Taking for Granted What is Granted

happy-thanksgiving-greetings-graphicIn his message this past Sunday, our pastor mentioned the idea of “taking for granted what is granted” as he talked about thanksgiving. I’ve been turning that over in my mind all week. It seems we have this propensity to forget that every good, true, and beautiful person, place or thing we enjoy comes as a “grant” and not something we earn or are simply entitled to. It is easy to think we have done something to deserve the good things we have in life. Yet we can think of instances of others who have done the same things and don’t have what we enjoy, or those who have done squat and enjoy far more.

Actually, the idea of “thanksgiving” seems to recognize that there is both something for which we give thanks, and someone to be thanked. We are both thankful for and thankful to. We are thankful for what we’ve been granted, and also thankful to the grantor.

Certainly some of what we’ve been granted comes from significant others in our lives. I am truly thankful for the love and companionship, the home and the meals, the good sense and artistic view of life, that are gifts from my wife. I’m thankful for the nurture and care and guidance and love of two parents who profoundly shaped my life. I’m thankful to my son for a friendship where we spur each other on in writing, and where he’s not afraid to push back when he thinks I’m “out of touch” or disagrees with my take on life. I’m thankful for and to friends and colleagues who have so enriched my life.

There is so much else though that is good, true, and beautiful for which there is no person to thank. The glories of this evening’s sunset. The smell of autumn leaves. The crisp tang of the morning air. The inspirations of a glorious landscape or the song of a bird, to art and music and dance. The simple pleasures of being alive–the warmth of the morning shower, the savor of coffee brewing and that first sip, the refreshment of a nap, a brisk walk across campus, the hug of someone you love.

There is a sense in which all these things are “granted” as well even though there is no human grantor. Some resolve this by saying that what is important is just the state of thankfulness. And probably that is far better than a grumbling, complaining spirit and our own mental outlook. Others, depending on their outlook thank nature, the universe or the Creator. I find myself in the latter camp, inclined to think that something so personal as a heartfelt “thank you” fits best with an infinite-personal Creator who “grants” these wonders for which I am so thankful and feel myself so blessed. One of my favorite passages of scripture is found in James 1:17:

“Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows.”

This reminds me of the chorus from Godspell (based on an old German hymn, later translated into English):

“All good gifts around us
Are sent from Heaven above..
So thank the Lord, oh thank the Lord for all his love..”

Today is a day that reminds me that I am loved extravagantly. Lover.
Father. Lord. And all I can do is say “thank you.” And that is enough.

 

 

The Goodness Leading to Thanksgiving

Photo by M. Rehemtulla [CC-BY-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Photo by M. Rehemtulla [CC-BY-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

I am celebrating Thanksgiving today. You might wonder from my post on From Lament to Thanksgiving if today was going to be a somber affair for us. No way! There will be food, family, great conversation, and football.

“But doesn’t that contradict what you wrote yesterday?” No, and here is why. While there is indeed a “problem of evil” in our world, the larger “problem” it seems to me is that of goodness. Why is it that soldiers tell jokes in the midst of battle, and show pictures of sweethearts while in the trenches? Why is it that even in the times surrounding funerals, we cannot resist telling stories that evoke laughter, even about the deceased, or enjoying good food and drink? It is because somehow, we believe deep down that the good is somehow more enduring and real than evil, that life somehow prevails over death and that with all the evil we see, we live in a world shot through with goodness.

So much of that goodness comes in the ordinary warp and woof of life. Sometimes it is the amazing feeling of refreshment after sleeping in after a good night’s sleep. Sometimes it is that first sip from the first cup of coffee in the morning. Sometimes it is in the first hug and first “I love you” of the day. There are all the shared moments and shared memories that weave the tapestry of a family’s life together.

Then there is the work of our days. Some is around our home and particularly the making of a place of welcome together. I also work in an amazing organization filled with gifted people of every ethnicity using their gifts to pursue the glory of God in the university world. I’m often amazed to be counted among them and to have been blessed to share in this work for 38 years. I work alongside amazing students and faculty, brilliant people of character pursuing their work with God-honoring excellence.

