Sightings in Christian Music

by David Bjorlin

In the fall semester of my final year at North Park Theological Seminary (2010), Professor Phil Anderson asked if I would play saxophone on a couple hymns for a hymn festival that was to end a day of lectures honoring the joint heritage of the Augustana Synod and the Covenant Church. I agreed, partly because I was excited by the new discovery of the heritage hymns during my time in seminary, and partly because it never hurts to do a professor a favor!

If my memory serves me correctly, I played introductions to two songs—“O Day Full of Grace” and Nils Frykman’s “I Have a Friend Who Loveth Me” – listened to reflections from Scandinavian hymnody expert Gracia Grindal, and sang with the strong accompaniment of Royce Eckhardt on organ and piano. What I remember most from that night was Glen. I had heard of Glen Wiberg from the various worship resources he helped produce. I remember being struck that night by the care he took with words, the pastoral presence he inhabited as he prayed, and the obvious joy he felt as he helped lead the festivities.

A few days later, I felt compelled to write him a letter. In it, I reflected on the final stanza of Frykman’s “I Have a Friend Who Loveth Me”:

O come and join us in our song,
This friend to you would now belong;
Though far from what you’d like to be,
His grace sufficient is for thee.

I told him how powerful I found the final two lines in my own personal journey – far from the follower of Christ I’d like to be yet overcome by his grace. Incidentally, I still think there are few stanzas that better encapsulate the pietist message: open invitation to the song of faith, an awareness of one’s own flaws, but a greater assurance of the grace of Jesus Christ who no longer calls us servants but friends.

He wrote a gracious reply and invited me to stop by his house the next time I was in Minneapolis – an offer I took him up on several months later. Jane and Glen warmly welcomed me (and Phil) to their home. Over pizza we talked of Covenant history, hymnody, their own personal history as a pastor’s family during some of the most tumultuous times in U.S. history, and the future of our denomination. I left that night knowing that it was Glen and Jane’s pietism – gracious, inclusive, deeply-felt and deeply-thought – that I wanted to model my own ministry after.

I am both humbled and honored to take up the mantle of “Sightings in Christian Music,” from Glen and, before him, J. Irving Erickson. I’m sure my perspective and particular interests will be different, but I also hope that I can honor the tradition they have handed down with the same love and care they have shown.

There will be others who knew Glen better that I am sure will give the appropriate eulogies of his life and ministry, but since this column celebrates church music, there seems to be no better way to end than with the words Glen translated in the final stanza of “O How Blest to Be a Pilgrim” (The Covenant Hymnal, #758):

O how blest to be a pilgrim,
guided by the Father’s hand;
free at last from ev’ry burden
we shall enter Canaan’s land.

Songs of vict’ry there shall greet us,
like the thund’ring of a mighty flood.
Endless praises be to Jesus,
who redeemed us by his blood!

May he join that thundering song of victory that greets him, and may we give thanks for the life and witness of Glen Wiberg.