Gratitude: A Meditation for the Thanksgiving Holiday

Easter is all about Resurrection.  Christmas is about Incarnation, Emmanuel, God dwelling among us.  Epiphany is about the wondrous disclosure of God in our world.  Pentecost chronicles the arrival of the Holy Spirit.  All Saints remembers holy women and men, past and present.  These are the high feasts of the Church.  They are the dates we mark with incense and baptisms.  They are the only dates that have the authority to trump any and all other celebrations that may have the misfortune to coincide with them on the calendar.

How odd it is, then, that a national holiday, whose origins are found in fits and starts, whose place on the church’s calendar is tenuous at best, would be the one and only day that specifically marks the central act of our worship.  The Greek word “Eucharist” means, after all, “Thanksgiving.”  And whatever else the Eucharist is—a memorial that remembers the Last Supper, a morsel of spiritual nourishment that gets us through our week, a foretaste of the heavenly banquet where all are invited—whatever else the Eucharist is, it is mostly the moment where we, on bended knee, say to our Lord and Maker, “Thank you.”

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"Eucharist" means thanksgiving.

“Eucharist” means thanksgiving.

It’s easy to forget gratitude.  We’ve just been through yet another rancorous election cycle, where ordinarily kind and reasonable people hurled epithets at one another through sneers and gritted teeth.  We abide in a world in which dangers lurk, ranging from the religious zealotry of ISIS and Boko Haram to the impersonal devastation of Ebola.  Just when we think we have made progress on issues of race, another young, unarmed black man is killed, this time in Ferguson, Missouri, causing resentments, prejudices, anger, and confusion to well up with destructive consequences.  Just when we think our young people are being formed in virtue, Rolling Stone magazine runs a cover story on sexual assault of the most horrific kind in a fraternity house at one of the nation’s most prestigious universities.  Yes, it’s easy to forget gratitude and lapse into despair.

And yet, our amnesia is our peril.  Recent psychological studies underscore the importance, indeed, the healthful benefits, of gratitude.  Physiologically, there are particular hormones and neurotransmitters connected to feelings of gratitude, which coalesce in the left prefrontal cortex of the brain.   University of Miami professor Michael McCullough says when we count our blessings, it is like resetting our emotional systems and placing them in a virtuous cycle.  By intentionally practicing gratitude, we rewire our brains to be grateful; we literally reshape who we are.  Gratitude begets health, which leads to more gratitude.  And this doesn’t merely make us feel better internally.  It leads to actual, tangible, external benefits in the world.  Over time, people who practice gratitude experience less envy, anger, resentment, and regret, which means that a grateful nation will be, over time, less prone to acts of hatred, violence, and abuse.

Yes, yes, we may respond.  Easier said than done.  How can we remind ourselves to be grateful in the midst of such a broken world?

We began our worship this evening with my favorite Thanksgiving hymn:

We gather together to ask the Lord’s blessing;

He chastens and hastens his will to make known;

The wicked oppressing, now cease from distressing:

Sing praises to his Name; he forgets not his own!

 

The hymn brings to mind images of family members in warm sweaters sitting around a fully-stocked table, candles glowing and cheeks rosy-red.  It is comforting and sentimental.

But it turns out “We gather together” was not penned as an homage to the typical American family reunion at Thanksgiving.  It was written in 1597 by Adrianus Valerius to celebrate the Dutch victory over a larger Spanish force at the Battle of Turnhout in the Netherlands.

After their victory at Turnhout, Dutch Protestants could worship without fear.

After their victory at Turnhout, Dutch Protestants could worship without fear.

This victory was especially meaningful.  Philip II had not only made war against the Dutch.  Under threat of punishment, the Spanish king also had forbidden the Protestant Dutch to gather together for worship.  After their stunning victory at Turnhout the Dutch could finally congregate without fear.  Rather than resembling our cozy Thanksgiving meal, their “gathering together” included the reunion in worship of the destitute, the war weary, and those who had been oppressed.

What did they do first?  Did they turn on one another in the attempt to gain advantage in a bad situation?  Did they rail against God for subjecting them to war?  No.  Their first words were:  “We gather together to ask the Lord’s blessing.  Sing praises to his Name; he forgets not his own!”  The Dutch Christians recognized that only by the grace of God had they endured Spanish rule.  And they took time out from rebuilding their lives to give God praise and thanksgiving.

It is the sentiment of Psalm 65, “When deeds of iniquity overwhelm us, you forgive our transgressions. Happy are those whom you choose and bring near to live in your courts.  We shall be satisfied with the goodness of your house, your holy temple.”

