Thanksgiving was christened a national holiday at a time when Americans were arguably more divided than ever. In 1863, the United States was embroiled in Civil War that had torn our nation and its conscience in two. North was pitted against South, sparking a clash of vision and ideology for America’s future. With the future of our fledgling democracy up for grabs, President Abraham Lincoln oddly declared that the path to healing and restoration would be paved with gratitude.
In a speech enacting this new national holiday, Lincoln said, “The year that is drawing towards its close, has been filled with the blessings of fruitful fields and healthful skies. To these bounties, which are so constantly enjoyed that we are prone to forget the source from which they come, others have been added, which are of so extraordinary a nature, that they cannot fail to penetrate and soften even the heart which is habitually insensible to the ever-watchful providence of Almighty God.”
A century and a half later, America exists yet again as a nation divided. We aren’t experiencing civil war, though President Trump has tweeted that we may be on the brink of it. Even still, the impeachment hearings unfolding in Washington are emblematic of a deep rift tearing our nation apart. As families separated by political ideology sit at a common table, our Thanksgiving prayers can open the door yet again to healing and reconciliation.
The first words we utter in prayer—dear God—form a gentle reminder that every human sits underneath a common Creator and are bestowed with dignity and value. We may not agree with the person who prays alongside us, but we can acknowledge that they are a child of God and therefore are worthy of respect and love. Thanksgiving intercessions must begin there or they aren’t worth praying.
As our prayers proceed into petition, we must also remember that we don’t have to wait to say thanks until we feel grateful. We say thanks to become grateful. In other words, saying thanks isn’t the outcome of gratitude; gratitude is the outcome of saying thanks. Finding and forging gratitude for more and more of our lives, even when we don’t feel particularly grateful, grows greater gratitude in our hearts over time. And it is precisely this gratitude that can carry us through difficult days by changing and transforming our hearts and minds. It lifts our eyes up and out of our current circumstances and helps us see that there is more than what we are currently facing. There is hope worth hanging on to.
Most Thanksgiving prayers are laced with clichés and saccharine spiritual platitidues. What if you could find a way to express gratitude for all that is—the highs and lows, the heavy and light? What if instead of painting in broad strokes of surface-level gratitude, you grabbed a fine point pen and carved out just a few moments to express exactly what it is that you are grateful for? Maybe something deeper could grow in you that lasts longer than this holiday weekend and carries you through the days we find ourselves in.
Growing gratitude and giving thanks when things are not as they should be is one of the most subversive and transformative spiritual practices we can nurture. In the Hebrew Bible, the wisdom of Ecclesiastes 3 teaches us there are times to grieve, to mourn, and to lament, but that doesn’t mean we can’t find and forge a spirit of gratitude, even in those difficult days. Learning to be grateful for good things and bad things, for heavy things and light things, for wanted things and unwanted things, for all things at all times has a powerful effect on our perspective. A nation divided needs permission to pray honest prayers.
As an American, I’ve grown up in a culture of greed and consumerism. This isn’t the whole of the American experience, but it is a lot. Perhaps this is why, as a nation, we have to remind ourselves every year to stop, if only for a long weekend, and be thankful. We dedicate two whole days off of work and school to say thanks. America isn’t the only nation that attempts to express its gratitude, but it’s one of the few that dedicates a national holiday to it. And while through revisionist history and a Charlie Brown special we have somehow managed to attach our nation’s complicated, controversial foundation and formation to this holiday, the origin story isn’t what makes Thanksgiving so interesting. It’s not so much what we celebrate but how we began celebrating that’s worth noting.
Regardless of Lincoln’s religious views, which continue to be studied and debated to this day, his vision for Thanksgiving was profoundly spiritual. Lincoln somehow knew that gratitude had the power to change and even heal our nation. That even as war raged on, as our nation fought for its very soul, as letters were sent home confirming families’ worst fears, we could and must be thankful. He knew that gratitude, albeit institutionalized gratitude, was the only hope we had.
He wasn’t wrong. It’s still true.
Adapted from Jarrett’s upcoming book, Praying Through.