There is so much to be thankful for. I am grateful for a terrific two months of new ministry here at St Clement’s. I am grateful for the generous funds that were raised for the building revitalization project. I am grateful for the people who will be on site Wednesday and Thursday and maybe Friday, too, sandblasting, continuing to make this a place of beauty and spiritual oasis in the heart of Lynn Valley.
I am grateful I’m not cooking this year. I’ve gone a little overboard in Thanksgivings past and it’s a side of my personality I and everyone else could probably use a break from! I am grateful for the food spread across the altar this morning: for good friends, a full church, for people who love God and neighbourhood.
I am grateful for all of these things, and, this morning, I want to talk about giving thanks when you just don’t feel like it. I was introduced to a poem by Mary Oliver this week. I’d like to share it with you because I think it gives us some helpful imagery to sink in to as we consider what it means to give thanks in this global pandemic when we are once again celebrating Thanksgiving ‘lite’: restrictions on gatherings; Covid cases preventing many folks from getting together; hospitals still overcapacity; plans for this auspicious feast once again curtailed.
This is Mary Oliver’s poem, “Sleeping in the forest.”
I thought the earth
remembered me, she
took me back so tenderly, arranging
her dark skirts, her pockets
full of lichens and seeds. I slept
as never before, a stone
on the riverbed, nothing
between me and the white fire of the stars
but my thoughts, and they floated
light as moths among the branches
of the perfect trees. All night
I heard the small kingdoms breathing
around me, the insects, and the birds
who do their work in the darkness. All night
I rose and fell, as if in water, grappling
with a luminous doom. By morning
I had vanished at least a dozen times
into something better.
I can remember a time when being thankful was really hard. Maybe you’ve got a memory that comes to mind right away for you. For me, it was when I played soccer in my third year of university, and I suffered an injury that ended my career. While it wasn’t a life-altering event (I was able to get around and continue my studies), it nevertheless had a significant impact on my mental and spiritual health.
As a 21 year old, I was so used to a fast paced life. Now, I had to slow down. Way down. I couldn’t run. What I could do was walk. The forest soon became this place that held me in the depths of depression. The forest, this place of “perfect trees” where I could “vanish into something better” as Mary Oliver puts it. This was where my spirit went to sleep. It was where I could go and not have to pretend that I wasn’t sad. It was where I went when I needed a break from the expectation to be grateful. I was so tired of people saying, “Oh but Helen, at least you didn’t . . .” I was so tired of telling myself, “Oh but Helen, it could've been so much worse.”
The human instinct for gratitude is a tricky thing. On the one hand, it can be what keeps us going when we hit rock bottom. Psychologists tell us that practicing gratitude is one of the most important tools for cognitive behavioural therapy, digging ourselves out of those thoughts that make us spiral.
Practicing gratitude really is such good medicine, and, the human instinct for gratitude can sometimes lend itself to “brightsiding.” This is where we’re so uncomfortable with grief, the only thing we know how to do is point away from it.
“Oh, just look on the brightside,” we say.
So, if not brightsiding, if not toxic positivity, what is the pathway to giving thanks when we just don’t feel like it?
In January of this year, when the pandemic let us know that it wasn’t going anywhere anytime soon, Bowen Island author Susan Alexander published a piece in the Anglican Journal.* The headline read: “My first thought on how to get to know God in 2021 is ‘Get outside.’” She went on to talk about the importance of paying attention to trees.
“If you live in the city,” she said, “find your companions in parks or along boulevards. Listen to their winter silence; watch how their branches generously hold the lives of birds, insects, squirrels and, sometimes, our children. Watch spring bring out mists of buds that unfurl into green gold. Watch them turn scarlet in the fall.”
All of this paying attention to trees teaches us “stillness and stability”, Susan wrote. Even “[w]hen despair . . . whispers it is too late” there is this “heartwood” where we “find strength.”
“Do not fear, O soil,” is how the prophet Joel puts it in our first reading. Notice the trees. The “pastures of the wilderness are green; the tree bears its fruit, the fig tree and vine give their full yield.”
There is this earth, her “pockets full of lichens and seeds,” says Mary Oliver.
Do you see? Everywhere there are these persistent, little signs of life. On this Thanksgiving Sunday, I invite you to look. Amidst the big (or not so big) dinner, amidst the “oh but things could be so much worse”, amidst the expectations of the world and your life as it is right now, remember the “small kingdoms breathing” all around you.
*Susan Alexander, “Communion beyond the human” in the Anglican Journal (January 5, 2021). Accessed online at https://www.anglicanjournal.com/communion-beyond-the-human/