By BRUCE YAEGER
Adapted from his sermon, given at Covenant Church, Houston, TX, August 2015
The year was 1867. In Indianapolis, a twenty-nineyear-old man was working at a lathe in a carriage factory. On this particular day, an unforeseen incident would change the course of his life. The file he held in his hand against a lathe slipped, piercing his right eye. That eye went blind and, out of sympathetic nervous shock, the other one as well, leaving him totally blind. For a month, he was forced to lie in a darkened room, waiting, hoping, and asking himself what was most important in his life. After a month, when he had recovered his eyesight, he knew that he had to set out on a new course, following his deepest desire –– to be an explorer of the natural world.
That man was John Muir. No other individual can be given more credit than John Muir for the creation of the system of national parks the U. S. is blessed with today. Muir accomplished that primarily through his career as an eloquent nature-writer. In his day, Muir’s having extensively read the Bible as a child lent him cadences and imagery for his nature-writing because his audience was heavily steeped in the Bible. Today, Muir is frequently quoted in environmental writings and on colorful scenic calendars. One often repeated quotation is his statement: “Earth has no sorrow that earth cannot heal.” Spiritually and theologically, that statement leads us into complexities that are worth exploring: Does the earth heal? And if so, how? For anyone who had recently been reading the Gospel of John, Muir’s phrase about the earth healing might bring to mind John’s story about Jesus healing a blind man. As that narrative goes, Jesus “spat on the ground and made mud with the saliva and spread the mud on the man’s eyes.” (John 9:6, NRSV). I remember as a child being shocked upon first hearing that part of the narrative. Having grown up in a church-attending family, I was accustomed to hearing stories about Jesus compassionately healing people, but this story was different. Even though Jesus then tells the man to go wash his eyes with water from a pool, I was still shocked. I thought Jesus should be smarter than to put such an unsanitary substance as saliva mixed with dirt in a person’s eyes. Even as a child, I had learned not to touch my eyes when my hands were dirty!
Having now more knowledge about symbols in the culture the Bible comes from, I know that the earth –– the ground –– was associated with the source of existence. This association is most conspicuous in the creation account we call the “Adam and Eve story,” which states: “God formed man from the dust of the ground.” (Gen. 2:7, NRSV.).
There is, therefore, in John’s story of the blind man, the suggestion that Jesus’ healing with a substance from the earth is also a creative act –– giving new life to the blind man! And, indeed, this previously blind man, once healed, does turn out to be quite a lively individual, engaging in debate with skeptics about what actually occurred. But should I be at all surprised by the man’s confidence? Being able to see allows any person to move about more freely, with greater vigor than if that person were blind.
More than Substances from the Earth
The real question at hand is whether there is any way that the earth heals other than through medicines made from the earth’s minerals and any way other than through a mixture of spit and dirt molded by the hand of Jesus. That is because John Muir’s frequently quoted statement was not about physical healing as such, but about other challenges of our earthly life. Muir said that “Earth has no sorrow that earth cannot heal.” His declaration was not merely that the earth can heal but that it can heal our sorrows –– all of them! This is a greater challenge. For after all, even being physically well does not protect us from sorrow. And sometimes sorrow can become a greater burden than physical illness.
When my sister and I were growing up, we had one cousin who was our favorite, the one we most enjoyed being around. Harry was ever congenial. For example, he patiently endured our requests to tell us what time it was so that we could see him open the hinged glass cover of his wristwatch to feel with his finger the watch’s hands and Braille numbers. That was the way he told the time because he had been blind since birth.
Even though I was only of elementary-school age, I was able to discern that our cousin Harry, although blind, was not weighed down by sorrow in the way his mother, our aunt was. She was more anxious than her eternally relaxed son, understandably, because she had more to worry about in taking care of him.
With time, however, I was able to perceive that there was more that burdened my aunt than anxiety about the tasks that needed to be tended to. I came to see how her life was rimmed with a lingering sorrow, the sorrow that Harry had been born blind. Could it have been because of an illness she had when she was pregnant? Was there something she could have done to have prevented that illness, and thus prevented her son from living a life as a sightless person? Although such questions did not appear to have ever entered Harry’s mind, they were never left behind by our aunt. Nothing would entirely wash away the burden of her might-have-beens.
The question at hand, however, is: Can the earth be the thing that lifts such sorrows? And if so, how?
