Hope in dark times

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In times like these, I often turn to the hymn “O God, Our Help in Ages Past,” Isaac Watts’ paraphrase of Psalm 90 from 1719. Today I turned to it again for solace and hope. All the singers are white, but, hey, so am I, and there is hope even for the likes of I.

Psalm 90 in its entirety is a song of lament, but hope — and a call to personal responsibility — rise from despair.

Years ago I was given a copy of The Book of Psalms and Scottish Hymnal (1879) with the cursive signature of the man who used it: “John Campbell, Blair Mill, 1886.” (My middle name is Campbell.) I dusted it off this morning to read it through. The rendition of Psalm 90 John Campbell sang in 1886 ends with a prayer that recognizes our own responsibility for “the works of our hands”:

“And let the beauty of the Lord our God be upon us: Our handy-work establish Thou, establish them each one” (Psalm 90:17).

  • Gordon Campbell Stewart, Chaska, MN, October 7, 2018.

Bemused by Time

Gordon C. Stewart, August 8, 2013 copyright.

I have always been bemused by time . . . and place. I am on a train listening in the night to the eerie sound of the train whistle and the constant click-clacking of the wheels. Where were we? Where are we going – and why, just my mother and I?

We were between times and places. My father had shipped out for war in the South Pacific. Hewas somewhere on a ship and might not return. My mother and I were on our way from LA to Boston. Two different places: one hours behind, one many hours ahead. But for the time being, there was only the now of the train, the whistle, and the steady clickety-clack from the track carrying us from there to here to there, from then to now to then. Perplexity with time and place is my earliest memory.

We are all in transit. But from where to where and from when to when have become less and less my questions.

I do not share the popular view that time is an illusion or that the material world is the prison from which we will be released at death. Time and place are gifts of creaturely existence, boundaries within which we live our lives appreciatively or scornfully in the midst of the Eternal. To scorn them is to deprecate existence itself in the Promethean hope that we can steal fire from the gods to become what we are not: timeless and placeless.

Time and place are set within the larger Mystery that Rudolph Otto called the Mysterium tremendum et fascinans – the Mystery that makes us mortals tremble and fascinates us at the same time, the Mystery of the Eternal without which we are nothing that draws us to itself like iron to a magnet. Time and place – birth, finite life, death – exist within the Mystery of that which does not die: Eternity.

I am not amused by the denial of death that is so rampant in our culture. Surveys show that roughly 90% of Americans, regardless of religious affiliation, believe in life after death, by which they do not mean that life will go on without them, but that they themselves will never die.

I have come to believe that the denial of death and the fear of death lie close to the core of American culture at its worst. Ernest Becker’s The Denial of Death informs how I see the world and myself; Becker sits beside me as I turn to the Scriptures in the morning.

Psalm 90:1-5, paraphrased by Isaac Watts (1719) and sung as the hymn “O God, Our Help in Ages Past” is as much in my early memory bank as the train whistle on the ride to Boston. It has always represented a mature faith that takes seriously Otto’s Mysterium:

Before the hills in order stood,
Or earth received its frame,
From everlasting Thou art God,
To endless years the same.

A thousand ages in Thy sight
Are like an evening gone;
Short as the watch that ends the night
Before the rising sun.

Time, like an every rolling stream
Bears all its sons away;
They fly forgotten, as a dream
dies at the opening day.

O God, our help in ages past,
Our hope for years to come,
Be Thou our guard while life shall last
And our eternal home.

Standing at the gravesites over the years, I have prayed the same prayer so many times that it has become an essential part of me. I confess that I don’t know what it means exactly but it expresses the sentiment of good faith as I have come to understand it for myself.

O Lord, support us all the day long,
until the shadows lengthen,
and the evening comes,
and busy world is hushed,
and the fever of life is over,
and our work is done.
Then, in Your mercy,
grant us a safe lodging,
a holy rest,
and peace at the last.

The shadows have grown longer since the trip to Boston and the first time I sang the hymn. Evening is closer now. The sense of the Mysterium tremendum et fascinans is different but no less real now than it was on the train to Boston. The hush of the busy world will come soon enough. Between now and the day my work is done, I want to listen more attentively for the Hush in the midst of time, and give thanks that the Silence is not empty. It is full of Eternity. I am bemused by time.

Click O God, Our Help in Ages Past for a video that captures the spirit of the hymn and the prayer.