July 15, 2018

Another Look: A Favorite Hymn — This Is My Father’s World

Ever since I was a child, one of my favorite hymns has been, “This Is My Father’s World”, by Rev. Maltbie D. Babcock. I’m sure what first caught my attention was its lovely melody, which is said to have been adapted from an English folk tune by Franklin L. Sheppard.

This hymn (or poem as it was at the time) was not published until after Babcock’s death in 1901. Shortly after he died, his wife put together a book of his poems and this one, “My Father’s World,” which originally had sixteen stanzas, was included.

Babcock was a pastor in upstate New York. The story is told that he loved to go hiking in an area known as “the escarpment,” where there was a breathtaking vista of farms and orchards, with Lake Ontario about fifteen miles in the distance. It is said that upon leaving for these walks, he would tell his wife, “I’m going out to see my Father’s world.”

One of the obvious messages of this hymn is acknowledgment of the goodness and beauty of God’s creation. Ken Burns recognized this and used an instrumental version of the hymn as music for his recent documentary series on America’s national parks. Babcock’s experience of God “speaking to him everywhere” through his general revelation reflects the divine testimony in Psalm 19:

The heavens are telling the glory of God;
and the firmament proclaims his handiwork.
Day to day pours forth speech,
and night to night declares knowledge.
There is no speech, nor are there words;
their voice is not heard;
yet their voice goes out through all the earth,
and their words to the end of the world.

In our day, “This Is My Father’s World” reminds us of our responsibility, as God’s stewards, to care for the world that he has given us. It is not our world; it is our Father’s world. According to Genesis 1, he has entrusted its care and keeping to us. Human sin has affected not only our relationship to God, but also our life in and relationship to the natural world. It is obvious that we have abused creation many ways. Environmental responsibility is ultimately a Christian duty, because we believe in the One who created our home and entrusted it to us.

Perhaps the strongest stanza of the hymn is this one:

This is my Father’s world. O let me ne’er forget
That though the wrong seems oft so strong, God is the ruler yet.
This is my Father’s world: the battle is not done:
Jesus Who died shall be satisfied,
And earth and Heav’n be one.

In recent days, this lyric has become more recognizable because of reference to it by N.T. Wright in his teaching on eschatology. God’s plan will culminate, not in some ethereal heaven away from earth, but rather in heaven coming down to earth and utterly transforming it and all the universe into a new creation. Whereas much gospel hymnology has stressed leaving the world for heaven, the fact is that the future Christian hope is utterly terrestrial. Earth and heaven shall be one. God shall take up his throne here, and all will be made new.

This is why Jesus died:

With all wisdom and insight he has made known to us the mystery of his will, according to his good pleasure that he set forth in Christ, as a plan for the fullness of time, to gather up all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth. (Eph 1:8b-10, NRSV)

God’s redemption of individuals through Jesus’ death and resurrection is but one part of a plan that includes all creation. Earth and heaven shall be one. He will be our God, we will be his people, and he will dwell among us. And we will sing, “This Is My Father’s World.”

This is my Father’s world, and to my listening ears
All nature sings, and round me rings the music of the spheres.
This is my Father’s world: I rest me in the thought
Of rocks and trees, of skies and seas;
His hand the wonders wrought.

This is my Father’s world, the birds their carols raise,
The morning light, the lily white, declare their Maker’s praise.
This is my Father’s world: He shines in all that’s fair;
In the rustling grass I hear Him pass;
He speaks to me everywhere.

This is my Father’s world. O let me ne’er forget
That though the wrong seems oft so strong, God is the ruler yet.
This is my Father’s world: the battle is not done:
Jesus Who died shall be satisfied,
And earth and Heav’n be one.

Comments

  1. The message “My Father’s World”, viewed at arm’s length is is easily categorized as child stuff like “Jesus loves me this I know…” and so on. As such it presents no challenge, being sort of unsophisticated and all. A pat on the head and a polite dismissal. “Yes it’s our Daddy’s creation, now run along.” Still, the cross is ever present if it is a Christian precept no matter the child like nature or simplicity. If it is my Father’s world then it’s not my world or even my little corner of the world. In that version of things I maintain some control, some dignity. This comes to mind because my human father has lost both of those due to Parkinson’s and the whole ordeal has been very enlightening for us all. That continual ceding and relinquishing is synonymous with, “take up your cross daily…”. The alternative is extraordinary resentment and bitterness. Recognizing that are we in a transition, a metamorphosis, helps in the letting of our fantasy of control. Otherwise it isn’t our Father’s world, it’s just our little world.

