Who owns Greenland?

The Song in My Head

Have you ever found yourself humming a tune when you wake up in the morning? Sometimes the tune reaches back to childhood. My small church in the small town west of Philadelphia sang hymns that became childhood favorites. As I grew into adulthood, some of them drop away as childish.

One answer to why I would hum “This Is my Father’s world” all these years later suggested itself over coffee. The featured story of The Washington Post’s National Weekly: “Extreme climate change is here” accompanied by a map of rising temperatures across the United States.

front page, Washington Post National Weekly in collaboration with Star Tribune, 8/18/19

Climate Change and the Illusion of Property

While the planet’s oceans warm, the glaciers of Glacier National Park, polar ice caps melt beyond the tipping point, fires ravage the redwood forests, hundred year floods have become frequent, and the pale blue dot turns brown, “our listening ears” hear talk of buying Greenland. The Greenlanders and the Danes are too occupied with the melting ice and rising sea levels to be distracted by a foolish real estate offer.

The simple childhood hymn no longer sounds childish. It feels more child-like, full of the wonder that is the antidote to adult presumptions of property ownership. “This is my Father’s world, and to my listening ears all nature 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.”

Faith, Nature, and God

Climate change is the challenge of our time. Not just one of many challenges. It is both the most urgent, i.e., it cries out for action NOW, and the most important to the future of all that lives on this planet hanging among the spheres. Believing that Earth is a divine gift placed in our hands as stewards of nature, and wanting to remember the words of “This is my Father’s world,” I took out the Presbyterian hymnal of my childhood and the 1982 hymnal of the Episcopal Church.

From Wonder to Responsible Action

The last stanza in both hymnals ends with our responsibility, as though a century ago Maltbie Babcock (1858-1901), the lyric’s author, had anticipated the island of trash the size of Texas floating in the Pacific Ocean. This hymn on which my childhood friends and I were raised moves from wonder (awe) through recognition that “the wrong is great and strong” toward responsibility for the planet. “This is my Father’s world, oh let us not forget that though the wrong is great and strong, God is our Father yet. He trusts us with his world, to keep it clean and fair, all earth and trees, all skies and seas, all creatures everywhere.”

It is likely that Maltbie Babcock did not think what he wrote overlooking Niagara Falls was worthy of dissemination. It remained private until published by his wife after his death. Maltbie Babcock seems to have viewed “This is my Father’s world” as a personal expression of wonder beneath the literary standards of good poetry. But ”This is my Father’s world” strikes a chord at the tipping point of climate departure.

photo of Niagara Falls

It is likely that Maltbie Babcock did not think what he wrote overlooking Niagara Falls was worthy of dissemination. It remained private until his wife published it after his death. Maltbie Babcock seems to have viewed “This is my Father’s world” as a personal expression of wonder beneath the literary standards of good poetry. But ”This is my Father’s world” strikes a child-like chord standing at the tipping point of climate departure in 2019.

No one owns Niagara Falls. No one owns Greenland. No one owns the world.

— Gordon C. Stewart, heading north to the wilderness retreat, August 19, 2019.

9 thoughts on “Who owns Greenland?

    • Garry has good friends who did the same at Pennington Island (the Presbyterian camp in the Delaware River near New Hope, PA). Those summer camps were life-changing. They took us out of our familiar settings (urban, suburban, small town, and rural) to deepen and broaden our faith. I’m sure Garry also sang “We are climbing Jacob’s Ladder” and the all-time theological favorites “Michael, row your boat!” and “Ninety-nine bottles of bear….” 😇

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    • Garry and I must have gone to the same camp! Among the other favorites at Pennington Island summer camp (Presbyterian) was “We Are Climbing Jacob’s Ladder” (which I later came to see as really BAD theology — Jacob was never ON the ladder; he was at the foot of it; only the messengers ascended and descended, and it was during Jacob’s sleep. It had nothing to do with consumer culture’s upward mobility in which “we are climbing higher, higher”!) And then, of course, since we were in the middle of Delaware River, there were “Michael, Row Your Boat” and “Ninety-nine bottles of beer on the wall.” But none of them stuck to our bones like “This Is My [Our] Father’s World”.

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  1. I’m with our Native American population. NO ONE owns the land. The land belongs to the earth and we are supposed to love and respect it or it will finish us off. It is comforting to know that the planet will come back, one way or the other — but WE won’t. We are doomed. Frankly, I don’t think we are going to fix ourselves and I’m glad I won’t live to see it all crumble to poisonous dust.

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    • The people who were here long before the invaders arrived had it right, Marilyn. I had the pivilege of working for the law firm of the American Indian movement for seven years. At the Sun Dances, they prayed for forgiveness for cutting own the tree around which they danced. The tree, like the rest of the earth, was a sacred gift. And look at us now! The Mora Report’s initial warning was correct, but even their timing didn’t foresee how fast the departure is happening.

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  2. Yes. This is my father’s world, and my son’s, and my daughters, and my friends, and all those I know and don’t know. And yes, “My Father” has both a theological and a personal meaning. And I love what you’ve said here. Thanks.

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  3. One of my favorite hymns from childhood also, Gordon. I love it still, and like you am finding new meaning in those old ones! Thank you for this revelation.
    Nancy
    ❤️

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