Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Hymnology 102: Backstories

If the collective history of hymnology is the history of Christianity, then the backstories of each hymn is the history of Christians and their God. The backstories are the author's stories. The hymns share their experiences of God and/or their desire for others to be brought closer to God.

The backstories explain why these hymns resonate with us. They were written in times of deep anguish and suffering or in times of great joy and celebration or even from every day, normal reflections.

As we take time to learn the hymns and their backstories and sing these hymns, the fabric of their history becomes woven with the fabric of our history. Our history becomes part of the collective story of the hymn. The tapestry becomes more colorful and rich and fantastic with each addition of our accounts of worship and comfort.

There are so many great hymn backstories. The story of Joachin Neander and his hymn, Praise to the Lord. The story of William Spafford and the deep trials he went through before penning It Is Well with My Soul.

I think of a relatively new hymn, Great is Thy Faithfulness. Written is 1923, but not gaining in popularity until the Billy Graham crusades. But, still the author's testimony to the great faithfulness of God-whether well known or not. And what a comfort to so many of us as we negotiate deep trials.

I think of this hymn that we often sing at Thanksgiving. Now Thank We all Our God...

Now thank we all our God, with hearts and hands and voices
who wondrous things has done, in whom this world rejoices.
who from our mother’s arms, has blessed us on our way
with countless gifts of love and still is our today.

We know our bounteous God, will all our life be near us
with ever joyful hearts, his blessed peace will cheer us
He keeps us by His grace, and guides us when perplexed
He frees us from all ills, in this world and the next. 

All praise and thanks to God, the father now be given
the Son, who rose and lives, and sits in highest heaven
Our God eternal is, whom heaven and earth adore
Now we by grace are his, and shall be evermore.

We sing this song at Thanksgiving, and we would assume it is a hymn written in a time of great blessing and prosperity. The true story is considerably more depressing.

Now Thank We All Our God was written by a man named Martin Rinkhart in the year 1636. Mr. Rinkhart lived in the little walled town of Eilenburg during the 30 Year War. The 30 Year War was one of the most destructive conflicts in European history, starting as a war between Protestants and Catholics, but ending up far more political. Over 8 million lives were lost, including civilians.

Mr. Rinkhart penned this hymn almost 20 years into the 30 Year War. Eilenburg had been overrun with displaced refugees. They sought protection in its walls. But Eilenburg was ill equipped to deal with the influx of people. Famine and plague resulted. In the year 1637, over 8000 people died in that town alone. There weren't graves enough to bury the dead. Many people were buried in trenches. It was horrific.

Mr. Rinkhart was not just a citizen of Eilenburg, he was a clergyman. One of six. He ended up becoming the primary clergyman in Eilenberg when four of the other clergymen died of disease and the fifth fled the city and it's woes. The burden of pastoring fell wholly on him.

During the year 1637, Mr. Rinkhart held over 4450 burial services, one of which was for his own wife.

Death. Disease. Famine. Siege. Destruction. Immeasurable loss.

This hymn was written out of these calamities.

Who wondrous things has done...

Who from our mother's arms has blessed us on our way, with countless gifts of love and still is ours today.

He keeps us by His grace, and guides us when perplexed, He frees us from all ills, in this world and the next. 

Grace. Blessing. Gifts. Bounteous.


What a perspective! What faith!

We sing this song steeped in a month long recollection of the positive blessings for which we are thankful. Our health, and family, conveniences and houses... And we should sing it reflecting on all these gifts we have been given.

And, like Martin Rinkhart, we should also sing it when wading through deep waters. When we know God is faithful, but we are having a hard time seeing it. When we know that He is the giver of every good and perfect gift but we feel overwhelmed with not such good gifts.

In either course, our story becomes part of that story. It words of comfort, faith and encouragement become part of our story.

And maybe some day in heaven, we will meet up with Mr. Rinkhart and we will be able to tell him how his hymn inspired, encouraged, challenged, and comforted us.

And that's the rest of the story...

What's your favorite hymn story?