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Giving thanks in 2020

Prayers of thanks

While there is a pandemic in progress, the Rev. Glenn Wagner reminds us to give thanks for our heritage, the benefits of being a U.S. citizen, and a God who loves us.

Michigan Conference Communications

Thanksgiving is a 399-year-old American tradition that dates back to November 1621.  

We know about the original celebration from a letter written in December 1621 by Edward Winslow, one of the 102 passengers and 30 crew who sailed from England aboard the Mayflower in 1620 and founded Plymouth Colony in Massachusetts. More than 20 years after the feast, William Bradford, Plymouth’s governor in 1621, wrote briefly of the event in Of Plymouth Plantation, his history of the colony.

Pilgrim immigrants, also known as Puritans, were Christian Protestants who sought to purify the church by eliminating non-biblical practices. These Puritans, grateful for the harvest after having survived their first year in a new land, paused for a meal of thanksgiving to God with their valued native neighbors. In the harsh winter and year leading up to that meal, 45 of the first settlers had died. The hospitality of the local Wampanoag Indians and their chief Massasoit, along with the translation help offered by a female native, Squanto, helped the new settlers to survive.

In 1863, 242 years after that initial observance, President Abraham Lincoln officially declared the last Thursday of November a national Thanksgiving holiday.

Americans have many reasons to be thankful again this year. We can give thanks for the great nation-shaping ideas from our early visionary leaders. We can give thanks for the civil servants whose labors on our behalf embody those ideals. We can give thanks to God on whom all our blessings rest.

Thanks for great ideas.

We can be grateful for these devout settlers who came to this new world searching for a life where they could worship as they desired, free from religious persecution. 

Before landing in Plymouth in November of 1620, these immigrants drew up a social contract remembered as the Mayflower Compact.  This agreement was signed by 41 of the Puritan men and made clear that their colony should be governed by “just and equal laws.” Signers promised to keep those laws.  We are still blessed as a nation by desires for equality and justice, as well as a widely shared willingness to uphold the common good.

Another source of the great ideas for which we can be thankful is found in the Declaration of Independence, drafted in 1776 by Thomas Jefferson, who later served as our third President from 1801-1809. Jefferson expressed the bedrock principles for our shared life. “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness.” 

Signers to this revolutionary declaration risked their lives to take this stand. I am grateful for this vision of equality. There is ample evidence in our history that we have often fallen short of these ideals. Yet this declaration continues to serve as an inspiration to move us toward the more perfect union expressed 11 years later in the Preamble of our U.S. Constitution, which begins, “We the People of the United States, in order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”

It took from May 25 until September 17, 1787, for the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia to create and ratify this document that still shapes our national life. That convention was presided over by George Washington, who became our first President in 1789 and served until 1797. The constitution was written by James Madison, who served as our fourth President from 1809 until 1817. I have visited nations where these ideals are not operative and where inhabitants suffer from inequality, injustice, and political corruption.

These founding documents set forth core principles for which I am grateful.

Thanks to those who serve our nation.

I also want to give thanks this year for the men and women who faithfully serve our common good as employees of federal, state, and local governments. These public servants do important work. They are often out of our public view, yet they are deserving of our continuing support and gratitude.

 It is not easy to fashion or maintain a government that adequately attends to the diverse needs of a growing population of over 328 million people, an increase of 46 million people in the last 20 years.  

This year, most of the news about our government has focused on a few of our most visible elected leaders. Our attentions have been dominated by crisis and contention, offering proof of how hard it is to make government decisions that work well for all. But our government is more substantial than an elected few and reaches farther than the issues being broadcast in prime time.

According to the Office of Personnel Management (OPM), our federal workforce comprises an estimated 2.1 million civilian workers.[5] (Check out this website to get a better idea of the vast breadth of our federal government’s service to our common good.)

Statistics reveal that the State of Michigan and our local Michigan municipal governments employ 182,391 others to serve our public interests.

This Thanksgiving, I wish to say, “Thank you, civil servants. Without your daily labors for the common good, our experiment in democracy does not work.”

