During the recent federal government shutdown, serious confrontations occurred at several national historical monuments in Washington DC. California congressman Darrell Issa convened the House Oversight Committee, which he chairs, and he called National Parks Service Director Jonathon B. Jarvis on the carpet for closing the sites: “Do you own these lands and buildings? Who do they belong to?” Director Jarvis responded simply: “They belong to the people.” The congressman shot back: “Then let the people in.” This was only the beginning of a long day of passionate politicizing.

Thankfully, now the shutdown’s over and our National Parks can get back to their normal operation.

Judy and I just finished watching all six two-hour episodes of Ken Burns’ wonderful documentary film “The National Parks: America’s Best Idea.” Yellowstone, designated in 1872, was the first. Under the influence of John Muir and the Sierra Club, Yosemite and Sequoia were the next to be enrolled, in 1890. The film series follows the struggle to set aside more and more of these important parklands, against constant pressure from increasing population and commercialization. Several strong personalities, besides Muir, were critical to the success of the parks movement through the twentieth century. Peter Coyote, who sounds like the voice of America itself, does an excellent job as the film’s narrator. We highly recommend that you put this series on your must-see list.

Judy and I were married in 1959, and our honeymoon was a two-week driving tour from New Jersey to California, where I was enrolled at Fuller Theological Seminary. On the way, we visited a few National Parks. After seminary, we settled in Sharon, Massachusetts, where I first served as pastor. We received free housing, but a limited salary. One fringe benefit was that we had four weeks of vacation time right from the start. But how can you go on vacation with two little kids when you don’t have much money? The only answer we could find (aside from visiting with relatives) was camping. So we did a lot of camping. And inevitably, that meant taking in more National Parks. I just went through the current list of fifty-eight Parks and found that we have visited twenty-one of them. That’s a lot of gorgeous scenery!

Watching the film brought back plenty of good memories of places we have been,things we have seen and family times together. Sometimes there was a view, an overlook, a vantage point, and I had a strong feeling that I’d been at that very spot. Other times the film revealed experiences that could only be appreciated by people who spent more time, or hiked deeper into the wilderness than I had.

At one point, as I was watching maybe the third episode, I suddenly became conscious of some subtle background music that had emerged occasionally beneath the narration. What was that familiar tune? Yes, it was the hymn we often sing in worship services:

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 the earth be glad!

I wish I could be at that congressional hearing so that I could tell Congressman Issa and Director Jarvis who the National Parks really belong to. These special areas have been chosen because there’s something mystical about them, something that brings us close to God in a unique and wonderful way. When you’re in a National Park, you know it’s His world.

— Pastor George Van Alstine