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Thanksgiving: To Whom? For What?

A day of prayer, of self-congratulations, or what?

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 very clearly.  

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 prayer? 

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 Day?

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 ear."

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. Or tsunami.

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

Picture 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 night.

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 keep growing.

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 grow.

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 and praise!

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?

Thanksgiving Prayers

The Date of Thanksgiving

Charles Henderson

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The Rev. Charles P. Henderson is a Presbyterian minister and Executive Director of
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, 2005).
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.  

For more information about Charles Henderson.