Now Thank We All Our God

Rev. Josh Pawelek

Rev. Martin Rinkart

Rev. Martin Rinkart

“Now thank we all our God.”[1] Let me tell you the story of the Rev. Martin Rinkart who wrote the original German words to this hymn in 1636. I’m basing my telling of this story on a 2011 sermon[2] by the Rev. Ian Poulton, a priest in the Church of Ireland. I haven’t tried to verify the facts as Poulton presents them, but I do see that the same story is told in a variety of places. Even if the story has been exaggerated over time, even if what I share is only partially true, it still ought to make us pause and wonder what it means to have a grateful heart.

Martin Rinkart was born in 1586 in Leipzig, about 90 miles southwest of Berlin. At age 15 he began studying theology at the University of Leipzig. He became a Lutheran pastor in his early twenties. Poulton says he was regarded as a better musician than a pastor, but he persisted in the Lutheran ministry and held a variety of positions in the region early in his career. In 1617, at age 31, he became pastor at a church in the small city of Eilenburg to the northeast of Leipzig. If you know anything about this era in European history, you might know that 1618 saw the commencement of the Thirty Years’ War, a complicated and brutal war which ended in 1648. Rinkart died in 1649, having served for the duration of the war at the Eilenberg church. That is, he did ministry in a war zone for 31 years.

Here I am quoting Poulton directly: “The war was beyond the understanding of most ordinary people, all they knew was that army after army laid the countryside bare, having no regard for the welfare of civilian populations. Famine and disease became widespread; farms, livestock and crops had been destroyed and weak and hungry people had no resistance against illness. The war was to reduce the male population of Germany by almost half, in total almost a third of the people in the German states lost their lives, mostly through hunger and illness.

By 1636, Martin Rinkart was the only pastor left in Eilenburg. The walled city had become a place filled with refugees, who brought with them further infection to add to that already present, and who placed further strain upon the town’s desperately short food supplies.

The refugees brought plague with them and in 1637 8,000 people in the town were to die from it. The illness had no regard for wealth or age, the town councilors and many of the town’s children were among the victims…. In May 1837, he buried his own wife. He was to bury more than 4,000 people during the plague, which was followed by a severe famine that saw people fighting in the street over a dead crow or cat.”[3]

The most memorial services I’ve ever conducted in a year is eight—and that makes for an exhausting year. For a period from 1636 to 1637 Rinkart was apparently conducting an average of ten or eleven funerals daily. He was witnessing excruciating devastation, a total breakdown of the social order, not to mention the deaths of his wife, children, friends, colleagues, parishioners. I won’t call it unimaginable, because we can imagine it. We may not know about the Thirty Years’ War, but we have knowledge of other wars, of genocides, of the Holocaust, of slavery, of refugees streaming as I speak out of war zones in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan into Europe—many of them heading for the “promised land,” Germany. Even if we or our families have not been touched directly by these things, even if we cannot know what it feels like to live through them, we can imagine them. But what might be unimaginable, at least to some, is that in the midst of this devastation and horror, in the midst of relentless death, Martin Rinkart sat in his study, read his Bible, and wrote the words, “Now thank we all our God with hearts and hands and voices, who wondrous things hath done, in whom this world rejoices; who from our mothers’ arms, has blessed us on our way with countless gifts of love, and still is ours today.”[4] How was such gratitude possible given everything he was witnessing?

You might hear this story and get caught on questions about Rinkart’s theology. That’s always a risk with Unitarian Universalists. You might think or say, “Really? After all he went through, after what must have been terrible personal pain, he was thankful to God? Didn’t he understand God as all-powerful, wasn’t that his theology, in which case didn’t he hold God at least partially responsible for the devastation? Wasn’t he angry at God for allowing such suffering? Why didn’t he reject God, say ‘there is no God?’ Why didn’t his faith waver? Was he numb? Was he afraid?” If these are your questions, I urge you not to get caught on them. We don’t know what Rinkart’s spiritual struggle might have been, what his inner disappointment with and rage at God might have been. It doesn’t serve us well to get caught on his theology. I don’t believe in Rinkart’s God; I don’t expect you to either. But I want to share in his extraordinary gratitude. I want it in my life. I hope you do too.

It’s easy to feel grateful when our lives are going well. But can we still be thankful, can we still know and trust how truly blessed we are, when our lives are not going well, when things are falling apart, when the dream we had for our lives comes crashing down around us? Let’s get caught on that question. What does it mean to feel grateful even in the midst of despair?

