This was originally published on a previous blog site in 2016. I have updated and expanded on the original.
I sing "How Great Thou Art" on average once a week for most funerals. I have sung it hundreds of times in the years I've been active as a pastoral musician, and only in the past few months have I been really able to connect to this song on a personal level and pray it with every time I sing it. So please, indulge my musings on this particular piece.
The connection comes through the poetic text by Stuart K. Hine
You see, this text hits me immediately for a good reason. I can place myself inside of the words and phrases because I've lived some of them, and I will live the rest of them.
Let me explain:
O Lord my God, when I in awesome wonder Consider all the worlds Thy hands have made, I see the stars, I hear the rolling thunder, Thy power throughout the universe displayed (refrain)
I grew up in the rural part of Stearn's county, Minnesota. About 5 miles south of the small city of Cold Spring. My parents built a house on 40 acres of woods in the 1970s, and it was the only place I called home for the first 22 years of my life.
At night, when it was clear skies, you could see the stars, I mean, you could really see the stars. The far arms of the Milky Way galaxy, the flickering lights from stars billions of light-years away and equally as old. Now, when I take my dog outside at night, I cannot see all the stars due to the city lights of Rochester, MN, which I now call home. But I gaze up, and from the few stars I am able to see, I often have the text of that first verse come rushing into my mind, and my memory flashes back to those clear nights in the country. The pure awesomeness of all this creation is beyond amazing.
When through the woods and forest glades I wander and hear the birds sing sweetly in the trees, When I look down from lofty mountain grandeur, and hear the brook and feel the gentle breeze. (Refrain)
The second verse pulls me right back to that hilltop home because the phraseology perfectly describes the environment that our property encompassed. Those 40 acres of woods were often a source of great joy as we would venture out to harvest dead trees for firewood. We would set up tree stands and deer hunt, turkey hunt, and observe the wildlife. Nothing puts me more at peace than the sound of wind through the leaves on the trees and the call of a cardinal or morning dove.
On a clear day, we could see the power plant in Becker, Mn, over 40 miles day-to-dayfrom our deck. Our house was situated on the second highest point in the county. We were the overseers of the entire Grand Lake area below Tower Hill, watching the clouds move, seeing the activities in the farm fields and watching for wildlife. But on the edge of our property to the south, a small creek ran through the woods. It's not a rushing body of water by any means, and we couldn't observe it directly from the house, but the creek seemed magical. A place just beyond perception from where our day to day life took place. Those feelings are something I haven't experienced since we sold that place.
And when I think that God his Son not sparing, Sent Him to die, I scare can take it in. That on the cross, my burden gladly bearing, he bled and died to take a way my sin! (refrain)
The third verse has only come into meaning after I reflect on my career/ vocation in Music Ministry. The overwhelming majority of my talent has been used for worship. Only at times do I really fully comprehend the significance of Christ's sacrifice. It's not an ever-present thing I carry around because, well, I'm human. I know His death leads to the salvation of all, and that salvation is what I should hold most dear. After a lifetime of Catholic Catechesis (teaching and formation) and I still struggle with the notion that any father would send his child to die. But in essence, it's a self sacrifice, for Christ IS God in human form... This is the kind of stuff that will make your brain hurt after a while, so you trust that the death of Jesus on the cross is what will save you from the sins you commit as a human. You and I can't fully comprehend this mystery, therefore a mystery it shall remain.
When Christ shall come with shout of acclamation and take me home, what joy shall fill my heart! Then I shall bow in humble adoration and there proclaim, my God how great thou art! (refrain)
I'm not a big adorer of the Blessed Sacrament. Sitting in front of the Tabernacle in prayer or devotion is difficult. I'm an anxious person. I don't like to sit still for long and know I should quiet myself and listen to the silence. Maybe then my heart might hear the whispered voice of God more clearly, and I can choose to follow it more closely. Any way you cut it, I struggle with reverence. I struggle to think that if Jesus were here with me, would I fall on my knees? The Apostles didn't, Mary and Joseph didn't, I'm guessing the majority of Jesus' disciples who were his peers didn't, yet I think when the end of my life comes, and I experience the Glory of being welcomed into the company of Jesus, no greater joy can be described. Amen? So maybe my entire life can be offered as that great show of reverence? Maybe that will be my bow of humble adoration?
In 2022, my Dad was dying from dementia and after he entered hospice, he stabilized but was not long for this world. Before I left his side, I sang the first and last verse of this song at his bedside because my grandmother loved it. My dad would certainly love hearing it. I whispered in his ear, "If my brothers and your parents come to you before I get back, it's ok. Go with them! I love you" He died at 5:30 on a Sunday Morning, I was at peace knowing these were the last things I said to him.
Then Sings my soul, my Savior God, to Thee; How great Thou art, how great Thou art! Then Sings my soul, my Savior God To Thee; How great Thou art, How Great thou art.
The verse always returns to the refrain, and my soul is most complete in the act of singing. My heart is full when music connects us here on earth to the divine beyond. I think that maybe I experience Communion in that way. Communion with God, my brothers and sisters in faith, and the world at large because this great gift of music dwells within my spirit, allowing me to connect to anyone and everyone. This is where a favorite phrase comes to mind, "God is good. All the Time" Or "How Great Thou Art."
When I die someday (hopefully 70+ years from now) I hope you who are still around to experience the liturgy that will honor my life and loved ones might recall this little post on the text of an old hymn. Just make sure you don't milk that last phrase of the refrain until the very last time through, otherwise, you're going to exhaust a beautiful musical device.