Vail Daily column: Plant seeds of Thanksgiving
November 23, 2016
My uncle's Thanksgiving Day prayer sounded bloated, like the stuffed turkey on our dining room table. As a boy, I cringed when this uncle offered wordy prayers. Having lots for which to be thankful, he left few blessings unmentioned. When my uncle ended his long-winded prayer with "Amen," my heart beat with gratitude.
Looking back on my uncle's prayers, I temper my criticism of them. Maturity teaches us to take more time to give thanks. We treasure gifts that a youngster takes for granted: years of life, supportive friends and a faith that helps us cope when our days are "at sixes and sevens," an old-fashioned phrase my uncle used when life befuddled him because it didn't add up.
His long list of thanks echoed Pilgrim folklore that many preachers share during Thanksgiving season. Whether fact or fable, its conclusion rings true: set aside time to plant seeds of thanksgiving.
A fierce Massachusetts chill made food in short supply during the Pilgrims' first winter. Some days the pantry only held five kernels of corn.
When spring arrived, Pilgrims planted these five saved kernels. Blessed by the sun's warmth and rain's nurture, these kernels grew into robust stalks. Pilgrims harvested many ears of corn before the next Thanksgiving season arrived.
At table, these Christians who recognized hard work and God's favor produced their bountiful corn harvest. They placed five corn kernels at each Thanksgiving Day plate, reminders of blessings after a difficult start in the new land.
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The first kernel stood for autumn beauty. I share this Pilgrim gratitude when walking a quiet path along three irrigation canals that were dug in the 1860s, bringing water from the mountains to Colorado's plains. Massive cottonwood trees give shade. Ducks flock together. Geese quack overhead.
"So we give thanks for seasonal graces, for gathered fruit and grain, for the slants of sun across the fields, for the moon's glow on a lake, for the bawling of hounds and honking of geese, for the way a crisp November day can make one feel freshly laundered," reflects theologian Cornelius Plantinga, Jr. (The Reformed Journal, "First Prayer," November 1988). My uncle caught this longing and gave thanks.
The second kernel Pilgrims placed on their plates reminded them of their love for each other. Friendship makes our way less lonely. We need people in whom we trust to protect us.
They are "agents of good works," writes Plantinga, "people who fight fires, dam floods, set bones, resection bowels, teach children, lift depression, play music, refurbish ghetto houses, reclaim the Earth and struggle to get a widow's case to court before her witnesses go stale." My uncle's prayer remembered such defenders whom he respected for their loving service.
The Pilgrims' third kernel stirred memories of familial love. We don't go it alone in life. Those who try sound insufferable. They become hard-to-please, difficult to change and are pig-headed. Those on their own can align with friends of faith, colleagues who share hobbies and supporters who are in their corner, no matter what. My uncle prayed for supporters who acted like family.
Pilgrims placed a fourth kernel on plates. It symbolized friends, especially Native Americans who helped save them from starvation. The English writer Samuel Johnson spoke admirably of friends who "guard, excite and elevate one's virtues." Each of us depends on someone who picks us up when we fall, listens rather than offers advice and cries when we share problems. My uncle included "angels of mercy," these unsung people whose touch heals our wounds.
For Pilgrims, the fifth kernel represented their freedom to work, to speak, to gather, to worship, to move forward by completing goals. We tie ourselves up by self-indulgence, gratitude's most popular adversary. It glues attention on self. We put less energy into family, friends and faith and more into fame, fortune and fantasies about how swell we are.
Or, we feed our faces, as if being plump is pleasing. "The early Desert Fathers (who practiced Christian faith in the 5th century and before) believed that a person's appetites are linked: full stomachs and jaded palates take the edge from our hunger and thirst for righteousness," Plantinga reminds us. "They spoil the appetite for God. And they may crowd out our gratitude."
The turkey got cold during my uncle's long prayers. These prayers, however, echoed what Pilgrims rehearsed with five kernels of corn. They recited a song of faith ancient Jewish pilgrims sang on their way to Jerusalem, "Enter God's gates with thanksgiving, and His courts with praise. Give thanks to Him, bless his name!" (Psalm 100: 4).
A child's prayer gathers the five kernels and plants seeds of gratitude in our lives. "God is great. God is good. Let us thank Him for our food and all our kernels, the ones we see and ones still to be discovered. Amen."
The Rev. Dr. Jack R. Van Ens is a Presbyterian minister who heads the nonprofit, tax exempt Creative Growth Ministries (www.thelivinghistory.com), which enhances Christian worship through dynamic storytelling and dramatic presentations aimed to make God's history come alive.