A Love Letter
It was 42 years ago when Carol and I last stood as a young and newly married couple with the people of Park Street Church in Boston and sang, “Our God Our Help in Ages Past” at the close of the service. Two Sundays ago, as visitors, we sang that hymn from the same hymnal. The congregation was thinned out and older than I remembered, but their voices were as strong and still filled the sanctuary as before as if those no longer there were joining in. Not ghosts or echoes but a great cloud of witnesses.
As we sang I thought about that hymn (and others) as a metaphor for life. There is a story moving forward, tied together by a chorus, that returns us to the familiar before taking us to the next verse. As a young boy in church, there was never a story. I never listened to the narrative told by the hymn but only knew we had to get through all the verses. It was simply plodding through enough verses until someone was either prompted or goaded into walking forward.
It was at Park Street Church when I realized there is a story to our lives, and it was there that the first line of the narrative of our adult lives was written.
Carol and I were given the gift of knowing our young lives were tied to others who were older and wiser. It was a thread that went back many years and reminded us that God has been the help in ages past of people we did not know but who were now a part of us. It taught us that God is everlasting and “from age to age the same” but in the sense of being constant and sure – not merely repetitious. There were many times in those early years of marriage and career when the changes – both delightful and unwelcomed – came so fast and out of nowhere that we wondered how we would survive intact.
There is a principle in hymnody that the most powerful part of the song is the chorus or the refrain. It is where the emotion is captured and almost always the most memorable part of the song to which we return. If you think of the hymns you love, it is likely the refrain and not the verses that have stayed with you. “Love lifted me” and “It is well with my soul” are two refrains I carry with me. But, while the refrain is the place of deepest feeling and where we are drawn again and again, it is also where the song itself breaks off and pauses. It is the place where we find the familiar and the pleasant but we cannot stay there. Life is not to be lived in the familiar but continuously pushing to the next verse.
The next verse is always the place of growth and this becomes even more true with age. As we sang on Sunday, I heard lyrics for the first time that would never have caught my attention years ago:
Time, like an ever-rolling stream,
Bears all its sons away;
They fly forgotten as a dream
Dies at the opening day.
What was time then? It meant so little to us, but now as we sing I can hear the wisdom and reality of these words. I think this is why the hymn was sung at the funeral of Winston Churchill. He had planned the service to the last detail. Held in Saint Paul’s Cathedral using the eloquent Anglican liturgy, the service included many of the great hymns of the English language. At his direction, following the final benediction, a bugler positioned high in the dome of St. Paul’s, played “Taps.” But then at Churchill’s instruction, right after “Taps” ended, from the other side of the great dome, another bugler played the notes of “Reveille.” We are mortal but not forever.
Looking back, I can see that this structure – a verse that moves me forward, a pause to return to the familiar, and then another verse – has been the pattern of my life.
As we closed I could not help but think about the next verse of life. What would it be for us? I suppose this is why I owe so much to Park Street. The people here not only gave us a tie to the past and a sense of God’s constancy with which to face the changes and obstacles sure to come. They gave us the certainty of hope:
Our God, our Help in ages past,
Our Hope for years to come,
Be Thou our Guard while troubles last
And our eternal Home!