My wife was seven years old and known as Kathleen Swallow, when her father died from complications after surgery. This left her widowed mother with six children, the seventh two months from birth, and the now-destitute family on a mortgaged farm in the dustbowl of Saskatchewan. It was 1933.
Her mother’s unmarried brother, Uncle Ossie, an engineer on the New York Railroad, wrote that if she would bring the family to Niagara Falls, Ontario, he would move from across the river in New York State and provide a home for them.
So, after going through the hectic details of auctioning off the farm while caring for an infant and six other children, this forlorn mother and children boarded a train for Ontario.
On that long and tedious trip a United Church missionary on board befriended the family. She was also traveling to Niagara Falls, Ontario, and volunteered that when the family was settled she would make sure they got to church.
Church had played no great role in the Swallow family on the prairies although occasionally in their rural community farmers arranged for the use of a one-room schoolhouse in order to attempt a simple service – a reading from the Bible and a few thoughts about that Scripture given by one of the men.
The missionary kept her word. When the family had settled in the dwelling provided by Uncle Ossie she came and took the five oldest of the seven children to the St. Andrews United Church where she herself attended.
Kathleen describes the experience as follows: After Sunday School all five were gathered up and led to the sanctuary where they sat quietly side-by-side waiting as the congregation formed.
To them, the church was a place of wonder, the large and beautiful sanctuary a new experience, so they waited in expectation.
The organist played softly as the congregation gathered. Worshipers entered and sat without conversation, waiting for the choir to appear in the the chancel.
The robed choir processed in and remained standing in the choir loft. The minister then entered, going directly to the central pulpit. Then the organ swelled, the congregation stood, and choir and congregation sang together,
Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord God Almighty,
Early in the morning our song shall rise to Thee.
Holy, Holy, Holy, merciful and mighty,
God in three persons, blessed Trinity.
She recalls that the service always followed this same sequence. And her response, she remembers, was the same each time -– she, by that time an eight-year-old — was awestruck and reverent as she was aware of God’s holy presence.
Kathleen recounted all of this to me one morning recently after breakfast when we read Psalm 99 together. That psalm brought back to her the never-to-be-forgotten sense of holy awe she felt at eight years of age in that Niagara Falls church.
Psalm 99 is about the kingship of God. He is king over all the earth so let the nations tremble, the psalmist proclaims (verse 1). Also, He extols, the king is mighty and he loves justice, (verse 4).
But what caught Kathleen’s and my attention as we read that morning was that amidst these elevated affirmations about God, the great king, the psalmist proclaims one particular attribute of our God and then repeats himself twice.
Of God, the eternal king, he declares: he is holy (verses 3, 5 and 9).
The word for holy or holiness occurs more than 830 times in the Old Testament. At core it means to be separate, or set apart. Applied to God, it signifies that he is separate from and transcendent over all his creation. To reflect this, some speak of the “otherness” of God.
Holiness is God’s quintessential attribute. He is all-knowing and merciful and all-powerful, for sure, but undergirding all God’s other attributes is his holiness.
When the Niagara Falls congregation sang, Holy, holy, Holy. Lord God Almighty the holiness of our God is what the hymn invoked in an eight year old. And that is what the eight year old experienced — though in an elementary way — but cannot forget 85 years later.
Photo credit: David (via flickr.com)