One of the reasons I feel this is an important question for us is because there’s a connection between gratitude and one’s overall health and well-being. Spiritual teachers, theologians and philosophers have named this connection for millennia. So many prayers in so many religious traditions begin or end with the words, “thank you.” And, over the last fifteen years, psychological researchers have verified these connections through clinical studies. I’ll share one frequently-cited 2003 study conducted by psychologists, Robert Emmons and Michael McCullough. I’m quoting here from a paper on gratitude and well-being in a Harvard Medical School publication. Emmons and McCullough asked study participants “to write a few sentences each week, focusing on particular topics. One group wrote about things they were grateful for that had occurred during the week. A second group wrote about daily irritations or things that had displeased them, and the third wrote about events that had affected them (with no emphasis on them being positive or negative). After 10 weeks, those who wrote about gratitude were more optimistic and felt better about their lives. Surprisingly, they also exercised more and had fewer visits to physicians than those who focused on sources of aggravation.”[5]

There are many studies that show similar results. Some yield clearer results than others; some suggest not that gratitude is itself the key to well-being, but that people who report a consistent feeling of gratitude also exhibit a variety of behavior and personality traits that lead to greater well-being; and a few studies diverge and show little or no connection between gratitude and well-being.[6] The one result I have not found in my somewhat-more-than-cursory review of this science of thankfulness is a connection between gratitude and a decline in overall health and well-being. That is, no study has shown that gratitude is bad for you!

So, if gratitude is good for us, it makes sense that a practice of being grateful, of naming to oneself and others those things for which we are grateful, of cultivating a gracious spirit, of saying ‘thank you,’ will have a positive effect on our lives. And these might be the easiest of all spiritual practices. You don’t have to learn to quiet the mind in meditation. You don’t have to first puzzle through that pesky question of whether there is a God or not. You don’t have to be in a specific place at a specific time. You don’t need to pay a lot of money to study with a master. You just need a little time, perhaps daily, to name, either to yourself or others, those people and things for which you are grateful.

I confess I feel a bit redundant speaking to you about gratitude on Sunday morning. There are millions upon millions of articles, books, blogs, videos, TED Talks, inspirational speakers, Facebook posts, tweets and various memes about gratitude. This is not secret knowledge. This is not a mystery waiting to be revealed to the earnest seeker. Nancy Parker suggested I view a TED Talk by the Austrian-American, Buddhist-influenced Benedictine monk David Steindl-Rast entitled, “Want to Be Happy? Be Grateful[7] I like his notion of what the practice of gratefulness might look like. He actually co-founded an online community called Gratefulness[8] which curates resources on living a grateful life. He counsels us to Stop, Look, Go” or “Stop, Listen, Go.” It’s very simple. Stop whatever you’re doing. Breathe. Come into the present moment. Then look or listen. What are you grateful for in this moment? He says, “Some of the most meaningful things to acknowledge are those we commonly take for granted. Examples include: our senses, a roof over one’s head, clouds, the ability to learn and grow, a pet, food, a friend.”[9] And then go, by which he means identify these things for which we are grateful not as ‘givens’ but as ‘gifts.’ And what do you say when you receive a gift? Thank you.

So many practices suggested out there in the blogosphere and on the self-help shelves are like this: simple, obvious and genuinely important to our health and well-being. But then I encounter a poem like W. S. Merwin’s “Thanks” which we heard earlier, and I perceive a deeper, less obvious, perhaps more urgent reason for gratitude. Recall Merwin’s words: “Back from a series of hospitals back from a mugging / after funerals we are saying thank you / after the news of the dead / whether or not we knew them we are saying thank you … / with the animals dying around us / our lost feelings we are saying thank you / with the forests falling faster than the minutes / of our lives we are saying thank you / with the words going out like cells of a brain / with the cities growing over us / we are saying thank you faster and faster / with nobody listening we are saying thank you / we are saying thank you and waving / dark though it is.”[10]

