Philosopher/longshoreman Eric Hoffer once said that the most difficult arithmetic in life to master is “that which enables us to count our blessings.”
I like to think of it as the arithmetic of gratitude.
Thanksgiving is less than two weeks away. While I’m grateful for the material blessings in my life, my gratitude this year centers on the transcendent blessings that are rooted in faith and my good fortune to have been born in this great country.
The Almighty has been far more kind and gracious to me than I deserve. I find that more often than I care to admit I lurch and blunder my way down the road to heaven. I’m grateful that God allows me to continue to keep lurching and blundering. I’m especially grateful that my weakness and occasional willfulness haven’t disqualified me from the journey.
This morning I tuned in to C-Span’s “Washington Journal.” The early segment was about the 150th anniversary of the Gettysburg Address. The host, Pedro Echevarria, asked the audience to call in with their thoughts on the meaning they took from Lincoln’s words. I called in and was fortunate enough to actually get through. In the few minutes I had I tried my best to explain that we Americans are no more or less extraordinary than anyone else on this planet. The thing that really makes America special is our transcendent founding principles - ordered liberty and equality before the law. Lincoln outlined them beautifully early in his speech. Then he rhetorically surveyed the field where so many had died and called on his countrymen to “take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion.” Finally, like an Old Testament prophet, he called on future generations on to ensure that “government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”
Lincoln’s inspiring words at Gettysburg came on November 19, 1863. A month earlier he had issued a proclamation of national thanksgiving, setting aside the last Thursday in November [it’s now the fourth Thursday] as a day for all Americans to remember God’s kindness and grace to the nation. That first national Thanksgiving was celebrated on November 26, 1863. Ever since then we’ve been proclaiming our thanks for the “gracious gifts of the Most High God, who, while dealing with us in anger for our sins, hath nevertheless remembered mercy.”
Lincoln knew that Gettysburg wasn’t going to end the war. In fact, it would rage on for nearly two more years. Thousands more would die on the battlefield, from Spotsylvania, to the Wilderness, to the battle of Atlanta. The carnage of Cold Harbor was yet to come. The brutal efficiency of Sherman’s march to the sea was still on the horizon. Yet, even in the darkest of these times, Lincoln pressed on with dogged faith, believing that the twin goals of national unity and the unshackling of the oppressed and enslaved were well worth the sacrifice.
By the time of his second inaugural in March of 1865, Lincoln was a man who had aged like no President before him, or since. The years of tragic conflict seemed to envelop him like a burial shroud. His inaugural remarks were brief. It was time for the nation to forgive and heal and it was time to reflect on how God’s hand had been woven into the great national calamity. Lincoln concluded that the war was just retribution for the national sin of slavery. As he put it, God would be fully justified to allow the bloodletting to continue “until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said “the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.”
Mercifully, the war finally ended on April 9th with the surrender of Robert E. Lee at Appomattox.
As I consider Thanksgiving this year I’m troubled about the country I love. America is treading a dangerous path. The nation’s political course is now polluted by hate. Our founding principles are being slowly eroded by a growing police and surveillance state. Those who served and died so nobly at Gettysburg didn’t give their lives so that government could become our ruthless taskmaster. They served and died so that our founding principles would be preserved, protected, and defended for all time.
But I’m also thankful. America keeps lurching and stumbling, but God hasn’t given up on us. The principles of our founding are close to his heart. He won’t abandon them, or us. Somehow, some way, he will lead us to the place to where we return to those principles and to what Lincoln called “the better angels of our nature.”