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Thanksgiving

( Originally Published 1912 )



Enter His gates with thanksgiving and His courts with praise. Be thankful unto Him and bless His name. —Hebrew Poem.

That a heart or a nation should sum up its reasons for gratitude and recount the blessedness of existence, seems so rational that the a& easily escapes all fault-finding. Much may be said concerning the delight of duty. But, surrounded as we all are by such manifold tokens of good will, the question is worthy of consideration whether delight itself is not a duty. Anticipating by a few days the formal Thanks-giving Day of our nation, we may attempt to fill this hour with joyful songs and meditations to celebrate the divine Goodness and express our satisfaction with the method of Providence in the affairs of earth.

The times are propitious for such a service. The many and great changes in religious philosophy have placed the Creator in a different relation to the world. The sad and cruel creeds of Christendom which, in former years held such powerful sway over the human mind and heart, banished much joy and gratitude from life. God was too much represented as a foreign des-pot who ruled this province of earth with a rod of iron. The natural world was accursed because of man's sin and all natural pleasure was a temptation of Satan. Nature was hostile to religion. Instead of revealing, it was thought that earth, with its marvelous laws and phenomena, concealed Deity. If one wished to know anything about the Creator, he must turn away from flower and star and the endless unfolding of all material and spiritual events as manifested in the formation of worlds and the history of humanity, and search for Him in books and churches and schemes of redemption.

In this respect we have lived to see a great change. We are permitted to believe that the world is not alienated from its Creator. We may take delight in nature. Beauty is not hostile to the soul. God is not angry when His children are happy. The universe is carried forward toward its destiny by a beneficent Power guided by 'unerring Wisdom. Some of the early races adopted leapings and dances and gestures of delight in their worship, thus expressing their uncontrollable joy at the recognition of Powers greater than themselves. If not thus, in some more fitting way, we should celebrate our discovery that the world is not governed by an absentee God, but by One who is immanent in every part of it;—that everything, from the dewdrop at our feet to the bands of Orion, glows with a sweet, but mysterious Presence. We may express our delight in hymns and prayers and also by a constant enthusiasm in our daily duties; by faithfully returning to the task assigned us; and, although encountering temporary adversities, maintaining a cheerful courage; not abating our trust that its end will explain each step of the journey ; that the blight of a day may help the harvest of the future; that all evil is temporary; and the course of affairs guarantees the triumph of goodness.

To him who has stayed his mind on the larger meanings of existence and has ceased to regard events as good or evil only as they may bring pleasure or pain to his own self or his immediate circle of friends, gratitude becomes a habit of life. Man's first hopes and fears are contracted and personal. His anxious inquiry of every promised or threatened event is: "How will it affect me?" But one must learn that he cannot place his private stamp on the affairs of this huge world. The solar system does not exist for me alone. I am only an infinitesimal incident in the in-finite affair. If the drought spoils my corn or the rain spoils my hay, the universe is not, therefore, a failure. When a great aim is in view Providence does not consult our whims or choices. Regardless of our private hopes or dreads the course of things moves for-ward on its appointed way. The Infinite never stops to parley for "right of way," although his survey may cut right through the most valuable part of our estate. Thus, he who would maintain serenity of spirit, must reflect over the greatness of the world and its history as compared with himself and his fourscore years of life.

To dwell much upon evil is likely to bring a habit of distrust. One cannot wholly ignore wrongs, but one can keep from magnifying them. The habit of overstating evil is fatal to happiness. Doubtless skepticism has its value; but, when it becomes excessive, it becomes a loss. In spring there are frosty nights and bleak days to retard a too luxuriant growth of vegetation before age could lend its strength. So, wise doubts and a rational consideration of the actual world may check a too rapid growth of sentiment and pro-duce a philosophy of life whose fibre is strong enough to make it enduring. A philosophy formed only of the emotions, like Jonah's vine, may spring up in a few hours, but it soon falls of its own weight. But frost and cloud lasting through a whole summer would not be more fatal to the harvests than would doubt and the habit of looking only upon evil be to a life. For a part of the year man, truly, can only see an earth covered with brown grass and dead leaves or snow; but, for the part of the time, he can see an earth covered with green grass and brilliant flowers. There are not many days on which we cannot see the sun; but few nights in which we cannot see the stars.

If this world is not the best possible world there are too many good things in sight to warrant the conclusion that it is the worst possible world. It is best not to overstate either side; but, if either must suffer from exaggeration, let it be the one that contributes most to human happiness. The poison and its anti-dote, the wound and its remedy, both for body and soul, are found too nearly together to permit the inference that an evil or an unwise spirit had the larger influence in forming the plan of earth. It is not difficult to forget the thorns and thistles, which spring from earth, when there is recalled the cheerful readiness of the same earth to furnish food for all its children. The young prince, Gotama, going along the road one day saw an example of poverty; following the same road the next day he saw an example of helpless old age; on the third day he saw an example of death. From these spectacles he reached the conclusion that poverty and helplessness and death are universal and misery is the common lot of mankind. For him or for us to reach such a conclusion is a mistake. Every road reveals to the traveler some spectacles of goodness and happiness. We may meet a funeral, but we may see playing children. Some homes are bereft, but there are many homes whose circle remains unbroken for years. There is age, bowed by its burden of years; there is also youth with light step and generous hopes and innocent laughter. Life is as abounding as death. The clouds which gather around life's sunset are unable to blot out the hope that the sun and not the clouds are immortal. Evening clouds may only be morning mists attending the soul's rising in some more beautiful world.

