This Thanksgiving, I will not be in any situation in which I will have to pray — or, at least, mouth words that sound sufficiently like prayers to please the people around me. The people with whom I will share dinner are not all atheists, but even the ones who still believe do not expect public expressions of faith from me, or anyone else.
I am thankful for that. I am thankful that the people with whom I will spend this holiday are in my life.
But I am also thankful that I don’t have to thank God for them. Instead, I can truly feel gratitude to them for being loving and kind people. Even if they give credit to the God they believe in, I am thankful that they share what is best about themselves — their pure and simple humanity — with me.
I will be thankful for the food we will share. Knowing the people who are cooking it, I am sure it will be good. It is a gift of their love and munificence; I am grateful that people can choose to share as they do.
I am most grateful, though, for what will make this year’s celebration truly special for me: During the past year, I’ve begun to move forward from the sexual abuse I suffered from a priest half a century ago. The essays I’ve written about it have, of course, been part of that process.
I am grateful to and for Bruce for publishing them. I am also grateful for the supportive, encouraging comments some of his readers left in response to my writings.
I am thankful that I don’t have to thank God for any of that. Why would I thank such a God for abating my suffering — after letting someone inflict it on me and letting that person go scot-free?
For that matter, why should any victim — whether of sexual abuse, war, poverty or other kinds of violence — thank God if and when things get better? Would we thank someone for putting out a fire after setting it?
I am so grateful to know that I don’t have to be thankful such things, for such people.
And I am thankful that I have met people who are better — than the priest, than those who inflict cruelty and destruction, than God.
All of the gratitude I will express will go to the ones who will share their holiday feast with me; and to the ones who helped me to get to where I am now, and who are helping me to understand where and how I might go next.
As an Evangelical Christian, I was taught that I should thank God for everything in my life. It was God, after all, who gives people the ability and strength to do things, and without him doing so, mere mortals would be powerless and helpless. The Apostle Paul said, in ALL things give thanks, and he reminded readers that their ability to breathe and walk comes from God. Simply put, nothing in life happens without God.
I was also taught that I should always be humble and deflect any praise thrown my way. To fail to do so was a sign of pride — a human expression Evangelicals consider sinful. I am an avid sports fan. I have watched countless Christian athletes over the years give interviews in which they give God all the credit for their athletic prowess and success. To do otherwise is to say that their success came from, you know, things like diligence, hard work, and passion. These things must be deflected or diminished lest God be made to look bad. God is the ultimate narcissist — think Donald Trump. He not only deserves all praise and glory, he demands it, threatening judgment for anyone who dares to suggest otherwise.
As a pastor, I worked my ass off to become a good public speaker. I spent countless hours crafting my sermons, making sure that when I delivered them, I was giving congregants the best possible sermon. I knew far too many lazy pastors who, Sunday after Sunday, preached dreadful, forgettable sermons — and they didn’t care. Doing my best mattered to me, and my “idols” were men who were great pulpiteers, men to whom congregants loved to listen. Yet, no matter how good I became at preaching, my Evangelical theology demanded that I give God/Jesus/Holy Spirit total credit for all my hard work.
I am a photographer. While I have been taking pictures for over twenty years, it wasn’t until 2005 that I decided to work hard at becoming a better photographer. Since then, I have spent countless hours perfecting my craft, and the harder I work the more I realize how much I still have to learn. Today, my daughter and several of my granddaughters were talking about photography. I corrected their errant belief that it is equipment that makes for good photographs. It’s not. It is the photographer who makes the picture, not the equipment. Buying the most expensive iPhone will not magically turn someone into a good photographer. Last year, I met a sincere person at a high school basketball game who wanted to know how to take pictures that turned out like mine did. Here was a person who owned $5,000 worth of Canon camera bodies, yet she hadn’t even learned the basics about how to operate her equipment. I encouraged her to learn how to use her equipment and to learn the basics of photography. The most expensive camera and lens won’t make for good photographs if the user hasn’t educated himself/herself on, at the very least, the fundamentals of photography.
As a photographer, I know that praising my equipment for a good photo is akin to thanking God. My cameras are inanimate objects that have no power to do anything unless I pick them up, turn them on, adjust the settings, and apply my expertise to the scene in front of me. Years ago, I saw an interview of Dave Matthews wherein he talked about picking up cheap guitars to use in his concerts. He talked about playing gigs with $50 acoustic guitars. Matthews was able to take yard sale castaways and make magnificent music. How is that possible? Because making music is all about the artist, not the instrument. And that’s the point I am making here. Want to be good at something? Work at it, I mean really work at it. Mastering any craft requires diligent, never-ending work and a willingness to never accept “good enough.”
