That Which Sustains You

by William Sandstrom

It was September 11th and my wife, Laura Lou, and I had just landed in Stockholm, Sweden. As we entered the apartment of my cousin, Solveig, the phone was ringing. "Turn on your TV," said the caller, "Something terrible has happened in New York!" We were in Sweden as part of the celebration of our Golden Wedding Anniversary.

We lived in the shock of what had happened the rest of the day. We watched TV—grateful for CNN and BBC, as we became accustomed to English commentary with Swedish sub-titles, then Swedish commentary with English subtitles, and looked desperately for a newspaper in English. The next day we went to the central part of Stockholm to shop and to sight-see. The flag on the Royal Palace was at half staff. I asked my cousin if a prominent Swede had died. "Oh" she said, "I forgot to tell you. The king has decreed that all the flags in Sweden will be flown at half staff today in remembrance of those affected by the terrorist attack on Tuesday: the hurt and helping, the dead, and those grieving at their loss." Light rain fell all over Sweden during those first days, as though Sweden itself was weeping in sadness.

As people became aware that we were from the United States, they would say simply, "I'm sorry." No long conversations, but the simple expression of caring which we ourselves often use when we go to our friends who are grieving. We traveled much that week—Dalarna, Värmland, Östergötland, Smöland, and Öland. All over Sweden we encountered the same outpouring of sympathy, love, and concern. We were in a Pizza shop in Rattvik, Dalarna where an older gentleman, on finding out that we were from America, told us that we should live in Sweden. "We have it so good here in Sweden!" he said. Then, he paused, caught himself and said quietly, "I'm so sorry."

That first day after the attack, we drove by the American Embassy. The guards with their guns were standing in front of the gate. Across the street, Swedish people were bringing flowers to make a great mound of remembrance. It reminded us of the pictures of people bringing flowers when Princess Diana died. A member of the Covenant Ministers' Chorus said that it had been the same at the embassy in Oslo, Norway. We entered St. Jakob's Lutheran Church just around the corner from the Palace and the Rikgsdag. It was ablaze in candlelight with many people coming and going, lighting candles of remembrance, and pausing for prayer. Churches throughout Sweden were open for prayers and candles of remembrance were burning bright. In our tradition, we are less accustomed to an extensive use of candles, but it was beautiful and seemed so appropriate! It was the same in the little churches in town and country, as well as in the great cathedrals in Stockholm and Uppsala. Sweden, as a nation, grieved with us and for us.

What was my own reaction to this tragic event? It took a while to sort through. I was in a distant land and something terrible was happening in my home country. Most all of my usual support systems were gone—my family at home, the chaplain staff at Covenant Manor Retirement Community, and the residents and staff of that campus, and being in my home ground where things were known and familiar. It was a strange feeling to be sure! In the midst of all this, a word kept coming back to me, "You are not alone, I am with you—always!" It was a word from God to me. At first, it was a comfort and it became confidence, strength, and hope!

On Sunday morning, a week and a half later, we were staying at the Birger Jarl Hotel in Stockholm as an anniversary gift from our children. The Covenant Ministers' Chorus was at the Birger Jarl, too, scheduled to sing in the morning worship service at Immanuel Covenant Church. The Chorus was among the first to fly again after the airports reopened. It was wonderful to see friends from the United States! We caught up with each other and shared feelings of the great tragedy at home. It was a tonic for us all and it was good to hear the chorus sing.

The greatest impact of the service for me, however, was the conclusion of the Children's Sermon! It was in Swedish, of course. The pastor concluded her message with the childhood prayer:

Gud som haver bamen kar
Se tig mig, som liten ar
Vart jag mig i varlden vander
Star min lycka i Guds hander
Lyckan kommer, Lyckan gar
Den Guds alskar lyckan far.
God who holds the children dear
Watch over me who is small
Wherever I go in the world
My happiness is in God's hands
Happiness comes, Happiness goes
Whoever loves God, Happiness finds.

It is a childhood prayer, like "Now I lay me down to sleep...." It conveys the wonderful truth that God loves us and is always with us. It is one of the first things learned in that family of faith—even before the Lord's Prayer, the 23rd Psalm, or the creeds.

As the pastor began to recite the prayer "Gud som haver, bamen kär," the entire congregation joined in spontaneously! It was a magic moment, another gift from God amidst my pilgrimage in this loving but distant land. And with that wonderful assurance, the children went on to their next adventure—in Children's Church. And so we—after this assurance that God loves us and is always with us —so we go on to that next adventure in our lives, whether it be great, or small.

We left the United States on the 10th of September; we would never see it again in the same way as when we left. However, the assurance of God's continuing presence and love enables us to meet the challenges and opportunities of a new day with hope and confidence.

I would like to give you an a set of texts in lectionary style for the living of these days of uncertainty and change:

The Old Testament—Deuteronomy 33:27: "The eternal God is your refuge, and underneath are the everlasting arms.

The Psalms—Psalm 46: "God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. Therefore, we will not fear though the earth should change..."

The Gospel—Matthew 28:30: (It is Jesus own words) "I am with you always, to the end of the age."

Notice that they are all plural! They are for all of us, not only me. They have come to be "That which sustains me!" in this time of new uncertainties. I pray that they may be the same for you!