Sunday, October 16, 2011

This Is My Father's World

It's mid-October here in western New York, All around us abound the wonder, glory, and bounty of God's creation. Reveling in its beauty is a special privilege of living here, for the countryside and forest are never very far away.

So it was for a young Presbyterian minister in the 1880s named Maltbie Davenport Babcock (1858 – 1901). While pastoring at a church in Lockport, New York, a small town on the Erie Canal a few miles northeast of Niagara Falls, Babcock liked to hike along the Niagara Escarpment, an ancient ridge in the vicinity that had (and still has) a marvelous view of farms, orchards, and Lake Ontario in the far distance. He would tell his wife as he left home that he was "going out to see the Father's world."

Niagara Escarpment in New York

Born and raised in Syracuse, New York, graduated in 1879 from Syracuse University and in 1882 from Auburn Theological Seminary with a degree in divinity, Maltbie Babcock went on to see much more of the Father's world than the environs of Lockport. He served from 1887 to 1900 as senior minister of the prestigious Brown Memorial Presbyterian Church in Baltimore, Maryland, attaining great distinction there, and was then called to the Brick Church of New York City in 1900. Later that year Babcock went on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land by ship, a special gift presented by his church. While en route back to Italy, he contracted a fever and died at the International Hospital in Naples in May, 1901. He is buried at Oakwood Cemetery in Syracuse.

Shortly after his death Babcock's wife published a compilation of his writings entitled Thoughts for Every-Day Living that contained the poem "My Father's World." This became the basis for one of the sweetest pieces in hymnody, This Is My Father's World. The tune for the text was arranged from an old English melody by one of Babcock's close friends, Franklin L. Sheppard, an accomplished musician. It was first included in Alleluia, a Presbyterian Sunday School book published in 1915. The tune name, "Terra Beata," means "blessed earth" in Latin.

No tune has ever been more aptly married to text. This Is My Father's World is a joyous musical expression of the marvelous truth that "The heavens declare the glory of God; and the firmament sheweth his handywork." (Psalms 19:1) And again: "Sing unto the Lord with thanksgiving; sing praise upon the harp unto our God: who covereth the heaven with clouds, who prepareth rain for the earth, who maketh grass to grow upon the mountains." (Psalms 147:7,8) And especially: "The heavens are thine, the earth also is thine: as for the world and the fulness thereof, thou hast founded them." (Psalms 89:11)

The hymn was originally published in six stanzas, but today only first three are usually sung. Here are the simple, inspiring words:

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.
This hymn means much to me, not only because of its many connections to the area where I grew up and now live (Lockport is about 15 miles from my childhood home and about 35 from where I live now), but because of the precious truths which it affirms. The worldly "wisdom" of today tells us that there was no divine Hand behind the wonder of Creation; that it, and we, are nothing but the accidental products of random molecular collisions and combinations, the sum total of which, across the ages and the far reaches of space, have no meaning or purpose. No explanation is offered for how all the intricate, elegant laws governing the universe and everything in it, from galaxies to subatomic particles--and which we are still only beginning to discover--came to be. We hear that random change, environmental adaptation, and some inchoate urge to survive, the underpinnings of the theory of evolution, govern all nature. But no satisfactory accounting is given for the phenomena of laughter, delight, remorse, or selfless devotion. We are invited to celebrate the marvelous works of the human mind, ingenuity, and labor, but the rubble of the last few centuries alone teach us what happens when man usurps and exploits God's place in the world for his own selfish ends, or tries to banish Him from the world altogether.

The Holy Spirit and the scriptures tell the believer a different and far more hopeful story: that there is an all-powerful yet loving God, who is deeply involved in His Creation and with every creature in it:
Bless the Lord, O my soul. O Lord my God, thou art very great; thou art clothed with honour and majesty. Who coverest thyself with light as with a garment: who stretchest out the heavens like a curtain: Who layeth the beams of his chambers in the waters: who maketh the clouds his chariot: who walketh upon the wings of the wind: Who maketh his angels spirits; his ministers a flaming fire: Who laid the foundations of the earth, that it should not be removed for ever. Thou coveredst it with the deep as with a garment: the waters stood above the mountains. At thy rebuke they fled; at the voice of thy thunder they hasted away. They go up by the mountains; they go down by the valleys unto the place which thou hast founded for them. Thou hast set a bound that they may not pass over; that they turn not again to cover the earth.

He sendeth the springs into the valleys, which run among the hills. They give drink to every beast of the field: the wild asses quench their thirst. By them shall the fowls of the heaven have their habitation, which sing among the branches. He watereth the hills from his chambers: the earth is satisfied with the fruit of thy works. He causeth the grass to grow for the cattle, and herb for the service of man: that he may bring forth food out of the earth; And wine that maketh glad the heart of man, and oil to make his face to shine, and bread which strengtheneth man's heart. The trees of the Lord are full of sap; the cedars of Lebanon, which he hath planted; Where the birds make their nests: as for the stork, the fir trees are her house. The high hills are a refuge for the wild goats; and the rocks for the conies.

He appointed the moon for seasons: the sun knoweth his going down. Thou makest darkness, and it is night: wherein all the beasts of the forest do creep forth. The young lions roar after their prey, and seek their meat from God. The sun ariseth, they gather themselves together, and lay them down in their dens. Man goeth forth unto his work and to his labour until the evening. O Lord, how manifold are thy works! in wisdom hast thou made them all: the earth is full of thy riches. So is this great and wide sea, wherein are things creeping innumerable, both small and great beasts. There go the ships: there is that leviathan, whom thou hast made to play therein. These wait all upon thee; that thou mayest give them their meat in due season. That thou givest them they gather: thou openest thine hand, they are filled with good. Thou hidest thy face, they are troubled: thou takest away their breath, they die, and return to their dust. Thou sendest forth thy spirit, they are created: and thou renewest the face of the earth.

The glory of the Lord shall endure for ever: the Lord shall rejoice in his works. He looketh on the earth, and it trembleth: he toucheth the hills, and they smoke. I will sing unto the Lord as long as I live: I will sing praise to my God while I have my being. My meditation of him shall be sweet: I will be glad in the Lord. Let the sinners be consumed out of the earth, and let the wicked be no more. Bless thou the Lord, O my soul. Praise ye the Lord. (Psalm 104)
Perhaps with this beautiful passage resonating in his mind, it's no wonder that Maltbie Babcock was moved to celebrate the wonder of our Father's World!

Here is a moving solo rendition of This Is My Father's World, sung by the outstanding Christian musician Fernando Ortega:

With its simple phraseology and affecting tune, the hymn is also ideal for singing by children:

As life's great and small trials test our faith, let us remember the loving Lord who is dramatically alive in this world, and that it is His, always!

1 comment:

  1. What a BEAUTIFUL hymn! And to think, that the writer came from Upstate New York, and could have written these words after a walk along the Niagara Escarpment....what an inspiration! The two arrangements are very well done--and the photos are awe-inspiring to boot! Thank you for sharing Maltbie Babcock's story!