Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Giving Thanks

While Christians need not wait until now to express their gratitude and praise to God, November has traditionally been an intentional time for Americans of all backgrounds to "give thanks." Of course in our day, as well as in earlier eras, not everyone gives thanks to God for the blessings of one's life. While "God" and "Jesus" may be on the lips of many, too often those lips are not praising.

In the seventeenth century, ragged bands of God-fearing pilgrims and settlers in the New Land frequently set aside a day of "thanksgiving" to God. Before they ate, they prayed. Often overcoming great difficulties and challenges to eek out a living, they had much for which to be thankful. After an arduous year of tending to fields and flocks, they gave thanks to God for whatever harvest they had, bountiful or not. One can imagine them enjoining one another to praise the Lord, along the lines of the old hymn:

Sing to the Lord of harvest, sing songs of love and praise;
With joyful hearts and voices your alleluias raise.
By Him the rolling seasons in fruitful order move;
Sing to the Lord of harvest a joyous song of love.

In the nineteenth century, in the midst of the American Civil War, President Lincoln declared a National Day of Thanksgiving. For the first time, all the states would be encouraged to observe "Thanksgiving" on the same date. That the President did this was largely the result of petitioning by Sarah Josepha Buell Hale (creator of the nursery rhyme, "Mary Had a Little Lamb"), who argued that a sense of national unity could be re-established and fostered among the warring states if they all observed Thanksgiving on the same day. One can imagine Americans in 1863 pausing to give thanks to God along the lines of the old hymn:

Before You, Lord, we bow, Our God who reigns above
And rules the world below, Boundless in pow'r and love.
Our thanks we bring In joy and praise,
Our hearts we raise To You our King.

At the end of the last century, my teacher and friend, Martin Marty, published a little book about "hope." Included in that book of reflections and photos (the latter by his son, Micah) is an entry on "Praise." Marty writes, "Praise usually erupts spontaneously when someone wants to thank God for what has been or to express passion about the now and the here. But how do we praise in the spirit of hope, which means to praise about a future that has not yet occurred? …The long record of praise by people who hope becomes understandable when we recall that what is thereby celebrated is nothing but the character of the God of 'God's people,' who is steadfast in dealing with us also in the times of disappointment. Hence, we praise" (Martin Marty, Our Hope for Years to Come [Augsburg, 1995], 63). Marty's meditation and his invitation to thank and praise God are grounded in the lines of the old hymn:

Praise the Lord! Oh, let all that is in me adore him!
All that has life and breath, come now with praises before him!
Let the amen sound from God's people again.
Gladly with praise we adore him!

On this Thanksgiving Day 2011 my family and I will gather with the faithful from Immanuel, Michigan City, to give thanks and praise to God, not only for the material blessings we have received from his hand, but also, especially, for the gifts of forgiveness, life, and salvation that have been given through Jesus. We, too, will pause, like our Christian forebears of old, to thank and praise God for these gifts. On our lips will be the lines of the old hymn:

Now thank we all our God With hearts and hands and voices,
Who wondrous things has done, In whom His world rejoices;
Who from our mother's arms has blest us on our way
With countless gifts of love and still is ours today.

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