While Life Shall Last

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

How presumptuous of me—changing a word in the last stanza of a precious hymn of the church.  The same stately hymn I sang every New Year’s Eve service, looking back over a year of God’s help. The word “guard” didn’t bother me—until real troubles came my way.

The summer before he was to begin college, our middle child was seriously injured. During a time already overloaded with moving and new jobs and schools for each of us, the paralyzing accident interrupted all our plans and dreams. We could not look ahead—the present zapped all our energy.

My husband had to take the reins of his new job; grad school for me was several months away, if ever. My own plans seemed so unimportant next to our son’s losses and the ripples that spread to his sisters. I waited in hospital rooms, barely able to think a clear thought.

In my “O God . . .” desperation, the words of that hymn came unbidden. But each time I got to the word “guard” I paused. The time for guarding was over—we were already in the middle of this hopeless mess.

God’s guarding did not save us from troubles, nor would there be a miracle to take them away. We’d have to endure. For that, I desperately wanted a guide. Maybe God could do that.

Later I heard a fresh take on the word “guard”: a guard uses every defensive and offensive means to help his people prevail. Could it be that God guards my life while I am walking through the fire? Or that God’s Spirit equips me with something like armor so that troubles don’t crush me?

If we are honest, the stories of our lives are never free from the terror of drowning or the hopelessness that comes when we’re smothered by troubles. Hard times shake every belief once held firm. God did not and does not shield us from bad things. But God the guard helps us prevail. In a word, salvation.

When I sing that hymn again I’ll use the word “guard.” I am not the first to quibble with Isaac Watts’s original text. His last line did not mention “troubles” at all; he used the words “while life shall last.” The Psalter Hymnal on which I was raised uses “troubles.” Perhaps troubles and life are one and the same. 

Looking back at that summer of loss and the losses that followed, I’m able to see glimmers of “hope for years to come.” Hardly a floodlight, just slivers of light on lives rebuilt, faith renewed, and small joys reclaimed. In troubles and in life—God guards my soul forever.

About the Author

Carol J. Rottman (caroljrottman@gmail.com) is a retired teacher and author.