THE CURIOUS THING ABOUT THANKSGIVING
It is a curious thing that the giving of thanks so often goes with hardship. Thanksgiving Day began that way, among a small group of settlers who came ashore at what is now Berkeley Plantation, on the James River. In December 1619, grateful beyond words for their survival, they gave thanks to God and declared, “We ordain that the day of our ship’s arrival at the place assigned for plantation in the land of Virginia shall be yearly and perpetually kept holy as a day of thanksgiving to Almighty God.” A few years later, in 1621, colonists at Plymouth, Massachusetts, held a three-day celebration in thanksgiving for God’s care and nurture through the rigors of life in New England. The first national Thanksgiving Day was celebrated in 1789, just after the American Revolution. And it was during the Civil War that Thanksgiving came to be celebrated annually on the last Thursday of November. Thanksgiving Day began in a setting of hardship, and its development as an annual day of national celebration reflects some of the struggles our nation has endured.
So, does hardship engender thanksgiving? Thomas Paine, the great pamphleteer of the American Revolution and the author of Common Sense, seems to imply that it does when he writes, “The harder the con-flict, the more glorious the triumph. What we obtain too cheaply we esteem too lightly; ‘tis dearness only that gives everything its value.” All of which reminds me of my early years in New York as an avid baseball fan, and of the great Lou Gehrig, who had so endeared himself to fans everywhere. There he stood, out on the field at Yankee Stadium, at the end of his career, glorious in triumph. Lou Gehrig was in the grip of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, ALS, the tragic affliction which would later become known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease, the disease that overwhelms the nerves and muscles of the the body, and is one hundred per cent fatal. To the cheers and tears of his fans that day, Lou Gehrig insisted, “Today, I feel like I’m the luckiest man on the face of the earth.”
Without exception, the most thankful people I’ve known are people for whom life has been fraught with hardship. I think of a little woman named Ruth Barrett, who was a member of the parish I served in Mas-sachusetts. There was no way in the world that Ruth could ever get to church, so disabled was she. She lived in half of a little house, on an out-of-the-way street, near a large and ugly heating plant. Her husband had been killed in the Second World War; and her only child, a son, had died of a cruel disease. Yet Ruth was truly one of the most joyful and untroubled people I’ve ever known. I saw her often and brought her communion regularly. And I have to admit that one of the reasons I saw her so often was that I always went away a happier and more grateful man. Her expressions of thanks for her life and her blessings were truly contagious.
The secret, of course, was that she was thankful to God. God loved this woman, and she knew it. She thanked God from the bottom of her heart for the memories of her husband and her son; for her little home; for the pitifully few possessions she owned; for her parish church; for the volunteers who brought her the tapes of the Sunday sermons; and for the Holy Communion she would receive from the tiny chalice and paten before her on her little chair-side table.
Thanksgiving Day takes us back to a simpler time, when the ups and downs of life stand in bolder relief and in more evident relationship to each other. Jesus said, “Do not worry about your life what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they?” Like the colonists of old, the Lou Gehrigs and the Ruth Barretts of this world understand about the basic simplicities of life and about where the enduring values are to be found. Thanksgiving comes easily to their lips, and anxiety is notably absent.
Anxiety, indeed, is the great enemy of the spirit of thanksgiving, and we seem as a nation to be uncommonly afflicted by it these days. Anxiety stands astride our path as we attempt to deal with the great issues of health care, and joblessness, and terrorism, and the seemingly intract-able conflicts of the Middle East and Asia. We need to stare down these issues from a posture of utter thanksgiving—thanksgiving to the God who has brought us safely to these shores and who has endowed us with the wit and wisdom to forge a nation of incredible wellbeing.
I think a lot about the issue of health care reform. In its simplest terms, it’s about every human being getting access to adequate health care at a price they can afford. I often conjure up in my mind this scene: I’m standing face to face with someone who is very sick, and who can get well only if I am willing to give up for that person something I have. It isn’t clear to me what that is—whether it’s a direct outlay of money, or perhaps a bigger deductible on my health insurance, or a longer wait to see my doctor, or higher taxes, or something else. Whatever it is, it will cost me in some way. And God is there in the scene, waiting to hear what I will do about this sick person before me. Now, I am thankful for my good health. And I know what it is to lose it—I had pneumonia once and went into the hospital with a temperature of 106, and almost didn’t make it. But I know that if America’s health care crisis is going to be solved, and everyone is going to get adequate care without bankrupting our country, I’ve got to do my part to help bear the cost!
And I pray that my thankful heart, and my deep awareness both of God’s love for me and God’s claim upon me, will assuage my anxiety, so that I can do my part in staring down the forces of evil and self-centeredness that threaten to tear us apart as a people. As Jesus says in that same passage, God knows perfectly well the things we need. Our job, he says, is to “strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.”
Thanksgiving arises out of adversity and Thanksgiving serves as an anti-dote to adversity. Let me leave you with a prescription for God’s kind of kingdom and God’s kind of righteousness, offered by a Methodist layman from Texas named William Arthur Ward and sent to me by our son in Newport News: “Do more than belong: participate. Do more than care: help. Do more than believe: practice. Do more than be fair: be kind. Do more than forgive: forget. Do more than dream: work.”