I started thinking about this lesson in the middle of last fall. It began with the thought,
“Why did President Lincoln think to set aside a day of thanks?” In the context of the life he was having, this seemed odd to me.
I thought about whether we could be thankful before during and after Thanksgiving, the holiday.
I thought about the virtue of being thankful and what becomes of that in our daily lives as Christians.
I thought about what I may have overlooked in the Bible and in my favorite books about faith about being thankful.
Lincoln…What could Lincoln possibly be thankful about, in November 1863? For what did Lincoln want to give thanks to God?
It was the middle of the Civil War… More than 400,000 soldiers had died in battle… more than 600,000 had died as casualties of war… The country was not even remotely close to settling the conflict… Lincoln may have been considering his presidency a failure, or at least questioning himself… wondering if he might win reelection… Surely many wondered about the will of God… questioning whether an Almighty, benevolent God would allow such war, death and an interminable future.
Nonetheless, Lincoln did. He actually co-opted what was loosely recognized as the day to give thanks to God.
In 1789, Congress passed a resolution asking President George Washington to declare Nov. 26th as a national day of prayer and service.
On October 3, 1789, President George Washington proclaimed Thursday the 26th of November 1789 a day of “public thanksgiving and prayer” devoted to “the service of that great and glorious Being who is the beneficent Author of all the good that was, that is, or that will be.”
“Whereas it is the duty of all Nations to acknowledge the providence of Almighty God, to obey his will, to be grateful for his benefits, and humbly to implore his protection and favor… a day of public thanksgiving and prayer to be observed by acknowledging with grateful hearts the many signal favors of Almighty God especially by affording them an opportunity peaceably to establish a form of government for their safety and happiness.
I do recommend…Thursday the 26th day of November next to be devoted by the People of these States to the service of that great and glorious Being, who is the beneficent Author of all the good that was, that is, or that will be — That we may then all unite in rendering unto him our sincere and humble thanks — for his kind care and protection of the People of this Country previous to their becoming a Nation — for the signal and manifold mercies, and the favorable interpositions of his Providence which we experienced in the course and conclusion of the late war — for the great degree of tranquility, union, and plenty, which we have since enjoyed — for the peaceable and rational manner, in which we have been enabled to establish constitutions of government for our safety and happiness, and particularly the national One now lately instituted — for the civil and religious liberty with which we are blessed; and the means we have of acquiring and diffusing useful knowledge; and in general for all the great and various favors which he hath been pleased to confer upon us.
and also that we may then unite in most humbly offering our prayers and supplications to the great Lord and Ruler of Nations and beseech him to pardon our national and other transgressions — to enable us all, whether in public or private stations, to perform our several and relative duties properly and punctually — to render our national government a blessing to all the people, by constantly being a Government of wise, just, and constitutional laws, discreetly and faithfully executed and obeyed — to protect and guide all Sovereigns and Nations (especially such as have shewn kindness unto us) and to bless them with good government, peace, and concord — To promote the knowledge and practice of true religion and virtue, and the increase of science among them and us — and generally to grant unto all Mankind such a degree of temporal prosperity as he alone knows to be best.”
But by the time of the Civil War, 60 plus years had passed since Washington’s proclamation. The tradition had become fractured. States began setting whether Thanksgiving was a holiday. Most northern states observed it… many southern states did not with any regularity celebrate thanksgiving.
A magazine editor of some re known wrote Lincoln in 1863 urging him to proclaim Thanksgiving a national holiday in order to restore the custom in the hopes it would unify the Union. So on October 3, 1863, he did. Marking the anniversary of Washington’s proclamation. Lincoln gives thanks to God that, basically things aren’t worse, that some Americans aren’t touched by the war and that God can forgive sins and be merciful.
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. In the midst of a civil war of unequalled magnitude and severity, which has sometimes seemed to foreign States to invite and to provoke their aggression, peace has been preserved with all nations, order has been maintained, the laws have been respected and obeyed, and harmony has prevailed everywhere except in the theatre of military conflict; while that theatre has been greatly contracted by the advancing armies and navies of the Union. Needful diversions of wealth and of strength from the fields of peaceful industry to the national defence, have not arrested the plough, the shuttle or the ship; the axe has enlarged the borders of our settlements, and the mines, as well of iron and coal as of the precious metals, have yielded even more abundantly than heretofore. Population has steadily increased, notwithstanding the waste that has been made in the camp, the siege and the battle-field; and the country, rejoicing in the consciousness of augmented strength and vigor, is permitted to expect continuance of years with large increase of freedom. 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, tranquillity and Union.
So, what do we mean when we say, Be thankful?
Are we imploring one another to be polite? Or to be more? I think it’s more.
Giving thanks is an action… You receive something… you recognize what you have… you give thanks.
This requires awareness… humility… recognizing a blessing or some grace bestowed upon you. You need gratitude.
Let’s read Luke 17:11–19 about the story of Jesus healing the 10 lepers.
Think about what Jesus had just done for all 10… healing returns them to society… to their families… to physical touch… into community. No longer outcasts or beggars.
Who’s thankful? What does Jesus say?
In “A Long Love Letter” Margaret Ruth Baker writes that living a holy life, for the sake of its holiness and a close relationship with God yields gifts.
“You have scattered the seeds of love with no thought of return and you have planted the seeds of joy to be a blessing, but you will be surprised and thrilled by the return to you. Be ready to receive and rejoice! Rejoice and give thanks for the abundant yield of the seeds planted.”
Read page 169, then Galatians 5:22–23…
Let’s contrast this with some characteristics of those who may feel entitled, selfish, ungracious. Read Galatians 5:19–21.
I want to come back to grace and gratitude… These virtues are at the heart of being thankful… of giving thanks.
What comes to mind when you think of a Christian with grace… a grateful Christian… or showing gratitude in Christian love?
In “Life of the Beloved” Henri Nouwen ( pronounced Now-win ) writes true happiness comes from giving of ourselves to others. ( Read page 109 ) Can you recall a time when you gave of yourself for others? How did you feel about yourself? Do you remember why you did this? Did this open you more fully to God?
I want to read the full passage on page 109 of Life of the Beloved… how does this relate to giving thanks? What mindset, what type of person gives themselves for others?
A content person. How does one become content? I’ll suggest it comes from God’s grace and knowing the he first loved us. Of all the Christian tenets, knowing he first loved us generates the fruits of the spirit. It allows us to love others without condition. It paves the way for receiving and accepting grace.
I am hopeful that you and I will live such a life, but our world is full of ungrateful people. Worse, ungrateful people win.
Let me read from Philip Yancey’s What’s So Amazing about Grace p 114, p115.
I’ll suggest giving thanks, being thankful, being content requires gratitude and grace.
But what of times of trial, when feeling grace and giving thanks is hard? Think back to Lincoln… what of hard times?
C.S Lewis says give thanks always to God. In good times, thank him for the blessings. And in bad times, thank him for the trial so that you may feel his strength.
Let’s close by reading Colossians 3:15–17.
Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, since as members of one body you were called to peace. And be thankful. Let the message of Christ dwell among you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom through psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit, singing to God with gratitude in your hearts. 17 And whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.