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Psalm 136, as rendered by Nan C. Merrill
Beloveds, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever makes your heart sing, whatever brings you hope, whatever and whomever evokes feelings of love, whatever makes you laugh, whatever is fun, whatever and whomever helps you feel connected to others and the Source of All Life—if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.
Rejoice in the Lord always. Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. Think about all the good things, all the things you have to be thankful for, and then the peace of God, which passes all human understanding, will be yours, and it will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.
You can read countless books and go to weekend-long retreats, you can keep a gratitude journal for years on end. But these ancient verses from a letter written by the apostle Paul, while he was imprisoned in Rome, to a church start in northeastern Greece, are the essence of any and every gratitude program every devised: Think on, and ground yourself in, all that is good, all that you have been given. Recognize that you live in a world made of gifts—graces showered upon you—and ground yourself in that reality.
What makes the Christian gratitude program different from all others is that we direct our thanks and praise to the Source of the gifts. We trust that the world itself was created as gift, and delivered to us for our survival, our enjoyment, and our care-taking. We experience our lives as gift, and trust that God can make something good out of even the most painful times and the most wounded parts of ourselves, and we praise God for light even as we stumble in the dark.
All gratitude programs teach that being thankful will make us happier and less anxious, and gratitude science confirms this, proving with studies and data that grateful people are healthier and happier, less stressed and more generous. The Christian gratitude program goes even further, promising that keeping our eyes and hearts focused on praiseworthy things and directing praise to the Giver will produce an inner peace that passes all human understanding, a peace that—given the circumstances—makes no earthly sense, and that this peace of God will protect our hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.
As for Thanksgiving Day, well, it doesn’t so much call us to get with the gratitude program as to take a break from our culture’s regular programming of consuming and worrying, earning and spending, and working hard to prove our worth. It gives us permission to gather with loved ones and enjoy the earth’s bounty, if only for a moment before we rush out to grab some bargains.
I’ve spoken before about the origins of Thanksgiving Day—not the self-serving, genocidal guilt-assuaging myth of pilgrims and Indians—but President Abraham Lincoln’s proclamation that declared the last Thursday of November “a day of thanksgiving and praise to Almighty God, the beneficent Creator and Ruler of the Universe.” The year was 1864 and the United States was, quite literally, at war with itself. Two years earlier 22,000 men had been killed in a single day at Antietam; a year after that, 51,000 had died at Gettysburg; and the war raged on.
Considering the nation’s blood-soaked battlefields, death-ravaged families, bitter hatreds, and the ongoing sin of slavery and white supremacy, Lincoln declared a day of repentance, prayer and thanksgiving. It must have seemed an odd—or desperate—prescription for a nation well on its way to self-destruction. And, as ivy tillman reminded me recently, the very privileges Lincoln praised were denied our indigenous and black siblings, even as their basic humanity and human rights were denied and degraded. But still, the president’s proclamation said, in essence, Do not cease to give thanks. Rejoice in the Lord always. Hallelujah anyway.
And so it is that we call ourselves to give thanks—not because life is perfect, not because white nationalism doesn’t continue to tear our nation and our families apart, not because our Transgender siblings are not being killed in unconscionable number, not because our government does not still continue to separate children from parents like so much cattle, not because we are in denial about everything that is hard about life and our lives, not because we are Yankees and, therefore, stoic as a stuffed turkey —but precisely because giving thanks draws our attention to the way things are meant to be, the way they were created to be. Because giving thanks grounds us in the Giver, whose Love, as the psalm says, keeps us going, whose Love has delivered us time and again, whose Love gives us all far more than we need, whose Love sets us in community and calls us to see and love the Holy in both our neighbors and our enemies.
And if giving thanks and focusing on what is good feels like a luxury of privilege and a betrayal of the prayerful resistance, let me put it this way: The world needs people who are grounded in goodness and at peace even in the middle of a dangerous and discouraging storm. The world needs people who can find their way to the light from the deepest darkness. The world needs people who will call us to our best, most loving selves.
Which is to say: The world needs people who are thankful. This world, the world God so loves, the world made of gifts, this beautiful and divided and unjust and racist and heteronormative world needs people who rejoice in the Lord always. People who are willing to do the inner and outer work to prepare the way for a better world. People who know what keeps them going and hang on to it and one another.
I had the privilege yesterday of hanging out with people like that; I had the privilege of being at the Cranberry Fair almost all day. This was our 40th annual fair, and it was my 12th annual fair (my first being the day before I was formally called to be your pastor), and still it never ceases to amaze me. Not only the many months of hard work that go into it, but also the wide range of people who are part of it.
There were the usual suspects, of course, but there were also quite a few new faces. There were not-yet church members from college age to retirement age. There were church members who’ve attended not even a handful of services in 12 years, church members we see maybe a few times a year, and one church member, and a past fair director, who now works for another church. Fair workers included one adult child who comes from out of state to sit joyfully at her dearly departed mother’s longtime post, a daughter-in-law who honors her late loved one; and shoppers included faithful children and grandchildren of long-gone church members who wouldn’t be anywhere else.
As the day goes on, we all get tired and some of us get a little testy, but we remember what sustains us, and we remember why we do this, and we keep going.
We work really hard to collect and sell things to raise money for this church, but the fair is really about loving and giving, about celebrating and sharing what sustains us. Not the 50-cent yo-yo that a boy will play with all through his delicious lunch in the Cranberry Cafe, but everything from clothing to tools, Christmas decorations and boardgames, household goods and arts that our neighbors will snag for free, symbols of generosity and abundance that bring our neighbors both sustenance and delight.
I came across one such neighbor considering a framed art print in the hall downstairs, and as she admired the lines and colors in the painting, I explained that it was a Picasso. “Really?” she asked, newly proud of herself. “I must have a good eye!”
“You sure do,” I said.
The print was a little banged up, but it brought her joy. The frame had seen better days, but it renewed her sense of self-worth.
Beloveds, in this world of worries, let us think about what is good and true and life-giving. In this horribly banged-up world, let us praise the good lines that hold us up. Let us celebrate the Love that keeps us going. With thanksgiving, let us turn to God for all we need. And the peace of God will guard us and change us and deliver us and this precious world God so loves.