Funeral Sermon for Thorvald Hansen
Every loss is significant but some losses are even more significant than others. Thorvald was a husband, father, and friend. We are here today because we were attached to him and he was attached to us. But far more importantly, in holy baptism Thorvald was attached to our Lord Jesus Christ, and Christ to him. Today we celebrate the most intimate of relationships—becoming one with our Lord—; this Thorvald has already experienced, and through God’s life-giving, unconditional promise, you too will experience it as well.
With respect to the Grundtvigian heritage, Thorvald was not just a private figure—like so many of us—but instead a public figure. More than any Danish-American living today, Thorvald was the connection, the thread, the voice and heart of the Grundtvigian-American tradition. In a sense, as a scholar he is the last link or thread that we have with that powerful tradition which continues to nourish Grand View University even to this day.
We have all learned from him and what he has taught us continues to live on through us. It is not just that he served as archivist for Grand View for so many years, but in a very real sense, he was the “institutional memory” of Grand View, and not only of Grand View but also the Grundtvigian Danes in America as well. No one living knows the history of those Danes as well as Thorvald did. He walked with the giants of the past—men like Johannes Knudsen, Enok Mortensen, Harry Jensen, and Ernest Nielsen—but he continued this legacy well into the twenty-first century through his ministry and teaching.
As a young man Thorvald had great regard for giants such as S. D. Rodholm, and so many of his teachers. But in his own way, Thorvald proved himself to be every bit the giant. He excelled in publications exploring not just the history of Grand View but also of the Danish American Church. His passing is quite the loss because not a one of us knows that heritage from the inside out like Thorvald did. And, none of us have the resources in language, friendships, and history which he had so that we could know it like Thorvald did. We are honored to have known Thorvald and to have received from his passion and wisdom.
Everyone has turning points in their lives. Perhaps the one thing that influenced Thorvald’s life was his appendectomy in 1940. In the hospital Pastor L. C. Bundgaard, the Danish-American pastor in Troy New York visited him. Thorvald confided to him that he was interested in becoming a pastor and Bundgaard urged Thorvald to attend Grand View. By that time, Thorvald was considerably older than 18, but he took up Bundgaard’s lead and moved to Des Moines. One could look at Thorvald’s entire life as one of gratitude—gratitude for the opportunity which Grand View and the Danish Church gave him for an education—for surely Thorvald understood just how powerful and life-transforming education is. As a youth he enjoyed the little library in his congregation which gave him access not merely to religious literature but novels and history. But his instructors at Grand View, men like Rodholm, Nielsen, Knudsen, and Ammentorp, opened his mind to new ideas and helped him spread his wings. God provides ways for us to grow—and reading stretches our imaginations, teaches our consciences how to walk in others’ shoes, and makes us adept in problem solving. God works through literature—he did with Thorvald and he does with us as well.
Not only did Thorvald thrive on all the new ideas he encountered as a student but he established lifelong friends, men such as Peter Thomsen, Marvin Jessen, Willard Garred, Clayton Nielson, Theodore Thuesen, Harry Jensen, and Harold Riber—to name a few. At Grand View, Thorvald learned to become a writer and editor, originally of the Grand View Echo, and then later of the Danish Church’s Lutheran Tidings.
Thorvald was not always so public about his faith, but as I have learned over the years, faith was very important to him. So important that it should never be trivialized, made cutesy, or aligned with a conservative political agenda. For some time, I have felt, that like Jacob Thorvald wrestled with an angel, a messenger from God. Life has its ups and downs and it is not always clear where God is in it all. One route is to become bitter and hold God in contempt. Another route is to resign one’s life into God’s hands. Another route is to lament to God. Another route is to wrestle with God—and I feel that Thorvald was often on that path. That path is not to be slighted or seen to be inferior. It is the path of God’s people: the word Israel means “one who wrestles with God.”