I often find myself giving thanks and rejoicing in the beauties of artistic expression, poor imitations at best of the work of our Creator. This past Tuesday in our Capriccio Columbus rehearsal, the men sat and listened to a number of our women sing a beautiful piece as our director tried to figure out who should have the solo. What struck me was all the different ways our women sang this so beautifully. While they sang the same notes and words, nuances of emphasis and varying timbres of voice reminded me that goodness and beauty have so many expressions.

I don’t think days like Thanksgiving are an escape but rather a celebration that affirms the deep sense we have that goodness, truth, and beauty will prevail in the end. And it is a day to gives thanks both to and for those who mean so much to us, and for those who believe that all this goodness comes from a good Creator, to offer that thanks to Him. And so I eagerly look forward to our family gathering today when we may do all of these things.

In the spirit of Thanksgiving, I also want to thank all those who read and especially who comment on this blog. Much of the joy of writing it has been in learning of the joy or insight it gives another and the thoughts it provokes that you share, which often enlighten me as well. Happy Thanksgiving!

From Lament to Thanksgiving

I’m already seeing them. The status posts and blogs for “what I am thankful for at Thanksgiving.” It seem that lots of these have to do with food, friends, family, and freedom. In truth, I experience many of these blessings as well and am thankful for these. But it seems that we are in the midst of a season of heaviness in our land and to write of thanksgiving without acknowledging these realities feels insular and trite to me. How is it possible to engage in thanksgiving in a time of lament?

Jeremiah Lamenting the Destruction of Jerusalem --Rembrandt

Jeremiah Lamenting the Destruction of Jerusalem –Rembrandt

Indeed there is much to lament:

  • Whatever we think of Michael Brown and Darren Wilson, we lament that one family faces Thanksgiving without a son and another with a promising career shattered because of a tragic encounter.
  • We lament a community torn by a hundred year history of racial conflict that is a microcosm for our nation’s continuing struggle with and accommodation to racial divides.
  • We lament for the people of West Africa whose families and societies have been decimated by a lethal virus.
  • We lament the continuing clash between Islam and the West represented most recently in the atrocities of ISIS, but also at times in Western policies extending back to World War I and before that are more concerned with self-interest (or even payback) than the flourishing of the people from whom ISIS recruits.
  • We lament the breakdown in society from neighborhoods where one’s children could play and roam safely and one’s doors could be left unlocked to cities with security systems, GPS tracking of our children, surveillance cameras everywhere, and a proliferation of guns and the need to protect ourselves.

I could go on but the question remains, is thanksgiving even possible in such lamentable times? Or are our thanksgiving rituals simply temporary ventures in escapism?

For me it begins with the idea that there is One who hears laments and who will one day “wipe away every tear” (Revelation 21:4). I hang on to the hope that my laments are not simply futile exercises that reach no further than the ceiling or simply an emotional release. I believe in One who heard the cries of Israel in bondage and who sent Moses to lead them out of Egypt (Exodus 3:7-8). It also is striking to me that while my hope is in the One who hears and acts, I see that this One acts through his people. For me this is where thanksgiving begins:

  • I’m thankful for all the leaders both black and white, many who never make the news, who are pursuing the hard work of justice and reconciliation, believing that the status quo is not the best we can do in our cities, states and nation.
  • I’m thankful for the courageous doctors and aid workers from Doctors without Borders and Samaritan’s Purse and other agencies who have risked their lives to bring comfort, care, and where possible, healing in West Africa.
  • While I am thankful for those in our own military services who put themselves in harm’s way to restrain the evil of groups like ISIS, I am also thankful for the peacemakers in places like the Palestinian territories and for every instance where someone, often in a persecuted minority, chooses to return love for hatred.
  • I’m thankful for those who engage in the hard work of “re-neighboring”, who move into blighted communities and rehabilitate homes and form neighborhood associations and block watches believing it possible to restore the fabric of community in a place.

Most of us are not on the front lines of such efforts. Most of these efforts are far removed from our thanksgiving tables. But I know how conversations can go at these gatherings and how easily we may degenerate into conversations that blame this or that group, find fault with this or that party or organization, or even demonize this or that group of people. Why not agree to leave this to our prayerful laments where God can be the judge of these things? Rather, if we say anything about these matters on this day of Thanksgiving, might it be better to give thanks for those acting with grace and courage and humility on the front lines of these great challenges? Might it be better this day to light the candle of thanksgiving for them rather than curse the darkness?

Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown — Thanksgiving

1870 ThanksgivingThanksgiving holidays started at school when I was growing up in Youngstown.  I remember one year where we took a field trip to a turkey farm where we saw the real thing before it ended up on our dinner table. Then there were the history lessons on the Pilgrims and the first Thanksgiving complete with the essays on the meaning of Thanksgiving. It seems we always had some kind of school assembly with a play enacting Thanksgiving as well as singing Thanksgiving songs (“We gather together to ask the Lord’s blessing…”–didn’t seem like we ran into any church-state problems with that one back then). Most important though was that we got out of school for a long weekend full of good food and football!

Thanksgiving morning began with turning on the TV to watch the Macy’s Parade and all the huge floats of Superman and Snoopy making their way down Fifth Avenue in New York. Then some years while my grandparents were still living, we’d load up the car and head over to their place where my grandmother was preparing the Thanksgiving feast. Eventually, after my grandmother passed, that moved to our home.

While we were watching the parades, we’d begin to notice the home being filled with the most wondrous smells of the turkey and stuffing roasting (homemade of course!).  There was giblet gravy and mashed potatoes, green bean casserole and my mom’s favorite cranberry relish recipe served over some lettuce (I wish we had remembered to get that from her!). Snacks were set out, usually nut dishes and other candies with the admonition not to eat any until our guests arrived–we always managed to filch some! Of course pies were baked (or sometimes bought) the day or so before. There was always pumpkin pie and often mincemeat pie as well.

Finally, we were all called to the dinner table when it seemed we could no longer stand it and our stomachs were growling. Dad had done the honors of carving up the bird. After a blessing, it seems we spent the next ten minutes passing food until our plates were filled. When we were young, it seems like my brother and I always got the drumsticks. It was later on that we found out there were better parts of the bird. And there was my mom’s stuffing–which to this day is the mark against which I measure all others. A silence would descend on the table as everyone laid into the feast. You could tell when we were starting to get full because that was when the conversation picked up!

Sometimes we wouldn’t get to the pies until later. After dinner, the guys would adjourn to the living room (after telling mom what a tremendous dinner she’d made) to sit in a tryptophan stupor watching Thanksgiving Day football. I know some families would get out for a game of football. In our neighborhood, it would have to be on the street, which us kids did sometimes, but not usually on Thanksgiving. Meanwhile the women would be in the kitchen cleaning up and talking, probably about why didn’t the guys help with this! Back then, gender roles were pretty traditional and it was only in later years that the guys would realize, “maybe we ought to do the clean-up.” Seems that the main contribution men would make to the dinner back then was to carve the bird. (One wonders if there is a bird-carving gene on the Y chromosome!).

Thanksgiving really kicked off Christmas shopping season back then. Now it seems that you find Christmas decorations in stores from Halloween on. As a paperboy, this meant extra heavy newspapers, especially on Sundays with all those ads. Often the weekend after Thanksgiving was when dad put up the outside Christmas lights. Usually around this time the Sears-Roebuck Christmas catalog came and you started plotting your “wish-list” for Christmas. And it seems there was football on all weekend with key college rivalries like OSU-Michigan and NFL games. Meanwhile we feasted into those leftovers of turkey sandwiches, dressing, and left over pie. If you were lucky, you didn’t have to cook for the rest of the weekend.

What were your memories of Thanksgiving? Favorite foods?

 

Review: The First Thanksgiving: What the Real Story Tells Us about Loving God and Learning from History

The First Thanksgiving: What the Real Story Tells Us about Loving God and Learning from History
The First Thanksgiving: What the Real Story Tells Us about Loving God and Learning from History by Robert Tracy McKenzie
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I started this book on Thanksgiving Day, appropriately enough. McKenzie does several things that make this an outstanding book, in my view.

First he helps us understand the work good historians do in teasing documentable fact and a credible narrative of events out of the accretions of tradition that surround so many famous “historical events”. He explores what sources there are on which to base our understanding of “the first Thanksgiving” and the Plymouth settlement more broadly–predominantly William Bradford’s and Edward Winslow’s narrative of these events–it is a 115 word account in the latters narrative the forms the basis of our attribution of the First Thanksgiving to the Pilgrims.