Tomorrow is Thanksgiving. Today, Polly, my youngest daughter, my daughter-in-law, and my granddaughters spent the day baking a dozen pies, peeling 15 pounds of potatoes, peeling sweet potatoes, preparing bread for stuffing, and any other day-before preparations they could do. Polly still has to make cranberry relish, brine the turkey, prepare the ham, and make sure everything is ready for Thanksgiving Day. She will arise early in the morning and begin cooking everything to perfection. She will spend long hours in the kitchen preparing a wonderful meal for the 21 people who will gathering around our table on Thursday. She will do these things because she loves her family and she absolutely loves to cook. She has spent decades perfecting her cooking skills, and it shows. Forty years ago, Polly knew how to “cook” — as in opening a can or a box. Today? She is an accomplished cook. Does every scratch meal turn out to her exacting standard? No. And when one doesn’t, she finds out why so she doesn’t make the same mistake twice. Her goal is to be a better cook today than she was yesterday. When her two favorite magazines, Cook’s Country and Cook’s Illustrated, show up, she scours them for new recipes and tricks of the trade. I read these magazines too, but alas, all I am looking for are things that look scrumptious. I often say, hey Polly, how about this one? And this one? And this one? Well, you get the point. I applaud her willingness to push her skills and try new things.
Come tomorrow, I will not thank God for anything. As I eat way too many calories, I will not praise Jesus for turkey, mashed potatoes, and pumpkin pie. My thanks will go to the woman and her helpers who made the meal possible. The God at the Gerencser table will be Polly. I plan on giving credit to whom credit is due.
Let me leave you with my all-time favorite meal prayer. Take it away Jimmy Stewart.
Bruce Gerencser, 61, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 40 years. He and his wife have six grown children and twelve grandchildren. Bruce pastored Evangelical churches for twenty-five years in Ohio, Texas, and Michigan. Bruce left the ministry in 2005, and in 2008 he left Christianity. Bruce is now a humanist and an atheist. For more information about Bruce, please read the About page.
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This is the time of year when Evangelicals spend significant amounts of time fawning and prostrating themselves before their God, thanking him for all that is good in their life. They go to great lengths to make themselves feel insignificant — little more than worms. I am nothing, you are everything, weeping Evangelicals say to their God. It’s all about you Jesus! For Evangelicals, life is all about God. He alone is worthy of praise, honor, and glory. Every bit of good that comes their way is due to Jesus. After all, the Bible says that without God Evangelicals can do nothing. The Bible also says that God gives Evangelicals the very breath they breathe and the ability to walk. Simply put, God is EVERYTHING!
The sum of Evangelical existence is to worship, praise, adore, and serve God. If they do so, their God promises to give them an eternal home in the sweet by and by after death. And what will they do in heaven for ten billion years? Why, they will worship, praise, adore, and serve their God. In other words, a narcissistic deity demands absolute fealty if Evangelicals hope to escape eternal torture in the flames of the Lake of Fire. Worship me or burn seems to be what the Evangelical God is saying. Is it any wonder that the majority of the human race rejects this God, and that the fastest growing American religious demographic is that of those who are atheists, agnostics, secularists, and those who are indifferent to organized religion. Who would want to serve a God who demands his servants give every waking moment to him. I know I don’t.
No one will argue the fact that Christians in general and Evangelicals in particular do many good things. The problem is that they are not allowed to accept praise from their fellow humans. How often have you thanked an Evangelical for doing good, only to have them say to you, give all the praise to Jesus! He is the only reason I can do anything good. Those of us raised in Evangelicalism know the drill. Someone says something nice to you, perhaps thanking you for helping them or giving something to them. Godly humility requires you to bow your head downward, staring at the floor while you tell them that it is Jesus they ought to be thanking, for he alone is the one doing good works through them. Is it any wonder that many Evangelicals have low self-esteem? How could it be otherwise. It should surprise no one that spending a lifetime being told that your life is nothing without Jesus and that — in and of yourself, you have no power to do good things — leads to Evangelicals thinking poorly of themselves. Sunday after Sunday, their pastors remind them that they should make much of Jesus, that life is all about him; that history is HIS-story. Remember the J-O-Y acronym? Jesus first, others second, yourself last. In many churches, the acronym goes something like this: Jesus first, others second, and you don’t matter.
Rarely do Evangelicals ponder the question of whether their thankfulness is misplaced. The Bible explicitly teaches that all praise and honor belong to God. As with many things the Bible says, Evangelicals accept this claim without further investigation. Why should anyone give praise and honor to the Evangelical God? What has he done for me, for you, for anyone? The fact is, if Evangelicals are willing to carefully examine their lives they will find out that their God hasn’t done jack-shit for them.