Merwin isn’t addressing the goal of health and well-being. His isn’t a survey of blessings at the Thanksgiving table. He’s speaking about resilience—how we stay strong in hard times, how we continue “dark though it is.” So much can happen that we don’t expect, can’t plan for. So much can throw us, knock us down, send us reeling, wake us up into sleepless nights and break our sense of connection to what matters. Our bodies betray us with illness and pain; we lose loved ones; sometimes we lose jobs, income, financial security; sometimes we struggle with addiction, mental illness, anxiety. Our culture feels angry and polarized, while poverty—both economic and spiritual—increases; while hunger—both economic and spiritual—increases, such that we stop trusting in abundance and assume scarcity. Wars break out; ideologues with weapons and no rules rampage across vulnerable lands; refugees stream across borders; desperate people stab strangers on the street and desperate police shoot back. The planet warms; the ice caps melt; species disappear; storms rage. Thank you? Thank you? When things break down, resilience is our capacity to repair whatever connections have been broken. Gratitude creates resilience.

Truly, in the end, we can take nothing for granted; because truly, in the end, nothing is simply a given; because truly, in the end, everything and everyone we care about, everything and everyone that matters to us, everything and everyone we love are gifts: gifts from God if you believe in that way; gifts from the universe; gifts from life’s enduring, animating spirit; or gifts out of sheer cosmic coincidence—but gifts nevertheless. Knowing this—believing this—can create resilience in us. Thank you. Thank you. Let us practice gratitude in good times, so that when hard times come, when challenges come, when illness and death come, when warming and war come, we may remain clear about the gifts we have received, about the blessings in our lives, and grow resilient in the midst of our despair. Whether he understood it in these terms or not, I have no doubt Martin Rinkart wrote “Now thank we all our God” at what was surely the lowest point of his life in order to stay resilient, and to encourage resilience in his community.

DSC_1921Friends, may we be relentlessly thankful for all the blessings of our lives, for all the gifts we receive, for the source of our lives, for the power that brought us and this world and this universe into being, for that fundamental creative energy at the heart of all there is, and for all the ways we are connected to each other, and to all life, and to each dry leaf decaying on the wet November ground, and to each blazing star gracing the heavens with its light. Thank you. Thank you. May we learn to pause and know that none of it is a given, and all of it is a gift. Thank you. Thank you. And may these simple, profound words speak in our hearts and on our tongues, again and again, even in our times of greatest despair: thank you, thank you.

Amen and blessed be.

[1] Rinkart, Martin, “Now Thank We All Our God,” Singing the Living Tradition (Boston: UUA and Beacon Press, 1993) #32.

[2] Poulton, Ian, “An A-Z of Hymnwriters: Martin Rinkart,” For the Fainthearted, September 14, 2011. See: http://www.forthefainthearted.com/2011/09/14/an-a-z-of-hymnwriters-martin-rinkart/.

[3] For another version of the story, see Oron, Aryeh, “Martin Rinkart (Hymn-Writer), Bach Cantatas Website, July 2008. See: http://www.bach-cantatas.com/Lib/Rinckart.htm.

[4] Rinkart, Martin, “Now Thank We All Our God,” Singing the Living Tradition (Boston: UUA and Beacon Press, 1993) #32. Poulton says the Biblical inspiration for these words was Ecclesiasticus, Chapter 50, verse 22-24.

[5] “In Praise of Gratitude,” Harvard Mental Health Letter, Harvard Health Publications: Harvard Medical School, November 1, 2011. See: http://www.health.harvard.edu/newsletter_article/in-praise-of-gratitude. Emmons’ and McCullough’s findings were originally published in Emmons, R. A. & McCullough, M.E., “Counted Blessings Versus Burdens: An Experimental Investigation of Gratitude and Subjective Well-Being in Daily Life,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 2003; 84: 377–389.

[6] Reviews of recent psychological studies on gratitude are at the following websites: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3010965/

http://www.professional-counselling.com/support-files/gratitude-and-psychological-well-being.pdf

http://greatergood.berkeley.edu/pdfs/GratitudePDFs/2Wood-GratitudeWell-BeingReview.pdf

[7] Steindl-Rast, David, “Want to be Happy? Be Grateful.” TED Talk, June, 2013. See: https://www.ted.com/talks/david_steindl_rast_want_to_be_happy_be_grateful?language=en

[8] Check out http://www.gratefulness.org/.

[9] Check out http://www.gratefulness.org/resource/basic-daily-gratefulness-practice/.

[10] Merwin, W. S., “Thanks, Migration: New & Selected Poems (Copper Canyon Press, 2005). See: https://www.poets.org/poetsorg/poem/thanks.