Thanksgiving will be celebrated in just four days. This year, it comes bearing a wide range of stresses and emotions, from gladness and excitement, to worry and anxiousness, even sadness.
We yearn for tradition and to have just one day, one event, which can be normal again. We crave for just one day to be like it has always been. We ache for a day free of concern. Yet we look around and wonder, what is there for which to give thanks?
For the past several Novembers, I have joined friends in engaging in a daily practice of gratitude. There are various ways to approach this, such as writing the gratitude down on a slip of paper and putting it in a gratitude jar, and reading them all at the end of the month. Our method was simple: for the thirty days of November, find something each day for which to be grateful and post it on our social media accounts.
It was a revealing process. Some days, the gratitudes were plain as day, thoughtful, and revealed something about each of us, our lives, and the world in which we live. Some days the gratitudes were breathtakingly beautiful; other days they were as simple as being grateful for a hot cup of coffee to buoy our energy. Some days, the gratitudes were plain as day; other days, it was like dusting for fingerprints to find the presence of something for which we could be grateful.
Nov. 1, 2020 arrived, and what better time, in these days, to embark on the daily practice of gratitude. With gusto, I began posting daily.
I made it an entire eight days. I wish I could point to one particular circumstance that derailed me, but it was not just one thing. It was a global pandemic that is surging, and political and societal unrest. It was unsettledness, worry, and anxiety in the lives of people I love. It was concern for people who are in need of healing in body, mind, and spirit. It was life, in all its ups and downs and twists and turns; in all its beauty and sadness and complexity and busyness. In the midst of those worries and so many more, gratitude is often the first to get lost. We wonder, is gratitude even possible?
Gratitude has been an essential component in the life of God’s people since the beginning of time. For the Israelites, remembering all that God had done for them and offering thanksgiving was the heart of their life together. The early Christian community was shaped by being together day by day and offering thanksgiving to God. Pope Francis has said, “Gratitude is a simple but genuine sign of the kingdom of God, which is the kingdom of gratuitous and grateful love.”
A beautiful expression of remembrance and gratitude is found in Psalm 136. The Psalms have long been the go-to to give voice to the joy, sorrow, lament, awe, even imprecation, and yes, gratitude of the human heart. John Calvin, the 16th century Protestant reformer, said of the Psalms that they “are an anatomy of all parts of the soul.” Psalm 136 is a breathtaking expression of thanksgiving. It begins, “Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good, for his steadfast love endures forever.” It ends, “Give thanks to the God of heaven, for his steadfast love endures forever.” These two verses bookend a litany of God’s glorious deeds, each act remembered and the why behind each act explained by “for his steadfast love endures forever.” The earth spread out above the heavens, the great lights, the sun and the moon? Because his steadfast love endures forever. Delivering the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt, dividing the Red Sea, leading his people through the wilderness? Because his steadfast love endures forever. Remembering us in our low estate, rescuing us from our foes, providing food for all? Because his steadfast love endures forever. Twenty-six times over 26 verses, God’s almightiness is recalled, and 26 times we are reminded it is because God’s steadfast love endures forever. The thread that weaves the story of God together with God’s people, is that God’s steadfast love endures forever.
It is important to note, that the thanksgiving expressed in Psalm 136 is expressed looking back on these events. When the worries, stresses, and anxieties of our everyday lives weigh heavy, it is often hard if not impossible to be thankful. We often cannot see the things for which we can be grateful until we have moved past them a ways, and can look upon the time with a renewed spirit.
In the Psalms we find permission, if you will, to feel all of it – the joy, the sorrow, the anger, and yes, the gratitude, each in its own time, and even at the same time. Gratitude and grief, thanksgiving and sadness, are not mutually exclusive. Our hearts are big enough to hold them both.
Our lives, too, are bookended by God’s steadfast love that endures forever, and is with us every moment of every day. A global pandemic? God’s steadfast love endures forever. Political and societal unrest? God’s steadfast love endures forever. Worries for people who are in need of healing in body, mind, and spirit? God’s steadfast love endures forever. Life in all its beauty and sadness and complexity? God’s steadfast love endures forever. In these words, lies our hope and assurance. Planting ourselves here, our worries and anxieties will not overcome the promise from God who created us, redeemed us, and calls us his own.
This week, as we gather in different ways than we normally do with those we love, give voice to the sadness of that. Give gratitude, too, for God’s steadfast love, which endures in all times, for all times, and through all times. Give thanks to the God of heaven, for his steadfast love endures forever.
Kimberly Pepper is a board-certified chaplain at St. Peter's Health.