Today’s Word from Karl Olsen…

We Gather Together
Hymn by Adrianus Valerius – 1597
Wilt heden nu treden

“Nothing is more widely loved,” The New York Times remarked in 1956, “than the tradition of singing We Gather Together to begin Thanksgiving festivities.” Although it became a standard American church hymn at Thanksgiving, the hymn was a Dutch creation, written in 1597 by Adrianus Valerius, to commemorate the victory of the Dutch over their Spanish occupiers (under the reign of the King Phillip II of Spain) in the middle of the Eighty Years’ War. During the occupation, the Protestants of the Netherlands were forbidden to gather for worship, and in some cases, exiled from their cities by the oppressor. So the lyrics take on special significance…

We gather together to ask the Lord’s blessing;
He chastens and hastens His will to make known;
The wicked oppressing now cease from distressing;
Sing praises to His Name; He forgets not His own.

Valerius took their victory in the Battle of Turnhout (part of current Belgium) as evidence of God’s presence on their side as they ended an era of religious oppression. And Jesus did tell us in Luke 4:18 that God is on the side of the oppressed: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed….”

Beside us to guide us, our God with us joining,
Ordaining, maintaining His kingdom divine;
So from the beginning the fight we were winning;
Thou, Lord, were at our side, all glory be Thine!

But it is dangerous to imagine God’s favor as God’s stamp of approval in all things. Following their victory, and other battles, the Dutch became one of the main colonizing countries in Europe, conquering and dominating many territories throughout the world. As the guide to Colonial Williamsburg notes, “…like other European maritime nations, the Dutch were quick to involve themselves in the transatlantic slave trade. Between 1596 and 1829, the Dutch transported about half a million Africans [to] … the Caribbean.”

Had the Dutch achieved liberation, only to forget their history? Abraham Lincoln began our American Thanksgiving observance in 1863. When an advisor commented that God was on the side of the Union forces, Lincoln replied “Sir, my concern is not whether God is on our side; my greatest concern is to be on God’s side, for God is always right.”

We all do extol Thee, Thou Leader triumphant,
And pray that Thou still our Defender will be;
Let Thy congregation escape tribulation;
Thy Name be ever praised! O Lord, make us free!

The Evangelical Lutheran Church (and its predecessor churches) opted not to include this hymn in the last three editions of our hymnal. In our great country, we have our own well-noted and troubling history of discrimination and division, too often labeling people unlike “ourselves” as “the other,” and temporarily forgetting God’s command to lean into justice. But with God, we always are forgiven, and always are invited into restoration of community. Jesus said in John 16, “In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world.” And I give great thanks every time I hear or read the verses from Micah 7:18 & 19, “…Who is a God like You, who pardons iniquity and passes over the transgression of the remnant of His inheritance—who does not retain His anger forever, … He will again have compassion on us; He will vanquish our iniquities. You will cast out all our sins into the depths of the sea.”

And so, I claim all the good in the tradition of this hymn and give thanks for a God who sees and loves us all, no matter what. Click here to enjoy these two alternate verses of this loved hymn. Thanksgiving blessings to you.

Karl Olsen