Jews, who have taken the time to ascribe prayers for most everything that’s important, have a traditional prayer that’s said each morning upon arising from sleep:
I am thankful before You, living and enduring King, for you have mercifully restored my soul within me. Great is Your faithfulness. (Modeh Ani)
It’s a beautiful prayer—the kind of thing I should say, even the kind of thing I aspire to say. It’s not what I actually say. My prayer is generally something like this: “Oh God. The kids are up.” The phrasing is ambivalent on paper. It might be read as an exclamation of anticipation for the start of another day. Or, it could be a grumble that my soul has awoken my body from its death-like sleep.
Is the Mr. Coffee gurgling yet?
There’s a list of things that must be done before the day can be started. The coffee beans must be ground to a fine dust, but that will leave a black residue on my hands that’s reminiscent of soil. The mound will have to make its way into the hot water bath. On second thought, I’ll shove a K-Cup into the machine and pop the lid down. I throw the plastic cup into the trash, which will make its way to a landfill. Slices of ham are rolled into cylinders and put in Tupperware along with crackers and fruit. A bag of muffins is mindlessly eaten to the tune of a morning cartoon. Kids are pinned down like alligators and wrestled into clothes. No, that shoe is on the wrong foot. Switch them. The youngest’s diaper leaks. We forgot to change him. Do I need to carry you down the stairs or are you going to walk?
We’re on our way.
Turns out that ingratitude is easy—just don’t pay attention. I’ve already paraded by a whole slew of blessings while marching toward work. We are pompous beings. Every morning is made easier, if not possible, by countless hands from all over the globe. Martin Luther King Jr. put it this way: “before you finish eating breakfast in the morning, you've depended on more than half the world. This is the way our universe is structured. It is its interrelated quality.” We’re not self-made people, not a one of us. Nothing merely appears with the swipe of a card or a push of the button. What we have comes from others, and more often, at their expense.
Gratitude, on the other hand, takes time and it’s time that we apparently don’t have. The coffee beans were selected, picked, and roasted by someone. The bag said Ethiopia. The baby’s hand wrapped around my finger while I was giving him the bottle, which was less important than finishing that article for sermon preparation. The ham roll-ups were once a living animal, but who can make that connection after all the processing and packaging? It’s hard to believe that the sweater she’s wearing was once cotton, growing in a field somewhere.
We are ‘lucky’ enough not to realize this. What’s worse is this: even if we did realize the interrelated nature of our reality, we can’t thank the actual people and animals who gave their lives for our convenience. The best we can do is give thanks for abstract generalities like ‘pig’ or ‘farmer’ or ‘textile manufacturer.’ Who can afford to know the name of the chicken that’s been raised and slaughtered? The kinds of ‘woke’ people who can afford a house in West Asheville or Montford, that’s who. Since when is it a privilege to want to treat the world better?
Thanksgiving, in our country, must often begin with confession.
We’d like to think that we’re grateful people. After all, we set aside a full day on the calendar to gather around a table with a few family members that we can stomach once a year—like cranberry sauce that comes out of a can. We slow down. Someone asks, ‘what are you thankful for?” And we all squirm to think of something admirable while the food gets cold. Our eyes are drawn to our plates—there’s turkey and stuffing. There’s sweet potato casserole. Pumpkin pie. We give thanks for the hands that labored all morning. There are family and friends gathered with us. Life is good. We are blessed.
Is that all we’ve got?
Thanksgiving Day is as much a Hallmark-washed facade as the idyllic story about English colonists who shared a meal with Native Americans in perfect harmony. It’s just as much about overindulgence, consumption, and ignorance as Black Friday. Maybe that’s too pessimistic. Surely we can be grateful for more than gluttony. Slow down, listen for the gift, see the sacrifice, and taste the offering. You are not just a consumer. Our relationships are not transactions.
German pietist and philosophical traditions have a phrase that captures this sentiment: “denken ist danken,“ which means “to think is to thank.” In other words, no thinking, then no thanking. The two are inseparable. A proper disposition toward the world is determined by a posture of thankfulness. It’s gratitude that reminds us who we really are—creatures of the dirt, bound together with soil and flesh for better and worse.
The reverse is also true. Thanking is predicated on the hard work of thinking, paying attention, and noticing. Look deeply into your plate and become cognizant enough to see the turkey that gave its life. For the farmers that grew and picked the potatoes. The interrelated quality of our lives together. Confess your hurried, mindless way of life and gratitude will become the catalyst toward a more merciful and just way of life.
It’s a start. How can we become better thinkers?
I think that the Christian practice of Eucharist, which is Greek for thanksgiving, is one of our teachers. After all, the first thanksgiving was two thousand years ago when Jesus and his disciples gathered around a table and Christ gave his body and blood to all who were gathered. We’re called to be grateful.
Here, God’s goodness is re-presented, smelled, and tasted. ‘Lift up your hearts with joy,’ we say. We confess our mindless eating—the degradation of soil and lives. ‘We have not love you with our whole heart…we have not heard the cry of the needy.’ We receive the meal side-by-side with friends, stranger, enemies. Boundaries are erased. The bread and the wine are a reconciliation back into a common life together, where everyone is interrelated and no one is estranged. Finally, we get up and leave the table pledging to offer our bodies to one another—just as the body had been offered to us.
It's a transformation of the mind.
The simple practice of noticing and saying thank you is not natural, but if it’s something we can muster up weekly, or even more often, then it might spread to all of our tables—the breakfast nooks, sandwich shop counters, and dinner tables. And who knows what might happen next.
Thanksgiving might even become the beginning and the end of our lives together— so much so that there’s no thinking without thanking.