Have you ever understood a life experience in one way, only to re-visit it later and discover an entirely different meaning? As COVID-19 has impacted our world, it seems we’ve all begun thinking of life differently. We speak of never having experienced anything like it and that life will never be the same. We search to find meaning for events that jolt us out of complacency and into an unknown world. Yes, we look to the past and to others who have gone through tumultuous times to see how they dealt with difficult and sometimes life-shattering moments in time.
Recently I was contacted by a college friend, David Knighton, decades after losing track of him. We sat next to each other in college chapel, because Kroeker followed Knighton alphabetically. We were not always the most appreciative of chapel offerings, with strong opinions about what was or was not of value to our 20-year-old selves. (Our musings did keep chapel interesting, however.)
A few weeks ago, David emailed me about an Isaac Watts psalter he wanted to donate to the Church Music Institute. Published in 1803, it was a treasure he inherited from his father, Raymond Knighton, a singer and church musician. David wanted the psalter where it would be cared for, appreciated, and continue to inspire. We immediately began discussions with archival librarians and found that, indeed, CMI could properly care for it. With great gratitude, CMI accepted the generous donation to share with those who love Watts’ hymns. First, about the psalter.
By Isaac Watts, D.D.
Printed at Exeter, New Hampshire by Henry Ranlet, 1803
Originally published in 1719, Isaac Watts (1674-1748) loosely paraphrased the Psalms in Common Meter, Short Meter, and Long Meter for ease in singing. He believed Christians practicing a New Testament church should sing Psalms in ways that expressed the thoughts and feelings of those who sang, rather than to adhere strictly to the psalm writers of the Old Testament. Hence, the phrase, “imitated in the language of the New Testament,” determined the content of the psalms in the light of the life, death, resurrection and teachings of Jesus. Psalm 72, for example, begins “Jesus shall reign where’er the sun/Does his successive journeys run.” “Joy to the world!” is a setting of Psalm 98. The Psalms of David collection includes 138 psalms, and excludes 12 that Watts thought were unsuitable for Christian use.Psalm 90 (Common Meter), according to The Psalms of David, read thus:
1. Our God, our help in ages past, Our hope for years to come,
Our shelter from the stormy blast, And our eternal home.
2. Under the shadow of thy throne, Thy saints have dwelt secure.
Sufficient is thine arm alone, And our defence is sure.
3. Before the hills in order stood, Or earth receiv’d her frame,
From everlasting thou art God, To endless years the same.
4. Thy word commands our flesh to dust, Return ye sons of men;
All nations rose from earth at first, And turn to earth again.
5. A thousand ages in thy sight, Are like an ev’ning gone;
Short as the watch that ends the night Before the rising sun.
6. The busy tribes of flesh and blood, With all their lives and cares,
Are carry’d downwards by the flood, And left in foll’wing years.
7. Time, like an ever-rolling stream, Bears all its sons away;
They fly, forgotten as a dream Dies at the op’ning day.
8. Like flow’ry fields the nations stand, Pleas’d with the morning light;
The flow’rs beneath the mower’s hand Lie with’ring ere ‘tis night.
9. Our God, our help in ages past, Our hope for years to come,
Be thou our guard while troubles last, And our eternal home.
Since David handed the Watts Psalter to me on that cold day in February in Minnesota, nearly everyone who has come to the Church Music Institute has held it, tissue paper protecting its fragile leather binding, and read the same words that were sung by persons holding this Psalter 200 years ago and for nearly 100 years before its publication. Today, we sing the same hymn written nearly 300 years ago (o.k., maybe not stanzas 4,6,8!). It graces our worship services, our weddings, our funerals, and Sunday morning worship services. It is a sturdy hymn that has served Christendom well through hardship and joy. It has proven its worth. CMI is glad to have a tangible reminder of Watts’ hymns in this very old, leather-bound volume. It will be one of our precious possessions, as the embodiment of our deeply-held motto, “informed by the past, committed to the present, preparing for the future.” It will help hold us to CMI’s mission. Singing the hymn brings back memories of the many times this hymn has marked important moments in countless lives, brought courage during dark days, and served as a celebration when arriving on the other side of difficulties.
Memories of college years, however, had to be altered. Dr. Knighton, my irreverent chapel partner, became an important vascular surgeon who developed revolutionary techniques in wound care that have changed thousands of lives. I really wasn’t surprised. I remembered a brilliant, confident young man ready to conquer the world. Little did I know the pain he carried from circumstances in his childhood that he had to overcome. Circumstances of which I was totally unaware, at the time. Nor did I understand how I played part in who he became, and how both of us might grapple with life independently only to meet again decades later over a Psalter. Things were very different than they seemed.
So it is with life and with God. Life is layered with meaning that we can understand only in part as we are experiencing it, with clarity coming in retrospect. As the King James version would say in I Corinthians 13, we are “looking through a glass darkly.” We see things differently when circumstances change or after time passes. “Our God Our Help in Ages Past” sings differently at age 15 or 45 or 95, just as it means something different when facing a virus no one understands or can predict. Yet we sing it with fervor as people of faith have sung it for 300 years when facing plagues, wars, famine, sickness and death. We sing to the same God who has been and always will be faithful.
A hymn like “Our God, Our Help in Ages Past, Our Hope for Years to Come” is a timeless treasure. Like Scripture, it has the capacity to give meaning and insight to life’s journey in different times and circumstances of life. The ST. ANNE tune helps us remember the words. When did you first hear it? What memories does it bring?
Thank you, Isaac Watts, for writing hymn texts that have lasted 300 years. Thank you, Ray Knighton for finding a book in England and saving it for David. Thank you, David, for remembering the importance of the Psalms, for googling an irreverent chapel companion, and for the willingness to share your treasure with those who understand the value of timeless hymnody.
When our world is a little more back to “normal,” we invite you to come to the Institute and see a 200-year-old book with hymns that have been sung for 300 years. (Yes, the Psalms have been around a lot longer than that.) Isn’t it comforting to be part of a faith tradition that lasts? Maybe in time we will realize COVID-19 is different than it seems, too.
1 Music, David and Price, Milburn. A Survey of Christian Hymnody. Carol Stream, IL: Hope Publishing Company, 2010, p. 69-70