Saturday, June 16, 2012

Our hope for years to come

Psalm 90:1-6 (NIV)

Lord, you have been our dwelling place
   throughout all generations.
Before the mountains were born
   or you brought forth the whole world,
   from everlasting to everlasting you are God.
You turn people back to dust,
   saying, “Return to dust, you mortals.”
A thousand years in your sight
   are like a day that has just gone by,
   or like a watch in the night.
Yet you sweep people away in the sleep of death —
   they are like the new grass of the morning:
In the morning it springs up new,
   but by evening it is dry and withered.
Some will quickly recognize the link between these words from start of the 90th Psalm and the hymn from which this blog takes its name, “O God, Our Help in Ages Past.” Or “Our God,” if you prefer. Looking back, my own writing shows I tend to use both.

I assumed eventually I would come across this text as part of the blog project, and in fact I may have earlier, but the connection then did not leap out at me. Tonight I find it unavoidable. I am not sure if this is a good time to share the following, or if there ever is a “right” time. But as I am drawn to this text and this hymn I am unable to move my focus elsewhere. So I’m going to share now a newspaper column I wrote more than three years ago. It explains why this song means so much to me, and though plenty has happened in my life since I originally wrote the column, I feel I couldn’t present any better today the feelings I had then. So here we go, my column from Feb. 3, 2009:

* * *
Our God, our help in ages past,
Our hope for years to come,
Our shelter from the stormy blast,
And our eternal home.
I sang these words on one of the happiest days of my life, my 2001 graduation from Coe College in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. Historically tied to the Presbyterian denomination, this classic Protestant hymn is a natural fit for Coe, lyrically and musically. It moves along at a brisk tempo, and though written with nine stanzas, generally is played with just four or five. The entire thing takes less than 90 seconds.
Before the hills in order stood,
Or earth received her frame,
From everlasting Thou art God,
To endless years the same.
Even now as I type the words, the melody floats through my brain, a wonderful reminder of standing on the quad, sun shining on my mortarboard, friends and family all chiming in together. As someone who grew up in the church with a mother practically able to recite the hymnal, belting out a classic nearly always brings an instinctual smile to my face. God feels most alive in my life when I’m singing one of my favorite hymns – and there are many – among a happy congregation.

One of the people singing with me that sunny May day in 2001 was my aunt, Lynne Thompson. She, too, was a Coe graduate. She arrived on campus in the fall of 1971, fresh from suburban St. Louis. She sang in the concert choir and majored in sociology. She met my parents, who both graduated in 1974, and other dear family friends who also have strong Coe roots.
A thousand ages in Thy sight
Are like an evening gone;
Short as the watch that ends the night
Before the rising sun.
In the fall of 1974, at the start of senior year, my mother’s brother, Peter, enrolled at Coe. He and Lynne met and later married. With their son, Jesse, they returned to Cedar Rapids to celebrate my graduation. We went out to dinner, took a quick campus tour and discussed how our shared school was vastly changed from a quarter century hence, but also still familiar and comfortable.
Time, like an ever rolling stream,
Bears all its sons away;
They fly, forgotten, as a dream
Dies at the opening day.
I often looked at the end of the third stanza — "as a dream dies at the opening day" — as an unfortunate phrase for a Cubs fan, since so many baseball seasons seem over before they begin. When I spoke with Lynne’s brother, Neal, about 10 days ago, he praised me for an essay I wrote about baseball in 1997. I’d been in Florida for spring break visiting my mom’s parents and Peter, Lynne and Jesse. My grandfather took my brother and me to a few spring training games at the Phillies complex in Clearwater, where he had season tickets.

