Giving Thanks? It’s not only an end. It’s also a beginning.

cornucopiaAs always, Thanksgiving promises a cornucopia. But this year the bounty is more than the abundant dinner-table spread. It extends to food for thought. News and social media have issued an abundance of material on how to talk with friends and family who may have voted differently in the national election. Unsurprisingly, the advice is all over the lot.

Truth is, this national holiday was in fact born and built into the American fabric out of a strong – even desperate – need to bridge cultural distinctions, differing goals, build communication, even end deep enmity.

Why is that?

The answer lies in logic, and in history.

First the logic. Before you and I can be grateful, we have to take stock. Just what is it we’re thankful for? In many homes, it’s a tradition to go around the table and ask this question of everyone present, from the youngest to the oldest. Answers vary from the sacred to the profane. They range from a joke, or a trivial crisis that was happily resolved, or the Thanksgiving banquet, or the warm house on a cold day, to larger things – the blessings of material wealth, or rude good health and vigor, or the meaning we’re finding in our relationships and our work, or just the joy of still being alive at the end of another year.

But in the process of building this inventory – of sharing and listening – a realization emerges. Everyone present, both the kids and the oldsters, get it. Those things we’re thankful for? We didn’t achieve them through our individual talent or skill or effort. We don’t deserve them because of any inherent special qualities or goodness. We didn’t earn them. They lie largely outside our circle of influence or control.

Instead these blessings came to us as acts of love, and mercy, and grace, from someone or something very close but yet separate. In some cases that someone is as close as the Thanksgiving table. It’s the way family and friends rallied around when we went through a difficult patch. In some cases, the gifts came from strangers. The food for the table and the energy running the house came from the effort and the sweat of the brow of countless others; so did the transportation system that got us “over the river and through the woods to grandmother’s house.” The freedom and stability we enjoy comes at the cost of sacrifices made by our military. The structure, stability, and yes, even justice, flawed though it sometimes seems, was provided by thousands of federal, state, and local government workers. The Skype and Facetime that enlarge the number of those with whom we can now share the day came from IT nerds.

Hmm. We need to give thanks.

In itself, this increased self-awareness is a huge step forward. And at a number of homes and tables, that’s where it ends. But for many, there’s a renewed understanding that all this comes through others, and circumstances, but comes from a Higher Power – that at the very core, Love, and Mercy, and Grace rule the real world on which we live. For some, this is clearly evidence-based. For others it’s a matter of faith or belief. For others, it’s no more than a hope. But at every level, with this understanding comes awe. Humility. Patience. Acceptance, perhaps even embrace, of our circumstances. An ability to forgive and put the past aside. A new appreciation, a new willingness, even determination, to make common cause with those around us. A new courage and spirit with which to do life, beginning with the coming week.

Abraham Lincoln understood all this.

Which brings us to the history. The Thanksgiving narrative usually goes back to 1621 when Pilgrims and native Americans celebrated the conclusion of a successful growing season and solemnized their common bond despite quite different histories, cultures, and circumstances. But in the early days of the United States, Federal declarations of the holiday were hit or miss.

Until the Civil War. In 1863 Thanksgiving got a big boost when President Lincoln issued a proclamation[1]. Not so well known as his others of his proclamations, it nevertheless reads well, and is pertinent to today’s political climate:

The year that is drawing towards its close, has been filled with the blessings of fruitful fields and healthful skies. To these bounties, which are so constantly enjoyed that we are prone to forget the source from which they come, others have been added, which are of so extraordinary a nature, that they cannot fail to penetrate and soften even the heart which is habitually insensible to the ever watchful providence of Almighty God. In the midst of a civil war of unequalled magnitude and severity, which has sometimes seemed to foreign States to invite and to provoke their aggression, peace has been preserved with all nations, order has been maintained, the laws have been respected and obeyed, and harmony has prevailed everywhere except in the theatre of military conflict; while that theatre has been greatly contracted by the advancing armies and navies of the Union. Needful diversions of wealth and of strength from the fields of peaceful industry to the national defence, have not arrested the plough, the shuttle, or the ship; the axe had enlarged the borders of our settlements, and the mines, as well of iron and coal as of the precious metals, have yielded even more abundantly than heretofore. Population has steadily increased, notwithstanding the waste that has been made in the camp, the siege and the battle-field; and the country, rejoicing in the consciousness of augmented strength and vigor, is permitted to expect continuance of years, with large increase of freedom.

