‘Thanksgiving,’ a sample sermon about Abraham Lincoln

By DUNCAN NEWCOMER

(Note from ReadTheSpirit: In this historic year of Lincoln remembrances—the Rev. Dr. Duncan Newcomer  is writing a series of columns about the legacy of our 16th president. Read more about Duncan at the end of this column. TODAY, Duncan provides a sample sermon about Abraham Lincoln, which we welcome you to share, use, discuss and even republish.)

Suggested Bible readings
Philippians 2:1-7

Abraham Lincoln in a reflective pose in 1861. Public domain photo held by Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C.

Abraham Lincoln in a reflective pose in 1861. Public domain photo held by Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C.

“This poor word”—that’s how Evelyn Underhill refers to “Thanksgiving” in her classic book Worship.

It’s true, isn’t it? A poor word.

What do we mean by “Thanksgiving”? Is it now just the meaningless name of a holiday for food, football and frenzied shopping? Just another annual trigger for stress and guilt? Who are we supposed to thank, anyway? And, for what?

And, the biggest question: Is the most frequently forgotten guest at our dinner tables—God?

I used to teach Family Medicine residents what they called “Behavioral Science.” One lesson was this: It is better not to tell patients, “Try to relax.” Trying to relax is a contradictory effort. “Just let yourself relax” might work better.

“Try to be thankful” suffers from the same kind of disappearing act: The harder we try, the less thankful we feel.

When Abraham Lincoln made Thanksgiving a national holiday in 1863 we got off on the wrong foot with the word “thanksgiving.” While I praise Lincoln for being a secular-religious prophet, one of the problems in translating religious sentiment into civil society is the language that is used. Thanksgiving in a synagogue, church or mosque means something that is hard to translate into society, even if it’s a great idea.

The word “thanksgiving” is a better verb than noun, but it really isn’t either. The word refers to an act: We give thanks. At my childhood dinners, oddly I thought, people were asked to “return thanks.” I wondered: Who took it? And, where were they hiding it? Was “thanks” the stolen goods needing to be returned before anyone is allowed to eat?

A new custom for our secular-religious time might be to ask people to bring an object to the Thanksgiving dinner table and to symbolically offer it up, to place it before us all, or even to give it away. Not exactly a sacrificial lamb or a first-born son, this would be a giving of thanks that fits the verb form of thanksgiving.

On the other hand, as is our custom, for a person to say words as a blessing may not mean what it could. We don’t often believe that someone has the power to bless us, to give us or a meal a blessing. I remember once being asked at a Thanksgiving table to “say the blessing” while Robert Penn Warren, our nation’s Poet Laureate, was sitting right across from me. I didn’t feel, as a young seminary student, that I could bless him, or anything near him, by giving my words. I feared, also, that I was the sacrificial offering.

Evelyn Underhill describes this poor word “thanksgiving” as an act in a holy place. It is a ritual act acknowledging the glory, the power and goodness, of the Creator. We are off on the wrong foot, it seems, if thanksgiving is about us. Ideally, this is a ritual act performed before the glory of God. It is, at least, about a higher power or a mystery that invites awe. A temple, a church, a mosque—a sacred place bigger than a house and home table—seems required.

SHARING OUR VALUES;
FORGING A COMMON BOND

At the core of thanksgiving is gratitude. Brother David Steindl-Rast says that gratitude is the heart of prayer. Our own value and worth is revealed in our feelings of being grateful. At a Thanksgiving meal or gathering, consider asking people to go around the circle and share what each is grateful for.

As these different stories of gratitude are voiced, a common feeling of gratitude forms. We are hearing inner stories that we treasure because they also represent our value and our worth—given as offerings as the stories are told. This practice encourages stories that are quite different from the typical heralding of our own powers and successes, for which we pretend to be thankful. Rather, we encourage stories that we humbly and honestly lay out side by side, building a common bond.

The King James translation of Psalm 90 invites such a practice: “Lord, thou has been our dwelling place in all generations. … We spend our years as a tale that is told. … So teach us to number our days, that we may apply our hearts unto wisdom.”

As the Psalmist indicates, our individual tales weave into a story of common destiny—moving from a shared origin to a shared journey for generations. Together, we move from individual thanksgiving toward a far larger story that makes the future, and our humility, possible.

To give thanks then is the opposite of pride in one’s self. It is a form of self-humbling that comes out of a full heart of gratitude. Somehow, filling up with gratitude empties us out of ourselves. Empty of ourselves, we seem held in one large … well, one large Something Else. You can name that mystery what you will.

GRATITUDE FOR A LIFE WITH LINCOLN

This leads me to a story about the passage from Philippians and my relationship to Abraham Lincoln. This Thanksgiving I am filling up with gratitude for my life with Lincoln. It is making me thankful for, even to, Lincoln. Lincoln becomes an object of glory, of thanksgiving, for me. I’m not sure what to give—except more and more of my interest, attention, and the creativity of my responses.

I suppose I need to give thanks to God for giving me—for giving all of us—Lincoln. I start with my gratitude, which leads me to express thanks for the glory, the goodness, the greatness, of this one man. It is not that I see him as God or even as a god. But I do see the better angels of our nature so abundant in him that I am overwhelmed. The truth is, most of the people I know who read and write about him have this inner story and feeling, too.

Philippians 2:1-7 is a New Testament letter that is user friendly with Buddhism and with the mystic traditions that I know. It is about being of one mind, participation in the Spirit, and acting from humility, emptying yourself of yourself, as Jesus did. The word often used here is a Greek word, kenosis. Self-emptying.

Among Lincoln’s many values, it is his natural way of emptying himself that is the most astounding. He shows how such a spiritual quality has both personal and political power. You can be president and still be humble! Kenosis is pragmatic, for all its spirituality. As a boy, then later at the height of his power, and even as a soon-to-be-martyred president, Lincoln shed his ego self, that self we all have so much trouble letting go.

I love the story of big, strong, 13-year-old Abe Lincoln catching some of his friends—boys he grew up with—secretly making off with melons from his family’s melon patch. He easily could have beaten the boys and left them to nurse their bruises. Instead, he never stopped seeing these boys as his friends. He did startle them, but then he sat down among them—and helped them eat the stolen fruit!

At a moment when he could have vented his self-righteous power, he chose to share with mutual joy a common meal. The story is true to his nature and probably true to history. It could be seen as his first Thanksgiving meal. We see that same magnanimous nature brought to bear on the South at the end of the mighty war to restore the huge region of the Union that Southerners had tried to make off with. Lincoln never stopped seeing Southerns as fellow Americans and friends. Despite the war, they were not enemies, he insisted.

The biography of Lincoln is full of astonishing stories in which he moved beyond looking out for his own self interest—to look out for the interests of others, as Philippians describes: He emptied himself, seemingly every day in the final years of his life, and took on the form of a servant. His efforts changed the world: freeing slaves and establishing human equality as the theme of our national story. I am thankful that Lincoln remembered what America should be, re-imagined what America could become and then acted decisively to renew America.

Looking for a reason to feel awe at Thanksgiving? Try remembering how much we are all sons and daughters of his greatness to this day. I give thanks for Lincoln by reading and writing about him. Lincoln is my work, these days. I am full of gratitude that I get to feel close to his value and worth, his fulfilling humanity.

And, I am grateful for ReadTheSpirit and its readers who share with me in this expansion of self, this shared inner story, and the common destiny—one new story—made possible. I believe it is opening up a better future for all of us.

Amen.

MORE ON LINCOLN and DUNCAN NEWCOMER

In 1999 Duncan earned a Doctor in Ministry in Preaching from the ACTS DMin program through the Chicago Theological Seminary. He has prepared various community resources, discussion starters and historical columns, which you can find in our extensive Abraham Lincoln Resource Page.

You are free to use, discuss, share and even republish this “sample sermon,” as long as you credit Duncan Newcomer and readthespirit.com online magazine.

Congregational consultant Martin Davis: Your newsletter may shock you—and these possibilites will excite you

This entry is part 2 of 3 in the series Martin Davis: Growing Your Church through Communication

617 Church newsletters making these newsletters more effectiveRead the Spirit is proud to introduce columnist Martin Davis, a well-known congregational consultant. He’s good at answering the nuts-and-bolts questions people are asking nationwide. One of his specialties is helping congregations rethink the way they communicate. Please, click on a blue-“f” Facebook button (top or bottom today) to suggest that friends read this column along with you. And, keep in touch with Read the Spirit for more stories like this one by clicking the green “Subscribe” button in the upper-right and signing up for our free weekly newsletter. Here’s Martin …

READER SHOCK:
Successful Newsletters
Are More than
Artful Designs

By MARTIN DAVIS

When Chancellor Baptist Church decided to launch an e-newsletter, the staff’s excitement was palpable. Everyone would want this, they reasoned, so it would go a long way toward ending communication problems in the church. If events and information are in the e-newsletter and in the printed newsletter, no one will miss them. After all, everyone reads the printed newsletter—and surely everyone would read the e-newsletter. Right?

The reality was shocking to all involved. Over the first three weeks, only about 50 of the congregation’s 250 regular attendees signed up for the e-newsletter. And over the first month, no more than 15 percent of readers actually clicked a link in the newsletter.

Such is the reality of online newsletters. Whether you are pondering launching your first e-newsletter, or looking to improve an existing one, it’s essential to “keep it real” when setting your expectations for success.

According to MailChimp—an e-newsletter service that sends out billions of newsletter emails each month—the average open rate (emails opened in a window), un-open rate (emails never opened), and click rate (emails in which a user clicks at least one link) for e-newsletters within the realm of religious media are as follows: Open rate, 29.6%; un-open rate, 69.0%; click rate, 3.7%.

