Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Day by Day

Praise for the Lord #120

Words: Carolina Sandell Berg, 1865; translated Andrew Skoog, 1921
Music: Oscar Ahnfelt, 1872

The soprano Jenny Lind was known worldwide as the "Swedish Nightingale," but an equal claim could be made for her friend Karolina "Lina" Sandell-Berg (1832-1903), the most prolific gospel songwriter in that language. For a summary of Sandell's life, please see my post on "Children of the Heavenly Father."

This text originated in a poem for the 1866 edition (actually published 1865) of the Korsblomman, a religious calendar that Sandell edited for many years. It was prefaced by the following thoughts in prose, which I have translated the best I can (I would be grateful for any corrections).
When one looks at the future and all the difficulties it could bring, we are tempted sometimes to give up. It is often not so much the idea of any particular difficulty that worries us, but rather the whole mass of trouble, labor, toil, suffering and temptation, which we see rising up around us as ideas.

Then, one says, "How will I get through all these difficulties?" "How came I to be in all these struggles?" "How can I endure all this labor?" We forget the comfort of the lovely promise, "As your days are, so shall thy strength be."

We grieve for tomorrow before tomorrow is come. And yet, the Lord Jesus himself said, "Sufficient for the day is its own trouble." Oh, how foolish the one that would add to the present an additional burden! We will not have more than one day, one hour, one moment at a time to go through; and there is each day a new grace, a new power, and a new help.
The text was set to music by Oskar Ahnfelt, and was first arranged as a hymn in the 10th installment of his Andeliga sånger ("Spiritual Songs") published in 1872. The text is somewhat revised from its original form.("Blott en dag")

Andrew Skoog (1856-1934), the translator of this text, was a native Swede whose family came to the U.S. in 1869. He settled in Minneapolis, where he later served on the city council and edited a Swedish-language newspaper.(Cyberhymnal) He was a minister in the Swedish Mission Covenant Church, an association of free evangelical congregations, and was an important hymn-writer, composer, and hymnal editor. In 1921 he edited the Mission Hymns: For Use in Young People Societies, Sunday Schools and Church Services, published in Chicago by the Swedish Evangelical Mission Covenant Church of America, which contained his translation of "Day by Day" and many other Swedish hymns.(Library of Congress Copyright Office, 538)

Skoog's Mission Hymns reveals the transition faced by many immigrant groups of the era: the younger, American-born generation wanted to sing in English, while the older folks preferred the songs of their native tongue. In this instance a talented translator carried over the songs of their Swedish Evangelical tradition into the language of the new country, and blessed the rest of the English-speaking world with his contributions. After running the Swedish text through a translating program, I was amazed to see how faithfully he represented the progression of ideas and the important key words from the original, while simultaneously making a beautiful English poem!

Stanza 1:
Day by day and with each passing moment,
Strength I find to meet my trials here;
Trusting in my Father's wise bestowment,
I've no cause for worry or for fear.
He whose heart is kind beyond all measure
Gives unto each day what He deems best,
Lovingly, its part of pain and pleasure,
Mingling toil with peace and rest.

What makes me love this hymn is Sandell's honesty about her own spiritual experience. There is nothing here of the saccharine sentimentality so often seen in Victorian poetry, and all too often in the gospel genre yet today. Neither does she exaggerate her troubles in maudlin fashion; in each stanza there is just a touch of sorrow here and there to set the context of her statement of faith and gratitude. Considering the tragedies she had experienced in her young life--the loss of several family members over just a few years, coupled with witnessing the death by drowning of her beloved father--she is remarkably restrained. She had discovered Paul's secret: "I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content."(Philippians 4:11) And by pouring out her thoughts and feelings in hymns, she showed one of the ways that God "works all things together for good."(Romans 8:28) Her words could not bring back her loved ones; but no doubt they helped her, and they have continued to bless untold numbers of people.

