Music can bring us to tears.
For Western Australian octogenarian Heather Mithen, the sweetest sounds from a new church organ have brought tears of joy.
But music also led to tears of worry after her debut service as a teenage organist. She persisted and, more than 60 years later, Heather is still at the organ keyboards of St Johns Lutheran Church in Perth.
Music has been a constant throughout Heather’s life. She was only 14 when she started playing a little pedal organ at services her pastor father conducted at migrant camps around Perth.
It was 1950 and, as the daughter of longstanding Perth Lutheran Pastor Rudolf Graebner, budding pianist Heather helped her father minister to new Australians migrating from war-torn Europe.
In 1952, when the regular congregational organist became ill and no-one else was available, Heather played for the Sunday worship service for the first time. She was just 16 and the organ was a large instrument that required the young men of the congregation to hand pump air through the reeds.
Despite bursting into tears at the end of that service, concerned that she had made too many mistakes, she persevered.
‘We had an organ builder, Paul Hufner, in the congregation and he built our first pipe organ’, Heather recalls. This organ was installed in 1952, hidden away in an alcove behind the pulpit. A tiny instrument with only five stops and a few pipes, Heather was with her father when she first tested it out.
‘I can remember when I played it for the first time. It played this sweet sound and we both cried’, she says. ‘It was just a beautiful sound.’
And Heather kept on playing, through the birth of her four children, and the death of her first husband Victor from a sudden heart attack when she was 46.
She played that little organ until Paul the organ builder had grander visions.
His new organ required a church extension, and an extra floor, along with a new dose of courage for Heather.
The magnificent organ with its 1200 pipes was dedicated in 1990.
‘I had never had an organ lesson all my life and, here I was, in my 50s, and I was suddenly faced with this organ with a million stops and all these pipes behind me!’ she says.
‘I remember the first time I played my heart was beating – it was quick, frightening.’
Heather’s love of music also connects her to the gospels through her favourite composer, Johann Sebastian Bach. ‘I think my faith is based much more on the gospels, which Bach’s cantatas are based on.’
‘I love playing hymns and I can’t sing to save my life!’
Heather is now passing on her love of music to a younger generation.
Five years ago, fourteen-year-old congregational member Yovela Tamba approached Heather to teach her the organ as a way of contributing to St Johns’ worship life.
Yovela started by just playing a couple of hymns in church on the organ.
By 15, she was accompanying the whole service and now plays every fortnight.
‘What I have tried to teach is that the organist is to lead the congregation in their singing, not to overpower them’, says Heather.
‘My Dad used to tell me I had to keep a step ahead of the congregation to keep the pace moving.’
Heather, a former home economics teacher, feels blessed to be 83. Now married to Harry, she is a grandmother of eight, and great-grandmother to one.
She sums her life up as ‘a life of love for Jesus’.
She will soon be ready to pass the music baton on to Yovela, and fellow member Michael Krone, a newly graduated medical doctor, who is returning for his internship in Perth after studying in Sydney.
But people will remain key in her life of love.
For the past 10 years, she has been writing and emailing a weekly prayer letter out to St Johns members and a few others, seeking prayers for people in need.
‘About 100 people receive these little prayer letters, where I just tell people to please pray for others’, she says.
‘We don’t know how God is going to answer, but if it makes the people who are ill feel supported and loved and they know people are praying for them, that’s important.
‘I feel that’s my ministry.’
And that ministry is set to continue, along with her regular visits to ageing members, many in their 90s.
‘I like to listen to people’s stories and I think people like to tell them’, she says.
Being there for people and being a listening ear are key, she says. And most important, she says, is ‘reminding them that we can pass Jesus’s love through our love’.
Indeed love is the critical element of Heather’s favourite Bible text, too – Matthew 22:37–38: ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment.’
Helen Beringen is a Brisbane-based writer who is inspired by the many GREYT people who serve tirelessly and humbly in our community. By sharing stories of how God shines his light through his people, she hopes others are encouraged to explore how they can use their gifts to share his light in the world.
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This feature story comes from The Lutheran December 2019. Visit the website to find out more about The Lutheran or to subscribe.