As we eat each day, we should give thanks to the 100,000 employees of our United States Department of Agriculture who help support our two million farms covering 915 million acres, which grow much of the food that feeds our nation and many others in our world. Thanks also to the more than 14,000 employees of the Food and Drug Administration for ably regulating our food and drugs for public safety.

Thank you to the 3.2 million public school teachers in America for mentoring our next generations. Your sacrificial examples are valued. Your efforts to educate students online this year and deal with the heightened risks of in-classroom learning during this prolonged pandemic are heroic.

As a pastor who has helped facilitate care for many vulnerable people, I am grateful to the Department of Housing and Urban Development for programs that provide affordable housing for 4.2 million of our most vulnerable citizens. Many of these are seniors, disabled, or are likely to need this help for more than five years.

In 2020 my wife and I are among the 64 million Americans who receive Social Security benefits and the 44 million who receive Medicare.  We know persons who are beneficiaries of health coverage thanks to the Affordable Care Act. We are grateful for the 60,000 Social Security Administration employees and the 4,100 persons who work for the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services. Thank you to the 80,000 employees of the US Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) for all you do, including administering the Affordable Care Act. This HHS department also assists a large portion of our population with programs such as school lunch assistance (11.2%), food stamps (12.7%), Medicaid (19.5%), and unemployment benefits (4% though probably much higher this year due to pandemic related layoffs affecting 57.4 million Americans through August). More information here.

Thank you to the more than 1 million members of the U.S. military and your families for the sacrifices you make and the risks you assume to keep us safe. We owe an unpayable debt of gratitude to the families of the 17 Americans killed this year defending U.S. interests in Afghanistan and to the 170 service members wounded this year in that continuing conflict. Our U.S. troops are deployed to 150 nations in 2020. There are 165,000 of our troops who will celebrate Thanksgiving this year on foreign soil. Thank you, servicemen and women, for your sacrifice.

Thank you to the 45,000 members of the National Guard who have been deployed this year assisting states in addressing the coronavirus outbreak. Thank you to other members of the National Guard who helped fight fires on the West Coast, with hurricane relief efforts, and with calming troubled regions across our country during civil unrest.

Nearly 378,000 persons work for the Department of Veteran’s Affairs and are tasked with seeing that our 17.4 million veterans receive the benefits they have earned. Thank you to all who care for the members of the armed forces.

Thank you to the 800,000 police officers and more than 1 million firefighters in the United States for the ways you daily risk your lives to keep us safe. Sixty-five police officers and 67 firefighters have died this year as of early October in the line of duty. Can we remember to give thanks on behalf of their families for this sacrifice they suffer because their beloved family members died this year to keep us safe?

We have all benefited from the work of the 17,000 employees of NASA and the breakthroughs in space science made possible by the galaxies’ continuing explorations.

I am grateful for government workers who manage and maintain roads and other transportation networks for our use. Have you appreciated driving this year on some of the 46,876 miles of interstate highways that have been built with federal dollars and maintained by our state governments? Did you know that Amtrak, our federal railroad employs 20,000 people and carries 32 million passengers a year on 44 routes over 21,000 miles of track? We can also be thankful for the 87,000 members of our U.S. Coast Guard who help protect and serve our interests over more than 100,000 miles of U.S. coastal and inland waters and safeguard an Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) encompassing 4.5 million square miles stretching from north of the arctic circle to south of the equator, from Puerto Rico to Guam.

Thank you to the more than 12,000 government employees who care for our 421 national parks encompassing 84 million acres of natural wonder for us all to enjoy. Three hundred twenty-seven million persons visited our national parks in 2019. In Michigan, we are blessed by 103 state parks and 16 state harbors covering 306,000 acres, maintained with the appreciated labors of 1,400 permanent and 1,600 additional seasonal workers. In Ottawa County, where we live, there are 40 additional county parks. In Park Township, the section of Ottawa County where we reside, there are 11 more township parks. The ability to enjoy these public green spaces is more reason for great thanksgiving.

In the midst of a raging pandemic, government employees tasked with providing public health have been under stress. But we are still grateful for health workers who risk their lives to confront this and other diseases for our general welfare.

Did you know that the National Institutes of Health is the largest biomedical research agency in the world? It employs over 20,000 people, including 6,000 research scientists, and has a $39 billion budget. We can thank these public servants for their efforts to help our nation deal with a host of health concerns.

