I have said before that as long as I can remember, Thanksgiving has been my favorite day of celebration. Gratitude was something that my parents thought was very important to teach my brothers and me. Each day we were encouraged to find something for which to be thankful. My brother, Will, was notorious for thanking God for every limb on every tree in the yard.
As a child growing up in a family where I always felt loved and protected it was not difficult to find things to offer in prayers of thanksgiving. However, situations around me were not always rosy.
For most of my childhood the Viet Nam war dominated our news and I knew young men who went off to war; some of those men did not return. I remember when my friend Georgeanne’s brother was killed in a car crash just days after he graduated from high school. I also remember my friend Laura whose little brother died just days after he was born.
Most of all, for my own family, I remember the pain my own mother felt each week after we would return from visiting my grandparents. From the time that I was around five my grandmother was paralyzed and confined to bed due to several strokes. She couldn’t speak. During those weekly visits I watched my mother sit by her bed, stroke her hands and face, and talk and sing to her. The rides back home were always very quiet as my dad always seemed to know that my mother needed space and quiet.
My mother grieved for her mother for six full years before she could mourn over her mother’s death. I didn’t know then, but I know now how much those visits were difficult for her. Even though this was a difficult time for my mother she found ways to be grateful, especially for her mother and the gift that her mother was in my mother’s life.
I read again, this week, the story of Martin Rinkart and his great hymn “Now Thank We All Our God.” This hymn is often associated with Thanksgiving because it is an expression of gratitude: “Now thank we all our God, with heart and hands and voices. Who wondrous things has done and whom this world rejoices.”
I have always loved this hymn! What I tend to forget is that Rinkart, a German Lutheran pastor of the 1600’s lived during a time when the plague ravished his community. At one point he was performing thirty to forty funerals a day. In the midst of burying his friends and neighbors and members of his congregation, he had to bury his own wife. Food and necessities were scarce at this time. War surrounded them. There was pain and grief everywhere.
It would have been so easy for him to despair and give up, but he didn’t. He drew on his faith. I imagine that he spent many sleepless nights crying out “why God?” And I imagine that somewhere in the dark sleepless nights God assured him of the goodness of creation and that God too was crying with him. I can imagine his time in the depths of those dark nights with God gave him strength to carry on during those grim days.
Out of that time of fear and anguish, Rinkart wrote this hymn as a table blessing and an evening prayer for his children and his congregation. In the midst of grief and pain these words became a prayer of hope and thanksgiving: “who from our mothers’ arms has blessed us on the way with countless gifts of love and still is ours today.”
What an assurance to proclaim each day that God is still ours, no matter what despair we encounter! It sounds simple but Rinkart must have known that having these words to sing or pray would offer the voice that his family and congregation needed to express their faith and desires. The words did not magically make things better, but they did remind them that they were not alone and that the One who created them also loved them more than they could ever know.
And yet, this year I find myself struggling with this very favorite holiday of mine. Even with the assurance of my faith–that God is with us, Emmanuel–I find myself asking this question: Can we be thankful? Are we able to give thanks this year?
In the past week our world has taken another dive into darkness. We have witnessed a major terrorist attack in Paris, with raids in France and Belgium that added to fear and anxiety. We have witnessed other attacks in other countries—a list of countries that is beginning to get so long that we cannot remember them all without looking them up in news reports.
And in the midst of these fears and anxieties we begin to fear everyone, even the very people who have lost everything because of the terrorists and are seeking a place of safety and hope. We have forgotten that the One who died for our sins also died for the sins of the world and called us especially to carry on his work and mission without thought of personal gain or discomfort.
In the past year we have witnessed how our own country has experienced terror—shootings in schools and in churches, children missing, riots, homeless people, homeless families, addictions, and so many other kinds of events. So many have died. So many spirits have been crushed. So many families mourn.
And I cannot forget. I refuse to forget that every day 21,000 people die from hunger related causes. Even in our own county, there are so many families that are food insecure, even with thousands of food options available to us. Eating poorly leads to all kinds of medical issues, so yes, even in our own community people are sick and dying due to food insecurity.
Can we be thankful this year when our hearts are heavy and the world seems dark? Are we able to express gratitude?
It would be easy to give up, but we can’t. We can’t be allow ourselves to forget the courage of others who have given us the example of living as Christ encouraged us to live: “Now thank we all our God, with heart and hands and voices.”
Two passages from the Gospel of Matthew come to my mind as I ponder this question about giving thanks. The first is from chapter 5:14 where, during the Sermon on the Mount, Christ tells his disciples and those listening to him (including us): “You are the light of the world.” If we follow Christ, we are to offer hope and not fear, peace and not terror.
The second passage is 25:31-46 where Christ reminds us that throughout all of our lives we are to offer food, clothing, shelter, encouragement, healing, and hope to everyone, especially those who are hungry or naked or homeless or sick or in prison or discouraged. This is what we are to do. We are not to judge who is worthy and who is not, because Christ said to help everyone and in so doing we are offering hope and help to Christ himself.
These are very clear commandments from Christ—offer help and offer hope—no matter what. And in doing so, we are expressing gratitude to Christ with the very actions of our lives.
So, in answer to my question—“Can we give thanks?”—I say we have to. It is in giving thanks, expressing gratitude, helping those that need our help, that we are able to cast light in this dark world. We may not think that our expressions of gratitude can do anything in the face of such evil and terror in this world, but to Christ, these expressions are huge. We are bearing witness to the Light of the world, to the way of peace.
So, this week, be thankful with boldness and purpose!
To God alone be the glory!