The opening line, in the original language, is "Just one day, one moment, at a time." ("Blott en dag, ett ögonblick i sänder.") Jesus taught us this principle in the simple phrase, "Give us this day our daily bread,"(Matthew 6:11) and expanded on the idea in the following passage:
Therefore do not be anxious, saying, "What shall we eat?" or "What shall we drink?" or "What shall we wear?" For the Gentiles seek after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. But seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things will be added to you. Therefore do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Sufficient for the day is its own trouble.(Matthew 6:31-34)
The wry humor of that last statement is evident even to the unbeliever; we have enough to deal with today, without regretting yesterday or worrying about tomorrow. In this sense it is akin to the pragmatic statement of Proverbs 27:1, "Do not boast about tomorrow, for you do not know what a day may bring." But there is a deeper principle here, rooted in the role of the Father as the Creator of time and space. "This is the day that the LORD has made,"(Psalm 118:24) and whether it brings us good, bad, or (usually) some of both, we need to accept it with the faith that God's "grace is sufficient."(2 Corinthians 12:9)

In the second half of the stanza Sandell may be referencing Ecclesiastes 7:14--"In the day of prosperity be joyful, and in the day of adversity consider: God has made the one as well as the other, so that man may not find out anything that will be after him." That final statement is not necessarily as bleak as it may sound; it simply observes that since there are both good and bad days in store for all of us, we should not expect either to last forever. As Kipling said so well in his poem, "If": "If you can meet with triumph and disaster / And treat those two imposters just the same . . . " Neither our greatest successes, nor our worst defeats, are as permanent in their effects as we tend to believe at the moment they occur.

But the passage from Ecclesiastes gives us even more to think about, beyond Kipling's worldly wisdom: it is within the will of our God for us to experience some bad days as well as good. Though we often bring a bad day on ourselves (and can certainly make an average day worse!), there are also many trials that are no fault of our own. Job, for example, knew that his suffering was not because of some great sin in his life; in fact he had no idea of the cosmic battle taking place over his soul. But he saw clearly enough to say, "Shall we indeed accept good from God, and shall we not accept adversity?"(Job 2:10, NKJV)

In the face of this day-by-day scenario of ups and downs, Sandell focuses on the fixed point of God's character. No matter how hard the trial, we know that will not change. Perhaps the most beautiful statement of this principle is the Book of Lamentations. (Really the only way to get the full impact of the following passage is to read the enitre book.) In the midst of his litany of sorrows, the weeping prophet makes this proclamation:
But this I call to mind, and therefore I have hope:
The steadfast love of the LORD never ceases;
His mercies never come to an end;
They are new every morning;
Great is Your faithfulness.
"The LORD is my portion," says my soul,
"Therefore I will hope in Him."
The LORD is good to those who wait for Him,
To the soul who seeks Him.
It is good that one should wait quietly for the salvation of the LORD.
(Lamentations 3:21-26)
No matter what the day brings forth, we can hold on securely to the steadfast love of our Lord.

Stanza 2:
Ev'ry day the Lord Himself is near me
With a special mercy for each hour;
All my cares He fain would bear, and cheer me,
He whose name is Counsellor and Pow'r.
The protection of His child and treasure
Is a charge that on Himself He laid;
"As thy days, thy strength shall be in measure,"
This the pledge to me He made.

The nearness of God to His people is a strong theme in the Hebrew Testament. In addition to the tabernacle, where God's presence literally lived among them, the faithful also recognized that the Creator of heaven and earth is "not far from each one of us."(Acts 17:27) Yet nearness to God was contingent on being in a right relationship to Him, as seen frequently in the Psalms:
For behold, those who are far from You shall perish;
You put an end to everyone who is unfaithful to You.
But for me it is good to be near God;
I have made the Lord GOD my refuge,
That I may tell of all Your works.
(Psalm 73:28)

Surely His salvation is near to those who fear Him,
That glory may dwell in our land.
(Psalm 85:9)

The LORD is near to all who call on Him,
To all who call on Him in truth.
(Psalm 145:18)
This relationship depended on purity of life, as exemplified (or not, sometimes) in the priesthood. Everything about them and their service emphasized holiness, both in separateness from worldliness and in dedication to God's service. Coming near the Lord was not to be taken lightly: "Also let the priests who come near to the LORD consecrate themselves, lest the LORD break out against them."(Exodus 19:22)

Maintaining this relationship also meant coming near God on His own stated terms: Psalm 145:18 above emphasizes, in the elaboration of the second phrase, that we must "call on Him in truth." Yet correct outward forms without inward sincerity was no more pleasing to God than impurity in moral character. The Lord was displeased with the mere outward show of worship in Isaiah's day, "because this people draw near with their mouth and honor Me with their lips, while their hearts are far from Me, and their fear of Me is a commandment taught by men."(Isaiah 29:13) It was a ritual without a relationship.

