What Are We Thankful For? Whom Do We Thank?
Do you observe thanksgiving? No, I don’t mean our upcoming annual festival. I mean the very act itself.
Some people would say that if we receive a genuine gift, we are under no obligation to say thanks. We should simply accept it with a modicum of gracefulness. No thanks are necessary. If good stuff comes to us are a result of being alive, then we don’t have to respond as if it were a gift.
Other folks might say that, since there is no God, we have no one to thank and hence gratitude is unnecessary, perhaps even misguided. We take what the universe serves up and hope for the best in a capricious and crazy world. Fair enough. I grant people that belief, even if I do not share it.
For my part, then, I continue to call upon one who not only provides, but is also the ultimate Providence behind and below and over life. Here is why.
At the very least, we can say that thanksgiving implies a giver whom we thank. To give thanks implies that we have received a gift, something worthy of thanksgiving. Thanksgiving means that we respond to the gift. Lastly, at least to my thinking, thanksgiving implies that we are responsible for the gift, for the use of it for our own betterment and the benefit of others. That would include our very lives, which are the principle gift.
A giver implies personality, identity, and the attributes of humanity – or divinity. Thanksgiving has, at least in the past, meant that we thank someone because we cannot thank things. Neither inanimate objects nor impersonal forces can receive thanks. We have to thank someone.
Gratitude is our first response to a gift. If someone gives us a gift, we respond to her in thanksgiving. Children are still taught to write thank you notes to grandparents and aunts and uncles for gifts received at a holiday.
Now consider the gifts we receive from nature or manufacture or history. It is good to remember the people who produce and harvest and ship our crops, and who manufacture and process our food. Give thanks for their labor and their skill when we consume, say, a loaf of bread or a jar of spaghetti sauce. It is wise and good to remember the members of our armed forces who serve throughout the world sacrificially on our behalf. No matter what we think of them personally, we also pray and give thanks for people in governance and the judiciary for striving toward equanimity and justice.
If good stuff does come to us as a result of being alive, that falls under providence. During the 19th century providence was a major belief among Americans, rooted in the God who guides and cares for people with sustaining power and abundant love. Lincoln referred to it, as did many soldiers who wrote home during the Civil War. In the 21st century we don’t hear much about providence. Has God ceased to care for his people, which is to say for all of us?
Maybe the 20th century wearied us about providence. In a world made hellish by war, devastation, dislocation, death, and horror, we no longer found a place for providence in our thinking. Personal survival replaced divine guidance.
Try as I might, however, I cannot imagine thanksgiving without a Creator and Provider whom we thank. The two seem to be, and seemingly always were, interwoven. Providence strings the warp threads. Upon them is woven our life stories, and the tapestry leads to thanksgiving. We give thanks for blessings and, hesitantly, for sufferings. To give thanks is to acknowledge God in an essential way.
posted 18 Nov 2011