The Grace of Gratitude
Synopsis: I love Thanksgiving Day. It’s such a quintessentially American holiday celebrating one of the better founding myths of our country. Sure the story of Puritans and Native Americans sharing a thanksgiving meal is romanticized and overlooks the suffering of Native Americans caused by European immigrants. Even so, as Diana Butler Bass comments, “That’s what myths are—stories that express something we desire, what we hope will be, and how we dream of happiness in peace.”
I love Thanksgiving Day. It’s such a quintessentially American holiday. The centerpiece is a huge dinner shared with family and loved ones. It’s about being thankful for life, family, food, and warm shelter as winter approaches. The genesis of our celebration is the first Thanksgiving Day by the Pilgrims at Plymouth Rock when none of these things could be taken for granted.
They had barely survived their first winter, and most likely would not have without the help of some Native Americans. This has become a founding myth of our country—one of the better ones—which we can build on. Pausing to celebrate life, with a recognition of just how fragile it can be, and being grateful, is such a grace-filled spiritual thing to do. All gather around a shared table laden with good food. Everyone is included.
Sure, our Thanksgiving Day stories and images can be shallow and include lots of kitsch. All those images of turkey gobblers and the annual presidential pardon of a turkey, are cases in point. Even so, can’t we get off our cultural high horse and lighten up a bit. Embracing a little kitsch reminds us to not have such a highfalutin opinion of who we are. We can learn to smile at ourselves.
Granted, the story of what happened, leading to that first Thanksgiving Day is ambiguous at best. We have tended to overlook the horrific suffering of Native Americans caused by the arrival of Europeans. As a nation, we still has lots of work to do in acknowledging and rectifying that wrong. Still, we can deeply appreciate the basic spiritual instinct of joining with loved ones, neighbors, and friends to celebrate the bounty of the earth and give thanks.
As I began working on this sermon I turned to my bookshelves for resources on thankfulness and could hardly find anything. Hum, is this one of those blind spots in my life? I don’t think it’s just me. While there are lots of hymns about thankfulness, it’s hardly mentioned in my theology books, which spill lots of ink on things like the nature of God. Why is that? We’ll want to dig into this more deeply.
Christopher Smith and John Pattison, in their book Slow Church, notice that the Psalms are full of praise and thanksgiving for God’s bountiful provision. Likewise, the apostle Paul encourages the Christians in Colossae to “let the word of Christ dwell in you richly; teach and admonish one another in all wisdom; and with gratitude in your hearts sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs to God.”
They see a connection between gratitude and ingratitude and justice and injustice. “Dissatisfaction is at the root of a staggering amount of injustice. The idea that somehow we don’t have access to everything we need or deserve can lead to distrust, broken relationships, ruthless competition, war, hunger, poverty, gross economic inequality and the wanton destruction of the natural world.”
Cultivating gratitude requires practice, both in our personal lives and in our shared lives as churches. A simple practice is beginning and ending our day with a prayer of thanks. A daily ritual that Ruth and I have is preparing our evening meal together after we get home from work. Before we eat, we hold hands and bow our heads in thanks. We usually don’t say anything. We simply savor our food, each other’s company, and are grateful. Occasionally one of us will say a short prayer such as, “For all these gifts, we give thanks.”
Such practices cultivate a spirit of gratitude. Other practices can include keeping a journal of things we’re thankful for. An ancient practice involves short memorized prayers that are prayed throughout the day. I also like to greet each new day with a prayer of thanks for life and the new day. And I love those morning and evening songs of thanksgiving in our church hymnal.
Because I couldn’t find much about gratitude on my bookshelf, I did an internet search and found the newly published book Grateful: The Transformative Power of Giving Thanks by Diana Butler Bass, one of my favorite authors. I downloaded it on my kindle and eagerly began to read her insights on the subject in preparation for this sermon.
That’s another thing to be grateful for. The internet has made such research much easier and such resources immediately accessible. I was at home doing this research one evening this week and was soon sitting on my recliner reading my book on gratitude, underlining pertinent passages by pulling my finger across them. Ah, technology! Thank you!
Diana quotes Dietrich Bonhoeffer in his prison letters, “In normal life one is not at all aware that we always receive infinitely more than we give, and that gratitude is what enriches life. One easily overestimates the importance of one’s own acts and deeds, compared with what we become only through other people.” At the heart of gratitude is the recognition that we have received so much more than we can ever contribute. From a religious perspective this is grounded in the bounty of the earth and our creator God. Diana comments:
The universe is a gift. Life is a gift. Air, light, soil, and water are gifts. Friendship, love, sex, and family are gifts. We live on a gifted planet. Everything we need is here, with us. We freely respond to these gifts by choosing a life of mutual care. . .. Gifts bring forth gratitude, and we express our appreciation by passing gifts on to others.
The words “gratitude” and “grace” come for the same root word, gratia in Latin and kharis in Greek. It’s a theological word with profound spiritual meaning. Grace means “unmerited favor.” Think of God as an indiscriminate giver of sustenance, joy, love, and pleasure. We receive these gifts without earning them and without any expectation that we need to return them or that we owe God anything for them. Our hearts are therefore filled with gratitude.
With this, lets return to our celebration of Thanksgiving Day. As I do, Diana Butler Bass wants to reclaim it as our major American celebration of gratefulness. She notes two problems with the way we presently celebrate it. The first is that it has moved from the public sphere to the domestic one. There are few, if any civic proclamations of thanksgiving. The presidential pardon of a turkey hardly counts. We generally celebrate thanksgiving with our families in the privacy of our homes. After the ritual of carving the turkey, and perhaps a prayer of thanks, we eat until we’re stuffed. We then gather around the TV to watch sports games.
The other problem is that Thanksgiving serves as the commercial kickoff for Christmas. Many of us head out for Black Friday sales almost as soon as we’re finished with that last piece of pumpkin pie. Stores advertise that bargains are good as long as supplies last and we rush to beat others a get a piece of the action. That’s almost the antithesis of thankfulness.
How can we reinvent Thanksgiving Day to make it a more joyous celebration, filled with gratitude? Thanksgiving days around the world have their roots in harvest festivals going back to the dawn of human history. In that respect, our American Thanksgiving Day is one month too late in the year. Harvests are over, winter is knocking at the door, and it may even have snowed by now.
Fall has many simple pleasures. Several weeks ago, Cory brought Caleb with him when he came to help build our garden fence. Caleb’s radiant smile as he ate the plump, late-ripening raspberries that Cory found in our patch was priceless. That’s gratitude!
If Thanksgiving was earlier in the year, it would be much easier to bring the fun of fall festivals back into Thanksgiving. I think of the fun we had at our fall festival here at our church this year. Wow! That was a wonderful celebration of life and the good gifts coming from the bounty of creation. There were no specific prayers of thanksgiving, but it was written all over people’s faces.
Another practice that I have come to love is our church’s thanksgiving meal on the Sunday closest to Thanksgiving Day. It’s a more communal time of sharing as we sign up to bring our portion of the meal. We all eat together around a big table. It combines the twin graces of thanksgiving and communion as table fellowship.
This is what the romanticized story of the Puritans and Native Americans sharing a thanksgiving meal gets right. Of course, it didn’t quite happen that way. Even so, as Diana Butler Bass, comments, “That’s what myths are—stories that express something we desire, what we hope will be, and how we dream of happiness and peace.”
 Smith and Pattison, Slow Church (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Books, 2014), 182.
 Diana Butler Bass, Grateful (HarperOne, 2018), xviii
 Ibid., xxiv.
 Ibid., 19.
 Ibid., 160.