Rejoice always, pray continually, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God's will for you in Christ Jesus. (1 Thessalonians 5:16-18)
In 1967 we were living in a house on the Post Road in Darien, Connecticut, with our two children, Sarah (almost 2 years old) and Helen (10 months old). We had moved there in September and were completely unaware of all the traditions that surround the uniquely American tradition of Thanksgiving Day. Our new friends at St. Paul’s Church stressed the importance of eating turkey, so we purchased frozen turkey dinners on disposable aluminum trays – we called them “TV dinners” in those days. My vague recollection is that we all quite enjoyed the novelty of eating from a tray, but when others learned of our rather pathetic celebration they were appalled, and we never ate alone again!
Years later, when Sarah began her work as a pediatrician at the Penn State Hershey Medical Center, she was required to be on call over the Thanksgiving holiday, so we decided that the rest of the family would travel to Hershey and join Sarah, Thom, and their family for the celebrations. We have continued this pattern, with few interruptions, for the last 25 years. Thanksgiving Day has become a very important part of our family ritual – and we always eat turkey! We also take time to give thanks to Almighty God for all the many blessings that we have received over the past year. It is an important day in our family calendar.
I am very much aware of the dangers of an overly romantic view of the life and actions of those first English settlers. When we lived in Virginia, we became acquainted with some of the myths and facts about Jamestown. It all began in May of 1607 when a group of Englishmen arrived under orders from King James I (the same king whose name lives on with the Bible that he commissioned in 1604) to establish an English colony. Despite their efforts, the Jamestown Colony was immediately plagued by disease, famine, and violent encounters with the indigenous population. Although more than a third perished in the harsh conditions, the group eventually overcame their disastrous start and founded the first permanent English settlement on this continent.
It is suggested that in 1621 the settlers held their very first Harvest Festival Celebration … although it is much less clear that anyone actually ate turkey. Those early settlers were familiar with the concept because of their English heritage, in which the ingathering of the harvest had been celebrated since pagan times. I remember that it was a major festival each year in the small farming village where my grandparents lived and worked. Whenever I hear the words of the traditional hymn, “We plough the field and scatter the good seed on the land,” I can always picture the village congregation singing their hearts out! Thanksgiving Day, as we know it, really began with the proclamation made by President Abraham Lincoln in October, 1863, in which he called for a national day of thanksgiving and praise to be held on the last Thursday of November. The focus was not simply on gratitude to God for the harvest but far more on the survival of the nation in the middle of the horrors of the “lamentable civil strife in which we are unavoidably engaged.” It remains a remarkable declaration that is well worth rereading for its humility and its profound faith in the protection and providence of Almighty God – recognizing that the conflict itself continued for almost two more years.
Thanksgiving is, of course, much more than an event. It is an attitude commended by God throughout the Scriptures. The psalmist is especially eloquent in his thanksgiving – “Oh come, let us sing to the LORD! Let us shout joyfully to the Rock of our salvation. Let us come before His presence with thanksgiving; let us shout joyfully to Him with psalms.” Psalm 95:1-2) And perhaps the best known, “This is the day that the LORD has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it.” (Psalm 118:24) That particular psalm is often used as a greeting in Anglican liturgy, and Angela always used it to wake our children each morning … although when they were teenagers the response was not always enthusiastic!
Thankful people are a joy to be with, and I have met quite a few. One of my favorites was Bishop Alpha Mohammed of Tanzania, whom I mentioned earlier in my Ad Clerum on Revival. I first met him at Virginia Seminary in 1976, where we were students. Alpha arrived having just been made a bishop, so he was something of a celebrity on campus … something which he handled with great humility. People asked him lots of questions about his life and experience, and many of the questions were repetitive and showed a profound ignorance of the geography and history of the African continent. For example, he was asked, “Do you have cars in Africa?” or “What language do y’all speak?” But he always replied with a big smile and the same opening: “Thank you for your question …” before he answered. And he really meant it!
In 1980 we visited Alpha and his wife Marion in their home in Dodoma, Tanzania, after they had just experienced a deadly year-long drought, during which there was no harvest for which to give thanks. The day before we arrived was the first day that bread was available in the local stores. As we sat in their living room after our lengthy journey from the US, he insisted on serving us hot tea with thick slices of bread and honey. He gave heartfelt thanks to God for bringing us to his home and for providing in such abundance. We were all very grateful. It does seem to be an observable truth that those with the least are often the most thankful.
As you gather with friends and family this coming Thanksgiving Day, I do urge you to take time and be deliberate in your thanks to Almighty God for his abundant provision. As you do so, remember those who are lacking in what we consider basic necessities and, as you are able, provide for them.