My sister lives in Phoenix and my closest cousin lives in DC and now all our parents have died and we keep up but not as well as we did when the members of the “Greatest Generation” were the hubs of the family wheels. So ten days ago the three of us met in Washington which was still in that glorious unusually late, drenched in color fall that we have had around here. Our cousin, also Martha – believe it or not – ‘Martha Stewart’ but not that Martha Stewart - is a lawyer with the Department of Energy department – and she works right down near the mall and so her commute takes her every day by the bedrock edifices of our land. After thirty years there she is still moved. . .
For some reason on this trip to Washington more than any other in my life I wanted to see and touch and experience our national memories, our institutions, our ideals, our heart as a nation. Perhaps my yearning to claim my American family identity surfaced this year because the care-keeping of my personal family identity is in a transition from one generation to the next and I am trying to understand how what we value gets passed down.
And so I walked and walked on the mall of our common national life past the art and natural history repositories and of course the crazy Smithsonian Castle and her offspring. And I went to the Capitol and there in the House was our Congressman John Lewis giving a good speech thanking God for a little girl named Ruby who integrated the New Orleans school system literally all by herself – all the white parents kept their children home and the teachers refused to teach her – so Ruby for one whole year sat by herself in a classroom with one brave teacher and a marshal. I thought, my word, that’s a tough but beautiful American thanksgiving story – a little child can lead us
And I went to the Supreme Court which wasn’t sitting that day, but the docent was an older Asian American man – still the hint of the accent - who was so dignified yet excited and knowledgeable and at the end he said if we heard dribbling noises on the ceiling it’s because there is a basketball court above the chambers for the use of mostly the clerks and the cops. He said “the judges never get to play for they sit on the bench.” And then he giggled. And I was so thankful for him and his love of justice for all – once an alien sojourner to the promised land and now a full-fledged American volunteer.
And I walked and walked in this searching for our nation’s heart to the other end of the mall and passed by the spectacular Washington Monument grounded on the earth and gleaming in the sunlight – impossibly high and pure always pointing us beyond ourselves. And I walked toward all the heart-rending war memorials, toward Lincoln sitting in his magnificent, solitary splendor who seems to me to be searching for our better angels and to be just saying to us from Gettysburg or any battlefield in Afghanistan or Iraq:
It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us -- that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion -- that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain -- that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom -- and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.
And as I walked in the grass toward him I heard a deep thrumming low in the skies and just over the tree tops three massive deep green helicopters thrummed swift over heard – written on their bellies The United States of America and a young man with his wife and child turned to me and said it’s the Marines bringing our president home from Asia – and it was – soon one sunk straight down like a stone to the lawn of the White House while the other two peeled off, their guard and decoy duty done. And I thought about our presidents – all of them – surely that is the loneliest, most difficult job in the world. And I thanked God for them all – not kings, not despots, but elected leaders by we the people - passing on the best they can by their lights – passing on this nation, this fractious national family - that has been handed to them in war and peace, in plenty and in want, one nation under God.
You know who started Thanksgiving as a national holiday? George Washington. We went to his beautiful house out there on the Potomac . (And back when he was alive a lot of other people found their way there too – the docent said they had over 600 people a year as house guests – whew!). And it was such an orderly beautiful farm. You know he designed for his dining room walls and ceiling cunning plaster little emblems of farm tools and tobacco plants and fruit trees. He loved the land. Literally. A citizen soldier, but first and last a farmer.
He wasn’t a formally well-educated man . His father died young and there wasn’t enough money. But he taught himself by reading and by always being around the wisest people he could find and even as a young teen he came up with a book of rules called Rules of Civility and Decent Behavior In Company and Conversation. And some of it is about table manners and such which is fabulous reading. But even more some of it is about ordering his thoughts and his actions and his life.
Much like Paul’s letter to the Philippians -Washington was teaching himself to think about these things, be about these things, spend his time with people who are about these things – whatever is true and honorable, just and pure , whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, whatever has excellencies worthy of praise. Think about these things and keep on doing them.
And what I want to suggest is that – in days of bitter words and national rancor – that we remember the DNA of our country. To be civil and decent is part of who we are. To be thankful is at the heart at the heart of our national character and I challenge each of us in our own way to live into thankfulness – that would help our country so.. To speak about all that is good in our lives and to act out of that goodness – to remember who we come from – a nation of immigrants who came here for a chance at a better life – and so as Washington says, may we have grateful hearts (for) the many and signal favors of Almighty God, especially by affording us an opportunity peaceably to establish a form of government for our safety and happiness:"
A lot has changed since 1789. But a lot hasn’t. As the young Washington wrote, it’s still best not to gossip or talk with your mouth full or be obstinate or doleful or talk too long and ’tediously.” And even more than the ‘don’ts’, are the ‘do’s’. And the most powerful antidote to all that is wrong in the world or wrong in our hearts – the most powerful and holy action of all is something we can discipline ourselves to do and be every day. And that is to be thankful. To have and show gratitude. Thanksgiving. Grateful hearts could go a long way toward fixing what ails us.