One of the challenges I have faced when looking at hymns is how to reconcile the past with the present.  Old words; modern ideas.  Historic errors and wrongs; current perspectives and visions for the future.  Age old wisdom; fixation on all things new.  The evolution of language; the poetry and beauty of artfully crafted texts. The inconsistencies sometimes found in faith practices; the search for spiritual guidance that addresses concerns and inspires positive recognition of all. The good, the bad and the ugly, as they say.

It is an obstacle course, to be certain.  A delicate wander through places of discomfort, but also places I find deeply resonant and replete with wisdom and joy.

This familiar hymn has somehow escaped my gaze over all these years of hymn exploration.  I’m not sure why, as it turns out I quite like it.  The words are lovely.  I can only imagine that the image of a shelter in a stormy blast is one that is appealing to all.  It seems to me that is the entirety of what most of us are seeking throughout our lives – be it spiritual or literal; in our relationships of all kinds.

O God, our help in ages past, our hope for years to come,
Our shelter from the stormy blast, and our eternal home;

Under a shadow of thy throne thy saints have dwelt secure.
Sufficient is thine arm alone, and our defence is sure.

Before the hills in order stood, or earth received her 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 ever rolling stream soon bears us all away.
We fly forgotten, as a dream dies at the op’ning day.

O God, our help in ages past, our hope for years to come,
Be thou our guard while troubles last, and our eternal home.

When I read through these words, I find within them a beautiful reassurance that something great cares for us.  Past. Present. Future.  That is a remarkable gift.  To be cared for through a thousand ages is a mighty thing.  It implies our value – long before we were here.  Long after we are gone.  Time ceases to matter as it continuously rolls along, carrying upon it all those who came before and after.  We are all worth a great deal.

Sounds lovely.  But challenges remain.  For whom is this help intended?  The saints alone?  What about those who find themselves drenched in storms – without shelter and completely insecure?   What about those who seem to receive no help?  What about those who find the concept of God repugnant or unbelievable?  Whose God gets to be the hero in this story?

I suspect my modern mind is imposing these question – inserting challenges into these words.   Valid, I think, because we should question our belief systems and institutions.  They have been at the root of countless horrors throughout history – in some cases, they continue to wreak havoc.  We desperately need to clean our spiritual and religious houses.  But we also need to find ways to gain the sustenance that gives us the strength and courage to do the hard work of making amends, of moving forward, of adjusting and evolving.

These old texts need not be taken literally.  Like all written words they are of their context, planted in their own time.  They are as imperfect as we are – judged for their flaws as we will be judged for ours a hundred years from now.  But, they are beautiful nonetheless.  They are able to express beliefs, desires, needs, fears and sorrows.  For me, the value of that is immense.  Knowing that Isaac Watts wrote so eloquently about what sustained him – in 1719 – and that these words continue to represent things we’re all looking for, is remarkable.  We need shelter from storms.  We need help, we need home.  We are all aware that our time is finite, but the cycle of life carries on beyond us. Consquently, how we live and interact with others and our planet matters.

I have often found that these hymns remind me profoundly of how common our experiences really are.  Now, then, here, there.  Not the specifics nor the equity.  But the things that carry us.  It is this truth that offers inspiration.  It is this truth that requires us to both receive and provide help; to be conduits of hope for years to come.