By Lutheran pastor David G. Johnson, The Road Once Traveled, 1991, pages 36-38 (adapted).
My grandmother, Annie, had real difficulty accepting a compliment or even “thank you.” She would respond with denials. “Oh, no,” she would protest, “it was nothing.” The cookies which everyone thought were terrific, the “melting in your mouth” variety, just had not turned out right this time. “I don’t know what went wrong,” grandma would confess.
Sometimes I wonder if my grandma was more shrewd than I knew. If she had simply answered, ‘thank you” to a compliment or “you’re welcome” to an expression of gratitude, that would have ended the conversation. As it was, through her denials and protests, grandma was able to prolong the compliments as people tried desperately to override her objections and make her see that she really had accomplished something. It got to be a survival of the fittest. Rarely did grandma give in. For her it would have been the height of immodesty. She generally had the last word, “it was nothing.” The compliment or “thanks” was not accepted.
But, turn the tables, and grandma would lavish praise on others. A simple “thank you” was never enough. It had to be “manga, manga tusend tuck,” Norwegian for “many, many thousand thanks.” And she was just as generous with compliments, throwing out a whole pattern of them, like a shotgunner, so that at least one of them would connect. As a ‘thanker” she was devastating.
I know she was sincere. My grandparents were very thrifty and spent almost nothing on themselves. Grandma would have been a little freer with the money had my grandfather allowed her to handle it. She regularly snitched a nickel or a dime out of his pocket to give to me for a shopping spree in Garretson when I accompanied my grandfather to town. I think he knew but overlooked it. In spite of their frugality and simplicity of their lives, my grandparents were thankful people. Because my grandmother was more expressive, it was more noticeable in her. They lived their lives down among the basics of life where gratitude originates. Their only concession to extravagance was the upright Edison Golden Disc phonograph with two drawers full of scratchy records. Otherwise they dealt in staples and necessities. Their lives were not cluttered with non-essentials. Because of that, I believe, they were less apt to take credit for what they had. They delighted in the meanings their relationship with the land, other persons and God brought them. They felt blessed. Consequently, they were thankful, not because of their abundance of material goods but because of the goodness of nature, others and God.
Hasn’t it always been that way? Consider the history of our national observance of Thanksgiving. It can be summarized in three parts.
The first chapter begins with the early colonists at Plymouth Plantation in what is now Massachusetts. In November of 1620, 98 colonists landed by mistake off Cape Cod. They were headed for the already inhabited Virginia. Even though Cape Cod was not their destination, they decided to stay and begin their mission to build a godly community. The odds against the colonists were enormous. William Bradford, who was to govern Plymouth Plantation for 30 years, wavered as he faced the future. He believed the only sure thing they could count on was “the Spirit of God and His grace.” Even that, during the hard winter months, seemed to be in short supply.
By spring about one half of the settlers had died. Only 12 of 26 husbands or fathers survived. The women were hit even harder. Only three of 18 married women lived to see the winter snow melt away. When spring mercifully arrived, the ravaged colony began to plant, fish, hunt, cut, saw and build. The Indian, Squanto, showed them how to fertilize and cultivate the corn. They referred to Squanto as “a special instrument of God for their good.”
In the fall of 1621, the pilgrims and the Indians shared in New England’s first Thanksgiving. They were grateful, not for an abundance of material goods, but for survival.
The second part of the history of Thanksgiving took place on November 1, 1777 when the Continental Congress issued the first proclamation of Thanksgiving to all the colonies. The colonies had just declared their independence and were at war with England to win that independence. In part, the proclamation reads: “Forasmuch as it is the indispensable duty to all men to adore the Providence of Almighty God; to acknowledge with gratitude their obligation to Him for benefits received, and to implore such further blessings as they stand in need of: and it having pleased Him in His abundant mercy not only to continue to use the innumerable bounties of His common providence, but also to smile upon us in the prosecution of a just and necessary war for the defense and establishment of our unalienable rights and liberties …” The colonists were now struggling to remain an independent nation. Concerns over the gross national product would come much later. Now they were grateful to God for existence. As they considered the task at hand, that of building and governing anew nation, they looked to God for help and issued a declaration of dependence on the Almighty.
The final segment in the history of Thanksgiving takes place in 1863, in the middle of the bloody Civil War. President Abraham Lincoln proclaimed there should be a national day of thanksgiving on the last Thursday of November. Lincoln declared it should be “a day of thanksgiving and praise to our beneficent Father.”
It is instructive to note that each of these dates, 1621, 1777 and 1863 represent difficult times. The pilgrims had experienced terrible losses and possessed practically nothing, but they were alive. In 1777 the colonists were engaged in a tough war with England. They had their independence and pride, but very little else. In 1863 a brutal Civil War was being fought. It was a costly and divisive conflict, and the nation was looking forward to the end of the conflict and to rebuilding.
It would seem that we are most apt to be thankful, not when times are easy and our larders are full, but when life has been tough and we are glad to be alive and have each other.
I Thessalonians 5:16-18 — Rejoice always, pray continually, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.
Psalm 106:1 — Praise the Lord. Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good; his love endures forever.
Colossians 3:15 — Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, since as members of one body you were called to peace. And be thankful.
O Lord, keep us sensitive to the grace that is around us. May the familiar not become neglected. May we see your goodness in our daily bread, and may the comforts of our home take our thoughts to your mercy. We give you thanks. Amen.
–J. H. Jowett (1864-1923)