“What do you say?” It’s a question every child hears frequently while learning to navigate the social niceties. Parents always hope their children will quickly learn to respond with a “please” or a “thank you.”
But social niceties are not a given in life. Even adults seem to struggle with common courtesy. We see it as we drive down the road, as we stand in line at the grocery store, and even as we sit in our church pews on Sunday mornings. Oscar the Grouch seems to have left his garbage can and moved onto every block.
And now, here we are again, at that time of year, when we’re supposed to be cheerful, polite, and thankful. Oh, so very thankful.
There’s a story in the gospel of Luke that tells of Jesus walking into a village and finding ten people with leprosy nearby. When they see him, they ask him, “Please, help us.” He heals them of their disease and, as was required at the time, tells them to see a priest to be declared “clean” and ready to reenter society.
As the men leave, one pauses in his journey, and returns to offer his thanks.
Why only one of the ten? Surely, the others were grateful for this life altering gift.
If you’re like me, you may wonder, am I the kind of person that would have just walked away, or am I the guy that came back.
If we apply the percentages of the story to the world, that would mean that about ten percent of us remember to be grateful. Admittedly, this is not a scientific study but, as I ponder the world around me, and the decided lack of civility and common courtesy, I sometimes wonder. As I see the overwhelming number of people suddenly remembering to be thankful during the month of November, then reverting to their “normal” behavior when December comes, I wonder.
Why do we reserve gratitude for one month out of the year and, specifically, one day? What kind of people are we and what kind of people do we want to be?
Grumbly or Grateful – You know them. You probably wish they’d wear buttons, warning you of their approach. They’re the grumbly, grouchy, complaining people of the world. But, how often does that describe us? How often do we slip into the negative mode of life, losing sight of the beauty which surrounds us? How often do we forget to “be the good?” How often do we forget that attitude can make all the difference? And that living a life of gratitude is life changing?
I’ll Have a Blue Christmas – Even when we’re surrounded by holiday cheer, it’s not always easy to find reasons to celebrate when holidays are times of melancholy, loneliness and grief. Each Thanksgiving Eve marks, for me, the anniversary of a friend’s suicide, a day that I cannot pass without a twinge in my gut and great regret. Friends of mine buried their son on Christmas Eve. While people mark the anniversaries of loss year-round, the grief, loneliness and depression often seem to be most profound in the deep gloom of winter and in the midst of holiday cheer. Those who find themselves in the clutches of despair all too frequently find counting their blessings to be a challenging task. (Many faith communities, in response to this, now hold “Blue Christmas” worship services, offering a time of healing and wholeness.)
The Delicate Balance of Thanking God – There is a great theological debate regarding giving God thanks and blame for the things which befall us in life. If we believe in freewill, how much in life do we attribute to God? And yet, when things happen, we so frequently say, “It’s God’s will,” or “Thank God.” Habit, right?
Depending on your own personal theology, you must determine how you see God’s hand at work in your life. Does God take one person’s life and save another’s? Does God cause a drought in one land and a typhoon in another? Or, does nature take its course?
And so, as we gather around our Thanksgiving tables, to whom do we give thanks? Most obviously, we thank the farmers, field hands, truckers, grocers, and cooks, for providing us with the food on the table. Mother Nature certainly helped, with the rising and setting of the sun. But, what about the other things in our lives for which we are thankful?
When we make our thankful lists on Facebook or keep grateful journals, is it just a general thanksgiving or are we thanking someone specific? Do we thank God for our own blessings when people around us are starving, freezing, and dying without proper medical care? For those of us in “first world” nations, how do we give thanks?
The other night, as my husband and I were helping to pack up the supplies at a food ministry program in which we participate, my husband, Gary, held out a box and said, “Last call for sandwiches.” As one of the men grabbed one, Gary said, “You can have more than that.” The man started scooping up as many as he could hold in his hands. So Gary said, “You can just take the whole box, if you want.”
The guy looked as if Christmas had come early. Seriously. I know that’s a cliche, but he really did. He just looked so happy. He asked, “Can I really?”
Not only was his joy overwhelming, we learned, long ago, that whenever we send sandwiches “home” with people, on these nights, they take handfuls of them to share with others. People wherever they are camped or bunking or finding shelter.
So, maybe that’s the key. We give thanks. But we also remember that counting blessings and being generous go hand-in-hand.
Say It Like You Mean It – The Thanksgiving feast tradition was born out of a story of survival, cooperation, and people helping people. May we always remember that it is more than just a big meal. It is a time to give thanks for life, community, and possibilities. And it is a time to build together for the future.*
*With apologies on behalf of my great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-grandfather, Edward Doty, one of those present at that first Thanksgiving, who, along with his friends, really didn’t build a very respectful future with their friendly and helpful neighbors. But, I am grateful to him for moving here.