Holding Gratitude with a Breaking Heart

Those of us who sit at tables laden with food in the company of friends and family are quick to count our blessings and give thanks for all we have.  It’s a good thing and perhaps we should do it more often.  Others who sit at tables with barely enough food or who are alone or lonely also may be quick to count their blessings. 

Counting blessings isn’t about what we can touch with our hands or what we can see with our eyes.  If that were true we would have to assume that the blessing train left without a majority of the world’s population.  It is difficult to claim blessing when most of the world doesn’t have the basic things needed to survive. Thinking that we are objects of God’s favor can only lead to the conclusion that those who do not have enough are on God’s not-so-favored list. 

What we have is not completely of our own doing.  What others lack is not completely of their own doing.  There are some variables that rig the system.  Most people who are born in poverty live in poverty for the rest of their lives.  There is the occasional story about persons who “pulled themselves up by their bootstraps” and broke the cycle, but they in no way offset the number of people who live in poverty from generation to generation.

Most of us are quick to judge the poor as lazy, unmotivated, unwilling to do menial labor and somehow undeserving the advantages that many so easily take for granted.  In our society of rugged individualism, we see ourselves as “self-made.”  We have worked hard, gone into debt for our education and climbed our way to whatever socio-economic stature we have at the moment.  However, those of us who enjoy a comfortable standard of living have depended on others along the way.  There are parents, teachers, mentors, friends, employers who “gave us our first break” and others who have smoothed the immediate path ahead of us and encouraged us to move forward. This is not true for everyone, and without those “breaks” it is almost impossible for one to survive in this country. There is no place in the United States where someone can work a full time job at minimum wage and make ends meet. 

We have created a permanent underclass of people, and our economy depends on people working menial jobs for substandard pay.  All the while CEO’s make millions in a free market capitalist (read predatory) economy. 

This has been true from the beginning of the colonizing period in what is now the United States.  We have a revisionist view of history where the Indians and the Pilgrims sat down together and shared a bountiful “thanksgiving” feast.  The first mention of any kind of thanksgiving was in 1627 as the colonists celebrated the brutal massacre of the Pequots.  The Thanksgiving Holiday we know today was instituted by Abraham Lincoln in 1863 as an effort to unite a country torn by civil war, a war fought over the predatory economy predicated on the slave trade.

It’s hard to look honestly at what is true about our history and our lives while holding onto a traditional Thanksgiving holiday. Discomfort is a good thing. Realizing that most of the country and most of the world do not live as we do is a beginning. A stance of true gratitude acknowledges the abundance and steadfastness of the Divine and asks that we live in faithful response.  Such a stance is the root of generosity and compassion.  Discomfort and gratitude are the burr under the saddle of our complacency, for God’s abundance is not just for us but for all people.

It means that our gratitude for what is true in our lives is held with a breaking heart for what is true in the lives of others. As people of faith (such as we have and such as we hope for) we are called to bear witness to the relentless generosity and abundance of the God we say we believe in.  We do so by our own acts of generosity, compassion and kindness.  We do so by gathering with honest gratitude, the kind that realizes that our lives are not of our own doing; we are part of a whole that needs us and our action to make God’s abundance known in tangible ways to those in need.

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