Next to the works of Lina Sandell, probably no hymn is more beloved among us pietistic Swedish-Americans than “Thanks to God for My Redeemer.” The original lyrics by A.L. Storm (“Tack, O Gud”) were translated by one Covenant pastor, Carl Backstrom, and set to a tune by another, J.A. Hultman.
I can’t imagine a more fitting source for a Thanksgiving Day reflection than “Tack O Gud,” which has taught me at least three things over my many years of singing it:
1. Thanksgiving is not about us or our circumstance, but the God to whom we give thanks
Now, while those of us in Swedish Singers will be singing “Tack O Gud” in the original language when we perform at Salem Covenant Church‘s Christmas Fika celebration (Saturday, December 5th, 2:30pm, if you’re in town), I don’t actually know my mother tongue. But if Google Translate is at all accurate here, something subtle but important has been lost in translating the first words of the hymn: “Thank you, O God, for what you have been.”
At least, that’s from the Swedish verse in the Covenant hymnal that I grew up with; others are slightly different: “…for all that has been.” But in any case, the song reminds us to step back and remember that all particular thanks point to a general reason for thankfulness: who God is.
If you only know this hymn slightly, you probably know it for its rather baroque pairs. We’re to be thankful for prayers answered and requests denied, for pain and for pleasure, for roses and for their thorns. It’s hymnody as chiaroscuro.
For that reason, there are quite a few people for whom this is not a favorite hymn — or, at least, not an easy one to sing with much conviction. Those with a vacant seat at the Thanksgiving table, for example, might resent Storm and Backstrom’s sentiments — particularly as they’re carried along Bultman’s rather bouncy melody. So I worry that — relatively easy as my life has been to this point — whatever I say here will sound trite to those in the midst of suffering.
But what I think the hymn actually teaches us here is that the shape of our thanks is not determined by our circumstances, or by our response to them. Thanks are given to the One who — for all people in all situations — is our strength, our rock, our fortress, and (yes) our redeemer: the one who is “worthy to be praised” (Ps 18:1-3).
At its heart, gratitude is a response not to any human work, but to grace: that undeserved gift which “none can measure” from a God whose love is “beyond compare.”
2. We give thanks as the Church, not just as individuals.
But if this hymn primarily reminds me to think on the object of thanksgiving, the way it’s sung teaches me about the subject of that discipline: not me as a solitary individual, but me as a member of the body of Christ.
I didn’t actually plan to be at Salem for the Thanksgiving Eve service. But a sick daughter kept us from traveling to my in-laws’ in Iowa, so, almost as an afterthought, my wife suggested last night that I go to church after supper. I’m glad she did. Because of various speaking engagements, I think I’ve spent only one Sunday morning at Salem in October and November. So settling into my pew last night, it was almost startling to look at around at hundreds of other faces and be reminded of how many different people I know, and am known by, in our congregation.
Our tradition for this service is that the pastors don’t preach; instead, two laypeople are invited to share prepared meditations, then the mic is passed around to anyone else who wants to share a more spontaneous expression of gratitude. People I know well and barely at all shared what was on their hearts: loss, gain, sickness, healing, death, life.
So as we together sang “Tack O Gud,” I felt keenly aware of the fact that I was giving “thanks for joy and thanks for sorrow” not solely in my own behalf, but for others, with others.
3. Thanksgiving is about past, present, and future.
Let’s face it: for all that people in my profession (rightly) complain about the silly, even offensive myths surrounding the Pilgrims, Thanksgiving should warm the heart of the most dispassionate historian. After all, if there’s another day in the calendar when more Americans consciously turn their attention to the events of the past (the past year, at least, as they and theirs have experienced it), I don’t know when it is.
Likewise, I’m struck that so much of “Tack O Gud” turns us around in time, as we thank God for “times now but a mem’ry.” (And “tears by now forgotten” — the unremembered past, where God was also present.) The opening couplets of verse two, for example, express gratitude for what was (or wasn’t) and for what is (or isn’t):
Thanks for prayers that thou hast answered,
Thanks for what thou dost deny!
Thanks for storms that I have weathered,
Thanks for all thou dost supply!
(You may recall that this was the hymn that I had members of another Salem Covenant Church sing when I addressed their 125th anniversary banquet this fall, where I suggested that creatures charged to care for creation are also called to be good stewards of the past — e.g., by taking steps to preserve memory.)
Because we’re singing it together, the hymn reminds us that our fellowship as the Church extends further back than the present moment.
But also that our body extends forward into the future, toward the Eschaton. For if the act of thanksgiving is an act of remembrance — of what God has done in the distant and recent past and is doing in the fast-vanishing present, it is also an act of anticipation — of what God will do in the unknowable future. As we reach the end of the hymn (and as we prepare for the start of Advent), we give thanks “for hope in the tomorrow, / Thanks thru all eternity!”