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Children of the Heavenly Father

LORD OF LIFE LUTHERAN CHURCH

Music Notes

14 June, 2015

 

“Children of the Heavenly Father.” Swede Caroline Sandell Berg (1832-1903) wrote this beloved hymn text whilst still in her teens. Having written poems and hymn texts as a little girl, it would be a vocation she cultivated throughout her life, eventually becoming an editor of a major Swedish church publishing house. At age 21, she published her first set of poems, followed two years later by another. However, she omitted her name from the collection, not wanting to garner any praise for herself or evidence any potentially sinful pride. Her biographer Per Harling writes that her modesty was such that, even after her appointment as head of a Lutheran publishing house, she referred to herself modestly as ‘Stiftelsens lilla piga,’ which means ‘The little maid of the Association.” When she was 26, she watched as her father (a Lutheran pastor) fell off a boat and drowned off the coast of Sweden. For many years, it was thought this tune was composed by her resulting from her sorrow from this experience, and others have attributed this hymn text to this same sorrow, even though it was written many years prior, and the hymn tune, although untraceable, bears similarities to some 18th-century tunes.

            Sandell Berg’s hymn is replete with scripture references and metaphor. Romans 8: 14 provides some inspiration when Paul writes, “And by Him we cry, “Abba, Father.” The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children. Now if we are children, then we are heirs—heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ.” Heirs—children--whilst benefitting from an inheritance, generally don’t do anything to deserve their gifts, but are provided for out of Fatherly goodness and mercy, just as the Father gathers “Nestling bird [and] star in heaven.” Paul continues in verse 35 saying, “Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword? . . . No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through Him who loved us.”

            Hymnologist Michael Hawn observes that this hymn may be borne out of the political strife of the time (something to which we can relate.) The late 1840s were a time of great political upheaval and distress. The revolutions of 1848 had rocked Europe, threatening the political establishment and fomenting the impetus for the migrations to the New World. Industrialisation was well under way, and society was moving from rural to urban, with all the social problems that entails. (Think of Dickens’ tales set during this time.) Also in 1848 Karl Marx and Frederick Engels had published their Communist Manifesto outlining a socialist vision for the new society that was going to create itself one way or another. Stockholm, where Sandell Berg lived, was beset by stirrings of revolution. Amidst these circumstances she took comfort in Matthew 6 in which Jesus comforts us saying, “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more important than food, and the body more important than clothes? Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they?” And one must also wonder about her own prescient final stanza, “Though He giveth or He taketh, God His children ne’er forsaketh; His the loving purpose solely to preserve them pure and holy.” No doubt this was a comfort to her on the loss of her father, and her life demonstrates a solid faith and unwavering commitment to Christ.

            This hymn is sung frequently at baptisms in Sweden. Although the hymn mentions nothing of baptism, there is still a sentimental attachment to it by many in secular Swedish society. One can be thankful that we can appreciate this wondrous hymn beyond its sentimentality.

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Christ Whose Glory Fills the Skies

 

“Christ Whose Glory Fills the Skies”   This joyous morning hymn comes from Charles Wesley (1707-1788), who along with his brother, John, founded the Methodist Church as a “renewal” movement of the Church of England.  Charles wrote thousands of hymns, many of which are beloved in Christendom.  His, for example, is “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing.”  In the first stanza of this morning hymn can we see the unmistakable imagery of Charles Wesley, “Christ, whose glory fills the skies, Christ, the true and only light, Sun of righteousness, arise, Triumph o’er the shades of night. . .”  This stanza echoes Wesley’s famous Christmas hymn, but derives inspiration from Malachi 4: 2, “But for you who revere my name, the sun of righteousness will rise with healing in its wings.”  This is no doubt a foreshadowing of the “Son” of righteousness who will bring healing in His wings.  As at Christmastide (actually, 21 December), when the days begin to lengthen and we are reminded daily in nature that Christ is the Sun of Righteousness, this hymn reminds us that the Sun of Righteousness is present daily—even with more certainty than that with which we greet the daybreak.  The stanza continues with veiled references to Christ, the “Dayspring from on high” and the “Daystar, in my heart appear.”  The Dayspring reference can be traced to Isaiah 9:1, “The people in darkness have seen a great light,” this light sometimes being translated as “dayspring.”  The Daystar is also that “bright, morningstar” which can often be seen right before dawn.  Since this star is actually a planet (Venus), its theological import is even more precise.  Just as Venus merely reflects the light of the sun, so, too, does Christ reflect the light of God the Father. 

            Notice Wesley’s text painting in the second stanza, “Dark and cheerless is the morn unaccompanied by Thee; joyless is the day’s return, Till Thy mercy’s beams I see, Till they inward light impart, Glad my eyes, and warm my heart.”  Just as the morning is not the morning without the sun, our faith is meaningless without Christ.  To use a cliché befitting a church committee, the astute reader of music notes may have an “ah-ha!” moment.  (Apologies for the cliché—it won’t happen again.)  Wesley now speaks of “inward light” which warms “my heart.”  Charles Wesley may begin his texts with grand, universal, celestial themes, but he quickly personalizes them so that we realize we are not singing about a metaphorical Deity, but One who relates to us personally.  The Wesleys both believed in a sort of “heartfelt” faith as opposed to one that was “intellectually objective” (although one might argue that those two “poles” are not incongruous), and such was partly a reaction to the Deism of the time which posited that God started the heavens in motion, but now has left humanity to its own devices and remains personally unknown to us. 

The third stanza prayerfully implores Christ to “Visit then this soul of mine, pierce the gloom of sin and grief; fill me, radiancy divine, scatter all my unbelief;  more and more Thyself display, shining to the perfect day.”  Here Wesley compares “sin and grief” to unbelief—a useful thought in today’s world in which the endless questioning of authority (particularly of organized religion) is somehow a badge of honor and announces one to be a true “intellectual.”  Unbelief is the result of sin, and belief can only come from Christ.  Just as Christ derives his essence from the Father, we likewise derives our spiritual capabilities as a Christian from Christ Himself.  We are able to be justified only through Christ’s redemption, and we are only sanctified through the word of the Holy Spirit.  Perhaps we would do well to remember this every morning when we rise to greet the sun!

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