I started taking piano lessons at the age of 7. When I was 14, I started playing for church on Sunday evenings. I was already accompanying one of the choirs at my high school, so this served to give me some added practice and experience in playing for other people and learning how to follow a director or song leader. I enjoyed playing for church …… that is until ‘favorite hymn’ night rolled around. Ugh. Ugh, UGH, UGH!!! Without fail, someone would request “Wonderful Grace of Jesus.” I despised that song, for one reason – the chorus. The melody was played with the left hand, and like many right-handed people, my left hand was not nearly as coordinated as my right. So I stumbled through the song, missing every third note in an effort to make it sound halfway decent, muttering under my breath and heaving a sigh of relief when it was finally over – all 3 verses of it! As I look back, I realize I missed it — I missed what the song was all about. My focus was on getting through it, and I paid little attention to the beautiful music or the meaning behind the words. We treat life the same way sometimes. We’re so busy stumbling through difficult days and situations, focused on getting to the day’s end and crawling into bed at night that we miss it. We miss seeing the beauty God makes of our lives through His saving grace and we miss how, even through the difficulties, He provides us very teachable moments that show us just how much He loves us.
Haldor Lillenas was born in Norway, November 19, 1885. When he was just a child, his family immigrated to America, living in South Dakota for 2 years, and then settling in Astoria, Oregon.
At 21 years old, Haldor entered Deets Pacific Bible College in Los Angeles, California (later known as Pasadena College), and afterward became a pastor in the Church of the Nazarene. He received musical training through his own personal study and correspondence courses. Haldor eventually became more renowned due to his musical endeavors than through his personal ministry.
While at Deets College, Haldor met Bertha Mae Wilson. Both Haldor and Bertha Mae preached, sang and wrote songs, and often practiced together in the home of Bertha’s father. Haldor recalled in his autobiography, “We soon learned that our voices blended well and so we arranged it that our lives should also be blended.” Haldor married Bertha Mae on October 4th, 1910.
In 1917, Haldor and Bertha Mae built their first small home in Olivet, Illinois. When it was finished, they had very little money left to furnish it. Needing an instrument to compose with, he found a “wheezy little organ” at a neighbor’s home that he bought for $5.00. With the help of this little organ, Haldor composed a number of songs, including “Wonderful Grace of Jesus.” The song was copyrighted in 1918, but not published until 1922 in the Tabernacle Choir Book. Haldor was paid the grand sum of $5.00 for the sale of the hymn.
Haldor founded the Lillenas Publishing Company in 1924. The company published and sold over 700,000 songbooks and hymnals before it was sold in 1930 to the Nazarene Publishing House. Haldor worked there 20 years as an editor until his retirement at age 65. After he retired, Haldor continued to serve as an advisor to the music department at the Nazarene Publishing House until his death.
Haldor passed away on August 18, 1959 in Aspen, Colorado. He was inducted into the Gospel Music Hall of Fame in 1982. Of the over 4,000 hymns Haldor had written, “Wonderful Grace of Jesus” is the most famous.
WONDERFUL GRACE OF JESUS
Wonderful Grace of Jesus, greater than all my sin;
How shall my tongue describe it,
Where shall its praise begin?
Taking away my burden, setting my spirit free;
O the Wonderful Grace of Jesus reaches me!
Wonderful Grace of Jesus, reaching to all the lost;
By it I have been pardoned, saved to the uttermost.
Chains have been torn asunder, giving me liberty;
O the Wonderful Grace of Jesus, reaches me!
Wonderful Grace of Jesus, reaching the most defiled;
By its transforming power,
Making me God’s dear child,
Purchasing peace and Heaven, for all eternity;
And the Wonderful Grace of Jesus, reaches me!
Wonderful the matchless Grace of Jesus,
the matchless Grace of Jesus,
Deeper than the mighty rolling sea;
the rolling sea;
Wonderful Grace, all sufficient for me, for even me
Higher than the mountain, sparkling like a fountain,
All sufficient Grace for even me.
Broader than the scope of my transgressions,
Greater far than all my sin and shame
my sin and shame,
O magnify the precious name of Jesus,
PRAISE HIS NAME!
Today, I can play that song, almost without a hitch. But now when I play it, I pay attention to the words. Note that at the end of every verse, Mr. Lillenas repeated the same line — “O the Wonderful Grace of Jesus reaches me!” I think he wanted us to remember, from the smooth cruisin’ days to the bumpy pothole-filled days, that God’s grace is always there, and it is always enough to sustain us, whatever we might be going through.
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