‘O Mighty God.”

It’s a hymn some people think must have been around since Jesus walked the dusty roads, but it is based on a Swedish poem once set to a folk melody and translated into English by a British missionary in 1949.

That’s the way you probably know it — not actually ancient, but popularized by the Billy Graham Crusade and recorded by Elvis Presley.

When the United Church of Christ brought out its new hymnal 15 years ago, amid the cries of outrage about the maiming of Christmas carols there were also heard angry rebukes of the new version of this hymn.

Like many others, it lost its “thees” and “thous.” And in this case, the “thou” resonated for people, because it was burned deep in their memories.

“We’ve always sung it that way,” people said, as if it had been handed down from Scripture or at least Latin.

I looked into it and discovered this was a translation of the poem by Carl Boberg, a poem written to express his experience of God on a rainy afternoon, with storm clouds and thunder and lightning. Boberg describes the beauty and wonder of God’s creation and also the ways we do not care for it well enough.

And it seemed just right to be singing it on a Sunday morning in the midst of a weekend of the same kinds of storms. In Maine, we watched for tornadoes and picked up branches blown down by the wind. We wiped up water in our basements, again. We counted the seconds between the lightning and the thunder.

“O Mighty God.”

On the way home I said how much I enjoyed singing the hymn, but my daughter cried out, “I hated it!” For a moment, I thought perhaps times and tastes have changed, that the tune was too old-fashioned, but she quickly followed up, “I like the old words.”

“O Lord, My God How Great Thou Art.”

I went searching for as literal a translation as I could get and found this one when I had Google Chrome translate from the Swedish Cyberhymnal page:

“O great God, when I view the world/ As you create with your allmaktsord/ How where your life’s wisdom lead wires,

“And all beings saturate at your table/ Run/ When deficiencies soul into worship sound: How Great Thou Art! How Great Thou Art! When deficiencies soul into worship sound: How Great Thou Art! How Great Thou Art!”

Oh, my. Apparently some things defy translation, in either direction.

This week, I spent more time watching news about the oil spill than I have been able to bring myself to do before. I listened to the comments of politicians and the promises of businessmen and the analyses of scientists and the doom-saying of pundits.

I called a friend on the Gulf Coast and heard she wasn’t seeing it where she is, because of the barrier islands. I prayed for those low-lying places, those precious bayous, where there are no more barriers.

I watched the live camera from under water, a perpetual-motion disaster unfolding, only waiting for the high-definition pictures to follow. I saw the photographs on news websites: a pelican bronzed by oil, a sea gull in white silhouette over a sea now breaking brown waves on a beautiful beach.

We’ve been too busy arguing over language to pay attention to what really matters, too determined to win to even consider doing what’s right, too blind to beauty to see it clearly until we may lose it.

O mighty God, forgive us. We forgot How Great Thou Art, and how fragile are the things you made, and how important our role in caring for them. Help us to make amends.

If we can.

 

The Rev. Martha Hoverson is a United Church of Christ pastor who lives in Portland and blogs at Reflectionary. Her e-mail is [email protected]