And then, in the midst of trial, the Psalmist recounts all the blessings of God.

Thank youSo it should be for us.  We have so much to be thankful for!

We don’t suffer under the rule of an arbitrary king.

We enjoy liberty and prosperity and the good company of one another.

Crucially, we have the power and agency (and, I would add, the responsibility) to combat those things in this world that imperil God’s children.

And we are able to gather together and make our Eucharist—our thanksgiving—as part of a vibrant and faith-filled Cathedral family at Christ Church, a family who shares one another’s joys and shoulders one another’s burdens.

So let us, even in the midst of troubled times, be grateful.  It is good for the brain, the body, the soul, and the world.  We say to God as we approach God’s altar, “Thank you, thank you, thank you!”

Christ the King?

Bobcat Goldthwait, Robin WilliamsThe actor and comedian Robin Williams was funny, frenetic, quirky, and sometimes brilliant.  His death earlier this year led to an outpouring of love and admiration.  Televised tributes aired.  NPR reported that on Halloween there was a run on dusty, old Mork & Mindy costumes.  Among Episcopalians, we reminded ourselves that Robin Williams was one of us, and on Facebook we began circulating Williams’ list of the top ten reasons to be Episcopalian.  Here they are, for those who’ve not previously seen or heard them:

  1. No snake handling.
  2. You can believe in dinosaurs.
  3. Male and female God created them; male and female we ordain them.
  4. You don’t have to check your brains at the door.
  5. Pew aerobics.
  6. The church year is color-coded.
  7. Free wine on Sunday.
  8. All of the pageantry; none of the guilt.
  9. You don’t have to know how to swim to get baptized.

And the Number One reason to be an Episcopalian:

  1. No matter what you believe, there’s bound to be at least one other Episcopalian who agrees with you.

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Today is Christ the King Sunday, the final Sunday of the church year.  After Christmas, after Epiphany, after the penitence of Lent and the joy of Easter, after the topsy-turvy arrival of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost, and at the end of the long season we call ordinary time, we pause on this day to declare that Jesus Christ is sovereign, that he rules the heavens and the earth, and that Jesus the Son of God is the lord of us, his people.

For us, monarchs are fodder for People Magazine.  They are about glitz and glamour, not sovereignty.

For us, monarchs are fodder for People Magazine. They are about glitz and glamour, not sovereignty.

We Episcopalians are a people of good humor, and in a world often devoid of humor, that’s an important thing.  But on Christ the King Sunday, before we enter Advent and begin the whole church cycle all over again, we are compelled to dive deeper than lighthearted jokes about free wine on Sunday.  We are compelled to ask ourselves on this day about the claims Holy Scripture makes regarding Jesus, about the content of our prayers and our liturgy.  We’re compelled to ask: Do we believe all this stuff?  Is Christ the king?

These are difficult questions for us, because to us the very concept of kingship is distant and strange.  For us, at best, monarchs are like Prince William and Princess Kate in England.  They are fodder for People Magazine.  They are about glitz, glamour, and high society, not sovereignty over peoples and nations.

Our embraced understanding of governance is, in fact, diametrically opposed to the notion of kingship.  Kings, classically understood, inherit their power by right of birth.  They receive their authority from on high.  Their decisions are unassailable and unquestionable.  And all of this makes us laugh.  Those who govern, we claim, only do so by the consent of the governed.  No one, least of all our national leaders, is beyond question.  And if we disagree with those who rule, we remove them.  It isn’t really that we’ve given up the notion of kingship.  Rather, it’s that each man and woman is his own king.  We are, each of us, autonomous beings.  I rule myself.  Don’t tread on me.

Those who govern, we claim, only do so by the consent of the governed.

Those who govern, we claim, only do so by the consent of the governed.

What, then, do we mean when we say Christ is king?  Is it a vacuous claim, the backdrop for eloquent prayers and soaring anthems but little else?  Again I ask, do we believe it?

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Robin Williams’ death hit me harder than I’d have expected.  Reflecting upon it, I recalled that Williams made a series of exceptional movies in the late 1980s and 1990s that influenced my outlook on the world.  The first and most prominent in my own formation was Good Morning Vietnam, which tempered my youthful exuberance for war.  There were also Dead Poets Society and Good Will Hunting.  And in 1991, Robin Williams made a movie called The Fisher King.

