Growing up, my favorite two pages in any book were Hymns 381-382 in The Covenant Hymnal (1973): “Day by Day and with Each Passing Moment” and “Children of the Heavenly Father,” both originally written in Swedish by the great Lina Sandell. If the stale old joke is actually true and Swedish is the language of heaven, then surely the angels will be singing both tunes.
Children of the heavenly Father
Safely in his bosom gather…
If I had to pick one, though, it was the latter. Not only did it speak directly to me as a young child, but the presence of one italicized verse in the original language reminded me that my faith was rooted in multiple generations of the Swedish immigrant experience. So when my wife and I were planning our wedding and decided that we wanted to honor our families by picking favorite old hymns, I asked for “Children of the Heavenly Father” as a tribute to my Grandma Peterson, who had died a few years before. If anyone is among those God “doth tend and nourish,” in whose “holy courts they flourish,” it was my grandmother.
But once the wedding day came, I simply couldn’t handle that many layers of meaning. I’m not sure that more than a few people in the church noticed what was happening, but halfway through the first verse, I began to dissolve into tears. The words evoked memories of Grandma’s long years of illness, and regret that my wife — and our children — would never meet her.
(One more layer: the first time my kids learned “Children of the Heavenly Father” was a couple years ago, when they sang it for my Grandpa Peterson’s 90th birthday with the rest of his great-grandchildren.)
Nearly ten years later, I still struggle to make it through Sandell’s hymn, short as it is. I thought I was getting over it, but then this past Sunday afternoon, we attended a funeral that opened with, of course, “Children of the Heavenly Father.” Making it more than I could bear was the fact that the funeral was for the adult son of one of our older friends from Salem’s choir — the second son she and her husband have now buried.
Neither life nor death shall ever
From the Lord his children sever…
For much of my life, I heard the hymn with the ears of a child. Now that I have my own children, the accents fall in different places. Most of the time, it makes me cherish my calling as a father — and occasionally convicts me of how I fall short in that role. But in the presence of two grieving parents, the hymn brought back to mind something that I had shared in my September letter to my own children on their first day of kindergarten: “I can’t begin to tell you,” I wrote, “how terrifying it is to trust that you — the people we love most in this life — are going to be safe without us there to protect you, when I know enough of the world to know its dangers.”
Even then, in what seemed like my deepest fear, I didn’t imagine the horrible possibility that we might outlive our kids.
So between empathy for Murriel and Larry and anxiety for Lena and Isaiah, the final verse of the hymn caught in my throat:
Though he giveth or he taketh
God his children ne’er forsaketh
Ne’er? Truly? After all, even God’s own son felt forsaken by him.
And why would a Defender at whose will “Ev’ry foeman must surrender” leave undefended these his children?
But much as my mind itched to battle the problems of evil and suffering, to conquer doubt with theology and philosophy, I instead paid heed to the suggestion at the center of our pastor’s meditation: that one of the mercies of such a loss is that it reminds us that we are not God. Unable to fully understand, we are given an opportunity to relinquish our delusions of control and power and actually do what we’re supposed to have been doing all along: “Be still, and know that I am God!” (Ps 46:10)
So I paused and meditated, to the tune of “Children of the Heavenly Father,” on the psalm’s claim (made twice) that “The Lord of hosts is with us; / the God of Jacob is our refuge” (vv 7, 11).
Nestling bird nor star in heaven
Such a refuge e’er was given.
The hard part is that we take refuge in a God of paradox: he provides and deprives, such that in death there is life and in sorrow, grace. (See also “Day by Day,” in which we pray to “He whose heart is kind beyond all measure,” a Provider who gives “pain and pleasure” and mingles “toil with peace and rest.”)
How, at a funeral, can we affirm that “From all evil things he spares them”?
There is no real intellectual resolution to that question. As Murriel’s fellow choir members sang on Sunday, “Endless Your grace, O endless Your grace, / Beyond all mortal dream.”
But for all the theological loose ends in a hymn like “Children of the Heavenly Father,” there is still resolution: a simple musical idea that somehow doesn’t collapse under the weight of doubt. There is refuge in the gentle loveliness of a folk tune that we learn as children and continue to sing, child-like, through the last of our years.
Or as Pastor Mark prayed: “Music expresses, with an integrity of heart and mind, truth that goes beyond what words can say.”