Rev. Bruce G. Epperly, PhD
Now thank we all our God,
with heart and hands and voices,
Who wondrous things has 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.
Some texts, hymns, and poems gain credibility because the author or lyricist has “walked the talk.” Recently, the Bible study group I lead has been reading Paul’s Letter to the Philippians. Throughout the letter Paul’s mantra is “joy” or “rejoice,” despite the fact that the apostle was in prison, and uncertain of his fate.
The same credibility is found in Martin Rinkart’s “Now We Thank We All Our God.” This is no blithe “praise the Lord, anyway” hymn. Rickart penned his hymn of thanksgiving in 1637, during a time of plague and famine, and in the midst of the Thirty Years’ War. As the sole surviving pastor of the town of Ellensburg, Saxony, Rinkart buried several thousand refugees and fellow citizens, including his wife, and still was able to give thanks for God’s presence in times of crisis.
A friend of mine told me a story of one of his congregants, a woman in her eighties. Each morning, she takes a mile walk. Her steps are slow as she carries the burden of age. Like many persons of her age, she has outlived her husband, a child, and struggles with health issues. Yet, she told her pastor that “each day, I give thanks, naming what I’m thankful for, and I’ve never run out of things to say.”
I must confess that her walking prayer has been an inspiration and model for my own morning walks. Each morning before dawn, I set out in my Potomac, Maryland, neighborhood on a three-to-four-mile walk. In the spirit of my friend’s congregant, I begin my walk with the affirmation from Psalm 118, “This is the day that God has made and I will rejoice and be glad in it.” I say the affirmation three times and then begin a process of grateful rejoicing. I give thanks for the immediacy of health, the ability to walk, read, and write, and then – feeling kinship with those who suffer from war and famine – I give thanks for my quiet suburban neighborhood and the comforts of our modest townhouse, the well-stocked refrigerator, and shelter from the elements.
At some point, I give thanks to my “good ancestors,” the saints of my life who have passed from this world, my closest spiritual friend, other dear friends, mentors and professors, and deceased brother and parents. I recognize that without them, I would not be here today as a “retired” pastor and professor, writer, speaker, and parent and grandparent. Though deceased, I believe that they still live on in my life and may, in fact, provide me guidance on my spiritual path. From there, I extend my gratitude to domestic life and democracy, for family and friends, and my church, and then pray that I will be an “instrument of peace” and healing in the world and in the USA.
Sometimes my mind wanders but this time of gratitude along with intercessory and petitionary prayers sets my day in the direction of compassion, service, and gratitude. Life isn’t always easy, and my mortality is daily apparent to me in the realities of my seventies. I fear for our nation in its impatience, incivility, and inaction about issues such as race, economic justice, and environmental well-being. I worry about the world my grandchildren and others’ grandchildren are growing up in and mourn war-torn lands. Yet, gratitude places the challenges of life in perspective and moves me from passivity to agency. I have to respond to my worries in action to heal the world.
Like those persons for whom I give thanks, I can in this time be a “good ancestor,” leaving a trail in this lifetime of generosity, affirmation, justice, and peacemaking. I can aspire to be someone for whom my grandchildren, colleagues, students, and congregants can give thanks.
Gratitude is the gift of recognizing the profound and graceful interdependence of life. Ubuntu, “I am because of you. We are because of each other.” We can’t make it alone. We need each other. We are here because of others’ generosity and support, and we are called to be people who continue to generously make a difference in the immediate and wider circles of life.
The apostle Paul and Martin Rinkart were thankful for the graces of each day. They didn’t deny pain and tragedy. It was right in front of them. But through the challenges and joys of life, they experienced the “tragic beauty” of God’s providence, making a way where there was no way, and out of that recognition, they realized that they could be the answers to others’ prayers and a healing balm for those who are suffering.
In the United States, we celebrate Thanksgiving in all its historical ambiguity. We can give thanks for our imperfect land and try to create a positive future for our land. The celebration reminds us that gratitude makes a difference and transforms our lives and, in the process, invites us to become people of service and care for whom others – not that we need a reward – will give thanks. And, as Emily Dickinson writes, “I shall not live in vain.”