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As I prepared to write for this Thanksgiving Day, I returned to previous years’ blogs. One in particular, a reflection on the theater of Thanksgiving, stood out to me. Probably because I wrote it only three years ago and life has changed so dramatically since then. It was our last Thanksgiving in my all-time favorite home, surrounded by a rich network of friends and family in Minneapolis/St. Paul. Sharing the story of that Thanksgiving led naturally to reflections on grace and gratitude. Some of it bears repeating:
Gratitude is the essence of Christian life. It is the human response to God’s grace. As twin moments in the divine-human encounter, grace and gratitude are inseparable. Just a taste of God’s bounty—that unmerited favor through which we are united to Christ and through Christ to one another—always elicits thankfulness and praise. There simply is no other possible response when the Spirit awakens us to God’s abundant love showered upon us in Jesus Christ. Gratitude sums up the entire disposition and action of the Christian. Covenant people are fundamentally thankful.
Knowledge of grace is itself a gift that cannot be received apart from Word and Spirit. Even our response of gratitude results from grace, not any human effort or innate capacity. Yet at the same time, we can cultivate thankfulness through meditation on scripture, through prayer, and contemplation of God’s glorious theater—the theater of creation, in which each of us has a part to play. As Calvin wrote,
“Meanwhile let us not be ashamed to take pious delight in the works of God open and manifest in this most beautiful theater. For, as I have elsewhere said, although it is not the chief evidence of faith, yet it is the first evidence in the order of nature, to be mindful that wherever we cast our eyes, all things they meet are works of God, and at the same time to ponder with pious meditation to what end God has created them. . . . [In so doing, we shall learn] that he has so wonderfully adorned heaven and earth with as unlimited abundance, variety, and beauty of all things as could possibly be, quite like a spacious and splendid house, provided and filled with the most exquisite and at the same time the most abundant furnishings” (Institutes of the Christian Religion, 1.14.20).
Much has changed in three years and I now experience abundance in different forms: a daughter who delights and amazes me daily; a husband/stay-at-home dad who cares for nearly all the details of daily living; new colleagues on account of whom I have grown in new ways; an invitation to a Thanksgiving meal prepared entirely by other dear friends; opportunities to travel and teach in new places; and the list goes on. It is all an overflow of God’s abundant provision and care. And, in my best moments, I give thanks.
But today I cannot do so without also feeling unsettled in my soul. Because the theater of God’s creation has been ravaged by injustice, violence, and murder. Insular expressions of thanks for my good life do not adequately express gratitude in this context.
My daughter woke up safe and secure in my arms this morning. For the past year, Laquan McDonald’s family woke up with unspeakable loss and trauma. He was shot 16 times by police officer Jason Van Dyke. Thirteen months later, Van Dyke now has been charged with first-degree murder. Days of protests in Chicago have followed the release of the video that shows the black teenager being gunned down and then gunned when he is down.
Almost two weeks ago, Jamar Clark, a twenty-four year old black man, was killed by a police officer in Minneapolis. Protests have continued there daily. That elicited more horror, as a handful of protesters were shot by a small group of white supremacists earlier this week.
Stories like this go on and on. These are but two of the most recent and more publicized.
In days like these, grief–the kind of grief that leads to lament and protest–is a necessary expression of gratitude. Though I’m no longer living in the Twin Cities, and though I won’t make it to any protests today, my soul is unsettled. As I eat my turkey, I’ll be remembering Lacquan and Jamar as well as the black men whom I know and love who are not yet safe in this land.
Grace, absolutely. Gratitude, yes. And grief, too. How else can we live in this time-between-the-times, as theologians call this time between Jesus’ resurrection and the consummation of all thing in which God’s peace will manifest fully in all creation? How else can we faithfully witness to God’s “no” to violence as well as to God’s “yes” to shalom for black lives?