• Matthew Jones

Is This Our Mother's World?

On Sunday, December 15th, 2019 our congregation sang an old hymn, originally published as a poem just after the turn of the twentieth century and the early death of its author, but when we sang it, we used some alternative lyrics. The version of this hymn that appears in our hymnal contains lyrics that were altered from the author’s original words, so the church has long held within its tradition the practice of changing lyrics for a theological purpose.


These are the words we sang that second Sunday of Advent:


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 Mother’s world

The birds their carols raise

The morning light, the lily white, declare their maker's praise

This is my Mother’s world

She shines in all that's fair

In the rustling grass I hear Her pass

She speaks to me everywhere


This is my Father's world

May we tend her gentle life

Her seas are filled

with the oil we spilled

Her skies growing warm in their plight

This is our Father's world

He has fashioned us a home

And lest our crib become our grave

This world is not our own


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 Mother’s world

In the end, Her will be done

Jesus, who died, shall be satisfied,

And earth and heav’n be one


The origins of the version above has many layers. Let me share some of them with you.

Layer one is the text that comes from the original author, Rev. Maltbie Davenport Babcock. These words form the majority of the lyrics, though Babcock had written words that were not included when the hymn began to appear in hymnals. This leads us to the second layer, which is the alteration of Babcock’s lyrics upon its addition to hymnals in the years following 1915. The most notable change was found in the last verse:


Babcock’s lyrics

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 the earth be glad!


Hymnal Lyrics

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.


(The second set of lyrics is what appears in our hymnal, Sing to the Lord, published in 1993.)

The third layer is found in an additional verse, which does not appear in the hymnal publishing, nor does it come from Babcock:


This is my Father's world

May we tend her gentle life

Her seas are filled

with the oil we spilled

Her skies growing warm in their plight

This is our Father's world

He has fashioned us a home

And lest our crib become our grave

This world is not our own


These lyrics come from the Christian band Gungor, and first appeared on their live album, A Creation Liturgy in 2012. I became aware of these lyrics during a worship service at the Creation Care Summit in October of 2019, which was hosted by Nazarenes for Creation Care, a group of clergy who are attempting to stir up conversations about the way we are to steward the earth and all its inhabitants as followers of Christ.


As I looked toward Advent, knowing that we would be looking at the text from the book of Isaiah and asking questions of eschatology (i.e., what does this mean for our understanding of the end of all things?) and ecology (i.e., what does this mean for our understanding of the earth and our relationship with it?), I chose to sing this beautiful hymn that centers the earth in the hands of God.

At that same conference, I noticed that two of the verses were sung with “This is my Mother’s world,” rather than the masculine original, “Father.” I chose to include this change as well, and will discuss that more in depth below. But first let me note one final layer.


As I mentioned above, the last verse at its writing ended with,


This is my Father's world:

why should my heart be sad?

The Lord is King; let the heavens ring!

God reigns; let the earth be glad!


Then they were altered to,


This is my Father's world.

The battle is not done.

Jesus who died shall be satisfied,

and earth and heav'n be one.


But on December 15th we sang,


This is my Mother’s world

In the end, Her will be done

Jesus, who died, shall be satisfied,

And earth and heav’n be one


These were changes that I myself made, and I chose to do so in response to what we heard from the prophet the week before:


...They shall beat their swords into plowshares,

and their spears into pruning hooks;

nation shall not lift up sword against nation,

neither shall they learn war any more.

Isaiah 2:4b


In light of this divine revelation, it did not feel right to sing, “The battle is not done,” as it appears in our hymnal. It seems that God’s will is for war and battle to end, and so we sang instead, “In the end, Her will be done.” Amen.


After we sang this together I got some comments and questions from folks in our congregation. Not questions about that last alteration I made, nor the addition of a verse that calls our attention to care for our warming planet that is being polluted, but the question on their minds was about the alteration of “Father” to “Mother.” This is an excellent question that deserves some exploration, and so I hope these notes will be helpful to any who wish to consider these things with an open heart and mind.


Let me first say that all language we use for God is figurative, metaphoric, inevitably imprecise. When we say “God our Father,” we mean that metaphorically. God is not actually our Father. We have fathers—some good, some bad, and some that are not around long enough for us to judge as either. But God is not literally ‘Father.’ God is not male; God is not a man. God transcends gender and sex. While that is true, we use images and metaphors when talking about God in order to experience God in different ways. The Bible itself is full of different imagery for God, but here we are interested in the ways that the Bible images God as Mother, female, or woman.


The following is a list of passages compiled by the Women’s Ordination Conference:


Genesis 1:27 Women and Men created in God’s image

“Humankind was created as God’s reflection: in the divine image God created them; female and male, God made them.”

Hosea 11:3-4 God described as a mother

God: “Yet it was I who taught Ephraim to walk, I who took them up in my arms; but they did not know that I healed them. I led them with cords of human kindness, with bands of love. I was to them like those who lift infants to their cheeks. I bent down to them and fed them.”

