Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Children of the Heavenly Father

Praise for the Lord #89

Words: Caroline Sandell Berg, 1858, trans. Ernest W. Olson, 1925
Music: SANDELL, from Song Book for Sunday School, 1871 (but see "About the music" below)

Karolina Wilhelmina Sandell Berg (1832-1903), known to her friends as "Lina," was one of the most prolific and influential European gospel songwriters. She member of the Pietist wing of Swedish Lutheranism, she had a deep influence on the singing of Scandinavian Lutherans both in Europe and America. Gracia Grindal notes that the 1892 Hemlandssånger ("Songs of the homeland"), published by Swedish Lutheran immigrants to the U.S., contained over one hundred songs by Sandell. Her heartfelt texts, full of a love of home and of the natural beauty of her homeland, connected to the uprooted immigrant population on a deep level; she has probably been the most influential hymn writer on Swedish American Lutherans next to Luther himself. "Children of the heavenly Father" is one of her songs that has survived among the English-speaking descendants of these immigrants, and is a traditional favorite among college choirs in the Swedish Lutheran tradition.(Grindal, 163)

She was a precocious child intellectually and spiritually, and was tutored by her minister father well beyond the education available to most women in that era.(Grindal, 167) The establishment in 1856 of the Evangeliska Fosterlandsstiftelsen (National Evangelical Missionary Society), an association of Pietist-leaning Scandinavian Lutherans, gave Lina an unexpected launch into international influence. Still unmarried in her early twenties, she devoted her considerable talent with languages to translating articles for publication in the society's monthly paper, Budbäraren. A friend at the publication knew of her hymn-writing and began publishing them anonymously in the journal, a few at a time, to enthusiastic public reception. In keeping with Sandell's modest spirit, they were presented anonymously.(Grindal, 170ff.)

Tragically, the year that saw the first publication of her most famous hymn, "Children of the Heavenly Father," also saw a string of tragedies in the young woman's life. The loss of several members of extended family to disease was capped by the drowning death of her beloved father, teacher, and mentor. Despite these blows, Sandell continued to write. It is frequently stated that "Children of the heavenly Father" was written in connection with this tragedy, but Grindal believes that Lina actually wrote it in her early teens, soon after her confirmation.(170) She wrote extensively from her early youth up, and in the 1850s would still have been publishing older works as well as writing new ones.

Grindal describes Sandell's writing as the intersection of two classic themes of Christian song--an abiding love of God's natural creation, and a deep understanding of the joys and sorrows of daily life. Overshadowing both these elements is the the quiet presence of a tender, sympathetic heavenly Father, whom Lina came to know through the example of her own earthly father.(192ff.) Her writing is simple, almost deliberately childlike, reflecting her own personality and her deep love and appreciation for children. (Contrary to her confirmed spinster status, she married in her 30s to Oskar Berg; but tragedy struck again when her only child was stillborn. She devoted herself instead to her many nieces and nephews.)

Sandell was incredibly prolific, writing well over 2,000 hymn texts.(Grindal, 192) The most complete listing I have found of her hymns is on the Swedish Wikipedia at The original Swedish lyrics of "Children of the heavenly Father" are available at

Stanza 1:
Children of the heavenly Father
Safely in His bosom gather;
Nestling bird nor star in heaven
Such a refuge e'er was given.

Sandell begins with the image of the Father gathering children in His arms, an image often used in the Bible. Moses assured Israel in his farewell blessing that, "The eternal God is your dwelling place, and underneath are the everlasting arms."(Deuteronomy 33:27) The strength and tenderness of the Father's arms mean both loving care and protection, as depicted in the beautiful description of the Shepherd-Messiah in Isaiah 40,
Behold, the Lord GOD comes with might,
And His arm rules for Him;
Behold, His reward is with Him,
And His recompense before Him.

He will tend His flock like a shepherd;
He will gather the lambs in His arms;
He will carry them in His bosom,
And gently lead those that are with young.(v. 10-11)
To this well-established metaphor, then, we need add only one other Scripture reference to make the picture complete:
And they were bringing children to Him that He might touch them, and the disciples rebuked them. But when Jesus saw it, He was indignant and said to them, "Let the children come to Me; do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of God. Truly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it." And He took them in His arms and blessed them, laying His hands on them.(Mark 10:13-16)
Sandell then turns to one of her favorite sources of inspiration to draw a comparison, but comes up short. The most cozy image she can imagine--the baby birds tucked safely away in a nest under the ever-watchful eye of a parent--does not describe the sweetness of the thought of the Lord and Creator taking a child in His arms. The most sublime and timeless image she can imagine--the celestial body in its appointed circuit, continuing serenely on its way untroubled and untouched by the cares and commotions of this earth--is still no comparison to the peace that God's salvation gives to His children.

