This is How we Give Thanks: American-Style
For those of you outside the United States, today is our Thanksgiving. It is our last remaining cultural tip-of-the-hat to that quaint practice of harvest festivals. We eat a lot, drink a lot, most watch American football, and tomorrow we all head out to fight over the latest and greatest Black Friday sales at the local malls. This is how we give thanks: American-Style.
Of course there are references, traditions, and gestures towards true thanksgiving. But they are mostly carried on by the old, and received with rolling eyes and communal sighs of discomfort from the rest of us. I for one HATE to say what I am thankful for in front a whole group of family. That is worse than singing Happy Birthday to Jesus on Christmas.
Generally I would ignore the whole cultural apparatus of Thanksgiving, Black Friday, etc. and just go fishing. But today I bought myself a duck to roast. So while it is thawing in the fridge, I find myself in my usual corner of the local coffee shop reflecting on the nature of thanksgiving.
Through my years of tolerating Thanksgiving traditions in exchange for food, I have learned that when asked on the most sacred day of giving thanks there is, that most people are thankful for jobs, homes, family, etc. There is a slight chance that one particularly old or eclectic member of the party may be thankful for the turkey who gave up his awful, mechanical, shit-covered turkey life for our meal. These sorts of thanks parallel the most common use of thanks in English which is “thank-you.” “Thank you” means I recognize that you have done something for me that makes my life easier, better, etc. It’s me focused. I gained something and as an addendum I recognize that it is because of you that I did so. Even in the great myth of the pilgrims and the Indians, the pilgrims were thankful to the Indians for their feast. It was the food they were thankful for, not the Indians. When we give thanks we engage in an undeniably self-centered exercise.
But Jesus gave thanks, and the Bible tells us to!- I can hear you declare.
Take an example: most of us will say we are thankful for a job. Being unemployed I know I would be. But we also think we earned that job, that we deserve it, that we make that paycheck. We believe, rightly I think, that our success is largely justified by our labor. It is not an unearned gift of grace from the Lord on High. Saying thanks in our world is just saying, “I am really glad I have this.”
Would it be different if we were thankful for something we had no part in? Perhaps even something we had no possession over. What does it mean when Paul gives thanks for another man’s faith:
We ought always to give thanks to God for you, brethren, as is only fitting, because your faith is greatly enlarged, and the love of each one of you toward one another grows ever greater (2 Thess 1:3)
I reckon this hits on a distinct experience. Rather than an experience of “oh, I have this great ______, weeeee!” the scripture points to an experience of awe and finitude, of a recognition of the goodness of our limits in the face of the eternal “I Am.” Jesus and Paul, Psalms and the rest, never give thanks without first experiencing the limits of their finitude. We must recognize that we cannot do it on our own. We cannot earn it. We must pass through the wilderness with Job:
Surely I spoke of things I did not understand; things too wonderful for me to know. (…) Therefore I despise myself and repent in dust and ashes. (Job 42: 3 and 6).
It is only as we come out of the wilderness, stumbling, hungry, and lost into the promised land that we are free from the delusion that we did this on our own, that we made it here of our own power, that we earned it and it is good for us. It is only after the wilderness that we honestly say, we did not earn this and our thanksgivings become pure. To do anything less is to turn from God to ourselves.
But if man’s attention is repaid so handsomely, his inattention costs him dearly. Every time he diagrams something instead of looking at it, every time he regards not what a thing is but what it can be made to mean to him – every time he substitutes a conceit for a fact – he gets grease all over the kitchen of the world. Reality slips away from him; and he is left with nothing but the oldest monstrosity in the world: an idol. Things must be met for themselves. To take them only for their meaning is to convert them into gods – to make them too important, and therefore to make them unimportant altogether. Idolatry has two faults. It is not only a slur on the true God; it is also an insult to true things. -Robert Farrar Capon