Midweek devotion

Last Sunday, May 17th, those who watched our virtual service know that we sang the hymn “Day by Day” at the closing. I think it is a hymn we at Emmanuel know well and seem to enjoy singing. For the record (in case you want to be really upset with ‘somebody’): all hymns and liturgical pieces were chosen by yours truly throughout this pandemic.

The story behind the text of “Day by Day” is truly intriguing. The author, Carolina Sandell Berg, was a woman who learned early in life to trust in the Lord's strength each day to help her overcome her troubles and trials. She was born on October 3, l832 and grew up to become Sweden's most celebrated author of Gospel hymns, and wrote so many (2000!) that she is often called "the Fanny Crosby of Sweden."

Like many Christians, Carolina learned that when pain and tragedy strike, God may use that experience to deepen our faith. When she was 26, Carolina--or Lina as she liked to be called--experienced a tragedy which profoundly affected the course of her life. She was with her father, a Lutheran pastor, crossing a Swedish lake. Suddenly the ship lurched, and before her eyes, her father was thrown overboard and drowned. Lina had written hymns before, but now she poured out her broken heart in an endless stream of beautiful songs. The words of Lina’s hymns were all the more popular because of the simple, beautiful melodies written for them, especially those by Oscar Ahnfelt (including “Day by Day”) who played his guitar and sang her hymns throughout Scandinavia. Lina Sandell Berg once said that Ahnfeld sang her songs "into the hearts of the people." Eventually, she became Sweden's first successful female head of a Publishing House.

There are two other hymns from Lina Sandell Berg’s pen we enjoy singing at Emmanuel: “Children of the Heavenly Father” and “Thy holy Wings”. Like "Children of the Heavenly Father," "Thy holy Wings” is sung to a Swedish folk song. The text draws upon a number of biblical images.

Psalm 91:4 inspires the opening two lines: "He shall cover you with His feathers, and under His wings you shall take refuge." Yet, the most important biblical image to the hymn comes from Luke 13:34, "Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing." Lina’s text: Oh, let me nestle near thee, within thy downy breast where I will find sweet comfort, and peace within they nest. Oh, close thy wings around me and keep me safely there, for I am but a newborn and need thy tender care.

Sandell was probably quite influenced by the great seventeenth-century German hymn writer Paul Gerhardt. Memorizing Paul Gerhardt hymns as a Confirmation student, l can hear his words in “Oh, close thy wings around me and keep me safely there”. The line, "Oh be my strength and portion, my rock and hiding place," echoes Psalm 119:114: "You are my hiding place and my shield".  The final lines of verse three are a beautiful children’s bedtime prayer: And take into thy keeping, thy children great and small, and while we sweetly slumber, enfold us one and all.

Well, who would have thunk it that we – mostly – stubborn Germans in this community would find deep pleasure in singing hymns written by a Swedish lady during the 19th century!? I wonder what kind of songs, secular or religious, will come out of the pain and isolation we are living through right now? Nobody could have assumed that watching your father drown in a lake would be the impetus for words that could speak to us 150 plus years later. “Oh wash me in the waters of Noah’s cleaning flood” - connecting Baptism with life and death, acknowledging that water brings both. Perhaps it is out of deepest pain, agony, distress and death that words of life are born. Perhaps we need to know what it means to be cut off from others in order to treasure that we are never cut off from God. I don’t know…Amen