Signs of Grace

This morning, on my walk to work, a cool Spring breeze was blowing on my face.  Bird songs filled the air.  All of a sudden loud chirp dominated the music, like the voice of a soloist rising above the softer voices of the choir.  I looked up above me and saw a cardinal, all dressed up in the red mating feathers of Spring, not more than six or seven feet above my head.  I stopped and looked straight up at the bird, bright red against the light green buds of the tree.  Something changed in my heart.  As I walked on, the words and tune of an old hymn played in my mind.

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:
Why should my heart be sad?
The Lord is King: let the heavens ring!
God reigns; let earth be glad!

(Maltbie D. Babcock, 1901)

Humming the tune in my mind, I walked down Grace Street toward my office.  I saw a rabbit, some ten feet from the sidewalk, sitting warily as I passed.  The cardinal, the rabbit, are signs of grace.  And this old song was for me a wonderful expression of my response to that grace.

I know that for some the image of God as Father is extremely problematic.  And for that reason it makes it hard for them to sing this hymn.  Too often Christians have used the image of God as Father to reinforce patriarchal domination.  We in the church, calling God “Father,” have assumed that God is a man, using this assumption to imply that men should rule over women, that men are stronger than women, that men are superior in all sorts of ways to women. This is all nonsense.  God is not male and female.  God transcends our gender divisions.  And as Christians, we should be working for justice, not reinforcing structures of oppression.  Unfortunately, patriarchal Christianity pollutes the metaphor of God as father, making it hard to appreciate old hymns like the one that came into my mind this morning.

But there is something deeply true in its words.   If we are open to the music sung by the natural world in which we live, we can be lifted into the arms of the one “in whom we live and move and have our being.”  This “One” is beyond our limited concepts of human relations, not in some impersonal way, but in a “trans-personal” way.  And when “the wrong seems oft so strong,” this hymn points us to One who is, in a way that transcends even this metaphor, our loving parent.

Too often, Christianity has told us to look away from the world in which we live.  This hymn reminds us that the world around us God’s creation.  It sings of God’s creative love and power.  Islam teaches that the everything in the world, including plants and animals, are muslim.  That is, they submit to God.  And for that reason, they are signs of God for those who would but understand them.  This is a teaching that Christians, like me, could benefit from listening to.  After all, “The earth is the Lord’s and everything in it”(Psalm 24:1), and “the heavens declare the glory of God” (Psalm 10:1).  There are songs being sung, signs on display, that point to our God.

I am deeply disturbed by the wrong I see all around me, and I have reflected on it in recent posts.  But this morning, I stop to thank and praise God for the signs of grace I encounter as I walk down the sidewalk, for the songs of love that I hear, for the birds, the squirrels, the rabbit, the breeze.  My brothers and sisters in God’s family.  Praise be to God, the one to whom we all submit.


Author: rebertz

I am a Christian philosopher, teaching philosophy and religion at a small university in Iowa.

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