It is the story of a radio shock jock named Jack (played by Jeff Bridges), a king unto himself who lives for glitz and glamour and who, through his careless use of frenzy-whipping, on-air rhetoric, causes the death of several people.  Years later  a down-and-out Jack befriends Robin Williams’ character, Parry, someone in the throes of mental illness who believes himself to be on the quest for the Holy Grail.  One night, lying on the grass in a park and looking up at the stars, Parry asks Jack, “Have you ever heard the story of the Fisher King?”  And then Parry tells this story:

Fisher King

“You shall be keeper of the grail so that it may heal the hearts of men.”

“It begins with the king as a boy, having to spend the night lone in the forest to prove his courage so he can become king.  Now while he is spending the night alone he’s visited by a sacred vision.  Out of the fire appears the Holy Grail, symbol of God’s divine grace.  And a voice said to the boy, ‘You shall be keeper of the grail so that it may heal the hearts of men.’

But the boy was blinded by greater visions of a life filled with power and glory and beauty.  And in this state of radical amazement he felt for a brief moment not like a boy, but invincible, like God, so he reached into the fire to take the grail, and the grail vanished, leaving him with his hand in the fire to be terribly wounded.

Now as this boy grew older, his wound grew deeper.  Until one day, life for him lost its reason. He had no faith in any man, not even himself.  He couldn’t love or feel loved. He was sick with experience.  He began to die.

One day a fool wandered into the castle and found the king alone.  And being a fool, he was simple minded; he didn’t see a king.  He only saw a man alone and in pain.  And he asked the king, ‘What ails you, friend?’  The king replied, ‘I’m thirsty.  I need some water to cool my throat.’

So the fool took a cup from beside his bed, filled it with water and handed it to the king.  As the king began to drink, he realized his wound was healed. He looked in his hands and there was the Holy Grail, that which he’d sought all of his life.  And he turned to the fool and said with amazement, ‘How can you find that which my brightest and bravest could not?’

And the fool replied, ‘I don’t know.  I only knew that you were thirsty.’”

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Christ the King iconThe wounds of this world run deep.  You and I know it.  We experience it.  We strive and strive in this life, blindly seeking those things of power, and glory, and beauty.  We want to feel invincible.  But the more we strive, the more commonly there are days when we have no faith in anyone, not even ourselves; days in which we don’t love or feel loved; when we become sick with experience; when we feel our souls begin to die.

And never, ever forget that there are others who share all our deepest wounds and who also lack shelter, and medical care, and legal assistance, and food.  They exist—literally—right outside these walls.  We walk by them, and sometimes step over them, every day.

It’s not right.  It’s not fair.  It’s unbearable, and it can easily lead to despair.  Hearkening back to some ancient need, we find ourselves saying, “If only there were one who could change things, who could save us and this world.  If only there were, well, a king.”

Do we believe what we claim to be true?  We either believe it, or we are play-acting, and play-acting doesn’t seem to me a very good use of a Sunday morning.  Jesus the Christ is either king, or he isn’t.  And Jesus wants to upend our notions of kingship, both the ancient notion where the king rules us with power and our modern notion in which we rule ourselves.

“I will tell you the secret of this king: The cup—any cup—becomes the Holy Grail whenever it is used to give drink to the thirsty.”

Jesus reigns, but not with worldly power.  He is not the potentate, or the politician, or the mogul.  Instead of wielding power, Jesus seeks to serve.  Instead of sitting atop a throne, he comes down into the depths of our lives.  He is the king who will go to any length to save us, to assuage the pain of the world, including playing the fool.

Like the fool in the story of the Fisher King, Jesus is the one who enters his domain bearing the cup of God’s divine grace.  Jesus comes and asks of us, “What ails you, friend?” and slakes the thirst of those who are physically and spiritually thirsty.  He comes to heal the hearts of men.

And as his subjects, we are called to do the same.  If we are Christian people, if we actually believe what we say about Jesus, then Jesus has sovereignty over us.  And difficult as it is for us as Americans to accept and embrace, his claim on our fealty is absolute.  We are his subjects, called to humble ourselves before him and set our life’s path on the march with the king.  We, too, are told to give up our worldly striving for power and glory and beauty–to pull our hands from that fire–in favor of feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, embracing those who have not known love, and pursuing God’s justice in the world.

I will tell you the secret of this king, the truth revealed in today’s Gospel: The cup—any cup—becomes the Holy Grail whenever it is used to give drink to the thirsty.  Christ becomes the king in our lives when we say, finally and for all, that we believe him to be so.  And we become his subjects when we stake this claim, when we kneel before the king and lord, when we lay our hearts before him and discover that our deepest wounds are healed.