The Pilgrims arrived in the New World with an optimistic plan of action. They didn’t bring farming implements or seeds or warm weather clothing or building materials or tools. They brought shoes and libraries but no ploughs. It is as if they believed that their mission would be blessed with God’s providence to the point of not having to actually do any of the work themselves. Perhaps as they died in droves, they had a review meeting and decided they would do it better next time. They did, however, have great hats.
Hats or no hats, the pilgrim story has become a stream in the American national myth that those who settled the new world were like the Hebrews who were led out of Egypt into the promised land. The abundance they found was like a national anointing, similar to manna from heaven. We are the chosen people and therefore we are blessed by abundance.
Giving thanks, however, goes far beyond recognising the abundance that we have enjoyed. It also requires repentance ( metanoia – a change of view) in recognising the source and cost of what we might call providence.
Yes, the land was rich but it was also populated by people whose way of life and providence came from it too. The thanks of Thanksgiving can only happen when we recognise that the bounty most westerners see as their birthright comes from taking a lot, demanding a lot, threatening a lot, not sharing. We need to recognise that it isn’t that God has given us a lot, but rather our wealth has been diverted from what God has given the world.
Repentance as a door to thanksgiving helps me to celebrate Thanksgiving Day as a day for giving thanks for what God has truly given me. These are the things that I couldn’t have provided for myself: my lovely wife, my incredible children, my deeply caring and affirming friends, my intellect, my responsibilities, my opportunities. I give thanks for the stuff that can’t be bought or sold or commoditized.
One of my favourite Thanksgiving celebratioins took place at theological college in Bristol. We invited friends around, some we knew well and others not so well. We did turkey, pumpkin pie and lots of wine. It wasn’t grand because none of us had any money beyond what we needed to get through the week. But it was a magical night because we all enjoyed being together. Our guests felt honoured that we would think to include them in this special meal. We felt special that they would want to come and share it with us. Our thanksgiving wasn’t for how much stuff we had or how great our nation was. Our thanksgiving was for our vocations, our kids and for each other. We were thankful that we basically had all we needed thanks to God’s providence for us.
My oldest son goes to a school whose motto comes from Oscar Romero, the martyred Archbishop of El Salvador: “Do not aspire to have more, but to be more”. Romero reminds me to start the day by naming and repenting for what I have aspired to have, the ignorance I have feigned for how it became available to me and for how I have allowed what I have to define who I am. Unlike the national myth I grew up with I am now offered a story of freedom which liberates me to be thankful for today and everyday at little cost to everyone else.