Leonard Bernstein’s “Simple Song” is a rendering of Psalm 121. It also calls to mind “Blessed are the pure of heart” — the Beatitude from Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount. It’s music that calms my whirling soul among the clanging cymbals.
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.
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 changeis 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.
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.
G.K. Chesterton‘s lyrics come to mind again in this strange year of 2019. Our earthly rulers falter, and the wall of gold entomb us.
O God of earth and altar, bow down and hear our cry, our earthly rulers falter, our people drift and die; the walls of gold entomb us, the swords of scorn divide, take not thy thunder from us, but take away our pride.
From all that terror teaches, from lies of tongue and pen, from all the easy speeches that comfort cruel men, from sale and profanation of honour and the sword, from sleep and from damnation, deliver us, good Lord!
The God to Whom Chesterton cried out was not a god that never says “No!”. Nor was it the god of Western culture that justified colonial invasions and occupations, the god of God in Christ shrunk to fit the mortal confines of creed, race, and nation rolled into one. Brutal terrors of white supremacy and white nationalism like the attacks on mosques and synagogues, and the terrors in high places gilded in gold and wrapped in lies of tongue and tweet drive us to our knees. They lead us to speechlessness, or to cry out for the God Who does say “No!”
“Bow down, O God of earth and altar; bow down, and hear our cry. Good Lord, deliver us!”
Tell out, my soul, the greatness of His might! Powers and dominions lay their glory by; Proud hearts and stubborn wills are put to flight; The hungry fed, the humble lifted high.
“Tell Out My Soul” rang out across the world yesterday, the last Sunday of Advent and the first Sunday of the government shut-down in the USA. The third stanza (above) expresses a timeless and timely hope.
In the immortal words of Timothy Cratchet (Tiny Tim) to Ebenezer Scrooge’s “Bah, humbug!” (A Christmas Carol): “God bless us, every one!”
“Darkness cannot cast out darkness. Only light can do that” — Martin Luther King, Jr.
If you’re longing for some light and for change, watch and listen to Buddy Guy leading Playing for Change. Skip the ad, and think of Ezekiel’s hope for a nation of the dry bones.
The story of Ezekiel’s vision for the valley of the dry bones is timeless and timely 10 days before the American electorate goes to the polls November 6.
“I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh.” – The promise for the dry bones in the Valley of the Bones (Ezekiel 36:26).
No one holds the patent right on lying. At some point everyone is a liar. Little white lies or hug lies; they’re lies just the same. But truth is my judge and yours.
I cannot recall a moment in the America of my lifetime when truth been as scorned as it is today. I remember presidents who lied. Some more than others. But never was truth itself under assault as it is in America today. As a child I asked how Germany could have fallen for the rhetoric and incivility of a madman. Finally I’m coming to understand.
I was raised on the great hymns of the church. Among them was Once to Every Man and Nation with lyrics by James Russell Lowell (1845). The newer hymnals have excluded it, most likely because of the black and white thinking between good and evil or because it’s language is not gender inclusive. But I turn to it today in ways I never have before, and I’m left to wonder whether somethings are just plain evil.
Elijah and Grandpa are walkin’ and “talkin'” on the way to his car seat.
“I’m walkin’, yes indeed, and I’m talkin’ ’bout you and me
I’m hopin’ that you’ll come back to me (yes)
I’m lonely as I can be, I’m waitin’ for your company
I’m hopin’ that you’ll come back to me….” – Fats Domino
Click this link — I’m Walkin’ – Fats Domino (1957). All these years later, I’m walking’ and talkin’ ’bout Elijah, hopin’ he’ll come back to me.
Elijah sways to all kinds of music from Verdi’s Te Deum and Widor’s Toccata to Johnny Cash at San Quentin. He moves his body to the rhythms. Always has. After a YouTube of The Flight of the Bumble Bee, I turned to Johnny Cash. “San Quentin, I hate every inch of you!”
Elijah doesn’t know that Grandpa and Grandma Stewart each served among the inmates of maximum security prisons like San Quentin in New York and Trenton, N.J. It doesn’t matter. All that matters is that Elijah already dances to the music of justice. Whenever I’m with Elijah, I experience a joyful Toccata!
Clinton Correctional Facility, Dannemora, NY (“the hell hole of the New York prison system”) where Grandpa once led weekly programs for inmates (1975-1977).
Elijah is now 16 — sixteen months, that is — but walking like the boss. He struts, hands behind his back, swaying to the music in his head, waving his arms while making a guest appearance with the Boston Symphonyto conduct the debut of his latest composition.
“Grandpa, isn’t life great!” he seems to say. Then he throws out his arms to be picked up and give Grandpa a kiss. “I’m gonna be like Winton Marsalis, Ray Charles, and Stevie Wonder. Grandma says maybe I’m a Mozart or a Benjamin Britton. Mom says J.S. Bach but I say Bach’s too boring, too inside the box. I’m a composer but I’m no Bach, and I’m a conductor, too.
“I play outside the box, Grandpa, like Spike Jones! Spike was both a composer and a conductor. Maybe I’ll be like Spike, pick up some trash at the park, bring back the City Slickers Band, and take America back to the 1950s! But Spike was weird, and he didn’t move his arms like a real conductor. He just put together some old tin cans and junk and pulled together some honky instruments and band members that made America laugh. I like making people laugh, but I’m no Spike Jones. I want to be Leonard Bernstein.
Grandpa and Grandma will be in Boston next month for a wedding in Boston Symphony Hall. As we witness the exchange of “I do’s”, we’ll imagine Elijah as a City Slicker with a baton in hand, strutting to the stage to conduct the debut of his latest composition with the Boston Symphony Orchestra.
Gordon C. Stewart, Grandpa (“Bumpa”) Gordon, August 26, 2018.