As I get older, memory plays tricks, so I may be remembering this wrong, but a favorite Hebrew phrase of mine is hakarat harov, meaning “attending to the good” (I think…). It always comes to mind as I prepare for Thanksgiving, and I sometimes wonder what life is like for people who can’t “attend to the good” in life. In a day where the news is filled with stories of displaced people and refugees, I wonder what the good is to which they attend? To those of us who have so much, I wonder why it seems so hard to attend more regularly to all the good we have received. Three short stories come to mind.
A few years ago I preached a chapel service for a retirement community where most of the residents were well off financially but struggling physically. At one point in the service, I said, “All good gifts come from God,” to which a sweet, spindly octogenarian woman that I thought was more focused on her knitting than on the service yelled out, “Bullshit.” In as light-hearted a voice as I could, I asked, “God hasn’t given you any good gifts?” Putting down her knitting, she looked me in the eye and said, “God never gave me one damn thing! Everything I ever got I worked for, and I don’t own anything to anybody!” I didn’t want to argue with the woman, especially in front of her community, but I did say, “Don’t you think God gave you life and blessed you with family and friends?” She huffed, “My momma gave me life and I had no say in the family I got. I made my own friends!” She went back to her knitting. The rest of my message on gratitude to God for all the many gifts we receive felt a little defensive after this, but it raised a question in my mind that I come back to from time to time: does a person feel more blessed and accomplished when good is viewed as a gift from God or the fruit of one’s own labor and achievement? Do people truly only get what they deserve or earn? I cannot believe all the things I get to enjoy and engage in that I did nothing to create or maintain. Yes, I make a faith statement that I believe truth, beauty, and goodness come from God, and my definition of stewardship is to manage wisely and well all that we have been given by God. I do not believe myself to be an owner of anything. All the material wealth and possession at my disposal — even that which I labored long and hard to obtain — are entrusted into my care for a short while. The idea that things are mine is a human construct and conceit. In an instant, I could be gone and all that is “mine” would go somewhere else…
A current Verizon commercial reminds me of a church service I attended in Nashville, Tennessee. Over the entryway into the sanctuary was a huge banner that read, “Welcome to our Thanksgetting Dinner”. The intention was kind, though a bit misguided (in my humble opinion). The pastor welcomed everyone with a statement that said, in essence, “We do so much for so many throughout the year, and most of the time we never get any thanks. Most of the people we help don’t even know the help comes from us. We give and give and give and never receive any thanks — until today! This is a dinner to thank you for all you do, from the hundreds — maybe thousands — of people who don’t even know you exist.” Okay, I know Thanksgiving is not a religious holiday. And I know that it is a great idea to have an appreciation dinner for volunteers. And I know that part of the point of Thanksgiving is to stuff ourselves to the point of acute discomfort and pain. But what bugs me is our incessant desire to make everything about US. There is something egotistical about turning a time for giving thanks into a time of getting thanks. Certainly, we should appreciate the efforts of kind and generous people, and yes, it feels good to be appreciated and recognized, but if we make Thanksgiving a time to focus on how great we are we eliminate one more opportunity to see how richly blessed and fortunate we are. Gratitude, thanksgiving, adoration and praise are very different than accolades, adulation, recognition and applause. The first is humble, the latter a bit arrogant.
The third reflection is something common I experienced in Malawi, Haiti and Mexico — three places where Thanksgiving is not celebrated, but where thanks-giving is essential and central to community life. In all three places, the majority of the population exist in abject poverty. There are no guarantees where the next meal is coming from or when it might occur. What there is to eat is not overly appealing or nutritious. Clothing is threadbare and sparse. Living conditions are generally unsanitary, less safe than one might hope, crowded and smelly. And there is joy. And there is singing. And there is laughing. And there is virtually no time wasted wishing for what one doesn’t have, but a lot of time given to enjoy what one does have. There is playing. There is dancing. There is an open, sharing, giving spirit. There is a deep-rooted understanding of “thanks-giving” that many citizens of the United States will never grasp or understand. “We” feel sorry for “them”. Actually, we fear them and want them to stay away from our land, our food, our stuff. “They” make “us” feel bad, and who wants that? The tragedy is, “we” really don’t know “them” and therefore we never receive the gifts they have to give. And hear me, I am not making them out to be saints in a Utopian world. They suffer, and they hurt each other, and they fight, and they cry for their children, but they never lose sight of the fact that they are alive and that life is good. They don’t constantly wish for something different, they make the best of what they have. They are good stewards in the best way they know how. They are good Hebrews, living hakarat hatov, attending to that which is good in their lives.
That is my wish through this time of Thanksgiving. Pay attention to all that is good. Don’t waste time worrying about what you don’t have, what you can’t have, what you might lose, or what you have lost. Take some time this year to make a list, mental or otherwise, of all the many blessings in your life. Give thanks for each and every one, over and over again. Through such gratitude hearts are filled to overflowing and a wondrous transformation can occur. I sure hope hakarat hatov means what I think it does, but if it doesn’t, that’s okay. At least it helps me to attend to the good.