You could smell the stench of pollution 15,000 feet above New Orleans. When our plane touched down, we saw a ghost town. The road from the airport into town was cluttered with signs asking for help. Looking for trash pick-up, looking for employees, looking for a house sitter. In what had been one of America’s premiere tourist attractions, industry has nearly ground to a hold. In town, only a couple of restaurants were open. Hotels were stained with water marks rising all the way up to second and third floors. Mold was festering everywhere. The tattered roofs on homes were patched with makeshift planks. Trash and debris littered the streets.
Over two hundred children are still missing. Families remain separated. The shelters are filled with people who have lost everything; their hitherto lives, their savings, their homes, washed away, and for no reason.
As most Americans are tempted by the scents of turkey and cranberries this holiday season, the families and friends of those who lost their lives in the Hurricane Katrina disaster will be reconciling themselves to the overwhelming emptiness of death. As they contend themselves to pain and remorse perhaps we should all pause a moment for perspective. This Thanksgiving we should give thanks for the small miracles, like being able to sit down at a dinner table with our family.
Maybe this is what President Lincoln was thinking when, more than a hundred years ago, he formally declared Thanksgiving a national holiday: "The year that is drawing toward its close has been filled with the blessings of fruitful fields and healthful skies. To these bounties, which are so constantly enjoyed that we are prone to forget the source from which they come . . . I do therefore invite my fellow citizens in every part of the United States . . . 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."
With these words, President Abraham Lincoln implored a nation to take a moment and give thanks before God. At the time, America was embroiled in the Civil War. Against this backdrop, Lincoln’s Thanksgiving proclamation takes on a special resonance. Out of the calamity of war, there was a need for reformation as a whole people.
This kind of wholeness cannot come from the accumulation of material objects. Lincoln noted that the country had grown in numbers, wealth and power as no other has ever grown. But no accumulation of objects can truly lessen the burden of human anxiety, of an empty spirit. And indifference to the important things of life would surely be the undoing of this great nation.
It is as true now as it was a hundred years ago. Against backdrop of devastation and suffering, we need to praise God. This is what Thanksgiving should be about. In the face of devastation we need to give thanks to the Lord. We need to remember that His love endures forever. (Psalm 136:1) We need to find inspiration in His love, and do good in return. That means giving to the victims of Hurricane Katrina. It means letting go of some of our own vain and egocentric concerns. It means placing a little less faith in the acquisition of material goods, and giving thanks for the truly beautiful things in life, like charity, civility, and family. Even in the darkest hours, these things will navigate your lives. For this, we should not forget to give thanks.