The following post was written in February 2011. As I type, Beth and I are about three weeks out from meeting our third child. Rest assured, Children of the Heavenly Father will be sung at his baptism, and yes, I will probably cry again.
One of the lasting memories of my childhood was seeing my mother cry in church. This was not for anything my brothers or I did, mind you (although I’m sure such moments did occur), but because of one particular melody that had (and has) the unique ability to turn an unflappable mother of four boys into a blubbering puddle of tears.
Children of the heavenly father
Safely in his bosom gather.
Nestling bird nor star in heaven
Such a refuge ne’er was given.
It didn’t help matters that the song is one of the most omnipresent in all of Lutheran hymnody. Even Martin Luther’s A Mighty Fortress Is Our God isn’t as oft-repeated as this simple Swedish folk tune. While Luther’s “battle hymn” is largely reserved for festival days like Reformation Sunday, Children of the Heavenly Father is used to mark every major milestone in a congregant’s life. Be it baptism, confirmation, marriage, funeral—it is understood that such celebrations of life or remembrances of life past are to be accompanied by the hymn.
At our church, Children of the Heavenly Father was the official hymn sung at every baptism. And living in a growing suburban neighborhood, we had a lot of baptisms. When opening the bulletin, we recognized the hymn on sight (hymn number 474 in the old Lutheran Book of Worship), and would take no small joy in pointing it out to mom before the service started. She would always vow that she wasn’t going to cry this time, but before the first verse was completed, there were always tears streaming down her face. Dad kept a handkerchief in his church suit pocket, just in case there was a baptism scheduled for that Sunday.
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.
There was never a need to open the hymnal when the opening strands began on the organ. I imagine someday we will find out that there is a DNA strand specific to those of us from Scandinavian descent that causes us to know the lyrics in utero. I can’t remember ever being taught the words—I just knew them. I could be mistaken, but I even vaguely remember singing it once in perfect Swedish, despite not knowing a word of my mother language. I think this might constitute the Lutheran version of “speaking in tongues.”
As the hymn continued, we would look around the sanctuary, and notice that mom wasn’t the only one in tears. There were always several other church members—usually parents, more often than not mothers or grandmothers—who joined mom in her catharsis.
I thought it odd at the time how such a simple melody could have such a profound effect on so many people. Why was it that this song that we sang so regularly could consistently evoke such emotion? We would sing so many other hymns—soaring, majestic pieces written by the likes of Bach, Mendelssohn, and Handel—void of any real discernable passion, and Scripture readings were at best met with a knowing nod of the head, as if to let everyone in the pew know that you knew the message imbedded in the text. Yet nothing else in the service seemed to move people like Children of the Heavenly Father.
Neither life nor death shall ever
From the Lord His children sever.
Unto them His Grace he showeth
And their sorrows all he knoweth.
It wasn’t until years later that I took the time to look at the simple couplets that form the lyrics to the hymn. Unlike other hymns, there is no deep, theological subtext to the message. No clever turn of phrase that would cause one to rub his chin and smile in agreement. No lines like “ineffably sublime” compelling one to go home and dig out the dictionary from the back of the office bookshelf. In many ways, it is a hymn directed to and about children. And yet, the message conveyed is supremely profound. In its four short verses, it simply, elegantly describes God’s grace—His undeserved love and favor lavished upon his children freely and without reserve.
It helps to be reminded from time to time that whatever importance we claim for ourselves and whatever accomplishments for which we boast; the one thing worth clinging to as Christians is our status as children beloved by God. And this is true regardless of our status in life. At baptism, we are reminded that has brought us into His family as adopted children through no act of our own. Through confirmation and catechesis, we remember that God works in us and sanctifies us as we grow in faith. In marriage, God reveals that even as we leave our earthly parents and become “one flesh” with another, He remains our Heavenly Father, guiding and directing our steps, even as we become parents ourselves. And in death, we are given a glimpse of a loving Father welcoming His children into His presence and the comfort he provides for those yet to join Him in glory.
It has been said that, on his deathbed, noted theologian Karl Barth was asked what was the single most profound thing he had ever learned in his years of study. Barth responded, “Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so.” I don’t know if this story is actually true, but I agree with the sentiment. There is no more profound message, and nothing else worth declaring, other than that of God’s love and forgiveness. The beauty of Children of the Heavenly Father lies in its simplicity: grace.
Though He giveth or he taketh
God His children ne’er forsaketh.
His, the loving purpose solely
To preserve them, pure and holy.
Last September, Beth and I welcomed a beautiful son into the world (our second such beautiful child, joining his sister, Grace). Caleb has a mild form of Spina Bifida, a neurological order that will likely affect his digestive system, his urinary continence, and his ability to walk normally as he matures. By God’s grace, Caleb has been spared some of the more serious complications that can come from Spina Bifida, and by all appearances, seems to be a very happy and healthy little boy. However, it is a little painful as a parent to look down the road, knowing that your son is going to face challenges and obstacles that you would never have imagined as a child. I can only hope that, no matter what lies ahead, Caleb will know that his mom and I love him without condition and would willingly sacrifice everything we have for his benefit.
Several weeks ago, our family attended the Sunday service at our church—the same place where we were married, and where both Grace and Caleb were baptized. I looked at the hymn board at the front of the church and recognized a familiar listing as the recessional hymn—number 474. The hymn was not as common to this congregation as it had been in the church of my youth. They have a different hymn as the baptismal hymn, and being in a more ethnically diverse part of the country, there aren’t the ties to Scandinavian Lutheranism that I remember growing up. In fact, the last time I remember singing the hymn was at our wedding over two years prior.
The congregation stood as the first chords of Children of the Heavenly Father rang forth from the organ. In my arms I held my little boy, who had just fallen asleep. I couldn’t help but stare down at this wonderful creation, this blessing from God, and imagine that this was how God was seeing me—holding me in his sure hands, and willing to give his life so that I might have abundant life. And I remembered mom, and the way she looked at us as the tears welled up in her eyes when she used to sing this same song.
Yeah, I cried. Now, I understand.