Stanza 2:
Neither life nor death shall ever
From the Lord His children sever;
Unto them His grace He showeth,
And their sorrows all He knoweth.

The first stanza of this hymn could go equally well in "Can you count the stars?," another lovely folk-like hymn from northern Europe. But in the second stanza Sandell introduces a darker note (what kind of Scandinavian writer would she be without it?), recognizing that all of life is not cozy and cheerful. Death and separation are just as real to the Christian as to anyone else, they are just understood better. Sorrows are just as common to the Christian, perhaps even more common, but they are borne in a different spirit.

Even if this hymn was written when she was still a young girl, Lina Sandell had a wisdom beyond her years and was no stranger to suffering. She was gravely ill at age twelve, and her journal reveals the impact it had on her. She was also an avid reader of rather advanced material--she read Goethe's Faust at age thirteen, and commented sagely on the spiritual failings of the characters!(Grindal, 167ff.) As her father's constant "shadow," she was also exposed to a great deal of adult conversation as he visited with prominent ministers and writers of the Pietist movement.

I am hesitant to try to guess what Scripture lies behind a text that I am reading in translation, but the first line of this stanza may call to mind the famous passage at the end of the 8th chapter of Romans. Having told his readers why they need to be saved, and how they can be saved, Paul exhorts them to trust in that salvation no matter what. He starts by dismissing the idea of threats from the mundane powers of this world: "Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword?"(Romans 8:35) It is a rhetorical question, so like any good lecturer Paul answers it himself.

He returns to the point once again, however, stressing that not only are the powers of this world unable to shake us, but neither can the powers of any other world harm our relationship to God. The final two verses are a rhetorical crescendo unlike anything else I can think of in Scripture:
For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.(Romans 8:38-39)
Of all the powers that humanity has tamed in this world, life and death are still beyond our grasp. We can create life (in the way God meant us to!), and we can take it; but we are unable to undo either of those actions. We all know what it means for something to be alive, or to be dead, but we are at a loss to quantify those terms when really put to the test. And yet we are all facing a journey to "that undiscovered country from whose bourne no traveler returns." But in Christ we have that promise that David understood: "Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for Thou art with me."

In the sufferings of this life, too, we have assurance that God knows our troubles, and that He is ready and able to help. When the Israelites suffered in slavery, they were not forgotten; the word came to Moses that "I have surely seen the affliction of My people which are in Egypt, and have heard their cry by reason of their taskmasters; for I know their sorrows."(Exodus 3:7) David, in his lifetime full of troubles, could say, "You number my wanderings; put my tears into Your bottle; are they not in Your book?"(Psalm 56:8) If we need any further evidence that God knows, understands, and emphathizes with our sorrows, remember that in the person of His Son "He has borne our griefs, and carried our sorrows."(Isaiah 53:4) He was "a Man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief."(Isaiah 53:3)

If God knows our sorrows, just as surely He provides what we need to bear them. No clearer explanation of this can be found than Paul's description of his "thorn in the flesh." Whatever that was, it was terrible to Paul, enough that he earnestly pleaded with God to remove it--and Paul was no stranger to physical suffering! But instead of taking it away, God told him, "My grace is sufficient for you, for My power is made perfect in weakness."(2 Corinthians 12:9) God's grace is sufficient for our trials, and if we must suffer, let us do so in a way that shows God's power through our lives. The circumstances may remain terrible, but God's grace can shine out more clearly when it is darkest, and our example may do an eternal good to someone else.

Stanza 3:
Though He giveth or He taketh,
God His children ne'er forsaketh;
His the loving purpose solely
To preserve them pure and holy.

After the introduction of sorrow, and questions of life and death, Sandell brings the issue into even sharper focus. The opening line of the third stanza is an obvious reference to the words of Job, after finding he had lost every earthly possession and all of his children:
Then Job arose, and rent his mantle, and shaved his head, and fell down upon the ground, and worshipped, and said, "Naked came I out of my mother's womb, and naked shall I return; the LORD gave, and the LORD hath taken away; blessed be the name of the LORD.(Job 1:20-21)
His powerful faith allowed him to view all that he treasured as it truly was--blessings bestowed by God, not to be clung to as though they were Job's by right. He expanded on this idea in response to his wife's lack of faith, saying, "Shall we indeed accept good from God, and shall we not accept adversity?"(Job 2:10) God was not the source of the adversity (though Job thought so at the time), but Job's point is still good to consider: we accept God's blessings readily enough during the good times, and trust in Him then, so will we not trust Him in the bad times, when we need that assurance more than ever?