The same issues hold for us today. "But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ."(Ephesians 2:13) How do we stay there? James 4:8 tells us simply, "Draw near to God, and He will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded." Moral purity is just as necessary as ever.  And in Matthew 15:8-9, Jesus shamed the Pharisees of His day by quoting Isaiah 29:13 via the Septuagint translation: "This people honors Me with their lips, but their heart is far from Me; in vain do they worship Me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men." This is an even more pointed condemnation of those who would leave aside or go beyond God's word.

"Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need,"(Hebrews 4:16) because "the LORD is near to the brokenhearted and saves the crushed in spirit."(Psalm 34:18) As Sandell's hymn notes, He is our "Counsellor and Power," referencing the familiar words of Isaiah 9:6, "And His name shall be called Wonderful Counsellor, the Mighty God, the Everlasting Father, the Prince of Peace." There are many times in life when we are grateful for any kind of helpful advice, even from one another--but He is the "Wonderful" Counsellor whose advice is always correct and timely. And when we are in trouble, we are grateful for anyone who will stand by us, even those whose strength is just as feeble as our own. But never forget that the Power who called the universe into existence, and will speak its end, is the Power who promises, as He told Joshua, "I will not leave you or forsake you."(Joshua 1:5)

The quotation in the next-to-last line of this stanza is from Deuteronomy chapter 33, where Moses gives his final blessing to the twelve tribes before his death. To the tribe of Asher he says, in part, "as your days, so shall your strength be."(Deuteronomy 33:25) Fanny Crosby, to whom Lina Sandell is often compared, used the same passage in "A Wonderful Savior" when she wrote, "He giveth me strength as my day." The idea stated here, that God will provide us strength in proportion to our need, is a powerful one, and powerfully phrased. It reminds us that "God is faithful, and He will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation He will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it."(1 Corinthians 10:13) Paul knew this from his own trials, and from his thorn in the flesh. God did not take away the thorn, but assured Paul that "My grace is sufficient for you, for My power is made perfect in weakness."(2 Corinthians 12:9)

That last phrase is puzzling at first, but when we think back through the history of God's people we see many examples of this very thing. God delivered Israel by the hand of Gideon and 300 warriors, far fewer than the number actually available. God used a mere youth (though admittedly a deadly shot with a sling) to defeat Goliath, while an entire army stood by. When God came down to live in human form, He was born as a helpless infant into a working-class home and grew up in a town of little reputation. His followers were of the same class, none with the sort of political, educational, or social advantages that one would expect of men who would change the world. But God's power was shown all the more through these circumstances. If we will put ourselves in His hands, He will carry us through as well and use us to His glory in spite of our shortcomings. Today may be hard, and there may be even harder days ahead, but He will give us the strength we need to get through each day.
Stanza 3:
Help me then in ev'ry tribulation
So to trust Thy promises, O Lord,
That I lose not faith's sweet consolation
Offered me within Thy holy Word.
Help me, Lord, when toil and trouble meeting,
E'er to take, as from a father's hand,
One by one, the days, the moments fleeting,
Till I reach the promised land.

The third stanza summarizes the themes explored thus far, and adds this final thought: God creates each day, and we experience one day at a time, so we should accept the day God gives us and trust Him that it will work out to His glory and our blessing. There is more wisdom than we realize wrapped up in the simple statement already referenced above: "This is the day that the LORD has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it."(Psalm 118:24) This day is the day that the Lord has given us to live, not yesterday or tomorrow. We can learn from the mistakes of days past, and we can be comforted and encouraged by fond memories of them, but we cannot go back and live in them. We can make plans for tomorrow (to a reasonable extent), and we can be encouraged by the knowledge that tomorrow can be better, but we cannot live in tomorrow either. Today is the day God has given us.

And God's goodness in the past should reassure us that the days He gives us will ultimately be for our good! In Sandell's language here, "as from a Father's hand," she is likely thinking of her close relationship with her own father, who (contrary to typical parenting of girls at the time!) strongly encouraged her spiritual, intellectual, and literary development. No doubt there were times when he had to deny her wishes or correct her faults; but she revered him overall as an ideal parent. The Hebrews writer reminds us of the role of the ideal earthly father as one who provides both guidance and correction, out of love, then compares this to God:
We have had earthly fathers who disciplined us and we respected them. Shall we not much more be subject to the Father of spirits and live? For they disciplined us for a short time as it seemed best to them, but He disciplines us for our good, that we may share His holiness. For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it.(Hebrews 12:9-11)
Few children choose discipline, but it is necessary; no normal person chooses pain and difficulty for its own sake, but it is often necessary to achieve a goal. Our problem in applying this to the large scale--life as a whole--is that we cannot see all that God can see. If we had our choice of days, we would pick all sunny summer afternoons, just as many a child would eat nothing but desserts if given the choice. But a loving parent cannot allow it, even if the child does not see the point; likewise, our loving Father knows things about our destinies that we cannot understand now.