Second, he then re-tells the history of the Pilgrims based on what we actually know. And from this we learn that the “First Thanksgiving” was probably a harvest festival that probably occurred late September, early October of 1621 and was not repeated. It was not a specifically religious day of Thanksgiving, which the Pilgrims occasionally proclaimed for various reasons on subsequent occasions. In fact the Pilgrims were actually anti-holiday. The only set day they observed was Sunday. Finally, their relationship with the neighboring Indian tribe was ambivalent. It may be that the Wampanoags were not invited but rather simply showed up as they were wont to do. At least on this occasion they brought venison from a five slain deer to contribute.

Third, McKenzie traces the development of Thanksgiving traditions and practices. Only in 1841 was Winslow’s narrative re-published which began to focus Thanksgiving practice on the Pilgrims. Also, he shows how this was primarily a New England tradition until post-civil war years. Thanksgiving celebrations were often coupled with abolitionist events. It wasn’t until 1939 when Franklin Roosevelt connected Thanksgiving explicitly to the Pilgrims that the association stuck. He also recounts some of the fanciful accounts of the first Thanksgiving that have contributed to both art and contemporary practice.

Finally, McKenzie explores what we can learn from the Pilgrims and how their narrative challenges us. He cautions against efforts to read God’s providence back into history. And he argues that it is not our role to make moral judgments on other generations but to engage in moral reflection on what we learn for our own. He thinks we can learn from the spiritually resourced fortitude with which they faced trials. He thinks that their very ordinariness, with all their faults can encourage us as to what is possible for “ordinary folk.” He also thinks that rather than link them to a holiday that is an occasion for over-eating in preparation for over-consumption of material goods, that the occasional nature of the celebration should encourage us to set aside times for such celebrations when it is appropriate and to genuinely thank the God from whom such good things come. Finally, he encourages us to reflect on their name, Pilgrims, and to consider what it means for followers of Christ to likewise be pilgrims who look toward a better home.

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The Other Side of Thanksgiving

1870 Thanksgiving

It is customary, usually as a prelude to carving up the sacrificial bird of Thanksgiving, to take time to reflect on our blessings–blessings of family, friends, substance, the goodness of life, the grace of God. This is right to do. What I want to reflect on is what happens on the other side of that meal, which in so many ways is contradictory to the spirit of Thanksgiving, and the corresponding quality of contentment, that rejoices in life as it is and our possessions as they are. Contentment essentially seems to say, I’m thankful that I have enough and don’t need a little more.

IMG_1419_1

Actually, it often begins with the meal itself. It is one thing to be thankful that we have food and are not hungry. It is another to stuff ourselves more fully than the bird on our table! This is one with which I struggle. I am a bit like Simon, my son and daughter-in-law’s beagle, who basically will eat until he explodes. Perhaps this year, I can simply eat to the point where I am not hungry, where I’ve enjoyed something of everything without reaching that state of bloated uncomfortability.

We also give thanks for the family and friends in our lives. Being content with them is another matter! We often would like to make them a bit more “the way we want them”. And herein is the grief of many Thanksgiving gatherings! Why do we not simply let each other be who they are with all their endearing and sometimes annoying foibles? Truth is, we won’t change them and to try only changes the mood–for the worse.

Another area of thanksgiving is our material blessings. For many of us, we have so many of these we are constantly having garage sales and down-sizing and clearing out! What then is it that compels us to acquire even more? This year, we can’t even wait until “black Friday” as more and more of our stores stay open or open late on Thanksgiving day. True, some of this is early Christmas shopping–gifts for others who in most cases also have more than enough! I realize that at least some of this can be genuine expression of affection for people we really care for and sometimes it can be fun to choose gifts that we think will be just right for the person for whom we care. Yet much of this seems fueled by the sense that “more is better” and “we want more” as the children in one recent commercial argued. Instead of being content with what we have, to say that what we have is enough and more, “enough” becomes “more than we have”.

Why is contentment so hard? Why is it that thanksgiving is often little more than a passing sentiment soon forgotten in our dissatisfaction with life as it is? Is our discontent really with our food, friends, and stuff? Or is it an inner discontent–the longing of restless hearts? And where do we go to find rest and contentment for the restless heart? Augustine in The Confessions wrote, “Our hearts are restless until they find their rest in Thee.” And so I would close this reflection with the prayer that you might truly enjoy thanksgiving with contentment and rest of heart today!