What I am about to write may sound strange coming from a Presbyterian pastor, but I truly believe that Thanksgiving might be the most important day of our year. Now, don’t get me wrong, Christmas and Easter — those days and what they represent are the foundation of millions of lives (including mine), and the turning point of history.
But Thanksgiving is so important because it is, well, practical. The decision to stop our daily lives, come together with family and friends and explicitly or implicitly take stock of our gifts and blessings is not just good for our souls, it is good for our bodies and for the world.
There is a growing body of research that suggests that gratitude — that is, the willingness and ability to give thanks — is beneficial and even transformative for our mental, emotional, and even physical health. You have probably heard that somewhere before.
This day and our tradition of recognizing and celebrating our blessings also provides an important contrast to the way we normally handle the stresses and challenges of this world and our daily lives.
It is a sentiment that has been echoed throughout both philosophical thought and pop culture for a long time. Depending on your age, it might be Bob Marley singing, “don’t worry about a thing,” or Bobby McFerrin extorting us, “Don’t worry, be happy,” or Pharrell manifesting the idea to simply be “Happy.”
These songs are reflections of what the world seems to say in the face of all the challenges and trouble we face: Don’t Worry, Be Happy. Even Jesus, in Matthew 6, seems to make the same point when he says: “Do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear.”
No matter who is delivering the message, its one that is easier said than done.
There is a good reason for that. The reality of our world — one filled with war and injustice; poverty and neglect; division and isolation — renders this pithy saying utterly detached from the realities most of us live with every day.
Additionally, in certain situations worry can be helpful, it can lead us to make wise, prudent decisions. If you don’t worry about what you are going to wear and how you are dressed, then you aren’t going to look good — and looking good matters sometimes, it makes a good first impression and gives others a positive view of you and your family. “Worrying” about things like safety is what prevents terrible accidents.
But Jesus doesn’t end his message with the call not to worry. He continues speaking, “Look around you,” he says. All around you are things that are much less valuable to God than you, and yet none of them are bogged down by the worry that cripples and crushes all of us from time to time.
The animals and plants need food and drink just like us, and they are provided for. All of nature is a living witness to the goodness of our God the creator of the universe and of the grace of Jesus Christ. Open your eyes and see that our God looks after that which He has made.
Jesus’ words to his listeners then are his words to us today, they still apply, and they are far wiser than they might seem at first. Jesus isn’t telling us not to take time to provide the food and clothes that all of us need, what he is talking about is our attitudes and our dispositions. How do we view our needs? Jesus has formed the question into a simple choice: will you live life with an attitude of thanks or an attitude of worry and fear?
Thankfulness or gratitude is the opposite action and the opposite attitude of worry. There is so much to be thankful for and why gratitude and Thanksgiving is so important. This day is an opportunity for us to pause and take stock of the gifts that we have been given and the blessings we have received.
The worries and challenges — real and imagined — of our lives and the world will be there tomorrow, but a day spent in conscious awareness of the gifts and blessings we have, the good things in life we can be thankful for, will prepare us to boldly face them much more than worry ever would.
Listen to the words of Matthew 6:30, from the Message translation: “If God gives such attention to the appearance of wildflowers—most of which are never even seen—don’t you think he’ll attend to you, take pride in you, do his best for you? What I’m trying to do here is to get you to relax, to not be so preoccupied with getting, so you can respond to God’s giving.”
We don’t need to worry about what we are going to get: food, clothes, care — because we already know that God is the one doing the giving. So remember, today is about much more than turkey, pie, or football. It is a chance to recognize the many things we have received, so that we might be able to hold them with open hands, and in gratitude, share them with others.
Chip Stapleton is senior pastor at Highland Presbyterian Church in Fayetteville. Reach him at email@example.com.