It’s a clip from one of our favorite movies, Shenandoah, with Jimmy Stewart as the father of a Virginia family at the outbreak of the Civil War. He had made a deathbed promise to his wife that their children would be raised as good Christians. So, Charlie Anderson reluctantly took them to church and gathered them for a blessing at every evening meal. In this clip his six sons, daughter, and daughter-in-law are seated around an abundantly filled table. His prayer is a classic. In the 22-second clip he prayed—
Lord, we cleared this land. We plowed it, sowed it, and harvested it. We cooked the harvest. It wouldn’t be here, we wouldn’t be eatin’ it if we hadn’t done it all ourselves. We worked dog-bone hard for every crumb and morsel, but we thank you just the same anyway, Lord, for the food we’re about to eat. Amen. 1
It’s a comic but accurate glimpse into the human spirit, mid-sixties style. Charlie Anderson’s self-reliant independence and work ethic resonated with Americans in 1965 during what many consider a significant cultural overhaul—the anti-war movement, hippies, the sexual revolution, the death of a President, an emerging fascination with drugs, and in general a time of national disorientation. Many Americans in the 1960’s, like the Anderson’s in the 1860’s, were clinging to traditional values as the pace of change threatened our most cherished mores.
Forty years later the world has turned upside-down and the idea of genuine thanksgiving has slipped even farther to the margins of life. There’s a “we thank you just the same anyway” attitude about the ways we express our gratitude in nearly every human arena, including our faith. In contemporary America, perhaps more than other developed nations, Charlie Anderson’s weak sense of thankfulness has morphed into an entitlement ethos that labels most blessings and benefits as little more than what we deserve. This arrogance is often justified with a spiritual overlay of the worker being worthy of his wages (see 1 Timothy 5:18, ESV).
In the opening chapter of the Epistle to the Romans the Apostle Paul traced the spiritual decline of Israel in several broad summary verses. One verse isolated thanksgiving as one step down the slippery slope of moral decline. He wrote
For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened. (Romans 1:21, ESV)
Paul’s conclusions reflected a warning God had given Moses and the nation as they journeyed through the wilderness to the Land of Promise. God said,
Beware lest you say in your heart, ‘My power and the might of my hand have gotten me this wealth.’ (Deuteronomy 8:17, ESV)
It was a reminder that expressions of thanksgiving are essential in keeping our human focus on the one who guides and provides for his people. Without a sense of genuine thankfulness to God our thinking becomes futile and our hearts are darkened. Sad.
Twenty-first century Americans have in great measure this same “we thank you just the same anyway” mentality. Thanksgiving is for the most part a perfunctory element squeezed into the crowded agendas of life. Yes, there’s a national day of thanksgiving, attended by a Presidential declaration and prayer, going over the river and through the woods, and moments of grace between family rituals and football madness. Our observances are often sidebars to Black Friday and the Christmas season, now defined as the period between Halloween and the celebration of the New Year.
An attitude of gratitude is central to our spiritual development and the mission of the church, making disciples of all nations. Hundreds of Scriptures provide instruction and expectation about maintaining a humble, thankful heart before God. A few of them touch me deeply as we approach another Thanksgiving season—
Give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you. (1 Thessalonians 5:18, ESV)
This seems so basic and elementary, that giving thanks would punctuate every life circumstance, whether good or bad, joyful or tragic. But, one of the lessons of geezer-hood involves the realization of how selective we are in so many life venues—selective hearing, selective observance, selective memory, and yes, selective gratitude. Yet, personal character and spiritual growth are accelerated in both the peaks and valleys of life. Therefore, we should be intentional in offering thanks even in our most dire circumstances.
The other verses may seem a little odd. Jesus was sharing a final intimate meal with his disciples. Luke records his institution of the Lord’s Supper. His words are poignant and profound—
And he took a cup, and when he had given thanks he said, “Take this, and divide it among yourselves. For I tell you that from now on I will not drink of the fruit of the vine until the kingdom of God comes.” And he took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to them, saying, “This is my body, which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” (Luke 22:17-19, ESV)
That Jesus took a cup representing his shed blood, and a piece of bread, symbolic of his broken body, and then paused for an intentional moment of thanksgiving is a vivid image of a truly thankful spirit. It makes me ashamed of the “we thank you just the same anyway” response that so often characterizes my expressions of gratitude to God.
So, our national day of Thanksgiving is around the corner. Surely many of us will pause for moments of reflection and gratitude before the season shifts up several notches . My prayer, however, is that we will be gripped by that spirit every moment of every day so that gratitude to God will be more than “we thank you just the same anyway”.
1 Jimmy Stewart, Shenandoah, Directed by Andrew V. McLaglen, 1965.