Mar 17, 2020

(A pastoral message. Adapted script from Bishop’s video message, March 17, 2020)

By Bishop Peggy A. Johnson

“Lord, you have been our dwelling place in all generations.  Before the mountains were brought forth, or before you formed the earth and the world, from everlasting to everlasting you are God.”  (Psalm 90:1-2)

I bid you grace and peace in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ.  Know that I am praying for you during this national health crisis.  I appreciate your many prayers as we navigate this fluid time.

Today I want to remind you about our ultimate source of hope in all of this: God.  Psalm 90 reminds us, “From everlasting to everlasting, you are God.”  We know that God is with us now as we journey through this everflowing stream of time.

The words of the hymn, “O God, Our Help in Ages Past,” were penned by the prolific English poet, Isaac Watts.  Born in 1674, he began writing poetry, and particularly religious poetry, at the age of 7, and in his lifetime he is credited with composing more than 6,000 hymns—about the same as our own Charles Wesley.  “Joy to the World” and “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross” are among Isaac Watts’ greatest hits.

Watts was a preacher for a time but mostly spent his life writing hymns, and he was known as the “Father of English Hymnody.” 

The hymn: “O God, Our Help in Ages Past” has endured through the years and is known as the “Second National Anthem of England.” It is sung at all official remembrance services in England and Canada.

John Wesley included many of Isaac’s hymns in his hymnbooks, and he even tweaked the words from time to time.

For example, “O God, Our Help in Ages Past” was originally penned as “Our God, Our Help in Ages Past.”   Wesley took out the “Our” and changed it to “O.” Though grammatically smoother with the “O,” I think that Watts put it in there on purpose. 

Our God, our help in ages past, our hope for years to come, our shelter from the stormy blast and our eternal home.”  In one small stanza Watts included the word “our” five times.  Could there be a message here?

God is OUR God.  The one we trust, the one we worship, the one who saves and sanctifies us and delivers us from adversity. 

If he is OUR God, then we, his children, are brothers and sisters in this family of humanity.  This means that with God as our God, our heavenly Parent, our supreme source of strength, we must be in loving relationship with all of our entire human family.

So treat all people like family during this COVID-19 crisis.  A crisis always brings with it an opportunity. 

Isaac Watts’ own father was imprisoned for being a Dissenter, who challenged the theology of the Church of England in earlier times.  Watts experienced suffering in his young life. But I think he used his hymns to call us to our better selves.  So during this crisis, I do the same:

  1. Call on those who don’t have family or friends to support them.
  2. Invite new people to be on your video live-streamed worship services for inspiration and comfort.
  3. Start up a prayer meeting using a Free Conference call number and pray for all the needs that are happening around us. Prayer changes things!
  4. Give of your means to those who will be in financial difficulty because of job losses. You might even want to give more to your church, as it experiences any financial difficulties.
  5. Volunteer to watch some children, if your situation permits, so that their parents can work.
  6. Send a letter of support and encouragement to our health care professionals, our first responders and news media who are working overtime right now for our health concerns, protection and information. In some states, the National Guard has even been called out.
  7. Don’t blame anyone for this disease. This kind of virus is a phenomena that occurs from time to time in human history.  Accusations of neglect or mal-treatment are not helpful. Be gentle with one another, and if there are signs of poor judgment, call folks to accountability with an attitude of love.

Remember, our God is our dwelling place, not our homes made with human hands. It’s not even going to take away the present crisis. But we don’t have to worry because we have God with us in every situation.

So, keep your eyes on your neighbor and friends and celebrate “Our God” in every way you can. And may the peace of God that surpasses all understanding be with you all.