Those are not the questions our newspapers, magazines, and TV most often present to us today. Instead, they continue to ask the opposite question. That is, they ask not whether the Earth can heal us but whether we can heal the Earth. We continue to be presented with summaries of the Earth’s ailments, from pollution to deforestation to global climate change. All those issues do need our continuing attention and involvement. But how can we be expected to heal the sorrows of the Earth –– this vast planet –– when we have so many sorrows of our own? Even without adding such environmental problems to our list of tasks, we have problems when we focus merely on human society: alcoholism, prison overcrowding, political reform, all the way to war. That list of social ills alone seems endless.
So, how can the Earth, so burdened itself, provide anything to relieve our burdens, to relieve our sorrows, so that we might have more strength to help heal it?
John Muir did often experience how his own spirit could be healed when he immersed himself in Nature. One of those occasions occurred during an unsettled time in his life, when he had been traveling on foot for months across part of Canada, meeting very few people. One day, after wading for hours through a swamp, exhausted and discouraged, he suddenly came upon, as he described it, “the rarest and most beautiful of the flowering plants... a Calypso borealis.” The beauty of that purple orchid broke in upon him so unexpectedly that he sat down beside it and wept, relieving a greater burden than just that one day’s exhaustion.
Nature can thus have curative powers for our spirits. Today, there are many people who have also experienced how turning their attention to something in Nature can be restorative, even healing. And it doesn‚‘t require wandering for days in the wilderness or finding a beautiful flower standing out strikingly from its wilderness background. Sometimes it comes in more ordinary settings.
An Earthly Spirituality
In the Gospel of John, Jesus is a vehicle for the power of God. Therefore, we might expand the question at hand and ask: If God is seen as the ultimate source of relief, does God heal our sorrows through our turning our attention to the earth? And if so, how?
Introducing the word “God” forces us to engage with the question on a deeper level. With the word “God” inserted, we are forced to ask if there is more to moments such as Muir’s Calypso-orchid moment than just the relief of seeing something pretty. The witty nineteenth-century British writer Oscar Wilde once remarked, “At twilight, nature is not without loveliness, though perhaps its chief use is to illustrate quotations from the poets.” Today in the U.S., we do not as frequently read books or magazines containing poetry, but we still might recognize such an employment of nature in a style of postcards that are appealing mostly because they are pretty. It thus seems that our question has become whether there can be healing-moments in Nature that come from something deeper than just a “pretty postcard” effect.
As intricate as our question has become, there is a Biblical precedent for it that leads us to a type of answer. It occurs in the climactic scene of the book of Job. The man Job has endured more causes of sorrow than any human being should ever have to endure: his farm destroyed, his children killed, and his health gone. As if to make matters worse, even though he is in no way the cause of his sufferings, his insensitive friends assume he is, and they tell him incessantly that bad things do not happen to good people. Job protests his innocence in a continuous lament until God appears. God, however, does not provide any explanation for Job’s sufferings. Instead –– of all things –– God has Job contemplate different animals in the world about him. And even more puzzling, these animals are hardly warm and fuzzy, nor are they living “pretty-postcard” lives. Yet, a quietness comes upon Job, a kind of inner peace that we have never seen in him before.
Once when I was teaching a class that drew upon that part of the Job story, I raised the question of why Job should now be calmed. I will never forget the answer one woman gave amid the silence of the rest of the class; she said, “Sometimes it is comforting not to be at the center of things.” And indeed, up to that point, Job had been heavily concentrated upon himself (understandably, given the immensity of his sufferings). But an inner shift occurred as he was able to let that burden go –– at the same moment in which he felt himself more a part of this all-surrounding Earth.
To borrow a phrase from the poet Rainer Maria Rilke’s Sonnets to Orpheus #4, it seems as if Job has returned his heaviness to the Earth. Rilke wrote:
Don’t be afraid to suffer; return that heaviness to the earth’s own weight.
Rilke’s poem closes with a contrasting image –– a reference to “the winds.” The lightness of those winds suggests the breeze that seems to blow through Job, cooling his anger, as he sets down his burdened heart. Indeed, in the Bible, the restoring arrival of God’s Spirit is sometimes depicted as being like the refreshing breeze that arrives on a hot day.
What the Earth Knows
In the first few centuries of Christianity, the Church struggled with the question of who this person Jesus was. The Church fought off one idea after another that maintained that Jesus was not a real human being. It is for this reason that the Apostles’ Creed emphasized aspects of Jesus’ life that reveal his physical humanness, for example, that he “was conceived... born... crucified, dead, and buried.” The commanding basis for emphasizing that Jesus was really human was Christians’ experiencing how deeply Jesus spoke to and touched their earthly struggles and sorrows. In the fourth-century Nicene Creed, in expressing its belief that God’s fullness was present in Jesus, the Church even resorted to a paradox rather than abandon its conviction that Jesus was really a human.
