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I love Thanksgiving. I like the eating part, don’t get me wrong. But I love the preparing part. For the past couple years, I’ve missed it though. As a chaplain, I worked on Thanksgiving, strolling floor to floor blessing and sharing meals with nurses and doctors and patients in the Atlanta hospitals I worked in. And mid day, each thanksgiving, my wife Karen came, bags of dishes in hand, having spent the day cooking up a beautiful meal. I smirked the first year when she spread a tablecloth over the institutional looking tables in the chaplain’s office and pulled out contraband candles, both of which managed to make it feel a bit more like home.
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As amazing as it was to have her there and to make new traditions, I must admit that I still missed that preparing part of Thanksgiving. I missed bumping butts in the kitchen as folks scurry to get dishes prepared….and the fun that peeling potatoes always brings and the goofiness that mashing them up tended to invite…and holding vigil at the oven as we wondered if that turkey was going to shrivel up before the middle ever got cooked. I even sort of missed chopping veggies for the pre-meal munchies and mixing up the signature family “glug” and slicing bread and serving wine. I must admit, there is much nostalgia in thinking about the past years’ feasts and gatherings. I easily forget the reality of it: the early morning wake up time, the panic when the pie caves in, forgetting that sixth and seventh ingredient in the seven layer salad, and the multi-syllabic words of frustration that accompany mismeasuring the ingredients. But then the prayer is said and the meal is set out, and oooo-s and yummmm-s are audible and folks’ eyes twinkle with anticipation and excitement, and something within me is fed by something far greater than food. And as the various dishes of goodies are circulated, and bread is passed, and glasses of glug and wine are topped off, and it is clear that this is a feast, complete with echoes of a feast that has nothing to do with food. These are moments that Thanksgiving becomes more like the Great Thanksgiving, or from the Greek, the Eucharist.
Now, I’m clear that there are folks who will point out that this is a holiday where Americans overindulge and eat in excess, as we are already prone to doing. There’s a valid critique there. And someone will hopefully call us to remember that there will be people who will go hungry while others feast. And someone will surely call us to remember that the day of Thanksgiving casts its shadow on a long history of devastation and oppression of Native Americans. And they should, because we should remember all of this, and hold that sorrow in tension with our experience of Thanksgiving. Much the same can be said of the Great Thanksgiving, the Eucharist, that as Christians we sometimes gorge ourselves in our own rituals and habits, that there are many people who hunger for the feast but are invited to the table, and that there are many people who continue to hunger.
The Great Thanksgiving, too, casts a long shadow. It has been used as a bargaining chip and battle cry. And we should be reminded of these things so that when we gather around that table and as we taste the bread and the wine we are challenged out of our complacency that takes it all for granted. Seeing these connections, between Thanksgiving and the Great Thanksgiving — the Eucharist — are important, I think. Both help us see something vital in the other. Both extend themselves far beyond the moments they gather us in. And both these meals of thanksgiving have a sort of remarkable place in our culture. Thanksgiving is a day that somehow moves folks across America to remember to be thankful, which is no small feat in a culture that’s says having everything is still not enough, and in which a day after being so thankful, if not sooner, we will scrunch ourselves into malls and lines and forget the moments of the day before. The Great Thanksgiving, too, has a remarkable place in our culture. It is a moment in which Christians are reminded to be thankful, and that is no small feat in a religious culture that comes to the table only when it is convenient and reaches quickly for lifesavers or mentos to wash away the taste of bread and wine. When we sit and eat at either of these place settings, we invited to rest in, to ponder, to wonder, to be thankful. And for some of us, it is in the midst of being thankful that we get all uncomfortable and the dis-ease sets in. Because we know we have a lot. And we get a bit uncomfortable admitting it as we say we are thankful and we get even more uncomfortable about saying thanks to God for what we have, because we fear we come close to sounding like the prosperity gospel preachers on TV who tell us that God’s favored find wealth — let it be noted that this is not what the Gospels actually say. Rather than sound like them, we spend Thanksgiving conflicted about whether we should say thanks to God or whether we should mourn having so much. We put a band-aid over the rawness of the experience hoping to heal it with one-time offerings to food pantries or to community meals, or we yell back at the radio if it makes the day sound too Pollyannaish, or we eat our turkey and fixin’s but promise indigestion for digesting bad karma along with it.
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But, then there are other folks who seem to really get this whole thankful business, unapologetically with no disclaimers or false promises of karma induced indigestion. I keep thinking of being recently with a woman who having had surgery, still in that unfiltered state of half anesthesia, proceeded to boldly and loudly thank God for having come out of surgery, thank the doctors and nurses who cared for her, her spouse whom she loved, a friend who brought her trinkets from traveling, the woman who mopped the floor early in the morning, and on and on the list of thanks went. What if we were more like that woman? What if we let ourselves be genuinely thankful on Thanksgiving, thankful for all it, for the turkey that won’t cook up right, the lumps still in the mashed potatoes, the charred marshmallow topping on the sweet potatoes, the glug and wine that spill on the floor, the dogs that bark every time the doorbell rings waking up the toddler, the passing of the bread between strained relationships, and the clinking of wine glasses promising a new start. What if we were thankful that we ate too much and for all that we have and all that we are and even for the eye of the needle staring us down.
The reality of any feast is that being thankful in the midst of it can be difficult, because in the act of coming together, we are made human and messy, gravy dribbles, crumbs drop, cranberry sauce slides; the body of Christ broken and stained. But in it too, the promises of life, of love that sustains us, that is both in us and far beyond our wildest imaginations, shines through. Before it, after it and in the idea of it, thankfulness is simple. In the midst of it, the setting of the table, the breaking of the bread, the sipping of wine, the Thanksgiving can be difficult. But we’re not in this alone. No matter how you will spend thanksgiving and whether or not the day will be filled with folks who are easy to get along with or not, we are reminded of the opportunity we have to be thankful. Hear the advice of Paul to the Philippians, folks who struggled and needed to be reminded sometimes just as much as us, that giving thanks is a pivotal part of the life of faith….Paul writes to them, “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus…Keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, and the God of peace will be with you”.
This Thanksgiving, let us all keep at it. Let’s get out of our heads and into our hearts. Let us be thankful and rejoice, and let us be reminded to do so as we gather around the Thanksgiving table and each time we gather at the table of the Great Thanksgiving.
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