Sing a New Song: “Now Thank We All Our God”
I’ve long had the theory that most Christians get their theology from the hymnal – that people believe what they sing in church. And in fact, hymns are theology. They are words about God. As the quotation on your bulletin covers points out, “The hymns of the church are perhaps its finest commentary on faith and practice outside the Scripture.” This is at least in part because they are familiar. Over a lifetime of worshiping in the church, we sing many hymns over and over, and we remember what we sing. That’s why we all learned the alphabet by singing the ABC song. That’s why you still remember many of the words to the songs you listened to on the radio in high school, even if you can’t remember a thing about what you learned in your senior economics class.
The thing is, the theology in hymns can be good or bad, perceptive or trite, well-meaning or wrong-headed, and may or may not affirm biblical theology and church tradition. If you’ve wondered why some hymns disappear when the church decides to publish a new hymnal, it’s because some of those old hymns, even old favorites, contain some pretty appalling theology. “In the Garden,” for example, a sentimental favorite of a couple of generations ago, begins, “I come to the garden alone.” The refrain describes how Jesus walks and talks with me in the garden, and “tells me I am his own,” and concludes, “And the joy we share as we tarry there, none other has ever known.” Really? None other? I don’t think so, and neither did the Presbyterian Hymnal Committee. As one pastor commented, “’In the Garden’ has done the worst in fostering the I-me-myself version of Protestantism in our country.”
So, taking an in-depth look at the hymns we sing is actually important theological study. And that is the study we’re undertaking this summer. We’re looking at some of our best-loved and most famous hymns and the Scripture passages that inspired them. We will look at a bit of the history of those hymns, and of course, we’ll sing them.
We begin with a look at one of my personal favorites, “Now Thank We All Our God,” #555 in the Presbyterian Hymnal. We often sing this hymn at Thanksgiving but it was not written as a Thanksgiving or harvest celebration hymn. It’s much older than our American Thanksgiving holiday. The composer of the lyrics, Martin Rinkart, returned to his hometown, Eilenberg, Germany, in 1618, to serve as the pastor of the Lutheran church there. The Thirty Years War was just beginning – a war that turned out to be one of the longest and most destructive conflicts in European history. It began largely, and embarrassingly, as a religious conflict between Protestants and Catholics in the Holy Roman Empire, but it gradually developed into a more general conflict involving most of Europe. As a walled city, Eilenburg became overcrowded with people seeking safety, including political and military refugees. The inhabitants suffered from epidemic and famine. Armies overran the town three times, leaving death and destruction in their wake. The Rinkart home served as a refuge for the afflicted even when Rinkart struggled to make ends meet for his family.
Yet, while living in a world dominated by death, disease, and war, Rinkart wrote this timeless table grace for his children:
“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 mother’s arms, Hath led us on our way, With countless gifts of love, And still is ours today.”
The three verses of the hymn were put to Johann Crüger’s music some time before 1647, and translated lovingly into English by Catherine Winkworth in 1858. But without the background, without knowing about Rinkart’s life and times you’d miss the fact that this is a hymn about a different kind of gratitude – the kind that can include our circumstances, certainly, but isn’t limited by them. You and I may not have to deal with bubonic plague or invading armies, but everyone hits bumps in the road of life and most people eventually encounter tragedy. We go through hard times, difficult seasons; we lose loved ones. And yet, writes the apostle Paul in his advice to the Thessalonians on the Christian life, we are to give thanks. In all circumstances. How does this work?
Maybe it begins with noticing that God has done “wondrous things,” as Rickart puts it. Psalm 147 reminds us that God created everything and continues to sustain it – God sends rain and makes the grass grow and keeps it all going. And this Creation is gratuitous. It’s all a free gift from God, which cannot and need not be earned. God didn’t have to create anything at all, let alone create us to be able to feel the wind on our faces, or smell the bay laurel trees, or taste salted caramels, or hear the Fauré Requiem. And we don’t have to participate in every delight to marvel at the whole package. I can’t pitch a perfect game like Matt Cain, or play the guitar like Eric Clapton, but the fact that they can blesses us all. The appropriate response, says Psalm 147, is thanks and praise. We, God’s creatures, are blessed with “countless gifts of love.”
