My brother didn’t ask the question “What are your thankful for in this last year?” If he had, I could have spoken about the wonderful connections I have had with old friends, the time spent with family, the great staff I have to work with and some of the high points of the year. I could have spoken about the people I love, including those around the table. But he didn’t ask this question; he asked the more existential question, “What are you thankful for?”
I should have ignored him and answered the other question.
I have a hard time not taking a question literally. Or answering it sincerely.
“What am I thankful for?” It’s a deeply profound question for me. It asks what sustains me, what upholds me, what is the ground that keeps me from falling. It is not a simple question, because I have lost a brother when I was 18 and a daughter when she was 19. I have seen brutal realities. I have walked with people through heart-wrenching tragedies. I have seen too many of the bitter realities of life, stood at too many gravesides, carry too many images of starving children and fleeing refugees, heard too much hate speech, struggled with too many people bound by drugs or poverty. I have lost the simple joys that I was privileged to know as a child: the joy of riding my bike on safe streets and the freedom to go where I wanted. The satisfaction of playing tackle football with friends at Eleanor Park, and the adolescent male satisfaction it gave of physical contact and burning off stress. There was always food at our table though I didn’t like zucchini. And Mom made cookies.
I have known the pleasure of holding infant daughters in my arms, and taking them for hot chocolate and brownies at the Detroit institute of Arts and browsing its galleries. I have experienced the delight of bedtime stories and a stuffed bear puppet named Cuddles in the hands of the girl’s mother, who became the raucous identical twin, Duddles, in my hands. I have seen exquisite beauties of the natural world and heard transcendence fill the air at the Detroit Symphony Hall. I have flown the flags on my car window and cheered with friends for the Detroit Red Wings in their prime. I have sat in the “Big House” with a 110,000 others to watch Michigan Football and, later, to watch proudly as my youngest graduated with honors.
I hold in me all these joys and all these sorrows. Friends who have lost children and weddings full of goodness. So don’t ask me what I am thankful for. I can’t answer that question at the dining room table on Thanksgiving. It’s not simple. I am grateful I could weep with John and Janice in the agony of their daughter’s death, but I am not grateful for the tears. I am grateful for the bonds of family, but not the sorrows that forged them.
Ask me what I am thankful for and you will get something like I said last night: I am grateful that Christ is risen. It will sound corny. It will not provide any emotional satisfaction to those around the table who want to hear we are grateful for family and the love that binds us. But it is the truth that sustains me. God has vindicated Jesus. God has declared Jesus true. God has affirmed that goodness shall prevail in a world with too much ugliness. God had promised that joy not sorrows shall be our final truth.
So next time ask me a simpler question, about the special joys of this last year, because my answer to that bigger life question will sound odd and out of place.
But it is my answer.
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Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Women_at_the_grave_(1420s,_Sergiev_Posad).jpg Workshop of Daniel Chorny and Andrey Rublev [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons