Tuesday, November 24, 2009

The Who and What of Thanksgiving

Thank you, Lord,
for singers of songs, for teachers of songs who help me sing along the way ...
and for listeners.
Thank you, Lord,
for those who attempt beauty rather than curse ugliness,
for those who take stands rather than take polls,
for those who risk being right rather than pandering to be liked,
for those who do something rather than talking about everything.
Lord, grant me grace, then, and a portion of your spirit
that I may so live as to give others cause to be thankful for me,
thankful because I have not forgotten
how to hope, how to laugh, how to say, "I'm sorry,'
how to forgive, how to bind up wounds, how to dream,
how to cry, how to pray, how to love when it is hard,
and how to dare when it is dangerous.
Undamn me, Lord,
that praise may flow more easily from me than wants,
thanks more readily than complaints.
Praise be to you, Lord, for life;
praise be to you for another chance to live.
Excerpt from Guerrillas of Grace

When I was young, my family had a ritual we followed on Thanksgiving, one with some variation you may have followed in yours. In turn, each of us around the table named something we were thankful for until we ran out of them. In those Great Depression days
in South Dakota, it didn't take long to complete the ritual. As things got better over the years, the ritual took longer and longer. Sometimes we still do that on Thanksgiving, and occasionally at other times. It's a good reminder that most of us have much to be thankful for so I applaud you if you do it, and encourage you to give it a try if you don't.

And yet, here's the caveat: the ritual is not as simple as it seems if you take it seriously. Everyone, or nearly everyone, can come up with a list of things to be thankful for when they give it a shot. But the real issue is not just what we are thankful for, but who we are thankful to. Surely we are thankful to a lot of people, probably several groups, at least a few institutions. We might even include God in the list along with all of those we're thankful to. But that's where the caution flag gets waved. Is God just one of many and not really very different?

Consider how Martin Luther put it: "What you give your loyalty to and get your sense of worth from is properly your god." If we add "thankful" to "loyalty" and "worth" we begin to feel the pinch. By Luther's definition, which is a provocative and fairly accurate one, we all have a pantheon of gods -- self-interest, career, possessions, status, science, reason, health, family, clubs, culture, country, causes, church, popularity, political party ... and on and on. Most are very good things to be thankful for. But gods?

So, what gods are yours? And mine? We all have them even if we scoff at those who worshipped idols like a Golden Calf the Hebrews put together on their Exodus from slavery in Egypt or the images of gods in ancient Greece and Rome where emperors elevated themselves to that status. We're more enlightened than those ancients and certainly more subtle, Our gods are less obvious. But aren't they just as misleading and self-serving? Just what or who do you give your loyalty to, your deepest loyalty, and from what or who do you get your sense of worth, your truest sense of worth. Who are you thankful to? Is it one of the things or persons you are thankful for? Don't we have many gods because not one of them is really enough - true, lasting, deep, broad, good, satisfying enough?

Now do you sense the caveat, feel the pinch? Or maybe not? In any case, it's not such an easy, simple ritual, is it, this thanks giving. It tests our hearts, souls, minds, strength which are the very things old Moses came down from Sinai to tell us God asked us to love God with, and that centuries later Jesus confirmed about God in his teaching and with his life. Okay, if you don't see it that way, what way do you see it? What is your god, or gods? Once you start down the thanksgiving trail, you meet yourself and find out more and more about not only what you're thankful for but who you're thankful to. It's a trip worth taking, especially in this season set aside for it but observed by many who don't know how essentially challenging it is and how deep it really goes.

To help a bit, here from Barbara Brown Taylor, is a small compass for the trip. "... science cannot explain how human consciousness works or where it comes from. It is as much a mystery as the moment before the universe began ... I spoke earlier of how much time is required for an eyeball to look back (through a microscope) at a light-sensitive cell (from which it evolved). How much more time does it take for quantum particles to mature to the point where they may compose hymns of praise? Whether your answer is seven days or fifteen billion years, it remains a miracle that we are here at all, able to praise our maker. God may well prefer the sound of spring peepers, but I have to believe there was joy in heaven when the first human being looked at the sky and said, 'Thank you for this.'" (1)

And then there's the Psalmist: "Praise God in his sanctuary; praise him in his mighty firmament. Praise him for his mighty deeds: praise him according to his surpassing greatness... Let everything that breathes praise the Lord." (2)

Think about it and have a real thanksgiving. Ted

(1) From The Luminous Web: Essays on Science and Religion."
(2) Psalm 150 NRSV

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