In those early centuries, the Church also fought off the idea (mostly from forms of Gnosticism) that this earthly world was so imperfect that it could not be a manifestation of the same Divine Power that was present in Jesus. It was for that reason that the Church insisted on keeping as part of its scriptures the Hebrew Bible (the Christian Old Testament), with its creation account in which God declares this world “very good.” (Gen. 1:31, NRSV). More than that, as Martin Luther wrote:
If I believe in God’s Son and bear in mind that He became man, all creatures will appear a hundred times more beautiful to me than before. Then I will properly appreciate the sun, the moon, the stars, trees, apples, pears, as I reflect that he is Lord over and the center of all things. It is on this earthly ground, as we expand our awareness beyond our human sphere, that we see animals that, like ourselves, are finding their own paths for their lives and we find that we are not alone in struggle and sorrow; we also find that we can share and celebrate our discoveries and our joys.It is on this Earth, as we experience the cycles of seasons and discover the life-cycles of other species, that we develop a sense of belonging for our own lives as they grow and fade. And in the color, contrasts, shapes, sounds, and textures of Nature, we find the inspiration for our own creativity. And it is on this earthly ground that we find Jesus, kneeling down to scoop up a handful of dirt, ready to shape something new, ready to pour new life into one of God’s earthly creatures.
January 2019 Highlights
We begin in good Danish tradition with a Grundtvig hymn, translated by Edward Broadbridge, that welcomes the new year. Then Hanna Broadbridge gives us hope for the new year, reminding us of the power of community, which we can all help build.
Bruce Yeager, a new contributor, reflects on the power of the Earth to heal. Without explicitly invoking Grundtvig, he points to the Grundtvigian principle of the need to stay close to nature. Bruce is the author of the blog Wisdom in Leaves: At the Nexus of Nature and Spirituality and Reading at wisdominleaves.blogspot.com. He is also the author of the book Wrestling Brothers: Rethinking Religion-Science Relationships.
Bridget (Mrs. A.L). Jensen has sponsored this issue so my commemoration of the 125th anniversary of Danevang, TX, Al’s hometown, is fitting. Though originally intended for the Christmas issue, my article works here, as it views Christian colonizing efforts through a perhaps challenging historical lens, which then leads into Olaf Christensen’s comparison of two men’s involvement in the ambitious undertakings of Denmark’s King Christian IV. One of these men served in the expedition led by Jens Munk to find the Northwest Passage. The Jens Munk 400th Anniversary Steering Committee has organized a Churchill Adventure to visit the expedition’s wintering site. The trip schedule describes opportunities to listen to and learn from Indigenous people and to offer oneself to the awesomeness of the natural world.
I am so appreciative of the support from former editor, Joy Ibsen, our experienced Business Manager, Wanda Clark, and the incredibly helpful and talented people at Kettle River Grafix who print and mail Church and Life. I am very relieved by the smooth transition from outgoing webmaster Don Lenef and his son David to incoming webmaster, Dakota Basten of Grand View University. Finally, I thank the board of the Danish Interest Conference for allowing me this opportunity to step into the shoes of my father’s uncle, Michael Mikkelsen, who was the third editor of Kirke og Folk.
Now let us welcome the new year and whatever comes with faith in the One who welcomes us to share in the Living Word.
Make Your Plans
The Danish Lutheran Church and Cultural Center.
Yorba Linda, CA - www.danishchurchsocal.com
January 27, the Frikadelle Contest and Annual General Meeting will follow the 11 a.m. Sunday worship.
February 1, Chinese Lunar New Year Tea, 11 a.m.-2 p.m., requires $25 per person prepaid reservations by January 30. Contact Gitte Olsen (714) 376-3595.
Solvang Folk School Talks, February 21-23, at Bethania Lutheran Church, Solvang, CA, will feature hosts of The Liturgists podcast, which looks at essential topics through the lenses of art, faith, and science and has helped millions start the journey to growth and recovery following spiritual estrangement. Register at www.bethanialutheran.net/education/
Churchill Adventure, Churchill, Canada, July 21-23 Registration is due by March 21. Contact Grant Chem at firstname.lastname@example.org
Rate $20 per year (U.S.A.) $35 for Canada and $60 for Denmark (hard copies). Electronic subscriptions available to Canada and Europe for $20. Subscription payments, gifts, and memorials should be sent to the Business Manager or made through the website.
