I reported yesterday on the efforts of a small handful of zealous critics of the Church to blame the recent mass murders in Colorado Springs on the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and, specifically, on President Dallin H. Oaks, Elder Jeffrey R. Holland, and the late Elder Neal A. Maxwell. I suggested that Mx. Aldrich may actually not have been motivated by pious study of relatively inaccessible remarks from the General Authorities, and now, as we learn still more about them (that is, Mx. Aldrich), my suggestion seems even more plausible than when I first posted it:
But such efforts to exploit Ms. Aldrich’s murderous actions for partisan advantage, for socio-cultural and political gain, have been remarkably energetic:
And what of that small handful of critics on whose speculations I commented yesterday? Well, it seems that President Oaks and Elder Holland are somehow still to blame for Mx. Aldrich’s lethal rampage. Moreover, and very damnably, my brief comment dehumanized and minimized the Colorado Springs attack, failed to mention the victims, neglected to celebrate the heroic actions of one or two patrons of Club Q that probably saved many lives, and sought to make Church leaders the real victims of the tragedy. Of course, one might be forgiven for thinking that, since I was responding only to one very specific peripheral issue that had been grafted onto the massacre in Colorado Springs, expressing my, umm, disapproval of the murder of five innocent people and the wounding of many others would have been unnecessary. Surely only a monster would fail to disapprove of such horrors. Surely only a depraved monster would not endorse life-saving heroism. But some folks affect, at least, to believe that I am just such a monster. And there’s probably nothing that I’ll ever be able to do about it.
On a very different note, here’s a Thanksgiving column that I published in 2011:
Autumn harvest festivals were and are common across Europe, and, as every American schoolchild once learned, our modern Thanksgiving celebrations descend from a meal shared between Massachusetts Pilgrims and Native Americans in 1621.
It was not until 3 October 1863, however, that a uniform national holiday was established by presidential proclamation. Writing well into the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln declared that
“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.”
After enumerating a substantial and very specific list of material blessings, Lincoln continued.
“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 one 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.”
It is a remarkable document—and not only for Abraham Lincoln’s characteristic eloquence.
One is struck, for example, by Lincoln’s sense of gratitude even amidst horrible death, destruction, and tragedy. The great battle at Gettysburg had concluded precisely three months before, and Lincoln himself would fall as one of the Civil War’s last victims only eighteen months later. Yet he calls for national thanksgiving to God.
It’s also impossible to miss the overt religiousness of the statement, and difficult to imagine a similar document emerging from any recent White House. Lincoln writes without embarrassment of God’s grace and paternal care, and, perhaps even more notably today, of our sins and “perverseness and disobedience,” recognizing an authority far higher than his own that rules all human affairs and overrules all human power.
And this authority, Lincoln plainly understands, is a Person. Lincoln doesn’t merely advise his fellow citizens to be satisfied that their fields are productive and to be happy at good weather. He counsels them to recognize a living, willing, conscious Being behind those “gifts,” and to thank that Being for them.
To recognize a divine Person behind nature and human history, to perceive an ultimate and inconceivably powerful Will beneath and beyond the shifting phenomena of our lives and the world, is a characteristic mark of the religious attitude—and submission to that Will, and gratitude to that Person, are among the virtues advocated by all religions of the Abrahamic tradition and most religions worldwide.
Anybody can be happy with his or her material state, satisfied that things are going well, relieved that they’re not going as badly as they could have gone. And everybody should, if possible, devote Thanksgiving Day to strengthening relationships with family and friends. (Most of us, nowadays, eat so very well throughout the year that the Thanksgiving meal in itself is, relatively speaking, unimportant. This isn’t just “Turkey Day”; Lincoln’s proclamation says nothing about food.)
But thanks can only meaningfully be given to persons. Thus, if Thanksgiving is to be practiced as the sixteenth president of the United States—perhaps our greatest—advised, it must expressly involve gratitude to God.
And here’s one from 2012:
William Ernest Henley’s famous Victorian-era poem “Invictus” provided the title and the theme for Clint Eastwood’s inspiring 2009 film about Nelson Mandela. It also provided the memorable claim “I am the master of my fate: I am the captain of my soul.”
It’s a stirring assertion, and, in a very real sense, true. A great proportion of what we are and do rests upon our own decisions.
But not everything, and perhaps not the most important things. Henley’s claim is also false and misleading.
As I write, a friend and neighbor is recuperating from a catastrophic fall that lacerated his face, took out most of his teeth, broke major bones everywhere in his body, and very nearly killed him. As he plunged groundwards, he certainly wasn’t the master of his fate, and he’s scarcely more so as he lies in a hospital bed. Those who’ve surveyed the spot where he landed, closely bordered by objects that could instantly have ended his life, regard his survival as a miracle, and he himself, speaking with difficulty, testifies to it.
“I thank whatever gods may be,” says Henley, “for my unconquerable soul.”
Thirty years ago, my wife and I traveled with our infant son from southern California to her parents’ house in Denver, Colorado, where the whole extended family were gathering for a Christmas trip to Florida. We participated in a “Messiah” sing-along and then went home to prepare for our flight to Orlando the next morning.
But then came what’s been called “the Christmas Eve blizzard of 1982.” Stapleton International Airport closed at 9:30 AM on 24 December, remained closed for fully thirty-three hours, and then, for several days thereafter, was open only for severely limited operations. Ten-foot-high snowdrifts were left throughout greater Denver, highways into and out of the city were shut down, power outages darkened large portions of the metropolitan area, roofs collapsed, supermarkets closed because their employees couldn’t get to work, hospitals were reduced to minimal staff on emergency power, and snowmobiles dominated suburban streets.
It was astounding to me, and revealing, to realize how easily simple snowfall could shut down a major modern city quite accustomed to seeing it.
We’re plainly not entirely the masters of our fates, the captains of our souls. Rather, as Elder Orson F. Whitney (d. 1931) of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles put it in “The Soul’s Captain,” his response to “Invictus,” “Men are as bubbles on the wave, as leaves upon the tree.”
We’re fragile creatures. A few days without food, even fewer without water, a few minutes without oxygen, and we’re gone. If our hearts miss just a few beats, none of our plans, ambitions, schemes, or careful investments will mean a thing. And, in the end, no matter how we fight it, we’ll die.
Our comfort and survival in the meantime depend upon cycles of evaporation and precipitation that few of us really understand, and we rely upon complex networks of exchange and transportation that very few of us could begin to explain.
The ground on which most of us live and where our food is grown was cleared of rocks, trees, and stumps by millions of hardworking people whose names we’ve forgotten. Our cities—big and small—feature large buildings erected by generations of construction workers to whom we’ve probably never given the slightest thought.
We owe a debt of gratitude that we can never repay. “For behold, are we not all beggars? Do we not all depend upon . . . God, for all the substance which we have, for both food and raiment, and for gold, and for silver, and for all the riches which we have of every kind?” (Mosiah 4:19). The Book of Mormon’s Amulek wisely counsels us that we should “humble ourselves even to the dust, and worship God, in whatsoever place we may be in, in spirit and in truth; and that we live in thanksgiving daily, for the many mercies and blessings which he doth bestow upon us” (paraphrased slightly from Alma 34:38).
In the United States of America, where many of us are gathering together as families and friends for the Thanksgiving holiday, this is an exceptionally appropriate day for us to remember the debt that we owe to those who’ve preceded us and to God, “in whom we live, and move, and have our being” (Acts 17:28).