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On a chilly autumn night, my family sat together on a firm, wooden pew in our small New England church. At home, the giant turkey thawed in an ice-water bath in the kitchen sink. My mother’s and grandmother’s pies lined the counter. We’d driven 45 minutes to the Thanksgiving Eve service that night, a tradition for our family and our little Lutheran congregation.

The service began one of my favorite seasons of the church year. A colorful cornucopia rested on the altar, overflowing with gourds and flint corn and rust-hued flowers. Wedged between my two younger sisters, I settled in as the robust tones of the organ summoned us to worship.

And then the music swelled. The organist’s hands and feet drew the majestic melody forth as we stood, compelled by the music, and sang with gusto. Now thank we all our God with heart and hands and voices. Warm and snuggled beside my family, bathed in music of praise, my brown eyes welled with tears. Even as a child I realized: I have so much for which to be thankful.

Now Thank We All Our God

If you’ve sat in church on Thanksgiving in years past, I’ll bet you, like I, have sung the 17th-century favorite “Nun danket alle Gott,” translated for us as “Now Thank We All Our God.” This hymn of gratitude rose to popularity at a strange time in European history, when it seemed there was little for which to be grateful. As the Thirty Years’ War raged through the interior of the continent, plague spread rapidly through communities in ways that now feel eerily familiar.

I have so much for which to be thankful.

Martin Rinkart, the hymn’s author, pastored a church in the midst of this unrest, seeking to lead and care for his flock even as the world seemed to crumble around them. History tells us: “During the height of a severe plague in 1637, Rinkart was the only surviving pastor in Eilenburg [Saxony], conducting as many as 50 funerals in a day. He performed more than 4,000 funerals in that year, including that of his wife.” What heartbreaking pastoral work.

In that setting—when social and political unrest induced daily fear, when pandemic threatened life and livelihood—Rinkart wrote his now-famous words about thankfulness. Into this disastrous moment in history, he exhorted his parish, “Now thank we all our God.” In this hour, when life feels dark and hopeless. Now is the time to praise. People desperate for light and hope and direction rallied to his words, and the hymn soared in popularity.

We who sing are caught up in praise not for the gifts but for the Giver.

Rinkart’s hymn mentions nothing of harvest-tide, of material provisions our Father bestows on his beloved. Neither does it give any inkling of the scarcity and turmoil of the times in which it was penned. Instead, Rinkart pointed his congregation––and us––to a bounteous God who fulfills every need in want and in plenty, in war and in peace, in sickness and in health. We who sing are caught up in praise not for the gifts but for the Giver, worshiping the Savior for redemption both now and not yet. Rinkart’s words remind us that gratitude never depends on our situation but ever relies on our love for the One who’s provided for our greatest need in Christ.

Thanksgiving in a Modern Pandemic

This year, my children and I will be attending Thanksgiving Eve worship via Zoom, just the latest in a most unusual year. As we enter this holiday season, burdened by myriad cares, there’s a part of me that wants to scrap it all. Forget attempting to celebrate in the midst of life complexities. Forget trying to muster enthusiasm when mostly what I feel is disappointment and loneliness and, admittedly, ingratitude. Maybe try this thankfulness thing again next year, when things are (hopefully) better.

And then I think of Rinkart and his congregation. Across the centuries, I hear him exhort me too. Now thank we all our God. Amid new state restrictions. Surrounded by threats of COVID surging. In days of social and political unrest. But even when––especially when––I don’t feel it, now is the time for thankfulness. I needn’t paste on a happy smile when I sorrow for what is lost. But I can still praise. Thankfulness may require special attention, resolve, and purpose in this season, but it is still possible. Even in all of this, I can choose to see what good things God has done.

Thankfulness may require special attention, resolve, and purpose in this season, but it is still possible. Even in all of this, I can choose to see what good things God has done.

Our holiday gatherings will look different this year. There is much to grieve as we release special family traditions and develop makeshift alternatives for celebration. Unrest and disease and lost jobs darken the joys of the season.

Regardless of our circumstance, though, we can praise God for his grace that keeps us, for his hand that guides us, and for the freedom he offers us in Christ. This Thanksgiving, may we magnify this bounteous Provider who, through all our life, is near. Now thank we all our God.

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