When our children were very small we taught them a few hymns as bedtime prayers, including a couple in German. “Nun danket alle Gott” (Now Thank We all our God) became a favorite, especially as our daughter started German immersion preschool and began to understand its references to mothers wombs and childrens' legs – “der uns von Mutterleib und Kindesbeinen an.” She requested German hymns by abbreviation, so “Now Thank We all Our God” was simply “Dinge” - things, as in “who wondrous things has done."
I can't hear this hymn without thinking of my own children's chubby toddler legs, but the childlike syllables and domestic references belie the horrors of the hymnwriter's life. Martin Rinkhart had the kind of pastoral experience no one would ever willingly sign up for. Serving during the 30 Years War, he was the only clergyman in the walled city of Eilenburg during a time of plague, and was said to have buried as many as forty parishioners in a day. He himself fell ill but survived; his own wife died. What does it mean to be thankful in the midst of such incredible loss?
Knowing the story of Rinkhart’s life reminds me that gratitude is not so much an emotion as a practice. More and more scientists are proving what our ancestors knew – if you remember what you are grateful for and express that gratitude, your satisfaction in life – even more so in low times in your life – goes up. (If you haven’t already seen this lovely video from SoulPancake detailing an experiment on happiness and gratitude, do watch it.)
Over the years, my kids have dropped off in requesting that we sing hymns at bedtime, but there is still a lovely knowing glance to one another whenever this hymn appears in worship. And no matter what is going on in our lives at the time those chords begin, and I’m reminded to be thankful -- Now, now.