I’m glad that in Canada we celebrate Thanksgiving Day early in October, while the harvest is still happening. Thanksgiving worship takes me back to the Harvest Home services of my childhood.
In 1920, my grandfather Michael Clemmer noted in his diary the Harvest Home service at Souderton Mennonite Church – a time to give thanks for the harvest. The church was “very full” for this event, he noted. I imagine they sang the hymn Praise to God, immortal praise, one of the few harvest songs in the Church and Sunday School Hymnal of 1902.
Harvest Home services were still happening at Souderton Mennonite during my childhood. Taking place on a week night, they made me feel energetic and thankful as we sang harvest hymns, collecting food for local needs and money for crop failures far away. One year my Mom noted that the service was not as full as it used to be. “Are we less thankful now?” she wondered. Maybe. Or maybe in the 1950’s already we were less tied to the land….
I still love singing harvest songs. My all-time favorite is Praise to God, immortal praise, with its poetry by Anna Barbauld and its stately stand-up-and-take-notice chords by Asahel Abbot. So far, it has been included in all the Mennonite hymnals of my lifetime.
The red Mennonite Hymnal of 1969 – the songbook of my young adulthood – put a whole new spin on that hymn for song leaders taking notice. It revived Anna Barbault’s whole 9-verse poem of 1772 by calling Praise to God Part I, and Lord, should rising whirlwinds Part II, then placing them on the same page of the hymnal. The 1992 Hymnal: A Worship Book did something similar, putting these two parts of Anna’s poem on facing pages – # 91 and #92.
I didn’t notice Lord, should rising whirlwinds, with its strong reference to Habakkuk 3:17-18, until about 20 years ago. Since then, I’ve encouraged churches to sing these two parts of Anna’s poem back to back. For surely they belong together.
Crop failure is a huge concern in our world – whether due to war or dislocation of peoples or climate change or the capriciousness of nature. I shudder when I read Anna’s/Habakkuk’s poetry about crop failure, sick flocks and missing herds – and I’m not even a farmer. I do remember, though, the sick feeling around home when the chickens owned by my Dad’s feed mill died off by the thousands.
I can hardly imagine the impact of v. 6-9 of Anna’s poem in an era without insurance. Anna’s language still hits us in the gut, whether adversity has to do with barns and herds and crops, or whether it shows itself in other ways. Crop failure can stand in for many other kinds of trouble.
What might it mean to praise God in uncertain circumstances? Can my soul or yours authentically raise grateful vows and solemn praise when the blessings of health or stability or economic prosperity have flown? Can we love thee for thyself alone, as Habakkuk and Anna propose? Is such a response even possible?
Maybe it’s time for us to look Anna’s questions straight in the face. What if? What if our stable world – either our personal world or the world out there – falls apart? Then what?
The past couple days I’ve devoured a short novel called When the English Fall. It’s written in the voice of an Old Order Amishman who keeps a diary about his responses and those of his community when a “sun storm” shorts out everything and the world as we know it falls apart. In the novel, the Lancaster County Amish are of course far better off than most, but desperate “English” quickly find them.
Early reviews indicate that people either loved this novel or hated it. I liked Jacob the narrator a lot. The moral dilemmas his Amish community faced and their attempts at faithfulness kept me completely captivated….
Questions for Reflection:
- Do you enjoy singing harvest songs? If so, what is your favorite?
- How do you put Part I and Part II of Anna Barbauld’s poem together?
Next Week: The Gentle Power of Small Groups