Thanksgiving and the practice of gratitude

November 17th, 2016

The day before Black Friday

If it seems that Black Friday has been arriving earlier and earlier each year, you’re right. The activities of the Friday after Thanksgiving, featuring mad rushes on the doors of retail stores as they offer pre- Christmas sales, have now shifted to Thanksgiving night at many large stores. Macy’s, which sponsors a famous parade on Thanksgiving morning, will be opening its doors for shoppers at 5:00 p.m. the same evening, according to Forbes magazine. Others will surely follow suit. Bucking that trend, however, is a large group of major retailers, including Barnes & Noble, Costco and Neiman Marcus, who have announced that they will be closed for the holiday. Even the giant Mall of America in Minnesota, the nation’s largest shopping mall, will be closed on Thanksgiving. Of course, many of those retailers will be luring customers with online sales on the day, but the doors will be shut.

For those who can remember the days of blue laws when stores were routinely closed on Sundays and holidays, this may not seem so unusual. In fact, holiday blue laws remain in place in Massachusetts, Rhode Island and Maine. But in recent years, the more commercial aspects of the Christmas season have begun to encroach on the celebration of Thanksgiving, making the announcement of closed stores real news.

Employees at these retailers may have reason to give thanks as they get more time with family and friends, but what does the season mean for Christians? How do our observances of the holiday reflect our beliefs and how can we incorporate the practice of gratitude throughout the year?

The benefits of gratitude

To read the press on gratitude, you would think that it rivals kale as the trendiest health kick. In a 2015 article for Psychology Today, Amy Morin touted seven “scientifically proven benefits” to giving thanks that “can transform your life.” “Mentally strong people,” Morin said, “choose to exchange self-pity for gratitude” and thereby open themselves to more relationships, improved physical health, enhanced empathy, reduced aggression and better sleep, among other things. Morin recommends the use of a daily gratitude journal to move toward greater thankfulness.

Christians would add more to that self-help advice. Most of us do feel better when we experience a grateful heart, and if we’re gathering with loved ones for the Thanksgiving holiday, we may experience a greater sense of well-being. But gratitude is more than something we do because of the benefits. We give thanks because it’s a natural outgrowth of a life lived in communion with God and with others. It’s not a tool to get something else; thanksgiving is the natural by-product of a life of wholeness.

‘Silence Shall Be as Praise’

At Wahat al-Salam, in the “No-Man’s Land” between Israel proper and the Palestinian West Bank, there’s a double-domed building called the Pluralistic Spiritual Community Centre. Built for this unique community (called Neve Shalom in Hebrew) of Israeli Jews and Palestinians, the centre invites a diverse population to gather around silence. In a simple, bare meeting hall, Muslims, Jews, Christians and others sit in silence as a communal spiritual practice. The inspiration for this attempt at unity is a verse from Psalm 65:1, which they translate as, “To thou, Lord, silence shall be as praise.” In the search for common ground they begin with this unique form of praise and thanksgiving.

When I visited the community a few years ago, I was struck by its pragmatic nature. The people living there, especially those who have been there since its inception over 30 years ago, are not given to flowery declarations of harmony. They live in a region strewn with the wreckage of too many peace plans to talk blithely about such things. So their talk is silence and waiting. And while they wait, they put together budgets and repair streets and serve on the school board. Their silent praise is their offering, and it’s the medium through which they anticipate unity.

Thanks-Giving Square

A structure with a similar purpose sits right in the middle of the downtown business district in Dallas, Texas. In Thanks-Giving Square, a simple, spiral-roofed chapel has been welcoming people into a spirit of gratitude. Chris Slaughter, president of the Thanks-Giving Foundation, which oversees the park, calls it “a place for people to come for peace and reflection on the many reasons for gratitude in their lives.” The foundation has an interfaith mission that seeks to draw people together around a practice that the founders feel is “a human universal, present in cultures and faith traditions around the world.”

In July 2016, the square was the site of a prayer vigil following a gunman’s attack that killed five law enforcement officers and wounded nine others during a peaceful protest in downtown Dallas. The multifaith event brought together protesters, who had been raising awareness about highly publicized shootings of unarmed black men by police, and law enforcement officers who experienced tragic losses in the July attack. Dallas police chief David Brown addressed the gathering. As KERA News reported, Brown noted the appreciation expressed by the crowd and said, “In the police profession, we’re very comfortable with not hearing thank you from citizens who especially need us the most. . . . So today feels like a different day than the days before this tragedy.”

Rediscovering our natural language

Psalm 65, whose opening verse inspired the vision for the Dome of Silence at Wahat al-Salam, is one of the great psalms of thanksgiving. The silence offered up as praise at the beginning soon blossoms into a celebration of God’s attributes. We have a God who listens (verse 2) and forgives (verse 3) the people and who secures (verse 5) and establishes (verse 6) creation. The response of creation is to offer its joy and praise back to God. The “gateways of morning and evening sing for joy” (verse 8). By the end of the psalm, the meadows and valleys have joined the chorus, singing and shouting for joy (verse 13).

The implication of the psalm is that the natural state for the creation is one of praise to the Creator. When we give thanks, we’re only taking up our part. Praise may actually be our natural language, something that we get disconnected from through the suffering and insecurity we experience in the world. If the hills are alive with the sound of music, why shouldn’t we be as well?

‘Luckiest man on the face of this earth’

Seeing the world through the eyes of gratitude changes our perspective. It allows us to see the world as God sees it — as an extravagant gift given out of the pure love of God. Gratitude also has a prophetic edge, inviting us to respond to our neighbors, and their needs, as a gift as well. In God’s economy, there’s always abundance, potential and possibility, even when we are facing the worst.

Lou Gehrig captured some of this in his farewell speech at Yankee Stadium on July 4, 1939. Gehrig was one of the greatest baseball players of his generation, playing with Babe Ruth and other legendary athletes during his career. He was known as the “Iron Horse,” partly due to his then-record 2,130 consecutive games in the field.

At the age of 36, however, Gehrig developed amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, a rare disease that was later named for him. The diagnosis was not good, and he rapidly lost his physical abilities. So on Independence Day, as he retired from the game he loved, he was honored in a stadium packed with 61,000 people.

“Fans, for the past two weeks you have been reading about the bad break I got,” Gehrig said, referring to his diagnosis. “Yet today I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of this earth. . . . I’ve got an awful lot to live for.”

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