Though our website address has not changed, it has a new look! Many thanks go to Dakota Basten at Grand View University for designing, updating, and maintaining our presence on the internet. The website allows you to see photos and artwork in color, lets people get a taste of what we publish, is a portal to renew subscriptions and send monetary gifts, and has a link to the editor’s email to send submissions, which are due by the 20th of the month prior to publication.
You can subscribe, renew subscriptions and/or make gifts on line. Simply go to our website and click on Subscriptions/Gifts. To visit the Church and Life archives at Grand View University library, go to the link, http://archives.grandview.edu.
By ROBERT S. HANSEN
I had thought I would begin this essay with a quoted verse from a gospel hymn just as my brother Erik started his story of Danevang, Texas. I soon decided that gospel music fits well in a story of Texas, but not so much in a story of Montana. Therefore, I will begin with a John Denver tune of a young Montana mother imploring Montana to give her newborn a home. The verse goes on:
“Give him a fire in his heart,
Give him a light in his eyes,
Give him the wild wind for a brother
And the wild Montana skies.”
I also realize this account of a trip to Dagmar, MT actually began at Danebod Family Camp in Tyler, MN where Cathy and I visited our granddaughter from Texas during her first-time attending camp.
We drove northwest from Tyler and hit US highway 75 where it passes Diamond Lake Lutheran Church, another AELC church I‘m sure many readers are familiar with. We continued north into the flatness of the Red River Valley. The main crops now changed from corn and beans to sugar beets, wheat and potatoes.
For many years I have studied maps as a hobby and saw this possibility of driving as a “shunpiker” (one who shuns driving the turnpikes and freeways) all the way across North Dakota on a series of state highways and county roads, some of which are gravel-surfaced, and running just two to seven or eight miles south of the Canadian border. The idea of driving across North Dakota inspired the trip to Dagmar because when you make that state crossing and eventually come out at the Montana border, you are just a few miles from Dagmar. We could not help, then, making the visit there the main purpose of the trip. That and my memories of attending Y.P.S. camp at Luck, WI two summers during the early 1960’s. I was impressed that the Dagmar congregations always sent one or two carloads of kids to camp at West Denmark. Just getting there was no small endeavor.
Heading west from the far northwest corner of Minnesota, traveling roughly 1/3 of the way across North Dakota, one comes upon the International Peace Garden. The garden was created in 1932 as a formal garden on the U.S. and Canada border where peace between nations could be celebrated. The conservatory and gardens boast more than 80,000 different species of annuals and flowering perennials highlighted throughout the garden which serves as an informal entrance to the Turtle Mountains. This region of the state, was to me, the biggest surprise of the entire trip. It comprises an area roughly 20 miles north to south by 40 miles east to west and rises to an elevation of 2,000 feet above sea level and about 1,000 feet above the prairie floor. I had never considered that we would find two downhill ski resorts in North Dakota drawing skiers from Fargo and Bismarck, ND to Winnipeg, Manitoba.
Descending quickly back to the flat prairie one re-enters the vast farm country settled mostly by Norwegian immigrants. The connection is easily made by the always visible steeples of many now abandoned Lutheran churches. One village named simply Vang, ND was home to one of these churches. As we know from our own communities of Solvang, CA and Danevang, TX, the word Vang means field in Danish and Norwegian. But in this case, it’s a bit of a misnomer. It should have been plural because as far as the eye can see were hundreds of fields of canola, flax and wheat.
We took one short diversion to the south about 20 miles from our Canadian border route to visit the town of Kenmare, ND. Kenmare is located 80-90 miles east of Dagmar, MT and was home to a considerable number of Danish immigrants from the ULC synod. The town was originally named Lignite which is a type of coal that was discovered and mined from underground mines. The coal was shipped on barges down Des Lacs Lake to the Missouri River and points east. Making the connection to the present-day Bakken shale oil field is easy as we know that coal is simply crude oil in solid form. Another interesting feature of Kenmare has the business district designed around a town square, a feature not common in the Midwest but more prolific in southern and western towns. But maybe one must consider this an old west town as the founder of the community, Augustines Rouses, served as postmaster and later was appointed sheriff. On his second day in that capacity, he was killed in a gun fight.
