Mindful of Hope: O God, Our Help in Ages Past

In My Push to be Present, I Can Lose Sight of the God Who Acts in that Long Arc of Time

Connor Gwin / 7.14.20

Mindfulness has been a front-and-center staple of our collective zeitgeist for the past few years. As a certified mindfulness teacher, I am an advocate for the benefits of meditation and mindfulness practice in almost every aspect of life. On a personal level, as someone who deals with a steady state of low-grade anxiety, mindfulness has been a real game changer for me. 

But there is a downside to this newfound focus on mindfulness for me and, it would seem, for our society: This present moment is awful.

It sucks. It keeps getting worse and there is no sign of the terribleness letting up.  I do not want to be present at this moment because I have been present to the firehose of awful “nows” for the past five months and I am exhausted. It just doesn’t let up, does it? 

Alan Jacobs wrote a piece for the Guardian two years ago that starts with this line: “It is hard to imagine a time more completely presentist than our own, more tethered to the immediate.”

The problem with living exclusively in the present moment, for all the relief it can provide, is that it can also leave you hopeless, and one thing Christians are not, almost by definition, is hopeless.

One absolute bop of a hymn that has been in the front of my mind recently is “O God, Our Help in Ages Past.”

The hymn speaks of God’s presence from the beginning of time until the Last Day: 

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

In my push to be present, I can lose sight of the flow of time and, as a result, I can lose sight of the God who moves and acts in that long arc of time. That was the revolution of God’s self-revelation to the prophets of the Hebrew Scriptures.

God said, in my paraphrase, “I am the God of your ancestors — I have been with you. I am the God of your present moment — I am with you and I hear your cries. I am the God of the future — I will be with you and lead you to a land full of goodness.”

In our presentist age, we often (unconsciously) put all our eggs in the basket of the God who redeemed the world and who is present with us, but we don’t often look to the God who goes before us and leads us on. We can talk all day about the God who has been with us and even the God who is with us in the pain of the given moment, but we stumble when we try to talk about the God who will see us through this moment and bring us to a better place. 

Much has been written about the disorientation of this present moment and how we are finally confronted with the reality that we cannot predict or control the future. What usually happens to individuals when a loved ones dies has happened to the whole world, all at once. In a matter of days, the collective rug was pulled out from under us and we were dropped into deep grief.

Now we are all, collectively, looking at the world from the bottom of a well. From that vantage point, it is hard to imagine what hope looks like. In fact, my voice gets a little shaky when I start to use the word “hope” in relation to the future.

It may be my belief in a low anthropology or it may simply be my cynicism that makes it hard for me to have a ton of hope. I am not the only one. The New York Times put it this way, “On the Future, Americans Can Agree: It Doesn’t Look Good.” Poll after poll indicates that people are having a harder time looking ahead these days. 

The problem, of course, is that humans need hope for the future to function and thrive. Part of the disorientation of this moment is that the things to which we anchored our hope have fallen away. Parents are caught in the Herculean task of working full-time and caring for children full-time. Families do not know when they will be able to hug their nursing home-bound relatives again. Long-term planning of any kind is nearly impossible as the situation changes day to day and hour to hour.

It feels like we are being forced to run marathon after marathon with no end in sight. If we do surprise ourselves with hope, it is often hope that things will return to “normal,” but even as I type those words I know — deep inside — that things will not be normal for a long time (if ever again).

For Christians, what do we have if we do not have hope? That’s the whole game for us, isn’t it? Christian hope is different from a general hope for the future. After all, the Church is not (ideally) a historical society, nor are we (primarily) a nonprofit organization working to solve the world’s problems.

We are a people gathered together by the radical idea that a man was resurrected from the dead a few millennia ago. Through faith in him and the fact of his life we will be raised from the dead at the end of time when God makes “every sad thing come untrue.” 

It is as simple and earth-shattering as that, and it is really all that we have. 

And so here we are in a present moment that is overflowing with pain, suffering, injustice, death, and a genuine lack of hope that is more widespread than the virus. 

We worship a God who has been with God’s people throughout time — a fact that offers some comfort, but not enough. Even more, we worship a God who promises to be with us in an Ultimately positive and good future — a fact that offers real hope.

It would seem that we have a problem of focus. When we zoom in too close on the present moment everything else becomes blurry. 

Our hope found in Christ is not the hope that things in the world will magically get better and my life will be without suffering. Our Christian hope is not that we will be able to worship again in our buildings, as nice as that would be. Our hope is in the fact that God is with us now and that God will be with us at the End. The “shelter from the stormy blast” may not be an umbrella but something deeper and more substantial.

It is reported that “O God, Our Help in Ages Past” was the last hymn sung at a church service aboard the H. M. S. Titanic on April 14, 1912 — the day the boat sank. The Captain who officiated the service was the same Captain that would go down with his ship twenty-four hours later. 

What does this mean for us? To put it bluntly, it means that we may well sing, “… our hope in years to come …” right before our boat sinks. It means that the promise of God is not a promise of normalcy or peace or even safety. The promise of God is a promise of presence — then, now, and in the future. 

This present moment is awful and, we are being reminded, the past was pretty awful, too. The future is unknown and, I’m sorry to say, it could be just as awful or worse. 

We may be rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic, but we have a hymn tune stuck in our heads that points to something greater.

We have hope because we believe that, ultimately, the end is not the end. We have hope because our ancestors had the same hope and passed it onto us. We have hope because Jesus died, rose, and promised a place for us. 

O God, our help in ages past,
our hope for years to come,
be thou our guide while life shall last,
and our eternal home.

Featured image: Simon Migaj on Unsplash.


One response to “Mindful of Hope: O God, Our Help in Ages Past”

  1. Pierre says:

    Love the use of “bop” w/r/t/ O God Our Help in Ages Past – great hymn and great use of new slang that I just learned about this summer!

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