My Father’s World

This world continues to be our Father’s world, and we can rest in the assurance that “God is the ruler yet.” by Major JoAnn Shade

My introduction to the hymns of the faith began in a Presbyterian church setting, singing and then later playing tunes such as “Jesus Loves Me,” “Lord, I Want to Be a Christian,” and “For the Beauty of the Earth.” Another song on my list of favorites was “This is My Father’s World,” written by a Presbyterian minister while he served a church in Lockport, New York. 

The three verses of the hymn are part of Maltbie Davenport Babcock’s 16-stanza poem, written with inspiration from his frequent walks along the Niagara Escarpment and Lake Ontario. He often told his wife, “I’m going out to see my Father’s world;” thus the hymn’s title and repeated first line.

Its words speak to the creative powers of God, who designed a world touched with the sights and sounds of beauty. That beauty is expressed in phrases such as “The morning light, the lily white,” “He shines in all that’s fair,” and “All nature sings and round me rings the music of the spheres.”

It is tempting to look at Babcock’s hymn simply as a charming little ditty; one that speaks of a God who is present in the created world, where the songs of the birds become carols and all of creation raises its praise to the heavens. The images of God passing “in the rustling grass,” and speaking to us “everywhere” certainly are comforting to both young and old.

It is also tempting to look at the hymn’s call to environmental concerns considering the human responsibility to protect our world so that nature might continue to sing rather than groan. Yet when Franklin Sheppard was selecting verses from the 16 stanzas of Babcock’s original poem following Babcock’s death, he honored the religious depth of his friend by choosing this third verse for the hymn:

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 heaven be one.

I’d sung these words many times as a child and into young adulthood, but I didn’t experience the intensity of Babcock’s declaration of faith until a day towards the end of our two-year training to serve as Salvation Army officers. We’d just completed 12 weeks of classes on comparative religion, with a special emphasis on cult-like beliefs and behaviors. Our minds were swirling with the many expressions of religious faith, as well as the ways in which the biblical message could be twisted to manipulate people’s behavior.

Sensing the struggles of the class, our instructor, then Captain R. Eugene Pigford, drew our attention to this verse of song. Paraphrasing his words from 40 years ago, he told us, “When you grow confused, when you see the destruction caused by overzealous religious beliefs, when the days are dark and you are tempted to lose faith, remember this moment.” And then he climbed up on a chair in the front of the classroom and began to lead us in this verse of song. “This is my Father’s world… though the wrong seems oft so strong, God is the ruler yet.” 

I have not forgotten that moment in time. Less than a year later, I claimed that assurance as I watched merciless images emerge from the Jonestown massacre where 900 men, women and children followed the cultish beliefs of Jim Jones and drank the cyanide-laced Flavor Aid. “Though the wrong seems oft so strong…” I claimed it again and again as my neighbor was killed by her boyfriend, as the planes hit the towers on September 11 and as I stared at the photo of the Syrian father embracing his twin babies, dead from Sarin gas. 

As Christians, we are responsible for taking care of the earth so that when we, like Babcock, go out “to see [our] Father’s world,” the birds are still able to raise their carols and the lilies in the field are still able to bloom with abandon. We also have the responsibility of caring for the earth’s inhabitants in a way that seeks after peace and cares for our brothers and sisters in need. Yet we sometimes forget that this is indeed our Father’s world, in its creation, its preservation, and its governance. In its 11 doctrinal statements, The Salvation Army describes the tenets of faith and explains the essence of God: “We believe there is only one God who is infinitely perfect, the Creator, Preserver, and Governor of all things…” 

Like Babcock, we can recognize the person and the presence of God in our world; the God who is described by Chris Tomlin, a 21st century hymnist, as “a good, good Father, perfect in all [His] ways.” The God who walked with Adam in the garden, and the God who was with the young minister as he strode along the Niagara Escarpment, is still the God of today, both good and powerful. This world continues to be our Father’s world, and we can rest in the assurance that “God is the ruler yet.” 

Major JoAnn Shade, now a retired Salvation Army officer, currently resides in Ohio. 

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