Renowned biblical scholar, Walter Brueggemann, encourages us to believe that God is with us, bringing comfort, strength and hope in the midst of this pandemic, despite, as some might say, evidence to the contrary.
In his recent book, Virus as a Summons to Faith, Brueggemann looks at several biblical texts from the Hebrew Bible that speak of deep faith in the empowering love of God in the lived experiences of our ancestors who often found themselves in the midst of terrible circumstances.
In one of his essays entitled “Until the Dancing Begins Again”, he looks to the Prophet Jeremiah, often referred to as the weeping prophet. Jeremiah sees the suffering of his people, first being plundered and then sent into captivity. Yet he still sings a song to the God who will restore and revive:
Give thanks to the Lord of hosts,
For the Lord is God,
For his steadfast love endures forever (Jer. 33:11).
Brueggemann affirms that Jeremiah’s trust in a faithful God was not limited to biblical times but manifested itself throughout the history of God’s people. Fast forward approximately two thousand years, the enduring faith that God would sustain the people was affirmed during the Thirty Year’s War in Europe (1618-1648); a time of great devastation with millions of deaths due both to fighting and to pestilence.
In doing some research on the Thirty Years’ War, I discovered some staggering statistics: approximately 8 million people died, including 20% of the German population. It was among the longest and most destructive conflicts in history.
Simply said, the underlying cause of the war was the emerging nation states, in what we now call Europe, flexing their muscles around the broad issues of religion, dynastic control, and territory. This complicated and devastating war finally ended with the Treaty of Westphalia (1638).
Into the midst of that deadly cauldron of war and disease, Brueggemann introduces us to a German pastor, Martin Rinkart, who, like Jeremiah centuries earlier, spoke of God’s love and care even in the midst of frightful circumstances; a love that will see us through no matter what. In doing some checking on Rinkart, I learned that at age 31 he became Archdeacon in his native town of Eilenburg just as the war was breaking out. He faithfully carried out his pastoral tasks including attending to the needs of the sick and the hungry and even quartering soldiers in his home. As the war continued, refugees poured into the walled city of Eilenburg. In 1637, the plague claimed some 8,000 people including a majority of the town council, a large number of children, neighboring clergy and even Rinkart’s wife. He now had to do the work of several clergy, often burying 40-50 people a day.
In the midst of all of this tragic suffering Rinkart penned a few lines. It was initially intended as a table grace but, following the end of the war, it became a famous hymn. It gained in popularity so that it became one of the most beloved hymns in Germany, just behind Luther’s ‘A Mighty Fortress is our God’. We know it as ‘Now Thank We All Our God.’
I invite you to read it with me, perhaps even aloud. While acknowledging all of the death and destruction surrounding him, Rinkart gave testimony:
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 parents’ arms, has blessed us on our way
With countless gifts of love, and still is ours today. (NCH edition).
But wait, someone says! ‘Is Rinkart kidding?’ Things like ‘wondrous things has done, ‘blessed us on our way’, ‘countless gifts of love’ just doesn’t make sense! Today, as I write this Blog, over 180,000 people are dead in our nation due to Covid-19, many of those deaths unnecessary due to a wanton lack of national leadership, especially at the beginning. Communities of color are being adversely affected by the virus due to long neglected environmental issues. Many have died in hospital and nursing homes without the comfort of family members being present. Millions are out of work with the rent due. There is no national leadership, whatsoever, on testing or wearing face masks. There seems to be more concern with the stock market than the safety of our kids heading back school. Rinkart must be kidding!
For those of us who are struggling to be ‘followers of the way’ in this time of pandemic, the 23rd Psalm has also been a touchstone for many over the centuries. It is a Psalm whose affirmations Jeremiah and Rinkart would attest to. After a glowing introduction of being led by still waters, of having our souls revived, and being led in paths of righteousness, comes the little word ‘yea’, also translated as ‘even’ or ‘verily’ among others. Here is the phrase: ‘Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil’. Deaths of all kinds. In the midst of hell, ‘thy rod and thy staff shall comfort me’. Audacious? Yes! A faith statement? Yes. A strength for daily living? Absolutely!
I venture to say that this trust in a God who ‘will not forsake’ is what was behind the good Pastor’s table grace and Jeremiah’s song of hope and the Psalmist’s affirmations of care. I can affirm that hope, although once in a while that hope might wobble just a bit! And I trust that each of you reading this Blog can affirm it, too, even if at times you might wobble a bit like me! In this journey we are also sustained by a community of faith that encourages us and holds us fast.
But let’s hear Pastor Rinkart’s additional lines:
O may this bounteous God through all our life 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.
Let us walk together with that hope!