Thanksgiving, 2018

Gratitude is a basic spiritual discipline that is shared by all religions of the world. It is, even beyond religion, recognized as an essential practice of healthy humans. Life coaches, secular therapists, teachers, and a host of others all teach various practices of gratitude. A quick Internet search of the term “gratitude journal” will reveal a host of articles and no small amount of items for sale to support the practice of daily noting things for which one is grateful.

Years ago, when we were working on a series of curricula for teaching spiritual disciplines, gratitude was one of the first disciplines that came up in our discussions and one of the first practices that was explored by a team of writers and practitioners. The resources we produced were not earth-shattering. Our challenge as writers and editors, in fact, was to produce something that was new. There already was so much literature in the field, that virtually anything that one of our writers came up with had been published in some form or another in another document.

We can pretty much assume that nearly everyone will acknowledge at some level that gratitude is important. Republicans and Democrats, liberals and conservatives, Christians and those who claim no religion, practitioners of all of the major world religions, business leaders . . . the list can go on and on and on.

Yet, if you have looked at the newspapers, scanned the Internet or watched television in the last few weeks, you might get the impression that the US holiday called Thanksgiving has more to do with consumption than with expressing gratitude. Beyond the ever-present advertisements that claim purchasing certain foods and products or going to certain restaurants or resorts will enhance the celebration of Thanksgiving, there are constant reminders that Thanksgiving sets off a frenzy of buying in our culture. Black Friday is followed by Cyber Monday and Giving Tuesday. It is almost as if there is an expectation that citizens of our nation empty out their bank accounts and max out their credit cards before the end of the year. Yes, I stuck in Giving Tuesday. I know that the focus of that day is not on consumption. It appears that it is partially on eliminating the guilt that comes with needless spending. You can spend so much on yourself, perhaps you should give a little away. The truth is that Giving Tuesday, while representing a peak in donations, hardly provides for the day to day needs of our communities. People get hungry all year around, not just in the season between Thanksgiving and Christmas. A discipline of giving is quite a bit different than clicking boxes on the computer to make a few $5 donations from your credit card. That, however, is a different story.

It seems that we can all agree that gratitude is an important part of joyful living. We don’t however, have agreement about what it means to live a life of gratitude. This disagreement and discussion has been going on for a long time. Many Christians will recognize this story from the Gospel of Luke:

He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt: “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus, ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.’ But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.”
New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright © 1989 the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

One of the things about having learned Bible stories in Sunday School and having repeated their study over and over for a lifetime is that I approach most familiar stories with a preconceived notion of my role and place in the story. In the parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector, I know that I am the Tax Collector - and if not the Tax Collector, at least I am definitely not the Pharisee.

It might help to know a little bit about the giving practices of the time. A tithe, which is 10% of one’s income, was an expected offering for the institutional support of the temple. It was not supposed to represent all of one’s giving, but rather the portion of each family’s resources that were required for the temple to exist and continue in operation. Over and above the tithe, faithful people were expected to give alms. Alms could be given directly to people in need, such as beggars in the street, or to common funds that supported widows, orphans and immigrants.

it is not the giving, however, upon which Jesus comments, as in the story of the Widow’s mite. What Jesus is commenting on is the attitude of the Pharisee.

I wonder, however, how often our expressions of gratitude are a bit like the prayer of the Pharisee: “God, I thank you that I am not like other people.” I am deeply grateful for my wife and my marriage, but how often to I compare myself to those who have experienced divorce or the death of a spouse? I am deeply grateful for our children and grandchildren, but how often do I compare myself to those who have a child suffering from addiction or another serious disease? We are quick to compare ourselves to others even when we are trying to express our gratitude.

I hope and pray that this Thanksgiving will be an opportunity for all of us to understand that all we have and all we are is a gift, not of our own making, but of the generosity of God.

And if that doesn’t make sense to you, Google Widow’s Mite and you will find ways to purchase rings and earrings created around the theme.

Copyright (c) 2018 by Ted E. Huffman. I wrote this. If you would like to share it, please direct your friends to my web site. If you'd like permission to copy, please send me an email. Thanks!