Vail Daily column: None to thank but yourself
Her marriage having grown stale and thankless, Elizabeth Gilbert felt like a dried prune. Vital juices had been sucked out of her life. Gilbert ditched her husband and traveled the globe, searching for a voice. She wanted to hear what makes life jell and grants contentment. She wrote about this odyssey in the bestseller, “Eat, Pray, Love: One Woman’s Search for Everything Across Italy, India and Indonesia.”
Finally, Gilbert found the voice she sought. It made her thankful. The voice was inside her. “That supreme Self is our true identity,” she testified, finding no one to thank but herself.
Her New Jersey residence reinforced Self, as thanksgiving’s source. I served a Presbyterian church in the 1970s a few miles from the property Gilbert called home years later. The church I served sponsored a chapel in the next hamlet. Sunday afternoons when the New York Giants were playing, I visited the chapel where Sunday School was held.
After this chapel’s membership sunk, it was sold to Elizabeth Gilbert. Since the 1830s, Presbyterians had gazed at the steeple which pointed to God, the source of their thanksgiving.
Elizabeth Gilbert renovated the former sanctuary, turning it into her living room. Here she thankfully heard an inner Voice, which prompted gratitude riveted to self-congratulation.
Like Gilbert residing in a former chapel, a 20s-something Winston Churchill exuded swaggering self-confidence. For him, the arc of thanksgiving curved inward; his giant ego was its center.
A newspaper war correspondent in 1899, Churchill was captured by the Boers in South Africa. Shaped by Dutch and French Calvinist ancestors who bowed to no one, these guerrilla fighters trounced Britain’s crack troops and guarded Churchill as a prisoner of war.
Church climbed a fence wall to escape his captors, leaving behind an in-your-face letter offending the Boers. Running for his life, Churchill found gratitude difficult to sustain. He lacked spiritual resources of prayer and biblical promises because he “was not a religious man” writes biographer Candice Millard (“Hero of the Empire: the Boer War, a Daring Escape and the Making of Winston Churchill,”).
Today, many younger Americans who are disinterested in organized religion, copy Churchill’s arms-length distance from Christianity. They want none of it. Nicknamed “nones,” these religion-shirkers compose 25 percent of the American population. Merely 7 percent say they might change and give organized religion a fleeting glance.
A majority of “nones” invent gods they like. Such deities look a lot like “nones,” divorced from any established religions. Such gods act like a stand-offish grandfather who sits in a room cut-off from grandkids playing outside.
Twenty-two percent of “nones” think of their god as a “person,” a separate center of consciousness, who ghostly saunters through life. Other “nones” size-up god as an impersonal force. Like unseen electric current, this god doesn’t illumine “nones’” lives.
Churchill rebelled against the Anglican God encrusted in hide-bound rules and superstitious dogma he’d outgrown. “If the human race ever reaches a stage of development—when religion will cease to assist and comfort mankind,” he had written his mother two years before his capture by the Boers, “Christianity will be put aside as a crutch, which is no longer needed, and man will stand erect on the firm legs of reason.”
Get rid of religious tradition. Cut out biblical superstition. Skip dated creedal beliefs. That’s why Churchill rejected the traditional form of Christianity.
Like today’s “nones,” he felt no need to attend church services, aside from an occasional wedding or funeral. His forced church attendance in his youth was punitive, a boring exercise. “I accumulated in those years so fine a surplus in the Bank of Observance,” he confessed, “that I have been drawing confidently upon it ever since.” Churchill told a regular churchgoer he acted like a flying buttress on a gothic cathedral. He “supported” religion from far away, camping outside its confining regulations.
Like Churchill, Progressive “nones” treat orthodoxy (right belief) and the Bible like “a kind of refrigerator magnate poetry, awaiting rearrangement by more enlightened minds,” writes New York Times columnist Ross Douthat in “Bad Religion.”
With Boer militia closing in, Churchill’s gratitude shriveled up. “Now, with no new ideas, no clever plans, no strutting confidence in the strength of his mind and the agility of his body,” writes historian Candice Millard, “Churchill was forced to admit to himself that he needed help.”
“Without that assistance of that High Power, which interferes in the eternal sequence of causes and effects more often than we are always prone to admit,’ he testified, “I could never succeed.’ He was, by all measures but one, alone, and so he did the only thing he could think to do. He prayed, ‘long and earnestly.’”
Escaping the Boers in South Africa, Churchill tapped gratitude’s source in God. It flows when we aren’t the end-all and be-all of life.
Thanksgiving acts like rain seeping into parched soil. It falls when we admit our need for God’s help and thank Him for courage in adversity.
Going it alone comes up short. We salute ourselves and hope our work, our contacts or our paycheck will make us gracious and grateful. That’s like sinking a well pipe into a dry hole. Gratitude flows after we admit our need for God’s help beyond strength our sense of self supplies.
The Rev. Dr. Jack R. Van Ens is a Presbyterian minister who heads the nonprofit, tax exempt Creative Growth Ministries (www.thelivinghistory.com), which enhances Christian worship through dynamic storytelling and dramatic presentations aimed to make God’s history come alive.