The Thanksgiving Holiday Marginalized: Part I

Paul Dean

Thanksgiving has fallen on hard times these days. Jaimee Rose of "The Arizona Republic" comments that "If there's any day we feel compelled to pray, to halt the hustle and bow heads in gratitude, it's Thanksgiving. Although 90 percent of Americans consistently tell Gallup polls that they believe in God or a higher power, only 39 percent 'strongly agree' that prayer is a daily habit. So on this holiday that's supposed to be about saying thanks, there's often that pregnant pause for prayer. We're out of practice. We're from different cultures. We have varied beliefs, or none at all. The moment can get just a little awkward."

In my estimation, Rose's words reveal and underlying thought pattern that permeates our culture. The thought, whether expressed or not, is that because we now live in a politically correct culture, a by-product of postmodernism, prayer has become difficult if not impossible even at a Thanksgiving gathering. Even those committed to Christ often fail in their conviction and remain silent rather than risk offense. There is no doubt that many Christians are obnoxious and should learn to remain silent at certain times and refrain from harsh language or high pressure. At the same time, there is a difference between us offending and the gospel itself offending, and, there is a difference between sensitivity to others and compromise. If we can't pray at Thanksgiving, we can we pray? The very purpose of Thanksgiving is to pray! We shall make that reality even more plain than it is on its face in part two of this article as we look at President George Washington's Thanksgiving proclamation.

Before we speak of the purpose of Thanksgiving, we return to Rose's article. "'Most people don't like to do prayers; they think that they're performing,' [says a] former hospital chaplain and member of [a] United Methodist Church in Phoenix. "They're trying to be good enough, and if we're all sitting around the Thanksgiving table, grateful for the people that we're with, that should be enough.'"

Note the sentiment from this Christian minister. He seems to be saying that if we are grateful for the people around us, there is no need to express that gratefulness to God. It is simply a warm feeling we have that gives us comfort at some level. That should be enough in his estimation. It is this kind of sentimental and shallow mentality that has decimated the truth in so many churches. Among other problems, this kind of thinking makes everything about us. When it's about us, it's enough that we have a good feeling. The problem lies in the fact that it is not about us: it's about God. We are thanking Him for what He has done. Every good and perfect gift comes from above (Jas. 1:17). Our problem has to do with the fact that in an effort to find satisfaction, we make much of ourselves. In the end, we will always be empty if that's our method. The self-esteem gospel leads to misery and death. We are created to make much of God. Only when we get hold of that reality and follow through in making much of Him will we be satisfied. Nothing satisfies like Christ. We are seeking satisfaction in the stagnant wells of things and self when the life giving and thirst quenching water is Christ (Jer. 2:13; John 4). At this thought the Lord says to the heavens, "Be astonished and be afraid! (Jer. 2:12)" No doubt most who read the minister's comments will think he is giving helpful advice, yet, the Lord says we ought to be astonished at and afraid of his words.

The minister is not finished. He notes that "we're in a competitive culture here and that's what makes people afraid of praying out loud. The solution is sensitivity. Know your audience, know their comfort zones and know that if you want a prayer, you might have to say it yourself. (Well, that, or get a kid to say it. Children's prayers are almost universally adorable.) Know also that there are 28 million American couples of mixed faith, according to the 2001 American Religious Identification Survey. That's a lot of prayer-time stickiness."

There you have it. The solution to all of this consternation over prayer at Thanksgiving is to be sensitive in light of the fact that there are millions of mixed faith couples in America. We should know their comfort zones. This chaplain implies that sensitivity would mean not praying at all in some contexts. If someone is not comfortable with prayer, we would have to pray ourselves, or, presumably, not pray at all. Such is the case with Monty Gaither, the Arizona state director of American Atheists and one who does not pray. He mentions his sister and her new found faith. At one Thanksgiving gathering he recalls, "We all sat down, and as I got ready to help myself, she said, 'Now, let's pray.' Well, while she prayed, I went ahead and filled my plate and my son's plate. She gave me a look, and then we ate. There was no discussion, and never another prayer." While sensitivity on the part of this woman caused her to cease from praying, one wonders what to call the dynamic displayed by her brother's rudeness and the squelching of her commitment, faithfulness, desire, and religious freedom. And yet, many Christians would no doubt approve of her never offering another prayer.

Of course, the other solution offered is to let a child pray as "children's prayers are almost universally adorable." Is that the point of prayer: to be adorable? Can that solution qualify as genuine prayer if the focus is on children being adorable and not on Christ? The fact that the prayers of children would be regarded in this way would nullify the prayer. It would be something that children do. It would be a children's fantasy. This solution relegates prayer and the Sovereign Lord of the Universe to the same position as Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, or the Tooth Fairy. This mindset says, "We know these things don't exist but it's cute to let the children have their fun. Let's let the kids pray. We know God is either irrelevant or doesn't exist, but it's cute to let the children have their fun." This solution is no solution at all. Indeed, prayer has fallen on hard times as well as Thanksgiving.

Rose notes almost as an afterthought that "prayer is, surprisingly enough, the point of this holiday, or one of them, anyway. George Washington's first proclamation as president declared Nov. 26, 1789, a national day of 'thanksgiving and prayer.'" Now that's a point upon which we can all agree. Yet, Rose goes on to comment, "See, we're supposed to say thanks to someone for something."

One wonders whether Rose is being facetious or whether she is confused in regard to whom we must be thankful and for what. Her confusion should not be surprising in light of the fact that many people think that Thanksgiving is that celebration at which we commemorate the Pilgrims and their thankfulness to the Indians for bringing them food. Talk about revisionist history! No, we are to be thankful to "Almighty God," and, we are to be such in a public way. To that discussion, we will turn in part two of this article.

[Part Two Tomorrow]