And Rinkart points to the blessing behind that blessing. Verse two of the hymn is a prayer for God’s continued care – for guidance, and to be kept free from “all ills.” But ill-free or not, in verse three Rinkart concludes with a grand doxology of praise to God “who was and is and shall be evermore.” Ultimately, regardless of disease, regardless of the wars that humans bring on themselves or other bumps or tragedies, we are in God’s care. Certainly we hope to thrive. We may hope to be free from all ills, or for our current situation to improve. But our ultimate hope is in God, who continues to weave wonders of mystery and grace out of even the worst of circumstances, in ways we can’t anticipate and may not comprehend. Our ultimate hope is in God, who promises to love and care for the whole of Creation, and who calls and empowers us to love it and care for it as well.
We see in Rinkart how this kind of gratitude works to empower us, and transform us. At the beginning of 1637, known as the year of the Great Pestilence, there were four ministers in Eilenburg. One of them abandoned his post for a healthier environment and couldn’t be persuaded to return. Rinkart officiated at the funerals of the other two. As the only pastor left in Eilenberg, he conducted funerals for as many as 40 to 50 people a day – some 4,480 in all. In May of that year, his wife died.
When you understand that everything is a gift from God, the way Rinkart and Paul and the psalmist do, when you understand that in life and in death, we belong to God, when you see yourself and every person and everything else as part of a whole – part of God’s whole, beloved creation, then your gratitude is not entirely dependent on what you have or don’t have, yourself, or what does or doesn’t happen to you. Rinkart’s faith was the opposite of an “I-me-myself” faith. It stands in opposition to the cultural context Paul faced in his letter to the Thessalonians and which we still face today, with almost everyone out for him- or herself. God created us, loves us, accepts us – all of us – and the faithful response is to give thanks, but also to be good stewards – to care for and share God’s gifts, because they are not meant for us alone; to love what God loves – which is everything.
There is a story about a preacher who went to his pulpit and one hundred faces looked up, and in those faces the entire world was captured. As he began to speak, he smiled the smile of those who see but do not understand. “Let us give thanks.” And one hundred voices murmured, “Amen.” But there was no joy in their response.
“Let us give thanks for our bodies: for legs that run, for ears that hear songs, for eyes that see beauty, for arms that hug and hands that hold.” Sadly, without a word, ten people left the service: those who were blind or deaf or crippled or paralyzed or without a limb or who lived in constant pain or with a crippling disease.
The preacher continued: “Let us give thanks for the comforts of this world and for the rivers of wealth that have flowed on us.” And another ten left: those suffering from malnutrition, those who saw their children die of starvation and those without adequate resources to protect against the winter cold. But the preacher saw none of this.
He went on: “Let us give thanks for our wonderful minds through which we understand art and science and with which we probe the mysteries of the universe.” And several people of average intelligence blushed, and a mentally impaired boy looked bewildered and a brain damaged girl stared blankly. But another ten walked to the door.
And the preacher continued thanking God for friends, for beauty and health of the worshiper’s bodies, for their correct behavior, for peace, for justice and for family. And ten by ten they left: those who knew they were less than virtuous; those who were the victims of injustice and war, the lonely, those alienated from family.
Then the preacher looked at the congregation and saw that no one was left. “O Lord,” he prayed, “where have they gone?”
And he heard and answer: “You have exalted what I never promised. When did I promise friendships, perfect health, justice and peace? Remember my servant Job. Remember my Son, Jesus.”
“Then, Lord,” said the preacher, “what do you give us?”
“Myself,” answered God. And the preacher ran to the doorway of the church and there sitting outside, in the shadows, were the one hundred.
“Oh my friends, I have deceived you. We may have health, we may have friends, we may have justice, but what we can count on having, no matter what, is God, whose steadfast love endures forever.” Reaching for each other’s hands, they all came back inside.
Once again the preacher came to the pulpit. “Let us give thanks that God – Almighty God, the Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer, is with us, is ours, and we are God’s, world without end.” And one hundred voices cried out with joy, “Amen!”
 S. T. Kimbrough Jr., “Hymns Are Theology,” in Theology Today, http://theologytoday.ptsem.edu/apr1985/v42-1-article5.htm
 S. T. Kimbrough Jr., ibid.
 Russell Chandler, “’Battle Hymn,’ ‘Onward Christian Soldiers’ Reprieved: Methodist Panel Retreats on Songs,” The Los Angeles Times, July 6, 1986, http://articles.latimes.com/1986-07-06/news/mn-23021_1_onward-christian-soldiers/3.
 1 Thessalonians 5:18.
 Psalm 136.
 I edited this anonymous story; the unedited version appears at http://songsandhymns.org/hymns/detail/now-thank-we-all-our-god.