Victor Frankl, the famous Jewish theologian, was held in a German concentration camp during WWII. Years later, he wrote a book about his experiences there. In that book, he described courageous and compassionate men who would walk through the prison barracks, offering love and comfort to the other prisoners – going even as far as giving away their last pieces of bread. Frankl wrote that those special people were few and far between, but that they provided more than sufficient proof that everything can be taken from a person but one thing, the last of human freedoms – to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances. In other words, those people didn’t let their situation define them; they defined themselves. And I suspect their faith also had a lot to do with it.
The Apostle Paul, who knew intimately the reality of suffering, wrote to the Philippians, “For I have learned, in whatever state I am in, to be content. I know how to be abased, and I know how to abound; …I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and want. I can do all things in him who strengthens me.”
One of the great hymns of thanksgiving we sing in our worship around this time of year is called “Now Thank We All Our God.” This great hymn of faith was written by a man named Martin Rinkhart in Germany during the mid-1600s – and there is an interesting story attached to its writing.
After graduating from seminary, Rinkhart was called to pastor a church in Eilenburg, Germany right at the beginning of the Thirty Years War. Because Eilenburg was a walled city, thousands of war refugees swarmed into the city for protection – bringing with them disease and using up already scarce resources.
The other two pastors in the city died not long after that and Rinkhart was left the only pastor in Eilenburg. He was sometimes called upon to bury up to forty or fifty people in one day. In one year alone, 8,000 people died, including Rinkhart’s own wife. In this terrible time of suffering and personal heartbreak, Rinkhart wrote the hymn “Now Thank We All Our God,” and many other hymns of praise and thanksgiving.
Stories like Victor Frankl’s or Martin Rinkhart’s teach us many things. Primarily, they teach us that despair is not an option for people of faith. They remind us gloominess is not a sign of maturity or wisdom. They teach us that faith in God will lead us to joy and thanksgiving in all circumstances.
As we look at our lives during the upcoming Thanksgiving holiday, may we all be able to say, along with Martin Rinkhart, and all of the saints, “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 ever more.”