Why did Abraham Lincoln pardon a turkey?

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President Trump pardoned the Thanksgiving turkey yesterday, continuing a long and surprising tradition.

Such clemency apparently began with President Lincoln in 1863. Two years later, a White House reporter noted that “a live turkey had been brought home for the Christmas dinner.” However, Lincoln’s son Tad “interceded in behalf of its life . . . [his] plea was admitted and the turkey’s life spared.”

A century later, President Kennedy was presented with a Thanksgiving turkey and responded, “Let’s keep him going,” sparing his life. Presidents since have offered mercy to Thanksgiving turkeys in various ways, leading to the formalizing of the process by President George H. W. Bush in 1989.

This year’s presidential turkeys are named “Peas” and “Carrots.” (President Trump officially pardoned Peas, but Carrots will join him in retirement.) They’re not just any turkeys.

The National Turkey Federation tells us that turkeys selected for the so-called Presidential Flock are “acclimated from an early age to the unique experiences of the ceremony: television lights and crowded noises.” Peas and Carrots spent Monday evening at the Willard InterContinental Hotel in downtown Washington, DC, before their big day on the national stage.

When President Obama issued his Thanksgiving turkey pardon in 2013, he stated: “The office of the presidency is the most powerful position in the world [and] brings with it many awesome and solemn responsibilities.” Then he added humorously, “This is not one of them.”

Unless you’re the turkey.

All of God there is, is in this moment

We discussed yesterday the biblical command to “give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you” (1 Thessalonians 5:18).

This requirement is not in Scripture for God’s benefit, but for ours. As we noted, one reason our Father calls us to express ongoing thanksgiving is that such gratitude reminds us that we are creatures in need of our Creator’s provision.

A second reason we should “give thanks in all circumstances” is that such thankfulness enables us to see God’s hand in “all circumstances.” No matter how challenging or encouraging our day might be, our Father is present in it.

All of God there is, is in this moment.

Learning theology from trees

In light of our text, I’ve been looking for reasons for thanksgiving in the events and circumstances I encounter. For instance, I was on Chris Brooks’s terrific radio show yesterday. As our media coordinator was working with his team to set up the necessary technology, I thanked God for their remarkable expertise and the honor of being on air with one of my favorite ministers and cultural apologists.

I asked the Holy Spirit to help me see his hand throughout my day so that I might express my gratitude for his gifts. And he abundantly answered my prayer–I recognized his grace in the privilege of working with close friends and his provision in the food I ate and the clothes I wore (cf. Matthew 6:31-32).

I focused on the trees outside my office window, each of which is a marvel of botanical engineering. I became grateful for the professionals who designed and built the roads on which I drive and the buildings in which I live and work.

When we look intentionally for ways God is active in our lives, we are then moved to recognize attributes of our Father we might not have recognized. He understands technology even more than the technology professionals who made my radio interview possible. The world’s most brilliant physicians can ask the Great Physician for wisdom beyond their own. The most powerful CEOs around the globe can seek the help of the Almighty King.

But there’s a catch.

“Every common bush afire with God”

The more we recognize the remarkable ways God works in our lives, the more we recognize our finitude and his magnificence.

Your next breath comes from your Father’s providence (Isaiah 42:5). Your life is his gift (Job 33:4). The first law of thermodynamics conveys theological truth when it states that humans can neither create nor destroy matter.

It can be discouraging to discover our insignificance in the world. But this is true only if our significance is found in the world. If our sense of personal worth comes from God, the more we realize our finitude, the more we recognize the depth of our Father’s passion for us. And the more we rejoice that we can do nothing to earn or lose his unconditional love.

On this Thanksgiving Eve, let’s reject our culture’s insistence that we evolved through random chance and that this world is all there is. Let’s choose to be thankful for the “small” things of life that reveal to us our small place in the universe and our high value to God.

And let’s take time to look for our Father’s hand and heart of grace. Elizabeth Barrett Browning:

Earth’s crammed with heaven,
And every common bush afire with God,
But only he who sees takes off his shoes;
The rest sit around and pluck blackberries.

I would change her third line to read: But only he who takes off his shoes sees.

Will you unshoe your soul today?