and Massachusetts. While pastoring, however, he hooked up with Swedish theologian P.P. Waldenstrom in 1889 speaking/evangelistic tour, bringing along his small, portable pump organ and providing music for the sessions. His time with Waldenstrom, famous and infamous in the US and northern Europe, marked the beginning of a change that led to Hultman’s taking up a full-time traveling and singing ministry that lasted half a century.

Known everywhere he went as “The Sunshine Singer,” his positive music and gregarious, sincere persona were a perfect fit to bring encouragement to immigrant Swedes, many of whom were rural or inner-city poor. The sunshine moniker came from an experience he had where he had been suspected in his travels of being a bootlegger, carrying alcoholic contraband in his wooden organ case. His response while being inspected? “I don’t deal in moonshine, I deal in sunshine.” (Last time I knew, the organ’s case was still being displayed among th archival artic=facts in the vestibule of First Covenant Church of Omaha. I’m not sure of the story behind how it got there, and would love to be schooled…) in fact, Hultman was well known both publicly and privately to have a good-natured humor which included playful self deprecation. At a time when most traveling musicians supported themselves by selling copies of their music, in much the same way some entertainers do today with recordings, he was often quoted at concerts as saying, “I’ve brought along collections of my music that are available for purchase. The booklets cost a dollar, but I include my photograph as well and that changes the price dramatically, so I sell both for fifty cents.”

Deeply loved on both sides of the Atlantic, Hultman sang and presented evangelistic services continuously from the late 1800s until his death at age 81 in 1942. As I’ve said in the past, I’m something of a sentimentalist when it comes to music, and many Scandinavian texts from my heritage play to that sentiment, including this one. Read it below, and, if you can, celebrate it as a testimony of faith. And if you don’t know it, or if it has been a long time since you’ve heard it, check out this YouTube link, a simple piano-only rendition.

Here it is, Thanks to God for my Redeemer, text by Ludvig Storm, music by J.A. Hultman:

Thanks to God for my Redeemer,
Thanks for all Thou dost provide.
Thanks for times now but a memory,
Thanks for Jesus by my side.
Thanks for pleasant, balmy springtime,
Thanks for dark and dreary fall.
Thanks for tears by now forgotten,
Thanks for peace within my soul.

Thanks for prayers that Thou hast answered,
Thanks for what Thou dost deny.
Thanks for storms that I have weathered,
Thanks for all Thou dost supply.
Thanks for pain and thanks for pleasure,
Thanks for comfort in despair.
Thanks for grace beyond all measure,
Thanks for love beyond compare.

Thanks for roses by the wayside,
Thanks for thorns their stems contain.
Thanks for home and thanks for fireside,
Thanks for hope, that sweet refrain.
Thanks for joy and thanks for sorrow,
Thanks for heavenly peace with Thee.
Thanks for hope in the tomorrow,
Thanks through all eternity.

I am told the original Swedish included the word 'thanks' thirty-two times in the three verses. In this English translation by Carl E. Backstrom, it’s only said twenty-seven times, but I think the point is still well taken!

Psalm 30:12 -- That my soul may sing praises to You, O Lord my God, I will give thanks to You forever!
-- RGM, November 19, 2015

Saturday, November 14, 2015

On the Journey with Monty Newton: “If the Rock’s Too Heavy…”

I tried something last month I’d like to do again periodically, and that is feature a column written by a friend or family member.  John Kiemele of Seattle area's Selah Center helped me kick it off in October. I’m going to now call this column On the Journey, and it will only happen as often as I can convince someone to share some writing on a nature theme with me! If you want to take a try at it, or if you have done something in the past you’d like to share with other like-minded seekers of God through nature, be in touch with me and let’s see what we can do.

Today I want to share something with you written by one of my longest-term and dearest friends, Pastor Monty Newton, soon to be retiring from Heritage Bible (Covenant) Church in Arvada, Colorado, one whose writing and preaching I’ve always enjoyed. Among the many things Monty and I have in common is our love for the reflection afforded by nature’s silence and solitude, and maybe even for a certain little cabin in the northwoods of Michigan where we have found such a gift. He wrote this several years ago for his church newsletter, and I thought you’d enjoy it. Be blessed with its message.

In August I drove thirteen hundred miles to a little lake located about fifteen miles northwest of Watersmeet, Michigan, which is about a hundred twenty-five miles east of Duluth, Minnesota. I have a friend who owns a cabin there and he has graciously allowed me to use it for study leaves and vacations.

My first visit, he sent me a little guide for using the cabin, which included how to get there, how to open up the cabin, unshutter the windows, turn on the gas and light the pilot, and where to find the panel to turn on the electricity and the pump for the well. He also warned me about ‘the rock.’

The rock was submerged in about five feet of water just off the end of the dock. Apparently when the previous owners built the dock they either did not know the rock was there or were unable to remove it, so… divers beware! When my brother-in-law and his son, and my son Corky came up for a weekend from the Twin Cities, I cautioned them about the rock before they went in. Naturally, everyone then had to dive in and check out this monstrous water hazard.

Corky was somehow able to get a hold under a corner and budged enough to discover that the rock seemed to be fairly flat on the bottom side. I am tempted to give you the blow-by-blow description of the ensuing battle between the man and the rock, but suffice it to say Corky refused to be defeated by it. In the end he was battered, bruised and scraped, but the rock now rests at the shoreline.

