When You Do Not Want To Give Thanks
It’s been a hard month, hasn’t it?
In our small corner, it was the shock of twins. The exhaustion of early pregnancy. The darkness of morning sickness. And the upheaving of expectations.
But in the wider world, it was Paris and Beirut and Syria and so many million more places where the earth is broken and blood is flowing and bullets are flying and despair is overwhelming.
How do we live in a world like this? How do we go on, let alone hope?
Every night before dinner our family takes turns around the table, asking each other what we want to thank God for. Sometimes I wonder if this facile practice is worth the effort. It’s a harmless affirmation, I know. A chance to smile at the randomness of a preschooler’s prayers or a toddler’s grins.
But my God. If we think about what it truly means to give thanks, it is a daunting and dangerous practice indeed.
Because thanksgiving goes beyond any easy offering of what makes us happy in the moment.
Thanksgiving looks straight into the brokenness and the despair and the sinful mess we have made of our lives yet again. And it still dares to say yes.
Yes, I am grateful to be here and no, I am not giving up, and please, help me not be afraid.
Thanksgiving is Eucharist, after all. It is love beaten down and risen anew, broken into a thousand pieces and remade into a dazzling whole. It goes against everything our instincts tell us (that is just bread; you don’t need to forgive; those people aren’t like us; we’re better off alone) and it turns our neatly-knit lives inside out.
I looked around our table tonight, trimmed with first-grade turkeys and Sunday School handprints traced on construction paper. I wondered what it means to give thanks when the world feels dark and overwhelming, at home and abroad.
Then I remembered that this is how thanksgiving always looks.
Read those Psalms of gratitude, and they do not flinch from the darkness. They name the agony of Exodus, the suffering of slavery, the pit of despair, the dogs circling to snatch your bones. But still they sing out with strength and certainty that there is a God, that there is goodness, that there will be help and light and redemption and love.
This is always how thanksgiving looks: right into the abyss, unflinching.
And then it looks up.
Out of the smallness of self and the shadow of fear and the daunting uncertainty of sheer living in this hard world (let alone daring the audacious prospect of bringing new life into it?) and it says yes. It says I will. It says fiat. It says Amen.
It’s not going to get any easier, this treading on uncertain ground. But this is the only ground from which human hands have ever risen heavenward and whispered thanks. The despair feels thicker now because it is the only one we have ever known, not dry words in history books or ancient memories from our ancestors. We are the ones who must trudge through it every day, and we do not often feel flooded with grace.
But even when thanks do not leap to our lips, even when we struggle to make sense of the suffering around us, even when people disappoint or money runs short or health fails or death steals away the breath of what we love most―even then we can still choose to have thanksgiving be our stance and our song.
To look long and hard at the real, and then look up.
To let our lives be Eucharist again and again, broken and blessed and given to share.
Even when we do not want to give thanks.
I waited, waited for the Lord;
who bent down and heard my cry,
Drew me out of the pit of destruction,
out of the mud of the swamp,
Set my feet upon rock,
steadied my steps,
And put a new song in my mouth,
a hymn to our God.
Lord, do not withhold your compassion from me;
may your enduring kindness ever preserve me.
For all about me are evils beyond count;
my sins so overcome me I cannot see.
They are more than the hairs of my head;
my courage fails me.
But may all who seek you
rejoice and be glad in you.
May those who long for your help
always say, “The Lord be glorified.”
Though I am afflicted and poor,
the Lord keeps me in mind.
You are my help and deliverer;
my God, do not delay!
Psalm 40: 2-4, 12-13, 17-18