Takk for Alt

Thanksgiving Interfaith Service, Temple B’nai Chaim

November 24, 2015

 May the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, my Rock and my Redeemer.  [Psalm 19:14]    Amen.

 On a trip to Norway about 5 years ago, I was able to visit some of the country’s architectural jewels.  These are the stave churches, totally made of wood, anchored by thick posts of wood coming down from the roofline into the middle of the worship space.  These stave churches date from the middle ages, and many of them are beautifully preserved.  Some still function as houses of worship.  They are odd and bulky, whimsical and inspiring.  They’re like nothing else you’ve ever seen.

 One unforgettable feature of some of these is the dragon heads that flare out from the apexes of the roofs—kind of like Norway’s answer to gargoyles.  They look like the dragon heads we see on Viking longships.

 But there was something even more memorable for me than those funky dragon heads.  This was the way that each church was ringed by an ancient graveyard.  It’s interesting to study the gravestones.  There tend to be commonly-recurring pictures and inscriptions.  We see that here in New England.  We see that in our own parish graveyard across town.

 But once you start to read the epitaphs on gravestones in Norway you begin to see something that’s engraved on many, many of them. That’s the short little statement, “Takk for alt.”

T-A-K-K For A-L-T.  Takk for alt. 

 Anyone want to take a guess at what it means?  It means “Thanks for all.  Thanks for everything.” 

I was really taken by seeing this in several graveyards all around the country.  Think what it might mean.  Perhaps it’s a person’s way of thanking friends and family who might visit their grave for their love and support over the years.  It may be a way of thanking future generations for their contributions that are yet to come.  Yes, that’s certainly plausible.  But it’s also the case that “Takk for Alt” is a kind of prayer to God, the Lord of Life.  The deceased sends out an eternal prayer through his or her epitaph:  Thanks for everything.  EVERYTHING!

 

 This sentiment makes me think of so many lines of Scripture that tell us to give thanks.  A splendid example is in the Hebrew Scriptures, from the beginning of Psalm 136:

 “Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good,

for God’s mercy endures forever.

Give thanks to the God of gods,

         for his mercy endures for ever.

Give thanks to the Lord of lords,

         for God’s mercy endures forever.”

 

And again, 2 psalms after this one, Psalm 138 begins:

“I will give thanks to you, O Lord, with my whole heart;

         before the gods I will sing your praise.”

 But the psalm in between these two, Psalm 137, is a forthright recognition that sometimes we are all so bowed down with tragedy or fear or suffering of any kind that it’s hard to give thanks.  This is the psalm that talks about the Chosen people held captive in Babylon, forced to sing to entertain their captors.  And their understandable revulsion and feelings of revenge.  And still, despite these darkest emotions the psalm retains its purpose as prayer, placing the desires for revenge into God’s hands.

 I like how these 3 psalms in sequence sandwich the tragedy and suffering with the thanks and praise.  It seems to me that that’s realistic.  Our lives often invite us to praise and thank God easily.  We usually have so much to be grateful for:  homes, health, family, education, career, the promises of the future, and maybe even for a faith that grows from the faith of all our forebears.

 But sometimes there are those times of suffering that happen to individuals, or to families or even to whole peoples.  We think of the recent events in Paris.  We remember those we’ve loved and lost to diseases and accidents.  Some of us may have lost dear ones in one or more of the wars of the 20th Century.  What happened in Newtown is always close to the surface for most of us.  And when we think of these things, it’s hard to feel thankful.  

 I’m thinking, too, of the Christian Scriptures, from one of Paul’s letters to the churches.  He wrote, “Give thanks in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you.”  (1 Thess 5:18)

Here’s the same problem.  We’re instructed to give thanks always, and that can be practically impossible sometimes. 

 

Did you know that Abraham Lincoln instated the celebration of a national day of thanksgiving in the middle of the Civil War?  The year was 1863.  That was right after the epic Battle of Gettysburg.  So much death and so much blood soaked the land in southern Pennsylvania that summer.

 President Lincoln was urging the nation to give thanks in all circumstances.  Even as the war raged on and young men on both sides died horribly in appalling numbers.

 Takk for alt.

 It can help us to look back and to see God’s hand and God’s goodness in former days and eras—even in the worst of times.  It’s true that sometimes we can see God’s activity most clearly in retrospect.

 It also helps us to look forward and exercise the virtue of HOPE, trusting in the never-changing mercy and loving-kindness of God, who will right all wrongs in time.  We might consider the certitude of Julian of Norwich, 14th century mystic and visionary.  She wrote, “Sin is necessary, but all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.”

Takk for alt.  Thanks for our freedom to make choices, God, even if it gets us human beings in trouble much of the time.

 

So may we have the grace and the courage to pray, like Job, “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return there; The Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away.  Blessed be the name of the Lord.”  (Job 1:21)

 And may we pray, with Dag Hammarskjold, former secretary-general of the U.N., “For all that has been, thanks.  For all that shall be, yes.” 

Takk for alt. 

Amen.