It’s not just me, I have confirmed my impression by complaining about it personally to everyone I know. It’s true, some members of the American family—lots actually—this year put up their Christmas decorations the day after Halloween. And, though I judged them heartily, even my dear friends whom I love and will eventually forgive for this travesty of wrongness, why wouldn’t they? The stuff has been available to buy since the season’s first pumpkin-spiced-latte drove away from the Starbucks window. Thanksgiving—or, as a clever friend called it the other day—Thankschristmas, is but a stumbling stone in the mad dash to celebrate the birth…no, that’s not right. To celebrate…what? What is Christmas the celebration of now?
But that is too big a question for today. Today is not merely one more bleak hour in the frantic lead up to the most stressful day of the year. Today is Thanksgiving, by decree of the government and everything, and is worth some attention of its own.
The trick, as I see it, is to back away from the overburdening command to “be grateful” or to “be thankful,” in a generalized kind of way, as if just experiencing some feeling of gratitude for the piles of stuff you’re tripping over in your living room and your life will magically cure you of all your misery. As if gratitude is just one of the many tools in your bucket of self-care, like getting your nails done and eating more fruit. Sure, being thankful would make you a less difficult person to be around, but being thankful is as impossible as being “less anxious.”
The problem is that a vague thankful feeling, or worse, “attitude of gratitude” is impossible to sustain, and, really, to what purpose? Why bother? I mean, I was never able to achieve it. I always have a bad, ungrateful attitude about everything. But so far that hasn’t set me outside of the kingdom of God, not yet anyway.
I don’t think overabundant feelings of thankfulness is the command, nor the point. The point is to first to find something to be grateful about, and then someone to be grateful to.
“O put your trust in God, for I will yet give him thanks, who is the help of my countenance, and my God.” Psalm 43:6
The Bible—and psalms in particular—is replete with expressions of bitter unhappiness. I think nice people who are always cheerful and happy inside and profess to love the psalms must be lying, because the great thing about the psalms is how angry and sad their authors are. The verse before that one is, “Why are you so full of heaviness, O my soul? and why are you so disquieted within me?” The implication being that everything is not ok. The psalmist is beset by wicked people who are spoiling everything, by ungodly persecutors, by an enemy who “oppresses me.” He wants relief from his misery and troubles. He is so in the dark that he has to ask for light. He doesn’t know which way to go. He is confused and alone. He wants God to “send out your light and your truth” so that he will end up in the right place. I would say, as I do every morning when I approach the scriptures, “Where is your joy in the Lord, man?” Why so sad?
The task of giving thanks is only rich and profitable when you look around you and see how bad it potentially could have been. You look back over the year and remember that time you could have been pushed off the road by a semi-truck but weren’t, that illness that struck you down midterm but you recovered in the nick of time and managed to get the work done after all, that important paper that was lost and then found, the relationship that turned sour and then somehow, for reasons you can’t quite understand, resolved itself. You were beset by trials and tribulations. You were in the dark. You were confused and burdened. Your soul was heavy.
And then, in that place of confusion and trouble, you turned to the Lord. You did something nobody really wants to admit doing—you begged—like a whiny child, like a desperately poor person, like a ruined man by the side of the road. You cried out helplessly and hopelessly to God and he delivered you.
There ought to be a narrative arch to your thanksgiving. You acknowledge that you began in one place, you were mired in the valley of the shadow of death, and as you emerged on the other side, light shining down from the heavens and the voices of angels ringing in your ears, in astonished wonder, you “gave thanks.” That is, you said thank you—and here is the kicker—to God. He is the source of the salvation for which you now feel so grateful, grateful enough even to acknowledge the reality and the feeling.
Which will be a help as you rush towards Christmas. It’s not the presents and the decorations, the tinsel and the credit card bill, the starting early so that you’re not so exhausted by the end. It’s that when you were perishing, when all hope was lost, God himself with his mighty hand and his outstretched arm reached out and saved you. If you want to celebrate that all year, that actually means you’re a good person, not a bad one.