November 21

A Thanksgiving Prayer

By Marsh Chapel

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John 18: 33-37

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Faith often emerges in single steps.   One step, one at a time.  One step in faith for you and me comes in becoming more thankful, grateful, in putting on the thanksgiving clothes and donning the thanksgiving shoes of a spiritual gladness, a spiritual gladness welling up from a physical wellness.  A thanksgiving prayer in nature, in friendship, in service, and in spirit.

Thanks for Nature

Let us be thankful for the good gifts in nature.  Our lessons from ancient Scripture surround us with such a thanksgiving.  They attribute directly to the Lord, in a way we might not in our time, both the weal and woe of natural cycles.  Yet this spirit of thanksgiving could not be more evident, in the Psalms, say, gratitude for the good that is given, in pasture and tree and vineyard.  Even those of us dwelling mostly in an urban setting can from this autumn—warm, mostly; dry, mostly; pleasant, mostly—receive such a sense of blessing and so a sense of gratitude.   Seed-time gives way to harvest, as tears give way to shouts and joy. The long months of hidden growth, of change and development under the earth, are a firm reminder that the future will look different from the past, and from the present.  Every autumn, every harvest season, we are offered such a reminder.   In a prayer recently, we heard the petition that we might serve God ‘with a quiet mind’.  A quiet and peaceable life itself naturally requires order, and when we have such, we are right to give thanks.   Especially in the later New Testament writings there is preserved for us a mature recognition of the value in things done ‘decently and in order’.  Quietly, with quiet minds, we may step toward gratitude for what is given in nature. The body.  Birds of the air. Lilies of the field.  Reminders of what Marilyn Robinson might call ‘the givenness of things’. Friday night our Inner Strength Gospel choir, gave a compelling witness, in the heart of months and years of turmoil, to thanksgiving, grateful praise.

Thanks for Friends

Let us be thankful for friendship as was our friend Max Coots, a country preacher of the first water, a rural minister in the Unitarian tradition:

“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.”

Thanks for Service

Let us be thankful for service, for those who have served the common good.  The common good, the shared good, the good in which all are included. Some of the deeper sources of our current American malaise, our current cultural anguish, lie in areas seldom if ever broached at length in essays, op eds, articles, broadcasts, monographs and sermons.  One wonders why not.  Perhaps the needed reflective quiet, even after 18 months of COVID quiet, eludes us.  Or maybe by contrast the enforced isolation of COVID has kept us from idle moments, side trips, family visits, and looks at how the other half lives or doesn’t.  It also may be that today’s preacher has missed something, or has not read what should have been read, or what would make the case that in fact some of this has been addressed.  You tell me.  Rally goers on the one hand and residents of academe on the other do seem to share ranges of inattention to what is underneath, what lies down in the declivities of our mutual maelstrom.  You rarely hear about these things, as they portend or protrude or shape, generate and cause a 51-49 country.  Here is one for today, connected to service.

Looking back, most of our early years in ministry, in the 80’s, involved home visits where the photos of the wedding day showed a groom in uniform.  A lot of weddings took place for a certain age cohort just after December 7, 1941, or in the years following.  There was haste in the arrangements, small gatherings in and after church, a few days of honeymoon, and then the long goodbye, for some, tragically, a permanent goodbye.  Decades later, in the living room or den, when the minister came to call for whatever reason or no earthly reason, there were brief stories about the wedding, vows and ring, cake and family.  The photos were not meant as frontispiece for the rest of life in the next half century—return, house, work, children, illness, loss, the troubles that are the only real impetus to Christian faith, faith coming as it does almost entirely out of trouble—nor were there endless stories.  In fact, to remember, the men involved said hardly anything about their service, the war, or anything related. ‘Life is how you take it’ was the spirit in the room, under the mantel, with the faded photos of white gowns and service uniforms.

Two decades prior or so to those pastoral visits, 25 a week in a healthy pastoral pattern, these women and men had spiritual cousins who had raised us, formed us, in the 60’s.  Hiking in the winter with the scouts.  Traveling on youth trips or youth service trips.  Volunteering to counsel at summer camp, with leaky cabin roofs, mediocre food, off key campfire singing, and the measures of homesickness and combativeness that come with camp.  They corrected us when we threw snowballs that hit innocent bystanders.  They raised questions and eyebrows when the days of bellbottoms and tie-died shirts came along.  They did not order, they just asked.  They wanted good things for their children and grandchildren and a world of justice and peace.  Because they had come of age, many of them, when that hope for that world was on the line.  It is in this sense that Tom Brokaw wrote a much-read book, The Greatest Generation.  My wife’s Uncle Bill, died in late December 1943, a recent hockey player and graduate of Northfield Mount Hermon, in the jungles of New Britain, just east of Australia. 300,000 American soldiers died in WW II.  He came to mind a few days ago, November 11, in this Chapel sanctuary, as we honored our veterans.  This was a generation that saw in their lived experience what Fascism could mean.  They saw up close, marching through France, or in the Pacific jungle, or moving north in Italy, just what Fascism, with its reliance on mendacity and violence, whether in ‘the big lie’ or on January 6, could do to them and to their comrades.  Some by grace came home.  And they came home sober about Fascism.  They didn’t need to talk about it, or pronounce about it, or swagger about it.  They had put their bodies on the line, and became, some of them, true heroes.  As JFK said when asked how he became such a hero, ‘It was easy, they sunk my boat’.  Can you hear the resolute humility, the chastened spirit, the wry humor in that little phrase?  Without as much fanfare, those who raised us, and then were our first parishioners and lay leaders and congregants, also had that resolute humility, chastened spirit and wry humor, a hard-won love of country, and a willingness to serve for the common good.

