It’s Thanksgiving morning. I’m the only one in the household that’s up. My daughter, son, and daughter-in-law are all sound asleep; my wife is in Northern California visiting her family. I’ve already spent an hour in the kitchen doing some advance prep for tonight’s feast–no, not turkey (most of my family doesn’t enjoy it!), but a southeast-Asian-style hotpot. I’ve been trimming and brining chicken pieces, concocting a miso-based sauce–and cleaning up after myself.
I’m in the study now, with the dishwasher whirring in the distant background. Outside my window, the tree I wrote about a few days ago is nearly bare. Most of the leaves have fallen; a red-orange carpet of them obscures much of the patio. Part of me mourns the passing of the leaves and the advent of winter. I must be in midlife.
I’m looking forward to our family dinner tonight, knowing that not all families would say the same about their own gatherings. Anticipating with delight all the things that go on the table is one thing. Wondering how it will go this year with the people seated around the table–well, that’s something else.
I confess that I sometimes make my students a little nervous about going home for the holidays. They’re beginning their training as marital and family therapists, learning about what makes families tick. Scanning the room as I lecture, I often see subtle changes in their facial expressions; their spirits seem to leave the auditorium for a few moments as they drift into remembered scenes from their own families. Many begin to wonder: will anything be different this year? Will I be different? (As Alexander Pope suggested, a little learning is a dangerous thing.)
I remember one woman coming up to me after I had given a Thanksgiving sermon. She told me that up until the previous year, the ritual family gathering had almost always been unpleasant. Things would begin well enough. But eventually, somebody would make a provocative comment or pick open an old wound. By the time the evening was over, she would wonder why they all even bothered to get together in the first place.
So she decided to do something about it. That Thanksgiving, she planned in advance who would sit next to whom–or rather, who wouldn’t. As each guest arrived, he or she was handed a list of rules, including which topics of conversation were permitted, and which were forbidden.
It was the best Thanksgiving ever. And she was thankful.
Somewhere, between the feasting and the frivolity or even the friction, it’s good to find the space to practice gratitude. Not because it’s a holiday tradition–although any excuse might be a good one–but because this is expected of those who are supposed to know what their salvation is about. The positive psychologists tell us that gratitude is good for us; those who take the time to remember and make note of life’s blessings seem to experience greater well-being than those of us who don’t.
But thanksgiving–which is the root meaning of eucharist–is so central to the Christian life that we should want to give thanks in the right way and for the right reasons. Gratitude may be good for us, but Christians don’t give thanks for purely instrumental reasons. And there’s a form of “counting our blessings” that is largely self-congratulatory, like an exercise in downward social comparison: thanking God for this or that material blessing becomes a more pious way of saying, “Thank goodness I’m not as bad off as so-and-so.” The Pharisee, after all, was thankful, and the publican was not: but the latter was the one who went his way justified (Luke 18:9-14).
To give thanks is to practice an alternative way of seeing. How else can one explain the fact that Jesus’ disciples could get hauled before the Sanhedrin, beaten to within an inch of their lives, and then go their way rejoicing because they had been given the high privilege of suffering for his name’s sake (Acts 5:17-42)? Would you have been grateful? I doubt that I would have been. I would have been grumbling and moping with every painful step on the road out of town.
Practice, practice, practice. Gratitude is an exercise of faith, confessing with our minds and mouths what we say we believe: that God is sovereign; that God is good; that we are his children; that it is his delight to give his children good gifts; that by his grace, he has already done so. Gratitude is noticing and remembering. Gratitude is seeing through the worldly markers of success and happiness to the reality beyond, past the bad news to the good news.
Thanksgiving will help me become the person that the Scripture declares I already am in Christ. And the more I think about it, the more I realize just how much I need that eucharistic practice. So, here goes.
Thank you, Father, for all your good and gracious gifts:
- …for a family that loves and accepts me, despite my quirks and failings;
- …for a wife who helps me remember what really matters;
- …for colleagues I can count on as true friends and partners;
- …for a church family that doesn’t just want to let people do the Christian life alone.
But even more than that, thank you, Father:
- …for the gift of life itself;
- …for the opportunity to join you in the greatest adventure of all;
- …for loving me so much (why, Lord?) that you would make the ultimate sacrifice to rescue me;
- …for not leaving me to my own devices, but working in and through me (and on me!) by your Spirit;
- …for the glimpses of eternity that somehow help it all make sense.
Thank you, Lord, for giving so much of yourself. Honestly, it doesn’t seem like you got much from me in return. But I guess that’s because I still have such a long way to go before I really understand the depth of your grace. In the meantime, teach me to practice gratitude the other 364 days of the year, that you might get more of the praise you so richly deserve.
Amen. Thanks be to God.