Hosea 13:8 God described as a mother bear

“Like a bear robbed of her cubs, I will attack them and tear them asunder…”

Deuteronomy 32:11-12 God described as a mother eagle

“Like the eagle that stirs up its nest, and hovers over its young, God spreads wings to catch you, and carries you on pinions.”

Deuteronomy 32:18 God who gives birth

“You were unmindful of the Rock that bore you; you forgot the God who gave you birth.”

Isaiah 66:13 God as a comforting mother

God: “As a mother comforts her child, so I will comfort you; you shall be comforted in Jerusalem.”

Isaiah 49:15 God compared to a nursing mother

God: “Can a woman forget her nursing child, or show no compassion for the child of her womb? Even these may forget, yet I will not forget you.”

Isaiah 42:14 God as a woman in labor

God: “For a long time I have held my peace, I have kept myself still and restrained myself; now I will cry out like a woman in labor, I will gasp and pant.”

Psalm 131:2 God as a Mother

“But I have calmed and quieted my soul, like a weaned child with its mother; my soul is like the weaned child that is with me.”

Psalm 123:2-3 God compared to a woman

“As the eyes of a servant looks to the hand of their master, as the eyes of a maid to the hand of her mistress, so our eyes look to you, YHWH, until you show us your mercy!”

Matthew 23:37 and Luke 13:34 God as a Mother Hen

Jesus: “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!”

Luke 15:8-10 God as woman looking for her lost coin

Jesus: “Or what woman having ten silver coins, is she loses one of them, does not light a lamp, sweep the house, and search carefully until she finds it? When she has found it, she calls together her friends and neighbors saying, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found the coin that I had lost.’ Just so, I tell you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.”


These passages are incredibly helpful for me, reminding me that the Bible does not view God in just one way, nor does God in Godself only intend to be revealed in maleness. In my opinion, the most important text we could explore here is the very first, Genesis 1:27. God creates both men and women in the image of God. If that is true, then we have to say that femaleness and womanhood portrays the divine image equally as well as maleness and manhood does. Unfortunately, the Church has spent most of its history ignoring half of God’s self-revelation in the female. One of the symptoms is the exclusion of women from ministry, teaching, and roles of leadership—I recognize that I have just assumed a particular interpretation of passages about the role and function of women in the Church which not all readers may hold, but that is a discussion for another time.


The point at hand is that when we only speak about God as “Father,” we are only speaking about half of the divine image, and this is important because it only validates one gender’s ability to bear the divine image in the world. I also admit that this is a shift from the ‘norm’ in the Church, but that easily becomes an excuse for failing to attempt to grow into maturity in Christ. What I do want to assert is that we are actually quite acquainted with using a variety of imagery for God, both Biblical and non-Biblical.


The Sunday before we sang this song, the first Sunday of Advent, the day we were looking at Isaiah 2 and asking questions of eschatology and ecology, I used the following metaphor in my sermon: Our God is a fungi, a mushroom. I won’t take the time now to explain why I used that metaphor, but trust me, it was really good. The room filled with gentle expressions of “amen.” I repeated this point a few times. It was not hidden.


I said God is a Mushroom.


That is a metaphor, and it functions in the same way as “Father” and “Mother,” but the difference is that nobody seemed to be uncomfortable with God being a mushroom. Yay! I got away with it. And I’m glad I did, because, as I mentioned, it was a really good image for what the text said. But mushrooms do not bear the divine image, so how much more should we say “amen” to imaging God in both “male and female” (Genesis 1:27)!


What is more innocent and intimate than a child nursing at his mother’s breast? What is more sacrificial than a mother bearing and birthing her child? What is more tender than the caress of a mother’s finger upon her child’s cheek, red with warmth, as she rocks him to sleep? If these images do not convey the nature of God for us, then we have yet to let the images of the Scriptures above seep into our hearts and minds.


It might at first be a stretch, and that is okay. These things do not come without practice and education. We only image God as “Father” because that is what we have been taught to do. And so we will continue to see God as Father. But it is my hope that we can learn to move back and forth between images for the sake of the whole body of Christ, giving the same weight and holiness to both male and female revelations of the divine nature.


This is, I hope, only the beginning of the conversation as we continue to grow in maturity in Christ, learning to make use of the full range of Biblical images for God (which includes Mother) and seeing the value in non-Biblical images (such as Mushrooms, for example). This is moving us toward being a community that can see God in all, both men and women.


So here’s the question:

Is God our Mother?


How do you answer this question? What does it stir up in you? How has your training, both social and theological, shaped your thoughts and feelings about this question?


Now look at the women in your life: mothers, sisters, wives, aunts, grandmothers, and friends. How do they reflect the divine nature in unique ways? Tell them. Thank them. Picture God like them.


You must answer these questions for yourself, but just in case you want to hear my response, I’ll ask it one more time:

Is God our Mother?


God, I hope so.


Much love,

Matthew


Sources

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/This_Is_My_Father%27s_World

https://www.womensordination.org/resources-old/female-images-of-god-in-the-bible/

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