Highlights for April 2020
We can all use some lifting up during this time of pandemic, so we begin this issue with Grundtvig’s hymn “If you are feeling low, dear friends.” Our regular contributor Hanna Broadbridge relates Grundtvig’s state of mind in writing the hymn to the current place we find ourselves, sharing what Denmark has done in its confrontation with the coronavirus.
A large part of this issue involves reflections on Michigan history as a way to acknowledge that the state appears to be one of the growing COVID-19 “hot spots.” Using material from the “100 Years Ago” column in the Manistee News Advocate, I offer the first of a two-part series that looks at Manistee, Michigan during the first wave of the 1918 flu epidemic. Keeping in mind that next month will be about the second wave, it might be instructive for today, illustrating the tendency to celebrate prematurely.
Staying in Michigan and following on last month’s article about folk schools in the U.S., several pieces from archived materials shed light on the legacy of the Ashland Folk School. The first two are from Chester A. Graham and John E. Kirkpatrick who were instrumental in developing an American folk school at Ashland, followed by an article illustrating the role of the school and of the Danish singing tradition in the Michigan farm labor movement.
Michigan-born and former president of the Minnesota AFL-CIO Retiree Council Dan Mikel shares a review of the book Leadership in Turbulent Times.
A poem by Jim Djonte, shared at last summer’s Danebod Folk Meeting, speaks of compost, relevant not only for the fiftieth anniversary of Earth Day observances but also in the Easter season as a message of new life through death.
Tom Riley, father of Kirsten Riley whose death was reported last month, shares a touching poem about his daughter.
Finally, a word search challenge of places where Danes settled is thrown in for light distraction.
Danish Church Preservation
Research for the article about the 1918 flu epidemic in Manistee, Michigan yielded news of a current effort to rehabilitate Old Savior’s Lutheran Church in Manistee, regarded as the oldest Danish Lutheran Church in the United States. Besides a March 7, 2020 article posted by the Manistee News Advocate, an April 6, 2020 Facebook post by the National Conference of State Historic Preservation Officers speaks of this campaign. Now operating as the Old Kirke Museum, funds for a new roof and wheel-chair accessibility are being solicited. Donations for this effort are to be sent to the Old Savior’s Historical Society, 304 Walnut St., Manistee, MI 49660.
My special needs sister Lisa is notorious for her questions, wanting to know what will happen and when it will happen. Our father would raise his finger and answer, “We’ll just have to wait and see.” That applies to all of us now. Before proceeding with sending out registration material for the Danebod Fall Folk Meeting, the planning committee will be assessing the pandemic situation in late April or early May. Stay tuned for an update.
Belated Birthday Greetings to Joy Ibsen, former Church and Life editor,
who turned 80 years young on April 1, no foolin’!
By HANNA BROADBRIDGE
We live in troubled times. We are confused, unsure of what is to come, frightened. Are we all living through a nightmare? Are we staring at an abyss of unimaginable proportions?
We see politicians, medical experts, economists admitting that they are driving on a road that is being asphalted as we are driving on it. We are on virgin territory and don’t know where we shall end up, or how long the road will be.
Did we ever imagine that the world would come to this? There have been political and academic murmurings about the likelihood of a new epidemic or even a pandemic, but these murmurings have not been taken seriously, let alone heeded.
Here in Denmark, as I write in the middle of March 2020, and as the stories and figures from Italy and elsewhere reach us, our government and the whole of the Danish parliament, irrespective of political party, have rallied round and informed the whole population of a mandatory lockdown of schools, all public offices and activities, even including the churches. All public employees have been sent home for at least two weeks with full pay. Schools and all other educational institutions, including libraries, have been closed. Courts, churches and other religious centers have been ordered to close — totally unprecedented except in a war situation. The only public (and some private) employees still expected to work are caregivers, hospital staff, the police, the military, and other critical job functions. This was all decided and happened on March 11 and 13, by which time all cross border traffic in Europe, except trucks carrying foods and industrial goods, was also brought to a halt. Danes abroad were told to come home as soon as possible, and air traffic has since then also been brought to a virtual standstill.
A variety of economic and financial support is being worked out by the politicians for the businesses and firms who have lost the normal activity and income. Eventually we shall all have to help these firms and companies when the problems are over, possibly through some extra tax, similar to the tax in Germany after the unification. The important thing for the Danish government is to have the businesses and firms ready to take up their normal activities with their expert staff raring to go when the situation improves.
On March 17, the Queen spoke to the nation (last time it happened was in 1945 at the end of the WWII when King Christian X spoke to the nation outside on New Year’s Eve) to urge us all to act and behave in accordance with the new rules and guidelines that have been issued, namely to protect ourselves, our families and friends and to make all the efforts possible to break the chain of infection and contagion. ”Anything else would be seen to be wanton. To show that we care for one another we have to be apart,” she said.
Streets are empty; parents have miraculously managed to get their young children looked after; and schools are teaching through the internet and other digital possibilities. Visiting family and friends, especially the ones who are housebound, has been banned. Everything is very quiet. Only the exuberant and soul-lifting sounds of the birds’ warbling in their enjoyment of the early spring sunshine break through the gloom and gray clouds.
However, disasters and grief have always happened, at a personal level, at a national level, and also at an international level. And we have come through them, found hope and comfort as well as new energy to deal with results and consequences.
In the winter of 1850-1851, Grundtvig had realized that his wife Lise was dying of the wear and tear of life, worry and work, and he was feeling sad and low. He started to write one of his best-loved hymns: “If you are feeling low, dear friend,” (’Er du modfalden, kære ven’ DDS 655) as much to comfort himself, to lift his own spirits, and to tell himself that his and our lives are in the hands of God. But he couldn’t finish it until later that year, by which time he had married again, this time to Marie Toft. However, and perhaps somewhat strangely, the text was not printed until it was sung at his funeral on Sept 11, 1872, and afterwards published in his Song-Work for the Danish Church.
