Of Thanksgiving and Advent Living
That’s “to give thanks” in Greek.
It’s where, of course, Christians get the word “Eucharist,” the ‘fancy name’ for the Lord’s Supper (“he took the bread, and having given thanks [εὐχαριστήσας], broke it..he took the cup, and having given thanks [εὐχαριστήσας] gave it to them…”).
I sit here writing, just having polished off leftover turkey on a homemade bun spread thickly with butter, mayo (yes, both), and cranberry sauce, with a leftover homemade pumpkin pie and homemade whipped cream chaser…
…which itself (*ahem*) chased a mid-morning snack of leftover homemade chocolate pecan bourbon pie…
…which itself (*ahem*) chased a breakfast of French toast made with the leftover homemade cranberry orange almond slow-rise bread.
While I may not give thanks tomorrow when I stand on my scale (though I totally gave thanks on Thursday that I had the foresight to wear a tunic, i.e., no waistband, for dinner) I certainly gave thanks at and for our Thanksgiving meal and the company that joined Karl, Else, and me to enjoy turkey and the trimmings: my father, a couple from our home congregation, my son’s PCA and her roommate, and a friend who has become an adopted member of our extended family (I may legit own my dogs, but let’s be clear: they belong to Dode).
The day was so peaceful and glad.
At one level, giving thanks really couldn’t be more simple: you take a moment, or a day, or a season, to recognize the things, or people, or circumstances you have surrounding you, and you pause to be grateful for them.
I for one have heaps of reasons for gratitude: my children are the light of my life in every possible way. My father is a regular part of our lives, and gives me occasional bottles of vodka. I love my vocation. Our home is filled with laughter and love and gladness and full-on cozy, all the time. We are all, more or less, healthy. We are, more or less, financially secure.
But the more you think about giving thanks (and let’s be clear, I have not just a vocational calling but a personal predisposition to think [*ahem* too much *ahem*] about things…) it’s more complicated.
Everything, you see, everything that we have for which we give thanks could be gone in an instant, and might even have come to us in the first place only via an instant of grace or luck.
Health. Home. Family. Food. Job. Love.
The more that one thinks about it (see above) the more one realizes that one can’t give thanks without experiencing a) some measure of humility in the face of the capriciousness of it all; and b) some measure of solidarity with those who don’t have what we do, again because of the capriciousness of it all.
I am so powerfully thankful that my glorious Karl is with us…and I still grieve his TBI and that his papa isn’t.
I am thankful that Else is strong and wise and righteous and I get to be her mama…and I know all too well that next Thanksgiving, or even tomorrow, something unspeakable could happen, making her chair forever empty.
I am thankful that I am strong and healthy and fit (either in spite of [or because of?] regular homemade pies, breads, rolls, etc…)…and yet so was my mother before pancreatic cancer suddenly claimed her.
I am thankful that, single mama that I am (and freelance theologian that I am), still and even so, we are not broke in this moment…and I know from lived experience what it is to have no cash in the credit union, and that when that happens, a dozen eggs is as affordable as a dozen diamonds (as it is, thankfully, I’m not at all a fan of diamonds, and would far rather have a carton of eggs, because then pies, breads, rolls etc. All evidence to the contrary, I’m awfully low maintenance. Really.).
I am thankful that I have a safe and loving family, but am fully aware that not all families are (despite outward appearances), and that even people with resources to leave unhappy and abusive circumstances legitimately find it terribly hard to do so, and so daunting even that despite the dysfunction and pain, it seems more viable, if not just plain necessary, to stay in toxic relationships that kill spirits and senses of self.
Upshot is, the more I’ve mulled, the more I’ve come to think that it isn’t possible to be thankful and self-satisfied, and even safe from the randomness of it all, at the same time.
Any of us, at any moment, could lose all about which we are thankful.
So perhaps more than being thankful for people, or for things, or for circumstances, perhaps it behooves us to think about whether our thankfulness can transcend the flukes for which we are grateful.
If, that is, these are all taken away, would we still be thankful?
It makes me wonder.
(And yes, I am a huge fan of “Stairway to Heaven,” and most especially this rendition by Heart at the Kennedy Honors, which I’ve listened to a zillion times and which makes me tear up every single time which is super embarrassing when I’m caught wiping tears while singing at the top of my lungs at a stoplight. And yes, I just listened to it again and am wiping tears while I type).
It makes me wonder, if something isn’t a sure thing, and moreover a sure thing for everyone, can one be thankful for it?
It’s a question that, albeit from a different angle, Joseph Sittler posed in his tiny book of large profundity and wit, Gravity and Grace, when telling the story of a woman who believed that Jesus always found her a parking space for her at the hospital where she worked.
It goes like this:
Once at a church where I was interim pastor for a year, there was a woman really hooked on the “me and Jesus” movement, and she used prayer as a kind of personal lubricant to everything she wanted. She worked at a hospital in Chicago, and she used to tell me, “Every morning when I drive from my house to the hospital, I pray to Jesus that he will find me a parking spot. And you know, pastor, he always does.” I kept asking myself, “What kind of God-relationship is built on this parking-space-finding Jesus that will sustain this woman in profound deprivation and tragedy? Is it enough?”
One Sunday morning I said to her, “Emma, suppose there is another woman driving in the second lane on the highway taking a sick child to the hospital, and you drive right in to the parking space that Jesus found for you, and this woman who is frantic with a sick child can’t find a space. How about her?”
“She didn’t pray hard enough,” was her retort.
That really stumped me. So I tried to think of how to correct her, but she was immune to argument.