Several years ago, I decided to carefully examine all the prayers that I said God answered for me when I was an Evangelical pastor. I found that almost every answered prayer could be attributed to human intervention. I was left with a handful of “answered” prayers for which I could find no human connection. Now, this does not mean that God answered these prayers, it just means that I was unable to find who was behind answering my petition. I can think of several instances where I received money anonymously in the mail. Does this mean that God pulled some greenbacks out of his wallet, put them in an envelope, affixed a stamp, and mailed it to my home address? Of course not. A kind human did this, not God.
Look at all the hurt and heartache in the world today. Countless prayers are uttered to God by people starving, homeless, sick, or dying. Their prayers, for the most part, go unanswered. Sometimes their prayers are answered, not by God, but by kind, compassionate human beings. As our planet heaves and groans under the weight of an increasing population, global climate change, war, disease, and political unrest, where is God? Evangelicals are taught to never asked this question. God is on duty 24/7, Evangelical pastors tell congregants. He will never leave you nor forsake you. Yet, by any rational, reasonable estimation, God has indeed done just that. David said in Psalm 37:25: I have been young, and now am old; yet have I not seen the righteous forsaken, nor his seed begging bread. Is this statement true? Of course not. Everywhere one looks, they see Evangelicals and unbelievers alike forsaken and begging for food. Should we not in Waldo-like fashion ask, where is God?
I am a firm believer in giving credit to whom credit is due. I don’t give credit to a deity because I see no evidence for a God of any sort being involved in our day-to-day lives. On Thursday most of us will celebrate Thanksgiving. Duty-bound Evangelicals will spend time going around the table thanking God for all that he is done. And when everyone is done giving Jesus all the praise, honor, and glory, everyone will bow their heads in prayer as someone thanks God for the food. No one will bother to consider exactly what God did to provide the food they are about to eat. It will be assumed that God did everything.
On Thursday, we will open up our home to twenty-three people — our children, grandchildren, and their significant others. While some of them are religious, none of them is Evangelical. So when it comes time to say thanks, the grateful utterances will go to those who prepared and cooked our meal. Most of that praise will go to my wife Polly. Tomorrow, she and our daughters and daughters-in-law will spend the day making pies. Our daughter Laura will devote Wednesday evening to making dinner rolls. Several of our sons will do the only baking they know how to do — writing a check to help pay for the meal. Polly will get up early on Thursday and put the turkey, ham, and pork roast in the oven. She will have, the night before, brined the turkey, thus making it moist and tender. As our sons arrive, several of them will be asked to get out the folding tables and chairs and put them in the kitchen. One of them will lengthen the dining room table so as many people as possible can sit there. Older grandchildren will wonder if this will be the year they get to sit at the big table. Someone will place the burgundy tablecloth on the table, and then set it with Mamaw Shope’s china. Wineglasses will be removed from the hutch and placed near each plate, as will silverware and linen napkins. Polly will go to the bedroom closet and retrieve several candleholders and candles and place them on the table. She will then light the candles. Now it is time for the meat to be cut and put on serving plates. Polly will likely ask one of our sons to do this. While the meat is being cut, several bottles of wine will be uncorked and taken to the table. Once the meat is carved, the mashed potatoes, Brussels sprouts, corn, sweet potatoes, and rolls will be put in serving bowls and placed on the table. Salt and pepper shakers will be put on each end of the table, along with butter and gravy. And then, finally, the words everyone wants to hear will be said, time to eat!
From start to finish the work that went into Thanksgiving dinner was provided, not by an invisible deity, but by real flesh-and-blood human beings. If I am going to praise anyone for the wonderful meal I will eat on Thanksgiving day, it will be my wife and those who helped her cook the food and desserts. If I wanted to extend my thankfulness further, I would thank my wife’s employer for giving her a job and thank the undocumented workers for harvesting much of the food that we will consume. Everywhere I look, I see, not the hand or foot prints of God, but the hands of a woman who loves to cook and enjoys blessing her children and grandchildren with her culinary skills.
Evangelical readers of this post will likely remind me that none of this would’ve been possible without God. They make such a statement based on the presupposition that their version of God is the one who gives us all things. They assume, without evidence, that God is behind everything. As a nonbeliever, I make no such assumption. I believe what I can see with my own eyes, and what I will see on Thanksgiving Day is a wonderful family pulling together to make the day memorable. It is to them and them alone that I say thanks. And most of all, it is to Polly that I will say thanks. For without her we would all be eating Thanksgiving dinner at the Golden Corral.