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Van Ens: Count your blessings

Van Ens: Count your blessings

Like wearing a comfortable pair of slippers, counting our blessings on Thanksgiving Day inspires down-home gratitude. Showing thanks invigorates life, particularly during turbulent times that test our patience and upset our composure.

How does counting blessings strengthen our resolve and build coping skills when life feels as if it is sliding backwards? In her upbeat commentary “An Attitude of Gratitude,” Jennifer Breheny Wallace highlights many benefits from practicing gratitude. “Researchers find that people with a grateful disposition are more thankful for a wider variety of things in their lives, such as their friends, their health, nature, their jobs or a higher power — and that they experience feelings of gratitude more intensely,” Wallace observes. “For them, gratitude isn’t a one-off ‘thank-you.’ It’s a mind-set, a way of seeing the world” (The Wall Street Journal, February 24-25, 2018, p. C-1).

As leader of Puritan parishioners sailing in 1630 to the New World aboard their ship the Arabella, preacher John Winthrop gave a sermon, inspiring grateful hearts. He employed a glowing metaphor that shines in presidential speeches uttered by John F. Kennedy, Barack Obama and especially Ronald Reagan.

“For we must consider that we shall be as a city upon a hill. The eyes of all people are upon us,” declared Winthrop, who later distinguished himself as an early governor of the Puritan Massachusetts Bay Colony.

He went on to warn that if God’s people, who ventured into a Promised Land like the ancient Israelites did, showed ingratitude toward a benevolent God, they would be reduced to a postscript in the Christian story, a mere blip on history’s screen. “So that if we shall deal falsely with our God in this work we have undertaken and so cause Him to withdraw His present help from us,” Winthrop warned, “we shall be made a story and a by-word through the world.”

Ronald Reagan added the adjective “shining” when he described this beaming “city on the hill.” He loved to tell success stories about our nation that sometimes sounded like yarns Reagan spun that are not based on facts. In his 1989 farewell address, Reagan wrongly assured Americans, “The [city on the hill] phrase comes from John Winthrop to describe the America he imagined.” The president concocted this misconception because he habitually imagined our nation at its best.

Winthrop did not invent this luminous imagery of “a city on a hill.” Rather, he borrowed it from Jesus who expressed in The Sermon on the Mount: “You are the light of the world. A city that is set on a hill cannot be hid,” (Matthew 5:14).

Puritan preacher Winthrop used this imagery in 1630. Our nation was born in 1776. God did not give this parson clairvoyance to peer into the future and perceive America’s origins as the city Jesus pictured.

Abram C. Van Engen, associate professor of English at Washington University in Saint Louis, corrects Reagan for wrongly equating the U.S. with the city of lights on a hill. In his book As a City on a Hill, Van Engen points out, “For most of American history when people heard the words ‘city on a hill,’ they were discussing discipleship [following Jesus], not citizenship.”

The Puritans believed they were sailing toward another “Eden” in the New World that God prepared for them. But these travelers did not regard themselves as founders of the U.S. They shared gratitude for God’s gracious protection and unflinching companionship when life turned sour, not sweet. During times when pandemics raged and occasional sunny days reflected paradise, these Puritans showed thanks, despite hindrances that slowed their advance.

Most Americans did not object to the expressive license Reagan took, mistakenly equating his “shining city” for our nation. In his 1989 farewell address of the U.S., the president glowingly spoke of our nation, making it synonymous with “… a free, proud city built on a strong foundation, full of commerce and creativity,” and added a grand crescendo of eloquence, “If there had to be city walls, the walls had doors, and the doors were open to anyone with the will and the heart to get there.”

Carried away by exuberance rather than authentic gratitude, Reagan overlooked a dimmer vision of this city seen by Bruce Springsteen, singer-songwriter of gritty America where unrewarded blue collar workers subsisted. Springsteen was peeved that in the 1984 re-election campaign Reagan’s team used Springsteen’s anthem “Born in America” as their signature campaign tune. They bragged how “Morning in America” had dawned on the city on the hill.

Springsteen’s real America vied with Reagan’s sunnier version of it. “There’s really something dangerous happening to us out there,” Springsteen prophesied at a show in Pittsburgh. “We’re solely getting split up into two different Americas. Things are getting taken away from people that need them and given to people that don’t need them, and there’s a promise getting broken.

“In the beginning the idea was that we all live here a little like a family, where the strong help the weak ones, the rich can help the poor ones. I don’t think the American dream was that everybody was going to make it, or that everybody was going to make a billion dollars, but it was that everyone was going to have an opportunity and the chance to live a life with some decency and some dignity and a chance for some self-respect.”

This Thanksgiving, be grateful singer Springsteen, nicknamed “The Boss,” sings of Jesus’ vision for us to heal the broken-hearted and help those living in the shadows to reside in a “city on the hill,” glistening with fair opportunity for all people

The Reverend 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 that make God’s history come alive.


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