Throughout this year, I will be spending time reflecting upon various hymns. We may not think about hymns as a way that we teach and pass on the faith, but the reality is that many of us can remember hymns a lot easier than memorizing scripture.
The hymn, “Children of the Heavenly Father”, is rooted within the Swedish tradition. This hymn is one that is almost always sung at baptisms and funerals at churches that have a Scandinavian background. The hymn was written by Karolina Sandell who was born in 1832 in Fröeryd, a small town in the Småland province of Sweden. Her father was a Lutheran pastor and raised Lina in a faith that emphasized the grace and warmth of God. Throughout her life, she wrote over 2000 hymns texts and poems and worked as an editor at the Evangelical National Foundation, a mission organization with the Lutheran Church of Sweden.
The tradition of this hymn is that Karolina wrote it quite early in her life—perhaps as young as age seventeen. The tradition is that Karolina wrote the hymn while seated on the branch of a large ash tree that stood in the parsonage yard. From that spot on warm summer evening she could listen to the content twitter of the birds as they hid in their nests among the green leaves, and from there she could watch the stars as they began to appear. Her impressions fortified the biblical concepts of the security of God’s children.
It is the ‘security of God’s children’ that serves as the central theme around which this text is built. The bosom of the ‘heavenly Father’ serves as a ‘refuge’ where children are nourished and protected from evil by the ‘mighty arms’ of God. The last two stanzas build on this theme of protection by boldly confessing that nothing can separate children from their God (Rom. 8:38-39), a God who will never forsake God’s children (Deut. 31:6).
While it could be legitimately claimed that such sentiments seem to make light of suffering and evil, it can also be argued that the many tragic events in Karolina’s life argue against making light of the suffering and evil. In addition to the severe illnesses she suffered throughout her life, by the age of 28 she had lost her sister to
tuberculosis, her father to drowning (which she helplessly witnessed on a boat in in Lake Vättern), and finally her mother to a prolonged illness. Even her marriage to businessman Carl Oscar Berg was marred by grief, as she endured the collapse of her husband’s business and the birth of a stillborn baby girl, their only child. In light of such suffering, what remains in the ashes is a song that serves as a bold confession of faith similar to the cry of Job that she paraphrases in the final stanza: ‘The Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord’ (Job 1:21).
Throughout the hymn, Karolina portrays a God whose ‘mighty arm’ protects and spares—this image evokes the biblical image of the mothering hen gathering chicks under her arms (Luke 13:34). This is an image that Karolina will revisit in another one of her more popular hymns ‘Thy Holy Wings.’
When Karolina died in 1903 at the age of 71, thousands come to attend her burial in Stockholm. Like so many Swedish funerals before and after, the choir began to sing ‘Children of the Heavenly Father.’ Spontaneously, the swelling congregation join in to sing together of the God whose love is so great that ‘neither life nor death shall ever from the Lord his children sever.’
(material for this article was adapted from website: www.umcdiscipleship.org)