Many North Americans are struggling to find a spirit of thankfulness this year. Many of us are worried about finances, unemployment and underemployment, unsuccessful job searches, shrinking bank accounts and retirement plans, indebtedness, and the prospect of needing to work until our early 70’s, given the current state of our pensions. Some curmudgeons might even protest, “What have we got to be thankful for this year, with everything still uncertain and no end in sight?” I share their concerns because I am facing many of the same realities. Last year, on the week after Thanksgiving, seminary financial exigencies forced me to imagine and then embark on a new vocational future that has been filled with equal doses of excitement, innovation, creativity, and uncertainty.
A few days ago, my best friend who has been living under the shadow of what these days is described as “incurable” cancer (the alternative term to “terminal”) for the past three years reflected on our current life situations: “I’m sure that God still has plans for us.” She has been through hell and back the past three years; so her testimony is grounded in the concrete realities many of us face each day.
Gratitude is seldom without its challenges. Our pilgrim parents gave thanks despite the fact that their future was uncertain in this new land. They had faced hunger, cold, death, and bereavement, and still they gave thanks for having made it through the first year and for the future that lay ahead for them. They believed that God was with them, and that nothing in life and death could separate them from God’s providential care. German mystic Meister Eckhardt asserted that if the only prayer you could make is “thank you,” that will suffice.
My favorite Thanksgiving hymn is “Now Thank We All Our God,” written by Martin Rinkart (1586-1649), a Protestant pastor in Eilenburg, Saxony, during the Thirty Years War. Times were harsh as Protestants and Catholics killed one another over issues of faith, politics, and control. Eilenburg was a refuge for religious refugees, many of whom brought with them pestilence and plague that ravaged the town. During this difficult time, the lone surviving pastor, Rinkart, who presided over nearly 4500 funerals, including his own wife’s, was inspired to the write the hymn by reading the words of Sirach 50:22-24:
And now bless the God of all, who in every way does great things; who exalts our days from birth, and deals with us according to God’s mercy. May God give us gladness of heart, and grant that peace may be in our days in Israel, as in the days of old. May God entrust to us his mercy! And let God deliver us in our days!
Perhaps he was also inspired by the words of I Thessalonians 5:18: “Give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.”
This is no Pollyanna “praise the Lord, anyway” prayer of thanksgiving. Nor is a denial of life’s challenges. It is an acknowledgement that God’s providence gently moves through our lives, despite our current circumstances. Thanksgiving is the virtue of interconnectedness, reminding us that none of us stands alone. Rich and poor alike, job creators and job applicants, depend on countless forces for their well-being and good fortune. When we are grateful, we discover that we are never alone and that possibilities and the energy to embody them are constantly flowing through our lives. Gratitude reminds us that even our scarcity, we can experience love, beauty, wonder, and creativity.
During the Great Depression of the twentieth century, many economically-depressed people made the following affirmation: “We weren’t poor; we just didn’t have any money.” They recognized their blessings despite their economic insecurity. In that spirit, they gave generously, out of their gratitude, living abundantly despite the scarcity of their circumstances. Many United States citizens resisted the impulse to circle the wagons and care only for their own families; they reached out personally and created on a national basis programs like Social Security and the WPA. They realized that gratitude for our nation’s gifts required them to institute national policies that provided resources for the “least of these” in their communities. We need that same spirit of personal and institutional generosity today, if we are to flourish as a nation in our own time of economic uncertainty.
Today, many congregations and people are living by scarcity. Like Peter, they are ready to give up after a night of unsuccessful fishing. But, their scarcity is transformed to abundance when they trust God and launch out into deeper waters. A catch beyond their imagination awaits those who commit themselves to living by abundance in a world of scarcity. A boy brings five loaves and two fishes, hardly enough to feed a growing child. But, his generosity inspires the generosity of others, and creates a field of force in which a small meal feeds a multitude. Miracles, or acts of power, emerge when we trust God’s abundance and share our resources in time, talent, and treasure, however limited, with others.
There is a deeper realism that inspires gratitude and generosity. Yes, we have only five loaves and two fish. That’s a concrete reality. Recognizing our current bottom line is essential to economic well-being. But, the deeper realism sees the possibilities hidden in the limits of life, and opens the door to unexpected transformational energies. It lives by generosity and prudent risk-taking rather than fearful self-interest and hoarding.
So, this Thanksgiving, let us trust a gentle and non-coercive providence. Let us count our blessings, affirm God’s faithfulness, and reach out to others. Let Rinkart’s hymn be our prayer of abundance in a time of scarcity:
Now thank we all our God,
with heart and hands and voices,
who wondrous things has done,
in whom the world rejoices,
who from our mothers’ arms
has blessed us on our way
with countless gifts of love,
and still is ours today.
O may this bounteous God
through all our life be near us,
with ever-joyful hearts
and blessed peace to cheer us,
and keep us full of grace,
and guide us when perplexed,
and free us from all ills
in this world and the next.
All praise and thanks to God
our Father and our Mother,
to Christ and to the One
who binds us to each other,
the one eternal God,
whom earth and heaven adore,
for thus it was, is now,
and shall be evermore.
Bruce Epperly is a theologian, writer, and spiritual guide. He is the author of twenty-one books, includingHoly Adventure: 41 Days of Audacious Living, Process Theology: A Guide for the Perplexed, Philippians: An Interactive Adult Study,and The Center is Everywhere: Celtic Spirituality for the Postmodern Age. He may be reached for lectures, retreats, and seminars at firstname.lastname@example.org.