Sightings in Christian Music

by Glen Wiberg

The following hymn has been in every Covenant hymnal since the first official hymnal of the Covenant in Swedish, Sions Basun. J. Irving Erickson in Sing It Again says it is perhaps Sweden’s greatest hymn about worship. It was the “Opening Hymn, 518” at the Covenant Founders’ Day Service on February 22nd, 2009 at First Covenant Church of St. Paul.

What joy there is in coming to God’s own courts so fair
where faithful souls are blooming like lilies in his care.
They raise their chalices tender for heav’ns refreshing dew,
’mid blessings God doth render they life and strength renew. (repeat)

How beautiful the union of souls redeemed and free,
who hold with God communion in faith and purity!
While songs of praise are filling their sacred place of rest,
who then can be unwilling to join their circle blest? (repeat)

Come, see the Lord’s salvation and taste his love sincere,
come pray without cessation, watch with his people here.
Outside the world makes merry, unhappy ’mid its toys,
but in God’s sanctuary the soul find heav’nly joys. (repeat)

May ne’er my footsteps falter tow’rd night away from day,
my light shines from God’s altar, my sun I’ll seek alway.
Here in his presence glorious it is so good to be—
let here my soul victorious its tabernacle see. (repeat)

Following the hymn and Invocation, I was invited to give my witness:

My witness to believing and belonging has already been given in the opening hymn. For me as a child in First Covenant Church, Kansas City, this became my favorite hymn from the new Brown Hymnal in the 30s. I still believe it was the best hymn in that book. The title in the Brown Hymnal was “In the Lord’s Courts.” That’s the place to which we have come this evening as we have sung: “Here in his presence glorious it is so good to be.”

At the age of five I did not grasp all the poetic images of the hymn, but over the years of singing, these words have become my personal language of faith. But even at five the words sounded friendly-light, joy, sun, beautiful, lilies, refreshing dew, taste, love, life, strength, blessings, his care.

Surrounded by a community who knew my name, who loved me, who believed that one day I would become a preacher, the friendly images such as “blooming like lilies” became names and faces. There was Grandma Westerdahl in whose ample lap I would often fall asleep during the evening service. Or Gabby Warren, the proud Norwegian, who always stood at the church door giving me the same welcome he gave adults. Or old Emil Soderstrom, the tailor, who always had Swedish mints in his pocket for children. (Though I confess that when I saw him take out his false teeth during the sermon I had second thoughts about the polka grisar.)

Still in childhood but now learning to read, I sang the lines of the hymn for myself. “How beautiful the union of souls redeemed and free who hold with God communion in faith and purity.” Again the words brought two more beautiful faces to mind. I loved to sit toward the front of the sanctuary beside my grandpa Wiberg, with his gold-rimmed glasses, the neatly trimmed beard, and the sweet smell of Lucky Tiger Hair Tonic in his sandy hair. As a Swedish immigrant, he silently formed each word of Pastor Larson’s sermon on his lips as if “to taste God’s love sincere.” Often I saw a tear fall down his cheek, and I knew Grandpa was one of “the redeemed and free.”

“Holding with God communion in faith and purity” the face I saw and named was the beautiful face of Otto Swanson speaking Bible words in that lovely accent and gentle voice when serving my folks the bread and wine of Holy Communion. Looking up into his face I felt that God must look like that. But then one day when I was nine years old, I heard my folks say that Otto Swanson was very sick. I went upstairs to my bedroom and prayed he would get well but he died. I went upstairs again and this time cried. Now Mr. Swanson was “holding with God communion.”

Toward my teens, in singing the hymn two things happened. I heard the gentle wooing of the Spirit in the invitation of the hymn: “Come, see the Lord’s salvation and taste his love sincere…watch with his people here.” Pastor Larson often spoke to us in Confirmation about the importance and urgency of answering God’s invitation and casting one’s lot by watching with his people here. To be a Christian one must choose. “Outside the world makes merry unhappy ’mid its toys, but in God’s sanctuary the soul finds heavenly joys.”

I began to understand that being “outside” could be unfriendly and threatening. But “inside,” among these funny little people of the Spirit there is “a circle blest,” a friendly, gentle people with names and faces, grandmas with ample laps, and grandpas who loved and tasted the word, older folks with Swedish mints for kids, and people who reminded me of God. All of these folks “in God’s sanctuary” on 42nd Street and Terrace, “the soul finds heavenly joys.” The choice seemed easy even if it seemed at later times often less than easy.

One day in my 14th year I said “Yes” to my baptism and my name was added to these people. Though sometimes with “faltering footsteps.” I am nevertheless thankful I never looked back except with gratitude for all I have been given. “Others have labored,” says Jesus, “and you have entered into their labor.” “Who then can be unwilling to join their circle blest?”

Glen Wiberg (d. 2017), was a Covenant pastor and writer. He was Chairperson of the Covenant Hymnal Commission.

See all articles by Glen Wiberg