Points to Ponder/Remember Thanksgiving on Thanksgiving

by Pastor Dennis Whitmore

Have you been noticing as you shop around that most stores (other than food stores) seem to be skipping Thanksgiving? Halloween stuff is displayed and then not too far away from that is the Christmas display - in early October. While visiting a Christian bookstore in Baltimore, in mid-October, the full-Christmas lineup was on display. It occurred to me that Thanksgiving receives little hype or attention in the public square. What happens on Thanksgiving (football, TV shows, overeating, family gatherings, etc.) will be promoted as the day draws near, but thanksgiving ITSELF is not the dominant theme of Thanksgiving. What pops up first in your mind when Thanksgiving is mentioned?

Consider some history (not complete by any means):

* In 1621, William Bradford, governor of the Plymouth Colony proclaimed a day of Thanksgiving to God for the harvest they had reaped after a winter of hunger and sickness.

* The first Thanksgiving in Maryland was proclaimed for a Tuesday in later November of 1698 to praise God because an epidemic had subsided.

* The second Thanksgiving in Maryland was set for 1782 by John Hanson, president of the Continental Congress. It was the last Thursday in November and was to be a “public day of solemn Thanksgiving to God for all His mercies.”

* In Baltimore, a day of Thanksgiving was proclaimed in November 1832 to celebrate the end of an epidemic of Asiatic cholera, which had killed many during the prior summer.

These were not annual events, but marks of community appreciation for the intervention of God’s mercy during a trying time.

A 19th century magazine editor, Sarah Josepha Hale, campaigned to make what was an occasional and regional event into an annual, national observance. The campaign, beginning in 1846, did not finally make it on the calendar until President Abraham Lincoln heeded the call. Hale declared: “The unifying effect of such a feast can hardly be overrated.” President Lincoln declared the national day of Thanksgiving in October of 1864, right in the middle of the Civil War.

It’s interesting to consider that in our history we have gathered to thank God when we, as in Lincoln’s day, are in stressful times, or when we have just gotten through them. After war, epidemics, and lean, hard winters, we look back and see how God has been with us and saw us through. And so we are deeply grateful. God’s presence can seem so much more real and “there” when we have come through rough times. Of course, God did not change - He’s been there all along. It is we who change. There is nothing like a near-death experience to inspire a new appreciation for life; or a war to appreciate peace; or lean times to appreciate abundance.

But then what happens? Life goes on a while, and we fail to appreciate the days we have been given. Abundance and comfort become commonplace and “normal,” and so we forget what it’s like to be without. And during long periods of peace we get to thinking that this is normal and forget that many nations and tribes are butchering each other all over the world while we peacefully stroll the mall or drive down the road.

All through the Bible it was when people forgot God’s presence in their lives, His powerful hand of deliverance during the tough times, that they became ungrateful and turned away. God warned the Israelites in the Book of Deuteronomy that the people would forget their Lord when they became prosperous. (Deut. 31:19-21).

And now as our nation continues to rewrite its history books, remove God and religious history from the classroom, and turn away from Him, it is up to each of us to keep the truth ever present in our homes and families. We are getting used to our prosperity and forgetting the source. Let me ask you: Are you used to having all of your wealth? (If your immediate response is “what wealth?” then the answer is yes.)When was the last time you looked at a wall in your house, apartment or trailer and felt thankful? You have a wall - probably more than three or four of them. That’s great. Millions of people elsewhere do not.

Whereas prosperity can cause us to forget to be thankful, loss can have the same effect. A focus on the things of life can deflect us from the source of the blessing. Grief over loss can do the same: loss of a loved one, a home, a job, the use of one’s body, etc. What is now gone can consume our attention, our love, our faith and our hope. “What is there to be thankful for now?” we might think. I would imagine that President Lincoln may have felt that way in 1863 as thousands died in the Civil War.

But the common denominator - the single lesson which both great prosperity and great loss leads us to is that God is with us and we must be thankful. Here is why: Thanksgiving is not what God needs to receive for His own good, but what we need to give for our own good. It’s a way of responding to life’s circumstances that changes us.

Thankless, ungrateful people are not happy nor pleasant to be around. And they usually don’t like themselves much either. Thankful people, however, have a joy within, even during the bad times, that lights their way and provides light for others as well. Robert Schuller calls it “the attitude of gratitude.”

Perhaps the real reason the stores or the “public square” doesn’t hype Thanksgiving is because there is no real display or product involved. Halloween and Christmas are “external” and market-oriented. But Thanksgiving is an internal - and an eternal - matter. In fact, for all the complaining we do about how “material” Christmas is, if we were intentional about putting thanksgiving into Thanksgiving, I think we’d approach Christmas in a whole new way. And probably even change it.

“Call on me in the day of trouble. I will deliver you, and you will glorify (thank and praise) Me.” - Psalm 50:15

Yours in Christ,
Pastor Dennis

Pastor Whitmore serves God at the First United Methodist Church in Laurel, MD.