Back in 1980 out in rural Nebraska I conducted my first Thanksgiving Day worship service. It was not a good week. Lucille had died the previous afternoon. I was at the hospital with her husband, her sisters, and her children when, at age forty-eight, she lost a three-year battle with cancer. For some little while before she died she had whispered the sursum corda: “Lift up your hearts.”
Lucille was one of those folks in that one-hundred-year-old congregation who had kept things going over the years. She was a respected figure. I had gotten to know her well in the four short months I had been there. Her death washed over the church and the community like an acid rain.
It was one of those weeks pastors dread. There was a wedding rehearsal that evening, a sermon to write for Thanksgiving Day, one for the wedding that Saturday night, a sermon for Sunday, and now tucked in between all that, Lucille’s funeral, Saturday afternoon. I decided to write them in order: Thanksgiving first, then wedding, then funeral and, finally, Sunday.
I got stuck at Thanksgiving. Thanks? Thanks for what? Now every Thanksgiving, since 1980—like clockwork—I tumble back to that week thirty-two years ago. The question nags at me like a stubborn hangnail. Thanks for what?
Having reached this point, someone, I know, is thinking: He should stop and count his blessings. Perhaps I should. Certainly there are blessings to count. Family, children, and I am especially grateful for living in a forty-five-year-old house conveniently located near many fine hardware and home supply outlets.
On the whole, though, I tend to think of blessings in terms of Newtonian mechanics—for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. You know: “Every cloud has its silver lining”; which as I interpret means: “For every silver lining, there’s a cloud.”
Is that how we do it, though? Compile two lists, bane and blessing, tote them up, and check the balance? We can always stretch a blessing or two and justify their place in the plus column if we’re really determined about having thankful hearts, right?
Yet what of those for whom no true blessing ever comes, born and doomed to poverty so deep the thought of thanksgiving becomes a cruelty? Tell me about Thanksgiving in Far Rockaway. This is not an altogether happy world and we are not a universally pleasant people. If we give thanks for our abundance, does it somehow cheapen another’s suffering?
If there is reason to give thanks in the midst of all our troubles, and everyone else’s as well, then it must be a reason that is located in places where we never think to look.
Thirty-two years ago when I sat down, finally, in those few hours before the Thanksgiving service, I was thinking mostly of Lucille and very little of Thanksgiving. What came to me finally was a snippet from St. Paul’s letter to the Romans.
No one of us lives to himself, and no one of us dies to himself. If we live, it is to the Lord that we live. And if we die, it is to the Lord that we die. So then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s.
There are lots of things for which I do not thank God. My list is lengthy. But there is one great thing for which to always give thanks: Whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s.
When early Christians started looking for a word that best described the Lord’s Supper, the word they chose was Eucharist, a Greek word for thanksgiving. Come Sunday in most places most Christians will repeat that ancient thanksgiving formula:
The Lord be with you, the pastor says.
And also with you, the people pray.
Lift up your hearts, the pastor requests.
We lift them up to the Lord, and the people comply.
Let us give thanks to the Lord our God, the pastor concludes.
It is right to give him thanks and praise, the people affirm.
It has always struck me, at least since Lucille’s death on the eve of Thanksgiving Day 1980, that the ancient words say, “Lift up your hearts,” the very words she recited as the bonds of death tightened. The words do not say, “C’mon, get happy.”
So we will offer our hearts this Thanksgiving week, and of the hearts we offer up, well, some will be joyful, some will be sad; some broken perhaps beyond repair (at least in this life), and others, we pray, mending.
But whatever their condition, they will be lifted up all in thankfulness to the Lord, whether we live or whether we die.
Russell E. Saltzman is dean of the Great Plains Mission District of the North American Lutheran Church, an online homilist for the Christian Leadership Center at the University of Mary, and author of The Pastor’s Page and Other Small Essays. His previous On the Square articles can be found here.