Sometimes ardent hearts become anxious over national and social wrong-doings. They cannot be greatly blamed, for this solicitude is one of the motives working for a better condition. It is an advance agent of progress. But those hearts should not become anxious to the border of sadness or despair. The case is never hopeless. Along with whatever tyranny or fraud or anarchy there may be in government, there are also freedom and honesty and order. Bad men are sometimes seen in too great numbers and too great prominence; but there are always good men who are toiling at the problems of government and society. There are always those who care more for the true glory of the whole country than for the immediate success of their party and who plan for the welfare of mankind rather than for that of a class. There is much natural and uncalculating goodness in the world. On every side spontaneous acts of kindness and generosity are performed. The school-house, the press, the church, and the home are all assisting in the formation of better judgments and a higher moral code. Moreover, Nature herself seems to have set her hear-upon the one aim of bringing in higher races and nobler conditions.

There are names in history whose mention awakens no joy, no inspiration. There are those who have seized the helm of affairs and, by their ignorance or cupidity, seemed only fitted to destroy. But there always appear those strong enough to wrest the helm from them and turn the course of things toward the port of justice. If the heart may despair when it hears the name of Arnold or Phillip or Herod pronounced, it throbs with new hope at mention of the name of Washington, or William of Orange or Jesus. Every age is equal to itself and rises to meet every emergency. Heaven does not impoverish itself to enrich one generation. Each generation, each era has a prophet who speaks to it in its own tongue. If every year earth opens to receive the great and good of our race, we will turn our eyes away from their graves, and fixing them upon the kind sky whence they came, will confidently expect the appearance of others as good and great.

Optimism is not only a form of happiness, it is also a form of usefulness. We would all rather be led than driven to our work. We would rather follow a strain of music than go before a whip. We all need the inspiration of, at least, a possible success. With the certainty of failure the mind sinks, the hands fall lifeless. If every battle were sure to end in defeat, the line would break at the first assault and our colors would be left lying in the dust. It is past triumphs that give enthusiasm for the present toil. There are times when we should forget all our sorrows and hold a banquet of joy. It is a blessed quality of life that enables it in time to forget all its failures, all its mortifications, all its griefs and disappointments and displace the black night with refulgent day.

Often repeated, things lose their first impressive meaning. This has partly occurred in the annual observance of Thanksgiving Day.

We may borrow a page of history to illustrate the spirit in which it originated. Those who had landed in Massachusetts, planted in the following spring six acres of pease and barley and twenty acres of corn. The pease were a failure, the barley very poor, and only the corn yielded much increase. Of the one hundred and two who had landed the December before nearly one-half were dead. About sixty men, women and children were clinging for life to the edge of an almost interminable forest, surrounded by Indians, likely at any time to murder them. Between them and the home they had left, and from which they had heard no tidings, lay an ocean, to cross which required nearly three months. Under these conditions they appointed a day of Thanksgiving to Almighty God. No matter what failure of crops there might be or how much they might suffer, they felt that the end would justify all things.

By the side of that historic incident the formal proclamations of some of our governors seem rather spectral and make believe. Compared with that little band of heroes, worshipping God in the wilderness, much of the worship of the modern Thanksgiving Day, saturated as it is with epicureanism, seems almost meaningless.

Each epoch has different thoughts, different duties and reads the Scripture of events with different eyes. If there is to be a day of thanksgiving, each year, every generation should observe it in harmony with its own thoughts and actions. It is useless to keep the old form if its spirit has departed. But each age should be careful not to abuse its privilege. A Thanksgiving service manufactured by main strength and advertising can not have great moral or spiritual value. The essence of gratitude is that it is not forced nor artificial, but voluntary and natural. It is a free festival of intellect and emotion. It is the soul's jubilee over the high ordering of events and not a rejoicing over those events which, at the time, seem prosperous. The truly thankful heart is that one which, whatever may happen,—come happiness, come calamity, come wealth, come poverty, let nations rise or nations fall,—certifies its unqualified trust in the method of the great Creator.

The true thanksgiving is in full accord with the universal operations of Providence. It is not a sudden recognition of some Divine interference with the order of nature that brings a special benefit to our door, but the free out-going of the soul toward the Source of life and law. It should be natural and spontaneous, as the tree opening its leaves in the sunshine, the child at play, and the bird singing among the blossoms.

