Reflections on Shuffle-Play

Secret in the Church Tower #3


Johanne sat in Bakken Kirke that hot July morning.  She did not remember it ever being so hot in Norway as it was here in America. All the windows were open but there was no breeze drifting over the Dakota prairie. She looked out the window next to the rough oak bench on which she sat. It had been so dry that summer the grass was hardly green but more a light brown color. They needed to keep praying for rain.  God had been so faithful to bring them safely to this new land and they had to believe the journey and all the tormenting goodbyes they said to their family and friends would be worthwhile.  The crops would grow.  Their life there would be good.  It just had mostly been very, very hard so far.

At least her family had all made it there alive.  Some other families had suffered great losses on the journey.  The Jenson’s youngest daughter had come down with a terrible fever as they traveled by wagon through Illinois.  Her name was Inge and she had only been three years old with white blonde hair.  She had been a joy to everyone in their village of Heskestad. Johanne remembered Inge’s baptism day at their little church back in Norway.  On the day they buried her in a field in Illinois, Johanne had wept to think of how happy Inge’s baptism day had been and now they had wrapped that dear little girl in her mother’s shawl and they were burying her lifeless body.

Other families had lost elderly members who were weakened from the hardships of travel and illness, and a few other young women had died in childbirth like the pastor’s wife.  Although their church in the Dakota territory was only a few years old, there were already quite a few graves in the small cemetery.  In fact, the cemetery was established before they even started building the church.  Mr. Haugen’s wife died just the first week they arrived in Dakota and he buried her on the beautiful hill on the land they homesteaded. He then met with the other men in the community and offered to give the entire hill so that a church could be built there.  And Bakken Kirke was established.

Bakken Kirke was a simple building, although they did build it with a strong frame and a tall steeple. Johanne loved how the placement of the church on the hill made it stand out over the entire countryside and when the bell tolled it could be heard for miles. The bell was tolled on Sunday mornings as the pastor walked from the small parsonage over to the church and beckoned all within its’ hearing to come to worship.  The bell was also rung as they departed the church after worship.  On New Year’s Eve they gathered there and rang the bell at midnight just as they had done in the old country and as the church was one of the only community gathering places in the area, the bell was rung if there needed to be a meeting of the men in the area to make decisions or share information.

Johanne and her family went to church every Sunday morning but as she glanced at her father and the sweat running down the side of his face as he listened to the preacher, she guessed that he, too, longed for the service to be over today so they could get out of that hot church building.  She noticed his hair was much more gray now than it had been just a few years ago.  He was starting to look a lot like her grandfather, who was still back in Norway.  She would likely never see either of them again during her time on earth.

The pastor’s sermon ended and the congregation sang, “O, Bli Hos Meg.  It was a quiet, somber hymn, but this Sunday held a bit of sadness as today was Pastor Knudsvig’s last Sunday with them.  His wife had died earlier that spring and he had decided rather than trying to raise their six children alone or find a new wife in America, he would return to Norway where his sisters could help him and he would help with the family farm, which was necessary as his older brother who had been overseeing the farm since their father’s death, had just had an accident leaving him unable to discharge his daily duties on the farm.  Pastor Knudsvig had been a faithful, gentle pastor and Johanne was not sure he was suited to the life of a farmer and to work in the fields but she did know by now that one had to do what was necessary.  She looked at his children, all sitting in the front row.  The eldest was merely eight years old.  The youngest was the baby, sleeping now in the eight year-old’s arms.  Their mother had died giving birth to the baby.  Deaths during childbirth happened frequently, so frequently that there was an entire section of the small cemetery where babies were buried.  When the mother died in childbirth, usually the baby didn’t survive either, but Pastor Knudsvig’s infant was hearty and strong. He had been given the name Jens, everyone assumed in loving tribute to his mother, whose name had been Jenny.

Jenny was soft-spoken with an easy, sparkling laugh, and although it was unspoken, Johanne felt that what people liked best about Pastor Knudsvig was that he was married to Jenny. She had a way of putting everyone at ease and her lightness of spirit cheered anyone who was around her. Johanne thought about how awful it must be for her children to be without her. Johanne glanced over at her own mother sitting a few seats away.  She could not imagine being without her mother.  Although she and her mother were very different, her mother’s loving presence and steadfast strength in their family was what had made these last years of leaving Norway and beginning a new life in the Dakota territory tolerable. Her heart ached for the pastor and his children to have to make the journey back to Norway when the children had all been born here and this was the only home they had ever known. And for Pastor Knudsvig to give up his calling to ministry for his family, well, that was surely the greatest sacrifice of all.

North Dakota

by Lyle Lovett

The boys from North Dakota
They drink whiskey for their fun
And the cowboys down in Texas
They polish up their guns
And they look across the border
To learn the ways of love

If you love me, say I love you
If you love me, say I do
If you love me, say I love you
If you love me, say I do
And you can say I love you
And you can say I do

So I drank myself some whisky
And I dreamed I was a cowboy
And I rode across the border

If you love me, say I love you
If you love me, take my hand
If you love me, say I love you
If you love me, take my hand
And you can say I love you
And you can have my hand

I remember in the mornings
Waking up
With your arms around my head
You told me you can sleep forever
And I’ll still hold you then

Now the weather’s getting colder
It’s even cold down here
And the words that you have told me
Hang frozen in the air
And sometimes I look right through them
As if they were not there

And the boys from North Dakota
They drink whisky for their fun
And the cowboys down in Texas
They polish up their guns
And they look across the border
To learn the ways of love

Published by Ruth E. Hetland

Ruth E. Hetland is the pastor of Saint Peter's Lutheran Church of Audubon, Minnesota. She is a mom, wife, skeptic, and Alt for Norge (Norwegian reality show) participant. She has served as a pastor in three other congregations prior to Saint Peter's: Trinity Evangelical Lutheran Church of South Newstead in Akron, New York, First Lutheran Church in Colorado Springs, Colorado, and Our Savior's Lutheran Church at Norse of Clifton, Texas. She has been published in The Lutheran magazine, Christ in Our Home, the Word in Season, the Upper Room, Sundays and Seasons, and several other worship resources. Her most recent book is "Writing With a View of the Graveyard: Loss, Life, and Unruly Grace;" (2018). This devotional with photographs of rural churches is available in black and white on Amazon and in full-color by contacting Ruth at; Ruth's first book, a preaching resource, "The Power of Place and Story in Preaching," was published in 2012 and is available on Amazon. Ruth can be contacted at

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