After a lengthy philosophical debate between Job and his friends, God put an end to their "words without knowledge,"(Job 38:2) and declared that the target of their barbs was indeed "My servant Job."(Job 42:7) All outward appearances to the contrary, God was still watching over the soul of the sufferer. We know that there will be trouble in this life for us as well, for "all who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted."(2 Timothy 3:12) But even were we persecuted to the point of death, "Precious in the sight of the LORD is the death of His saints."(Psalm 116:15)

Sandell points out a further aspect of Christian suffering, which was perhaps on her mind after her childhood illness--"the testing of your faith produces steadfastness."(James 1:3) She notes that God's ultimate purpose is not for His children's happiness in this life, but to "preserve them" for the life to come through making them more "pure and holy." Peter, who also knew a thing or two about suffering and persecution, put it this way:
In this you greatly rejoice, though now for a little while, if need be, you have been grieved by various trials, that the genuineness of your faith, being much more precious than gold that perishes, though it is tested by fire, may be found to praise, honor, and glory at the revelation of Jesus Christ.(1 Peter 1:6-7)
The purification process used to refine metals involves destructive heat that burns off the dross, and makes the material malleable and useful to the artisan. In the same way, suffering--which is simply a part of living in this world--can refine us and mold us into what God would have us to be. And at the end of the process, Peter reminds, is "the end of your faith--the salvation of your souls."

Stanza 4:
God His own doth tend and nourish;
In His holy courts they flourish,
From all evil things He spares them;
In His mighty arms He bears them.

In the final stanza, Sandell reprises the image of the Shepherd/Father who carries His children in His strong, nurturing arms. But this stanza raises a thought-provoking question of interpretation as well--when the 3rd line says "From all evil things He spares them," are we to view this as the children of God at home in heaven? Or in this present life?

Are we in the "holy courts" of God in this present life? If we have entered into His kingdom, it is fair to say that we are, because "you [i.e., Christians collectively] are God's temple."(1 Corinthians 3:16) Do we flourish in this kingdom? Does God "tend and nourish" us now, and bear us in "His mighty arms?" Of course we must answer in the affirmative.

The question then becomes, what did Sandell mean by that 3rd line? In what sense can we say that God spares His children from "all evil things?" The preceding stanzas make it clear that God does not spare His children from all physical suffering, or from all mental distress.

If we return to Romans chapter 8, however, we see a large list of evil things that will not prevail against us. Paul does not say, of course, that they will not happen--he had experienced too many of them himself. But not all of them together have the power to "separate us from the love of God,"(v.39) and in the end, that is all we need.

About the music:

Praise for the Lord only indicates that the tune arrangement used comes from the Song Book for Sunday School of 1871, but the tune itself is older. Some sources indicate it is a Swedish or German folk tune (or perhaps both?) dating at least back to the early 18th century. In 1873 it was published with Sandell's original Swedish text in Loftangeroch andeliga wisor, so it is also sometimes called by the incipit of the hymn text, TRYGGARE KAN INGEN VARA.(

It is very likely that it came from Oskar Ahnfelt (1813-1882), a popular Swedish folk musician who wrote or arranged the music associated with Sandell's hymns.(Cyberhymnal, "Ahnfelt") There is a strong similarity (at least in general style) to the other well-known Sandell/Ahnfelt collaboration, "Day by day, and with each passing moment." If Ahnfelt did not write the music, he may have arranged it. The rhythm of the SANDELL tune (two heavy beats and a light third beat) is more similar to an Austrian Ländler than to any traditional Swedish music I have examined, so a German/Austrian folk origin is at least possible.

The combination of Sandell's poetry and Ahnfelt's folk music has a powerful simplicity, and their songs are well worth learning. Though I could not find a straightforward a cappella rendition of the hymn, I hope you will enjoy this lovely performance of the choral arrangement by Paul Christiansen.


Grindal, Gracia. Preaching from home: the stories of seven Lutheran women hymn writers. Lutheran Quarterly Books

"Tryggare kan ingen vara."

"Oskar Ahnfelt." Cyberhymnal.

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