Holiday comes from the words “holy” and “day.” But you would never know that from how we celebrate holidays in this country. Christmas is much more about presents and Santa than the birth of Jesus. Easter is much more about candy and eggs than the resurrection of Christ. And Thanksgiving is much more about food and football than gratitude to God. In each of these cases, part of the problem is that merchants have been very successful in promoting their contribution to the holiday, more so than churches have. To the average person a holiday means a day off from work or school and time to celebrate. The idea that worshiping God should have a major role in the observance of a holiday rarely occurs to most folks. It's odd given that, for instance, the word Christmas contains Christ. And the word Thanksgiving begs the question “To whom are we giving thanks?”
The cynic might say we should be thankful to the folks who grow and harvest our food. And that is true. But that is just near the end of the chain of events that brings us the things we should be thankful. We are omnivores, which means unlike Koalas or cows or vampire bats, we can survive on a great number of things. And our skill at cooking further extends the menu because there are a number of foods that have to be prepared before they are digestible. We would not have spread all over the world, living in every kind of environment, were our diet limited to one or two items. Who do we thank for that?
For that matter, our brains and social structures are such that we can create the farms, the harvesting machines, the transportation systems, and the chains of retail outlets that make food distribution as widespread as it is. Ants and bees might store food for large numbers but none distribute it over continents or overseas, or indeed, outside their colonies. We not only feed the world for money but we also create government programs, charities and non-profits to distribute food to the needy, because we do not believe in letting poor people starve, though that could save us money and resources. We are not only incredibly organized but altruistic, well outside the circles of our own families, nations, and races. Who do we thank for that?
Our planet is 93 million miles from our sun, which is far enough that it isn't too hot for life, like Venus with a mean surface temperature of 863 degrees Fahrenheit, but close enough that it isn't too cold for life, like Saturn with a surface temperature of 288 degrees Fahrenheit below 0. Our planet is tilted at 23 ½ degrees in relation to the sun which gives us seasons. Our seasons are stabilized—that is, kept from being too extreme, by the moon, the largest in relation to its planet in our solar system. The moon also blocks a lot of meteors that would otherwise hit earth. Who do we thank for that?
2/3 of the earth is covered with water. It traps heat and distributes it throughout the planet. Water is essential for life. No animal consists of less than 50% water. Water allows plants and animals to dissolve minerals and nutrients for energy. Plants also use energy from the sun and remove most of the carbon from the atmosphere and release a lot of the oxygen, making life possible for the rest of us. The composition of the atmosphere—78% nitrogen, 21% oxygen. 0.03% carbon dioxide—plus hydrogen from water are essential for the production of the carbohydrates, fats and proteins we need to eat. Who do we thank for that?
The fact that oxygen makes up 21% of our atmosphere is essential because if the percentage was lower, animals could not exist and if it were just 4% higher, most plants would go up in flames. For that matter the cosmological constant, the 4 fundamental interactions of the dimensionless physical constraints, the freezing temperature of water, and a number of other basic features of our universe seemed to be fine-tuned to allow the creation and maintenance of life. Who do we thank for that?
An atheist might say “no one.” We just happen to be in a universe that allows life. The fact that so many things had to come together just right for us to exist is just chance. I would say it's as if we won the lottery at every single point at which things have gone in a different way that would preclude life. It's been shown that this is so unlikely as to defy the laws of probability. So some cosmologists have postulated that there are multiple universes with different constants so our finding ourselves in the one so hospitable to us is like not as unlikely. Unfortunately, there is no evidence of these other universes, nor any method to test whether they in fact exist. Essentially, the best non-theistic explanation for why we find the universe fine-tuned for life is that it has to be for us to exist in it and observe it. Which isn't really an explanation. It tells us that a universe without life could not be observed. But it doesn't explain why an observable universe should exist at all. Why do we have brains capable of observing and analyzing things that are not strictly needed for our survival? Who do we thank for that?
Jesus of Nazareth lived and died 2000 years ago. He arose again and sent out emissaries to proclaim the good news of God's love, grace and forgiveness through faith in Christ. They wrote all they learned from and through him and made countless copies allowing us to compare and make sure we have the most accurate version of these inspired documents. He gives us his Holy Spirit so we can be healed of sin and spiritual sickness and to become more like Jesus everyday. Who do we thank for that?
We know the answer. It is God our Father, who created us and this universe and who is now in the process of recreating, of making all things new As he created the world through Christ, so now is he making the new creation through Christ. And if we let him, he will make us new creations, restoring us to his image, fit to live with him forever.
These things are real causes to give thanks. And yet we are rather churlish towards God. He gives us life, time, a beautiful and abundant world and we take these things for granted. Worse, we misuse, abuse and neglect his gifts. We use them to harm not heal. We ruin and destroy them. We ignore and neglect our stewardship of them.
And we are hurting ourselves. Psychologists have realized that a major component of happiness is gratitude. In an article in the Georgia Psychological Association, Dr. William Doverspike reviewed 3 recent studies. In one, participants were asked to think of someone who did something important and wonderful for them and who had not been properly thanked, write a letter expressing their gratitude and deliver it in person, spending time to discuss it. Compared with a control group, folks who wrote and delivered the gratitude letter expressed more happiness a month later.
In another study, people were asked to write down each night 3 things that went well that day. They were to do it for a week. At a 6 month follow up, they were still happier and less depressed than they had been at the beginning.
People who were asked to keep a weekly journal of what they were grateful for turned out to exercise more, report fewer physical symptoms, feel better about their lives overall, were more optimistic about the coming week and made progress towards personal goals. People who did a self-guided gratitude exercise daily reported being more alert, more enthusiastic, more determined, more attentive and more energetic.
Gratitude is a key component in mental health. So is showing our gratitude to God by helping others. Not only does volunteering help lower stress and depression in the volunteer, it results in greater physical health and longevity.
That makes sense because the Bible tells us this is why we were made. Genesis tells us we were created to be gardeners and stewards of God's creation. As Paul writes in Ephesians 2:10, “For we are God's handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.” When we do what we were designed to do, we are healthier. And so is the rest of creation.
Throughout history, Christians have set up and continue to create and support schools, hospitals, food pantries, clothing banks, hospices, and more. They visit people in hospitals, prisons, and nursing homes. They provide places for homeless shelters, literacy programs, day care for children or the elderly, and support groups for those who are bereaved, divorced, addicted, unemployed, and suffer from illnesses both mental and physical. While others plan further ways to exploit, degrade and ruin the people and things God made, Christians are called to fix, heal and build up creation.
It is called stewardship. It is recognizing that, as David said in 1 Chronicles 29:14, “For all things come from you and of your own have we given you.” God created all things. All that we have is gift and grace. All of our skills and abilities come from God. All of our time is a gift from God. Every moment, even the bad ones, Brother David Steindl-Rast reminds us, is an opportunity. What we have and what we are is a gift from God; what we do with them is our gift to God.
This Thanksgiving, begin to count daily your blessings from God. Start a gratitude journal. Every night list 3 things you are thankful for. Look for opportunities to love and serve God in return with your time, your talents, and your treasure. Help and heal yourself by helping and healing others. Share, listen, teach, encourage, forgive, protect, strengthen, enjoy, accept, guide, befriend, pray for, comfort, learn, support, liberate and trust others in Jesus' name. They are all great ways to be grateful to our gracious God and Savior.