The year was 1621. The season was fall. Winter was again approaching. It seemed that just a few months before the most terrible of winters had been endured. Scores of babies, children, young people, and adults had starved to death. Many of the Pilgrims were to the point that they were ready even to go to England. They climbed into a ship and were in that harbor heading back to England, ready to give up. Then it happened. They saw another ship coming their way. On that ship was a French man named Delaware. On that ship with Delaware were medical supplies, some food, and as one writer put it “enough hope to go back and try to live in the midst of their adverse sufferings.” These are the people who gathered for the first Thanksgiving. Dangers lurked everywhere. The weather was brutal. Their inexperience and lack of expertise in this strange new land was frustrating to say the least. Yet, nothing was allowed to obscure the blessings of God.
John Henry Jowett, a British preacher of an earlier generation said this about gratitude: “Gratitude is a vaccine, an antitoxin, and an antiseptic.” What did he mean? He meant that gratitude, like a vaccine can prevent the invasion of a disgruntled, discouraged spirit. Like an antitoxin, gratitude can prevent the affects of the poisons of cynicism, criticalness, and grumbling. Like an antiseptic, a spirit of gratitude can soothe and heal the most troubled spirit.
It is more important to thank God for blessings received than to pray for them beforehand. That forward-looking prayer, though right as an expression of our dependence on God, is at least partially self-centered. We hope to gain something by our prayer. But the backward-looking act of thanksgiving is selfless. It is akin to love. All our love to God is in response to His love for us; it never starts on our side. I John 4 states clearly that we love because He loved us first. Gratitude is from the same root word as “grace,” which signifies the free and boundless mercy of God. Thanksgiving is from the same root word as “think” so to think is to thank.
Thankfulness – gratitude – is a skill that is developed. And, as with any other skill, “practice makes perfect.” The more grateful you are, the more things you will find for which to be grateful. Sometimes it is good for us to be thankful for losses. As one writer said, “Everyone of us is more blessed than we are hurt.”
The story is told of Matthew Henry, author of one of the foremost Biblical commentaries. He was attacked by thieves and robbed. He wrote in his diary: “Let me be thankful. First, I was never robbed before. Second, although they took my purse, they didn’t take my life. Third, although they took my all, it was not much. Fourth, let me be thankful because it was I who was robbed and not I who did the robbing.”
We may acknowledge our Divine Provider over the roast and mashed potatoes, but how often are we deliberately thankful for the water from our taps? The wood for our houses and our furniture? The paper for our books and napkins and note pads? The brick and metal and fabric and countless other materials we use and enjoy? God through nature made them all possible. We would do well to remember.
Author David Seamands shared the following story in a Christian periodical: Back in the very early thirties, William Stidger was seated one day with a group of friends in a restaurant. Everyone was talking about the depression: how terrible it was, the suffering people, rich people committing suicide, the jobless, the whole thing. The conversation became more and more miserable as it went on. A minister in the group suddenly broken in and said, “I don’t know what I”m going to do, because in two or three weeks I have to preach a sermon on Thanksgiving Day. I want to say something affirmative. What can I say that’s affirmative in a period of world depression like this?” As the minister spoke, Stidger said it was like the Spirit of God spoke to him: “Why don’t you give thanks to those people who have been a blessing in your life and affirm them during this terrible time?”
He began to think about that. The thought came to his mind of a schoolteacher very dear to him, a wonderful teacher of poetry and English literature from years ago who had gone out of her way to put a great love of literature and verse in him. It affected all his writings and his preaching. So he sat down and wrote a letter to this woman, now up in years. It was only a matter of days until he got a reply in the feeble scrawl of the aged. “My Dear Willy.” At that time he was about 50 years of age, bald – and no one had called him Willy for a long time, so just the opening sentence warmed his heart. Here’s the gist of the letter:
“My Dear Willy: I can’t tell you how much your note meant to me. I am in my eighties, living alone in a small room, cooking my own meals, lonely, and like the last leaf of autumn lingering behind. You’ll be interested to know that I taught in school for more than fifty years, and yours is the first note of appreciation I ever received. It came on a blue, cold morning, and it cheered me as nothing has done in many years.”
Stidger noted, “I’m not sentimental, but I found myself weeping over that note.” He then thought of a kindly bishop, now retired. He was an old man who had recently faced the death of his wife and was all alone. This bishop had taken a lot of time, given him advice and counsel and love when he first began his ministry. So he sat down and wrote the old bishop. In two days a reply came back.
“My Dear Will: Your letter was so beautiful, so real, that as I sat reading it in my study, tears fell from my eyes, tears of gratitude. Before I realized what I was doing, I rose from my chair and I called her name to share it with her, forgetting she was gone. You’ll never know how much your letter has warmed my spirit. I have been walking around in the glow of your letter all day long.”
So, here’s an idea for you for this holiday season. Set aside a special time to practice “an attitude of gratitude.” Make a list of things you are grateful for. Send someone a thank you note. Call a minister who has influenced your life and express your appreciation. Once you have developed the habit of being thankful you’ll discover more and more ways in which He has blessed and is blessing your life. Henri Nouwen said, “When we bless the fruits of the harvest, let us at least realize that blessed fruits need to be shared. Otherwise, the blessing turns into a curse.”