As an American expat married to an Englishman, I’ll be honest, I usually forget Thanksgiving. I accidentally scheduled my wedding for Thanksgiving weekend (it only occurred to me after I’d asked everybody when they were free to travel and scheduled accordingly). I pretended afterward that I did it on purpose, but . . . really that was the last big celebration I organized for the day. I have a couple other expat friends who tend to remember and invite me to their celebrations, so I’ve eaten stuffing and pumpkin-themed foods most years, but all in all it’s a holiday I haven’t even missed that much.
Unfortunately, the discipline or virtue for which the holiday is named has suffered a similar fate in my life. I just forget to give thanks. I forget gratitude and I don’t even notice it’s missing.
It’s easy to let myself off the hook. I’m a church planter in East London, working in the hard ground of post-Christendom and trying to serve the even harder people group that we call ‘alternatives’ as shorthand: punks, goths, anarchists, hippies, ravers, metal-heads and artists. They don’t want to be served. They don’t believe that Jesus cares one bit about them and don’t want to hear me tell them otherwise.
They’re suspicious of the ‘institutional’ religion they think I serve and, quite frankly, they’d just rather not talk. My husband and I are the only members of our team (well, us, a kitten, and our two-year-old son), and we feel lonely and stupid and pointless a lot of the time. Our rent is too high (the whole area is reeling under the onslaught of gentrification), our walls are infested with damp (which my husband is allergic to), and we’re just too tired to do half the things we’d like to do to make our project work. What is there in all that to be thankful for?
But, as the Spirit has recently been whispering in my ear, that’s just the point.
Gratitude isn’t the happy froth on the top of a perfect, bubbly life. Gratitude is the hard discipline of choosing to see good in the face of evil, training our eyes to perceive God at work when it looks like the enemy has won the day.
Gratitude is the virtue that makes room for the Spirit to renovate and revolutionize ourselves and our world.
Recently we took our son with us to the annual London Anarchist Book Fair, an event we look forward to every year because of the real and honest conversations we get to have over black-and-red coloured stalls covered in rude images and slogans staffed by passionate volunteers.
The book fair is surprisingly welcoming to children, all things considered. It would be easy for many of the pictures to feel scary or threatening to small people (I would think), because that’s exactly what they’re designed to do. But my two-year-old didn’t bat an eyelash at any of that. He was excited about ‘badges’. Do you remember pinning little buttons to your backpack at school? When I was a kid in the 90s they were mostly smiley faces (I think). Anyway – they’re back, at least in anarchist circles, and almost every stall had a little round button for him to pin onto his top (some of the vendors gave them to him for free, just because he was so excited about them). By the time we left he was covered! He didn’t remember a single other thing about the event – just those funny badges.
It has occurred to me that gratitude is a lot like that. My son saw these little things and was excited about them, when he could just as easily have seen the visually overwhelming and aggressive sights everywhere else and felt frightened or angry or sad. It’s not that they weren’t there. But he felt safe because he was with us – just as we are always with our Father – and the badges were exciting. I think in a lot of ways that’s the discipline: learning to see the small joys in the midst of all the scary and aggressive world around us, like a child who is safe to play because he or she is with mom and dad. Gratitude is small. Like a mustard seed. Like the Kingdom of God.
So here’s my current attempt: I’m grateful for my silly kitten, who loves my husband so much that she lies in his arms like a baby and purrs and who, by the sheer power of her presence, finally ended the plague of mice that has been driving me mad for nearly two years. I’m grateful for the fantastic baby Doc Martins that a friend found in a charity shop and gave me for my son – just in time for cold weather! I’m grateful that my roof keeps out the rain and that my washing machine works and that we have enough blankets to cuddle under when we can’t afford to turn on the heating.
It’s funny, but once I start with these little things, the bigger things show up too.
I’m grateful for my son, and the happy way he plays with his trains and the sweet ‘nuggles’ he gives me and, really, just that he’s alive and safe and with us, when so many children his age can’t say the same right now. I’m grateful for my beautiful husband and his funny English-isms and the way he makes room for me and my funny American-isms and that, at the end of the day, my best friend is sitting next to me watching X-men. I’m grateful that I get to spend my time doing something that I believe in, that matters, that is part of God’s unstoppable mission to rescue the world.
When I remember those things, the damp and the cold and the infinite pile of laundry and the tight budget and the long months without much to show for our work stop looking like giant monsters about to swallow me whole. They’re not great, they’re still hard, but they’re also not the whole story. They never were, it’s just that they’re really good at taking center stage and using that position to slowly rob me of my joy and my will to keep walking in Jesus’ footsteps.
It’s gratitude – that silly, simple, Pollyanna virtue – that knocks the scary things back into their place and makes room for me to see Jesus again. It feels foolish to give thanks in the face of great darkness, but that is exactly where thanksgiving is most needed.
The point isn’t to find one good thing to focus on so you can forget all the bad. That’s false gratitude and it’s what a lot of us associate with the word and it’s not only pointless, but often damaging. Of course the bad things are bad. Lament them, get angry about them, cry out to God over them. Please.
The point is to make room for yourself to hope, to feel something other than sorrow and anger and despair so that you don’t go numb and stop being able to feel those things when you should. Gratitude and the discipline of giving thanks create space for you to hope and to imagine something other than the darkness around you – and with hope, you can start to step into the great darkness expecting Jesus to change it and to use you in the process. Hope leads to faith and faith works itself out in love . . . but I’m learning that the very first step in that daily walk is thanksgiving.
So this Thanksgiving, give thanks not out of obligation or because it’s a tradition or as if everything is great in the world. It isn’t.
Innocent people are dying, children are starving and our neighbours, both the world over and next door, are feeling threatened and disenfranchised and unloved.
Instead, join me in giving thanks as a way to defy the darkness; to push back the bad by remembering the good and training our eyes to see that Jesus is not just coming back, but is here with us now in the darkness beside us.
Give thanks because the darkness is not the end of the story. God’s revolution of redemption is all around us, working in tiny, mustard-seed-in-the-ground, nearly-invisible ways that gratitude teaches us to see. Give thanks with me to push back the deafening narrative of our broken world and make space to work for the Kingdom that is coming.