In my own mind, giving thanks brings to mind grace at meal time, the obligatory thank you to the holy host before impatiently digging in. If you’ve ever been at a family Thanksgiving where the one praying seemed to go on and on and on, you’ll know what I mean. It’s interesting to note that in the Jewish tradition, thanks are offered after the meal, not before. Maybe if we followed that tradition, we’d be more patient with the thanks. Maybe.
But maybe our temptation to impatience is more about not truly appreciating the cost of the meal, even in earthly terms. Maybe the farmers among us, whose hands have mixed with the soil that brings forth our food are more patient, more aware, more thankful. For the farmer knows, really knows, in-his-very-cellular-structure-knows what I as a former city-dweller can only understand with my mind: bringing forth the bounty of the earth is no easy task.
At this time of year, to remind us of the debt of thanks we owe, we consider the Pilgrims and their difficult winter, saved only by the hospitality of the Natives who shared their food with them. The Pilgrims’ thanks were heart-felt, because the food they received came as they were on the brink of starvation. This was not just another meal in a long line of generally satisfying dinners. No – this . . . was . . . salvation.
Jesus reminds us that he did not come for the healthy, for they have no need of him. Rather, Jesus came for the sick. It’s common sense, isn’t it? Only the sick need a doctor. Only the dying know the joy of restored life. Only the starving know the saving grace of a meal. Perhaps only those whose hands have been empty can really give thanks when those hands are filled.
Conversely, only the satisfied could say with poet Robert Frost, “Of apple-picking . . . . . I am overtired of the great harvest I myself desired.”
It is all too easy in our place and time to grow weary of the burden of our plenty and in our weariness, to miss entirely our lack. Thankfulness comes from the deep place within, the place where, in our smallest child-like selves, we know that what we have, who we are, is the result of grace, not merit.
It is the nature of thankfulness to recognize the gifts of others in our lives. Thankfulness is not gladness, nor is it self-satisfaction; rather, thankfulness is full appreciation for the reality of our condition and its cause. Maybe the real trick about thankfulness is to understand that our hands are really empty even when they seem quite full.
Paul calls the Thessalonians and us to a life of continual thanks, for God wishes us to be a thankful people. Perhaps when it comes to thanks, the question for us is whether we can know ourselves to be starving pilgrims and desperate farmers, even when we feel like weary over-satisfied apple pickers.