Thanksgiving is for the Thankless

I often call Thanksgiving “amateur hour.” I’m often surprised that the angriest of atheists who often seem so preoccupied with secularizing Christmas, keeping prayer out of schools and accusing often thoughtful religious people of being hopelessly saccharine, often let Thanksgiving, slip past their crosshairs.

It would well do the irreligious to set their sights on a day when all are called to prayer. Bonhoffer once said, “If the only prayer we ever uttered was ‘thank you,’ it would be enough.” While the Thanksgiving of my youth often recalled pilgrims and Native Americans, we forget that the legend of those days was that the indigenous taught the new inhabitants to be grateful, even for a likely simple meal, that those gathered had likely also worked hard to procure. In today’s modern America, many are less likely to feel gratitude during a meal, but rather be more likely to complain that the turkey is too dry or the potatoes too lumpy. At lunch the other day, I complained that the Boston Creme Pie I grabbed from the cafeteria at work was simply, “inferior.”

Ignatius of Loyola, the founder of the Jesuits, understood this mentality. Easily, did he too, gravitate towards the negative. With the seminal moment of his conversion, that is, when I cannonball shattered his leg, ending his career in Knighthood, Ignatius focused nearly solely on the negative. He would no longer be the brave knight of battles who could spin tales of his bravery in order to gain the affections of beautiful women. He had the doctors re-break his leg a few times in the hopes that he would not walk with a limp. Frankly, you would think that he would simply be glad to be alive, but that leg! He was reported to have bemoaned, “Who could love a gimpy-legged man?”

David Fleming, S.J., a translator of Ignatius’ spiritual exercises conveys Ignatius’ converted gratitude perfectly,

“How can I respond to a God so good to me and surrounding me with the goodness of holy men and women and all the wonderful gifts of creation? All I can do is give thanks, wondering at God’s forgiving love, which continues to give me life at this moment.”

It is here, in gratitude, that Ignatius centers everything. Twice a day, he implores the Jesuits to look at their last 12 hours and to search immediately for gratitude. In doing so, we push away the desolate and draining moments of our day, so that they might not become the center of our lives, but rather, we might find grace lurking in our minds, but clearly present in front of our faces, prodding us to consider gratitude as central. In this is much to ponder. Moreover, in this is also practical theology, that grounds us in finding God in the more mundane rhythms of our already distracted and over-programmed lives. Might I find gratitude in the co-worker who needs 10 more minutes of my patience because I see myself as that gifted listener and in them the trustful colleague? Or is this person just a pain in the neck? Might I turn to my wife more frequently when she tries to comfort me, reveling in this offered love, instead of thinking that I don’t need support? Are past relationships just hurtful broken-heartedness, or were they opportunities to understand ourselves better, to move into new relationships with more knowledge of our own compatibility with others and more easily move into the next phase of life?

We can all-too-easily place the “issues” we have in life at the center. This leads to thanklessness, even for the more pragmatic amongst us who want to quickly problem-solve matters and move on. Gratitude implies that we need to first acknowledge any part of our lives that indeed echoes this.

Thanksgiving is simply our opportunity to focus intentionally on what brings us gratitude and to center ourselves on God’s grace, the free gift of the God-self to us around a table of thanksgiving known to Christians as Eucharist–a word that primarily means thanksgiving.

Truly it is easy to forget our gratitude, especially on lousy days when the world seems to be conspiring against us and when we indeed don’t feel like our best selves. These moments need not be the center of our lives, rather, the human spirit longs for gratitude, that lifts us out of the doldrums of despair and instead brings us into space that helps us see that God’s grace is all around.

Thanksgivings Past and Present

I’m finishing up some work today and Ripley the dog came to visit my office at St. Joe’s. She nuzzled up and slobbered on my computer (she just drank water) and then gave me a nice sloppy kiss as well. Then she took up residence and fell sound asleep on my office floor.

Ripley is an old dog. Her brother, Quigley, died this past year and she’s been a bit lonely. Fr. Pat, our other priest recently moved to his own new quarters and Ripley (or Maddie as Fr. Pat calls her) was close with him–even though she is Fr. Jack’s dog.

I haven’t been home for Thanksgiving in some time and I too, can feel lonely around the holidays. This will be my first Christmas that I won’t return home to NYC. We will make an early trip in to see both sides of the family instead. Time and money sometimes don’t allow us to do what we’d prefer.

Like Ripley, my parents are also old. Now in their 80s, I don’t get to see them as much as I used to and honestly, I’m awful about the phone and they don’t own a computer–so Skype or chats are not available. The disconnection is rather palpable for me lately and I treasure the time I spend with them.

But Marion (my wife) and I have made this our own holiday now. We find time for friends or family. We curl up on Friday after wherever we may have found ourselves and we try find ways to celebrate gratitude–even in lean years. One trip to Nicaragua was enough to realize that we indeed are not close to being poor.