We should also thank the 10,600 employees of our U.S. Center for Disease Control. They have been working overtime during this pandemic.  The death toll and costs of this virus have been horrific, but it would be much worse without the CDC.

We can be grateful this thanksgiving to the more than 13,000 U.S. citizens who have been deployed on our behalf in the 307 different embassies and consulates around the world. These men and women assist our travelers, businesses, and government interests. They cultivate vital relationships, work with allies, and help to keep us all more secure far from their own homes. Their sacrifice should be recognized with our gratitude. These overseas civil servants are assisted by the labors of the nearly 4,000 employees of the U.S. Agency for International Development that strategically administer a $27 billion budget in 100 different countries to make a positive difference for others. Investing in helping to address others’ great needs beyond our borders can yield long-term benefits for all of us. Tragedies like the September 11, 2001 attacks on America are painful reminders of the costs of global neglect.

I am grateful for the estimated 460,000 workers who have labored in 2020 as poll workers to help ensure a free and fair election for many significant federal, state, local, educational, and judicial government offices in our country. I am familiar with parts of our world where corruption, dictatorships, or monarchies have helped me appreciate our democracy’s benefits and the privilege of our democracy. Because a family member has worked as a poll worker, I know first-hand the long hours, dedication, and efforts made to ensure the vote’s integrity. Thank you, poll workers, for your valued service this year during this pandemic because of the greater risk to your own health while serving the public good.

I give thanks to the 4,000 employees of the National Weather Service. On numerous occasions this past year, my personal planning has been assisted by consulting the National Weather Service Doppler radar via my cell-phone to get real-time visual information about inclement weather forecasting.  With over 849 tornadoes and 23 hurricanes so far this year, the information offered by this government service continues to be a life-saver for many.  

Also appreciated are the 14,000 employees of FEMA, the Federal Emergency Management Agency. In Michigan this past year, FEMA responded with necessary disaster assistance and relief for storms and flooding and dealing with the coronavirus.

Whether or not we agree with recent border retention policies, 60,000 customs and border patrol agents work around the clock to manage ports of entry and nearly 6,000 miles of our northern and southern national borders and deserve our thanks.

Travelers give thanks for the extra level of security provided by the 60,000 employees of the Transportation Security Administration for 925 million people who fly in the U.S. each year.

Because we live in a world with a long history of bad actors, we should also be grateful for those who labor daily for our continuing security like the 35,000 employees of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the 21,000 at the Central Intelligence Agency, and the 21,000 at the National Security Agency. The proactive efforts of the FBI this year helped prevent tragedy for our government in Michigan by thwarting a planned attack on our Governor.

According to the Old Testament (Deuteronomy 16:18), one of the early organizational tasks in shaping a group of refugee slaves into a coherent community was selecting respected persons to serve as judges. Crime and disputes needing adjudication have also been a part of our life. I am grateful to the 870 federal judges, the 115,000 persons employed in our U.S. Department of Justice, and the 30,000 people who work for our U.S. courts. We should also be thankful for the more than 36,000 employees who care for the 177,000 persons serving time for their crimes in our 110 Federal prisons. Thank you also to the many who fill similar posts at state, county, and local levels. We need to address racial bias in our systems and find ways to reduce recidivism, but we also know that our social compact would soon disintegrate if crimes had no adverse consequence.

I am grateful for the more than 7,000 active volunteers currently serving our country worldwide as participants in the Peace Corps.  “These persons are partnering with communities abroad to develop sustainable solutions for the world’s most pressing challenges by sharing America’s most precious resource—its people.” Thank you for the additional 75,000 persons employed by Americorps, another federal program inspired by the Peace Corps, which brings civic service to needy American communities.

This year we can also offer our gratitude to the more than 635,000 Americans who worked on our behalf to collect the U.S. census data, which helps provide our government with needed demographic information to apportion its resources.

In the summer of 1973, I was introduced to the importance of the 2,100 employees of the Occupational Health and Safety Administration by a mentor who explained the mandated safety protocols on a high-speed punch press machine I operated during my summer job. He showed me the place where three missing fingers had been punched from his left hand in an accident with the same machine that occurred before OSHA mandated new shields be installed to protect workers like Leo and me. I am thankful for my fingers and OSHA.

