Abraham Lincoln declared Thanksgiving as a national holiday.
Thinking about that, I was struck by two things.
First, this was in the middle of the carnage of the Civil War when the nation teetered on the edge of self-destruction.
A crazy time to call for thanksgiving, right?
But Lincoln understood that difficulties should not blind us to blessings.
A while back, I was pointing out to Vivienne some of the problems in our backyard.
For example, there’s a growing patch of dead grass, some drooping flowers and some chipped concrete.
She responded by asking, “Did you notice the fresh bloom on the African daisies?”
Both things are true: a section of lawn is dying, and our backyard is alive with vibrantly colored flowers.
There’s no denying the dead patch of lawn and flowers, but I tend to only see the flaws and problems, so I’m retraining myself to also notice beauty and blessings that surround me.
I follow neighborhood activities on the Northridge Neighbors site, on which people post activities, list services and such, and also report incidents of crime.
Invariably, after a crime report, a flood of comments follows about how crime has become rampant and how society is deteriorating.
You hear the same kinds of alarms raised nationally, stoking all kinds of accusations and fears.
But in reality, crime is down.
The FBI and the Bureau of Justice Statistics both show that violent crime, as well as property crime rates, are about half of what they were 15 years ago.
There’s a debate about if people are just reporting crimes less often and how some of those numbers have been massaged to put law enforcement in a favorable light, but the big picture is that crime is down and has been on a pretty steady decline for over a decade.
Yet, Pew Research found that 57% of voters are convinced that crime is up.
Part of the reason for this disconnect is that we now have social media and the 24-hour cable news assaulting us with an unending stream of crime scenes.
Northridge Neighbors and other such sites report every break-in and attempted break-in followed by a frenzy of comments about how our neighborhoods are becoming unsafe.
What we give our attention to becomes our reality.
When Vivienne’s son started to experiment with drugs while in middle school, she moved from Van Nuys to the newly developed community of Santa Clarita.
A few weeks later he kind of taunted her for naively thinking this move would help.
He bragged that there are more drugs there than in their previous neighborhood … which only goes to show that in life we will find what we choose to give our attention to.
I read about an elderly woman who developed the habit of carrying a handful of dried beans wherever she goes.
She starts her day with them in the right jacket pocket, and then every time she experiences something beautiful or kind she moves a bean from her right pocket to her left one.
If an experience is especially nice or surprising, she may move two or three beans, and then in the evening, she counts the beans she had moved.
Looking at the beans reminds her of how much beauty had crossed her path on that day.
Even when she can count only one bean, she recognizes that it had been a day worth living.
The second thing that struck me about Lincoln’s proclamation is what he said is the purpose of this holiday.
“The year that is drawing toward 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 even soften the heart which is habitually insensible to the ever-watchful providence of Almighty God.”
We are grateful for our blessings, and we are grateful to the Source of all we have.
A genuine expression of gratitude can’t be commanded.
It’s like your mom, after you forgot to say “thank you,” would prompt you with the oh-so-patient, “You’re welcome.”
Sure, you’d say “thanks” then, but it didn’t quite mean the same thing.
God seeks to bless you, but, as Abraham Heschel said, “Awareness of the divine begins with wonder.”
The wonder of life.
The wonder that you’re alive.
The wonder of a meal prepared with foods actually grown all over the world before arriving on the shelves at Ralphs.
The wonder that you are in this church where you are loved.
Thanksgiving is about choice – to take life for granted, or to take life with gratitude.
To be amazed and to give thanks for what we have and to God, the source of our blessings.
Heschel continues, “Our goal should be to live life in radical amazement. Get up in the morning and look at the world in a way that takes nothing for granted. Everything is phenomenal; everything is incredible; never treat life casually. To be spiritual is to be amazed.”
Which will it be?
Without gratitude, we over-focus on what is wrong, to be feared, or to be resented.
Life becomes something to endure, rather than enjoy.
Sin is more than adultery or theft – it is allowing ourselves to live drab, stale, fearful lives.
After surviving Hitler’s death camps, Elie Wiesel said, “When a person doesn’t have gratitude, something is missing in his or her humanity.”
Our Thanksgiving invitation is to be alert to God’s presence with gratitude.
What are you grateful for?
What this year has made your heart glad?
Where has God shown up in your life this year?
What, in the midst of all that is wrong, is so very right?