It is hard to think about Thanksgiving and not think of food in general and turkey in particular. So attentive are we to the meal itself that the Thanksgiving prayer we offer becomes an afterthought, unless carefully we pause to think about a prayerful recipe for a real thanksgiving, a thanksgiving medley of nourishment both for body and for soul. The meal, the turkey, we leave to you. But here, in sermonic guise, we offer a recipe for the prayer on Thanksgiving, a thanksgiving medley, a recipe, that is, for a thanksgiving prayer.
First, clean. To start, you might clean the outside of the prayer. Pluck its feathers. Wash its torso. Get rid of the fluff that does not feed anyway. Especially this year perhaps we can dispense with the note of pride, of self-congratulation that so easily enters the heart. ‘Lord I thank thee that I am not like other men—extortionists, liars, or even like this publican here’. Jesus directly proscribed such prayer. Pluck and clean and here is what you find. Most of who we are and even more of what we have is pure gift. Our genetic makeup. Our history. Our natural surroundings. Our upbringing. Our humors and talents. Our religious tradition or lack thereof. For all our vaunted independence, we depend, utterly depend, truly depend, we are deeply dependent for what counts: for life, for forgiveness, for eternal life. For all our vaunted enterprise, we have relied on others, and we have been shaped by others. Is there a better city in North American in which to remember that than Boston? As a city, as a people, as a nation, as a church, we are the creatures of the courage of others, who in one sense or another gave the last full measure of devotion. Who are we kidding anyway? Most of what we are and even more of what we have is pure gift. As my friend says, ‘if you see a turtle on top of a fence post, you know he did not get there on his own’.
The Psalmist knew this. ‘Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for hehas looked favorably upon his people and redeemed them.
Paul of Tarsus also knew this. “May you be made strong with the strength that comes from his glorious power.”
This is why the patterns of gratitude, day and week and month and year and all are so important to the soul. Good for you. You find a daily way to say a word of thanks or write a note of thanks to someone, somewhere, somehow. Good for you. You find a way to worship on Sunday, to bestir yourself and enter a community of faith, shoulder to shoulder with other unfeathered bi-peds, so that, if nothing else, in public you may say ‘thank you’—to God, to life, to others. Good for you. You find a way once a month to be in service, in mission. Ministry is service. Today our students and others gather at noon to pack meals for hungry children. Tomorrow you may send off an extra thanksgiving check to the Philippines. Good for you. You find a rhythm, year by year, for arranging your finances to match hour values. You give. You give by percentage. You tithe. You make a plan and plan your giving and give by your plan. Good for you. You think hard and long about what your will, your end of life giving will be, and so model that dimension of spirituality for your children and others. Maybe your estate itself will include a tithe. Good for you. A daily note, a weekly worship, a monthly service, a yearly gift, a concluding bequest—these are patterns of gratitude that shape the soul and heal the earth. Good for you. Be generous of spirit, like Abraham Joshua Heschel:
Religion’s task is to cultivate disgust for violence and lies, sensitivity to other people’s suffering and the love of peace.
God is than religion, and faith is deeper than dogma. Man’s most precious thought is God, but God’s most precious thought is man.
To give thanks means first to pluck the bird’s less generous, more self centered, less magnanimous feathers, one at a time.
Second, season. Cleansed, our prayer is ready for a little seasoning. Personal seasoning. Real gratitude is real personal. Prayer is intimate. Prayer is personal. Like a sermon. Utterly personal. Like a photograph. Utterly personal. A prayer of thanks is thanks for what makes a personal difference. For a friend sent along by life’s surging current. For a spouse met. For a child. For a child saved from death in a car accident. For a lawsuit avoided or weathered. For an assault survived. For a family fence mended. For a vocation. For a vacation. For an exciting new job. For breath, for breadth, for board.
The eternal flame, which Jacqueline B Kennedy imagined atop the president’s grave, is a flickering reminder to us all of what his tragically foreshortened life gave our common life. I hope this holiday season that you will keep a sort of eternal flame flickering atop your life as well. Our span of life, threescore and ten, upon this earth, is starkly brief. Yet each soul carries an eternal flame, a lasting marrow, a heavenly destiny, a personal dimension. You have an angelic prospectus. You want to live, to speak, to choose, to act, to do—and especially to pray—with a recollection of eternity. Under the aspect of eternity, sub specie aeternitatis. Mrs. Kennedy, in the days following her husband’s murder 50 years ago, found the grace to send a handwritten note of condolence to the wife of a Dallas policeman who had also been killed in those same hours, by the same gunman. There is an eternal flame flickering in such an act, in such a kindness, partly because it so personal. “Others may not understand what you are going through” it seems to say, “but I surely do”.
We went north toward Montreal in 1981 to serve two little churches with two little children and too little money. We went to Montreal in order to study for a PhD so that one day we could come to Boston and teach in the school of theology and preach in Marsh Chapel and offer pastoral care to an academic community of 40,000. Be glad for what you do not have, for it is the doorway into what you will have. That summer of 1981 we were given a car, and old red Ford Mustang convertible, anno domini 1973. A real boat, v8, white top, black interior, and rust to the horizon. Said the donor: ‘it will last you 6 months. Leave it in a field’. It lasted 10 years. It was such a thoughtful and such helpful gift—the right thing at the right time in the right way—that no words could ever convey our gratitude (Hart on gift). No formal note—“Dear Aunt Esther, in life’s many vicissitudes it is so important to be made mindful of those who help…blah, blah, blah…’ No. Thanksgiving is a personal shout, a cry from the heart: Thank You!
