Today’s blog is not so much about the day as about the verb. The very ability to choose to give thanks is in itself a gift. And it’s a choice that changes everything. We hear a lot about the first Thanksgiving feast shared among the Pilgrims and the Native Americans to celebrate the abundant harvest,restored health, and friendship that the Pilgrims enjoyed. And it is an excellent part of our history – our founders at their best. But the other half of the story is equally amazing, though it didn’t occur until 242 years later, in 1863. In the midst of the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln proclaimed a national Thanksgiving Day to be observed annually in November. Thanksgiving Days were not new to our country, but they were usually discrete proclamations for a one-time event or they were state decrees. It wasn’t until our country’s darkest days that we set aside a special day every year to give thanks in perpetuity for our blessings. The contrast between these two Thanksgivings is astounding.
While the Pilgrims enjoyed a bountiful harvest and plentiful food, the citizens of America in 1863 had very little: many were starving and cities were in crisis because of food shortages. The Pilgrims celebrated peace with their neighbors in 1621; in 1863, brothers were at war with each other. While the Pilgrims rejoiced in their liberties in a new land, their descendants were deciding with blood whether all men had the right to live in freedom. The Pilgrims delighted in the closeness of family and friends; the families of 1863 were torn apart as thousands of sons and fathers would never come home.
Do you see the amazing truth hidden in these two Thanksgivings? The circumstances could not have been more different, yet the attitude is the same. The hidden heart of Thanksgiving is that circumstances do not drive our gratitude. We give thanks on this day for food, family, jobs, provision, etc… and these are wonderful things we should be grateful for, but they are circumstantial. The power in Thanksgiving is that we can be grateful without any of these things. Lincoln understood this well when he guided our country in its desperation to look upward and to give thanks for the “watchful providence of Almighty God.” He reminded the nation that in the midst of chaos and tragedy, they still had the choice. We can always choose gratefulness. And every year since then, our country has chosen to pause our lives for one day to say “thank you.” Through good times and bad, through war and peace, through times of plenty and times of uncertainty, we have followed our forefathers and celebrated the choice to be thankful.
Lincoln’s proclamation echoes the words of the Hebrew prophet Habakkuk.
Even though the fig trees have no blossoms, and there are no grapes on the vines;
Even though the olive crop fails, and the fields lie empty and barren;
Even though the flocks die in the fields, and the cattle barns are empty,
Yet I will rejoice in the Lord! I will be joyful in the God of my salvation! (Hab. 3:17-18)
Centuries later, the Apostle Paul would express the same truth this way:
For I am convinced that nothing can ever separate us from God’s love. Neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither our fears for today nor our worries about tomorrow – not even the powers of hell can separate us from God’s love. No power in the sky above or in the earth below – indeed, nothing in all creation will ever be able to separate us from the love of God that is revealed in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Rom. 8:38-39)
Habakkuk, Paul, and Lincoln all realized that circumstances change, but God never does. And for that they could be profoundly grateful, regardless of whatever situation they found themselves in. The same call extends to us; the choice to be thankful is always within our grasp because God always is.
Blessings to you,