    • Sorry for the unedited. Voice dictation

    • Ronald Avra says:

      My father had Parkinson’s. Caring for the patient becomes increasingly labor intensive. The bulk of that care fell to my mother and brother, who persevered admirably.

      • It’s my mother and me and my brother. Even as it gets tougher for us, he gets more soft hearted. That’s the beautiful thing. He’s not grasping. He’s cognizant and consciously letting go of the trappings for a humble openness. He was a high level executive at the top of a national retailer at one time. He was also very modest and private. All of that stature and dignity is out the window. To me that is the cross and he seems to be doing it with grace. I don’t mean to make this about his condition but by way of illustration for me it has been an example of relinquishing the world and gaining it at the same time.

  2. Ronald Avra says:

    As to the present world: hope and pray for restoration, while faithfully caring for our allotted portion.

  3. Headless Unicorn Guy says:

    No “It’s All Gonna Burn(TM)” for Babcock!

  4. Ben Carmack says:

    A lovely hymn, thanks for the well written post. It’s long been one of my favorites.

    I have to note, however, the expressly patriarchal nature of the hymn. Can any feminist without reservation give thanks for her Father’s world?

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

      Classical English (at the time Babcock wrote) defaulted mixed/indeterminate gender to male. Deal with it.

      • Ben Carmack says:

        Cue a RHE/Jesus Creed/Chaplain Mike shriekfest in 3, 2, 1…

        • Burro [Mule] says:

          Let ’em shriek. Music to my ears. Feminism will pass.

          naturam expelles furca, tamen usque recurret,

        • Besides the fact that I’ve never heard him shriek yet, wasn’t CM the guy who posted today’s iMonk entry, lauding this particular hymn and its language? What are you talking about, Ben Carmack? Why would CM shriek at his own post? How does that make any sense?

          • Ben Carmack says:

            God’s Fatherhood is archetypal. It is eternal. It denotes His love for us, but also His severity and His authority over us. Deny authority and deny fatherhood, as feminists egalitarians do, what reason remains for calling God Father? Isn’t that just perpetuating inequality and hate?

            There are people who want to be Christians and feminists, but they have to live with extreme cognitive dissonance. The question is how will they resolve it?

            • Sir, you paint with too broad a brush. There are so many exceptions to your caricatures. See my remarks below; I have no cognitive dissonance around God’s archetypical fatherhood.

              However, I have had cognitive dissonance around the idea that a God of “severity and authority” is the same God as the One Who was crucified. God’s love is not bound by His holiness – it is measureless and unstoppable. I hope some day you will be able to truly know that, Ben.

              Dana

            • Since you’ve decided to make a political statement, as your assertion that feminism and Christianity are incompatible certainly is, for my part I wonder how so many evangelicals can live with the extreme cognitive dissonance of supporting and voting for Donald Trump, and still wanting to be Christian. How will they resolve it? Each to his own cognitive dissonance.

      • The word from the always genteel HUG.

    • Absolutely. This one counts it as one of her two favorite Protestant hymns, expressing a great deal of truth.

      No serious Christian, feminist or not, believes that God the Father (or God the Holy Spirit) is gendered – nor that this hymn is “patriarchal.” Sheesh!

      (No, the Holy spirit is NOT “feminine” – grammatical gender is a different thing and not necessarily related. For example, in German, “knife” is grammatically neuter, “fork” is grammatically feminine and “spoon” is grammatically masculine. People who think grammatical gender = ontologic gender are ignorant about how language works.)

      “Father” is about relationality, not gender. The word “Father” and masculine pronouns are conventionally used because that’s the best we can do using human language, and respecting the text of Scripture, to talk about [The Source of All Being Who Is Beyond Being]. Feminists who know something about both language and theology are not disturbed by this convention.

      Dana

      • I should define my term.

