Healing, service, kindness

Moderated by Tom Sabulis

An especially contentious political cycle and the racial volatility surrounding the Ferguson, Mo., shooting death of Michael Brown have cast our national day of Thanksgiving in a different light this year. Today, we hear from three spiritual leaders who write about the renewing, forgiving qualities of faith and gratitude. We share too many values and traditions to remain so divided. What if the holiday season’s strived-for harmony could last throughout the year?

Well-needed time for healing

By Joanna M. Adams

Thanksgiving came in the nick of time this year. After an especially acrimonious political season, it was time for some comfort food. Please pass the cornbread dressing and giblet gravy, and let the only disagreement around the table be about whether or not oysters would have made the dressing tastier. (My answer? No.)

Did we evermore need an occasion where we set aside our differences and come together as family, neighbors and communities of people who are not necessarily alike, but who really do, deep down, wish each other well?

Thanksgiving is about the celebration of community. Church basements and large civic gathering places bring people together across lines of race and class. The aroma of turkey roasting fills the air as people who might otherwise be wary of one another enjoy the bounty of God’s goodness together.

At Thanksgiving, we celebrate the tattered-but-still-holding-together fabric of the United States of America.

A feast calls for fellowship. I think of those hardy Pilgrims who landed in Cape Cod in 1621 and what a daunting time they had. Half of them died from disease that first year, and all of them would have died, had it not been for the kindness of the Native Americans who taught them how to farm in strange soil.

Astonishingly, the harvest turned out well — crops in abundance, in addition to “a great store of wild turkeys,” according to William Bradford, governor of Plymouth Colony. Against a backdrop of need and uncertainty — and instead of saying, “We’ll save what we’ve harvested for next year” – the Pilgrims produced a feast and invited their friends who had helped them to come and be filled.

This was the precursor of our national Thanksgiving holiday, which was officially declared in 1863 by President Abraham Lincoln during a time of division and war. Just the summer before, the bloody battle of Gettysburg had taken place. What did Lincoln do in such a situation? He listed America’s continued blessings and called upon all to repent and cease disobedience to the God of peace.

In the face of our growing disunity today, let us go deeper and reclaim the values and traditions that hold us together as a people. Let us pray for God’s guiding hand as we move toward an uncertain tomorrow. Let us remember that we are one nation under God, whose bounties, as Lincoln declared, are all around us.

The story is told of a man who was eating in a crowded restaurant. The empty seat at his table was the only one in the whole place. A waiter asked if he would mind having someone join him at his table. The man said no, and a stranger came over. The two of them sat silently until their food arrived. When it did, the fellow who had been there originally bowed his head to say a silent blessing. The other man asked him, “Excuse me, but do you have a headache?”

The man answered, “No, I like to thank God before I eat.”

“Oh, you are one of those,” said the other man. “Me? I never give thanks. I earn what I get by my smarts and the sweat of my brow. I don’t say thank you to anybody. I just start right in.”

“You are just like my dog,” the first man said. “He does exactly the same thing when food is placed before him.”

Gratitude keeps us human. Gratitude for one another. Gratitude to God. We have so much to be thankful for.

Joanna M. Adams, a Presbyterian minister, writes for the Higher Ground Group, www.highergroundgroup.org.

Service: True way to give thanks

By Raphael G. Warnock

This is Thanksgiving Day. And as much joy as the day itself may bring, as we are blessed to gather near to those who love and care about us most, the big payoff actually comes when we elevate thanksgiving from an annual day to a daily practice and discipline.

Gratitude is the highest of virtues and a daily choice that ennobles the grateful person, ushering him or her beyond the dark and dreary cave of obsessive self-interest and anxiety about one’s own future into the bright sunlight of altruism and magnanimity in service to a future large enough for us all. When we embrace thanksgiving as a way of life, we are happier, and the world is made better.

The truth is, the people most of us admire — those who have done the most to change the world for the better — honed their craft of transformation as practitioners of a deep and abiding gratitude for life, its interconnectedness and its great possibilities.