In the center of the square stands the Danish Mill. This mill was originally built in 1902 by a Danish homesteader about 11 miles north of town. It was used by area farmers for grinding grain into livestock feed and flour. It could produce about 200 sacks of flour a day. In 1959 the mill was disassembled and moved to the village square and given a facelift in 1996. On January 13, 2019 the Danish Mill caught fire just after 6:00 AM. The fire, ruled arson, started inside and caused considerable damage to both interior and exterior. The fire struck a nerve in the community and through a donation fund was completely restored by June 2019, shortly before our visit.
Returning to our border route, we passed through the village of Flaxton, ND approximately 75 miles from the Montana border. This town is worth mentioning because the ULC Danish Church there was served by Pastor Henrik Plambeck in the early years of the 20th century. Plambeck, a young pastor just out of Grand View seminary first saw the need for founding a new Danish Evangelical Lutheran settlement farther west. Circumstances prevented him from carrying out his plan but his good friend, E. F. Madsen was very inspired by his idea and went forward with the work and made the colony at Dagmar a reality according to “Century of Memories, Dagmar, Montana 1906-2006.” There was also much help from the “Dansk Folkesamfund” (Danish People’s Society) and the publication “Dannevirke.”
So now we have crossed North Dakota and reached our destination of Dagmar, MT. One might ask the next logical question: What did you find there? First, I’m glad to report that the village itself is alive and hanging on by a thread. There is a newly remodeled and reopened C. J’s Country Store which stocks a few groceries and cooking staples. It also serves burgers and short order meals in a pleasantly decorated and clean restaurant. I asked the owner if she was a Dagmar native? “No, we moved here from Oregon. My husband got a job and works in Plentywood and we wanted to live in the country, so we ended up near Dagmar. We thought this store, which was closed when we came here, might be a business opportunity and we could provide some needed grocery items to area residents.” Next door stands a modern concrete block constructed Post Office which has operated since 1907. There are also a couple of trucking company garages, a cellular phone tower and maybe up to a dozen residences, some of which were obviously unlived in. The former Hiawatha Elementary School is still standing. It had been remodeled into a family home but now stands empty. However, it is still recognizable with the bell tower, playground swing, slide and basketball/tennis court. Most area children attended grade school there and transferred to nearby Antelope for their high school education.
I am most pleased to report that what does still thrive are the two beautiful churches, Nathaneal Lutheran established in 1907, located about two miles west of town, and Volmer Lutheran established in 1911 and located about eight to nine miles southeast of town. In both cases, the church buildings were built several years after the congregations were established. When planning this trip, I had thought the reason there were two churches just a few miles apart must have had something to do with the split between the Grundtvigian-leaning Danes and the Inner Mission-leaning Danes. I was happy to hear from a former Dagmar resident that was not the case. Rather, it had to do with the large number of Danes from already established communities further east that resettled at Dagmar. They were drawn by the promise of homesteading 160 acres of good farming land. Both congregations were Grundtvigian and were served as a two-point parish by one minister. They both feature beautiful sanctuary interiors with pews and altar furnishings carved by Jess Smidt of Luck, WI and Thorvaldsen’s Christ statues as the altar focal point.
Nathaneal Lutheran also built an attached gym hall as did many other Danish congregations. The Viking Gym Team performed gymnastic exhibitions at Dagmar and surrounding communities. Their 1912 flag hangs in Nathaneal Church and is inscribed with their Danish motto which translates as “A healthy soul in a healthy body.” How Grundtvigian is that? Both church basements served as parish halls and featured well equipped kitchens and ample space for socializing and Sunday school classrooms.
The cemeteries at both churches are filled with graves and tombstones bearing very familiar names that could have been in any Danish community. The inscribed dates of birth and death attest to how difficult life for the pioneers must have been in that era. Many people were born in Denmark or other places in the U.S. and perished at a young age from a myriad of causes within a few years of arriving at Dagmar. As was common everywhere in that time period, there were many graves of children.
In conclusion, I would quote E.F. Madsen in his 1906 appeal for settlers and his description of the reason for founding a Danish colony here:
“The colony is planned for Danish young people and those Danes with small means who cannot carry large debts, but who would like to get out of the claws of the employers and away from the city‚‘s clamor and discord. Therefore, we can say about this colony ‘the first in our history where land is distributed free’ as we say about Queen Dagmar:
“She came with burden,
She came with peace,
She came, the small farmer to comfort.”
Photos by Cathy Mahowald