To Be Grateful
Thanksgiving. I really love Thanksgiving. I mean I love the whole thing. I love the fact that the major focus for many in North America is getting together with the family and eating. I love the fact that Thanksgiving is about nothing so much as pleasure in the moments of our lives, respite in the rush and worry of existence. It is a celebration of joy.
Sometimes it happens that we have to struggle to celebrate Thanksgiving-it can come when things are not going well. And for some among us, it is the day one remembers that one’s people have been conquered and one’s culture has been laid to ruin.
Thanksgiving, for many of us then, is a holiday that is shadowed and nuanced. In some ways what actually gives it its power is that it is joy in the face of sadness. Here joy exists with echoes of something sad. Here we face the powerful and true. Not always nice, but as we feel it fully, definitely something deep and real.
And so, maybe this holiday can be particularly useful to us in the season we currently inhabit, or maybe more correctly, that inhabits us. Here we are, washed as we have been in terror and death, the taking up of arms, witnessing the seeds of war thrown wide upon rocky soil. And even our own personal losses, close to home. Of course it sometimes feels like too much.
But then there is Thanksgiving. Here we find hints that there is more for us, as we allow our hearts to open fully. With our hours of sadness and moments of joy, I suggest a reflection on that central emotion of Thanksgiving, gratitude. Gratitude can guide us toward something precious and holy.
Things have been hard. So, how do we actually engage with all the hard things? How do we find joy? I think of that old familiar story of the poor man who goes to his rabbi. He tells the rabbi how hard it has been, as his family of eight must make do in a tiny, one-room house. “The six children,” cries the man, “roll like the sea. They are in constant motion. My wife and I never have a moment alone. I can’t stand it anymore.”
The rabbi tells the man that if he will do exactly as instructed, the man and his wife, as well as their children, will learn gratitude. The man agrees. So the rabbi asks him how many animals he owns. The man describes the livestock of a small holder in old Middle Europe. This includes chickens, rabbits, a goat, a cow, and a horse. The rabbi says, “Move all your livestock into the house.”
The man is aghast, but he agrees. So, he goes home and does as he’s been instructed. The next day he returns and says, “It is like living in Babel! I can’t imagine it worse. The chicken droppings alone are enough to make you sick.” The rabbi says, “Fine. Why don’t you move the chickens back out of the house?” Gratefully the man goes home and does it.
The next day the man returns and says, “Well, the chickens are gone. But the goat! Oh, the goat is horrible. It’s eaten half of the only table- cloth we own, and it jumps up on top of the chairs and our bed, making havoc everywhere.” “Well,” the rabbi suggests, "Why don’t you go home and remove the goat?" Which the man does.
The next day he returns and tells the rabbi, "Have you ever lived in a room with a cow? It is too disgusting to describe.” “Well,” the rabbi says, “Why don’t you remove the cow?” And it goes on, next the rabbits, then the horse. And finally, only the family remains.
The man goes to his rabbi and says, “I don’t understand. But, we are filled with joy and gratitude. Our children are happy and calm. My wife and I are at peace. Thank you.”
We don’t know how good we have it, until it really gets bad. And this is a legitimate lesson. Things can get worse. And I suggest, there are deeper places we can go than simply realizing how good we have it.
I draw again upon the Jewish tradition-this time from the Book of Job.
Remember all the horrors in Job’s life-the loss of his children, his servants, his livestock, his home, and the affliction of painful sores all over his body? In the face of them Job cries out to the divine his anguish and fear and demands justice. He stops one step short of cursing God. But he does rebuke the divine, and bitterly.
Job declares that God “does not care . . .” And more, Job bitterly laments that the divine “murders both the pure and the wicked. When the plague brings sudden death,” Job says, “God. . . laughs at the anguish of the innocent. He hands the earth to the wicked and blindfolds its judges’ eyes.” I’m sure everyone reading this understands the feeling behind this rebuke.
Job looks around at the terror and horror, the profound sadness of our lives and says of God, “Who does it, if not he?” This is the bill of charges; this is the list of horrors. And this is not stuff that we can use to make us feel better by comparison.
Without a doubt my favorite commentator on the book of Job is Stephen Mitchell. He says of this moment when Job makes his complaint, and God responds that “God will not hear Job, but Job will see God.” Here we move beyond the simple frame of comparison and even of good and evil. At such a moment our best reflections, our purest analyses, all fall away. Here we move to the deep waters of existence, where every idea is shattered.
And it is at this place where the divine lurks, a monster of our dreams. Here, when we shut up and just notice, we are given a tumble into what some may call the divine’s presence. The world becomes unveiled at moments of raw confrontation. And it is big. And we may become totally consumed, you and I, in the face of it, like moths before a fire.
So, what response do we Unitarian Universalists have for such moments? Another Unitarian, E. E. Cummings, sings of it all: “I thank You God for most this amazing/day: for the leaping greenly spirits of trees/and a blue true dream of sky; and for everything/which is natural which is infinite which is yes/(I who have died am alive again today,/and this is the sun’s birthday; this is the birth/day of life and of love and wings: and of the gay/great happening illimitably earth)/how should tasting touching hearing seeing/breathing any-lifted from the no/of all nothing-human merely being/doubt unimaginable You?/(now the ears of my ears awake and/now the eyes of my eyes are opened)”
At these moments of great sadness, of broken hearts, if we are lucky, we step away, mysteriously refreshed, as we could never have dreamed. Out of that experience, out of that full confrontation, we can return to the world of the relative, of good and ill, of choices that count, with some new understanding. It is, I suggest, an understanding that allows us to celebrate Thanksgiving for both its joy in family and food, and its sorrow in lost nations. And, I suggest, it is the perfect holiday for these difficult times.
If, that is, we don’t turn away. So look. So feel. So know your whole being.
This is a good day.
- James Ishmael Ford, minister