Like many of you, soon I will be gathering around a table with family for the annual celebration of what we have and what we have to be thankful for. We will spend the better part of the day cooking the meal that literally takes 15 minutes or less to eat. We then push away from the table and stumble back into the living room to watch the rest of the football game. I am not even sure who is playing, but it is tradition and we have to do it.
After a fashion more family will arrive. They participate in a similar ritual with other members of the family in another location, but we all gravitate to my brother and sister-in-law's house for pie and coffee and the traditional game of Monopoly.
We have our own rules. Some play as a team, and although they have separate pieces on the board, they forgive each other debts and loan each other money when needed. There is the hard-nose negotiator who makes deals for land and hotels and usually wins the game, although one year we ganged up on him and froze him out! We sit around the table and laugh and share stories and have a good time.
Although it may not always seem that way, we have much to be thankful for as Americans. Sure, some feel that the direction of country is not the right one and others feel it is, but the great experiment of America lives on. America is an ideal, a concept, not just land and people, but an idea that caused people to leave all that was familiar, and at great personal risk, come to the New World to try and tame it. The New World offered a new beginning and, although not perfect, it is better than some of the alternatives out there.
Americans have fought wars for what we believe and many have made the ultimate sacrifice to secure the freedoms that we enjoy. To quote from one of my favorite movies, The American President, "America isn't easy. America is advanced citizenship. You've gotta want it bad." The spirit of this American ideal lives inside each one of us, and although we might express it in different ways it is there.
In that first Thanksgiving, held not far from where I write these words, those who set out on the journey of a life time celebrated all that God had given them. They had just come through some of the worst trials that a human being could imagine. Many of their number perished that first winter and at times it looked like the experiment was going to fail. But their belief in God and their belief in the experiment brought them through. They "wanted it bad" and they were willing to do whatever it took to make it work, just as generations of Americans have done since.
It seems fitting that this year Thanksgiving and Hanukkah coincide as both are celebrations of survival. The Jews had survived the destruction of the Temple and the Pilgrims survived the almost certain destruction of their very lives. Both were thankful to God for seeing them through the harsh realities of life and they paused to show that thanks in a very public way.
I have spent some time reading accounts of those first months here in the New World and the harsh conditions that they endured. Each page, each sentence, each personal account tells of misery and hardship almost daily, but they were still thankful. What each one held in common was the thankfulness to God for bringing them through another day and for guiding them to this place where they were, for the first time in their lives for many of them, free to worship. I am not trying to paint an idyllic picture here of life in the New World -- far from it -- but rather using this as an illustration of how, even in the bad times, we need to be thankful for what we have. Maybe all we can be thankful for is life and the very breath we have in our lungs.
What am I thankful for? I am thankful that a group of people had a dream, an idea, and they brought that idea to this land and they fought for that idea and because of that idea a new nation was born, one that had never been seen before. I am thankful that I have freedom and I am thankful for all those who have secured that freedom for me.
As an Orthodox Christian thankfulness is very much a part of my worship experience and my prayer life. Each time we gather as community for worship or when we pray our prayer is permeated with a sense of thankfulness to God for the many blessing that have been bestowed upon us, as difficult as it may be to see from time to time. Thankfulness is a priority in our relationship with God and is foundational in our spiritual life.
Just as the Pilgrims did on that first Thanksgiving, let us pause on this Thanksgiving, and every day of the year, and give thanks for the many blessings that have come upon us in the good times as well as in the bad.