Thanksgiving thoughts

I am not one of those people who demands that people say “Merry Christmas” instead of “Happy Holidays.” In fact, I like the reminder that Christmas and the days around it are holy days—days that belong to God and not just to us. I have no opinion about the cups being used by Starbucks this season, although due to the prices at Starbucks, I will not be purchasing any beverages in those cups.

On the other hand, I have zero tolerance for the greeting “Happy Turkey Day.” I have already decided on my response if anyone says that expression to me. I am going to teach them that Turkey Day should be celebrated on the 23rd of April. That day is the anniversary of the first meeting of the modern Turkish parliament back in 1920. In Turkey, the day is also called Children’s Day. On April 23 children are invited into the legislature’s building to sit in the lawmakers’ seats and learn how their government operates. That kind of Turkey Day is worth celebrating.

The fourth Thursday of November is a national day of Thanksgiving in the United States of America. While it is known for family gatherings, large meals, parades, football games, and frantic shopping excursions, the day is first and foremost a day to say “thank you” to the God who has protected and sustained our nation. The timing of the day of Thanksgiving is chosen to follow the season of harvest in North America. The history of this day is frequently traced back to the Puritans in New England in 1621, but the real origins of the day can be found in Deuteronomy chapter eight.

Moses was preaching a farewell sermon to the Israelites, reminding them of the commands of God and the promises of God, and preparing them for life in the Promised Land. In the course of his sermon, Moses reminded the people of God how God had cared for them in the wilderness, feeding them with manna and preserving even their clothing and sandals during their travels. Moses also spoke to them about the many good things they would find in the Promised Land. “And you shall eat and be full, and you shall bless the Lord your God for the good land he has given you,” Moses said (Deuteronomy 8:10).

Christians in the United States can use this national holiday to bless the Lord our God for the good land he has given us. We thank him for food and drink and clothing and shelter and everything else that comes under the category of “daily bread.” We thank him for our talents and abilities, by which we earn our livings while serving our neighbors and making the world a better place. We also thank our Creator for the talents and abilities of our neighbors: farmers and factory workers, soldiers and police officers and fire-fighters, doctors and nurses and therapists and pharmacists, preachers and teachers and entertainers, and many others who enrich our lives by the things they do. We thank God for good weather and good government (instead of only complaining when they do not meet with our approval). We thank God for the freedoms we have as Americans and for the peace and prosperity we enjoy in this land.

In all these expressions of thanksgiving, Americans can be united regardless of religion (other than atheists and agnostics, who know of no God to thank). Christians, Jews, Muslims, and various sects can all be thankful for the blessings of creation. Christians are able also to be thankful for the gift of redemption and the gift of faith. We do not need to wait for a national day of Thanksgiving to express our gratitude for these blessings—we can be thankful for them every day.

Genuine, joyful gratitude on the part of Christians will do far more to attract our neighbors to the message of the Gospel than all our complaints about commercialism and worldliness encroaching on Thanksgiving and Christmas. Rather than complaining about the world, we can rejoice in Christ who has overcome the world. We have many reasons to celebrate and, in comparison, few reasons to complain. Thanks be to God!

Happy Thanksgiving to all! J. (edited from a post from November 2015)

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An unexpected allegory

“What to do if you find yourself stuck in a crack in the ground underneath a giant boulder you can’t move, with no hope of rescue. Consider how lucky you are that life has been good to you so far. Alternatively, if life hasn’t been good to you so far, which given your current circumstances seems more likely, consider how lucky you are that it won’t be troubling you much longer.”  Douglas Adams

I was writing an essay about thankfulness, how the Bible says that we should be thankful in all circumstances. We are not thankful for all circumstances, of course. We are not thankful for sin or evil or suffering. But in all circumstances we can be thankful and we should be thankful. I remembered a quip from Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide series on that topic. When I couldn’t find it in the books, I explored the internet, and I discovered the version above, which was used in the radio show before it appeared in a different form in one of the books and in the movie. I would have preferred that he spoke of being thankful rather than lucky, but I think that the illustration is valid.

