True Thanksgiving

11/24/2006

"Though the fig tree may not blossom, nor the fruit be on the vines; though the labor of the olive may fail, and the fields yield no food; though the flock may be cut off from the fold, and there be no herd in the stalls-yet I will rejoice in the Lord, I will joy in the God of my salvation."

-Habakkuk 3:17-18

By BISHOP ROBERT E. HAYES JR.

When the Hayes family gathers around the dinner table on Thanksgiving Day, we will face the first holiday without my mother, Dorothy, present with us.

I know tears will flow and emotions will run high. Yet, as we approach that hour when we look across at each other and recall the events of this year, I think the most important thing we can do as a family of faith is allow the remembrances of all the experiences of the year into our reunion-and look for God's hand in the midst of them.

All too often, we mistakenly think Thanksgiving should only be about the "good things" that happen to us. We strive to leave the thoughts of hardships and difficulties outside the door of our family celebrations. We feel that unhappiness and grief have no place at the dinner table -but they do.

We should acknowledge all that has happened in our lives and view it in the whole context of God's grace.

Death touches all of us. Pain or suffering of some kind is present in all of our lives. Isolation, loss, sorrow, and depression are everywhere; these emotions know no age, race, or boundary.

They too, are part of life.

When you understand that the basis of our hope is not controlled by the events and circumstances around us, but rather by the faith in God that is within us, then you can open wide the door and let everything in!

The prophet Habakkuk reached that point. Acutely aware that crop failure, loss of food, and the death of animals would devastate Judah, Habakkuk composes a song of true thanksgiving, refusing to let his loss replace his jubilation in God.

This is a song that can only be sung when we discover the witness of God in our own hearts. It is a song of triumph, a hymn of faith and joy.

No healing without Thanksgiving

There are other such hymns in our Scriptures and songbooks. One I commend to you today probably is the greatest hymn devoted exclusively to thanking God. Written by Martin Rinkart (1586-1649), it is called "Now Thank We All Our God."

When you learn the story that gave birth to this hymn, you will better understand how to sing a song of thanksgiving in troubled times.

Martin Rinkart was a Lutheran pastor in the little village of Eilenberg, Saxony. The son of a poor coppersmith, he felt called to the ministry, and after his theological training began his pastoral work just as the Thirty Years' War was raging throughout Germany.

Floods of refugees streamed into the walled city of Eilenberg. Desperation prevailed. The Swedish army encompassed the city gates, and inside the walls there was nothing but plague, famine, and fear. Eight hundred homes were destroyed, and people died in increasing numbers.

There was a tremendous strain on the pastors, who expended their strength preaching the gospel, caring for the sick and dying, and burying the dead.

One after another, the pastors themselves became ill and perished, until only Martin Rinkart remained. Some days, he conducted as many as 50 funerals.

Finally, the Swedes demanded a huge ransom. It was Martin Rinkart who left the safety of the city walls to negotiate with the enemy. He showed such courage and faith that hostilities soon concluded, and the period of suffering ended.

Rinkart, knowing there is no healing without thanksgiving, composed this great hymn for the survivors of Eilenberg.

It has been sung around the world ever since:

"Now thank we all our God, with heart and hands and voices,

"Who wondrous things hath done, in whom this world rejoices;

"Who from our mothers' arms, hath blessed us on our way,

"With countless gifts of love, and still is ours today."

(excerpted from "Then Sings My Soul," by Robert J. Morgan, 2003)

Even though I know the Hayes family will celebrate a different kind of Thanksgiving this year, I pray that we will all sing the same song of victory and joy!


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