I teach my son thankfulness and the practices of gratitude. I teach him to say “thank you” when someone gives him something. As soon as he learns his letters I will teach him to write thank you notes. We say prayers before bed every night (Okay, most nights; bedtime is hard) and that includes thanks to God for the good things in our lives.
I teach my congregation the same things: we say prayers of thanks throughout our Sunday services. We send thank you cards to those who help us in ministry. We say “grace,” which usually amounts to a prayer of gratitude to God, before all our church-wide meals.
Yet, there’s something about all of these thanks-giving practices that bothers me a little bit. Yes, when my heart feels ready to burst with gratitude because of something good in my life, I want to pray to God to say thanks, and I do. And yes, I believe that even when we are struggling, even when things are difficult, there is still much to be thankful for and we should express that gratitude. But even though I live and teach these ideas about thankfulness, I have always had an undeniable bit of discomfort with this giving of thanks.
The discomfort became overwhelming this November, when my Facebook news feed began filling up with “I’m thankful for…” posts. Maybe you’ve seen this exercise among your Facebook friends, too: Participants post every day of the month with something in their lives for which they are thankful. Examples might be, “I’m thankful for the best job ever,” or, “Today I’m thankful that I get to stay home with my adorable kids every day!” On about November 2nd, as these thankful posts flooded my feed whenever I logged into Facebook, I realized that I was annoyed and uncomfortable every time I read them.
Rather than resigning myself to live in that irritated state (I check Facebook a lot), I decided to just take a break and avoid the Thankful Posts altogether. I put up a brief message on my profile page letting people know that I would be back once Advent started, and signed off for the month.
Once I was off Facebook, I had a lot of time to reflect on why I had such a problem with the Thankful Posts. Shouldn’t any act of gratitude be a joy? As a pastor, should I not be happy that people are taking time to reflect on their blessings? Why was I experiencing such misgivings about the Thankful Posts? What if there is no good reason? What if I am just a Thanksgiving Grinch?
Then something happened. I was walking my son to his day school class when I passed a bulletin board in the hallway. The board showed the traditional Thanksgiving image of pilgrims and Indians sharing an overflowing table of food. I stopped and stared. They were sharing an overflowing table of food.
None of us really knows what happened on that first Thanksgiving and the version we share with our kids is probably fairly sanitized. But as I stood looking at that bulletin board, my son tugging at my sleeve, I realized that even the legend of Thanksgiving holds an important message for me. When the pilgrims arrived in the New World they did not know how to live there. But (I was taught) a couple of Native Americans took the risk and the time to teach them how to plant crops that would thrive in North America. When the harvest was returned, the pilgrims and Native Americans shared the feast together, all contributing what they had.
So the first Thanksgiving happened not because the pilgrims and the Native Americans sat at separate tables and yelled across a meadow, “Hey we have fowl! We’re so blessed!” or “We have squash! So thankful!” The first Thanksgiving happened because Native Americans shared what they had (the skills to plant and harvest) with the pilgrims. Thanksgiving, then, happened not because each side reveled in its bounty, but because in sharing what they each had, all were fed.
Thanksgiving means “giving thanks.” But staring at that bulletin board, I started to think that maybe a better interpretation of the word for Christians is “Thanks and giving.” Maybe a better way to think of Thanksgiving is not as an opportunity to bask in the blessedness of every corner of our lives, but to reflect on how much we have, and then find a way to share. Maybe we give thanks and in recognizing the gifts in our lives, we then give them away.
Thanks and giving–this lesson is all over the Bible. In Genesis God tells Abram, “I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing” (Genesis 12:2, emphasis added). Elsewhere, God’s people are instructed to leave portions of their harvests so that the poor may eat (Exodus 22:10, Leviticus 23:22). Mordecai teaches Esther that perhaps her rise to power is “for just such a time as this,” so that she can save an entire people from genocide (Esther 4:14). The five barley loaves and two fish of a little boy were not hoarded, but brought to Jesus and multiplied into enough—more than enough—for five thousand (John 6:9-14). Paul writes to the Corinthians, “by always having enough of everything, you may share abundantly in every good work” (2 Corinthians 9:8).
When I think about these passages, my discomfort with my very-Christian practice of giving thanks begins to make sense. I have been giving thanks for a long time without ever giving anything else. A blessing over the food is only half of the Christian practice of gratitude; the other half is sharing that overflowing table with those in need. A Facebook post about all the ways that I have far more than I need is an expression of thanks, yes, but it can’t stop there. When we have been given much, much is asked in return.
You and I have been blessed. But as followers of Christ we understand that our blessings are not intended to settle into our homes and lives and Facebook statuses; our blessings are intended to flow through us to others. I will continue to teach my son and my parishioners that gratitude is the appropriate response to God’s good blessings, but I will add that it is only part of the response. The other half is the giving.
What would it look like to say thanks and give? What would it look like to celebrate Thanks-and-Giving? Maybe we make a budget for our Thanksgiving meals, and then cut it by two-thirds, spending the smaller portion on our own Thanksgiving and giving the rest to a food bank. Maybe we thank God for the ability to be a stay-at-home mom, and then offer to check in on the home-bound man next door while his daughter goes to work each day. Maybe we keep our Facebook status, “I am so thankful for my amazing husband!” but then add, “He does so much for us around the house and he’s great at it. If any of my elderly friends need a helping hand, message me.” You might want to check with your husband first about this, I don’t know. I don’t have a husband. Husbands might get testy about being left out of such a decision.
Whatever it looks like, let’s not stop at thank-you notes or prayers of thanks or Facebook posts. Let’s not stop at celebrating Thanksgiving with more food than we need and nowhere for it to go but our expanding waists. Instead, let’s think ahead and find ways to express our gratitude through sharing and giving. Let’s celebrate Thanks-and-Giving this year.