Saturday, October 31, 2015

"God Himself is Present" -- a postcolonial Lutheran chorale for Reformation Day 2015

Jumala on läsnä [God Himself is Present] by Narrow Way

Jumala on Läsnä #KatajainenKansa

"Otu li moipafi, yakalunga ketu..."

"God, reveal your presence: gladly we adore you..."

"Jumala on läsnä, Häntä rukoilkaamme..."

"Gott ist gegenwärtig, lasset uns anbeten..."

The hymn is by 17th- and early 18th-century German Reformed mystic Gerhard Tersteegen, sung to a chorale melody by Joachim Neander. [1] It is widely sung in both the Reformed (Calvinist) and Lutheran traditions, and it has been translated variously. I know it as "God Himself is Present" (LBW 249) from singing it at Atonement Lutheran Church (ELCA) in Springfield, and today I came across it in a post by the Rev. Marjaana Toiviainen of Helsinki on a Lutheran World Federations website.

When I went looking for the hymn on YouTube, I found the interpretations embedded above.

  • One is by Narrow Way, a gospel choir made up of African members of the Joensuu Evangelical Lutheran Congregation in Joensuu, a city in eastern Finland. [2]

  • The other is a very cool version by Katajainen Kansa, a Christian reggae band of Helsinki. [3]

For a 350-year-old song, "God Himself is Present" certainly gets around.

That's interesting in itself, for a guy who's up to his neck in a historical analyis of cultural hybridity and creolization in Swedish-American hymnals. Tersteegen hailed from a part of Germany where political and cultural boundaries were fluid in the 17th and 18th centuries, as were relations between the Reformed and Lutheran faith traditions of the day. His hymn spread widely in northern Europe, and I even found a variant melody called TYSK (the Swedish word for German) that attributes to "a chorale sung at Stockholm, 1718; Psalm und Choralbuch, 1719" -- a mystery to look into later when I get the time.

But Marjaana Toiviainen has concerns on her mind that are much more immediate.

A pastor in an inner-city mission in Helsinki and a doctoral candidate at Lund University in Sweden, she was inspired by hearing "God Himself is Present" as a delegate at LWF's "Global Perspectives and the Reformation" this month in Namibia. she wrote in an Oct. 29 post to the LWF's Faith in Action Worldwide weblog [3]:

The hymn resonated through my body and onto the walls of the church at Paulinum United Lutheran Theological Seminary [in Windhoek, the capital city of Namibia]. An impressive range of languages surrounded us and the Namibian sky echoed the words with the power of lightning and thunder. It was raining and we thanked God for that.

To Toiviainen, a lot of things came together in that moment -- the languages, the rain toward the end of the dry season in a drought-stricken nation that consists largely of desert, the community of church people "gathered together to reflect how to approach the Reformation anniversary in 2017." And what it means to live one's faith as a Lutheran -- a Christian, Jew, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu or a follower of any other faith tradition in a broken, increasingly globalized world. She said:

In his sermon, Bishop emeritus Zephania Kameeta [of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Nambia] reminded us what it is to be liberated by God's grace in that manner. Our faith lets us stand up in a healing community. But this faith does not only help us love and act, but also get lost and dirty. It forces us to take a cross and carry it. So we are not here to write or read theology. We are here to live theology, not hide it in the archives. Theology that is not afraid to be fragile and vulnerable. Theology that is lived, experienced and embodied.

In her doctoral studies at Lund, Toiviainen is concentrating on post-colonial theologies, global Christianity and inter-religious relations. On the way to the conference in Nambia, an independent republic in southwestern Africa [5], she was forcefully reminded what it means to exist in a broken, globalized world:

Just before leaving Helsinki, my home city, I had met a Syrian woman with her three children. She had lost her husband in Germany and they were not allowed to be reunited. They were oh so close to one another, but were not allowed to be together. And then I took off for Namibia. The flights had been booked and paid for, the seats arranged, the vaccinations organized and no visa was needed. To get to the other side of the world I had to do nothing but sit still and watch some movies on the plane. When one smiled at me at the security check, I could only think of the Syrian family and their struggle. The world sure is not fair.

During our opening worship I realized once again that the only way we as a community can tackle this unfair reality is through listening to everyone's story: different perspectives, reflections from our contexts, the world and Lutheranism as we see it. We have all been shaped by different issues, insights and events. Let us remember to listen to those stories, for they are where the Reformation of today arises from.

No happy endings here. Just more work to do. And more songs to sing.


[1] "God Himself is Present," to give it its name in the Lutheran Book of Worship (No. 249), is usually matched with the tune ARNSBERG (called WUNDERBARER KÖNIG in Lutheran hymnals), according to Calvin College's website at It is found today in 50 hymnals of all denominations. The alternate tune, TYSK, appears at, and a sound file is available at, along with this note: "The tune TYSK, which appeared in Stockholm in 1718, derives its name from the Nordic word for 'German,' evidently referring to a German church? style? - or perhaps hinting at an earlier tune for the text God himself is with us, which tune (ARNSBERG) was composed 40 years earlier by Joachim Neander - a name synonymous with German hymnody. In the English-speaking world, TYSK appears in very few hymnals at the moment - Epsicopal, Anglican, and Reformed almost exclusively."

[2] Narrow-Way, according to its Facebook page,

... is a musical group under Joensuu Evangelical Lutheran Congregation. The group is composed of Africans currently resident in Joensuu, Finland. The group was established in March 2013 to provide more variety of music in the Christian music landscape. Narrow-way thus specializes in rhythmic African music and acapella. Our music encompasses local African languages, English and Finnish compositions.

Our mission is to inspire, encourage and motivate our audience about the Christian faith.

Narrow-Way. Joensuu, Finland.

[3] Katajainen Kansa (which means something like "juniper nation" in English), combines "Jamaican rhythms, world music and plaintive accordion" in exprssing the "Christian beliefs and spiritual heritage of our people," according to the band's website

[4] Marjaana Toiviainen, "My Story and Our Story," 29 October 2015. Faith in Action Worldwide, Lutheran World Federation.

[5] Namibia, known from 1884 to 1920 as German South-West Africa, was ruled by South Africa after Germany lost its colonies in World War I. Located along the Atlantic coast in southern Africa, it was incorporated into a British mandate in South Africa and known as Southwest Africa. It became an independent republic in 1990. During the protracted struggle against apartheid and South African rule, the Lutheran churches were heavily involved. German missionaries were active in what is now Namibia from the 1880s onward, and about half its population of 2.1 million is Lutheran (see Katherine Caufield Arnold's honors thesis "The Transformation of the Lutheran Church in Namibia", William and Mary, 2009).


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