Very soon, families will gather across the country for the observance of Thanksgiving Day. Over time, the celebration has taken on practices of both religious and secular significance. This duality is manifested in my own memories of Thanksgiving, whether from recent years or long ago.
Food, family, worship and football are the primary elements. Growing up in New York, I always looked forward to another perennial part of the holiday: the Macy’s Department Store parade.
For many people, Thanksgiving Day is simply an occasion to feel gratitude for good fortunes experienced in their lives. But historically, it is rooted in a deeper yearning, a desire to give thanks to a generous God who bestows blessings in the midst of difficult times and times of abundance.
Of course, people of faith do this throughout the year, not just on a special, designated day. But there is something unmistakably powerful about a national, corporate expression of thanks. It links us together, providing a common ground in the midst of great diversity.
I’m looking forward to Thanksgiving this year, as I always do. The traditions include worship, sometimes on the night before. A dinner that rarely varies from turkey, greens, rice with gravy, candied yams topped with marshmallows, and macaroni and cheese. Hot rolls usually accompany the meal, followed by an array of pies (sweet potato, mincemeat, apple) and football. And later, even more football!
Our home will be filled with our children, grandchildren and some of our grandson’s friends from college.
There is so much for which to be thankful—the gifts of God’s generosity and grace. But on this Thanksgiving, we cannot neglect the reality of those citizens who live along the northeast corridor of our nation, whose lives have been turned upside down by Hurricane Sandy.
Homes are lost. Neighborhoods are devastated beyond recognition. Buildings that provided the security of employment have been wiped out by floods, along with schools, churches and places of community gathering. Worst, lives have been lost, taken from loved ones and family.
The images will be seared into my memory. Such catastrophes come in life, unmindful of the calendar, our geographical location or our beliefs. Amid the celebration of Thanksgiving comes the tragedy of suffering. Unspeakable grief.
How does one express thanksgiving amid such pain and destruction? How does one avoid anger—even with God—at such a time?
It is Thanksgiving. As many families gather, there will be joy.
But not everywhere …
Retired Bishop White is the denomination’s Endorsing Agent for Chaplain Ministries and bishop-in-residence at Candler School of Theology in Atlanta.