Thanksgiving in Times of Uncertainty

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We all know about uncertainty. The year 2020, in particular, has been a year of many uncertainties. Last year, who would have thought our world would endure a global pandemic in the coming months? Who could have foreseen the hundreds of thousands of deaths related to COVID-19 in the United States and abroad? Who foresaw the widespread business and school shutdowns? Or who predicted we would all be going to the grocery store, the gas station, and church with masks—if we could go to church at all? Nobody.

In this new uncertain reality, nations around the world have come to the Thanksgiving season. Canadians celebrate their Thanksgiving earliest in October. Americans and Brazilians remember Thanksgiving on the fourth Thursday in November, while a few other countries celebrate at other times in November. Thanksgiving in the US is an annual feast usually enjoyed with turkey, stuffing, cranberry sauce, and traditional dishes. Historically, families gathered around the table with family and friends to give thanks for God’s blessings.

But this year seems different. Restrictions on large groups, mask mandates, and social distancing make this Thanksgiving feel quite a bit out-of-the-ordinary.

But this year seems different. Restrictions on large groups, mask mandates, and social distancing make this Thanksgiving feel quite a bit out-of-the-ordinary. Some governors have even aimed to restrict Thanksgiving gatherings larger than 10 people, which would be a novel approach to a novel situation in our lifetimes. And there’s no sense of much changing in the near future. It may feel odd to celebrate Thanksgiving—a feast of gratitude—in such a strange year as 2020 that has seen many hardships and possibly even death of family members and friends.

Thanksgiving in Times of Uncertainty in History

However, this year may not be so unusual when we look back at the past. There were some significant Thanksgivings in history when Americans celebrated during times of hardship and uncertainty. Take the first Thanksgiving for instance. In the then-Massachusetts Bay Colony, the original feast was held in 1621. The settlers had just endured a brutal winter after landing the year before. Of the 102 original colonists, only 44 remained. Dozens died from scurvy and malnutrition in the first year. The Native Americans saved the colony by teaching settlers how to farm in the New World. After their first year in the New World, the settlers held a feast to celebrate their survival while pointing to the God who saved them and invited the Native Americans to join them for this festival of thanksgiving.

Two years later, Governor Bradford wrote God “has spared us from pestilence and disease, has granted us freedom to worship God according to the dictates of our own conscience; Now I, your magistrate, do proclaim that all ye Pilgrims, with your wives and ye little ones, do gather at ye meeting house ..., on Thursday, November 29th, of the year of our Lord one thousand six hundred and twenty-three, and the third year since ye Pilgrims landed on Pilgrim Rock, there to listen to ye pastor and render thanksgiving to ye Almighty God for all His blessings."

Just like today, the early Pilgrims celebrated Thanksgiving during a time of loss and uncertainty. There was no guarantee the colony would survive past 1623. After all, many of the survivors’ wives, husbands, and children were gone. But survive they did, and we celebrate their legacy this month.

That was not the only time Americans celebrated Thanksgiving in a time of uncertainty. In 1789, “thanks-giving” was proclaimed a national holiday. That year, France endured a bloody revolution as tens of thousands of French people would later be killed in the ensuing years. The new US Constitution had been written, but not every state had ratified it. George Washington, first President of the United States, led a fledgling nation, saddled with war debt on a far-flung continent. In that uncertain historical context, President Washington pointed the young nation to God with his first Thanksgiving Proclamation when he wrote,

Whereas it is the duty of all Nations to acknowledge the providence of Almighty God, to obey his will, to be grateful for his benefits, and humbly to implore his protection and favor—and whereas both Houses of Congress have by their joint Committee requested me “to recommend to the People of the United States a day of public thanksgiving and prayer to be observed by acknowledging with grateful hearts the many signal favors of Almighty God especially by affording them an opportunity peaceably to establish a form of government for their safety and happiness.”

Washington publicly acknowledged that it was God who blesses even if the future was questionable. The nation’s first President could not know if the country would succeed. After all, the Articles of Confederation, the nation’s first constitution had failed to unify the country as the framers had hoped. Who was to say this next constitution would succeed? But that didn’t deter Washington as he pondered Thanksgiving in 1789. In that precarious season, he reminded his country about the source of all their present and future blessings: “Almighty God.”

These are just two Thanksgivings during times of uncertainty. And there were others.

  • Think about President Lincoln’s Thanksgiving proclamation in 1863 in the middle of the Civil War. In that war, over half a million American soldiers perished and the end of that war was not in sight when Lincoln gave his speech. It was certainly a time of uncertainty for that Thanksgiving.
  • Consider Franklin Roosevelt’s Thanksgiving proclamation in 1941 on the eve of World War 2. In the early 1940s, Europe and Asia were enflamed in war and the US had not yet entered. Our country would enter in December 1941 and lose nearly 300,000 citizens. The “Greatest Generation” faced a unique and unpredictable time on that Thanksgiving.
  • Remember President George W. Bush’s Thanksgiving Proclamation just two months after 9/11. Who recalls the unsettling feelings surrounding the terrorist attacks in 2001? Still President Bush called the nation to thank God at the beginning of a protracted and unconventional war— also a time of uncertainty.
Historically, there have been many Thanksgivings during times of national or even global uncertainty.

Despite the various challenges our nation faced at these times, the country still celebrated Thanksgiving. Though this year may feel unique, it is not unique when we consider doubts about the future in past Thanksgivings. Historically, there have been many Thanksgivings during times of national or even global uncertainty.

Giving Thanks Today in a Time of Uncertainty

In this year of 2020, we look toward an unclear future. How long will this pandemic last? When will the social distancing end? When will we have peace between our neighbors? When will life go back to “normal”? We don’t know. Nobody knows for sure.

Surely, by God’s Spirit, we can be thankful in our circumstances, whatever they may be.

Certainly, this year is a different circumstance than most of us were expecting last year. But in one sense, it shouldn’t matter. As Christians, we should be grateful to God even in a year like this. The Apostle Paul tells us, “Give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.” (1 Thessalonians 5:18). The Apostle knew all sorts of uncertainties. His ministry was marked with imprisonments, nakedness, shipwrecks, floggings, sleeplessness, hunger, and even stonings (see 2 Corinthians 11:23–28). And yet, he told the Thessalonian believers to “give thanks in all circumstances.” Surely, by God’s Spirit, we can be thankful in our circumstances, whatever they may be.

This year, whether you gather with friends and family for Thanksgiving or not, remember the good things the Lord has provided. He created us (Genesis 1–2), he provides for our needs (Psalm 23:1), he forgives us of our sins (1 John 1:9), he reconciles us to himself (Romans 5:10), and he gives us the glorious hope of eternity with him (Revelation 21:4). Give thanks for all he has done in the past and present (yes, 2020)—and look forward to his goodness in the future.

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