A Meditation on “This Is My Father’s World”

Being the son of a preacher, I remember going to church a lot when I was growing up.  I remember a hot summer gospel meeting held by a congregation out in the country.  The benches (I would hesitate to call them pews) were composed of a board to sit on, and a board several inches higher to rest your back uncomfortably on.  There was no air conditioning.  The heat continued well into the night, as did the guest preacher.  He spoke for what seemed like hours–over two, as I recall, maybe closer to three–but maybe not as long as Paul’s discussion until midnight in Acts 20.

There are certainly plenty of those kinds of memories.  But the memories I enjoy most of church attendance in my youth are of the singing.  I love music.  It is, therefore, indeed a happy coincidence that God loves it, too.  The greatest king of Israel, King David, was also a shepherd, a warrior, a singer and song-writer.  The words of his Psalms are among the most beautiful ever written in any language.  But there have been thousands of exceptionally beautiful pieces of sacred music written for voice or instrument in the scores of centuries since David put pen to parchment.

One of my favorite hymns of all time was written by a Presbyterian minister, Maltbie D. Babcock.  Babcock was a fine athlete, an accomplished musician, and a preacher that connected well with his audience, owing to his ability to present spiritual truths in a way that people could relate to them, with freshness and a dynamic delivery.  He was in demand as a speaker at colleges throughout America.

It is said that Babcock enjoyed hiking in a rough area near Lockport, NY, a forested escarpment, the height of which provided a magnificent view of the countryside.  He would announce his intention of adventure by saying, “I’m going out to see my Father’s world.”  That sentiment became the title of his wonderful hymn, “This Is My Father’s World,” set to the music of an old English melody, “Terra Beata.”

From an early age, I enjoyed nature.  It is no wonder, then that this song spoke directly to me.  While the old song books we used failed to preserve all of Babcock’s verses, the ones there were enough to bring me nearly to tears whenever I heard it.

Here are the words to Babcock’s masterpiece.

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.

This is my Father’s world, dreaming, I see His face.
I ope my eyes, and in glad surprise cry, “The Lord is in this place.”
This is my Father’s world, from the shining courts above,
The Beloved One, His Only Son,
Came—a pledge of deathless love.

This is my Father’s world, should my heart be ever sad?
The lord is King—let the heavens ring. God reigns—let the earth be glad.
This is my Father’s world. Now closer to Heaven bound,
For dear to God is the earth Christ trod.
No place but is holy ground.

This is my Father’s world. I walk a desert lone.
In a bush ablaze to my wondering gaze God makes His glory known.
This is my Father’s world, a wanderer I may roam
Whate’er my lot, it matters not,
My heart is still at home.

These words are so beautiful, so heart-felt, so deeply reverential.  The thing I notice most is the blending of the natural world with the spiritual, the nexus of two realms.  The words stuck with me: as a boy, I would listen for God in that rustling grass.  I wanted to see if the song was true.  Of course it is true.  I have heard him in a cloudless, star-jeweled night sky, and in the resolute confidence of a ground pine peeking through the winter snow on a frozen January ridgetop.  I have experienced him in the hush of footfalls in a cedar-carpeted glade, and in the salt spray of a barrier island.  I have listened to him in a high alpine meadow and a flooded bottomland forest.  I have listened to him from the depth of a cavern’s darkness and in the brightness of a drought-scorched desert.  He speaks to us in so many ways.

The title of the song, which was published by his wife after Babcock’s untimely death, echoes David’s exclamation in Psalm 24:1, “The earth is the LORD’s and the fullness thereof, the world and those who dwell therein….”  As I read the full set of lyrics, I feel cheated to have been denied the beauty of the fifth and sixth stanzas, in particular.  The exclamation at the realization that “The Lord is in this place” is genuine, and stands in contrast to the mere dream of seeing God.  He is everywhere, as he continues in the fifth verse, “…should my heart be ever sad? /The Lord is King—let the heavens ring.  God reigns—let the earth be glad.”

He continues, “Now closer to Heaven bound, /For dear to God is the earth Christ trod. / No place but is holy ground.”  God said of his creation that it was “very good.”  Mankind has a way of spoiling things, but as we draw closer to the purpose Heaven has set for us, the greater appreciation we shall have of the glory that is this world.  Why would God set the earth in motion if he were not interested in it?  No, the earth itself is dear to him, as are we.

Babcock’s closing thought reminds me of Paul’s meditation on contentment in Philippians 4:11-13. “(11)  Not that I am speaking of being in need, for I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content. (12) I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. (13) I can do all things through him who strengthens me.”  The poet’s expression, “…a wanderer I may roam/ Whate’er my lot, it matters not, My heart is still at home,” speaks of a deep connection to God through the beauty of the earth.  As long as he could enjoy the view, he could be content with whatever life had in store for him.  That last bit is a hard thing to implement.  It takes faith.  A lot of it. Maybe more than many may even possess.

After all these years, I still delight in hearing the song and in its singing, participating in its beauty.  What a wonderful song.  It is like a walk in the majestic forest-cathedral of God’s own design.  It appreciates the physical especially in that the physical supports the spiritual.  We cannot divorce those two aspects of our nature, as some may promote.  If we neglect the physical, with its beauty and witness to God’s greatness, we tread only in a realm of shadows that we are not quite ready to view, like a baby born prematurely, with eyes that cannot yet focus and appreciate the world beyond that first cradle.  We also risk losing sight of the needs of the physical, and grow to neglect such needs that we may see in others.  I once heard it said that someone was so heavenly minded that he was of no earthly good.  The earth is good, and there is no great virtue in denying that.  There is virtue in celebrating it for the splendor of God’s gracious gifts, not the least of which is a wonderful world in which to live.

“This is my Father’s world” is a simple acknowledgement of ownership.  If we accept that, we also know that like Adam in the garden, we are stewards of this creation.  Every time I have heard the song, that sentiment wells up within me, sometimes consciously, sometimes subconsciously, but it is there all the same.  It reiterates the trust that God has given us to dress and keep this world.  It is a sacred trust and grave responsibility.  To destroy the owner’s property is to dishonor the owner, and we would have nothing to offer in restitution.  Indeed, “This is my Father’s world, O let me ne’er forget….”

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