Giving thanks is universal. But having Thanksgiving is a uniquely American. Here is what I mean:
Thanksgiving is an annual event in the life of these people in history called Americans, which touches the sometimes distant but never completely detached Puritan strain that runs through them. The famous British author, Paul Johnson, was struck by this undeniable DNA in our nation and wrote about it in his wonderful History of the American People. This strain, which sometimes lays imperceptibly dormant in good times, can spring forth anew in hard times. There were few evidences of any devout covenant-keeping Puritanism in America in times of uprising over British monarchial tyranny, or in the heated and violent abolitionist debate over a Free Kansas, or in the times of “free-of-worry,” lusty “Roaring-Twenties,” or in the desperate days of Dust Bowls and dire Depression, or in an era of “The-Times-They-Are-A-Changing” campus riots while brave soldiers fought in far-away, politically-perplexing-ever-green jungles of a “someplace over there” called Vietnam, or during the new sensuality, “anything goes” days of the post Feminist 1970s, or in the soaring economic high-times of the 1980s and 90s. But the ancient “City on a Hill” covenant seems to come to life at other times. During times when a bruised and battered American Army retreated to a now-mythological place called Valley Forge, and transformed a broken, frozen and starving American army into a unified fighting force that would ultimately defeat the mightiest power on the earth, we began to sense that covenant arising. During the times when daguerreotype images from Matthew Brady recorded a bloody brother-against-brother battle like no other in our history, we heard the voice of the sickly-thin, battle-burdened, log-cabin president who reminded us of our “better angels.” I think we saw our latent covenant come alive when our hearts broke as we watched an aging Billy Graham speak to us, a national pastor, from the National Cathedral in the confusing days after 9/11. In such indescribably difficult times we seemed to hear the voices of our Pilgrim mothers and fathers speaking to our souls to “remember.”
I think that times like these, times of economic and political upheaval, pricking our consciences, call us to hear, or at least to listen. And Thanksgiving is that annual time when we as Americans seek out each other, and if we don’t know why, that is why. Our American instincts, whether we are Scotch or Dutch Reformed, English Anglicans, or Irish Catholics, African Methodists or East European Jews, or a new wave of Hispanic Pentecostalists or Asian Presbyterians, or self-described unbelievers, call us each and all and we hear a voice inscribed in our collective American soul:
“There is a covenant here. You are a special people. You have a special destiny. And if you remember it you will be blessed. And in hard times if you will turn to Me I will save you. I will use You. I will send you to be that City on the Hill to a world in darkness. I have always had a plan for you. I still do. Look to Me and be saved. Look to Me, like those who came here and prayed for you. Look to Me for your fathers and your mothers have dedicated you to Me and to My cause in the world. This is your identity. This is My destiny for you.”
Let me pause. I remember being on duty in the military and I was in another country. It was Thanksgiving. And on Thanksgiving Day, wherever you are in the world, because of everything I have now written about, you intuitively seek out other Americans. It is as if we all instinctively knew, “We must find each other and pause and give thanks. This is our day. This is who we are.” It is the voice calling us. And I have never experienced anything like it. It is when that happens that we know that Thanksgiving is much more than the beginning of the Christmas sales or sleeping through the Detroit Lions and Dallas Cowboys football game. It is the continuation of an age old covenant made by a hardscrabble gathering of intrepid men and women who looked to a Winthrop’s “city on a hill,” when in fact there was only a savage wilderness. It is the realization that they were also looking to us. For the covenant these people made with God for themselves and for their posterity is with us today. It is real. And that covenant seems to bear down upon even the souls of those who ordinarily don’t go into a house of worship except for funerals. Thanksgiving is different. We intuitively know it. Others, who watched, watched with wonder. “The Americans seem like they have to gather, they have to find each other, they have to eat that Turkey, and they give thanks.” I always wanted to say,
“I can’t explain it. It’s an ‘American’ thing.’”
But I think we can explain it. It is an “American thing” because this is who we are. In good times, but especially in hard times, and in times precisely like our times, this Thanksgiving, when unemployment is soaring, the economy is tentative, and when many of us are divided about what to do about it, when our troops are held up in caves in mountains of Afghanistan, and patrolling in seas off of North Korea, and when, it seems, we all know of people who are hurting because of these things, we need to be together this Thanksgiving now more than ever. In hard times we need to praise God at soup kitchens in Detroit, at chow halls in Kandahar, and mess halls in submarines under the Indian Ocean, and at suburban homes in foreclose in Cleveland and in mortgaged farms in Iowa. We need to thank God because to look to Him again, even in this way, a way that some might see as contrived and institutional rather than organic, is a new beginning again. It is our annual right of recognizing the unique blessing and responsibility of being an American. That was part of the deal. That was part of the covenant made at Plymouth, at Jamestown, renewed at Valley Forge, placed upon the mantle of every president ever since, and lifted up at every American dining table all over the world.
“Thank You Lord for our country. Thank You Lord for our freedom, our families, our friends, our churches, and our communities. Help us Lord to help others. Bless our troops who defend us. Bless our leaders. Help us to serve You. Help us to remember who we are and what we have been given. We have been blessed to be a blessing. Thank You Lord. Thank You.”
Our destiny is thus a destiny of thanksgiving. It is who we are. Others know it. They see it even if they cannot understand it. It is an “American thing.”
As our community of vocational formation and spiritual formation, a community of learning together and living together, called Reformed Theological Seminary, pauses with our nation, to celebrate this Thanksgiving, I wanted to give thanks to our God as I write you. For your faith has gone far and wide. Your faith is demonstrated as I stroll across the campus of Charlotte and see you, prayerfully gathered to commit yourselves to Christ as you prepare for a test. I have seen our students at Orlando telling me how the Lord led them to that beautiful campus because they felt the presence of the Lord there. I have heard how our professors have opened up the Scriptures to them and shown them Christ in new ways, ways that inspire some to leave all and go and give their lives away to peoples in another land. I have watched how families have had to struggle to make ends meet just so they could fulfill a sacred calling that is leading them to a new city, a new place, a new way of life: maybe Jackson, or Atlanta, or Washington DC or Memphis or Houston. I have seen the work of the Lord here in our dedicated staff across the RTS campuses . I have seen the power of the Gospel moving us in chapels, in the classrooms, and in our relationships with each other. I am thankful. I am thankful to serve you. And I wanted you to know.
As Mae and John Michael and I gather with family, neighbors and friends from RTS at our home for Mae’s good country cooking, I wanted you to know that we will do our “American thing” and seek to renew the covenant our forefathers made on the windswept shores of a New World. And we will, in these uncertain days, remember that God has called us to share His Son, Jesus Christ, with the world. And we will remember you, your faith, and how your faith is “being reported all over the world.”