When I was a young girl growing up in Indiana, fall was a time of harvest. I grew up in the flat land of central Indiana, where the black earth yielded prolific crops. We would drive down the rural roads, laid out straight as if a giant hand had lined them with a ruler, and spread as far as the eye could see were fields of golden grain. My dad had a small plane, and from the air, the fields made perfect squares, like my grandmother’s patchwork quilts. Late into the evening, the combines would be out in the fields, reaping, threshing, and winnowing the crops.
Corn and soy beans, the two largest cash crops, were harvested from late September through the end of November. Gardens produced wonderful bounty—sweet corn, squash, onions and grapes were gathered in September. In October the lima beans, potatoes, and tomatoes came in, and at the end of the month, we had apples and pumpkins. November brought broccoli, cabbage, and peppers. Helping my grandmother gather vegetables, I was surrounded by their sun-warmed scent, sweet and pungent.
Walking home from school in the fall was magical. The Maples and Walnuts stretched their bows above, creating a golden, glowing archway. Leaves drifted from the trees and danced in the breeze, deep red and scarlet, fiery orange and darker rust, yellow tinged with rose. Even as a child, my heart sang with beauty. Too young to name my feelings or to speak theologically of gratitude, I simply skipped, laughed, danced and sang my praise to the One who created such a world.
Fall is a time for giving thanks. Every year on the fourth Thursday in November, we celebrate the holiday of Thanksgiving. Families gather, food is prepared, and we give thanks for our blessings.
As school children we learned about the origin of Thanksgiving, how the pilgrims who traversed the ocean on the Mayflower were befriended by Indians, Native Americans who taught them how to hunt wild turkeys and grow corn and other crops in the harsh climate.
In the autumn of 1621, the pilgrims had a great harvest feast. They invited the Native Americans who had befriended them to join them, and so about 90 Native Americans joined in the first Thanksgiving, sharing a feast of venison and turkey, goose and duck, fish and cornbread (ushistory.org).
In 1779, George Washington issued a proclamation recommending to the “people of the United States a day of public thanksgiving and prayer.” And on October 3, 1863, Abraham Lincoln made Thanksgiving a national holiday, so that, as he said, we might not forget the source of our extraordinary bounties, the “ever watchful providence of Almighty God” (www.archives.gov).
We have a long tradition of giving thanks for the bounty and the blessings of God. In a society where Thanksgiving is often seen as a secular holiday, it is good to remember that the season is about more than just football and food. Erma Bombeck once said, “Thanksgiving dinners take eighteen hours to prepare. They are consumed in twelve minutes. Half-time takes twelve minutes. This is not a coincidence.”
In the days leading up to Thanksgiving, we should take time to remember what the holiday is all about.
There is arguably no better place to learn about giving thanks than the Psalms. In beautiful poetry, the Psalms sing their thanks to God. Thanksgiving Psalms are one of the 5 types of Psalms in the Bible, and in every one there is a pattern. After an opening statement of praise, the Psalmist describes a time of trouble, then recounts crying to God for help, and then tells how God delivered him. Then he gives thanks to God for answering his prayers, helping in his time of need. No act of God goes unnoticed or unthanked. The lesson the Psalms has for us is first to turn to God in times of trouble, and then to remember to thank God for God’s aid.
You remember from Luke’s gospel how Jesus healed ten lepers. How many came back to say thank you? One. One!
Too often we are like those nine lepers, going blithely through life assuming that what we have is simply what we are entitled to. On the TV show The Simpson’s, son Bart was asked to say the blessing before dinner. He prayed, “Dear God, we paid for all this stuff ourselves. So thanks for nothing.”
We might not be as crass as Bart Simpson, but how often do we have that attitude? The lesson we learn from the Psalms is to take nothing for granted, but to have open eyes to see everything as gifts of God’s grace. As one person said, “Thanksgiving Day comes, by statue, once a year; to the honest man, it comes as frequently as the heart of gratitude will allow” (Edward Sandford Martin).
