Sightings in Christian Music

by Glen Wiberg

Through my friendship with Dr. Bernhard Erling, former professor of Gustavus Adolphus in St Peter, Minnesota and the University of Minnesota, I was invited to be a presenter at “Gathering 2004” of the Augustana Heritage Association meeting in St Peter. My subject was the Swedish hymnody shared by the Augustana Lutheran Synod and the Covenant. Dr. Philip Anderson of North Park Seminary presented on our common history as Augustana Lutheran and Covenant at the Association’s meeting in Lindsborg, Kansas two years ago.

The Augustana Synod was organized in 1860 as the Scandinavian Augustana Evangelical Lutheran Synod. It had a strong Pietistic strain as it arose from the same movement in Sweden that gave rise to Mission Covenant Church organized in 1885. In 1962, Augustana joined with other Lutheran bodies to form the LCA—the Lutheran Church of America. I was fortunate to be at the final service of the Augustana Church held in Detroit Michigan. My brother-in-law was ordained and the following day I witnessed the merger.

The Augustana Historical Association meets every two years. More than 1200 Lutherans from all over the country came to “Gathering 2004” in St Peter to remember and to celebrate the history, liturgy, and music of Augustana as an empowerment for mission and service. The Augustana heritage is a gift to the larger Lutheran community to which its members belong.

The purpose of my session at Gustavus, using commentary and singing, was to explore the themes in our common Scandinavian hymnody in the conviction that they can be more than cherished icons of our immigrant past. The themes of the experience of Swedish immigrants are common to all immigrants and they are relevant for learning how to host recent strangers from other countries in this new land.

I selected hymns with themes of friendship with Jesus, the crucified and living One. These hymns always include the longing to come closer to Jesus as our brother, friend, and Lord. There are also the themes of fellowship using metaphors taken from the family in which God is both mother and father. There are home images that reflect intimacy and personal attachment to Christ. In the themes of pilgrimage in our music one feels a certain wistful longing and loneliness for a better place. In our Swedish immigrant hymns most loved by the immigrants these themes are found in the songs of two homelands (Sweden and heaven). I used the following hymns to illustrate the themes:

I began my presentation with tributes to two hymnologists who have been very important in the preservation of our Scandinavian hymnody. The first, Augustana pastor, Dr. E. E. Ryden, is the author of The Story of Christian Hymnody. Ryden’s book is the only definitive study in English I know that deals with Scandinavian hymnody. Ryden also wrote several hymn texts that have appeared in Covenant hymnals. The other hymnologist I paid tribute to was the late J.. Irving Erickson, author of Twice Born Hymns and the excellent handbook on The Covenant Hymnal (1963). [J. Irving Erickson wrote the column “Where We Got Our Hymns” for Pietisten in the 1990s. Ed.]

J. Irving was instrumental in the role the Covenant Church has had in preserving the music of our Swedish heritage, something other churches of Swedish origin have not done. He did this through his service on two hymnal commissions. Each hymnal has more than 30 English translations of Swedish hymns.

In re-visiting a few of the songs of our immigrant forebears, the question remains: What might our Lutheran/Covenant pietistic tradition mean today? This brings us back to the themes of friendship, fellowship in the family of God, and pilgrimage. They are more than cherished icons of our immigrant past, they are relevant in relating to the recent strangers in our land and relevant to 21st-Century humans who feel like aliens.

Martin Buber in Tales of the Hasidim records comments from Rabbi Barukh:

He whom life drives into exile and who comes to a land alien to him, has nothing in common with the people there, and not a soul he can talk to. But if a second stranger appears, even though he may come from quite a different place, the two can confide in each other and live together henceforth, and cherish each other. Had they both not been strangers, they would never had known such close companionship.

Today, in long stretches many of us feel as if we are living in a different land, a changing society and culture. As sojourners on the earth bound for another city, we are the aliens, misplaced and lost because the familiar landmarks of home have been shifting and changing, some even removed. In short, we are becoming pilgrims like our immigrant mothers and fathers. We are the second strangers.

But this is also our great opportunity. Loosed from bondage to the comfortable, familiar, and domesticated, we as church can discover a new role as second strangers. We can become hosts to new immigrants who are new and strange to the church. As bearer of the Gospel, the church is forever confronted with the new. In the words of the Rabbi, “had they both not been strangers”—think of what both would have missed. We have a language in our hymnody of God’s friendship, family, and pilgrimage that still speaks to the heart. There will be new music, too, that won’t sound the same, the rhythm and beat will be different and jarring to some, but the story of pilgrimage and God’s friendship “with brethren partaking the bread of our Lord” will be the same.

In the joyful gathering of 2004 at Gustavus with vigorous singing, lively liturgy, and preaching in the spirit of Augustana, both Jane and I felt like we were coming home.