26 November 2011

Are we blessed?

Many of you know that Thanksgiving is my favorite of all holidays, and there are many reasons. It's one of the least commercial, it really puts the emphasis on family, the food is amazing, and it's about thanking God for the abundant blessings in our lives. Oh...and it gives me an excuse to dress up like a pilgrim every year. True story. But I think I love it most because in our family it was one of the only days of the year that we took a break from our busyness, sat down at the table, turned off the TV, and really focused on each other. Sitting there, eating, talking, and laughing with my parents was the highlight of every Thanksgiving. While I've always had countless material blessings for which to be thankful, I rarely thought about those when it came down to assessing that for which I was most grateful. No, usually I was most thankful for the two people sitting beside me, for their love, for our family, and for being together. 

I think most of us would agree that the things we hold dearest aren't really objects. We cherish family and friendship, freedom and faith, and innumerable other intangible things. And that is how it should be. We should never cease to give thanks for such blessings. However, we cannot lose sight that we, as Americans/Canadians/Europeans/etc. also live with extreme material wealth. In today's recession and weak economy it is common to hear people complaining about the hit their investments took, or even talking about their struggle to pay basic bills or find a job. It's true, relative to the prosperity most of us have enjoyed for so many years, things are tough. All of us have been affected by the difficult economic situation. But few of us, as "westerners" (especially those of us who are young) have a real grasp of what "tough" looks like.  Poverty in the rest of the world looks a lot different from most of the poverty in America. (I say "most" because homelessness and severe poverty does affect people in the U.S. too.)

For example, for 2011 in the U.S. the poverty line for a single person was an annual income of $10,890. For a family of four it was $22,350. A few figures about what living in "poverty" can qualify as in America: 
  • 80% of poor households have air conditioning
  • 99% have a refrigerator
  • Nearly three-fourths have a car or truck, and 31% have two or more cars or trucks
  • Nearly two-thirds have cable or satellite television
  • Two-thirds have at least one DVD player and 70 percent have a VCR
  • Half have a personal computer, and one in seven have two or more computers
  • More than half of poor families with children have a video game system.
  • 43% have Internet access
  • One-third have a wide-screen plasma or LCD television

What does it look like in the rest of the world?

  • Approximately 20% of people live on less than $1 a day.
  • About half of the world, more than 3 billion people, live on less than $2.50 a day.
  • At least 80% of humanity lives on less than $10 a day.
  • 2 billion people, a quarter of humanity, live without electricity.
  • An estimated 1.2 million children are trafficked every year.
  • 20% of children between 5 and 14 years of age are involved in child labor.
  • One-sixth of the global population lacks access to safe drinking water. 
  • Women in poor areas of Asia and Africa walk an average of 4 miles a day to collect water.

You'll excuse me if I have a hard time sympathizing with the Occupy Wallstreet folks. It's always easy to accuse the extremely wealthy, the CEOs, the politicians of being out of touch with "the rest" of us, and I'm not saying they aren't. But I am saying that chances are we are just as out of touch with "the rest" of the world, and I think that's an even more serious problem. I really appreciated this response video to the Occupy movement:

"Reality can be ugly, bloody, and horrible." Most of us have lives with luxuries unimaginable to the rest of world. We may not be in the top 1% of wage earners worldwide, but we certainly aren't in the bottom 80% either. I like this guy's plan of making people live in the woods for three days to give them a taste of what corporations do for them, but I'd take it farther. I'd like all the disillusioned young adults of the West to go spend a week or two in a developing nation. It doesn't even have to be a war-torn or famine-stricken one. Just pick any ol' place where people toil long hours to feed their families, and then take pride in sweeping their dirt floors. Watch precious children covered in filth playing with ingenious toys they've constructed out of garbage. Experience them trying to feed you their best, out of hospitality, even though they have so little. And then see that despite the abysmal circumstances they live in, many of them are still happy and joyful. Yes, go visit "the rest" and then come back to your home, your food, and your bills and complain. I dare you. And then I dare you to look at all you have and not give thanks to the Lord who has blessed you so abundantly, and who allows you to live in a nation with the luxury of "protesting" whatever it is you are upset about.

But I suppose I shouldn't be too surprised at the lack of perspective in so many. As we learned in Remember the Titans, "Attitude reflects leadership, Captain." And the leadership of our nation does not acknowledge God's hand in the blessings of our nation, nor the importance of thanking the Lord even one day a year. Below is the text from President Obama's  Thanksgiving Day address. Take a minute to read it and note the conspicuous absence of God in his remarks. 

Obama's Thanksgiving Speech 2011

"From my family to yours, I'd like to wish you a happy Thanksgiving. Like millions of Americans, Michelle, Malia, Sasha, and I will spend the day eating great food, watching a little football, and reflecting on how truly lucky we are.

 As Americans, each of us has our own list of things and people to be thankful for. But there are some blessings we all share. We're especially grateful for the men and women who defend our country overseas. To all the service members eating Thanksgiving dinner far from your families, the American people are thinking of you today. And when you come home, we intend to make sure we serve you as well as you are serving America. 

