The Power of Gratitude

Rev. Paula Norbert

We’re almost to the Thanksgiving holiday, and like so much this year, it will likely look very different than it has in the past. Throughout Scripture, we read about gratitude to God for the many blessings that the community has been given. In Hebrew Scripture, thanksgiving is offered above all to the One they call Yahweh and is offered for Yaweh’s benefits toward Israel as a people. Thanksgiving is ultimately a communal act of covenant remembrance. It is as forward-looking as it is backward-looking. The Psalms recount God’s benefits to Israel, and express hope that in the future the Lord will continue his faithful care of his people. Yahweh was seen as the ultimate Giver of all good, and so the failure to give thanks to God was considered idolatry, a form of forgetting the relationship with the true God. An offering of thanksgiving was a feast, particularly a feast of bread. An Israelite who offered thanks prepares a “great bread” for those who celebrate with them. Thanksgiving is expressed by the sharing of food. And we know that central to the story of the Last Supper, Jesus gave thanks to God for the gifts of the bread and wine and then shared these gifts with his friends gathered at the table to celebrate the Passover Meal with him. Let us pray, O God, we do give you thanks for all of the blessings of our lives. We thank you for seeing us this far, for your presence over this hard time, and we ask that you continue to help us be mindful of your goodness in our lives. Amen.

I know that the news each day is filled with a lot of hard things, although I’m sure we are all thankful to hear that there may be a vaccine for Covid available in the months ahead and that it will hopefully be highly effective. I think we could all use a little something to smile about… I’m sure you all have heard about the Butterball Hotline which has been open for years to provide advice on turkey roasting and preparation to the many callers. Maybe some of you have called yourselves?
* Thanksgiving Dinner on the run. A woman called 1-800-323-4848 to find out how long it would take to roast her turkey. To answer the question, the Talk-Line home economist asked how much the bird weighed. The woman responded, “I don’t know, it’s still running around outside.”

*A man in Phoenix calls his son in New York the day before Thanksgiving and says, “I hate to ruin your day, but I have to tell you that your mother and I are divorcing; forty-five years of misery is enough. “Pop, what are you talking about?” the son screams. We can’t stand the sight of each other any longer,” the father says. “We’re sick of each other, and I’m sick of talking about this, so you call your sister in Chicago and tell her.” Frantic, the son calls his sister, who explodes on the phone. “Like heck they’re getting divorced,” she shouts, “I’ll take care of this,” She calls Phoenix immediately, and screams at her father, “You are NOT getting divorced. Don’t do a single thing until I get there. I’m calling my brother back, and we’ll both be there tomorrow. Until then, don’t do a thing, DO YOU HEAR ME?” and hangs up. The old man hangs up his phone and turns to his wife. “Okay,” he says, “they’re coming for Thanksgiving and better yet, they’re paying their own way.”

I’ve had Nicaragua in my heart and prayers in recent weeks. Most of you know that during my years as a college chaplain at BC, I traveled with students for many years to visit the people of Nicaragua. They have experienced two devastating hurricanes in recent weeks. I was there in 1998 after Hurricane Mitch which caused incredible damage and hardship to an already struggling country. I recall that on our first visit, we traveled to a small town for several days, living with the families there, all of whom struggled with poverty and hardship. We joined everyone in the local community one evening when they gathered for Worship at the home of these two amazing nuns who lived and worked within this poor community. I remember that evening as people were spread out on benches, or standing, all over the dusty yard singing and BC students who didn’t speak the language were asking, what are they singing? And as the words were translated, all of our students were moved as they heard these words…”We thank you God for all that you have given us.” It is not always in good times or times of plenty when we are most aware of how grateful we are to God for all good things…times, like these perhaps.

In his book, The Transforming Power of a Generous Life, author Brad Forsma tells the story about a woman whose life changed in a remarkable way one Thanksgiving Day in 1993. Tracy Autler was a single mother, living in an apartment in a rough neighborhood, she was doing her best to raise a three-year old while preparing for the birth of her second child, at that point, 8 months pregnant. Living off of welfare and food stamps, her Thanksgiving dinner would not be the sumptuous feast many Americans at that time were preparing. Hers was primarily comprised of canned food. Or at least, that is how she expected to “enjoy” her Thanksgiving dinner.

As she was reviewing her options, looking at the canned food on her shelf, Tracy heard a knock at the door. “Who could that be?” she wondered. She wasn’t expecting any company. No friends, no family would be joining her and her three-year old. At the door was a man from a local restaurant, holding what would be a full Thanksgiving meal, given to her by an anonymous donor. Tracy was so surprised; she spent the rest of the day crying. But more than anything she wanted to know who had given such a thoughtful gift.

Years went by and Tracy still hadn’t figured out who had provided this mysterious Thanksgiving meal. After a period of time, Tracy was able to move out of the apartment when she began working as a nurse at a nearby hospital. It was seven years later, while working at the hospital that Tracy finally learned who had provided that amazing Thanksgiving meal. That day, an elderly woman named Margo was admitted to the hospital and it appeared that Margo did not have long to live. Margo had lived in the same apartment building as Tracy all those years back, and three days before the end of her life, she took Tracy’s hands, and whispered, “Happy Thanksgiving.”

As the author Brad Forsma describes: In that moment Tracy knew who had given her that Thanksgiving dinner. She would never have guessed that Margot—her quiet neighbor who herself was dealing with multiple sclerosis—was behind that generous gift. That one gift had a massive impact on Tracy’s life. Moved by the anonymous donor’s generosity, Tracy decided to do generous things for other people too. The very day she got off assistance, she brought a basket of gifts down to the welfare office for anyone to take. Since then, Tracy and her husband have become foster parents and adopted a son. She is always looking for opportunities to give. One year, Tracy and her family made a New Year’s resolution to find one hundred opportunities to give to other people and seeks ways to give without being noticed.
(Brad Formsma, I Like Giving: The Transforming Power of a Generous Life, The Crown Publishing Group.)

In our own country, there are a number of moments in history beyond the most familiar one with the Pilgrims in 1621 when communities have gathered to thank God. In 1789, President George Washington declared a national Day of Thanksgiving to thank God for the birth of a new nation. And our current annual date in late November wasn’t established until Abraham Lincoln’s declaration in 1863, explicitly giving thanks for the Union’s military successes in the Civil War. There are rituals for gratitude within all faith traditions and we know that gratitude is a powerful force in the world, a profoundly dignifying act that builds relationships, communities, and healthy human hearts.

2020 has been a year of great suffering and struggle, sorrow and worry, and yet, all of that reminds us of what is most important in our lives. We are fortunate indeed if we can count among our blessings food on the table, our health, people who love us and so much else. So let us give thanks together to our Loving God who has brought us this far and will continue to journey with us in the days ahead.