Giving Thanks in 2020

The artist Dante Gabriel Rosetti famously quipped, “The worst moment for an atheist is when he is genuinely thankful, but has nobody to thank.” I remember when President Ronald Reagan invited Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev to his California ranch for the Thanksgiving holiday. The Soviet leader, a professed atheist, declined the invitation. I thought at the time that the reason may have been that thanksgiving implies the existence of Someone to whom we should be thankful.

Well, yes. The eminent Czech composer Antonin Dvorak began writing his new music with the words, “with God” and ended with “God be thanked.” Johann Sebastian Bach wrote in the margins of his music “SDG” for Soli Deo Gloria, or “glory to God alone.”

Augustine described the Christian life as an “alleluia from head to foot.” The seventeenth-century Anglican poet George Herbert included a prayer in one of his poems, “You have given so much to me. Give me one thing more — a grateful heart.” Os Guinness wrote that “gratitude must be our first and constant response to God.”

This year has been a difficult one for our nation. People  are out of work. The pandemic is still spreading. Children cannot attend school in the normal way. We have just had a contentious election. Riots, racial hatred, and political extremists have threatened public order. It is easy to forget that there is still much for which to be thankful.

A recent column by Jonah Goldberg, titled “It’s a Great Time to be Alive,” elaborated on this theme. Despite the fact that we seem only to hear bad news, we should be thankful for the under-reported good news. He says the situation is far better than pundits and politicians often claim.

For example, over the past thirty years, worldwide poverty has been on the decline. Global GDP has increased by 621%. Literacy, infant mortality, hunger, work-related deaths and other benchmarks of human misery have been improving for years. Goldberg says this is because of public health and anti-poverty programs, the expansion of international trade, liberty and technological innovation.

In America, we still enjoy relative peace, freedom, and a prosperity unprecedented in world history.

His article concluded, “None of this is to say that we don’t have problems. But when all we hear about are the problems, it’s not surprising that people think that all we have are problems.” He didn’t say it, but as Thanksgiving Day approaches, these are reasons to speak words of appreciation to that Great Someone from whom all blessings flow.

Jesus certainly did. As an observant Jew, he no doubt thanked God before and after every meal. He would have prayed the great thanksgiving psalms with deep gratitude for God’s love and faithfulness. In his hymn of jubilation (Luke 10:21) he prayed, “I praise you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and learned, and revealed them to little children. Yes, Father, this is what you were pleased to do.”

In the upper room, with his imminent death heavy on his heart, he took bread and “when he had given thanks” (Luke 22:19), he gave it to his disciples. If the Lord Jesus could give thanks in the darkest moments of his life, then you and I can find many reasons to give thanks, even in the year 2020.

Pastor Randy Faulkner

Giving Thanks in a Pandemic

Imagine a plague so severe that 8000 citizens of one town would die in a year. That same town was threatened by an invading army. Soldiers commandeered scarce resources of food and household goods. Many of the people had not known a time of peace and prosperity in all their lives.

Pastor Martin Rinckart remained faithful to his surviving congregation in the German town of Eilenburg during this desperate time. Many of his fellow ministers had died in the plague and he had to do the work of three men. Day after day he found himself conducting funerals. There were so many deaths that eventually victims had to buried in mass graves without proper committal services.

Refugees from the Thirty Years’ War flooded the overcrowded fortress town. Imagine the scene: starving neighbors fighting in the streets over scraps of garbage and even for the remnants of dead animals. Anything for a little food. Rinckart himself had to mortgage his future income to try to obtain bread and clothes for his children. His wife died in the plague in 1637.

Last Sunday morning my friend Dr. Mike Philliber told the amazing story of Martin Rinckart. It applies to our present national emergency. If we feel the inconvenience, disruption, loss, illness, or worse, of the pandemic, the example of this devout Lutheran pastor can inspire us to remain faithful to our Savior and to “give thanks in all circumstances” (1 Thessalonians 5:18).

Amid his own unimaginable sorrows, Rinckart taught his children to take refuge in God and to be thankful for the blessings they still had. He wrote a hymn for the family to sing as a table grace at mealtime. “Now Thank We All Our God” was published in 1636 and became one of the most widely sung hymns in all of Germany, second only to “A mighty Fortress is Our God.”

Hymnologist Alissa Davis has pointed out that Rinckart’s theology pervades the hymn. God is a God who acts: “Who wondrous things has done, in whom this world rejoices.”

He is a God who guides: “O may this bounteous God through all our lives be near us, with ever joyful hearts and blessed peace to cheer us; and keep us still in grace, and guide us when perplexed; and free us from all ills, in this world and the next.”

The final stanza is a doxology ascribing praise to the God who is eternal, the Holy Trinity: “All praise and thanks to God the Father now be given; the Son  and him who reigns with them in highest heaven, the one eternal God, whom earth and heaven adore; for thus it was, is now, and shall be evermore.”

Imagine such an expression of thanks in such a time of grief and hardship! Yet that is the attitude to which we are called. As we pray for an end to the pandemic and for a cure or vaccine, we do so “with thanksgiving” (Philippians 4:6). 

As we adjust to economic constraints, school closures, crowded ICUs, and the continuing threat of a dangerous virus, we train ourselves to be “always giving thanks to God the Father for everything in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ” (Ephesians 5:20).

If Martin Rinckart can be “overflowing with thankfulness” (Colossians 2:7) in his circumstances, then by God’s grace, I can too, in mine. “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 blessed us on our way with countless gifts of love, and still is ours today.”

Pastor Randy Faulkner