Jesus himself in the Garden of Gethsemane asked his Father why he had forsaken him. That too is wrestling with God. We surely can learn from Thorvald that deep and abiding faith indicates the courage to wrestle with God, to raise hard questions, to resist simplistic solutions, and to be patient with pain. But wrestling with God is not a winnable option. Ultimately when we wrestle with God, God wins. Ultimately God’ message to Thorvald and to you and me is that his mercy is enough for us. The whole point about wrestling with God is to let go—and to receive God’s mercy and generosity—that God’s grace is enough to carry us through life. Paul learned this lesson well when he pleaded to God three times for God to take away his “thorn” (as he put it) which was his basis for wrestling with God. What Paul learned was that God’s grace is sufficient or enough for him, because God’s power is made perfect in weakness. Paul goes on to say, “Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong.” (2 Cor 12:9-10). Thorvald too had many ups and downs in his life, but in all these things, God proved that is mercy and goodness is enough. And, God will prove the same for you.
Thorvald is not a man who came as a “single package.” He was a man quite dependent upon Johanne who he originally met as a student at Grand View but with whom he was reacquainted in West Denmark in 1947. There is no way that Thorvald could have written as much as he had if he hadn’t had Johanne to assist him. Johanne is every bit as bright and free-spirited as her husband. But she is loyal, sympathetic, and powerful, complementing her husband’s work ethic. I have often thought that Thorvald would not have been as productive as he was apart from the companionship given to him by Johanne.
Amongst his many gifts, as a historian, Thorvald knew in his bones how to step outside the little stories to see the wider framework, the bigger story. That takes a great deal of objectivity—most people aren’t able to do it. But Thorvald did and could. By seeing the bigger picture and finding ways to conveying it to others, we are all made wiser.
Thorvald’s values of caring for the little person, equality of opportunity for all, and freedom to think for oneself grew out of what he had learned from his mentors. He always wanted faith to impact life. He had little patience with Christian fundamentalists. Any faith worth its salt for Thorvald was one that invited challenge, debate, and questioning that “shakes the foundations.” More than anything Thorvald was a man of courage who did not flee from life but instead accepted life on its terms and walked bravely into it. Yes, of course, he was a little on the shy side, but shyness is not the opposite of courage but instead is confidence that one has sufficient skills to cope with life.
As a professional, Thorvald came to his own when he served as Grand View archivist. The 1980s saw Thorvald offer a fury of publications and international travel (to Denmark, naturally!), which brought him and Johanne as well great joy.
We can be grateful for Thorvald’s life, his contributions, his memory, his passion for equity and freedom. More than anything we can look to our Savior Christ who claimed Thorvald in his baptism, sustained Thorvald in ministry, inspired Thorvald in his research and writing, and now has brought him to the heavenly home. God makes his power perfect not in our perfections but in our weaknesses—and for this we can be grateful this day and forever. As Thorvald’s grandson said, “only the good die young—but my grandfather is 98—that means that he wasn’t just good, but great.”
We can be reminded of the words we sang in “O Day Full of Grace”:
When we on that final journey go That Christ is for us preparing, We’ll gather in song, our hearts aglow, All joy of the heavens sharing, And walk in the light of God’s own place, With angels his name adoring.
Now the great man has met the Great Shepherd! We can claim the words of Hebrews:
“Now may the God of peace, who brought back from the dead our Lord Jesus, the great shepherd of the sheep, by the blood of the eternal covenant, 21 make you complete in everything good so that you may do his will, working among us that which is pleasing in his sight, through Jesus Christ, to whom be the glory forever and ever. Amen” (Hebrews 13:20-21).
Above you have read the eulogy for my Uncle Thorvald Hansen, I traveled to Iowa for his burial and funeral service. Thorvald was 98 years old in January. He was one of most brilliant men I have ever known. I admired his dedication to the history of the Danish Lutheran Church. He was a man with dry wit and little to say, but if you listened, you got a chuckle or learned a bit. He will be missed by all, and especially my Aunt Johanne, his wife. Aunt Johanne & I shared a few minutes together at coffee after the funeral service.