Thanksgiving in Retrospect
The day before Thanksgiving, my wife and I were watching one of our favorite television shows. One of the characters made the observation that all across the United States, on Thanksgiving, families were gathering to spend an awkward time around their table. In this country, this is the day where family differences are supposed to be set-aside, so that we can all celebrate ways that we have been blessed, while gorging ourselves on turkey. Unfortunately, the modern day of Thanksgiving is much different from the original day. Our celebrations of Thanksgiving have lost their spiritual fervor over the years.
History of Thanksgiving
In 1620, one hundred Brits stepped off a small ship, not knowing what their future held, and ill-prepared for whatever this new world and life would throw at them. They received a rude awaking that winter. Half of their number died of cold, sickness, and starvation. They didn't have enough provision for everyone, nor did they have adequate shelter from the cold and storms. In the spring, those left who were strong enough began to plant crops, as they knew how. However, their skills were not enough for this new world. Thankfully, by God's sovereignty, a local Native American knew English and had compassion on these settlers. He convinced the tribe he was living with to "adopt" these Brits. They taught the English how to plant native crops, how to fish, and how to hunt. That Fall, they had a harvest that would last them through the winter. They wouldn't have the mass death again.
After harvest they invited the Native Americans to celebrate how much God had blessed them. Ninety from the tribe showed up, bringing five deer. In addition to the deer, they had plenty of corn, fowl, fish, and other provisions. They feasted for three days, talking and playing games with the family and friends who had not died, and with the new friends that God had provided. God had been merciful, and they wanted to celebrate that.
Two years later, in 1623, the Brits celebrated Thanksgiving again, as ordered by their Governor William Bradford. They had been experiencing a drought. They had fasted, asking God for rain, which he sent. After fourteen days of rain, the governor called for a day of Thanksgiving, making this the first civil recognition for a day of Thanksgiving in the New World. They wanted to celebrate God's mercy in the midst of suffering. Later, many other colonies adopted yearly celebrations of Thanksgiving, giving thanks for all that God had carried them through that year.
In 1789, Washington called for a day of Thanksgiving, the first nationally recognized holiday under the Constitution. He called on the nation to give thanks to God for his mercy to them throughout the previous war and for his guidance in building a new government. The nation eagerly followed Washington's lead.
In 1863, Lincoln called for a day of Thanksgiving, in the midst of the horrific Civil War. He acknowledged that God had been merciful to them, even in all the bloodshed. He had shown compassion to many injured, he had supplied crops, he had built peace with other nations, he had allowed for babies to be born. In the words of the proclamation: "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."
God gives blessings and shows mercy in the midst of tragedy. The American Thanksgiving was built on this amazing truth.
Paul taught about Thanksgiving. He said, "Rejoice always, pray continually, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus" (1 Thessalonians 5:16-18). Life rarely goes as we plan. In spite of our best efforts, we experience loss, grief, tragedy. However, in the midst of that suffering, we see God's mercy surrounding us in so many different ways. If we open our eyes, we can see it in all circumstances.
In Psalm 9, David tells about his enemies who are trying to destroy him. But, he begins by reciting all that God has done. He acknowledges God's mercy in this midst of his trouble. This is the hope that carries him through.
David's and Paul's perspective is not easy. It is not natural for us. However, with practice, we can rejoice and give thanks to God for His mercies in our tragedies. Let us go back to the original intent of Thanksgiving: Blatantly acknowledging all God's mercies that can be seen in our suffering.
So, as you think about Thanksgiving and plan for next year's, take some time to share with your guests the real reason you are thankful. If the gathering is already awkward, go ahead and make it more so.
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Pastor of Calvary Bible Church, Neligh, NE. Missionary with RHMA. Husband to Maggie. Father to Grace, David, and Daniel. Saved by Jesus Christ