Wednesday, November 21, 2018

Giving Thanks When It Isn't Easy


My support for Thanksgiving has been a longstanding element of my online work. This year, I am focusing on what that means when times are tough. Drawing on an example from Calvin Coolidge, we can learn that thanks is something we owe even when life is difficult. We are never without blessing, especially in the form of hope. God's promises for the future are the reason to praise Him even when the present is not what we would wish it to be.


The timing of my return to Quest Forums feels providential, because it coincides with a point on the calendar that has been a special emphasis of mine for years. Tomorrow is Thanksgiving Day. The reclamation of this holiday has been one of my causes going back to when I was writing my previous New Federal Farmer blog. I even took the step of re-publishing articles from that time just to show the continuity of this thread in my thought. You can check out all my previous Thanksgiving posts at the links pasted below.

Thanksgiving Themes

If you go through them, you will see a few recurring themes. Though giving thanks is not unique to us, Thanksgiving is a key heritage of the United States of America. From colonial times, our governments have set aside days for us to acknowledge God’s providence and our reliance on Him. This is true for all people in matters as simple as food and good health, but especially so to those of us who have recognized the importance of the cross. The forgiveness made available through Christ, the eternal life we cannot provide for ourselves, is the greatest marvel in all the universe. It should be a cause of constant gratitude for us.

Of course, there are those who despise the idea of thankfulness. To them, Thanksgiving is a blight, a reminder that the “separation of church and state” is not so secure as they would like to imagine or as they would like to convince others it is. After all, this is a day when the state asks us to pray for it, and for each other. No other holiday has such an explicitly religious purpose. Its long history means that its enemies can do nothing to attack it.

Sadly, they do not need to attack it. The greatest threat does not come from its overt critics. It comes from the vast majority who have taken to merely ignoring the day. Our society, so wrapped up in consumerism, moves from a one-month celebration of Halloween directly into a two-month celebration of Christmas, with no space given to Thanksgiving in between. It is simply one day of food and football sandwiched into the middle of the shopping season. In recent years, it has even become a shopping day itself. This shameful trend has reversed slightly, and that is encouraging. However, the only way to truly reclaim the holiday is by actually celebrating its purpose. We have nothing of our own; we owe all we are to our Creator.  We must recognize that, and our hearts should overflow with praise for the love He has shown. If we can regain this mindfulness, Thanksgiving can take its proper place in our national life.

Giving Thanks in Tough Times

In all the digital ink I have spilled discussing this, however, I notice something missing. What happens in the times when there does not seem to be so much for which we should be thankful? How can we be grateful in the midst of partisan bickering, mass shootings, and raging wildfires? Why should we give thanks when it isn’t easy?

At such moments, it is important to be able to look to the past. There is certainly much supporting material to turn to. No year passes without some suffering somewhere, but even at the times of greatest national calamity, leaders like George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, and Franklin Roosevelt asked us to give thanks to God for His goodness. For today, however, I want to consider an example that is not as well known.

Among my favorite Presidents, as I have mentioned a few times in these webpages, is Calvin Coolidge. One of his defining traits was the parcity of his words. He spoke so little (at least relative to other politicians) that he became known as “Silent Cal.” But Coolidge knew how to speak when the times called for it. It is one such occasion that I have in view right now. 

On August 2, 1923, President Warren G. Harding died of a heart attack and Coolidge was thrust into office during a state of national mourning. And while the rest of the year passed quietly in the United States, disaster struck on the other side of the world. At about noon on September 1, 1923, an earthquake occurred off the coast of Honshu, the Japanese main island, very near the capital city of Tokyo. At the same time, a typhoon on the opposite coast of the island brought strong winds that spread fires in the aftermath. Between the earthquake, a resultant tsunami, and the firestorms, more than 100,000 people died.

In this atmosphere of national and international gloom, Coolidge was asked to make his first Thanksgiving Day Proclamation just three months into his administration. In a few succinct words, he captured the necessity of thankfulness:

On [Thanksgiving] day, in home and church, in family and in public gatherings, the whole nation has for generations paid the tribute due from grateful hearts for blessings bestowed. To center our thought in this way upon the favor which we have been shown has been altogether wise and desirable. It has given opportunity justly to balance the good and the evil which we have experienced. In that we have never failed to find reasons for being grateful to God for a generous preponderance of the good. Even in the least propitious times, a broad contemplation of our whole position has never failed to disclose overwhelming reasons for thankfulness. Thus viewing our situation, we have found warrant for a more hopeful and confident attitude toward the future... 
The year has brought to our people two tragic experiences which have deeply affected them. One was the death of our beloved President Harding, which has been mourned wherever there is a realization of the worth of high ideals, noble purpose, and unselfish service carried even to the end of supreme sacrifice. His loss recalled the nation to a less captious and more charitable attitude. It sobered the whole thought of the country. A little later came the unparalleled disaster to the friendly people of Japan. This called forth from the people of the United States a demonstration of deep and humane feeling. It was wrought into the substance of good works. It created new evidences of our international friendship, which is a guarantee of world peace. It replenished the charitable impulse of the country. 
By experiences such as these, men and nations are tested and refined. We have been blessed with much of material prosperity. We shall be better able to appreciate it if we remember the privations others have suffered, and we shall be the more worthy of it if we use it for their relief. We will do well then to render thanks for the good that has come to us, and show by our actions that we have become stronger, wiser, and truer by the chastenings which have been imposed upon us. We will thus prepare ourselves for the part we must take in a world which forever needs the full measure of service. We have been a most favored people. We ought to be a most generous people. We have been a most blessed people. We ought to be a most thankful people.

Perhaps without realizing it, but more likely with a full knowledge of its import, Coolidge had expressed a key theme of Scripture regarding the response to suffering. “The Lord gives, and the Lord takes away. Blessed be the name of the Lord” (Job 1:21b). What we must remember is that this world is a fallen one. Suffering has been introduced to it, and while that was not God’s original purpose, suffering does have a place in life. It is instructive. It refines us, depending on how we respond to it.

Sometimes the suffering is ours. In such cases, we must take the time to count the blessings we still have and take the courage to rise from the ashes. Other times the suffering is done by others, and in those moments we cannot simply wipe our brows and be thankful it wasn’t us. Instead, we must see it as an opportunity to share our blessings to ameliorate the pain we have witnessed. It is a chance to look outside of ourselves, and to bestow charity such as Christ gave to us when He sacrificed His life.

Being Thankful for Hope

In either case, it still calls for thankfulness. Despair is part of the fabric of this world, but hope does not have to be. Nature, on its own, does not give us hope. Hope is by definition supernatural, coming from beyond the scope of our experience and calling our hearts to rely fully on a future we do not yet have.

The fact that we have the ability to hope at all is a sign of God’s care for us. In a world that is nothing more than physical, the future is meaningless. In a world made by design, however, the future is full of purpose. This is precisely what the Lord wants us to recognize. He asks us to be patient now, because He has promised to bring a day when “He will wipe away every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; grief, crying, and pain will be no more” (Rev. 21:4a).

When it is hardest to give thanks, it is our opportunity to be grateful for the faith that tomorrow will be better than today. In fact, that is when our thankfulness should be at its height. Those are the moments when we are the most mindful of our own powerlessness and dependence. God is our rescue when things are darkest, even when we struggle to see it. Reflecting on that great truth is another invaluable aspect of this holiday. And so I thank you, dear reader, for taking the time to do so with me today. Have a happy, and meaningful, Thanksgiving.

Previous Thanksgiving Articles: 

Why Should We Give Thanks?

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