One unremarked reason that our politics and culture have gone so far afield, so far astray, it may be, is here.  That quiet presence, the strong sturdy example of The Greatest Generation, in board meetings and church councils and political gatherings and family systems and college faculties and business chambers of commerce, is now dead and gone.  Their reticent silence is itself now silent.  They who looked fascism in the eye have not been around to look others in the eye when authoritarian mendacity and violence have become, tragically, modes of political engagement.  They aren’t in the room, silently to frown, quietly to shake the head, gently to ask a question, and be heard with honor.  You knew these people and you know they would have had no use for the kind of short-sighted, wrong-headed disrespect for government, for due process, for legitimate democracy, that has descended upon us.  One reason for our trouble, our travail, it may be, is that the Greatest Generation is no longer with us to remind, to correct, to balance us, not just in the great speeches of the day, but also and more so in civil society, in civil society now become largely uncivil, and much, much weakened.  In Moose Lodges, and Baptist Churches, and County Fair committees, and Pine Wood derby rankings and Memorial Day ceremonies. And at Thanksgiving, offering a prayer at the Thanksgiving table.

In one of our churches, there were eight adult Sunday School classes, arranged over time by age, with membership in each one of up to 200 a piece.  The two strongest were made up of the GI generation, on the one hand, and the Silent Generation, on the other.   Those who had actually been in uniform, seen combat, suffered hurt, and looked fascism in the eye, on the one hand, and those who had heard about it, had grown up with some second-hand memory, but themselves had not been there.  It needs no saying that both groups were truly wonderful people, great people, interestingly though, the GI generation more liberal and Silent generation more conservative.  One man from the older group, by then nearly 80, took me aside in our first autumn, to say:  Well, you are going to be my pastor, so I need to tell you how I got to faith.  I was 23 years old in a field in France, and I had to run across open land with guns trained on me.  I said to God, ‘If I live, I will serve you the rest of my life.  Please let me live.  And He did. And I did.’   He was like most of his generation whose funerals we had in the years prior and the years after.  They are dead now, most all of them, 99%, or in the shadows of our life, in nursing homes or at home, or alone.  One of the biggest, unspoken reasons for our cultural and political mayhem is their absence.  But I have seen not a single word written about it, and I have not heard a single word spoken about it.   We need to conjure their voice, to honor their service by remembering their hard-won wisdom, and saying in their absence what they would have said in their presence. We need to conjure their voice, to honor their service by remembering their hard-won wisdom, and saying in their absence what they would have said in their presence.

Thanks for Spirit

Let us be thankful for the spirit of truth.  John 18 puts Pilate in the spotlight, he who asks ‘what is truth’, in a way that others along the way in Gospel have done already:  Nicodemus, the Samaritan Woman, Thomas, and, in a way every one of us too.  The sharp, daunting witness of our Gospel today challenges us with two assertions, two affirmations. They are part promise and hope, and part haunting and daunting warning. The first is that there is such a thing as truth, which, over time, comes out.  The second is that for those seized by the confession of the church, for you, that very truth is known, elusively and dimly, but nonetheless known, in Jesus Christ, Christ the King, whose spirit and truth, we are promised, will have the final word.  Truth.  Truth through Christ. As David Brooks wrote so eloquently a day ago, (we) are judged by history, not the distraction and exhaustion of the moment…Did (we) address the core problem of the moment? (NYT, 11/19/21) One step, a truthful step in faith if you will, a move toward faith this morning, is the truth and goodness in gratitude, a spiritual gladness, a spiritual thanksgiving. So let us be grateful this Thanksgiving, as was Howard Thurman, who in so many things was a hundred years head of his time fifty years ago.  Here is his famous poem:

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 wonderful stories brought to me from the lives

Of many who talked of days gone by when fairies

And giants and all kinds of magic held sway;

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.


I linger over the meaning of my own life and the commitment

To which I give the loyalty of my heart and mind:

The little purposes in which I have shared my loves,

My desires, my gifts;

The restlessness which bottoms all I do with its stark insistence

That I have never done my best, I have never dared

To reach for the highest;

The big hope that never quite deserts me, that I and my kind

Will study war no more, that love and tenderness and all the

inner graces of Almighty affection will cover the life of the

children of God as the waters cover the sea.

All these and more than mind can think and heart can feel,

I make as my sacrament of Thanksgiving to Thee,

Our Father, in humbleness of mind and simplicity of heart.

Faith comes in single steps.   One step, one at a time.  One step for you and me comes in becoming more thankful, grateful, in putting on the thanksgiving clothes and donning the thanksgiving shoes of a spiritual gladness, a spiritual gladness welling up from a physical wellness.  A spiritual gladness in nature, in friendship, in service, and in spirit.

-The Rev. Dr. Robert Allan Hill, Dean of Marsh Chapel

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