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In Good Faith column: Never stop giving thanks

Rev. Tim Schenck
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Redwood Falls Gazette

Columns share an author’s personal perspective.

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One of my favorite Thanksgiving hymns is “Now thank we all our God.” I like it because of its sentiment; I like it because I can follow the tenor line; but mostly I like it because of the compelling story behind it.

“Now thank we all our God with heart and hands and voices, who wondrous things has done,

in whom his world rejoices; who from our mothers’ arms has blessed us on our way with countless gifts of love, and still is ours today.”

This joyful hymn of gratitude wasn’t written because things were going well. It’s easy to be thankful when you don’t have to worry about where your next meal is coming from or when you’re in good health or when you’re living in a time of peace and prosperity.

But this hymn was written amid dire circumstances in 1636 by a Lutheran pastor named Martin Rinkart in war-torn Germany.

Pastor Rinkart came to serve a congregation in the old walled city of Eilenberg at the beginning of what came to be known as the 30 Years War. Now, if you don’t remember your middle school European history class, the 30 Years War was fought in central Europe, amid a swirl of religious and political discord, and was one of the most destructive and deadliest conflicts in human history. Eight million people died through a lethal combination of military engagements, famine and plague. It finally ended in 1648 with the Peace of Westphalia, but not until after the devastation of entire regions.

Eilenberg became a refuge for political and military fugitives, an oasis of sorts in the midst of a war-torn region. But this brought problems of overcrowding, leading to widespread famine and rampant disease. Eilenberg was also invaded by various armies over the years, causing even more anguish and destruction for both residents and refugees. The suffering is hard to imagine, but when you read stories about throngs of half-starved, plague-ridden townspeople fighting over the corpse of a single dead cat, you get the idea.

“O may this bounteous God through all our life be near us, with ever joyful hearts and blessed peace to cheer us, to keep us in his grace, and guide us when perplexed, and free us from all ills of this world in the next.”

Things were tough for Pastor Rinkart as he sought to minister to the people of his congregation and eventually to everyone in the besieged town. In the year he wrote his now famous hymn, there were four pastors in Eilenberg. By the end of that year, one had fled for his life and never returned, while the other two contracted the plague and died, leaving Rinkart as the only pastor in town. During the height of yet another diseased-riddled year, Rinkart was conducting up to 50 funerals a day and in 1637 he officiated at over 4,000 burials, including one for his own wife.

With his tenure in Eilenberg paralleling nearly exactly the duration of the 30 Years War, Rinkart spent his entire vocational life ministering to others, barely surviving on limited rations, giving away most of what he did have, and having the soldiers who forcibly stayed in his home stealing anything that was left over.

It’s hard to imagine his state of mind in the midst of such despair and heartache. And yet, in the depths of such overwhelming sorrow, Rinkart penned “Now thank we all our God,” a hymn so full of hope and gratitude. Rather than a lament, he summoned the joy emblematic of a deep and abiding faith. And I find this remarkably inspiring, especially during a time of global pandemic, when many of us are desperately missing gathering with friends and family this Thanksgiving.

“All praise and thanks to God the Father now be given, the Son and Spirit blest, who reign in highest heaven the one eternal God, whom heaven and earth adore; for thus it was, is now, and shall be evermore.”

Wherever you are this year, whatever your situation, know that you are loved by God - fervently, completely and with reckless abandon. I encourage you to be inspired by the story of Pastor Rinkart and to know that this hymn was composed as a bold statement of faith, not just a nice sentiment about gratitude.

By the way, Pastor Rinkart also used the text of this hymn as a grace before meals. Perhaps you might use it this way as well. I could think of no better way to give thanks to our God “with heart and hand and voices, who wondrous things has done, in whom his world rejoices.”

Please stay safe out there, and may God bless you richly this Thanksgiving.

The Rev. Tim Schenck serves as Rector of the Episcopal Parish of St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts. His latest book is “Holy Grounds: The Surprising Connection between Coffee and Faith - From Dancing Goats to Satan’s Drink (Fortress Press).” Follow him on Twitter @FatherTim.