The thoughts I had during those games became my essay, which I blindly sent to editors of what then were my favorite publications, The Chicago Tribune and The Sporting News, a St. Louis-based weekly tabloid that covered all sports, but at its heart was a baseball rag. Lynne knew this when she got me my first subscription as a gift. As a brash 17-year-old, I thought the essay was pretty good. So did the folks in St. Louis, who not only asked if they could print it, but took a picture of me in front of the Wrigley Field marquee and paid me $250. Famed broadcaster Bob Costas liked the piece so much he tracked me down and made a congratulatory phone call.
Our God, our help in ages past,
Our hope for years to come,
Be Thou our guard while troubles last,
And our eternal home.
The last time I sang this hymn was Sunday, Jan. 25, 2009, in the sanctuary at Spring Valley Presbyterian Church in Columbia, S.C. It was the opening hymn for the funeral service for Lynne, who four days earlier was shot dead in broad daylight while checking her bank account balance at a drive-up ATM.

The last years of Lynne’s life were complicated by a bitter divorce from my uncle. On her agenda the day she died was signing the final legal papers. Yet she had a wonderful support group at her church, and a spectacular relationship with Jesse, now a college freshman. Those who spoke at her service explained she was emerging from a painful cocoon as a beautiful butterfly, waiting to take wing again. A woman from her support group said the women thought they were God’s gift to Lynne, only to realize she’d been a gift to them, a true friend whose life challenged them to use spiritual gifts they hadn’t known they possessed.

The last day I spent with Lynne was at a memorial service for my grandfather. We were with about 50 people gathered in a church in Charlotte, N.C. That service was marked with the jubilant singing of some real classics — "Joyful, Joyful, We Adore Thee," "Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing," "Just A Closer Walk With Thee" — and others. I still smile when I think of that day, though I sobbed throughout the service. I smile because I remember the music, our family coming together and remembering a life lost, singing as one and feeling loved beyond just the people in the chapel.

The image of that day is how I choose to remember Lynne. She always seemed destined to sing soprano in the so-called heavenly choir, and I trust she’s there now. In fact, she’s probably ironing the robes and alphabetizing the music library.

I may not think of her daily, and perhaps not every time I sing. But with certainty, I’ll never be able to hear that old college hymn without considering Lynne and her eternal home. Jesse, I hope, will continue to consider God for his help in the past, and also a source of hope, from here to eternity.

Lynne would have it no other way.

* * *

Look at how I start the paragraphs in the conclusion — “The last time…” “The last years…” “The last day…” — surely not a surprise given the emotions of the hour, but to view it anew today and see it mapped out as such certainly says something, to me at least.

My prediction has been true — not only does hearing this hymn instantly trigger my memory, I am completely incapable of singing a complete verse. Whenever it comes up during a worship service I use the time to just kind of be with God, if that makes any sense. It’s not exactly prayer, it’s not tears of sorrow. It’s just a connection, an indefinable, indescribable emotion.

I write and think a lot about what I want to teach my kids about faith. And while I want them to be able to experience this emotion I can’t define, I realize it can’t be taught, it must be felt. Certainly this particular hymn won’t hit them the exact same way it hits me. Maybe whatever takes them to that place won’t be music at all. I don’t know. This one is personal. I enjoy the chance to tell other people how it affects me, but I don’t expect it to affect them the same way — how could it?

Incidentally, the other verses of the hymn not commonly used are as follows:
Under the shadow of Thy throne
Thy saints have dwelt secure;
Sufficient is Thine arm alone,
And our defense is sure.

Thy Word commands our flesh to dust,
Return, ye sons of men:
All nations rose from earth at first,
And turn to earth again.

The busy tribes of flesh and blood,
With all their lives and cares,
Are carried downwards by the flood,
And lost in following years.

Like flowery fields the nations stand
Pleased with the morning light;
The flowers beneath the mower’s hand
Lie withering ere ‘tis night.
Anyway, those are my thoughts for tonight. Thank you for reading.

A prayer for June 16:

Lord, you are our hope for years to come. I humble myself in your presence, and acknowledge my insignificance when compared to your majesty and power. Yet I know that despite my imperfection and simple humanity, you love me without condition. I am wholly undeserving of and wholly grateful for your grace. Please, guard my family. You will always be our eternal home. Amen.

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