When I was a child, I didn’t like my grandma’s favorite hymn.
Anna Nelson Dybdahl was remarkable in many ways. As a young, single woman, she left home to become the first Adventist schoolteacher in Canada. Next, she sailed off to the Society Islands, learned French, and taught school for five years on Tahiti and Raiatea.
Back in Minnesota in 1922, she met and married my grandfather, a taciturn widower with six children ranging in age from four to fourteen years old. They settled on a small dairy farm in western Wisconsin and struggled to scratch a living through the difficult years of the late 1920s and early 1930s. Always, she gave my dad a warm refuge.
Grandma liked to sing as she did housework. Her voice was thin but clear, and she favored an F. E. Belden composition titled “Not a Wasted Moment.” Belden, a nephew of Ellen Harmon White, was a prolific writer of hymns and sacred music and had been the primary force behind the classic Christ in Song book.
I enjoyed Grandma’s singing, but not that song. Here’s the first stanza:
Not a wasted moment in the morning fair,
Not an idle instant in the noonday glare,
Not a misspent evening let the record bear,
Not a Christless mission anywhere.
Hearing those words always made me feel inadequate, derelict. They made me worry about whether I would go to heaven. If living that kind of life was the standard for admission, I was in trouble.
I liked family worship, attending Sabbath school, going to Pathfinders, and summer camp. But I also liked playing baseball and Rook and watching Leave It to Beaver and Father Knows Best. Those pleasures didn’t seem sinful, necessarily. But they didn’t help to convert others or to hasten Christ’s second coming. Even to ten-year-old me, the time spent in these activities seemed rather like wasted moments.
My fear was compounded by the belief that an angel was writing down everything I did or failed to do. And soon, on judgment day, I would have to account for every action. If I hadn’t done all I could to spread the gospel, would I be consigned to the burning lake of fire?
Behind this compulsion for constant good works was the idolatry of deeds, the idea that my value—and my destiny—was based on what I did. Salvation was transactional. The more Bible studies I gave and the more sick people I visited, the more likely I was to be saved. Conversely, the more sports I played and the more TV I watched, the more likely I was to be lost.
Of course, at both church and school we were also taught that God was a loving parent who wanted nothing but happiness for his children. But I couldn’t reconcile that idea with my dread of the judgment. In my young mind, fear of disappointing God, of not doing enough, was more real than any assurance of his unfailing love. And since I couldn’t always be doing holy deeds, sometimes I gave up trying. (I also thought it would be a lot easier to be good when I became an adult. Alas.)
It took me years to work out a comfortable place in that cosmos. To truly believe, and to know in my heart, that God loves us infinitely just because we exist. That his loving kindness toward me always remained the same, whether I was preaching a sermon or putting a golf ball.
These days, there are many moments, morning, noon, and night, when I’m not engaged in good works. Or any works, for that matter. But in every circumstance, I can strive to be kind; to be open and accepting toward those who look, think, or act differently than I do. I can strive to never misspend an evening in cynical, condescending talk about MAGA Republicans who won’t listen to reason, or about aggressive unhoused people who are ruining our towns and cities, or how Ted Wilson and his minions are denying opportunities for women to flourish within the Adventist Church, or about any lifestyle or belief system that runs contrary to my strongly held ideas.
“Strive” is the operative word. I fail regularly. But that’s the kind of person I’d like to be all the time. And when I manage to practice a mindset of caring and compassion for all God’s children, I nearly always find some way to lift the lost and lonely and strangers within my gates.
As I grow older, my mind wanders back through the years more often than it used to. Now when I recall Grandma singing “Not a Wasted Moment,” it’s a warm memory. Now I can hold focus on the last line of the chorus: “May my angel’s record every closing day, shine with love’s bright moments all the way.” Amen.
Thomas Dybdahl, who has degrees in theology, journalism, and law, is a former Spectrum journalist, Adventist pastor, and former staff attorney at the Public Defender Service for the District of Columbia, where he worked in both the trial and appellate divisions and tried twenty-five homicide cases. His book, When Innocence Is Not Enough: Hidden Evidence and the Failed Promise of the Brady Rule (The New Press, 2023), tells gripping tales of crime and the wrongs done to the falsely accused when prosecutors don’t share evidence.
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