Tribute to Bruce Carlson


by David Hawkinson

[The following is the homily preached by David Hawkinson at the Memorial Funeral Service for Bruce Carlson at Plymouth Congregational Church, Minneapolis, August 6.]

Each of us gathered in this place has been touched by at least one of the many dimensions indicative of a life as full as Bruce’s. Others have spoken about his gifts to the world of music and performance within this regional community. We have heard about his many and varied interests from those who lived and grew up with him as family. I wish in these few moments to bear witness to the faith that nurtured these many dimensions—a faith which wove them into a living whole, a faith which he embraced and practiced with all his heart, and soul, and mind, and strength.

It is this same faith, ancient as time, which is expressed in the song of praise at the very end of the Hebrew song book—number 150.

Hallelujah! Praise the Lord!
Praise God in the sanctuary
Praise God in the might firmament!
Praise God for mighty deeds
Praise God for God’s surpassing greatness!
Praise God with trumpet sound
Praise with the lute and harp
Praise with tambourine and dance;
Praise with strings and pipe
Praise with clanging cymbals
Praise with loud clashing cymbals
Let everything that breathes praise the Lord…
Praise the Lord! Hallelujah!

This list of course, is not intended to be a limited to these few instruments, for it seems to me that as the poet begins to number the types and sounds, he becomes gripped in a quickening pace as instrument after instrument rises in his imagination, until overwhelmed by all the possible notes and beats, textures and resonance available to praise God, he stops abruptly, shifting the meter and structural development of the song, proclaiming in one great shout, “Let everything that breathes praise God.”

It is the final movement of the great oratorio which opens with Psalm number one; it is the coda of the entire body of Hebrew song and the faith that is expressed from beginning to end, gathering up all the themes pulsing throughout this astonishing poetry, from prayers of supplication and lament, cries of abandonment and anxiety, confidence and bewilderment, joy and exhilaration, the full range of human life and expression set midst cosmic display and descriptions of the natural world that bring us to our knees in wonder of and awe of the whole of it. And God in the grand mix! Embracing all this the poet declares, in this final raising of the baton, let us praise God with everything we can get our hands on! I hear, the chorus singing Beethoven’s ode to joy, the orchestra on the edge of spinning out of control as note piles on note, rushing forth while the heart bursts wide open by explosions of sound and elation.

This is the same theology that nurtured and carried Bruce from the baptismal font to this celebration of resurrection. He did not come upon this theology, but was raised in it, suckled on it, by parents rooted in a faith community, steeped in the tradition of the Covenant Church whose roots extended into historic pietism. This life movement as we prefer to think of it, blossomed first in Germany and then swept into Scandinavia, the home of many of our mothers and fathers. These resolute spirits, living hard lives in rocky soil, fashioned this living movement from hearts warmed by the Holy Spirit, filling them with longing for the joy which comes in human relation, face to face, person to person, and in community where Jesus, son of Mary and Joseph dwelt as friend and companion on the way. This quality of their faith was not much interested in institutional forms, creeds, apologetics or systematic formula and propositions. Rather it was a genuine religious movement, which, as Martin Buber described, “did not want to offer humans the solution of the world mystery, but to equip them to live from the strength of the mystery; they did not wish to instruct humans about the nature of God, but to show them the path on which they can meet God.”

Such faith, found in different moments and religious traditions, has always embraced music and song as the most effective means to express what filled the heart—music and song, played upon instruments of all kinds, including the human voice. Johann Sebastian Bach himself, who embraced this same Pietist movement, wrote that the purpose of music “can be nothing else but the glory of God and the restoration of the heart.” And, Bach understood that this was true for all music. Like many whose faith was so grounded, he made no distinction between what some would separate into sacred and secular categories, granting endless possibilities for the human spirit to express itself and praise God in the doing of it: blues, jazz, opera, quartet, sonata, oratorio—look over Bruce’s diverse record collection and you will find this same delight with the wide variety of sound and spirit.

