Thanksgiving, repentance, and the providence of Creation

The first national celebration of Thanksgiving was declared by Abraham Lincoln in the middle of the Civil War. His proclamation in 1863 did not mention turkey or cranberry sauce, or Pilgrim fathers and mothers, or peaceful feasts between Europeans and Native Americans. There’s also no mention of football at all.


Instead, President Lincoln set out the reasons why, in the midst of “national perverseness and disobedience,” “lamentable civil strife,” and the mourning and suffering ofthe nation, Americans should plead with God to heal the wounds of the nation. He declared that they should start by offering God thanks for the blessings of creation. 


In 2020, as in 1863, the world saw a great deal of suffering and mourning. This year in the US we’ve experienced “lamentable civil strife” over racial injustice, a cold civil war between political partisans, and quarter-million deaths from the pandemic (a number that could rise to nearly 400,000 by February. We are still in the midst of these conflicts against injustice, political rancor, and disease, and yet we are faced with the paradox of a Thanksgiving celebration this week. 


In Lincoln’s thanksgiving proclamation, “fruitful fields and healthful skies” are set against the horrors of the raging Civil War that would take 600,000 American lives. Yet he recommends a posture of thankfulness and praise, because of the example of God’s provision in creation. 


In the Bible, we read that God’s providence in nature is given to both the just and the unjust. God’s blessing to all, demonstrated in creation, should model for us a path to reconciliation. God loves even those who set themselves up as enemies, and so should we. We all have in common the experience of God’s goodness in the natural world (Matthew 5:43-48). 


Thanksgiving challenges us now, like it did the Americans during the Civil War, to temper our strife and suffering with gratitude for God’s unmerited favor. After recounting the gifts of the natural and agricultural worlds, Lincoln said,


"No human counsel hath devised nor hath any mortal hand worked out these great things. They are the gracious gifts of the Most High God, who, while dealing with us in anger for our sins, hath nevertheless remembered mercy."


Thanksgiving asks us, people who wrestle with anxiety and materialism, to recognize that everything we have comes from God. The sunshine, rain, soil, and the natural resources on which we depend are divine gifts worthy of our thanksgiving. 


Patricia Tull wrote in her book Inhabiting Eden, “Gratitude is a most appropriate response for us as inhabitants of this world, a home we neither bought nor paid for nor could ever have designed.” 


Gratitude and repentance go hand in hand. We are desperately inadequate to provide for our own needs, spiritual or physical. Yet God provides. It’s God’s kindness that leads us to repentance (Romans 2:4), and the first demonstration of his kindness is the good gift of nature’s bounty. Gratitude leads to repentant hearts, an invitation for God to work,  and the healing of our wounds.  That was Lincoln’s message in 1863. That’s a thanksgiving message we need in 2020.