I thought of that rock this week when someone stopped by my study to chat. It was not an easy discussion… Some questions are not all that readily answered, and we both felt a bit frustrated by the fact that the mystery was still a mystery. That’s when she said something to the effect, “Maybe it’s like what Pat says her mother used to say when she didn’t understand something – ‘If the rock’s too heavy, let it lay.’” If the rock is too heavy, don’t pick it up. I think that is one of the most profound statements I’ve ever heard.

There are things that mystify me. In that I am cynical enough and curious enough, I generally rather enjoy poking around in ideas, concepts, questions and issues that I cannot quite get my mind wrapped around. As an amateur theologian I am intrigued when I hear someone suggest things like the Holocaust was the judgment of God against the Jewish people, or that the terrorist attacks in 2001 were God’s judgment against the moral and social sins of the United States. How did, does or will God deal with the issue of sin and judgment?

Or how about questions regarding the sovereignty of God in predestination, foreknowledge and election, and the free will of man? Does God decide who goes to heaven and who does not? Do we have any say in the matter? Or how about, if we all, i.e., Christians, Muslims, Jews, etc. pray to the same God, how can we say that Jesus is the only way to heaven? How could God let anyone suffer and how could a loving God let anyone go to an eternal hell? Why are children born with birth defects? Why is it that all are created equal but not all are equal? When we die, do we go straight to heaven? What is heaven anyway? Where is it? How about hell?

The questioner in Job 11:7 asked, "Can you solve the mysteries of God?" The prophet Isaiah in 45:15 says, "The Lord works in strange and mysterious ways.” And God tells us in Isaiah 55:8-9, “My thoughts are completely different from yours and my ways are far beyond anything you could imagine. For just as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts higher than your thoughts.”

So it is… Sometimes we can wrestle with the rock until we finally get it to shoreline. But sometimes we just have to let it lay.

Thank you, friend Monty.

~~ RGM, November 13, 2015

Saturday, November 7, 2015

POTM...*: Islands in the Sky

(*Photo of the Month)

The Bible says that when Jesus Christ returns, those who believe or have believed will rise from the earth to ‘meet him in the air’ (1 Thessalonians 4:16-18). Frankly, I hope I get the chance to meet Jesus on top of one of these.

They’re called sky islands – small mountain ranges, or sometimes even singular mountains, that rise up out of the high, flat deserts of southwestern New Mexico, west Texas and southern Arizona. We were blessed to work with a wonderful church in Las Cruces, New Mexico earlier this year and last, and were introduced to them at that time. From any open promontory around the city, sky islands could be seen in nearly every direction; notice numerous of them in the distance in the photo above. (Click the photo and it will enlarge. Black Mountain is the one centered.) And so, hiking in our free time became a curious passion, and we enjoyed many excursions to their lofty, slightly cooler trail systems. Even in such an arid, desert environment, many of them had springs flowing all year at high elevation; the water was always a surprising delight to find, surrounded by an oasis of green and quickly disappearing into the sandy, granitic soil. We found ourselves musing upon the historical and natural drama that must have taken place at that spot over the years.

Florida Mountains, from Las Cruces, 60 miles distant
One of the most curious things about desert sky islands is that their upper habitat differs so markedly from their base that it can host plants or creatures typically found hundreds and hundreds of miles further north. Ascend some of them, and one can move from creosote and mesquite scrubland to grassland to pine forest and finally to conifer/aspen woodland all within a three-mile trek or less. Additionally, some sky islands can even have species completely unique to that range, maybe even found nowhere else on earth, just as happened in places like Australia, Madagascar and New Zealand, or other smaller isolated habitats like Hawai’i and the Galápagos. It’s what biologists call endemism or speciation. In this way, sky islands may more accurately be referred to as habitat islands.

Potrillo Mountains
Some are volcanic in origin, others the eroded remnant of earlier and vaster ranges. Some have produced minerals by ancient or modern mining efforts, and others have been void of the same. Some were used as hideaways for native tribes seeking refuge or hideouts for desperados escaping capture, others have hardly had foot stepped on them in their history. Or at least not human foot. One just northwest of Las Cruces contains one of the largest discoveries of in situ prehistoric animal tracks in the world, a place called Prehistoric Trackways National Monument, in process itself of being incorporated into the newly established Organ Mountains -Desert Peaks National Monument.

Here’s an effect I think is quite cool, though, and I remember first seeing it while traveling Interstate 80 in Utah between San Francisco and Chicago. If you’re hiking or driving in the flat desert, and your weather and perspective are such that heat mirages appear between you and the sky island, the range seems to float above ground as in some Tolkien fantasy.

Over our time serving the Las Cruces church, I had occasion to write several blogposts on experiences hiking in sky island ranges, among them June 14 2014 and March 27 2015; if you’d like, click on the bolded dates to take you to a couple of them. (In case you’ve forgotten or never knew, everything bolded in these paragraphs and appearing in blue font is a link to another place of possible interest.) The photo to the right is from the top of the sky island nearest Las Cruces, Picacho Peak, just west of town; in the photo, the range in the distance is the Organ Mountains, lovely, and the city of Las Cruces lies in the Rio Grande Valley between.

~~ RGM, November 5, 2015