As Thanksgiving rolls around once again and we prepare for that old trek “across the river and through the woods to Grandmother’s house” (which seems to suggest that Grandma lives in Oklahoma), my thoughts turn to the true nature of gratitude.

The obvious fact is that gratitude comes easy when all is going well. What is more challenging is reaching down deep for reasons to be thankful when life is not going so well.

Gratitude must have been a challenge for Martin Rinkert, who was a minister in the little town of Eilenburg, Germany, some 350 years ago. He was the son of a poor coppersmith, but managed to work his way through an education. Finally, in the year 1617, he was offered the post of Archdeacon in his hometown parish. A year later, the Thirty Years War broke out. His town was caught in the middle. In 1637, the massive Bubonic plague that swept across the continent hit Eilenburg. People died at the rate of 50 a day and the man called upon to bury most of them was Martin Rinkert.

In all, over 8,000 people died, including Martin’s own wife. His labors finally came to an end about 11 years later, just one year after the conclusion of the war. His ministry spanned 32 years, all but the first and the last overwhelmed by the great tragedies that engulfed his town. It must have been tough for Martin Rinkert to be thankful.

But he managed. He wrote the words to a hymn that will be sung in virtually every church this Thanksgiving:

Now thank we all our God
With heart and hands and voices,
Who wondrous things hath done,
In whom this world rejoices;
Who, from our mothers’ arms,
Hath blessed us on our way
With countless gifts of love,
And still is ours today.

This magnificent spirit came through in the midst of times filled with virtually constant devastation. For Rinkert, gratitude came from somewhere deep inside the human spirit. Thanksgiving was based not on the superficial and the obvious, but the profound and the holy.

Knowing that some of you who read this monthly column will find Thanksgiving a challenge this year – knowing that life may be difficult for you right now – I offer Martin Rinkert as a fellow traveler and guide. Maybe he can inspire us to find a way to give thanks in spite of all else.