One of the traditions we have in my family is that as we sit at the table on Thanksgiving we go around and each of us says one thing for which we are thankful. One circumstance in our lives for which we are grateful. One event we are glad we have known or experienced, especially over the past year. It gives us an opportunity sometimes to say something silly and funny, or even ironic; but also to recognize very important relationships or milestones.
Thanksgiving is a national holiday, ostensibly it is a secular holiday as well. It is, like July 4th or Memorial Day, celebrated by just about every American no matter what their religion or lack of religion. It is at the same time a very spiritual holiday. It is a time of year when we bring into consciousness what we have received and realize and express our gratitude for it.
We leave it up to each family or individual to understand to whom or to what we are grateful... but there is this tacit and implied belief in the very word “thanksgiving” itself that we are grateful to someone or something other than ourselves. To date no one at our Thanksgiving table has yet said anything like, “I am grateful to myself for buying myself that new car.”
No. Implied in the idea of gratitude, of receiving a gift, is that of another who is the giver. To say “thank you” means that there is a “you” whom we are addressing, even if that “you” is not named, identified, known, or recognized. Even if we say the giver is the impersonal universe or blind fate, simply by addressing it as a “you,” we personalize it. We make a giver out of it.
This whole idea of gratitude is in every case at least a subtle recognition that we are not alone and independent in the universe. Our life comes from beyond us, somehow. To approach our lives and the things in our lives with gratitude is fundamentally different from simply taking, using, consuming, and exploiting. The holiday is still called “Thanksgiving;” it is not called, “Face-stuffing Day,” or “Eat-All-You-Can Day,” or “Consume-as-Much-as-Possible Day,” or “Black Friday-eve,” at least not yet.
No. There is still room for us to reflect on ourselves as recipients, as people who have received gifts from another. For people of faith this means, I think, paying attention to that Other, the ultimate Source of what we have and enjoy.
One of the most remarkable and subtle little verses in Scripture, one which has the most wide-ranging implications, yet which is also dramatically and chronically under-appreciated, is the first verse of the 24th Psalm. “The Earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it, the world, and those who live in it.” This one little verse expresses something virtually presupposed in the whole rest of the book. It is the root cause of our gratitude and thanksgiving.
If we lose sight of this knowledge that everything belongs to God, we fall into serious misunderstanding leading to even more serious bad and destructive behavior. We start to imagine that things belong to us and we may do with them as we please.
Often children — and many adults — understand things this way. They somewhere acquire the idea that being given a gift means ownership, and that ownership means some absolute power of disposition over the thing. “It’s mine! I can do whatever I want with it!” is the argument. We have this idea that we may do whatever we want with the things that are said to belong to us. They may be exploited, misused, transformed, sold, or even destroyed. It is hard sometimes to get it through the head of a child that, “No, just because something is yours does not give you the right to destroy it with impunity. We need to take care of the things we have.”
Our children are not born with this understanding of things but they get it from us. It is we who often have this notion that ownership means absolute power over something. It is we who get resentful if the government tells us what we can’t do with our own property. It is we who have this idea that property is something we can exploit, develop, poison, or destroy according to our will.
The catastrophic effects of this ideology are all around us and becoming more pronounced. It is the precise opposite of thanksgiving to assume that the world exists for me or for us to use as we desire. There is here no sense of responsibility to any Other who presents us with gifts; for gifts imply responsibility. A gift implies a donor. And a donor might have some idea of what the gift is to be used for. In thanksgiving we recognize this. Thanksgiving places constructive limits on our use of things.
We expect a gift to be used according to its nature and purpose in being given. If we gave someone a beautiful, leather-bound set of the complete works of Charles Dickens, we would probably be disappointed were the recipient to say, “Thank you! I can use all this nice paper for fireplace kindling!”
The Native Americans, who are an integral part of our Thanksgiving story, would not have understood gifts and ownership as meaning absolute control over something. Ironically, their understanding was far closer to that of Psalm 24, than was the view and practice of the people who arrived in boats and actually had Psalm 24 memorized! To the natives you could no more own land than you could own the air or the sea. To them it was obvious to whom the land belonged: it belonged to the Creator.
If we are able to keep this perspective in mind, of to whom our lives and world belong, it will change the way we live. It will enable us to live with thanksgiving, and it is something we express when we give thanks.
The universe, the creation, the Earth, and everything and everyone in it belong in perpetuity and exclusively to the One who created them. Ultimately it is the Creator who owns and is responsible for the whole place. All matter, all energy, all resources, all life, all people, all belong to God alone. Which is to say that we, the human race as a whole or individual people, finally and truly own none of it.
The most we can say is that the Earth is something that has been placed in our care. We are managers; we are stewards; we are custodians; we are caretakers. But we are not owners of even so much as our own bodies, let alone the vast resources of this planet, let alone the whole universe. Nothing inherently belongs to us. We have absolute freedom over nothing.
But we are indeed the caretakers, the Creator’s agents, which is itself a great privilege and responsibility. And it is for that we give thanks, as expressed in Psalms like 118 and 136: “O give thanks to the Lord, for he is good; his steadfast love endures for ever.” We give thanks, as we hear in both these Psalms, for what God has done for us in delivering us from the power of evil. Our relationship to the Earth and to the Creator is one of thanksgiving and responsibility; it is not one of ownership or control.
Rather, all of these things are given to us, placed in our charge, by the Creator, to be used and developed according to the Creator’s wishes. And we see the Creator’s wishes embodied in Jesus Christ, who walked lightly on the earth, saw God’s presence in all of nature, and gave his life for the life of the world.
I conclude with these famous words of Chief Seattle, which I take to be a cogent and incisive commentary, a midrash, if you will, on Psalm 24, verse 1. Chief Seattle says, “Teach your children what we have taught our children.... This we know. The Earth does not belong to us; we belong to the Earth.... All things are connected like the blood which unites one family. We did not weave the web of life; we are merely a strand in it. Whatever we do to the web, we do to ourselves.”
Whatever we do to the web, we do to ourselves because the thankless and ungrateful attitude of people has always resulted in bad times for all. Idolatry and injustice lead inexorably to calamity, often natural disaster. But to approach the web with gratitude, the kind of gratitude our Thanksgiving holiday is really about, will enable us to live in peace and prosperity.
The Earth belongs to God. God is the One who weaves the web of life. To abuse the gift of creation is to insult the Creator. God expects us to cherish in thanksgiving the world placed in our care.
This is the meaning of Thanksgiving, is it not? To give thanks for what we are given by committing ourselves to fulfill the wishes of the One from whom all these blessings flow. To cherish the resources placed in our care by devoting them to the upbuilding of all in the community. To add value to what we are given by dedicating the lives sustained by such blessings to the doing of justice, the loving of kindness, and the walking in humility with the One who made all things.