The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. said, “We are tied in a single garment of destiny.” As he took flight in an historic campaign of justice-making in America, the frequent flyer often expressed his profound gratitude for the unsung heroes whom he sometimes referred to as “the ground crew.”

Another Nobel laureate, Malala Yousafzai, the Pakistani school girl and activist for girls’ education, commented after nearly losing her life to a vicious attack by the Taliban, “It didn’t matter to me if my face was not symmetrical. … It doesn’t matter if I can’t smile or blink properly. … The important thing is, God has given me my life.” So young, yet mindful and grateful, Malala has found her purpose.

Perhaps that is why all the great religious traditions counsel the cultivation of gratitude as an essential mark of wisdom and maturity.

In Judaism, gratitude springs from the collective memory of a people who escaped Egyptian slavery and oppression. Jews are commanded to extend kindness and generosity toward those most marginalized — namely, resident aliens, orphans and widows — with the recurring phrase, “Remember that you were a slave in Egypt.”

The Jesus of the Gospels summarizes this basic view by identifying love of God and love of neighbor, that is deep reverential appreciation, as the basis for good ethics. And Muhammad teaches that “gratitude for the abundance you have received is the best insurance that the abundance will continue.”

Yet, one need not be religious to be grateful, and one need not be an extraordinary person like Martin or Malala to serve. We can all serve. And that is the way to “thanks giving.” For the true measure of our gratitude is service. Our deeds, much more than our creeds, demonstrate a mature recognition that we all enjoy the fruits of others’ labor – the living and the dead – and we are obliged to plant gardens large enough and cultivate soil rich enough to pass our abundance on to others and to those yet unborn.

The Rev. Raphael G. Warnock is senior pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church and author of “The Divided Mind of the Black Church” (NYU Press, 2014).

The elegance of kindness

By Alvin Sugarman

I really don’t wish to appear greedy. Be that as it may, I wish for myself and you that every day would be Thanksgiving Day. Before I say anything else, however, I must offer a disclaimer.

I know that some of you reading these words are undergoing great suffering, perhaps from the loss or difficulties of a loved one, from your own physical or emotional pain, or from limitations that set you apart from the majority.

How hard, if not impossible, it must be for you to give thanks for your circumstances. As another human being, I can only say there is much in life beyond our understanding, but please know my heart goes out to you.

It is the human heart that I would like to focus upon during this season of Thanksgiving, for I believe that the capacity to appreciate and give thanks is what makes our hearts fully human.

If we fail to make the effort to give thanks on a daily basis, not just once a year, we have diminished the humanity of our hearts.

I am a rabbi who treasures God’s presence in my life beyond my ability to fully articulate. But next to my awareness of the divine as the foundation of my existence, I would place gratitude.

I believe if we can establish gratitude as one of the building blocks of our lives, then gratitude can lead us toward the manner of life that would bring a smile to the very countenance of God.

Hopefully, when we begin to count and be grateful for our blessings, we realize how so many others are less fortunate than we are. By doing so, we increase our compassion for our fellow human beings.

Surely as we develop more compassion, we bring increased joy to our Creator.

Furthermore, when we are grateful, we are more likely to be kind to others. The kindness we show to others not only enriches their lives, but ours as well.

What a wonderful expression Paul Williams gave to us all in writing about the late, great puppeteer, Jim Henson. Williams described Henson as possessing “the elegance of kindness.”

There is a magnificent legend in the Jewish faith that speaks of God looking down upon creation and seeing us humans and the myriad of ways that we have come to describe Him.

How bitterly we can sometimes argue and even destroy those whom we feel do not possess the true understanding of the divine.

In this legend, God says, “If only my children would stop worrying about who or what I am, and simply learn to be kind to one another.”

“….and simply learn to be kind to one another.” Oh, what a different and better world ours could be if each of us could contribute, even just a tiny bit, to the elegance of kindness that God would desire for us all.

During the Thanksgiving season, and every day, may we give thanks and show compassion and kindness to others.

In doing so, your presence will be a blessing to all you touch and to our Creator.

Alvin Sugarman is rabbi emeritus of The Temple in Atlanta.

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