The Thirty Years War raged across Europe from 1618 to 1648. It was Christian vs. Christian, prince vs. prince. The people caught in the middle of the insanity cried, “How much worse can it get?”
It always got worse. There seemed to be no end to the relentless bloodshed, exaggerated hatreds, plunder, terror, and chaos. And then came the plague. After that, famine. Germany was reduced to sheer misery.
It was there, in the overcrowded, walled town of Eilenberg, that Martin Rinkart (1586-1649), a Lutheran minister and accomplished musician, was the last clergyman left standing. All the others either had died or run away.
He, alone, remained, scrounging for resources to house and feed the desperate, tending the sick and wounded, calming terrified friends and strangers, burying the dead, comforting those who mourned. Surrounded by a suffering, terrified population, he saw it through to the end. There were days when he conducted 40 or 50 burial services, and one time, eventually, for his own wife.
Still, it was in the middle of all this that Pastor Rinkart wrote his hymn of exuberant gratitude, “NOW THANK WE ALL OUR GOD.” He never abandoned the people, but died the year after peace was declared, at last free to go to eternal rest.
The tune was composed by his contemporary, Johann Crüger (1598-1662). Like Rinkart, Crüger suffered through the Thirty Years War, and, in 1636, his wife and five children died of the plague. This is a hymn, text and tune, forged in the fires of a living hell.
Roughly 200 years later, Catherine Winkworth (1827-1878), a London-born poet and advocate for women’s rights, translated 400 hymns from German into English.
It is thanks to Winkworth’s devotion that this great song of praise appears in our hymnals.
Now thank we all our God? Now? You’ve got to be kidding. Now, when everything is awful? Yes, now! — not in some imagined future when all sadness is gone and the world is at peace. Now! But why? What difference does gratitude make?
Martin Rinkart spent day after day, year after grim year, witnessing relentless suffering. How, in the middle of that nightmare, did he manage to write this hymn of thanks for God’s “countless gifts of love”? What was his secret?
Perhaps he knew that cultivating the discipline of a grateful heart would give him the composure and presence of mind to persevere as a servant to the traumatized population.
It’s a lesson he may have remembered from the story of the ten lepers in Luke 17: 11-19. After Jesus sent them, healing, on their way, only one, a Samaritan, returned to give thanks. Jesus knew the soul-worth of gratitude and told the grateful one, “Rise and go, you have been made whole.”
It is a sentiment echoed in the wisdom of today’s Anne Lamott, author and progressive political activist. She wrote, “Gratitude, not understanding, is the secret to joy and equanimity.”
And what of us? Increasingly, we are witnesses to a world that seems to be coming apart at the seams, the planet itself degenerating. Daily, we rush from task to task, or reel from one crisis to another, weep and wail watching the evening news. We are bewildered by the chaos and cruelty, senseless suffering, injustice and bigotry, walls and wars, and the devastating impact of unchecked greed.
Our world is broken. We yearn to heal it, but don’t know where to begin. It’s exhausting. We, ourselves, feel broken, long to be healed, long to be made whole. Wide-eyed and trembling, we do our best to protest wrongs, work for change, comfort and help each other remember that the world is still wondrous.
It takes courage to look at life through the lens of gratitude. With our hearts and hands and voices, through our laughter and our tears, we hold hard to an attitude of gratitude, sensing that it is the key to our wholeness. With Pastor Rinkart’s bold hymn, we sing thanks to God for countless gifts of love.