 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, who, while dealing with us in anger for our sins, hath nevertheless remembered mercy.

 It has seemed to me fit and proper that they should be solemnly, reverently and gratefully acknowledged as with one heart and voice by the whole American people. I do therefore invite my fellow citizens in every part of the United States, and also those who are at sea and those who are sojourning in foreign lands, to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next, as a day of Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens. And I recommend to them that while offering up the ascriptions justly due to Him for such singular deliverances and blessings, they do also, with humble penitence for our national perverseness and disobedience, commend to his tender care all those who have become widows, orphans, mourners or sufferers in the lamentable civil strife in which we are unavoidably engaged, and fervently implore the interposition of the Almighty Hand to heal the wounds of the nation and to restore it as soon as may be consistent with the Divine purposes to the full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquility and Union…

Much to take to heart, even today! Lincoln was wise enough to see that if instead of focusing on our differences, we reflected on shared blessings – blessings not taking the form of some zero-sum game, but rather coming from some external yet close-by Divine Providence, and bestowed without regard or special favor toward any side or point of view, but rather out of a spirit of love and grace – we might move more toward accommodation and peace[2]. Thanksgiving has been observed every year since.

Perhaps we can all be on the lookout for these blessings around our tables today – and find new hope and shared purpose in what we see.

That’s my prayer for you. I’m thankful for each and every one of you and all you’re doing to make this world a better one.

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You might want to listen to a song for the day. Here’s one: Nichole Nordeman’s “Gratitude” captures some of the uncertainty, tentativeness and nuance she sees in our relationship both with the Earth we live on and our Creator. You can hear it sung here, but the printed lyrics below will help you follow along:

“Gratitude”

 Send some rain, would You send some rain?

‘Cause the earth is dry and needs to drink again

And the sun is high and we are sinking in the shade

Would You send a cloud, thunder long and loud?

Let the sky grow black and send some mercy down

Surely You can see that we are thirsty and afraid

But maybe not, not today

Maybe You’ll provide in other ways

And if that’s the case…

 

We’ll give thanks to You with gratitude

For lessons learned in how to thirst for You

How to bless the very sun that warms our face

If You never send us rain

 

Daily bread, give us daily bread

Bless our bodies, keep our children fed

Fill our cups, then fill them up again tonight

Wrap us up and warm us through

Tucked away beneath our sturdy roofs

Let us slumber safe from danger’s view this time

Or maybe not, not today

Maybe You’ll provide in other ways

And if that’s the case…

 

We’ll give thanks to You with gratitude

A lesson learned to hunger after You

That a starry sky offers a better view

If no roof is overhead

And if we never taste that bread

 

Oh, the differences that often are between

Everything we want and what we really need

 

So grant us peace, Jesus, grant us peace

Move our hearts to hear a single beat

Between alibis and enemies tonight

Or maybe not, not today

Peace might be another world away

And if that’s the case…

 

We’ll give thanks to You with gratitude

For lessons learned in how to trust in You

That we are blessed beyond what we could ever dream

In abundance or in need

And if You never grant us peace…

 

But, Jesus, would You please…

[You can find further Thanksgiving background for today in the previous LOTRW post.]

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[1] Actually written by William H. Seward, then Secretary of State.

[2] Slavery was an evil of colossal magnitude, eroding the soul and fabric of America. The Civil War climaxed centuries of rot, and the repercussions of that rot and upheaval persist to this day. By contrast, the polarization attendant on this last election has been growing only for years, not centuries, and much less blood has been shed. We might therefore hope that this recovery could prove more swift.

 

 

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