Thanksgiving 101

It’s Thanksgiving Sunday, the quintessential North American holiday. For most people, it’s the “easy” holiday. All you have to do is cook!

You don’t have to shop for presents and spend countless dollars; you don’t have to fight snow and cold––at least not in Canada––(Thanksgiving following the end of summer by a mere 2½ weeks). And most of all––and this has now become for some, the most important issue of all––you don’t have to contend with a giant dose of religion should that offend you! (After all, instead of thanking God, you can thank the Universe! Or Blind Luck. Or Chance Good Fortune.

Or the Abundant Curl, in your Naturally Curly Hair, should you enjoy the same.)

Thanksgiving: all you have to do is cook, and eat. And eat, like a football-playing ex-roommate of mine who together with his four large-framed brothers used to weigh himself before and after his Thanksgiving meal, to see how much he had actually gained in one sitting. In the immortal words of Ira Gershwin, “Who could ask for anything more?”

North American Thanksgiving as we know it was first proposed by a very famous American.

His name? Abraham Lincoln. And no, it certainly wasn’t all about gluttony. “The year that is drawing toward its close has been filled with the blessings of fruitful fields and beautiful skies,” wrote he. “No human counsel hath devised, nor hath any mortal hand worked out, these great things! They are the gracious gifts of the Most High God . . . . It has therefore seemed to me fit and proper that they should be solemnly, reverently, and gratefully acknowledged––as with one heart and one voice––by the whole American people. I do therefore invite my fellow-citizens to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November as a day of ‘thanksgiving.’ And I recommend to them . . . that they fervently implore the imposition of the Almighty hand to heal the wounds of the nation and to restore it, as soon as may be consistent with the divine purpose, to the full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquility, and union. Done at the city of Washington, this 3rd day of October, the Year of Our Lord, 1863, and of the Independence of the United States, the 88th.”

The first official, annual Thanksgiving in Canada followed on November 6, 1879, though many of the indigenous people of Canada of course; had had a history of celebrating the fall harvest long before then; certainly long before the first New England celebration in 1578, and the first New France celebration in 1606. And as for moving Thanksgiving to the second Monday of October, this was first proclaimed by Prime Minister John Diefenbaker in 1957.

Thanksgiving… as Abraham Lincoln put it, something which fervently implores the imposition of God’s hands upon the world; hands which can heal the wounds of a nation and to restore it to life again, as per God’s will and wish for all peoples; hands by which imposition people everywhere would soon come to the full enjoyment––the full enjoyment!!!!––of peace, harmony, tranquility, and union.

And indeed, when Thanksgiving comes from the heart (by the Spirit of God) it also goes to the heart, and brings the deepest of healing.

“I love my family,” blogs a man named Rod. “And I love Thanksgiving . . . My brothers and sisters are incredible people, full of love and music and insight. My aunt gives the most enveloping, I-love-you-to-your-bones type of hugs. And Thanksgiving is one of the only times we all get together at once. Across the generations of separation and the many forces that have spread us across the country, I am so grateful that we have held onto this ritual of coming back home to one another. God is good.”

But what if for you––if for all of us, with our feeling-forward hearts––Thanksgiving is anything but easy; and seems to mean––and occasion––nothing, the giving of thanks notwithstanding??

What then?? What if this bucolic vision of food and family and festivity has nothing to do with the life you now lead, especially in 2020? Especially in a time of Covid, and illness, and death, and loneliness????What then?

And yet here as elsewhere, along comes the Word of God by the Spirit of God––“like lightning from a clear blue sky,” as C. S. Lewis once said–– … the Word of God in this case through the Apostle Paul … and says, in a phrase, (notwithstanding culture!; notwithstanding custom!;notwithstanding common sense!!) “In everything, give thanks.”

“In everything, give thanks.” Wow. Wow. Has Paul lost his mind??? Talk about being stopped in your tracks, as it were by a “freight train going through the middle of your head,” to paraphrase Bruce Springsteen.

“Be filled with the Spirit,” writes Paul in 1 Thessalonians 5, as rendered in the NIV. “Be filled with the Spirit, speaking to one another with psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit. Moreover, sing and make music from your heart to the Lord, always giving thanks to God the Father, for everything.”

In other words, give thanks for everything, whether it’s easy, or not; give thanks for everything, whether it appears to occasion everything––or nothing. Give thanks as a habit; as a decision; as a resolve; as an act of defiant love:––like lighting a candle in the darkness, instead of angrily cursing the same.

I once met a man in hospital. He was dying; and as far as I could tell, dying alone . . .When he found out I was a pastor, he rolled his eyes and guffawed. You could tell he was gathering his strength to put me in my place, and with me, the God––and the church––who may well have sent me. “I worked like a horse, and now I’m going to die like a dog. What do you think of that?”

