A Meditation at Kenilworth Union Church on Thanksgiving
wonder how many times in the last week someone has said to me “I love Thanksgiving. It’s my favorite holiday.” That’s true for a lot of us. Food, family, fun. What’s not to like? Our prayers are effortless, and our gratitude genuine.
But it’s not true for everybody. I can think of many reasons to skip Thanksgiving, some good and some bad. I’ll give you three. American commerce skips Thanksgiving. The day after Halloween we start hearing about Christmas; Walmart and Target mention Thanksgiving only as an excuse to talk about Black Friday.
For others, it’s just one of the hardest days of the year. The smartest kid in my high school class was a guy named Eric Wolterstorff. We didn’t have valedictorians at my high school because I went to a seriously Christian high school, and valedictorians smacked of elitism and inequality, but if we’d had one, Eric would have been it.
Eric had just completed his Ph.D. dissertation in art history when he was killed in a mountain climbing accident in the Austrian Alps. He was 26.
Some of you know of Eric’s father Nicholas Wolterstorff. Nick is one of the most respected Christian Philosophers in the world. Dr. Wolterstorff says,
The worst days now are holidays: Thanksgiving, Christmas, Easter, Pentecost, birthdays, weddings—days meant as festivals of happiness and joy are now days of tears…. Routine days I can manage; no songs are expected. But how am I to sing in this desolate land, when there’s always one too few?
As the church staff gathered in prayer for the congregation the other day, I was reminded about how many of our faith family are in exactly that situation.
Maybe you’re not exactly going to skip Thanksgiving, but maybe your prayers are muted or hedged. There’s not a lot, we, your friends, can do for you, except to acknowledge your sadness, to give you some guilt-free liberty to experience a broken heart, and to gather close and embrace you with our love and understanding. Not exactly to stand in for the one you’ve lost, but at least to offer whatever compensatory affection we can.
So, if you don’t feel like singing Now Thank We All Our God this morning, let the rest of us sing it for you. We’ll wait. You’ll be back. Your voice will return.
So, there are bad and good reasons to skip Thanksgiving. American commerce skips Thanksgiving. I wish they wouldn’t. Sometimes the broken-hearted skip Thanksgiving. I get that. It might even be good sometimes to take a sabbatical from it.
Here’s a third reason to skip Thanksgiving. Some people skip Thanksgiving because there is no one to thank. They don’t believe in God, so they can’t sing the hymns we’re singing this morning and they can’t pray the prayers. The universe is one gigantic accident, a happy accident, to be sure, but an accident all the same; it’s all just here, inexplicably. There is no one to thank for a Thanksgiving table sagging under its bounty or for the safe birth and unbroken health of your children or for the fossil fuels stored fortuitously in the earth eon upon eon.
No god to thank. Not even any other people. A friend of mine told me once, “I’m a self-made man.” I was stunned. I’d never met a self-made man before; this was my first. I wanted to put him in a zoo, he was so rare.
In Connecticut I sat on the board of the local ambulance service. It was non-profit. Most of our income came from fees, of course; we had many paying customers, but donations from the community filled out the need. All we needed was a hundred bucks from a thousand neighbors. I asked my friend for $100. He said, “I don’t believe in philanthropy.” I made my money. I spend my money.” He was a pre-Marley Ebenezer Scrooge.
I was surprised, because I happened to know that his parents had spent about $250,000 so he could study math at Cal Berkeley. Someone there taught him the algorithms he used to pick his stocks. His wife worked a hundred hours a week caring for his children and his home.
There are good reasons to skip Thanksgiving, but don’t skip it because there is no one to thank. There is no such thing as a self-made man or a self-made woman. We all arrived into this world naked and defenseless and screaming for nourishment. At the other end of life, someone will usher us out with compassion and expertise. In between, we will lean on our friends and neighbors and colleagues. We are all standing on someone else’s shoulders.
Do you know who Esther Summerson is? Four years ago, Kathy and I made 2012 “The Year of the Orphan.” Charles Dickens was born on February 7, 1812, so 2012 was his bicentennial year, so we just decided we were going to reacquaint ourselves with Charles Dickens’ charming orphans. We read David Copperfield. We read Oliver Twist. It took us weeks to read Bleak House, a thick, dense doorstop of a novel. It was one of those enterprises that is both exhausting and rewarding.
Esther Summerson is the winsome star of Bleak House. She is an orphan who is unsure who exactly her parents are, but she is adopted and raised by the kind and generous Mr. Jarndyce. When she becomes a young woman, a promising gentleman offers her a proposal of marriage, but then she becomes deathly ill with small pox. She almost goes blind, and her face is so scarred and disfigured by the wounds of the disease that when her intended takes one look at her, he withdraws his offer of marriage. She finds love in other ways.
She’s an orphan, but at one point in the story, she says, “From my childhood I have been the object of the untiring goodness of the best of human beings, to whom I am so bound by every tie of attachment, gratitude, and love, that nothing I could do in the compass of a life could express the feelings of a single day.”
If you have no good reason to skip Thanksgiving this year, here’s your chance to make it specific and concrete. There are pens in the pews and notecards in your bulletins. Write down a prayer to God. It doesn’t have to be eloquent, but it should be specific. Something very definite you are especially grateful for right now.
Or, just as good, write a note to someone who has changed your life in a positive way. You know what Glinda says to Elphaba in Wicked?
But I know I’m who I am today
Because I knew you…
Like a comet pulled from orbit
As it passes a sun
Like a stream that meets a boulder
Halfway through the wood
Who can say if I’ve been changed for the better?
But because I knew you
I have been changed for good
Someone changed you “for good.” Let them know. Write it down. Be specific. Deliver it in person if you can. Or mail it. Or leave it here at the altar of the Lord as a dedication to whatever good you’ve been changed into. Mine is going to my basketball coach when I was in the eighth grade. He taught me how to shoot a jump shot, and how to love Jesus. I am who I am today because of this unassuming teacher.
Bring it with you when you come forward for communion. The staff will take it up in prayer next week. We’ll pray for those who have been so important to you.
That’s why so many of us love Thanksgiving so much: it’s our annual reminder of how much we owe to others, how little of ourselves we made all on our own.
That is a virtuous exercise once a year.
Nicholas Wolterstorff, Lament for a Son (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1987), p. 61.