Bruce, as our mothers and fathers before, was at home in the cathedrals of Europe, with their 32-foot diapasons blasting Buxtehude, the chancel choir singing the exquisite lament, “O Sacred Head Now Wounded,” as he was listening to the fiddles and foot organs playing the enchanting folk melodies that got Swede’s to lift their feet in dance on mid-summers dagen. And it was these same tunes our mothers hummed to us when we needed a lullaby, the same tunes that carried hymns of comfort, as from Lina Sandell, the poet laureate of our movement, who wrote, “children of the heavenly father…safely in his bosom gathered… nestling bird nor star in heaven, such a refuge ere was given….”

Do you see that this kind of faith creates wide parentheses of expression, granting ample room for a story to unfold into a wonderful fullness and variety, blessing all the passion and fascination a human might muster to welcome and meet and explore the world, all the while rooted in and nurtured by the awareness that everything that breathes might praise God, because it is all gift?! Such awareness unites a soul within itself, wings it to gladness and purpose, so that life itself might be woven into a single joyful tapestry.

Bruce took full possession of all this room the spirit of life grants to each of us, if we only had the courage to live out the curiosities of our youth, or to pick them up again and risk appearing as foolish. Indeed, I don’t think Bruce ever really grew out of his childhood. He carried a child-like curiosity all his days, abounding in an amazing variety of interests, fascination, and wonder, which Jesus proclaimed we must all possess, like children do, if we ever desire to enter the kingdom of God.

Rooted in this faith from his birth, Bruce also found many friends and guides who shared this faith. Some of these he met at our denominational school, North Park College in Chicago, which was for him a wonderful playground of the spirit; the place where Bruce opened up to the pleasures of philosophy, history, literature, music, art, and the social sciences. He feasted upon the whole banquet of the liberal arts, feeding his active mind with personal relationships that deepened through a life-time. Many of these friends are here tonight.

Such a student as Bruce might be cautioned that a full and complete liberal arts education does not sell well in the market place, urging him toward a more practical curriculum that offered concrete vocational possibilities. Yet, within this same faith, the faith which acknowledges that all human endeavors might praise God, there is a deep trust about life and living, which reassured Bruce, that the world would provide a place, a corner a niche, where he could be himself, where he could live out the passions of his heart. Theologians call this trust, providence, a confidence grounded in the belief that if the Lord made us, as unique and singular creations, there will be a place for us to be and to do what we were intended to be and do. Bruce always believed that the Schubert Club was providential—and how we all have been blessed when the winds of the spirit created this marriage of souls! With gratitude for the grace that opened this place for him, Bruce became a place maker, an instrument of God’s providential care for others. Many here tonight could tell stories about the way he helped us at those moments when we needed some support and encouragement.

At the Schubert Club, Bruce added immeasurably to the list of instruments we were able to listen to, often the best of the world, bringing us to our feet again and again in joy and delight. Most of all, he loved looking into the faces of all of us who sat in our seats as we responded to the music. I think we enjoyed this even more than the music which he also adored.

And, he had the heart for those instruments and sounds which had been neglected and left to rust, restoring pianos and organs and harpsichords, not to be set behind glass, but to be played once again, enjoyed again, resurrected, alive and resonant.

By the way, this passion also included the restoration of vintage outboard motors and wooden boats, which as you have heard tonight, he loved to rebuild as much as any tracker organ. Perhaps you have not considered how a restored Johnson 2 ½ might praise God. This may be because you have had the same frustrating experience as I have had in learning that they are nearly impossible to keep in tune. I know this because our family had one of these green beauties when I was a boy. I remember pulling the starting cord over and over and over so that when the little green engine finally burst to life, I shouted out, “Praise the Lord!”

The deep truth is that the hum and gurgle of these little wonders, providing as they did endless hours of pleasure and delight to families on a summer lake, sang a chorus that must bring a smile to the God who made heaven and earth. Let everything, everything, everything that breathes praise God.

All this, and more, Bruce brought into our lives in a most personal way. This was his faith and the inheritance which he passes onto us, this song of praise which he played on all these instruments our hearts recall this evening, adding to the list the psalmist had only just begun. And yet, we are here not to praise the instruments themselves, but the One for whom the sound of praise goes up; the One for whom all music was written; the very One who gave to us this most unique instrument of all, this marvelous gifted gracious life, clad in bow tie and child-like gleam, whose life brought us again and again…to say…as we say tonight with tears in our eyes and “with everything that breathes…Hallelujah!”