We live in a great little house built in 1910. The center of the house is our dining room table that seats eight comfortably and has gathered many beloved friends and family over the years. When both the kids were home, our Thanksgiving table often had twelve of us, squished elbow to elbow, and seated on various stools and chairs with pillows.
“Pretend you’re on an airplane,” I’d say.
And we did.
The placemats and glasses and cutlery were sometimes mismatched – who has matching placemats for twelve!? – but we laughed and told stories and ate wonderful meals and enjoyed being together. For this I am thankful.
But it’s Thanksgiving again, and I find myself still perplexed. What’s it all about? I wonder sometimes.
In spite of the tragic beginnings of the first Thanksgiving, it’s a holiday that is now an important part of our North American cultural framework. Let’s face it, a holiday celebrating the take-over of someone else’s land is a bit odd. It’s a tradition of feasting in gratefulness at arriving safely, but uninvited (let’s not kid ourselves), on foreign shores after a perilous journey across the Atlantic. It’s bound to be complicated. We could have done it so much better.
But here we are. Thanksgiving is a cultural cornerstone for those of us in North America.
And yet I am still baffled by it.
For many years I believed it was for God, strangely. I must have misunderstood. It took me a long time to work out that God does not actually need me to be thankful or grateful. God is not someone’s Great Aunt who checks the letterbox daily, growing anxious and cross, awaiting a thank-you card in response to the gift she’d sent. God is not needy. And yet this “thankful heart” business seems to be genuinely important to God. In fact, gratitude is important in all of the world’s major religions.
Overheard at Starbucks:
Person A: “We’re taking the kids to help serve at the soup kitchen again this year.”
Person B: “Wow, that’s a wonderful thing to do!”
Person A (puffing-up): “Yes, well it’s good for them to see how the rest of the world lives, you know, so they appreciate what they have. We’ve got so much to be thankful for.”
Person B: “Yes, that’s so important, kids these days have no idea what they’ve got.”
Is this what it’s about? I wonder. A special holiday so that we can take time to be aware of how much we’ve got, counting our blessings like coins in an underground vault? So that we can celebrate how much better off we are than so many others? Be thankful for all the things you do have, mister. Is that it?
Somehow I think it’s meant to be more than this. Thanksgiving is a time to be aware that the source of the goodness we experience is not our selves. It’s beyond us. The Originator of our blessings is not us; most of this life is completely out of our control.
We have somehow — perhaps by historical or geographical accident — tumbled onto the earth in this place and time and the fact that we have wound up living with food, clean water, electricity and medicine is a miraculous and astounding occurrence for which we can claim no responsibility. We gaze up with our jaws dropped wide open and revel in the fact that we’re here. We do have a lot to be thankful for.
There’s been a lot of footage of people in over-crowded boats fleeing disaster in Syria and risking the dangerous journey across the water in hopes of arriving to freedom on the shores of Kos. But in one video there is a young man who looks to be about the age of my son. My heart stops when I notice him. He looks about 19. He is sitting in the bottom of the boat with his knees to his chest, holding himself tightly, his head down and eyes closed, maybe praying. When the coast guard begins to fire shots at the boat and revs the engine to swamp it with waves, the young man squeezes his legs tightly; his chest shakes as he starts to sob. There’s not a doubt in my mind that he is frightened to death right then.
There’s not a doubt in my mind that he has a mother somewhere praying for him, her
heart breaking because she may never see her boy again. There is a chance he will make it to start a new life; there is a chance he will find a home somewhere safe, she thinks. She will imagine him with children and a wife and a home. Even if it’s not true, she will still imagine this. She must. She will not let herself think about what could happen instead.
When no one is looking, when she is alone, she gets on her knees and lets herself cry.
I watch the video of this boy over and over. At the end you can see that the boat has made it to shore. I watch carefully for the boy. A young man leaps from the boat into the water shouting for joy. I think it’s him. The crowd of people are shouting and crying. They hold their children high in the air and thank God for them. I lose sight of the boy in the clip, but I think of his mother. I pray for her. I pray that she will feel it in her heart, that she will know that her boy is safe for now. He will make his way.
I couldn’t read the writing on the raft in which they arrived. Perhaps it was called the Mayflower. This Thanksgiving, I hope we remember how badly we have all behaved as humans beings at various times in history. I hope we get better at this.