This year, Ann Marie Eckert (from the Center for Ministry Development!) and her family invited us to their home. We’re excited to be spending time with them as Ann Marie and I have gotten to know each other better since the move to Buffalo and she was one of the many reasons that the transition was so easy for us. Her family is a stalwart of our parish and it will be great to spend some time with them.

So while I can’t wait to see my own extended family in early December, I’m grateful this year to be with a good friend’s family and our little family as well. Haze the dog just might get a little turkey for the holiday and a nice long belly rub.

But for now, Ripley snores on my floor reminding me that the best things in life usually surround what brings us comfort. So for the record, I’ve got a great life, a great wife, a crazy dog and sometimes a second dog comes around to love me. I love what I do for work and the people I do it with. We’ve grown in many ways this semester alone and have to figure out how else we plan to bring Christ to a new and often distant group of students on campus. I’ve lost weight and love exercising with my trainer, Ben, who has developed quite a good community during our morning workouts. We push each other and find ways to interact and become the best we can be.

Mostly, I’m thankful that God gives me opportunities for gratitude and that I’m awakened each day by a feeling of thankfulness. That’s exciting and reminds me that the world is charged with God’s grandeur.

Things aren’t perfect–and they never will be until God’s love is embraced by all so that we might in turn BE GRATITUDE for all those who need us. God’s love is all that we need and loving us is all that God needs.

Today may we become like Ripley the Dog, who rests easy on the floor, grateful for just one more day to be in anyone’s presence and to love them.

It’s enough for her. It’s enough for God. And it should be more than enough for us.

Happy Thanksgiving.

Still at the Kids Table?

So as you head home for Thanksgiving, I’ll share with you a piece I wrote for–which you should be reading anyway!

Some thoughts to ponder if you end up at the kids table and are over 18 years old….

Do you think you are an adult YET? What connotes adulthood in your mind? What would it take for you to believe that you are now an adult? What keeps you from being one? Is age the only factor? What else matters?

Have a happy Thanksgiving, dear readers and know that I’m thankful for comments and your readership. YOU make this blog what it is and YOU are why I continue to write it.

We’ll have a Thanksgiving reflection tomorrow–so check back. But be safe as you travel, if you’re traveling.

Counting Your Blessings?

I want to scream every time someone uses the terms “we’ve been blessed” or suggests that one “counts their blessings.” Often this leads people into believing that God favors one group or individual over another. A friend said one day that “If God shows his blessings to those of us who have much, what about those who are in devastating poverty?’ A fair point.

Jesus seems to rail against this idea of divine retribution. That God doesn’t show his favoritism to the rich and powerful nor does God smite sinners with illness or poverty. It seems to me that “counting our blessings” may actually be a sinful act of pride: We think that God loves us more than anyone else.

So then what the heck is the point of Thanksgiving?

Perhaps the point is to simply realize that we are not always in control.

That the gift of life itself is enough to be thankful to God. That God everlasting forgiveness, a free gift to all, is even more of a thankful moment for us all.

And for those of us who have been born into good circumstances, by the mere randomness of the world (with a nod to those in the scientific community), today should not merely be a day to take stock of our bank accounts, jobs, houses and cars and to say like the Pharisee, “Whew! I’m glad i was not born into such poverty.” Rather, when we realize that God shows love to all the world and that we are called into that same kind of love by Jesus through his own gift of self, we too, have an obligation and an opportunity for self-giving.

Often those of us who have little or nothing are indeed the most generous. But even in our own communities, families, or dare I say churches, are we truly generous with our time, our funds, our gifts? Do we offer what we have for the world in need or do we simply store up for a rainy day?

So how will we spend Thanksgiving? Is it a day that we simply gorge ourselves on a bountiful harvest that pilgrims and indians believed incorrectly were signs of God’s favor, or are we more sophisticated in our belief in God?

Some initial thoughts for an “alternative Thanksgiving”:

1) Simply volunteer some time at a local shelter or soup kitchen.

2) Invite people over who indeed are needy…perhaps emotionally rather than financially even.

3) For many, spending time with family or friends that they don’t often see or that they may even neglect might be a nice mindful way to engage with the holiday.

4) How about a Thanksgiving fast? To think about what we consume at great lengths and then to mindfully consume less?

5) What can we do to renew the earth’s resources? Can we consume less, use better products, buy organic, support local businesses?

6) Planning a Thanksgiving Day mission trip to a poor part of the world might indeed be a larger scale event.

Indeed, I also will suggest that I’m not trying to be the Thanksgiving Scrooge. Have your turkey with all the fixins! Enjoy it. But also be mindful of those who don’t have anything and to consider what role we play in giving what we have in our bounty to those who have none.