© Herald photo by Perry Bergson
In church on Thanksgiving weekend I took note that the visual worship aids were somewhat subdued, a vase of flowers and a container of golden wheat heads. On most Thanksgiving holidays, a table is groaning with largesse of garden produce, usually set off by a large and very orange pumpkin.
Certainly the meal later that day pointed directly at thankfulness, as we gathered with our children and their children, as well as two sisters. Olfert gatherings must be accompanied by mechanical toys, and the little ones and a few big ones roared around on a variety of ATVs. No one died. We were blessed further by celebrating a ninth birthday in our family circle.
There was time, over the holiday weekend, for a bit of deeper introspection on what this holiday symbolizes.
Thinking back to that traditional display at the front of the worship space, the symbol is obviously about gratitude, about living grateful lives.
How then, do we think about those who struggle, who have no turkey and pumpkin pie, no ATVs and no loved ones to sit and laugh with? Does the heavily laden table hint at a modicum of smugness, of somehow deserving the bounty we find surrounding us? How can we celebrate the generosity of God while others sit in all manner of misery?
Is there another way, other words, which we might use to define the point of this holiday season?
A number of years ago, I sat in conversation with my mother, who has since died. We were discussing the fact that most of her large brood of children has spent significant time and passion building relationships with incarcerated and released offenders. Several offenders have experienced mom’s hospitality. Mom acknowledged that there were some in her community that had little understanding, and little compassion for this ministry. Then she added, with flashing eyes, “But you have to believe that people can change!”
Could we define the Thanksgiving spirit as being thankful for hope?
This column is predicated on the thought that humans are created in the holy image of God. I’ll suggest that’s one of the truest and most significant notions presented in that peculiar book, the Bible. And yet, we are not God, and are a very long way off from that perfection. All manner of mischief happens to us, is done to us, is done by us, to separate us from that ideal.
But mom said, “You have to believe that people can change.” It’s true. I’ve seen it. That change creates a spirit of thankfulness, like nothing else. It is what points to the truth of those Genesis words and our holy heritage. We can choose to move toward the perfection of God.
I recall arriving home for a supper gathering with friends, and being a mite late. Three men sat on the deck waiting for me while Holly supplied cold drinks. As we visited, I suddenly blurted out a striking observation. “Do you realize that you three guys represent over 90 years of incarceration?”
It was true. They acknowledged that fact, not proudly, but with honesty. There was, in these three, a determination to change, to point again to that simple yet profound observation by my mom. It was for that reason that Holly felt at peace serving drinks and supper to these good friends.
That being said, all three have, in the intervening years, struggled. The road has had potholes, obstacles. There is still room to improve, as there is in myself. We are all not yet perfect.
Recently, on a Facebook page that comes to our computer screen, I noted the name and face of an offender who had attained his release date and was now back in his home community. The alarm was being sounded, “Look out for this bad guy!” I recalled sitting at a table playing scrabble with that same fellow, being beaten soundly, sharing cokes, stories, laughter. I understand the fear of a community. I too am surrounded by much loved vulnerable ones. I have also experienced this person as a human being. What does hope mean in this scenario? How will we move toward living well, living peacefully?
In much younger and markedly less mature days, I recall scoffing at the notion of hope. Why would you hope for something when you can just make it happen? Why wouldn’t you just decide to know it, rather than hope for it? Seemed pretty wimpy to me!
In the afterglow of this past Thanksgiving weekend, I’ve decided that hope is what living well entails. Hope for much loved little ones, hope for broken big ones, and appreciation for wisdom offered from the past.
“You have to believe that people can change.”