Thanksgiving is arriving this year just in the nick of time. These last few months have been an edgy, unhappy period in our country. Over the summer and fall frustration has been spilling over just about everywhere, with people angry about what’s happening with the economy, frightened about the loss of jobs, and anxious about the future. Polls are saying that for the first time in decades Americans believe their children will have less prosperous lives than their own. The recent elections have been ugly, and our representatives and leaders are bitterly divided. In this land of abundance a widespread sense of scarcity has taken over, a grim sense that there isn’t enough of life’s essentials to go around.
So it’s time to step back, take a break, and see if we can get some perspective on what’s going on. And I can’t think of a better place to turn for guidance than our nation’s Thanksgiving Day celebration this week, which is the closest thing we Americans have to a true national holiday. Unlike Christmas, which will come rolling in soon behind it, Thanksgiving doesn’t exclude any group from its celebration. It makes a profoundly religious assertion, but it does it in a way that is ecumenical and even interfaith—the affirmation that beneath all the different creeds in our country is one uniting attitude, and that is thankfulness.
When we gather next Thursday with friends and family many of our celebrations will begin with a moment of pause. Some will offer words of thanks and maybe even sing the old doxology, “Praise God from whom all blessings flow,” some will make signs of the cross, some will simply bow their heads or join hands, some will raise a glass. And for at least a few hours we Americans will pay attention to the blessings of our lives rather than to our problems. And we will sense what it might mean to view our world and our lives with glad and thankful hearts.
We should be careful not to romanticize that first Thanksgiving feast. It had come at the end of a brutal first year in the New World. The Pilgrims had arrived at Plymouth in 1620 after a grueling two month voyage on the Mayflower. The New England winter was harsher than anything they had ever experienced. By the time the one year anniversary arrived half of the Pilgrims who had set out from England were still alive. Everyone had lost someone they loved. The seeds they had brought along to grow their food failed to grow in the rocky New England soil, and starvation was a constant possibility. Only corn brought to them by the native people had kept them alive. By the spring and summer, though, things had become more hopeful, new crops had been planted, this time with fertilizer introduced to them by the natives, and they had begun to believe they would survive.
And so Governor William Bradford called for “a time to rejoice together after a more special manner” and sent out hunters to secure the ducks and geese for the feast. Contrary to what many paintings have suggested, the Pilgrims didn’t sit at a long table covered with a white linen tablecloth, with the natives standing around. They all stood around a fire throwing meat into steaming pots and ate with their fingers and knives. And in that feast they offered God their thanks and praise for surviving their first year. Their Bible had told them about ancient Israel’s harvest festivals when the Israelites thanked God for the abundance of creation and for delivering them from captivity and leading them to freedom. Now the Pilgrims were celebrating their own deliverance.
What is so striking in this story is that in the midst of the hardest of times, these Pilgrims, rather than turning angry and bitter, raised their hearts and voices in gratitude. They seemed to know something we need to know in this time of our own national discontent. Nathaniel Philbrick has written a superb book about the Pilgrims called Mayflower: A Story of Courage, Community and War. He is convinced that it was the Pilgrims’ faith that saw them through that hard time. Their trust in God made all the difference, as did their willingness, because of their faith, to see the native people as allies rather than enemies, and that turned out to be the key to their survival. Their response to their hard times was not resentment, bitterness, and blaming, but the power and possibilities of thankful hearts.
Gratitude is at the heart of Christian faith. It is the emotion that underlies the whole Christian experience. At the foundation of our faith are not rules and obligations, or guilt or fear, but a foundational amazement at all that we have been given, and an unstoppable desire to offer thanks and praise to the Giver. The deepest truth of our faith is that ‘Life is gift,’ all of it, and if we can keep our spirits focused on that we can engage whatever comes our way more graciously. And if you look at those Pilgrims you can see that a grateful heart isn’t based on lives that have everything they want or need, but on the ability to see the goodness and gifts that are there no matter what.
The truth is that we are on the receiving end of life all our days. And the best gift we can give ourselves is to cultivate gratitude as a way of life. In Rabbi Harold Kushner’s book on the twenty-third Psalm he describes gratitude as “more than a ritual of politeness or just remembering to say ‘thank you.’ It is a way of looking at the world that does not change the facts of your life but has the power to make your life more enjoyable.” Gratitude, he says, “is a favor we do ourselves more than it is something we do for the recipient of our thanks.”
Those first Pilgrims had little control over the lives. The struggles and losses they faced had been overwhelming. They could hardly affect the harsh weather, the failed crops, and all the other things that went badly, but they did have the capacity to choose how they would view the events in front of them. And they chose to see their lives as receivers of God’s generosity in bringing them strength and fortitude even in the worst of times. In a time of immense scarcity, they focused on God’s abundance: God’s care, hope, and promise. And, in our times of scarcity and worry, there’s nothing we need more than thankful hearts.
When I’ve taught Bible classes in the past people have noticed how often God insists on being praised, and the book of Psalms, for example, is filled with one song of praise to God after another. In C.S. Lewis’s book Reflections on the Psalms he takes head-on the notion that God somehow is an egomaniac who needs to be praised just to make him happy. It’s just the opposite. We are commanded to praise and give thanks because we need it. A gift is only fully enjoyed when it has been celebrated, and the Giver has been thanked. The completeness of our receiving the gifts of our lives is our relishing them and then praising God for them.
Developing a thankful heart expands our spirits and frees us from the comparisons and resentments that can consume our energy. Lewis commented, “I notice how the humblest and at the same time most balanced minds praised most; while the cranks, the misfits, and malcontents praised least. Praise almost seems to be inner health made audible.”
In fact, having a thankful heart is pretty close to the key to living, and that goes for all of us, no matter how much or how little we have.
Years ago Chicago Tribune columnist Joan Beck began writing down a list of things she was thankful for and found that she couldn’t stop:
As we gather together to count the Lord’s blessings we are grateful, Dear God, for families and farmers and fathers and faith, for summits and summers and Sundays and sunshine, for ‘It’s benign’ and ‘You’re hired’ and ‘Your new baby is perfect’…. We thank you today for MRIs and MVPs and MTVs, for MDs and CDs and TDs, for IRAs and CPAs, for Oprah and opera and op-ed pages, for beaches and beagles and Beaujolais, for beaus and beavers…. We thank you, God, for no-cavities kids and no-cut contracts, for peacemakers and pacemakers and homemakers, for outreach and outdoors, for outboards and outpatient surgery and Outward Bound. We thank you for immunization and imagination and immigration reform if it works, for Shakespeare and Sousa and Seurat, and Seuss, for Pilgrims and pioneers and patriots’ dreams…, for the decrease in mortality and the increase in longevity, for medications that relieve mental illness and blot out pain, for 98.6 and 20/20 and 120/80, for 10K and 401K, for Lincoln and lilacs and licorice…. For a port in the storm and a bridge over trouble, for dawn after dark, for cocoa after caroling, for healing after hurt and for life after life, we thank you Lord of heaven and earth.
And so on, she goes. You see, when you really start being grateful it’s hard to know where to stop.
We Christians are called to be agents of a different spirit in our time, a spirit of abundance, of gladness even when we seem to have less than we did, or very little.
I hope we can take the next few days to make our own lists of the little things as well as the large ones for which we are grateful. And, in response I suggest that we do three things:
First, we can offer our thanks and praise, telling God how grateful we are, putting our trust in God even in the face of our fears and anxieties.
Second, we can pass the generosity on, by allowing God’s goodness to flow through us as we respond to the immense needs we see around us.
And third, we can ask God to guide us in making our family, community, and country more grateful and generous. We can seek a deeper simplicity of life, less cluttered with things, developing a deeper clarity in what we need and don’t need and a stronger commitment to building a generous society for everyone.
When poet Jane Kenyon learned of her cancer, she was determined to keep writing all the way to the end. And all the way to the end, she couldn’t stop being grateful for the smallest things:
I got out of bed
on two strong legs.
It might have been
otherwise. I ate
milk, a ripe, flawless
peach. It might
have been otherwise…
All morning I did
the work I love…
We ate dinner together
at a table with silver
I slept in a bed
in a room with paintings
on the walls, and
planned another day
just like this day.
But one day, I know,
it will be otherwise.
Our lives didn’t have to be as filled with goodness as they are. It could have been otherwise. The only real response is gratitude. It’s the secret of life. It’s what our nation needs now: a thankful hearts.