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Out in rural Nebraska in 1980 I conducted my first Thanksgiving Eve worship service as a pastor.
It was not a good week. Lucille had died the previous afternoon. I was at the hospital with her husband, her sisters and her children when cancer claimed her life. Some little while before she died she had whispered the sursum corda: “Lift up your hearts.”
Lucille was one of those folks in that century-old congregation who had kept things going over the years. She was a beloved figure. I had gotten to know her well in the four short months I had been there. Her death washed over the church and the community like acid rain.
It was one of those weeks pastors dread. There was a wedding rehearsal that evening, a sermon to write for Thanksgiving Day, one for the wedding that Saturday night, a sermon for Sunday and now, tucked in between all that, Lucille’s funeral, Saturday afternoon. I decided to write them in order: Thanksgiving first, then wedding, then funeral and, finally, Sunday. I got stuck at Thanksgiving.
Thanks? Thanks for what? Every Thanksgiving since 1980—like clockwork—I tumble back to that week 35 years ago. The question nags me like a hangnail. Thanks for what?
Having reached this point, someone, I know, is thinking: He should stop and count his blessings. Perhaps I should. Certainly there are blessings to count. Family, children, and I am especially grateful for living in a 50-something-year-old house conveniently located near many fine hardware and home supply establishments.
On the whole, though, I tend to think of blessings in terms of Newtonian mechanics—for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. You know: “Every cloud has its silver lining,” which, being translated, means, “For every silver lining, there’s a cloud.”
Is that how we do it? Compile two lists, bane and blessing, tote them up and check the balance? We can always stretch a blessing or two and justify their place in the plus column if we’re really determined to have thankful hearts.
Yet what of those for whom no true blessing ever comes, doomed to a poverty so deep the thought of thanksgiving becomes a cruelty? This is not an altogether happy world, and we are not a universally pleasant people. If we give thanks for our abundance, does it somehow diminish another’s suffering? “I’m glad; you’re sad; too bad.”
If there is reason to give thanks in the midst of all our troubles, and everyone else’s as well, then it must be for a reason that is located in places where we never think to look.
Thirty-five years ago when I sat down, finally, in those few hours before the Thanksgiving service, I was thinking mostly of Lucille and very little else. What came to me finally was a snippet from the letter St. Paul sent to the Roman church.
“No one of us lives to himself, and no one of us dies to himself. If we live, it is to the Lord that we live. And if we die, it is to the Lord that we die. So then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s” (Rm. 14:7-8).
There are lots of things for which I do not thank God. My list is lengthy. But there is one great thing for which to always give thanks: whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s.
When early Christians started looking for a word that best described the Lord’s Supper, the word chosen was eucharist, a Greek word for thanksgiving. Come Sunday this week in most places most Christians will repeat the ancient thanksgiving formula:
The Lord be with you, the priest will say.
And with your spirit, the people pray.
Lift up your hearts, appeals the pastor.
We lift them up to the Lord, the people consent.
Let us give thanks to the Lord our God, the pastor declares.
It is right and just, say the people.
Ever since Lucille’s death on the eve of Thanksgiving Day 1980, I am reminded that the ancient words she whispered say, “Lift up your hearts.” They do not say, “C’mon, get happy.”
So we will offer our hearts this Thanksgiving week, and of the hearts we offer up, well, some will be joyful, some will be sad and chastened, some broken perhaps beyond repair (at least in this life) and others, we pray, mending.
But whatever their condition, they will be lifted up all in thankfulness to the Lord, whether we live or whether we die.
Russell E. Saltzman lives in Kansas City, Missouri. This piece is slightly revised from an earlier piece published at First Things. His previous Aleteia contributions may be found here.