Psalm 107 is a wonderful example of a Thanksgiving Psalm.
You can see in the way the Psalm is laid out on the page that after the opening statement, the Psalm is divided into four sections: Verses 4 – 9 are one section, vv. 10-16 are the next, vv. 17 -22, and then vv. 23 – 32. This Psalm follows the pattern of Thanksgiving Psalms. First there’s a description of the problem.
Verses 4 and 5 say that some people were lost in the wilderness. They wandered in desert wastes, finding no way to an inhabited town; hungry and thirsty, their soul fainted within them.
Verses 10 and11 talk about some people who were imprisoned. They “sat in darkness and gloom, prisoners in misery and in irons.”
Verses 17 and 18 describes those who were afflicted with an illness or disease. They “loathed any kind of food, and they drew near to the gates of death.”
Verses 23 and 24 say, “Some went down to the sea in ships, doing business on the mighty waters. Story wind lifted the waves of the sea.” And you can feel the motion of the boat on the waves in the psalmist’s description: “They mounted up to heaven, they went down to the depths, their courage melted away in their calamity; they reeled and staggered like drunkards, and were at their wits end.”
Notice what happens in every one of these situations. After every description of the problem, we see the people crying out to God. After each one of the troubles listed in Psalm 107, we see the same response. “Then they cried to the Lord in their trouble, and he saved them from their distress.” This is true for every Thanksgiving Psalm. They all recount how those in distress turned to God.
And then, the Thanksgiving Psalms always describe how God helped them. In Psalm 107 we see that for the people who were lost, the Lord “led them by a straight way, until they reached an inhabited town.” For those who were hungry and thirsty, he satisfied their thirst and filled them with good things.
For those in prison, when they cried to the Lord, v. 14 “he brought them out of darkness and gloom, and broke their bonds asunder . . .he shattered the doors of bronze and cut in two the bars of iron.”
For those who were sick, God “sent out his word and healed them, and delivered them from destruction.”
For those out on the stormy seas, God “made the storm be still, and the waves of the sea were hushed. Then they were glad because they had quiet, and he brought them to their desired haven.”
Then after each situation is resolved, there is statement of gratitude. Verse 8: “Let them thank the Lord for his steadfast love, for his wonderful works to humankind.” Verse 15 “Let them thank the Lord for his steadfast love, for his wonderful works to humankind.” Verses 21 and 31 “Let them thank the Lord for his steadfast love, for his wonderful works to humankind.”
Unlike the nine lepers who went on their way, the Thanksgiving Psalms show us that the proper response to all of God’s acts is gratitude. Meister Eckhart put it beautifully: “If the only prayer you said in your whole life was, ‘thank you,’ that would suffice.” We should live each day in the awareness of God’s blessings.
Thanksgiving Day is a ritual of what we ought to do every day. Or as Robert Lintner said, “Thanksgiving was never meant to be shut up in a single day.”
The masterful preacher Fred Craddock told of how he incorporated Thanksgiving into his life. He spoke of it as if it were a presence, and he named it, Doxology, which means, literally, praise. He talked about inviting Doxology in to the dinner table, and deciding that Doxology belonged there. Then, he said, “The next day Doxology went with me downtown for some routine errands. But somehow they did not seem so routine. We laughed at a child losing a race with an ice cream cone . . . We studied the face of a tramp staring in a jewelry store window . . . We spoke to a banker, standing with thumbs in vest before a large plateglass window, grinning as one in possession of the keys of the kingdom. We were delighted by women shoppers clutching bundles and their skirts at blustery corners. It was good to have Doxology along” (“Doxology,” As One Without Authority, p. 132).
How would our lives be different if we took Doxology with us everywhere? How would our lives be different if we made every day a day of Thanksgiving?
May we not take the gifts of God for granted, but have eyes and hearts and minds open to see and receive God’s wonderful gifts. Let us make each and every day a day of Thanksgiving.