Can we thank God here and now?
“In everything, give thanks,” commands the Apostle Paul (I Thessalonians 5:18). And, impressively, Paul wrote that sort of thing all the time to the churches under his care, even while he himself was in prison (Philippians 4:6).
But seriously: in everything?
Martin Rinkart was one who took the Apostle at his word, even in a time of epidemic.
Trained as both a musician and a pastor, Rinkart (b. 1586) was raised and schooled in the region of Leipzig, Germany. Working first as a church musician, he was not given his own pastorate until his later twenties—near Eisleben (birthplace of Martin Luther).
Soon he moved to his hometown, Eilenburg, and at thirty-one began pastoring the church. That first year Rinkart wrote a cycle of seven dramas, suggested by the centenary of the Reformation (1617). Alas, however, normal life was over for him quickly, as he had taken his pastoral charge just in time for the Thirty Years War (1618-1648). During this on-again, off-again conflict, which over three decades involved virtually every major power in Europe marching its armies back and forth over central Europe, Winkart pastored faithfully under terrific strain.
How faithfully? As Peter Marty relates recently in The Christian Century, the Swedish army repeatedly invaded the area, and because Eilenburg was a walled city, refugees from the countryside poured into the crowded town. Nowadays we tourists love prowling the narrow lanes of Europe’s “Old Cities,” but imagine life therein with only seventeenth-century hygiene and hordes of desperate people scrounging a living on every street.
Rinkart had to endure soldiers quartered in his home and the army regularly confiscating his family’s food and other goods. But these were small matters compared to the inevitable arrival of plague.
In 1637, a single year in the midst of the war, 8000 people died, including the clergy of the neighbouring parish, all but three of the town council, and Rinkart’s own wife. Rinkart pastored on, sometimes preaching burial services for as many as 200 people in a single week and eventually he buried more than 4000 persons. Somehow he himself remained perfectly well.
A severe famine followed, and thirty or forty persons might be seen fighting in the streets for a dead cat or crow. But Rinkart routinely gave away all he had, except what was strictly necessary for himself and his children. So great were Rinkart’s own losses and charities, in fact, that he was forced to mortgage his future income for several years. Poor people constantly besieged his house as a rare place of comfort and sustenance.
Thanksgiving would seem to be the last thing on such a person’s mind. Yet out of this dark, dank crucible came a classic hymn of bright encouragement, Nun danket alle Gott: “Now Thank We All Our God.”
In our own time, in which a few weeks of significant upheaval seem already like months of severe disruption, imagine a thirty years war during which there is no obvious hope of relief any time soon. Imagine deprivation, disease, and death as daily occurrences, with no obvious remedy: no mask or soap or vaccine to save you.
Imagine writing these words (translated by Catherine Winkworth):
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.
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.
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.
Can we listen to, and learn from, Martin Rinkart? Can we in our turn thank God here and now?