Epictetus was a pagan slave; yet he had a nobler conception of thanksgiving than many a free-born Christian. He was thankful, not only for the harvest, but for the plow with which he prepared the soil; not only for the fruit, but for the spade with which he dug around the trees; not only for his recovery from sickness, but for the many days of health. He was glad that he had hands and feet and eyes; glad that he could sleep and that he could breathe in his sleep without any effort of the will. These are some sentences quoted from his meditations:

"Ought we not, whether we dig or plow or eat or breathe make it a hymn to God ? These things we ought forever to celebrate. What can I do, a lame old man, but praise God? Were I a nightingale I would act the part of a nightingale, were I a swan, the part of a swan. But since I am a reasonable creature it is my part to praise God. This is my business. I will do it. Nor will I ever desert my post so long as it is vouchsafed to me. I call on you all to join me in this song."

It would be well for us all to adopt the spirit of this far off Stoic saint. With an abiding confidence in the Divine goodness and wisdom, a cheerful and grateful mood would prevail in our lives. We would feel that whatever may happen to us or to our nation, no permanent harm is done; and that whatever private or public calamities may come, man shall not be driven from the winding stairway by which he mounts to universal victory and universal joy.

Not many now, without or within the churches, think that any nation has arbitrary decrees passed on its behalf. Not many think that God is a great person standing outside of earth who, at stated intervals, interferes with the laws of nature at the behest of some favorites. The sun and moon do not halt in order that some warrior, chosen of heaven, may gain a victory. No pillar or cloud or fire goes before an elect people guiding them to freedom. The rocks are not smitten into running fountains; seas are not parted; the east wind does not bring flocks of quails; and the sky does not rain manna to favor any nation. The difference between China and America is not caused by some special interest that Providence may have in the latter. It is in climate and race and the unvarying laws. Cause and effect balance each other and no prayer of Chinese Pagan or American Christian can disturb this balance. Rain alternated with sunshine. the seasons followed each other in regular order, earth grew flowers and fruits in abundance long before Christianity invaded these shores. Except as they may lead to increased human wisdom, fast days are no guard against calamity. Thanksgiving days are no guaranty for next year's harvest. If the lines of heat should greatly vary, increasing the temperature, changing the amount of the rainfall, it would not be because God is pleased with the excess or angry at the lack of prayer. The least scientific and the most religious would seek a nearer and more rational cause for the disturbance.

But, instead of being a reason for indifference or ingratitude the absence of favoritism and miraculous interference is cause for enthusiasm and thankfulness.

Not on one, but on all days is there reason for gratitude, seeing that Providence is not partial nor capricious toward the nations of the earth; that there is no planet and no particle outside of Divine power; that everywhere forces are steadily at work moulding nature and races into finer form. It is ours to yield to joy at recognition of the way in which the world is thus formed and guided. Our thanksgiving should be a signal to heaven that we no more complain or rebel against its high order; that we are content to find the Divine approval of our earnest deeds a sufficient answer to prayer; that, not by miracle to a few, but by beneficent laws to all come the manifold blessings of use and beauty of nature, the rich treasures of the changing seasons, the glory of the morning, the splendors of sunset, the awe and mystery of the silent night; come all loves and friendships; come all the duties of earth and all the hopes of heaven.

In writing his proclamation the President recognizes the trials through which our nation has come and the possible trials awaiting it in the future. This is a type of individual no less than of national life. Human existence is not all cloudless. All have suffered; all must suffer. Many times we have been disappointed in the outcome of our plans. Man builds; but the tempest finds where and how he has builded. Wealth comes to him; but it neglects to bring with it that which he expected it to bring. He sought renown; but, having found it, he was still unsatisfied. Pleasure smiles twice or thrice upon us and then hides herself. Friends were close to us for a few years; then they disappeared and we are lonesome without them.

Sometimes harassed by fears, haunted by doubts, and pressed to earth by weight of cares, what shall mortals do ? What can they do but fall back upon Him from whom they came and whose they are ? Going thither they will be able to give their true rank to all things; they will find themselves becoming superior to all limitations of place and time; the horizon of existence will no longer seem like a stone barrier forbidding all advance, but a waving curtain, through which the philosopher may see and the band of a child may sweep aside.

To the beneficent and beautiful spirit inhabiting the universe, let us here erect an altar. In the form of the mind's best thought, of the heart's purest love, and of lives dedicated to only noble deeds upon it may we freely place our sacrifice of thanksgiving.

"My God, I thank thee who hast made The earth so bright;
So full of splendor and of joy,
Beauty and light;
So many glorious things are here Noble and right!

I thank thee, too, that thou hast made joy to abound;
So many gentle thoughts and deeds Circling us round,
That in the darkest spot of earth
Some love is found.

I thank thee more that all our joy
Is touched with pain;
That shadows fall on brightest hours;
That thorns remain;
So that earth's bliss may be our guide,
And not our chain.

For thou who knowest, Lord, how soon
Our weak heart clings,
Hast given us joys, tender and true,
Yet all with wings,
So that we see, gleaming on high,
Diviner things."

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