I Repent in Dust and Ashes

Early Thursday morning last week, I was awakened by huge rolling claps of thunder and the sound of torrential rain beating against our house. As I lay in bed, knowing that I would likely not be able to get back to sleep, I marveled at the fierceness of the storm and this hymn immediately came to mind, “O Lord my God, when I in awesome wonder consider all the worlds Thy hands have made; I see the stars, I hear the rolling thunder, thy power throughout the universe displayed.”

I am going to come clean, however, and say that, “How Great Thou Art” is not my favorite hymn. In fact, I wrote a blog in 2008 on my love/hate relationship with this hymn. It was a reaction to the time when I was leading church conferences as a district superintendent, and I asked each congregation to pick two hymns. Almost half of the churches chose to sing “How Great Thou Art.”

It wasn’t surprising because, in a 2010 survey on The United Methodist Church’s Facebook page, 1,500 people answered the question, “What is your favorite hymn in the United Methodist hymnal?” “Here I am, Lord” came in first, and “How Great Thou Art” came in second.

Writing in my blog, I said, “I don’t have any complaint with the words of ‘How Great Thou Art.’ They’re a wonderful witness to the majesty and power of God. It’s the music that often drags me down. Accompanists tend to play the hymn so slowly that I just want to close my eyes and take a nap. I even timed it once. It takes five minutes to sing hymn #77 when it pokes along.”

I confessed my bad attitude about “How Great Thou Art” a long time ago and made my peace with the hymn, although it was still not a favorite. Then, in the summer of 2018, I had the opportunity to hike with my husband Gary and son Garth in the Canadian Rockies of Banff National Park. We decided to tackle the challenging 11.6-mile roundtrip hike to Healy Pass. We even purchased the recommended bear spray, but, fortunately, did not need to use it.

It took almost three hours of steady climbing to reach the pass, and when we emerged from the woods it seemed as if we were on top of the world. It literally took my breath away to see such a vast array of snow-capped mountains. It was one of the most beautiful sights I’ve ever witnessed. We took our pictures and just sat at the top for a while, pondering the majesty of God’s handiwork.

As we began the long journey back, which took us on a different path, I turned a corner, and there it happened. A huge expanse of mountains and meadows that we had not seen before emerged, and I was filled with a deep joy that could only be described as ecstasy. Snow-capped mountains, flowers, trees, rocks, and a stream. I prayed, “I am fully alive, God. I am completely connected with nature and with you. This is my true self, hiking high in the Rockies, walking in harmony with nature and my Savior.” And then, inexplicably, a song arose from the depths of my being,

O Lord, my God, when I in awesome wonder
Consider all the worlds Thy Hands have made.
I see the stars, I hear the rolling thunder,
Thy power throughout the universe displayed.

I remember saying to myself, “Wait a minute. I hate this hymn! I dislike the tune and the way we often sing it so slow.” Yet this is the song that God placed in my heart as I gazed out over the most gorgeous setting I have ever been in my lifetime.

As I continued walking, a prayer spontaneously came from my heart, “I repent in dust and ashes. I repent in dust and ashes.” I prayed that phrase continually as I repented of my bad attitude toward “How Great Thou Art.” Having sung the hymn hundreds of times over the years, I realized perhaps for the first time how the beauty and goodness of God’s creation and God’s gift of Jesus Christ is expressed so eloquently in word and music. The hymn was written by Carl Boberg in Sweden in 1885 and is based on a Swedish traditional melody and poem.

When through the woods And forest glades I wander
I hear the birds Sing sweetly in the trees.
When I look down From lofty mountain grandeur
And hear the brook And feel the gentle breeze.

Then sings my soul, my Savior God, to Thee,
How great Thou art, how great Thou art.
Then sings my soul, my Savior God, to Thee,
How great Thou art, how great Thou art.

If you want to experience a unique setting of “How Great Thou Art” I invite you to listen to the last time Elvis Presley sang this great hymn live, just weeks before he died on August 16, 1977.

I repent in dust and ashes. The hymn that I came to dislike so much was the first one on my lips in the beauty of the Canadian Rockies and then again as I lay in bed listening to the thunder and rain last week.

  • How often does pride prevent you and me from experiencing the wholeness that God yearns for us?
  • How do our preconceived notions about God and others get in the way of claiming God’s grace?
  • When have past experiences or even sheer stubbornness tainted our ability to be reflections of God’s love?

When Christ shall come, With shouts of acclamation,
And take me home, What joy shall fill my heart!
Then I shall bow In humble adoration
And there proclaim, “My God, how great Thou art!

Then sings my soul, My Savior God, to Thee,
How great Thou art! How great Thou art!
Then sings my soul, My Savior God, to Thee,
How great Thou art! How great Thou art!

I repent in dust and ashes.

13 thoughts on “I Repent in Dust and Ashes

  1. No need to cover yourself with ashes. I can’t count my “favorite” hymns at all, there are so many. I truly empathize with you as far as tempo, etc., is concerned. One of my “favorites” – not sure whether it’s in the Methodist hymnal or not – is “Because He Lives”. I’m with you on tempo, etc. Any hymns sung at my funeral I would hope are vivace and forte, or even double forte, certainly no andante. Belt it out like you really believe it! Praise the Lord!

  2. The curious thing, Laurie, is that very few people believe that ‘He will come’ and that ‘He will TAKE me home.’ They simply believe that when they die they GO to heaven.

  3. Love the song —-the words and melody when played correctly — when I went to a church, that i ended up joining – the organist’s -playing reminded me of a roller rink. When she played how great thou art – it was extreme praise to the Lord for me. I agree it is mostly played to slowly — think it should be printed with a notation all verses need to be done in a certain time.
    Joking of course but…..

  4. I actually sing How Great Thou Art and I Come to the Garden Alone at night to calm myself from the day and ready myself for sleep. Miss you both! ❤️

    • And both of those should be sung pretty fast. In the Garden is thought of as a “funeral hymn”, but it’s happy. He walks with me and he talks with me is happy and joyful, as are the words to “How Great Thou Art”. They’re both so easy to drag and hard to tolerate that way. Kay Petterson

  5. I feel a kinship with you & your story. I, too, have hymns that I don’t like due to the slow pace pianists usually use -probably the speed designated by the tune writer. I too find climbing to the mountain-top gives a spiritual, physical, and emotional boost. To sweat and pant my way up lets me know I’m alive. There are often many inspiring scenes on the way up, but the top. It says I’ve struggled through; I’ve pushed myself; and God has touched me, letting me know I can _____ on a mountain or in my community. At my funeral I hope the congregation will sing the verses of “I Love to Go Wandering” with the chorus of “It is Well With My Soul.” – and sing with energy.

    • As one related to Elaine, I would add that our father, a self-identified agnostic, asked that, for his funeral, some congregation of people somewhere would sing the second verse of #77.

  6. I had an experience like that on the shore of Long Island, on a cloudy fall day. This hymn flowed off my lips that day, when I was all alone. It was powerful.
    And I agree about the tempo. Like many hymns, it needs to be felt in 2 beats per measure, not 4. Could we write this into the next hymnal?

  7. I have had a list of hymns to which that reaction has occurred in me too. “Amazing Grace” was one. It took experimenting with different tune settings for me to appreciate the full meaning of the words in my life. I thank God for releasing me to new experiences of the depths of soul in hymns and songs formerly rejected!

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