ADDRESS DELIVERED AT THANKSGIVING SERVICE
COURT STREET METHODIST CHURCH
by Dr. John A. Howard
November 22, 1962
Let the words of our mouths and the meditatione of our hearts be acceptable in Thy presence, O Lord.
Let us begin with what might be termed a modern-day parable. It came I believe, from the Saturday Evening Post. With contemporary terseness, it is phrased in thirty words or less.
“The day the steering gear broke and everything was too late, I loved everyone for an instant. But then we got the car back under control.”
Is not this the life story of most of us? It takes intense danger, or a loss or a catastrophe to cause us to give thought to our basic relationships to other people, to our family, to our God. We get caught up in the routines of our lives and find ourselves so busy and so occupied that it is difficult to squeeze in all the television programs we want to see, write the letters we should or read to ourselves or to our children as often as we would like to. And in this quickened living we have almost abandoned completely the one activity which costs nothing, is universally available, can bring real rewards and satisfactions, and is, ultimately, that activity which fulfills the powers that set men apart from beasts. Contemplation and meditation are words that have almost become obsolete because the action they describe is so rarely performed.
A quotation from August Heckscher’s book, Reading in America, phrases this phenomenon poignantly. “The young person …in the past quarter century has been like a rat in a bag which the rat-catcher keeps agitating lest the creature’s teeth get a purchase on the prison. The youth cannot be expected to get hold of an idea while the kaleidoscope is turning so furiously. He is numb and dizzy. He cannot connect his reading with his environment for the books of the world have been projected out of quietude. They reflect stability, depth, relaxation, and all those conditions of peace and harmony which make thought possible. The youth, therefore, discards books as incomprehensible — foolish, in fact. Education has, for the time being lost its significance.” Although this passage was written fifty years ago about youth and education, it seems to have a general application today.
One wonders how many of us take the time to think searchingly and creatively about the various events and relationships of our lives. If we were asked to draw up an honest balance sheet representing our dealings with just those people to whom we have the greatest obligations — our parents, our husbands and wives, our children — would the plus column bear any reconnizable relationship to the love we think we bear these cherished people? Would the list of offenses, including those arising from forgetfulness, be so long that the account would seem to be applicable to noone but an enemy? The tough outer coating of hurry and preoccupation insulates us further and further from our obligations and intentions, and we become less the children of God, and more the creatures of circumstance.
Let us turn from our family relationships to an event that all of us share today — Thanksgiving. Psychologists have developed a device for measuring human personality and sensitivity. It is called a word association test. It is a simple thing wherein a word is suggested to the client and he is asked to respond with the first word that pops into his mind. For instance, if the word “green” is proposed, various people will respond with another color like red, or blue, or perhaps the response will be grass, or money, or something which seems to be totally unrelated. Let us try this word-association test upon ourselves now. I will give you a word and you register for yourself upon what your own quick reaction is. The word is Thanksgiving.
Although few if any of us will be able to give a scientific analysis of the significance of our own answer, nevertheless we will have a clue in the answer to the dimensions of Thanksgiving that we experience. I wonder how many responded as I did, — turkey. This bird has certainly become the symbol of this holiday. For the troops overseas, when the military kitchens are able to supply a genuine bird for turkey-day, that delicacy does more than almost anything else to transport them home for a few minutes. Let us think for a moment, however, about the meaning of the turkey response in the present context. If our first reaction to Thanksgiving has something to do with food it probably is indicative of what we were talking about earlier – our lives are bound up in the routines and the mechanics of living and we have lost track of the significance of this day, or have, at least, relegated its significance to a subordinate role.
Other word responses which might have occurred to some would includet family, children, Pilgrim, America, worship, prayer, or God. These, too, would indicate various dimensions of Thanksgiving and bear some consideration today.
This day is one when most families assemble from distant parts to enjoy the holiday together. Those who are fortunate enough to have families have incurred a particular obligation to count their blessings and express their thanks that in this life they have been privileged to experience for some period of time a bond of closely shared joys and losses, triumphs and reversals, for it is in such bonds that a human being finds strength beyond his own powers when he is called upon to be strong in behalf of a loved one, and that he finds comfort beyond the mere physical aid when he is the recipient of family assistance. Perhaps one measure of God’s generosity to us is that we are permitted to enjoy the benefits of family associations, however much we may take them for granted, and however seldom we contemplate the rewards and the joys and the sustenance we receive from the family.
