I knew that C.S. Lewis and I had more in common than our Christianity when he said, "You can never get a cup of tea large enough or a book long enough to suit me." Welcome to a celebration of faith, tea, and the written word. I'm always engaged in a book, and whether it's one I'm reading or one of the inspirational historical romances I write, there's always a cup of tea close by. Join me in a cup as we chat about faith, our favorite books and the exciting places our reading and writing adventures take us.

Monday, December 10, 2012

Beauty and the...Beast?

The young English gentleman probably paced through the drawing room, willing his his nerves to calm. After all, it was a momentous day. He was about to meet the woman he'd grown to love, poet Elizabeth Singer, for the first time.

They'd fallen in love through letters. Elizabeth wrote to him first, expressing her admiration for his work. Their friendship deepened and they'd even talked of marriage. The young gentleman, Isaac Watts, felt as if he'd found his match.

Isaac and Elizabeth seemed a perfect pair, both young marvels well-known for their writing, intelligence, and grasp of theology. Elizabeth was even sought out by a bishop to paraphrase Scripture—quite an achievement for a woman at the end of the seventeenth century.

But Isaac certainly wondered, would she like him?

Perhaps a better question might be, who wouldn't? Isaac Watts, who may now be best known as the author of "Joy to the World," was a bit of a boy wonder.

Born in England in 1674, Isaac showed an ability with words from a young age. He was also aware of his sinfulness early on, and was converted by age fourteen.

As a teenager, he disliked the somber way Psalms were sung during church. Not being the sort of fellow to sit around complaining, he began producing hymns based on Psalms. His congregation adored his efforts, so he continued to write them. In the meantime, he became a tutor and later, a pastor.

In 1719, Isaac published a collection of hymns interpreting the book of Psalms through the perspective of the New Testament. Psalm 98, the inspiration for “Joy to the World,” is a song of rejoicing and anticipation, looking to the day when God judges the earth with righteousness.

(Which means that “Joy to the World” wasn’t intended as a Christmas song. It was written looking toward Jesus’ second coming.)

Isaac wrote over 600 hymns in his lifetime, many of which are still found in our hymnals: “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross,” “O God Our Help in Ages Past,” and “Jesus Shall Reign.” He also published works on themes as various as theology, logic, and grammar. Among his friends were notable Christians such as Jonathan Edwards and John and Charles Wesley. He was well-respected, prolific, intelligent, and righteous.

No wonder Elizabeth Singer initially wrote to tell him how much she appreciated his work. No wonder she grew to admire Isaac even more through his letters.

At last Elizabeth entered the chamber where Isaac waited. Just as he imagined, she was beautiful: auburn haired, pink-cheeked, and blue-eyed.

The sparkle faded from those blue eyes, however, when she took in his appearance.

Contemporary accounts describe Isaac as small, perhaps five feet tall. He was often ill, leaving him with a yellowed complexion. His “disproportionately large” head boasted a hook nose.

Despite her admiration for Isaac's personality, righteousness, and works, Elizabeth could not get past his looks. She said (either to Isaac or of him, reports conflict), “If only I could say that I admire the casket as much as I admire the jewel it contains.”
Isaac Watts, who doesn't look so bad to me

He proposed; she turned him down. He later wrote,

I am persuaded, that in a future state we shall take a sweet review of those scenes of providence, which have been involved in the thickest darkness, and trace those footsteps of God when he walked with us through deepest waters. This will be a surprising delight.

A surprising delight, indeed.

I’m not judging Elizabeth for not being attracted to Isaac, nor am I insinuating she was shallow, cold, or a "beast" to his true "beauty." You can't fake chemistry. But I can’t help but feel for Isaac. We’ve all experienced heartache and rejection, and some days I yearn for that day in heaven when no one will ever be broken, beat, demeaned, or rejected again.

Isaac never married, but devoted himself to writing hymns until his death in 1748.

Today, his appearance doesn’t matter a jot, although the story of his broken heart makes him more real to me. I can relate to him a bit better, and I am even more inspired by his determination to use his gifts in service to God, no matter his disappointments, frailties, or challenges. His obedience and God-focused perspective bore fruit that still blesses us today.

This December, as you sing “Joy to the World,” perhaps you’ll recall Isaac. As you celebrate the coming of our Lord Jesus, you may also be inspired to allow God to lead you through the difficult times, just as Isaac did, anticipating a “surprising delight” on that day when "heaven and nature sing."

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