I meant the quip to be no more than an attention-gathering introduction. As I wrote the essay, I listed many reasons we should be thankful—food and drink, clothing and shoes, house and home, and so forth. I pointed out the number of times we complain about these things instead of being thankful for them. I added that I didn’t intend to make people feel guilty for their times of ingratitude. After all, when we stand before God for judgment, he has much bigger sins to call to our attention. Ingratitude is hardly the greatest of our sins. But, all the same, we should rejoice in God’s blessings even in the hardest of situations.

I wanted to make a transition from the blessings of creation, through the idea of the coming Judgment, to the blessings of redemption. Something was missing. Then the introductory quote from Douglas Adams reappeared. We are trapped in a hole in the ground. That hole is our sins of omission—the times that we have not done those things God commanded us to do. We are trapped under a giant boulder. That boulder is our sins of commission—the many times we have done those things God commanded us not to do. We cannot remove the boulder or emerge from the hole. We are truly trapped. The best we can do is count our blessings, whatever they may be.

The greatest blessing is a Redeemer who lifts the boulder from us and bears it away. He takes it on himself to set us free. How far does he remove our sins? “As far as the east is from the west” (Psalm 103:12). The earth has a north pole and a south pole, but if a traveler starts heading east or west, that traveler can go on forever without ending—there will still be more to the east or more to the west. Our sins are removed from us by an infinite distance.

Jesus pulls us out of the hole in the ground, cleans the dirt off us, and puts us on our feet. His forgiveness is complete and unconditional. The boulder is gone, and we have been taken out of the hole in the ground. The blessings of forgiveness, of life, and of victory over all our enemies belong to us because of the work of our Redeemer.

And just imagine: a quip from the atheist, Douglas Adams, became an allegory of the work of our divine Savior! J.

On thanking God

In the Bible, Christians are told to be thankful. Sometimes Christians blame themselves or one another for not being thankful enough. More startling, however, are the times when nonChristians complain that Christians are too thankful.

A friend of mine at church has mentioned this situation more than once. When she expresses her gratitude to God for some small blessing, a coworker accuses her of being arrogant. If she has prayed for something—such as good weather for an outdoor event, for example—and what she requested happens, her coworker says it was just coincidence. This coworker insists that thinking that God manages the weather according to our requests shows extreme arrogance and a self-centered nature.

This week a WordPress friend of mine had a similar experience. Authentically Aurora describes in this post how a parking spot appeared to her benefit at the end of a trying day. She regards that event as an answer to prayer, and she expresses her thankfulness to God. That post leads to an interesting conversation in the comment section in which another poster suggests that in a world filled with suffering and misery, thanking God for a parking spot is petty and strange.

I added my two cents worth to the comments there, but I wanted to expand my words to a nickel’s worth of pondering. A nonChristian may struggle with this thought, but God is real, and he has a genuine interest in every human being. God knows everything, he can do anything, and he is eternal, without beginning or end. Unlimited by time, he can pay intimate attention to every human being. Jesus assures his followers that God knows even the number of hairs on each of our heads. If God remembers that number and keeps track of that number—especially for those of us with diminishing numbers that change each day—surely a parking spot or a sunny afternoon is not too small for God to handle.

But sometimes it rains, even upon church picnics. Isn’t a sunny afternoon merely a coincidence unrelated to any Christian’s prayers? Whether or not that is the case, I see nothing wrong with praying about what we want, even about the weather. More to the point, I see nothing wrong with thanking God when good things come our way. Lack of gratitude would be highly inappropriate in a Christian who believes that every good gift comes from God and that we all were created to thank, praise, serve, and obey God.

Why, then, do Christians not solve all the world’s problems through prayer? Why not ask for enough food for every person so that no one would starve? Why not ask for an end to all wars? Why not ask that all people be protected from floods, tornadoes, earthquakes, and other natural disasters? Christians do, in fact, pray such prayers. God does provide enough food on this planet to feed everyone living here—if some people do not have enough, that is the fault of people who have more than enough but who refuse to share what they have. Only God knows how many wars God has prevented or shortened, how many disasters God has withheld or reduced in power, or how many ways God provided other kinds of help when he chose to permit poverty and war and other calamities.