It was hardly original to him, but he took great relish in saying it, and hoped it would crush me as easily as one crushes an eggshell, underfoot.

“I have no quarrel with your experience,” I think I said, but the one thing I do know, is that God loves you, and God is with you.”

“Well, is that so??” he replied. And so for him I suspect the darkness only deepened.

“Rejoice in the Lord always,” writes Paul in Philippians 4. Always . . . whether your life is good, bad, or indifferent, as we are inclined to describe it. “I will say it again,” he goes on, “Rejoice! Let your gentleness be evident to all. In other words, live gently; not angrily or rebelliously. “The Lord is near. Yes, the Lord is near, whether you are convinced of this or not.

Moreover, do not be anxious about anything, but in everything––everything!!!––by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. (In other words, don’t be afraid to pray. In fact, pray, and pray again.) And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”

Give thanks for all things? That’s not only impossible, but crazy, right??

Yes all things, for as Paul says elsewhere, “we know that in all things God works––this is from Romans 8––for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.”

All things.

“Well God, sometimes I feel like I don’t love you, and don’t feel called according to your purpose.” Fair enough. Life is hard. But thank him anyways . . . Choose life, and light, and hope; and thank him anyways.

Today’s gospel reading tells the story of some men Who––it would seem––had nothing for which to thank God. Nothing. Giving thanks to God was, indeed, not only impossible for them––it would seem––but also crazy. Only the advice of Job’s wife made any sense to men like these, namely, “Curse God and die.”

And who were they? Lepers. Lepers. To them, the bucolic life of food, family, and festivity;

––that is to say of conventional Thanksgiving celebrations, of which there were not one but two every year (by the way) according to the Jewish liturgical calendar––meant, and occasioned, nothing. For on contracting leprosy––or Hanson’s disease, as it is now called––they were unceremoniously thrust out of town, not only unhealed, but completely uncared for.

Because Hanson’s disease was so contagious in that setting, i.e. the ancient world, the Old Testament law required lepers to live apart from everyone else: “The person with such an infectious disease must wear torn clothes,” reads Leviticus 13:45, “let his hair be unkempt, and let him cover the lower part of his face and cry out, ‘Unclean! Unclean!’ As long as he has the infection he remains unclean. He must live alone; he must live outside the camp.”

So these ten men described in the story were in no mood to give thanks for anything, let alone all things. They had endured a lifetime of moving listlessly from place to place, never entering any city––save at night––; scrounging for food, begging, living in caves . . . Forming a desperate conclave of the despised and neglected. And each new year of life meant that they lost more and more of their health and vigor; their limbs marred; their faces disfigured, their lives ruined . . .

But suddenly, they meet Jesus. They knew who he was; He knew who they were . . . .They didn’t love him at first blush, necessarily, but he loved them. Seeing him, they stood at a distance and called out in a loud voice, “Jesus, Master, have pity on us!” When he saw them, Luke tells us, Jesus said, “Go, show yourselves to the priests.” And as the ten went, they were cleansed. In an instant Jesus gave them back their very lives.

And yet, bizarrely, only one, only one, returned to say ‘thank you.’ Only one . . . . and he was a Samaritan, doubly excluded––some would have argued––from the grace of God . . .

“Were not all ten cleansed?” asks Jesus. “Where are the other nine? Was no one found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?”

Then he said to him, “Rise and go; your faith has made you well.”

I suspect this one was the only one who had ever learned to give thanks. And having learned to give thanks when things were bad, instantly he gave thanks when things became good again . . .

So good, that is was beyond reason. So good, that this whole experience became memorialized

in this wonderful document called the New Testament.

You know, it’s only two words long: but the expression “thank you” is composed of words that will change the world. Your world. My world. Our world.

Whether you are rich or poor, young or old; a slave to the things you own––or free from them:––those two tiny words, if directed to God––not to mention one another––will remake your whole way of life. No longer will you live under the delusion that you are a self-made man or woman.

(A very common delusion, to be frank.) No longer will you wonder to whom your heart must be given, And why. The sense of panic which underlies most everything you are, and do––even in a time of Covid, and profound uncertainty––will begin to loosen; because you will know that the souls of the righteous are in the hand of God. And you will understand at last, what things matter, and what things do not. Moreover, you will learn to share what you have been given, as if it were second nature.

Look up, now down, and say, ‘thank you.’ Dare to give thanks in all things, that your life will take on the depth, the richness, and the grace it was meant to have under God.

Happy thanksgiving, in all circumstances. In everything! And may the working for good begin.