In the United States this Thursday, November 26 (2015) is a holiday called “Thanksgiving Day.” I won’t bore with the history except to say it commemorates the survival of the English settlers, usually called “Pilgrims,” of Plymouth Colony, Massachusetts in 1620. After a harrowing voyage from the “old world” to “New England,” they held a feast and gave thanks to God. Very few people, even in the U.S., remember who those “Pilgrims” were. Although there were others among them, the core group with a charter to found a colony, were “Separatists” from the Church of England who felt persecuted by the crown and sought religious freedom for themselves in America. Later, they were looked back upon by Congregationalists, who became the established church of Massachusetts, as their religious ancestors.
Over the years Thanksgiving Day evolved into a national day of giving thanks to God for his blessings—especially religious freedom. Later it evolved into a general holiday of feasting. The religious connotations of the holiday gradually dropped away. Today, in America’s increasingly secular culture, people still feast and occasionally remember the Pilgrims as distant ancestors of America’s later independence. Rarely, however, even in schools, are the Pilgrims mentioned as Christians or their religious motivations and dreams about the “New World” as a place to establish the Kingdom of God on earth.
Television programs that touch on Thanksgiving Day often depict families gathering to feast and “give thanks” to no one in particular. They are depicted as just “giving thanks” into the air, so to speak, with no one to receive their appreciation (no mention of God). I often wonder to whom secular people think they are giving thanks on Thanksgiving Day.
Another feature of traditional Thanksgiving Day in the U.S. (I realize other countries such as Canada also have a Thanksgiving Day) was a special “Thanksgiving Day Union Worship Service” held at some (usually centrally located, so “downtown”) church. It was usually held on Thanksgiving Day morning around 10AM which is one reason why the family feast usually took place mid-afternoon and why the temporarily united congregation (mostly Protestants) consisted mainly of men and children. (The women were home cooking and preparing the feast.)
It was one time of the year when Protestants of most denominations worshiped together. The union service was usually sponsored by the local “Ministerium”—a city-wide or county-wide organization of pastors that also sponsored the local high school “baccalaureate service” before graduation.
Today, in our increasingly secular American culture, Thanksgiving Day has become a day to eat turkey (supposedly the Pilgrims feasted on turkey at the mythical first Thanksgiving Day) and “side dishes” normally not eaten at other times of the year—cranberries, “stuffing” or “dressing” (often cooked inside the turkey), green bean casserole, pumpkin pie. And to have everyone present at the family reunion tell what they are “thankful for.” The traditional Thanksgiving feast was a time to give thanks to God for blessings bestowed; increasingly there is no mention of God. And yet “giving thanks” is still often expected—even in non-religious families. But to whom?
Today, unfortunately, Thanksgiving Day has become, more than anything else, the day before “Black Friday”—the celebration of consumerism when some people will get trampled at 5AM trying to be the first to get into “big box” stores that open early before the advertised products disappear.
I want to take this opportunity to publically give thanks to God for the blessings he has given me and my family.
I thank God for life and health, relative prosperity, more than enough. To be very specific, I thank God that, when I was a child and temporarily homeless, people took me in, fed me and gave me shelter. And, when I was very ill at age ten I received the best medical care available and recovered without the predicted damage to my heart.
I thank God for my Savior Jesus Christ who died so that I could be reconciled to God, forgiven of my sins, and who has been my constant companion and friend throughout life. And for the Holy Spirit who dwells in me and speaks peace into my life and empowers me to serve God and others, even if I am often an unfaithful and dishonorable servant.
I thank God for leading and guiding me to the place where I now am in his service. Specifically, I thank God for providing me with a good education, mentors, opportunities beyond my dreams, and fulfilling work. Specifically, I thank God that I have never been unemployed.
I thank God for my family—a wife of forty-three years better than I deserve, two wonderful daughters of whom I am very proud, and two grandchildren who are beautiful, sweet, loving and the lights of my life (together with my wife and daughters).
I thank God for my friends who put up with me and support me and who have been my traveling companions through life since high school days. I know that I can always rely on them to be there for me “through thick and thin.”
I thank God for my colleagues and the wonderful shared Christian community that we enjoy. I am certain there is no institution of higher education with such a sense of Christian fellowship and community and so free of competition. I thank God for raising it up and bringing me into it. And I thank God for my students.
I thank God for the freedom of thought, speech, belief, worship and association that I enjoy in this country (and pray that it will be preserved for everyone).
I thank God for my dog Sugar who gives me unconditional love. (That’s my “inner child” coming out!)
I thank God for every good thing in my life—from birth to now; they are all gifts.
Above all, I thank God that I have someone, him, to give thanks to on Thanksgiving Day!