Well, finally I found one, and I am sinfully proud of it; I think it was a straight gift. The next time I saw her I said, “You know this speech you give me about Jesus finding you a parking space, Emma. What do you suppose Mary was praying about jogging along that donkey on her way to Bethlehem?” Emma never mentioned the topic again. If Mary couldn’t find a parking space in which to have a baby, particularly that baby, then there must be something wrong with the parking-space-finding Jesus.” (Gravity and Grace, 26-27)
”If Mary couldn’t find a parking space in which to have a baby, particularly that baby, then there must be something wrong with the parking-space-finding Jesus.”
In the same way, if not everyone has food and clean water and a home and safety and health, then there must be something wrong with the thanks-giving that offers up gratitude for what you have, when we know darn well that others don’t have the same…sigh, ‘blessings,’ people call them.
But truth be told, I confess that even the use of the term ‘blessings’ gets under my skin.
[Is there a Thanksgiving equivalent of Scrooge? If so, some of you might think that I’m it—but hold on, hold on, my heart is not tight, I promise!)
How can we count our blessings without noticing that others don’t have them to count?
When surveying our array of blessings, does it not strike us as odd that God has apparently blessed us more than others?
Why is it that we have proverbial parking spaces all the time, and others don’t?
Can we be thankful for good circumstances that, in many ways, are utterly beyond our control, received by birth, luck, and the seat of our pants, and even momentarily forgetting that others don’t have them, and that ours could disappear in a moment?
Is it possible to be abundantly thankful and not therefore and thereby abundantly humbled?
I’ve always found it interesting that Thanksgiving immediately precedes the first Sunday of Advent.
As regular readers of this blog, not to mention people who know me well, know, I am a bit…rigid…about Advent.
Let’s call it ‘protective,’ rather than rigid.
Or…principled. Principled will work.
Or let’s just call a thing what it is: I completely and brazenly judge people who put up their Christmas trees and decorations right after Thanksgiving.
The very point of Advent is the very thing that such people so wantonly, ruthlessly, and with nary a notice skip over: anticipating [she types with gritted teeth and staccato keyboard taps and a Seagull-annoyed-Yoda-like harumph].
Granted, granted, the word ‘anticipate’ literally means “to cause to happen sooner,’ or ‘to take care of ahead of time.’
Vis-a-vis Christmas decorations, whatEVER.
As its meaning…matured, though, ‘anticipate’ developed the meaning of ‘expecting,’ or ‘prepare for.’
See, you can’t anticipate something that is already here, because if it’s here, there’s no need to anticipate it.
Maybe this is where the serendipity of Advent chasing the calendar heels of Thanksgiving can be…dare I say it…a blessing?
Seems that just as we wouldn’t need to be thankful for things that are givens, that couldn’t disappear at any minute, we wouldn’t need to anticipate something that is already here.
The reign of God is not here in its fullness yet.
To varying degrees and in varying ways, we all know this.
So the season of Advent invites us to prepare for the fullness of God’s reign, to anticipate it, to be alert to ways in which possibilities arise for it to break in.
This is not done à la that T-Shirt/bumper sticker/Sermon Illustrate Quip, “Jesus is coming back! Quick! Look busy!”
Instead, this is done by intentionally and habitually crafting spaces and ways for the reign of God to show forth, not least of all as a way to prepare the way for Jesus.
Maybe the whole thought experiment boils down to this:
Thanksgiving invites us to consider what is.
Advent invites us to consider what isn’t.
And both invite us to participate accordingly: to create new realities that are in accord with the way God intends it to be, so that the thanksgiving can be all the more widespread, all the more transcendent, and the anticipation of Jesus’ presence all the more a present reality.
Lest I be misunderstood, I am not suggesting that our thankfulness is a sham, and self-indulgent, and myopic, and that any joy we have around the holiday should be guilt-ridden.
No, no! Expressing thanks is a way of honoring God, of valuing the moment, of treasuring those whom we love, and of recognizing our finitude: all good things.
Perhaps above all, joy defies death, so I am all in on that.
Instead, I’ve found myself reflecting that the quite immediate juxtaposition of Thanksgiving and Advent has made me mindful of gratitude for what is right and of the call to lament what is not.
Also, I am so ridiculously, irredeemably, unapologetically Lutheran: always with me the already/not yet; both/and; saint/sinner….
In that Lutheran spirit, then, and the spirit of both Thanksgiving and Advent, I invite you to spread the possibilities for giving thanks, and to tangibly (and proleptically) anticipate the reign of God by sponsoring or volunteering with any of the organizations below (or any like them) in and through which you too can make the world a better place for which more people have reason to give more thanks, and in which more people can more fully live in fuller anticipation of the reign of God.
For even if/when we do not have the things for which we might wish we could give thanks, we always do have the promises of God.
And the promise of God is not least of all that God’s agenda is that of life and love, and that God wills us to have them and have them abundantly.
That promise is worthy alone of thanksgiving, along with giving thanks for the people of God who carry out the promises of God in word and in deed and in hope of the fullness of the advent of God in time, some time, soon and very soon.
HEALTH CARE ACCESSIBILITY
A WHOLE MESS OF ADVOCACY RESOURCES SUPPORTED BY THE ELCA
Anna’s new book, I Can Do No Other: The Church’s New Here I Stand Moment is out. Order it here or anywhere fine and nerdy books about theology are sold.
This holiday season, consider gifting your colleagues, friends, family, or rostered leader sessions with me through OMG: Center for Theological Conversation, or a stay here at the Spent Dandelion Theological Retreat Center. Click on those respective links, or contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org for more information.