November in America naturally brings thoughts of feasts, turkeys, pies, football, pilgrims, and—hopefully—thankfulness. Thanksgiving is and must be more than a holiday; it is a lifestyle. Gratitude is an attitude, and attitude is a choice.
I get it, you may say, but how are we supposed to be thankful in 2020 with all that is going on?
This year has certainly been challenging, to say the very least. In a year dominated by a worldwide pandemic, civil unrest, political chicanery, and moral chaos, gratitude is certainly not the natural reaction for us. Additionally, we have as a people failed to find the unity in hardship that so many previous generations have forged. Whether plagues, natural disasters, or war, profound adversity has often served to galvanize societies, causing people (however temporarily) to set aside differences as they coalesce against a common enemy. Even in the church, points of division have historically been put on hold for the sake of unity over core doctrines in the face of persecution. Today it seems that the spirit of disunity and divisiveness roams undaunted through us, leaving devastation in its wake, and not even a pandemic can deter our factious pride. It seems that our anger and division have often swallowed up our “attitude of gratitude”.
Naturally, it is difficult to be thankful in adverse circumstances. Suffering is real and painful. There is a reason it is called “hardship”. That difficulty, however, does not negate the call for Christians to be thankful in everything. We are a people called to contentment, who place all of our hope and trust in God as our provider, defender, and helper. His sovereignty, unlimited ability, perfect wisdom, and faithful love are sound reasons to “trust in the Lord with all (our) heart and lean not on (our) own understanding.” (Proverbs 3:5-6)
We often (though perhaps not often enough) recall at Thanksgiving the story of the “first Thanksgiving” and the feast held in 1621 between the Puritan “pilgrims” and the indigenous people who helped them. While many legends have grown up around the event, clouding some of the actual history, the basic facts remain. We have profound lessons to be learned from the experiences of our forebears.
Most of what we know about the first Thanksgiving comes from a letter written by Edward Winslow in 1621. (Note: Edward’s brother, John Winslow, was a direct ancestor of our own Brad Clark!) In attendance were 53 of the English colonists and about 90 Wampanoags with their leader, Massasoit, and the lone survivor of the Patuxet tribe, Squanto, who was fluent in English, having previously been an English slave. (Not coincidentally, Squanto had also become a Christian during his time as a slave and determined in time that helping these English pilgrims survive was God’s plan for him.)
The Plymouth colony had endured great hardship in the New World, with only these 53 remaining of the more than 100 who embarked on The Mayflower’s journey. Having survived the harsh journey across the Atlantic, half of the colonists died amid the still harsher New England winter and resulting privation or from the ravenous plague that swept through the land. The toll was especially high among the women, only four of whom survived to see this celebratory feast. Now, having buried many of their dreams along with their loved ones, these pilgrims celebrated their survival and their first successful harvest by acknowledging God’s loving Providence along with their native neighbors. Dark and dire circumstances could not wrest from them the understanding that their Creator and Lord was both great and good; they were grateful for God’s blessings amid overwhelming adversity, even as they focused their hope on a greater glory in Christ.
Rejoice always, pray continually, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus. (1 Thessalonians 5:16-18, NIV)
As I write this, the 2020 general election is less than a week away. By the time you read it, you may have already voted, and we may or may not have any real idea of the results. The polarization over this particular election may be the most intense that I have seen in my lifetime. Our reaction to it goes a long way toward revealing where our hearts and faith are. Will we be thankful regardless of the outcome? Will we be filled with anger and despair if our candidate or party or issue loses? Will we demonstrate Christlike grace amid bitter disappointment?
How does God expect me to respond to the negative emotions that accompany electoral defeat? Rejoice always. What should I do if I really believe that the nation’s fate, even its very soul, hangs in the balance? Pray continually. But Pastor, you say, there are dire consequences at stake; don’t you realize how much damage will be done if this goes the other way? Give thanks in all circumstances.
Don’t be confused; when Paul wrote this to the church at Thessalonica, he had no notion of anything like what we now often call “the prosperity gospel”, and the church faced increasing persecution, which would increase greatly in later Roman regimes. His admonition to the church was to elevate their—and our—gaze, to keep our focus on what is most lasting and real, to set our minds on things above. Since the call of Christ-followers is actually to follow Christ, we reflect His reality by following His example, subordinating our will to God’s will, and rejoicing that our Heavenly Father’s will is being done. Our attitude of gratitude is not for things going the way we think they ought, but because this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.
To be sure, your vote matters, and responsible “citizen Christians” do our civic duty, bringing our faith and worldview into the polling booth. Part of doing so is remembering that the world cannot be saved through elections, but only through the Gospel of Jesus Christ; remembering that God remains King no matter who is president or senator or mayor; and remembering that even with the very best policies, ordinances, laws, judges, and leaders we can choose, we still live in a fallen and sinful world. Our hope is not in government, but in the One who laughs while the nations rage (Psalm 2).
To be sure, this world is fraught with dangers, sickness, cancer, and viruses. We are thankful for doctors and God’s gift of medical advances, but we Christ-followers do not find our great hope in doctors or medicine. Our hope is in the Lord who will one day remove all sickness and death (Revelation 21:1-4). Neither are we overcome by the natural fear or panic we may encounter, for we know that our Heavenly Father is faithful and loving, and His will for us is for our ultimate good and His ultimate glory (Romans 8:18, 28, 32).
Let us together, as those who reflect the reality of Christ, demonstrate our trust in the Sovereign One by rejoicing always, praying continually, and giving thanks in every single circumstance we encounter…even in 2020…even in a pandemic…no matter how the election turns out.
Let the name of the LORD be praised, both now and forevermore. (Psalm 113:2)