This Is My Father’s World

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September 24, 2011 Tags: Worship & Arts

Today's entry was written by Mark Sprinkle. Please note the views expressed here are those of the author, not necessarily of The BioLogos Foundation. You can read more about what we believe here.

Of hymns that speak to a Christian understanding of the natural world and our place within it, perhaps none more familiar than Maltbie Babcock’s “This Is My Father’s World.” Written by the Lockport, New York pastor as a poem before the turn of the 20th century, published posthumously by his wife in 1901, and appearing in a hymnbook in 1915 as three stanzas set to an adapted English tune by Franklin L. Sheppard, it has been recorded by various stars of the contemporary Christian music scene in addition to being widely sung in local congregations. Also well-known is the story that the hymn’s genesis was in Maltbie’s rambles along the Niagara Escarpment near his home, which gave him long views towards Lake Ontario and the famous Falls, populated by all the various creatures and natural forms that fill the poem.

In presenting a new arrangement of the hymn by musician and worship leader Kim Taulbee here this week, the aim is not to suggest a new interpretation of the basic text, merely re-emphasize its themes of God as Creator, Provider and Redeemer, or even revisit the way it calls us to appreciate and care for God’s work in the natural world. This last, especially, has been written on and discussed in other venues, and though I can help affirm those readings by making the entire text of the original poem more easily available to readers here (thanks to the Princeton Theological Seminary Internet Archive), I’d like to focus attention on the central image of the poem and hymn that, nevertheless, can be overlooked as we enjoy the images of His creation.

As every stanza begins with the affirmation that “This is my Father's world,” the idea that God is Father is nearly inescapable. But is this more than a colloquial and familiar way to refer to the Creator God; does the repetition have something more to say to us than that? While there is certainly an implicit statement here that Babcock felt a closeness to the Lord himself, the “fatherhood” of the Lord here is of a more thoroughgoing sort, and not just a convenient and familiar name for the First Person of the Trinity.

First, there is the obvious connection between fatherhood and creation of new life—something Babcock makes explicit in the first stanza when he speaks of the stars providing a joyful chorus in honor of the “birth” of the world. This kind of “begetting” or parent-child language appears twice more, first in reference to God as the Father of Jesus, “The Beloved One, His only Son, [who] Came—a pledge of deathless love,” and thereby rendered all of earth “Holy ground.” The second is the spiritual outcome of that advent, when the writer says of God, “His love has filled my breast, I am reconciled, I am His child.” In each case, God’s status as Father is known because of the intimacy he desires and initiates with the world and with us—an intimacy that fills the world and us with life, and new life.

But it may be that such intimacy with the world is the marker of God as “Maker” in the hymn, too, His presence being required for the continuation of all things as much as for the creation of all things. We are used to singing “He shines in all that's fair. In the rustling grass I hear Him pass, He speaks to me everywhere,” but Babcock refined that sense of God’s self revelation by referencing Elijah’s experience (1 Kings 19:12) in a later stanza: “'Mid rending rocks and earthquake shocks, The still, small voice I hear.” Again, it is not that God is “everywhere” that is so important, but that he is near, and near because he chooses to be as a father chooses to be with his children.

Finally, these strains of God as Father of Creation come together in the role we are to play under His guidance and protection as His children, carrying on His work towards the Kingdom. For though our modern and western conceptions of fatherhood have become diverse if not just confused, Babcock was writing at a time when there was still more consensus as to what the roles of fathers and children were to be, and with an eye towards even more traditional cultures in which the primary place of children was to carry on in the family line or work—not just after the death of the patriarch, but in his company and under his direct tutelage.

While we can think through the imagery of the hymn and be reminded that this God is not a distant “clockmaker,” remote from the physical creation, but an intimate and loving Father who is forever caring for and sustaining His ongoing creation (creatio continua), we should also be reminded that the call of the Father to us is to join in the family business of creation and redemption, even as we join with the rocks, the flowers and the birds in singing songs of praise and thanksgiving that the Lord who is Father is also the God who reigns.

“This Is My Father’s World”

Maltbie D. Babcock (standard hymn verses in italics)1

This is my Father's world.
On the day of its wondrous birth
The stars of light in phalanx bright
Sang out in Heavenly mirth.

This is my Father's world.
E'en yet to my listening ears
All nature sings, and around 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 that 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.
From His eternal throne,
He watch doth keep when I'm asleep,
And I am not alone.

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.
I walk a desert lone.
In a bush ablaze to my wondering gaze
God makes His glory known.

This is my Father's world.
Among the mountains drear,
'Mid rending rocks and earthquake shocks,
The still, small voice I hear.

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.
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.
His love has filled my breast,
I am reconciled, I am His child,
My soul has found His rest.

This is my Father's world.
A wanderer I may roam.
Whatever my lot, it matters not,
My heart is still at home.

This is my Father's world.
O let me ne'er forget
That tho' 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 Heaven be one.

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.

Kim Taulbee has been serving congregations in Virginia and Maryland since 1983, currently as Associate Director of Music at Third Presbyterian Church in Richmond. He grew up in southern Illinois and spent several of his early years immersed in the nightclub scene, playing in rock bands throughout the Midwest before being recalled to the faith of youth. He received a BME from Evangel University and studied conducting at George Mason University. In addition to worship leading, Kim stays busy performing, recording, producing and collaborating with other musicians. His particular interests are setting the Psalms to music, re-tuning hymns, and finding ways to make ancient liturgical forms relevant to the local culture.

This recording features Kim’s daughter Bethany Taulbee on vocal and flute, Kim on guitar and Mark Holt on cello. A performance major at Virginia Commonwealth University, Bethany is active in the local music scene as a band-member and recording session player/singer, and is a gifted songwriter. Mark Holt, formerly with the Austin symphony, can frequently be heard around Central VA with the Offering Band.

Notes

1. Maltbie Babcock. Thoughts for Every-Day Living, from the Spoken and Written Words of Maltbie Davenport Babcock. New York: Charles Scribener’s Sons, 1901: pp. 180-182.
Note on the image: Though Maltbie was inspired by the landscape of New York, the image above is a scene from the Mt. Baker Wilderness in northern Washington.


Mark Sprinkle is an artist and cultural historian, and was formerly Senior Web Editor and Senior Fellow of Arts and Humanities for The BioLogos Foundation. A phi beta kappa graduate of Georgetown University, he received his M.A. and Ph.D. in American Studies from the College of William and Mary, where he studied how artworks embody complex relationships in different cultural contexts. Since 1996 he has been an independent artist and frame-maker, also regularly writing and speaking on the role of creative practices in cultural mediation and renewal, especially in the area of science and Christian faith. Mark and his wife Beth home-schooled their three boys, and are active in the local home-school community in Richmond, Virginia.


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S. Scott Mapes - #65441

October 7th 2011

This was a wonderful addition to the Worship series.  I love this hymn for many reasons, but from a psychotherapeutic perspective, it reminds us that God’s intimate relationship with creation means that we can relate to Him, others, and the world in a calm way, knowing that His presence and direction are always available to us.  He is Lord, even of chaos theory!  (though not in a deterministic fashion)


Naomi - #67342

January 23rd 2012

What a beautiful song and wonderful addition to worship.  We started a <a href=“http://www.gospellight.com/vacation-bible-school/”>VBS</a> class that looks at Christian music and we talk about what message we get from God when we listen to certain songs.  I think that this song would be a perfect song to look at when we meet for our next Bible study!


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