Shocked now? Think about this: If you have 100 members in your church and everyone signed up for your e-newsletter, you could expect 30 people to open it. (That means that they click to open your newsletter from their email program, or the email appears in their email program’s preview window.) But remember that final statistic, the click rate. About 30 people may “open” and see your newsletter—but that does not mean 30 people will spend time reading it—and only a few will follow those links that you so thoughtfully placed in your e-newsletter.

Keep in mind that these are national averages. My experience shows that congregations can reasonably expect a somewhat higher click rate. I estimate about 10%. And, if effectively trained newsletter editors are at the helm, those numbers can push higher—upwards of 30%-35%.

As you start, consider the shock value of the real-world numbers I have shared here. This is the time for you to contact friends in your congregation who care about the way you communicate. Talk about how surprisingly little impact you may be having through your long-trusted newsletters.

In a minute I will share some good news about how to begin breaking through this wall of missed communication. But, first, I’ll start the process of honestly talking about this problem.

Church Newsletters:
How We Tackled the Challenge

Chancellor Baptist Church is my home congregation in Virgina and we were excited about launching an e-newsletter. Then, we were surprised by the harsh reality of the real-world statistics on e-newsletter readership. But the next insight was an even greater surprise. Many of us had assumed that “everyone” was reading our existing printed newsletter.

The truth is: In congregations nationwide, the majority of men and women are not reading print newsletters—and they probably never have. A simple test of your own reading habits suggests why. If you receive snail-mail newsletters and magazines, how often do you read them cover-to-cover? At all?

Consider a Bureau of Labor Statistics report on how Americans use a typical five hours of leisure time per day. Mainly, Americans watch television (2.7 hours), play games (26 minutes) and socialize online (37 minutes)—far more time than they spend reading (17 minutes). Now think about all the materials that cross a person’s field of vision in the course of a day: Emails, regular mail, magazines, best-selling mysteries, reports from work—the reading list goes on and on long before someone decides to curl up with a church newsletter.

E-newsletter statistics bring that already existing situation into sharp relief. If only 10% of your members actually engage your e-newsletter by clicking something, it’s safe to assume that probably the same percentage are engaging your printed materials.

Why Your Congregation
Should Develop
E-newsletters

The reality of your readership may be shocking, but e-newsletters give you something that print newsletters never can—hard data about the people in your congregation and what they look at.

At Chancellor Baptist Church, once the initial shock wore off, people began looking closely at what people were paying attention to within our new e-newsletter—and what they were ignoring. Whatever e-newsletter service you choose, you will find that your newsletter staff can receive easy-to-read reports on what people actually are reading in each issue. We discovered right away that many of our long-standing types of newsletter stories were largely ignored.

On the other hand, write ups about members soared. Think about that for a moment and it makes a lot of sense. If you have a precious few minutes to scan your congregation’s e-newsletter, your eye is likely focused on finding something about your family and friends. A short profile about an active member is likely to catch a lot of eyes.

So, our church began to adjust the balance of newsletter items. Over time, our new mix of stories provided an even more valuable lesson: Member profiles get lots of views the first time they run—and people come back to them again and again! To facilitate this, there’s now a convenient way to access an index of all profiles in every e-newsletter issue.

What else did people enjoy? Videos of baptisms also did very well, as did discussions of new educational materials the church is considering. In short, by paying attention to what people actually accessed in the e-newsletters, the staff learned what members want to read. This began to increase the value of the newsletters, rather than leaving this potentially important communications tool mired in the typical rut of feeding people the same old things they’ve been ignoring for years.

More important, because of the newsletter, the staff is gaining a better understanding of people in our community, including their interests and their daily lives—the first goal of any growing congregation.

Getting Past the Newsletter Jolt

It’s up to you: You can use this data and follow the examples of many congregations that are honestly facing up to the failures of most older newsletters. This week, gather friends and staff in your congregation. Share this column with them. When you meet, ask the tough questions: Is it really worth the postage and printing costs to produce a print newsletter when you receive no feedback about how it’s being used? Could the expense and effort of producing print pieces be put to better use? Is it worth buying Yellow Page ads when studies show people turn to the internet first when looking for a church?

Begin to rethink your existing budget for advertising, printing and mailing—and you may discover you can free up money for new projects. Rethink the hours that staff and volunteers spend on existing media—and think about the new excitement they will feel when you can demonstrate that their “item” or photo or home video was popular in the new e-newsletter.

Finally, think about the excitement your community will feel, when a short story about one of your members winds up shared across Facebook pages and personal email networks—and winds up drawing a friend or relative to walk through your doors. After all, you’re showing what a friendly, welcoming place you’ve become.

Don’t let the initial shock deter you from opening a more powerful window into your community.

Want more on growing your congregation
through better communication?

In 2013, Read the Spirit is responding to readers nationwide who love their congregations and are asking us to include more practical columns about growing healthy communities through media. One way we help is through our Bookstore, which offers dozens of books that are great for re-igniting your small group or congregation.

This summer, we also are adding occasional columns by author and media marketing expert Lynne Meredith Golodner. Her first column explains why we need to rediscover the lost art of storytelling as a way to honestly and effectively connect people—and build diverse communities.