The video below is a simple arrangement for women's voices (soprano-alto-tenor of original) sung by the Antrim Mennonite Choir from Antrim, Ohio (a Beachy Amish congregation).

About the music:

Further information about Oscar Ahnfelt (1813-1882) has been frustratingly scant. He is said to have been a singer with the Swedish Royal Opera before he became an Evangelical preacher, but was certainly better known as a gospel singer both in Sweden and in the U.S. His musical settings were the perfect match to Sandell's poetry, to the extent that these hymns were thought of equally as "Ahnfelt's songs."(Stephenson, 40-41) Sandell herself said that "Ahnfelt has sung my songs into the hearts of the people."(Storckenfeldt, 64) One volume of Ahnfelt's Andeliga sånger is available online, but is a lyrics-only publication. The Cyberhymnal page on Ahnfelt provides several of his tunes in MIDI format.

The melody of this hymn is really quite simple--the first musical phrase (taking up two lines of text) uses only four consecutive notes of the scale, and moves almost entirely by step. The next two lines of text repeat the same melody. The third phrase (beginning the second half of the stanza) starts on the same note (MI) as the preceding phrases, but then soars up to a high DO before falling gently back; this general shape is repeated a step lower, beginning on RE. The final phrase (last two lines of text) is a repeat of the 1st and 2nd phrases. It could hardly be simpler, or more beautiful. Ahnfelt's ear for folk melody was excellent.

The harmony of this arrangement is also fairly simple, yet introduces just enough dissonance to be interesting. There is a particularly charming figure that occurs at the end of each odd-numbered line of text, in the middle of each musical phrase. Since these lines all end on unstressed syllables ("MO-ment," "be-STOW-ment," etc.) Ahnfelt holds the stressed next-to-last syllable on the same pitch as the preceding note, but changes the harmony underneath it anyway. The harmony changes on the beat, so the stressed note feels as though it is held over from the preceding chord; then the following note, on the unstressed syllable at the end of the line, relaxes the tension by falling down a step into harmony with the other voices. The technical term is a 7-6 suspension; the melody is holding a major 7th against the bass, and resolving into a 6th. In each case the tenor doubles the melody's suspension, heightening the effect.

The resulting harmonies are unusual for traditional hymn writing. On the stressed syllable of "MO-ment," for example, the harmony from bass to soprano is A - B - C# - G#. You might hear the soprano and tenor as nonharmonic tones, that is, out of the chord and getting ready to resolve. But there is an equal sense that this is just a complex, extended chord: A - C# - [E] - G# - B, or an A major 9th chord. This distraction has a curious effect on our perception of the following chord, as well--when the bass hits an "A" on the downbeat (in the first chord), we expect a simple shift to an A major chord, the subdominant of this key. But when the melody's suspension (or the major 9th extension) resolves into an F#, we have an F# minor chord in 1st inversion (or an A major chord with an added 6th, depending on how you hear things). The combination of major 7th harmonies and unexpected minor chords gives the music a somewhat wistful feeling that is especially appropriate to the text.

References: "Blott en dag." Lina Sandells Hemsidahttp://www.dagensvisa.com/minata/dav/dav_12_aug.html#borj

"Andrew L. Skoog." Cyberhymnalhttp://www.cyberhymnal.org/bio/s/k/skoog_al.htm

"Andrew L. Skoog." Wikipedia (Swedish). http://sv.wikipedia.org/wiki/Andrew_L._Skoog

Library of Congress Copyright Office. Catalog of Copyright Entries: Musical Compositions, 1921. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1922. http://books.google.com/books?id=qEYcAQAAIAAJ&pg=PA538&lpg=PA538

Stephenson, George M. The Religious Aspects of Swedish Immigration. New York: Arno Press, 1969. http://books.google.com/books?id=Vd4Ghoj0dF0C

Storckenfeldt, Sigrid Magdalena Erika. Lina Berg, född Sandell. Stockholm: Andra Upplagan, 1907.  http://books.google.com/books?id=E9QxAQAAMAAJ

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