Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Most Thanksgiving prayers are great, others bug me

This is my column that appeared in the Arab Tribune on Wednesday, November 26, 2014

I have heard many Thanksgiving prayers over the years at public gatherings, ecumenical worship services and meetings. Most are beautiful reflections of deep and humble gratitude for faith, family and friendship.

But the blessings that bug me go something like this: "Lord, we're so proud to live in America, where we have all this great food. We have way more than we need (praise God, I'm going to gain a pound today). Thank you for our wealth - um, I mean ‘blessings’ - because this is the greatest country in the world. We’re glad we’re not poor like people in other countries, thanks to you.”

I'm exaggerating, of course. Please forgive me. But I wonder about prayers that simply thank God for our bounty, our food and all the great things we enjoy.

Isn’t there a hint of the Pharisee who was thankful that he wasn’t “like that tax collector over there?”

It’s the nature of true gratitude to go deeper than that. It’s the nature of the American holiday itself to go deeper than that.

When the pilgrims held the first Thanksgiving in Plymouth, it was a harvest feast held with the Wampanoaga Native Americans after a long saga of strife. They were religious separatists who longed for freedom to practice their faith.
Their two-month trip on the Mayflower to the new world was not only uncomfortable, it was extremely treacherous. The first winter was brutal and many of them stayed on the ship, where they suffered from exposure and disease.

Half of the original pilgrims died before they saw their first spring. Yes, half.

The ones that lived barely managed to eat until this first harvest. But by the grace of God, they made it.

So when they celebrated the first Thanksgiving, it wasn’t out of thanks for their bounty, riches, plenty and comfort. It was out of deep gratitude that they were still breathing. It was out of sheer joy that, finally, harvest had come.

It was out of the realization that every moment is a gift, every challenge full of grace.

It was out of the belief that it was worth all the hardship and loss to live the great adventure and to find religious freedom. And most of all, it was out of the firm conviction that God had seen them through the great struggle.

I find it intriguing that it wasn’t until the middle of the Civil War that President Lincoln proclaimed this tradition to be a national holiday, held each November.

Yes, it was during the Civil War, the greatest hardship we had ever known. Even in our toughest times, we proclaim God’s goodness.

Thanksgiving is about gratitude that we are still alive, by the grace of God.

So this year, let your prayers go deeper. Remember the true gratitude of the first Thanksgiving. Thank God for the ways you have “made it” by grace. Acknowledge that your livelihood and well-being are in God's hands.

Don't just pray over the fantastic food, but recall the tough times you’ve had this year. Remember that God is the source of every morsel of goodness. Be thankful (and honest) about how we are all in this together, and God sees us through.

Reflect upon Jesus, who taught in the beatitudes that true blessings come disguised as hardship. Let your heart be filled with the kind of gratitude that is so stubborn, it bubbles up no matter what.

  • Steve West is a husband, father, minister, musician and writer who pastors Arab First United Methodist Church. His blog, “Musings of a Musical Preacher,” can be found at