It was just over 10 years ago that terrorists flew airplanes into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. I remember the day very clearly—most of us do. But I also remember the strange tension that filled the entire fall that year. Newpapers reported bombings, anthrax threats, and international conspiracies. A war that would mark this entire decade was mounting in Afghanistan. There were fears of nuclear retaliation, random acts of terror, and attempted bombings onboard airlines.
And yet, my calendar fearlessly proclaimed: Thanksgiving Day. It seemed so incongruous to me.
I was recently reading some of my own reflections at that time and thought it might be good to share some of my comments from ten years ago. The truths seem as relevant as ever. It is good to remember to be thankful not only “because of” but also “in spite of.” And it is also good to remember that whether these are the best of times or the worst of times, these are our times—it is our moment to honor God and the great cloud of witnesses. And indeed, many of those witnesses faced times even harder than ours…
from November, 2001
I stare at the calendar in disbelief. Surely we cannot schedule Thanksgiving in the midst of terror, turmoil, threats, death and war. This is hardly an appropriate time for a Thanksgiving feast. Or is it?
Consider the proclamations of thanksgiving that have shaped our country from its earliest days. The first Thanksgiving, proclaimed by William Bradford in 1623, begins with a reminder of blessings:
… the great Father has given us this year an abundant harvest of Indian corn, wheat, beans, squashes, and garden vegetables, and has made the forests to abound with game and the sea with fish and clams.
But this harvest sprang from the soil of hardship. He reminds the Pilgrims that God has protected them “from the ravages of the savages, and has spared us from pestilence and disease.” It is important to remember that when Bradford refers to God’s protection, he is speaking to the protected remnant. The fate of the others is described earlier in his journal:
But that which was most sad and lamentable was, that in 2 or 3 months time half of the company died… They suffered from scurvey and other diseases which this long voyage and unfortunate conditions upon arrival brought upon them. So as there died sometimes 2 or 3 of a day, and of over 100 persons, scarce 50 remained. And of these, in the times when it was worst, there was but 6 or 7 sound persons."
In fact, the only reason we remember William Bradford’s Thanksgiving Proclamation is that the original leader of the Pilgrims, John Carver, had died during that first winter.
George Washington’s 1789 Thanksgiving proclamation reminds us of our general duty of gratitude to God: “...it is the duty of all nations to acknowledge the providence of Almighty God, to obey His will, to be grateful for His benefits...”
He models this very quality as he praises God for "for the signal and manifold mercies and the favorable interpositions of His providence in the course and conclusion of the late war."
But this proclamation is also born of hardship. The simplicity of his words belies the depth of hardship from which they sprang. Washington’s diary in the midst of “the late war” reads:
"To see the men without clothes to cover their nakedness, without blankets to lie upon, without shoes...without a house or hut to cover them until those could be built, and submitting without a murmur, is a proof of patience and obedience which, in my opinion, can scarcely be paralleled."
Imagine thankfulness while haunted by the memory of naked soldiers in the midst of a New England winter.
And again, Abraham Lincoln’s Thanksgiving Proclamation of 1863 celebrates abundant blessings:
We have been the recipients of the choicest bounties of heaven; we have been preserved these many years in peace and prosperity; we have grown in numbers, wealth and power as no other nation has ever grown.
But once more we find thanksgiving was born of hardship. Lincoln proclaimed Nov. 26, 1863 to be Thanksgiving Day. I don’t know what Lincoln did that day. But I do know what he did one week before. On November 19, 1863, he was in Gettysburg, meeting on a great field of battle to “dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live.”
I’m sure Lincoln’s Thanksgiving that year mixed the aromas of a feast with the stench of death. The sight of an overflowing table must have wrestled in his mind with the memory of a battlefield-turned-cemetery, the final resting place of 50,000 men whose death consecrated that land “far above our poor power to add or detract.”
One week from Gettysburg to Thanksgiving. I cannot imagine...
And we find that Scripture echoes this theme: the harvest of thanksgiving is often reaped from the soil of hardship:
Those who sow in tears will reap with songs of joy. He who goes out weeping, carrying seed to sow, will return with songs of joy, carrying sheaves with him. (Ps 126:5-6)
The words of our earliest forefathers, our greatest presidents, and our Holy Scripture all conspire to give us a single message: Thanksgiving doesn’t come from our circumstances, it comes from our perspective. Let’s turn our eyes upward this Thanksgiving and rise to praise the God of our salvation. He is our hope and the sure foundation of our times. He has begun a good work in us and he will bring it to completion. He opens his hand and satisfies the desire of every living thing. He alone is worthy of our praise.