Grundtvig was fully aware of the brutality and at times meaninglessness of life, what with his two sons participating in the war that Denmark had fought with Germany from 1848-1850, the political worries in Denmark, and the tensions in Europe, as well as his family leaving home and thus him and his wife to deal with their frailties. However, he would not let his faith be troubled, because he saw faith, hope, and love stretched out under us as baptized persons like a safety net of angels. As adult believers, he said, we can rely on our childhood baptism and childhood prayer, the Lord’s Prayer. This will always inspire us to be assured in our hope and firm belief that we shall overcome this too.
God’s message of trust in Him is relevant in major as well as minor catastrophes. We are told not to despair, but to look to God’s care for us, and then to look at the world at large, full of signs of God’s love. No war has been won by those who opposed God and his love. There are multitudes of angels to help us through our daily lives. No storm is too big for God to conquer, and we shall all find peace and comfort in God’s right hand, caressed by his angels. God’s spirit and love will see us through the darkness and lift our sadness. Our faith that stems from our baptism protects us and inspires us to hope – a hope that is always sustained by God’s love and spirit.
Most of the nation and much of the world is in a surreal stasis. While physical and social activity may have slowed, our emotions may be quite active, swinging from anger, sadness and despair to gratitude, inspiration, and awe. On the side with despair is a sense of powerlessness, especially seeing existing social disparities exacerbated.
The call to action is strangely inverted; communities express solidarity by physically distancing. Many who are not accustomed to staying home are finding time to get personal projects done and are interacting more with family. New to me is watching a Netflix series.
Until now, I had almost prided myself on not being a Netflix subscriber; yet I succumbed . . . during Lent no less. At least I only signed up for the trial period, cautious of the addictive nature of streaming entertainment tuned specifically to my tastes. I had good reason to sign up though. (I know; addicts never start intending to become an addict and they are great at rationalizing behavior.)
Seriously, as I was browsing the internet, I somehow came across an article in The Guardian from last year about the Danish Netflix series Herrens Vede. Intrigued by the sensational alliterative headline “Booze, bishops and breakdowns: the biblical brilliance of Ride Upon the Storm,” I started reading the review with an expectation that it would be an example of Danish media portraying the church as no longer legitimate among Danes. Indeed, the father in the story is described as a strong-minded priest who struggles with his demons and whose wife and grown sons have troubles and confusions of their own. These storylines could be used to depict a dysfunctional irrelevant church, but when I read that the actor who played the father had been an atheist but found God in the course of playing the role, I suspected that the storylines were speaking to people’s lives and perhaps even making the church accessible. I wanted to see for myself; so I signed up for Netflix, at least the trial period
I have limited myself to no more than one episode per day as each episode takes time to digest. Ride Upon the Storm is not inane entertainment; it depicts people suffering through crises of faith and life. In that sense, as we sit in isolation while a pandemic has spread across the country and the world, what better time to engage the questions of faith, asking where God is in all of this?
The title of the series and the theme song derive from the words of the poem “Conflict: Light Shining out of Darkness,” written in 1773 by William Cowper. I find myself singing at least the last phrase in my head throughout the day as a kind of mantra.
God moves in a mysterious way,
His wonders to perform;
He plants his footsteps in the sea,
And rides upon the storm.
These words remind us of two stories about Jesus’ disciples on the Sea of Galilee. In one, Jesus calms the waters amid a storm then asks his disciples, “Why are you so afraid?” The other story is when his disciples are terrified when they think they see a ghost walking on the water. Jesus says to them, “It is I, do not be afraid.” I once delivered a sermon as a lay preacher when this was the gospel reading. While my message focused on not being afraid since God is always with us, I also drew upon the loving relationship I had had with my father. Though not always easy, I was always assured of his love for me. So the image of God as father was not as fraught with tension as for others, such as the sons in the series.
Watching this show, I am reminded of the words from an article referring to the play Milk, which is discussed elsewhere in this issue. In Fred Eastman’s 1928 article for the Chicago Theological Seminary Review “A New Aesthetic for Protestantism,” he wrote:
The deepest struggles of our lives are emotional ones, and emotion is the very stuff of drama. One good play which holds the mirror up to a lived spiritual struggle and reflects upon it the light of religion is worth more to the inner life of human beings in the midst of the struggle than all the medieval symbols that could be gathered in one building.
While we have missed gathering to celebrate Easter in church buildings with all their symbols, we have an opportunity to experience Easter privately, personally, and profoundly in the context of isolation and the threat of sickness and death. Celebrating the resurrection of Christ Jesus is celebrating the absolute power of God, even over death. So what is there to fear?
I have heard that the fear of physical death is less than the ego’s fear of death. Indeed, the ego’s purpose is to ensure our physical survival, judging what is a threat then directing us to respond accordingly. Yet, the ego’s drive to be in control can leave little room for the Spirit to direct our lives. Practices that aim to dissolve the ego can lead to a backlash as the ego feels threatened. So I imagine the ugly defense mechanisms of my ego being lovingly tucked in a corner and surrounded in protective blue light, allowing the Holy Spirit to fill the rest of the room. Remembering our baptism through which we are united with Jesus’ death and resurrection is a similar exercise. Ride Upon the Storm illustrates how such church rituals can be powerful as people look for ways to relieve suffering, especially when caused by needs for control, acceptance, security, and acknowledgement. Feeling powerless in this pandemic is perhaps an invitation to release ourselves into the hands of God so we can be led into newness of life.