“It’s hard to feel thankful to God sometimes,” says Amelia. Over coffee, she tells me about a Thanksgiving Sunday a decade ago. The minister had enthused about all the blessings for which we ought to give God thanks, counting them off on his fingers—good food, homes, families, health, clean water to drink, freedom. Then he asked rhetorically, “How could we not be filled with gratitude to God?” Amelia stood up and walked out of the sanctuary. She hasn’t been in a church since, nor has she has prayed.
Her two year old, Sarah, had died the previous month. “All I could think,” she tells me, “was if God gives us all those good things, then why take Sarah? I was supposed to feel thankful? What about people who don’t have food, people who are hungry? Why doesn’t God ‘bless’ them?” Amelia places air-quotes around the word bless.
Meister Eckhart, the fourteenth-century German theologian and mystic said that, “If the only prayer you said was thank you, that would be enough.” Sometimes saying thank you feels like too much.
Suffering—our own or others’—can make it hard to feel grateful. God’s grace can feel capricious. The mostly unexamined logic of a God who “blesses” us, is that it can also mock our woundedness and the injustices of the world. Gathering around the turkey and giving thanks to that sort of God can leave me feeling uneasy.
Like the dis-ease I feel when we pray thanks, “… for food in a world where many walk in hunger … for friends in a world where many walk alone.” Am I thanking a God who has blessed us in ways so many have not been blessed?
Watching criminals marched to the scaffold, John Bradford, the English evangelical and martyr is reported to have said, “There but for the grace of God, go I.” If God’s grace spared Bradford that day, did that same grace fail him when in 1555 he was burned at the stake?
The harvest feast can easily become an unintended rationalization for the belief that God—rather than the vagaries of a genetic toss of the dice, a privileged home-life, or a head-start on the unlevel playing field of capitalism—is the cause of our good fortune.
Theologians and philosophers far wiser than me have wrestled with the unpredictable nature of God’s blessing. I find no satisfactory theological twist in their conclusions with which to comfort Amelia or to account for the brutal injustices of this world.
Only this. On Thanksgiving weekend 2007, our extended family borrowed the lighthouse keeper’s home in Tobermory, Ontario. At the time my body was depleted by six months of aggressive surgery and radiation treatments for cancer. It fact, on the way to Tobermory I had collapsed onto the floor at the airport. When we arrived, I climbed up the stairs and into bed.
By morning influenza had besieged my radioactively compromised immune system. For three days I curled in a fetal tuck, tangled in wet sheets, swinging wildly between blazing fevers and teeth-rattling chills. Nausea rocked me like a landlubber on high seas. And, I was filled, blessed, with gratitude.
You see it rained all weekend. It was the sound of that rain that got me through; that brought peace to my soul and images of the crimson, yellow, and flashing orange leaves to my mind. The gentle patter of raindrops on the roof, like the voices of my family downstairs, comforted me. God felt near. Here it is, seven years later and the sound of that rain is still with me.
When I remember the rain that comforted me, I remember too, Jesus saying, “and [God] sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.” (Matthew 5.45b). God’s grace is for everyone. I am indeed grateful, for the turning of a leaf, the smell of wet earth or coffee in the morning, the taste of wine and the sound of geese overhead, for skin touching skin and for tears of both joy and sorrow. I am grateful for Jesus, who said that sun and rain—signs of God’s love and grace—are for us all. I have not arrived at any truly satisfying resolution to the universal questions of suffering. But I know that to feel and to express gratitude is itself a blessing. It is at the root of the compassion I feel for those like Amelia, whose hearts are breaking. Giving thanks is the source of my deep longing to participate in God’s blessing.
This article was originally published in the October issue of the UC Observer.