        I count myself a feminist on the ground of viewing females as of equal value as males, and believing that they should be treated as if they are of equal worth. I do not believe that females and males are the same; neither do I believe that “femininity” and “masculinity” can be reduced to any certain set of traits, because there’s a whole lotta overlap.

        I do believe that the two sexes are necessary, and necessary to one another. I believe that the union of them forms an iconic image – not of some “image of God” based on imagined divine gender (see my above comment), but rather of the fullness of humanity, especially in the context of Christian worship, which points further to the union of the Divine and Human in the Incarnation. (This is another area where the poverty of the lack of a full theology re the Incarnation can lead to heaps of confusion.)

        Don’t shoot me, Mule. If we ever got to have a meal or a beverage together, I think I could persuade you that we agree more than we disagree.

        D.

      • Ben Carmack says:

        Dana,

        The word patriarchy means “father-rule.” Singing about My Father’s World is patriarchal. Unavoidably.

        Despite my snark and cutting remarks from time to time, the people who read and write on this blog are intelligent people, including you. You know what words mean.

        Problem is, there’s an ideology, a preconception that’s keeping you from seeing the obvious. But it really is obvious. Ask any plain vanilla atheist or nonbeliever. They know Christianity and the Bible is patriarchal–and they hate it.

        • Ben Carmack says:

          *are* patriarchal

        • I am perplexed, because technically you are right about the words, Ben. As an Orthodox Christian and a believer in a one-storey Reality, it’s hard for me to talk about this in depth, because of all the polemics and assumed definitions of words, and also because the classical Christian view is so out of joint in our modern world, not only in the view of non-believers, but also in that of believers. I find that people who toss around the word “authority” seem to be driven at least by anger and sometimes also by entitlement. Not saying you are, because all I know about you is what you write. (There is a rather prickly edge to what you write, though…. ) But I’ll give it a try.

          Fr Stephen Freeman has written that we are equal but we are not the same: “It is true that all people have equal worth – no one life is more valuable than another. But by almost any other measure, we are not equal, because we are not commensurate.” I do believe that “not-sameness” is an indication of a kind of hierarchy, and where it is backed by holiness and not coercive power, then it reflects the Kingdom of God. It’s not enough to say merely that such a thing is “biblical”. This hierarchy is not simply about the text of Scripture or its authority, nor is it about being male; I know abbesses and other Christian women who have great authority natural to who they are, because it is exercised in humility, service and care.

          I don’t find those qualities – non-coercive love and service, lack of being driven by anger, and authority that is not demanded but “sits” on a person because of his or her holiness – demonstrated in the lives of people who talk the loudest about “biblical” authority and the rightness of patriarchy.

          The Pastor Emeritus of my parish recently passed away. Fr Michael had great authority, but he didn’t bang any drums about it; quite the opposite. He was simply a real human being who loved Jesus Christ with all his heart, soul, mind and strength, and inspired people to love and serve God and His Church just by being who he was. He brought the parish back from the brink of dissolution 30 years ago because of his love and care, and personal Christlikeness. It’s the folks like him who live their lives and serve the Savior in obscurity, usually with suffering unknown to those around them – the “least” – who are greatest in the Kingdom, not the ones making a display of their “rightness”.

          Fr Stephen also wrote, “The classical world of Orthodox Christianity is profoundly undemocratic. It holds that the universe and everything that exists is hierarchical. This teaching is not an artifact of an older patriarchy…” I believe this is true – both parts of it. Hierarchy runs up and down through the universe – and it is not an artifact of patriarchy. It’s something else entirely.

          I hope this is clear; if not, I’m apologize for not expressing this better. I’m not sure I can write any more about this without being misunderstood. I appreciate the opportunity to sort through my thoughts.

          Dana

    • I never fail to be surprised at the directions some people will take in commenting.

  5. I have commented before that the song was written when hiking in my neck of the woods. Here is what the view looked like a couple of years ago: https://www.facebook.com/photo.php?fbid=10153567725066690&set=a.10150720318006690.456509.741986689&type=3&theater

  6. Although composer Howard Shore denies he intended it, the “Shire” theme in his LOTR score is virtually identical to the first line or two of the melody of this hymn.