We're also grateful for the Americans who are taking time out of their holiday to serve at soup kitchens and shelters, making sure their neighbors have a hot meal and a place to stay. This sense of mutual responsibility, the idea that I'm my brother's keeper, that I'm my sister's keeper, has always been part of what makes our country special, and it's one of the reasons the Thanksgiving tradition has endured. 

The very first Thanksgiving was a celebration of community during a time of great hardship; we've followed that example ever since. Even when the fate of our Union was far from certain, during a Civil War, two World Wars, a Great Depression, Americans drew strength from each other. They had faith that tomorrow would be better than today. We're grateful that they did. As we gather around the table we pause to remember the pilgrims, pioneers, and patriots who helped make this country what it is. They faced impossible odds, and yet somehow, they persevered. 

Today it's our turn. I know that for many of you, this Thanksgiving is more difficult than most. Yet no matter how tough things are right now, we still give thanks for that most American of blessings: the chance to determine our own destiny. The problems we face didn't develop overnight, and we won't solve them overnight. But we will solve them. All it takes is for each of us to do our part. 

With all the partisanship and gridlock here in Washington, it's easy to wonder if such unity is really possible. But think about what's happening at this very moment: Americans from all walks of life are coming together as one people, grateful for the blessings of family, community, and country. If we keep that spirit alive, if we support each other, and look out for each other, and remember that we're all in this together, then I know that we too will overcome the challenges of our time. 

So today I am thankful to serve as your president and Commander and Chief. I'm thankful that my daughters get to grow up in this great country of ours, and I'm thankful for the chance to do my part, as together we make tomorrow better than today. Thanks, and have a wonderful Thanksgiving." 
- Barack Obama

Yes, there are still nice sentiments there, like being grateful for the servicemen in the military and people who are serving others on Thanksgiving. But if we are thankful for community, for country and family, to whom are we thankful? To "luck" as Obama indicates? No, that is not what Thanksgiving is about. It is about giving thanks to the Lord for His provision. That's not some Christian rewriting of American history or trying to force a set of beliefs on an otherwise neutral holiday. In 1863, when Thanksgiving was first celebrated on the same day across the nation, Abraham Lincoln delivered the following proclamation:

Proclamation of Thanksgiving
by the President of the United States of America

The year that is drawing toward its close has been filled with the blessings of fruitful years and healthful skies. To these bounties, which are so constantly enjoyed that we are prone to forget the Source from which they come, others have been added which are of so extraordinary a nature that they can not fail to penetrate and soften even the heart which is habitually insensible to the ever-watchful providence of Almighty God.                                                                                                                                                                                  In the midst of a civil war of unequaled magnitude and severity, which has sometimes seemed to foreign states to invite and to provoke their aggression, peace has been preserved with all nations, order has been maintained, the laws have been respected and obeyed, and harmony has prevailed everywhere, except in the theater of military conflict, while that theater has been greatly contracted by the advancing armies and navies of the Union.                                                                                                                                                            

Needful diversions of wealth and of strength from the field of peaceful industry to the national defense have not arrested the plow, the shuttle, or the ship; the ax has enlarged the borders of our settlements, and the mines, as well of iron and coal as of the precious metals, have yielded even more abundantly than theretofore. Population has steadily increased notwithstanding the waste that has been made in the camp, the siege, and the battlefield, and the country, rejoicing in the consciousness of augmented strength and vigor, is permitted to expect continuance of years with large increase of freedom.

No human counsel hath devised nor hath any mortal hand worked out these great things. They are the gracious gifts of the Most High God, who, while dealing with us in anger for our sins, hath nevertheless remembered mercy.

It has seemed to me fit and proper that they should be solemnly, reverently, and gratefully acknowledged, as with one heart and one voice, by the whole American people. I do therefore invite my fellow-citizens in every part of the United States, and also those who are at sea and those who are sojourning in foreign lands, to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next as a day of thanksgiving and praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the heavens. And I recommend to them that while offering up the ascriptions justly due to Him for such singular deliverances and blessings they do also, with humble penitence for our national perverseness and disobedience, commend to His tender care all those who have become widows, orphans, mourners, or sufferers in the lamentable civil strife in which we are unavoidably engaged, and fervently implore the interposition of the Almighty Hand to heal the wounds of the nation and to restore it, as soon as may be consistent with the Divine purposes, to the full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquility, and union.

In testimony wherof I have herunto set my hand and caused the seal of the United States to be affixed.
-Abraham Lincoln

President Lincoln seemed to have a firm understanding that what we have are "the gracious gifts of the Most High God," and understood that the Lord deserves our praise and thanks. (I also like that he specifically includes Americans "at sea and those who are sojourning in foreign lands" as part of the Thanksgiving observance!) So let us be ever aware of the extent of our blessing and remember the Source from which they come. May we live with an attitude of gratefulness, even if it is simply for the gift of life, as we are not promised tomorrow.

"Rejoice always, 
pray continuously, 
give thanks in ALL circumstances; 
for this is God's will for you in Christ Jesus."
 -1 Thessalonians 5:16-18 

(I'm not sure how accurate or up to date it is, but it's kind of interesting to calculate how rich you are here.)

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