By Steven Norris
“Then sings my soul, my Savior God to Thee / How great Thou art, how great Thou art.” Twice this week, I’ve sung this song. The first time was with a group of mourners — voices echoing off the marble walls of the mausoleum at Oak Hill Cemetery — as we memorialized a long-time member of this community.
The second time was at the bedside of friend nearing the end of his earthly pilgrimage. This time, there was no choir. It was just me, singing in a raspy and broken voice to remind myself (and my friend) of what was just ahead for him.
That particular hymn got its start in 1885 with 26-year-old Swedish minister, Carl Boberg. As the story goes, Boberg was visiting a beautiful country estate on the southeast coast of Sweden when he was caught in a severe and violent thunderstorm. In the wake of the awe-inspiring and violent tumult, came a “clear and brilliant sun,” followed by the beautiful song of the birds in the nearby trees. Boberg felt as though God were revealing a part of God’s self to this young minister there in the countryside, so he fell to his knees in humble adoration and praise of God.
He recorded this moment of adoration and praise in a nine-stanza poem that (if literally translated) began with these words: “When I the world consider / Which Thou hast made by Thine almighty Word / And how the webb of life Thou wisdom guideth / And creation feedeth at Thy board. / Then doth my soul burst forth in song of praise / Oh, great God, Oh, great God!”
He published the poem and essentially forgot about it until he was at a religious meeting a few years later and heard his poem being sung to the tune of an old Swedish melody. Over a hundred years later, the hymn has been translated into dozens of languages and has been sung millions of times across the globe.
Two things strike me about this hymn: (1) The importance of awe — a word we do not use frequently, though we use its close relative, “awesome,” almost to the point of meaninglessness. “Those tacos…that song…that new car…is awesome.” Is it really? Does it make you pause and completely take your breath away? It seems to me that awe is something more substantive — standing in speechless wonder before the beauty of a sunset, the power of a storm, or before the reality of life and death.
(2) The importance of testimony and sharing your faith. I am amazed at the path this poem took in coming to us. I am certain that he had no idea the impact this act of praise would have on the world. Yet, he was giving testimony to what he saw, heard, and felt: the overwhelming grandeur of God in that Swedish countryside.
So, the next time you see a rainbow, sunset, storm, or stand upon the threshold of life and death, I encourage you to pause if only for a moment. Pause in awe of life. Pause to tell the story — your story, our story, God’s story — once again.