Sometime ago I watched the film, "Shenandoah." James Stewart plays Charlie Anderson, a Virginia farmer who becomes embroiled unwillingly in the mayhem of the War Between the States. His family gathers at the dinner table, and Anderson prays,
"Lord, we cleared this land. We ploughed it, sowed it, and harvested. We cooked the harvest. It wouldn't be here, we wouldn't be eating it, if we hadn't done it all ourselves. We worked dog bone-hard for every crumb and morsel, but we thank you just the same, Lord, for this food we are about to eat. Amen."
Thanksgiving and gratitude occupy a peculiar place in our national psyche and spirit.
We feel obliged to say thanks. It's only polite.
We are conditioned to do it. When it's done, we move on.
And we rarely give the act of thanksgiving or the expression of gratitude much thought unless someone's act of generosity prompts us to express it.
Apart from that, the only other times we register our gratitude is at meals and at Thanksgiving.
There's nothing wrong with either one of these rituals. In fact, the daily and annual ritual of thanksgiving is an important means of giving gratitude traction in our lives. We may chaff at the seemingly artificial character of such practices and we might rightly complain that the rest of the year we live as if what we have is "thanks" entirely to our own efforts.
But the problem is not with the rituals. The problem lies in our failure to connect with those rituals. Annual celebrations and prayers said over meals are not an easy means that our culture gives us for dispensing with an obligation. It's not about getting our ticket punched. It's not about giving thanks, just in case God takes us to task for being ingrates.
Rituals of thanksgiving are meant to shape a creative space in which a particular state of mind or way of life can be nurtured. They fence in, mark off, and point beyond themselves to God's generosity and our complete dependence upon it.
Without rituals of that kind we would not become spontaneously, authentically grateful. We would forget to be grateful at all. Charlie Anderson's prayer may be humorous, but it is also a wry, honest window into the place where most of us live.
"We thank you just the same, but I earned the money that paid the bills."
"We thank you just the same, but it's my smarts that got me this life."
"We thank you just the same, but I bought the roof over my head."
By contrast, thanksgiving in the Christian tradition is anything but obligatory or perfunctory - let alone a smokescreen for our own sense of self-sufficiency. Paul told the church in Thessalonica, "Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you." (I Th 5:16)
That kind of thanksgiving is anything but card-punching formality. It is a point of departure, a worldview, a key to our identity, and a way of life. The people I know who live from that place are responsible and hard working, but they are equally sure that what they have is God's gift. They hold what they have lightly. They are quick to acknowledge their gratitude to those around them, and they are unfailingly generous, giving new life to the cycle of giving and gratitude.
Living in that way they help to fashion a world in which giving thanks is not something appended to a life lived on other terms, but shapes the terms on which life is lived. They are a gift to those who know them and their own existence is free of the self-sufficient cynicism that mutters, "We thank you just the same."
Given the difference it could make, this Thanksgiving it might be worth treating the celebration not as a look backward, but as a place to start.