My late father, who spent his career as a mechanical design engineer, introduced me to the important but little-noticed National Institute of Standards and Technology that employs 2,900 persons tasked with establishing standards for conducting our businesses with uniformity and integrity. A gallon of gas must be a gallon of gas wherever it is sold, and a megabyte of data is the same size for every computer. I am grateful for those who give oversight for our national standards.

While working on a long-range planning committee for Muskegon County in 2005, I was briefed on the tragic and criminal history of industries that cut corners with their industrial waste disposal for the sake of their immediate profits. They contaminated local groundwaters by felonious dumping of carcinogenic chemicals.  In another of the communities where I served as pastor, a careless dump of industrial degreaser from a municipal garage into a local stream resulted in multiple deaths of nearby residents, who relied on water drawn from wells adjacent to that stream. I deeply appreciate the necessary work of the Environmental Protection Agency. The EPA’s 13,578 employees are tasked with administering a shrinking budget of just over $6 billion to enforce environmental protections and assist in the clean-up of 1,344 toxic super-fund sites that still threaten public health. If you value clean air and healthy water, you will join me in thanking these important civil servants and prove your thanks with greater attention to living as a responsible steward of our shared environment. Our neglect has adverse consequences. According to our Judeo-Christian tradition, caring for our world is a sacred trust and a shared human responsibility.  See Genesis 1:27-31.

I am thankful for the 1,650 persons who work for the U.S. Mint in six facilities around the country. They produced 12 billion coins last year for public use. Thanks also to the 2,000 employees of the U.S. Bureau of Printing and Engraving for printing $560 million of currency each day, 95% of which replaces worn-out bills that get removed from circulation. Making our money work for our national interest are the 20,000 employees of the Federal Reserve Bank and the 10,000 employees of our U.S. Department of Treasury. Thank you to all those tasked with managing our nation’s public financial concerns.

It is easy for many of us to grumble about taxes until we call 911 in an emergency. Highly trained and equipped public professionals respond with life-saving efficiency brought to the scene of our urgent need within minutes. Do you know it is estimated that 240 million emergency calls are made each year in this round the clock 911 system? Democracy is expensive, but I invite you to check out alternatives around the world. I believe that living with freedom, privilege, and opportunity is worth our shared investment. Even though the 75,000 employees at the Internal Revenue Service get many complaints from taxpayers, the $3.46 trillion received each year in taxes keeps our government working for all of us. Dollars paid out in salaries for government employees get recycled 7 to 10 times in local economies, adding benefit for all. Given the challenges posed by our ballooning national debt and the unpopularity of politicians who either raise taxes or cut valued services, we should also give thanks to every politician who speaks the truth, makes tough choices for the common good, and lives with personal integrity.

Thanks be to God!

I know that many in our country have a reason for discouragement this year.

A wise mentor encouraged me one day when I was feeling down to shift my attention away from my woes and focus instead on all the things in my life for which I could honestly give thanks. He urged me to make a list of my blessings as a prayer of thanksgiving to God. That free advice continues to be valuable guidance for me. I invite you to make your own list of blessings this Thanksgiving.

This Thanksgiving, I acknowledge being the beneficiary of many blessings such as faith, family, and friends.

I am also grateful this Thanksgiving to be an American citizen. I freely and willingly pledge allegiance again to this one nation under God and to the republic for which it stands. I am thankful for the visionary ideals that give us a path forward through these challenging times.  

I certainly want to remember with profound gratitude all the men and women whose diligent public service on our behalf help make this a great place to live. 

As we express our thanks for the visionary ideas that inspire our republic and public servants for their contributions to the general welfare, let us also give thanks to God. 

The desire to freely worship God was a guiding inspiration for many of our earliest American ancestors and the primary reason they paused to give thanks for their harvest. Living each day as a personal thank you note to God, who is the source of all our blessings, is the best Thanksgiving.

“Sing praises to the LORD, O you, his saints, and give thanks to his holy name.” Psalm 30: 4.

Happy Thanksgiving!                                                                                                          

Last Updated on October 31, 2023

The Michigan Conference