Thanksgiving has become the ritual celebration of our North American cornucopia. We are a nation of plenty — to a degree most of the world cannot even imagine. Perhaps that’s why those imaginings have become mythic: the land of opportunity… the streets paved with gold.
And, in light of our relative wealth and good fortune, there’s something helpful… wise… humble about — at least once a year! — dedicating ourselves to getting beyond “taking for granted’ on the way to gratitude.
But complete plentitude was not the context of the first Thanksgiving anymore than it can be a part of ours. Certainly, the first occasion of its original celebration was the immigrants’ first successful harvest. And there was incredible and desperately-needed promise in the accomplishment of a home-grown crop. The Wampanoag Native Americans had helped them through their first winter when the supplies they had brought from England turned out to be insufficient. The native neighbors had also provided the Europeans with seeds appropriate for the New World and taught them how to fish. Undeniably there was much to be thankful for.
But their new good fortune was set in high relief against the losses they had suffered. Roughly half of those who made the trip across the sea had not survived the first year in their new homeland. Their settlement, even with the Natives’ help, had not been easy or without costs. Even in their Thanksgiving, their mourning cast a long shadow.
Thinking of their thankfulness in light of the hardship those first immigrants faced reminds me of Black Church spirituality. When I am in predominantly African American worship services, I am always impressed, even a bit surprised, by the extent and the depth of the thanksgiving I sense as a central religious emotion. Considering the hard history that has been the African American experience of North America, I marvel at such unambiguous gratitude to God. I could understand if African American expressions of Christianity sounded more like the Psalms of lament (which often can sound sort of “complainy”).
I am touched and challenged by thinking of both of these forbearers’ communities: I wonder if gratitude has to do not only with our blessings, but also with our burdens. Yes, of course, we should be thankful for all we have. But thankfulness also relates, perhaps inversely, to the losses we experience.
I’m not saying that those who have not suffered enough cannot be thankful. I am wondering, however, if our gratitude is all the profounder when we find it or struggle for it despite our deprivations, losses and disappointments… Remember, the Bible — through Paul — exhorts us to be thankful always and in all things (Ephesians 5:18-21).
This Thanksgiving, as you think about your lives, our world and this last year, you might aim for gratitude the embraces as well all the difficulties. Maybe even try composing a Psalm of your own, a Psalm of thanksgiving that also encompasses your laments and your hopes… and still ends up with gratitude to God.
See you in church on Sunday (for Advent 1),
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