Alice Walker appeared on late night television a while ago. She said two stunning things. ‘At middle age’, she said, ‘I am learning to slow down so that whatever life intends for me will have an easier time catching up’. Then, after minutes of complements for Nelson Mandela, and what he did for South Africa, she reflected: ‘of course, he is a great leader, but the point is that each one of us is to be our own great leader’. Personal. Personal. Very personal.
This is why our friends are so deeply, lastingly meaningful to us. Our north country friend Max Coots wrote one Thanksgiving:
“Let us give thanks for a bounty of people:
For children who are our second planting, and though they grow like weeds and the wind too soon blows them away, may they forgive us our cultivation and fondly remember where their roots are….
For generous friends with hearts and smiles as bright as their blossoms;
For feisty friends as tart as apples;
For continuous friends, who, like scallions and cucumbers, keep reminding us that we’ve had them;
For crotchety friends, as sour as rhubarb and as indestructible;
For handsome friends, who are as gorgeous as eggplants and as elegant as a row of corn, and the other, plain as potatoes and as good for you;
For funny friends, who are as silly as Brussels Sprouts and as amusing as Jerusalem Artichokes, and serious friends, as complex as cauliflowers and as intricate as onions;
For friends as unpretentious as cabbages, as subtle as summer squash, as persistent as parsley, as delightful as dill, as endless as zucchini, and who, like parsnips, can be counted on to see you through the winter;
For old friends, nodding like sunflowers in the evening-time, and young friends coming on as fast as radishes;
For loving friends, who wind around us like tendrils and hold us, despite our blights, wilts and witherings;
And finally, for those friends now gone, like gardens past that have been harvested, and who fed us in their times that we might have life thereafter;
For all these we give thanks.”
A sermon does not conclude the preaching for the week. A sermon begins the preaching for the week. The point of a sermon is found in your active, personal articulation of faith. In a journal. In public speaking. In a simple devotional at a meeting. In the shower. And, this Thursday, in a thanksgiving prayer. Sit down ahead of time and right it out. Make it personal. Season it so. Season it properly. Find your tongue. Season it personally.
Third, cook. Cook the prayer. Cook it in experiences of adversity. Let the adverse experiences of life make our prayer and our soul tender. If nothing else, our own hurts make us more empathetic to others. One of my forebears in the ministry, long ago used this line and it has stuck. It is nothing to remember a line for thirty years, when it is a real sentence: ‘Let the heat of adversity make us tender’. Sometimes nothing else will. This is a difficult point. When I heard my friend utter the line, because I knew his experience, I wept. There is no way finally to understand, let alone justify, the heat of life at its worst. But we can pray that such adverse experience will humanize us, that such heat will make us tender.
Let the bird cook, simmer. Cooking makes the bird tender. Life’s heat can make us tender too, if we will allow the time and heat and patience to hold us.
Think again of Paul. ‘Suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character and character produces hope and hope does not disappoint us because the love of God has been shed abroad in our hearts through the Holy Spirit that is given to us.’ Think again today of Christ, the Redeemer, who himself entered the darkest sphere of suffering, mocked as a common criminal but carrying through the cross, and the crosses of all life, a remembrance of paradise.
In the radio congregation today, and in the visible congregation today, there are many who know this well. You have graciously preached this sermon in your own lives. You have faced adversity and so become spiritually sensitive. You have felt physical pain but have learned redemptively to manage your suffering. You have suffered loss and survived. You have managed suffering redemptively. You have worn the ancient clothing: ‘afflicted in every way but not crushed, perplexed but not driven to despair, persecuted but not forsaken, struck down but not destroyed; and you do not lose heart, for though the outer nature is wasting away, the inner nature is being renewed every day’. For all the heat, your Thanksgiving prayer this year will be most tender and most sweet.
Here is a Thanksgiving medley, a recipe for a prayer at Thanksgiving. Clean it. Season it. Cook it. Cleanse it of pride. Season it in person. And allow the heat of adversity to make it tender.
It was this recipe that my BU religious life leaders on Wednesday perceived in Dean Howard Thurman’s exemplary prayer:
Today, I make my Sacrament of Thanksgiving.
I begin with the simple things of my days:
Fresh air to breathe,
Cool water to drink,
The taste of food,
The protection of houses and clothes,
The comforts of home.
For all these I make an act of Thanksgiving this day!
I bring to mind all the warmth of humankind that I have known:
My mother’s arms,
The strength of my father
The playmates of my childhood…
The tears I have shed, the tears I have seen;
The excitement of laughter and the twinkle in the
Eye with its reminder that life is good.
For all these I make an act of Thanksgiving this day
I finger one by one the messages of hope that awaited me at the crossroads:
The smile of approval from those who held in their hands the reins of my security;
The tightening of the grip in a simple handshake when I
Feared the step before me in darkness;
The whisper in my heart when the temptation was fiercest
And the claims of appetite were not to be denied;
The crucial word said, the simple sentence from an open
Page when my decision hung in the balance.
For all these I make an act of Thanksgiving this day.
I pass before me the main springs of my heritage:
The fruits of labors of countless generations who lived before me,
Without whom my own life would have no meaning;
The seers who saw visions and dreamed dreams;
The prophets who sensed a truth greater than the mind could grasp
And whose words would only find fulfillment
In the years which they would never see;
The workers whose sweat has watered the trees,
The leaves of which are for the healing of the nations;
The pilgrims who set their sails for lands beyond all horizons,
Whose courage made paths into new worlds and far off places;
The saviors whose blood was shed with a recklessness that only a dream
Could inspire and God could command.
For all this I make an act of Thanksgiving this day…
All these and more than mind can think and heart can feel,
I make as my sacrament of Thanksgiving to Thee,
(Dear God), in humbleness of mind and simplicity of heart.
~The Rev. Dr. Robert Allan Hill, Dean of Marsh Chapel