Psalm 136, as rendered by Nan C. Merrill
In a normal year, Thanksgiving Sunday falls on the day after the Cranberry Fair, and many of us come to worship feeling almost giddy with gratitude, if also a little worn out from weeks and weeks of preparing and one long day of greeting and selling and buying and cleaning up and counting.
In a normal year, Thanksgiving Sunday also finds many of us flush with the anticipation of large gatherings of family and friends, and that, too, fills us with feelings of gratitude.
And then there is this year.
I don’t have to tell you that, for the first time in 40-something years, there was no Cranberry Fair yesterday. No church hallways crowded with strangers and friends, no neighbors delighting in finding a good bargain, no lunchtime cafe set up in the lounge, no children reacting in wide-eyed wonder to the biggest collection of stuffed animals they’ve ever seen, no narthex clotted with would-be book buyers, no silent auction mysteries, no rushed breakdown to make way for Not Bread alone guests, no after-party at Freddie Manning’s to laugh and tell stories and eat delicious soup while awaiting Doris Peterson’s partial tally of the church’s only fundraiser of the year.
(Which is to say, there will be a roughly $12,000 hole in this year’s church budget.)
But worse even than that is that this year we are not having large Thanksgiving gatherings—or at least we shouldn’t be, according to the clear guidance from the Centers for Disease Control. Instead, some of us will spend Thanksgiving Day alone or, worse yet, at a family table with an empty chair where a loved one should be.
Worse still, more than 256,000 American families will be grieving loved ones lost to Covid-19 even as Covid cases and deaths are spiking around the country and the world. Other families will be grieving loved ones lost to white supremacy, racial violence, and police brutality.
And still, this is what we call Thanksgiving Sunday.
And still, Thanksgiving Day will arrive—when we are so tired of pandemic restrictions we can hardly stand it and as things are not only getting worse, but frighteningly so.
Which is to say: This year, Thanksgiving comes right on time. Just when it feels harder than ever to be giddy with gratitude for all the good in our lives, this Thanksgiving invites us to give up our usual self-satisfied celebration of our circumstances and the put-on-a-happy-face counting of our blessings. This Thanksgiving invites us to focus instead on what is real and true and lasting, what is unchanging, unfailing, and utterly reliable, what keeps us going not in spite of everything but in and through and because of everything.
Which is to say: God’s steadfast love—the love that is the ground and source of our being, the love that calls us into life and then calls us again into new life, the love that redeems us and heals us and empowers us, the love that sustains us like oxygen, the love that we sometimes take for granted and give no more consideration than oxygen.
You see, I don’t know the circumstances in which Psalm 136 was written or the occasions on which it would be sung in corporate worship. Reading the long litany of praise for God’s steadfast love, it’s easy to imagine it being sung on festive occasions. But having lived, with you, through eight months of a deadly and trying pandemic, I can’t help but wonder if the 25 “Your Love sustains us” refrains of Nan Merrill or the 26 “God’s steadfast love endures forever” of the New Revised Standard Version were not born out of faith-testing circumstances like ours.
Having lived, with you, through eight months of pandemic with no end in sight, I can’t help but wonder if we all shouldn’t write our own versions of Psalm 136 this Thanksgiving—not just to praise God, not only to give thanks, but also to remind ourselves of the love that sustains us through it all, to ground ourselves in the grace that carries us through patches rougher than we could have ever imagined, and to celebrate the faith that has brought us this far and won’t let us turn around now.
How would your personal psalm read? What real and true and undeniable evidence of God’s love and grace would your proclaim? How long would your psalm be? Given how hard this year has been, how basic or ultimate would your Thanksgiving psalm be?
It might be as simple as:
For oxygen and lungs to breathe it, I give you thanks and praise.
It might be as short as:
That I am still here to praise you, I give you thanks.
Your psalmmight surprise you:
I really hate Zoom, but for all the ways it helps me to connect—with church, with church folks who now live in faraway states, with Nick Kendall’s friends in Australia and on Prince Edward Island, with family over a meal, friends I haven’t seen in almost 40 years, I give you thanks and praise.
It might cut deep:
For revealing to me the things that matter most in life and for helping me see how I’d lost my way, I thank you.
Your psalm might shine a bright light:
For showing me that I am stronger than I thought and more able to adapt than I would have ever guessed, I give you thanks.
It might remind you who you are:
For friends and family I can count on, even if I can’t see them or hug them, for ways I can give, for a church community that cares, I give you thanks. For faith that gives me something to hold onto when the world seems to be spinning, I give you thanks.
And your personal psalm might remind you who God is:
For love that is always with me, whether I feel it or not; for love that sustains me, whether I acknowledge it or not; for love that empowers me, whether I use that power or not; I give you thanks and praise.
You know, much better than I, what has seen you through this frightening year. Whatever it is, whomever it is, give thanks for it. Praise God for it. Rejoice in it. Whatever we acknowledge grows in influence. Whatever we honor plays a greater role in our lives. Whatever we focus on shapes who we become.
So let us be swift to love and make haste to be kind. Let us be, if not giddy with gratitude, more humble and intentional in giving thanks than ever before. Let us be more aware of what sustains us, and more willing to proclaim it.
Know, beloveds, that I do not cease to give thanks for you—for your real faith and for your love for one another and for all.
In this season and always, may the eyes of your heart be opened to see the hope to which God has called you. May the door of your heart be opened to receive the love that has always and will always sustain you. May you know all the greatness of the God who is good, all the time. And may you know the power of God, which is at work in the world, even now, especially now, when we are newly and deeply aware of our need for it.
Thanks be to God.