I have a church that loveth me
This year marks fifty years of my connection with the Evangelical Covenant Church. I had never heard of the denomination until I took part in an ecumenical lay witness mission that was hosted at Newport Covenant Church in Bellevue, Washington in 1971. I was in my first year at Seattle Pacific University as a Biblical Literature major.
Five years later I entered Fuller Seminary. Unlike my roommates who were financially supported by their local Presbyterian churches back home, I was freelancing my way through school. I was not a member of a local church and so I was financing my education through savings. As part of my first year of studies, I was hoping to identify a denomination through which my gifts for ministry would be expressed.
My academic advisor recommended Pasadena Covenant Church. He said the preaching was outstanding and the creative worship was cutting edge. I visited one Sunday morning and liked what I heard and saw. Returning for the evening service, I arrived early. I picked up a red hymnal in the narthex and began to browse. Since I was not familiar with the history or the theology of the Covenant Church, I flipped through the hymnal. Having grown up in a Pentecostal pastor’s home, there were many titles I did not recognize.
And then, as I worked my way through the hymnal, my ten years of piano lessons served me well. I recognized a familiar melody and began to sound it out. Although the lyrics of the Scandinavian hymn had been translated into English, I recognized one of the songs my Norwegian grandparents taught me as a child.
My maternal grandfather was born in 1885 in Sauda, Norway. I would soon learn that was the same year the Covenant Church was born in America. From the time I was a child, I viewed Gunder Birkeland as a hero. Although severely crippled by infantile polio, this hunchbacked man with gnarled feet refused to let his handicap hold him back. Struggling to prove himself as a teenager in the logging camps of rural Washington State, my grandfather eventually started a successful construction company in downtown Seattle.
Papa Birkeland also modeled for me the core values of his faith. Without fail, Papa would open his big dog-eared Bible after supper and read aloud to my grandmother — and whoever else was seated around the kitchen table. In spite of his halting English, when Papa prayed I could tell he was talking to someone he knew well.
Papa encouraged my grandmother to pull out her guitar and sing gospel melodies from the old country while we grandkids sat on the floor in front of the couch. We didn’t understand the Norwegian lyrics she sang, but we easily made sense of the obvious praise of God those words conveyed.
And there on that autumn Sunday night in the empty narthex of the Pasadena Covenant Church, I began to sing aloud Nils Frykman’s hymn “I Have a Friend Who Loveth Me.” To be honest, I actually started singing the Norwegian words I’d learned twenty years before: “Jeg har en ven som elsker meg....” A warm feeling washed over me. I had never seen my Nana Birkeland’s song in print before. There was a visceral connection. Here in front of me was part of my spiritual heritage bound in a hymnbook published by a denomination I knew virtually nothing about. But that unexpected Godwink was all it took. It seemed as if I was among family. I felt like I’d come home.
Less than three years later, I was on staff at a Covenant church in Seattle writing original hymn lyrics in the style of Frykman to reinforce the message of my sermons. And now after forty years as a Covenant pastor, the heritage hymns of the Mission Friends continue to connect me to my faith journey.
Looking back, my Norwegian grandparents were Mission Friends without knowing it. The warmth of Bible reading, regular prayer and singing folk songs of the faith in my grandparents’ home shaped me. These Scandinavian Pentecostals unknowingly prepared the way for my adoption into a denominational family that I continue to embrace as a gift from God.