I’ve addressed the complex problem of why God allows any problems at all to happen here. In summary, God allows suffering so we see the true face of evil and prefer to turn to the good. Moreover, God has entered the world and endured suffering himself, taking on himself the consequences of evil so he can share with us the consequences of his perfect goodness. As I commented to Aurora, it saddens me when people will blame the-God-in-whom-they-do-not-believe for the world’s problems, and then they criticize believers when we thank God for good things.

I don’t expect ever to win the lottery. Chances of winning are slim for those who buy lottery tickets; they are slimmer yet for people like me who do not buy lottery tickets. I have imagined, though, what I would do should I happen to win the lottery—perhaps one day I will pick up a scrap of paper in the grocery parking lot that turns out to be a multi-million dollar winner, or perhaps a lottery ticket as a gag gift at a workplace Christmas party will turn out to be the winner. I’ve considered writing a novel based on my fantasies of winning the lottery, and in that novel my character would thank God publicly for the blessing. He would do so very carefully, trying not to offend anyone. He would make it clear that he does not believe that he was given a winning ticket because he deserves it more than all the other people who bought lottery tickets. He would regard the blessing of much money as an opportunity and obligation to do good things with that money and to use it to help people in need. But still he would be thankful. He would say, “I thank God when the weather is good. I thank him for green lights on the way home from work. I thank him every day for my wife and for my children. This does not mean I think that I am better than people who endure bad weather, people who are stopped by a string of red lights, or people who are unmarried or childless. I thank God for my health and for the blessing to live in a land of relative peace and safety, but this does not mean that I think I am better than people who are ill or people who live in war-torn lands. I would be an ungrateful wretch if I did not thank God for the good things that I have. In that spirit I thank him for this gift, and I ask him for the wisdom to spend it properly.”

As a Christian, I look to my Father in heaven for all good things. I ask for good things for myself, and I ask for good things for other people. When good things happen, I am grateful. I don’t thank God as much as he deserves for the good things I have received and for the many ways I have been protected from evil. And I confess that I do grumble at times about the problems that I have, small as they are compared to other people in this world. Among the many gracious qualities of God is his loving willingness to overlook my flaws and to accept my tiny expressions of thanks and praise. I await the ability to thank and praise him in a better way when I meet him face-to-face. J.

A close encounter in the dark

About half an hour ago, I experienced one of those rites of passage that American drivers face and then share with one another. Tonight I hit a deer with my car.

Before I go any further, let me assure you that I am unharmed, the car is unharmed, and even the deer is fine. I cannot report how the deer feels about this experience, but I am very thankful to be able to report no damage from our collision.

I was driving a back road between towns, taking the long way around because the main highway is under construction. It was dark, of course, and I was traveling at the speed limit, which is 35 mph on that road. A lot of people speed on that road—if I had been going 50, this story would have been different. As I drove over the crest of a hill, I saw two deer: one standing on the shoulder of the road, and the other standing on the opposite lane from the one I was using. I began braking—not a stamp-on-the-pedal frantic break, because a second car was not far behind me, but still cautious slowing of the car. The deer on the road began running away from me down the road. I thought that this could be okay; I once followed a deer more than a mile down the road because it figured it could make better time on the pavement than into the trees. It was going full speed; I was crawling at ten miles an hour or so. Eventually, it changed strategy and left the road.

But that was a long time ago. Back to tonight. The deer that was on the road swerved in front of me to get off the road. By this time I was probably moving about five miles an hour. The car hit the shoulder and flank of the deer and came to a complete stop. The deer rolled over twice, leaving the road as it did so. Then it scrambled to its feet and headed for the trees; it did not appear to be limping.

The car behind me had also stopped in time, so we got rolling again, and I headed home. I had a brief alarm when I was stopped at a traffic light, because only one of my headlights was reflected from the back of the pickup truck in front of me. When the light turned green and the truck moved, however, I could see the reflection of the other headlight—the single reflection was just an oddity of our relative angle.

I know many drivers who have hit deer. Most of their stories are not as uneventful as mine. I was planning on writing a tribute to Mozart to post on his birthday tomorrow, but that tribute will have to wait for another time. Tonight I just had to share my dear deer story. J.