A day of prayer, of self-congratulations,
On Thanksgiving Day, the President of the United States will
call the people of this country to prayer. It is perhaps ironic that while our
Constitution forbids the establishment of religion there are times when it appears
perfectly acceptable for the nation's highest elected official to lead the people
in prayer. In fact, Thanksgiving is unique among the nation's holidays in placing
an act of prayer front and center. To be sure, this message is not always communicated
It sometimes seems that Thanksgiving is our
most self-congratulatory moment.
As families gather around their tables
filled with so many good things to eat, is the real purpose of this holiday to
catalogue all our success, to list our achievements, to enjoy our good fortune
that we happen to live in the richest and most powerful nation on earth? Or is
there something deeper calling to us from within this nation's singular call to
Giving thanks is, of course, an activity that religious
people have been engaged in long before European settlers gave thanks to God for
having placed into their hands certain lands along the eastern seaboard of this
continent. The indigenous peoples who were invited to those Puritan harvest festivals
may have been only dimly aware that a God whose name they had never heard was
about to turn over their continent to the Europeans.
Were the prayers
of thanksgiving uttered by those early settlers in some real sense an attempt
to give religious sanction to a simple act of theft? Are the prayers of thanksgiving
in which we partake this year, simply a way of wrapping a mantle of piety around
our way of life, while deeper questions about the source of our successes (or
failures) are not addressed? To whom, and for what are we thankful on Thanksgiving
As as Christian, I happen to find wisdom in the words of Jesus.
I also believe that a number of things that he said about "thanksgiving"
will ring true for those from other religious traditions as well; for his words
point to a reality that lies deeper than the traditions of any nation, denomination,
tribe or clan.
In the midst of a much longer passage about the
kingdom of God (Mark 4:26-29) Jesus draws this image: "The kingdom of God
is like a man scattering seeds upon the ground. While he sleeps, while he is awake,
night and day, the seed is sprouting and growing, he knows not how. The earth
produces of itself, first the blade, then the ear, then the full grain in the
At first reading this image seems to be a simple description
about the great processes of nature. The seed, once planted, is nurtured by rain
and sun, it sprouts and grows and matures, gradually ripening into grain. At first
reading this image calls to mind beautiful scenes of ripening grain; isn't it
wonderful what nature can do! Yes, it's wonderful, and its also terrifying to
reflect upon the impersonal and arbitrary power of nature. Just think Katrina.
Read as a simple ode to nature, the words of Jesus are not
very illuminating. For if the sun and rain bring wheat to harvest in some parts
of the world, there are many places where drought or flood, earthquake or fire
bring death and destruction. The impersonal forces and processes of nature do
not offer a very firm foundation for thanksgiving, for what nature gives this
year, may well be withheld the next. Jesus was not pointing simply to nature,
he was directing our attention to something deeper. The kingdom of God, said Jesus,
is like a man who scatters seed upon the ground, and then he sleeps and rises
again, night and day. As he is carried through the rounds of time, the seed sprouts
and grows, he knows not how.
The Meaning of Thanksgiving
a farmer who has planted his field. When he is finished, he feeds the cattle,
makes a last minute repair to a fence, and then he turns toward home. It is warm
inside his small house, and there is the smell of lamb stew simmering on an open
fire. He shares a moment of animated conversation with his family, the lights
are turned down, and then he slips under a warm quilt for a safe passage through
The next morning he is up at sunrise and off to the village
to pick up some supplies. He stops along the way to watch the reflection of the
sun dancing in the waters of a mountain brook. Time passes slowly in the countryside,
day and night, good time and bad, summer and winter, and all the while the seeds
The kingdom of God is like that. Jesus was aware of a reality
deeper then the eye can see or the mind comprehend. He was aware that in the midst
of all our activity, in the midst of our scheming and planning, in the midst of
our frantic efforts and great undertakings, there is still another stream of events
moving forward, while we run hither and yon.
While we work and while
we worry, even while we sleep, God is letting the seeds of the kingdom sprout
and grow and mature until the harvest is full.
Ages ago, when the great
flood subsided, and the rainbow sign appeared against the skies still darkened
by the clouds of that terrible storm, God pronounced a strange word of consolation:
"While the earth remains, seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and
winter, day and night, shall not cease." (Genesis 8:22) In a real sense these
words tie together the teachings about thanksgiving from both New and Old Testaments,
from both Christians and Jews. And they will be recognized by many people beyond
the Judeo-Christian tradition. They affirm that the pattern and rhythm of the
natural world are signs which remind us of God's faithfulness to all people.
A while ago my wife and I had reason to set off on a road trip during the middle
of a hurricane. We probably shouldn't have ventured out onto the highway at all;
but necessity drove us into the storm. The wind blew so ferociously our little
car had difficulty holding to the roadway. The driving rain created deep pools
of water through which we cautiously moved, wondering whether the ignition would
fail. All around us power lines were down. As our gas was running low, we realized
we wouldn't be able to refuel at a gas station, because the electric pumps would
be off too. Fortunately an attendant at one of those stations let us siphon some
gas from his tank, just enough to complete our trip.
As the storm blew
itself out, the clouds gradually began to break up. Shafts of sunlight penetrated
the misty grey of wind and rain, and off in the distance we saw it: a wonderful
rainbow arching across the sky; the whole array of color shining against the still
ominous storm clouds; all of that color reminding us of God's dependability and
power. That night we gave thanks simply for being alive.
This is the
one fixed star in the constellation of our experience. This is the one thing we
all have to be thankful for even when all else fails. The creativity of God, the
continuing growth of God's kingdom within us and through us; this is the good
news for which we can be thankful even when everything appears to be going wrong.
Martin Luther, the great leader of the Protestant Reformation, put
it this way: "While I drink my little glass of Wittenberg beer, the gospel
runs its course."
That certainly is the best advertisement for
beer I've ever heard. And a welcome word of comfort to all who are affected by
the particular bad news of this day. "While I drink my little glass of Wittenberg
beer, the gospel runs its course." In this Luther was simply saying that
the kingdom of God unfolds in our lives despite our worry and all our frantic
work, despite our most embarrassing failures and our most wonderful achievements.
Whatever happens in the world around us, the seeds of God's kingdom continue to
On occasion Luther could step down from his high pulpit in Wittenberg;
he could take respite from all the conflict and activity of reforming the great
medieval church, and he could quietly drink his little glass of beer, knowing
that God is the ultimate arbiter of our destiny. We are not slaves to the news
of this hour, we are rather servants of God who created this world and everything
in it. Christians and all others who share a faith in God's continuing activity
in this world are capable of giving thanks, not because our blessings are so many,
but rather because of this single, solitary fact: we live and move and have our
being under the watchful care of a loving God. Whatever the stress of our daily
lives, the seeds keep growing. Let us therefore share in this holiday of thanks
Thanksgiving: Mirror Unto The Soul of a Nation
"A nation divided cannot stand," said Abraham Lincoln, paraphrasing Scripture. But with a bit of luck, some ordinary patience and understanding, and a touch of grace, it can. Here's how.
The Essence of Thanksgiving
A visitor to America from outer space in late November might conclude that we worship the turkey goddess. So what is the deeper meaning of this holiday, with its sometimes conflicting themes?
If you want to talk with someone in person, please feel free to call 212-864-5436
The Rev. Charles P. Henderson is a Presbyterian minister and
Executive Director of CrossCurrents.
He is the author of God and Science (John Knox Press, 1986).
A revised and expanded version of the book is appearing here. God and Science (Hypertext Edition,
He is also editor of a new book, featuring articles by world class scientists and theologians, and illustrating the leading views on the relationship between science and religion: Faith, Science and the Future (CrossCurrents Press, 2007).
Charles also tracks the boundry between the virtual and the real at his blog: Next World Design, focusing on the mediation of art, science and spirituality in the metaverse.