Now Thank We all our God in the Thirty Years War

Lutheran pastor Martin Rinkart wrote one of my favorite hymns during the ravages of the Thirty Years War (1618-1648).

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 mothers’ arms has blessed us on our way
With countless gifts of love, and still is ours today.

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 in His grace, and guide us when perplexed;
And free us from all ills, in this world and the next!

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.

martin_rinckartRinkart served as a pastor in Eilenburg, a city in eastern Germany. With Sweden’s entry into the war in 1630, the war began to take a terrible toll on Eilenburg. The Swedes attacked the city on multiple occasions, leaving death, destruction and privation in their wake. The city became an overcrowded home for refugees, resulting in widespread starvation and disease. Rinkart opened his home to those in need, although it was difficult to provide enough even for his own family. Scholars estimate that up to 40% of the German population perished during the war. Rinkart’s own wife died during the siege, as did all of his fellow pastors in Eilenburg. At one point, Rinkart buried 50 victims per day and he performed over 4400 funerals in a single year. By the time peace arrived in 1648, Rinkart was worn out. He died the following year.

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United Methodists and Weekly Sunday Communion

Tonight I will receive “Election Day Communion” at the United Methodist congregation closest to my home. Curiously, I cannot receive it there on Sunday. Or the Sunday after that. Or the Sunday after that.

John Wesley would not approve of the standard Sunday practice in so many United Methodist congregations.  In 1784, Wesley urged the elders in the newly formed Methodist Episcopal Church in North America “to administer the supper of the Lord on every Lord’s Day.”

This Holy Mystery, adopted by the United Methodist General Conference in 2004, advises that

The complete pattern of Christian worship for the Lord’s Day is Word and Table – the gospel is proclaimed in both Word and sacrament. Word and Table are not in competition; rather they complement each other so as to constitute a whole service of worship. Their separation diminishes the fullness of life in the Spirit offered to us through faith in Jesus Christ. …

Congregations of The United Methodist Church are encouraged to move toward a richer sacramental life, including weekly celebration of the Lord’s Supper at the services on the Lord’s Day, as advocated by the general orders of Sunday worship in The United Methodist Hymnal and The United Methodist Book of Worship.

Weekly communion on the Lord’s Day has always had a special place in the life of the church. Again, This Holy Mystery, reminds us that:

The practice of the Christian church from its earliest years was weekly celebration of the Lord’s Supper on the Lord’s Day. The Didache, a source from the late first century or early second century says, “On every Lord’s Day -his special day – come together and break bread and give thanks.”  Justin Martyr, writing around A.D. 150, relates, “And on the day called Sunday there is a meeting . . . bread is brought, and wine and water, and the president similarly sends up prayers and thanksgivings”  …  Most Christian traditions have continued this pattern.

Eventually, even more frequent communion came to be practiced, primarily (but not exclusively) among the clergy and monastic communities. There is always a small group of the faithful present for daily mass in chapel. This, I am sure, is of great benefit to those who are able to participate. John Wesley received communion four or five times each week. And of course it is a good thing for representatives of God’s people to continually offer their Eucharistic prayer and praise to God.

Communion on the Lord’s Day, however, is something different. The Lord’s Day has a special place in the household of God. Article 12 of our Confession of Faith affirms:

We believe the Lord’s Day is divinely ordained for private and public worship … It is commemorative of our Lord’s resurrection and is an emblem of our eternal rest. It is essential to the permanence and growth of the Christian Church …

Practically speaking, the Lord’s Day is the one time in the week when the majority of the church can assemble. More importantly, it represents (at least symbolically) the gathering of the whole church and a sign of the age to come. I can agree with the Catechism of the Catholic Church when it says:

The Sunday celebration of the Lord’s Day and his Eucharist is at the heart of the Church’s life. Sunday is the day on which the paschal mystery is celebrated in light of the apostolic tradition and is to be observed as the foremost holy day of obligation in the universal Church.

It is essential to the life of the church that we recover the ancient, universal practice of weekly communion. Weekly communion is the regular heartbeat of the Christian life. It is the ordinary, faith-shaping, identity-forming means of grace. It is Christ’s chosen means of giving himself to us. And if Jesus truly gives himself to us and feeds us at his table, why would anyone withhold this blessing from Christ’s hungry and thirsty flock?

The Middle

We live in a polarized world, and perhaps it has always been so. Both my church and my country have divided into angry camps of right and left. But wait, many will say, what about the great number of people in the middle? Most people are not fond of the extremes, either right or left. Most people don’t want to think of themselves as extremists!

Personally, I am no more fond of “middle” as an identity than I am of “right” or “left”. The middle is defined by the extremes. You can only have a middle if you have end-points from which to measure. Left, right and middle all exist along the same axis.

left-right-middleI am reminded of this quote from Timothy Ware in The Orthodox Church: An Introduction to Eastern Christianity.

Christians in the west, both Roman and Reformed, generally start by asking the same questions, although they may disagree about the answers. In Orthodoxy, however, it is not merely the answers that are different – the questions themselves are not the same as in the west.

Similarly, left, right and middle are asking the same questions, but offering different answers. They begin with the similar world-views and similar points of reference as to what’s important and how the world works. Sometimes, we need to challenge not just the answers but the questions and the presuppositions behind them.

The left-right-middle construct (or right-left-middle, if you prefer) is a sociological version of the so-called “Hegelian Dialectic” in philosophy: thesis, antithesis, synthesis. (Yes, I know it’s not really Hegelian). One end of the spectrum cries “A!”. The other shouts “Not A!” And the great mass in the middle tries to keep the peace by synthesizing an answer somewhere between the extremes.

I’m not afraid of making decisions about the issues that confront my church and my nation, wherever those answers might fall on the political spectrum. Sometimes, the answer does lie in the middle. And at other times, the choices are binary; there is no real middle ground.

Politically, I have to realize that the world will not always do what I believe is right. That’s the world, for you. In Christ’s body, there are some differences that, as a practical matter, require parts of the church to organize separately from other parts. There are many instances in which one institutional unit of the church cannot simultaneously do “A” and “not A”.

I don’t want to make decisions, however, based on some sort of tribal identity. “This is how people like us should think.” And that’s true, whether “people like us” are those on the right, left or middle.

By Thy Mercy, O Deliver Us, Good Lord

Jesus, Lord of life and glory,
bend from heaven thy gracious ear;
while our waiting souls adore thee,
Friend of helpless sinners, hear:
by thy mercy, O deliver us, good Lord.

From the depth of nature’s blindness,
from the hardening power of sin,
from all malice and unkindness,
from the pride that lurks within,
by thy mercy, O deliver us, good Lord.

When temptation sorely presses,
In the day of Satan’s power,
In our times of deep distresses,
In each dark and trying hour,
by thy mercy, O deliver us, good Lord.

When the world around is smiling,
in the time of wealth and ease,
earthly joys our hearts beguiling,
in the day of health and peace,
by thy mercy, O deliver us, good Lord.

In our weary hours of sickness,
in our times of grief and pain,
when we feel our mortal weakness,
when all human help is vain,
by thy mercy, O deliver us, good Lord.

In the solemn hour of dying,
in the awful Judgment Day,
may our souls, on thee relying,
find thee still our rock and stay:
by thy mercy, O deliver us, good Lord.

James John Cummins (1839)