Let us not let this day slip by without reaching out for a new level of understanding of this blessing in our lives, and without searching and finding more meaningful expressions of gratitude to these loved people and to Him who gave them to us.
In another dimension of Thanksgiving we would remember that this particular celebration is peculiar to America. It is our own holiday emanating from the religious character of the people who first came to New England. The Pilgrims, placing the freedom to worship God in their own manner above all other considerations had first fled to Holland, and then after three years, fearing that they would become the victims of the Inquisition, once more uprooted their families and undertook the awesome journey of more than fifty days across the Atlantic Ocean. The first winter was an extraordinarily grim one, for they began their settlement in December and the normal rigors of New England snows were not the greatest hardship, for the plague took the lives of half the settlers that first year. Nonetheless when harvest time came the Pilgrims set aside a three day period to thank God for their blessings. How pale our thanks become in the midst of all the comforts and material assets, yes. and security we experience contrasted with the thanks of those Americans who established Thanksgiving! Let us not forget our American heritage on this American day.
It has become fashionable to downgrade our patriotism and soft-pedal our national advantages as a result of the sincere effort to promote peace through the United Nations. In similar fashion we avoid public expression of sectarian faith in an effort to avoid offending our fellow citizens who may be of a different faith. Our fellow citizens are, I believe, the poorer for this over-sensitivity to their feelings and, in like fashion. I think the world is the poorer if we fail to hold high the banners of freedom and responsibility and religious faith which characterized this country at its beginnings and which have been our greatest glory. If we fail to recognize these as advantages of our nation and if we fail to proclaim our belief in them and if we fail to express our thanks to God for enjoying them, then we have only ourselves to blame if they do not prevail. These blessings of our nation, bought at such a heavy price by the first Thanksgivers, constitute a precious dimension of this holiday, this holy day.
And the dimiension that coexists with and yet transscends the others is, of course, the holiness of the day, the degree to which we acknowledge the source of our blessings and prove in word and resolution and deed the sincerity and the depth of our religion. We can go through the motions of offering reverant thanks at the dinner table, but if this is the extent of our reeognition of indebtedness to God, it is a small corner that we offer Him in our household.
Once more let us take our ledger and draw up a balance sheet placing on one side in the order of importance those guiding principles we wish for ourselves and our children, and on the other side those activities in which we engage. I am confident that among the people here assembled this morning, almost all would place Christian faith at the top of the left column, but how many of the activities in the right hand column bear any direct relationship to that guiding principle foremost on our list? The ironic thing is that most of us if we really wanted to lose weight or learn to play the piano or speak a foreign language would have the self command to work at the objective daily until it was accomplished. Yet when we are confronted with our own earnest desire to be a better Christian, an objective of supreme importance we are far less successful than in accomplishing these short-range and relatively insignificant goals.
Our need for a sustaining and all-encompassing religious faith was never greater. It is no longer possible to assume that there will be long years ahead of us free from the destruction of war. The power of atomic weapons and the accuracy of the delivery vehicles makes every corner of the earth vulnerable to total destruction a few minutes after the decision has been taken. And if we can convince ourselves that no man would be foolish enough to pull the trigger on the giant weapon, we are still faced with the inexorable and unrelentless advance of the pagan philosophy of Communism which is devoted to the destruction of all the values we hold most precious. No, the only possible hope of security which is available to us today is that which each of us can find within himself as he makes peace with his God and recognizes that his true strength comes to him as he fulfills the way of God.
Such fulfillment demands of us contemplation and meditation and prayer – a sustained effort to see the full dimensions of the days and the events of our lives. If the Turkey becomes the focus of our Thanksgiving, we are in effect worshiping a false idol and we go through the motions of celebrating a holiday, a holy day, when what we are really doing is only taking a vacation.
The rewards of Christianity are boundless, but they do not come to us automatically. They are earned by prayer and meditation and the conscious and consistent application of Christ’s teachings to our daily lives.
May we celebrate this Thanksgiving by converting our Thanks to God into acts as well as expressions of our spiritual concern. Let us, as Paul urged, “study to be quiet” so that from our meditations we may transform our daily labors into labors of Christian love.
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