It’s November – again! Thanksgiving approaches, nights grow longer still, days colder and grayer, fuel bills start to add up and for many what should be the beginning of a season of pleasure and plenty – Thanksgiving, The Nutcracker, Advent, Chanukah, Christmas, Kwanza, New Year – is a season of worry, hunger, cold and guilt that they might not be able to fully provide for their families.
While many welcome supermarket fliers touting Thanksgiving food deals and many others look forward to Black Friday – already I’ve overheard people who plan on camping out overnight at stores like Target and Best Buy to score ‘amazing’ deals – others are less joyous. For them many Fridays are black.
For them a deal is heating oil at $1.89/gallon rather than $1.91. For them a deal is an extra bag of potatoes from the food pantry or a Barbie doll from a local thrift shop.
A deal is having to spend less than you thought you would have to on something you really, really need.
We forget them. We forget those who fear November; those who worry how they will comfort and feed their own, who worry how, in this increasingly materialistic world, they can manage family expectations for Thanksgiving and beyond.
When President Abraham Lincoln proclaimed Thanksgiving a national holiday it was believed that the individual most responsible for influencing him was a New Hampshire native, ardent abolitionist Sarah Josepha Buell Hale, editor of Godey’s Lady’s Book. After an inspired letter writing campaign that had spanned five American Presidents, Hale, in a letter penned September 28, 1863, found a receptive ear. On October 3rd, 1863 Lincoln issued a Proclamation of Thanksgiving that referred to “…The lamentable civil strife in which we are unavoidably engaged… ”
Sadly, I believe, we’re still struggling to find a response to “lamentable civil strife.” Today’s strife may not be on Civil War battlefields far from our New England homes but it is present, it is persistent and it is pernicious.
While we have much to be thankful for, it seems unjust to me that today’s ongoing civil strife revolves around issues that America should have resolved by now, 150 years after the first Thanksgiving. Racial divisions, social injustices, gender and pay inequality, immigration rights, religious discrimination and battles over housing, education, universal health care and women’s rights tear us apart still.
Almost daily a friend of mine, a priest, struggles to sustain a food pantry that supports families from several towns in the Monadnock region. Even before cold grey November skies enveloped Mount Monadnock demand for food assistance was increasing and the church’s capacity to help was being stretched and today more people need assistance than the small parish has capacity.
This month they’ll struggle to provide turkeys and the fixings for the needy, because that is who they are – and who we should all be.
They’ll struggle to find sweet potatoes and cranberries for each family because that is who they are – and who we should all be.
They’ll turn no one anyway – because that is what we are called upon to be.
I don’t know if the church’s neighbors will rise to the occasion – to help provide for the least of us, to love our neighbors as ourselves, to serve God by serving our brothers and sisters – yet, that is what we are called upon to be, both as our brother’s keepers and as stewards of the earth.
Lincoln’s call for a Day of Thanksgiving came during the Civil War’s darkest days, when America and its families were being ripped asunder, when fathers were pitted against sons and when bodies were stacked upon bodies like cordwood. Indeed, when the very idea of one nation was being challenged by secessionists, Lincoln responded, in a prayerful way, issuing his call in response to the, “lamentable civil strife in which we are unavoidably engaged.”
Today, we’re still unavoidably engaged.
A few years ago I attended a concert at Tufts University performed by Galeet Dardashti, who presented a program titled “Monajat,” [Fervent Prayer] based on a poem by 11thC Sufi poet Abdullah Ansari of Herat, an Afghan whose most famous work is “Munajat Namah” [Dialogues with God].
Dardashti, who is Jewish and whose family lived for generations in Iran (her grandfather, Yona, was a famous cantor and singer of classical Persian music) blended Ansari’s poem into traditional Persian songs and liturgy for Selihot. Listening, watching an Israeli, an Iraqi-American and a Palestinian as backup musicians, hearing the beauty of Farsi, Hebrew, Arabic and English transfix an audience moved me to tears as I was reminded of the beauty and richness of lands I’ve traveled.
“O Lord, give me a heart,” Ansari prayed, “I can pour out in thanksgiving. Give me life so I can spend it working for the salvation of the world.”
Working for the salvation of the world starts with hospitality, begins by embracing our neighbors and sharing the bounty and abundance in which we live, in recognizing the scarcity, amidst the abundance, in so many lives and being thankful for the grace and mercy that fills us all.
Today, let us pour out in thanksgiving prayers for our neighbors, those seen and unseen – they who illuminate our lives with beauty, renewal and love – who are struggling to feed and shelter their families. Let us make their families ours.
Each day let us pour out in thanksgiving prayers for the weak, the poor, the homeless and the disenfranchised, for those struggling for dignity, respect and freedom – and let us struggle alongside them in their battle to reclaim their humanity.
As the challenges of winter approach let us pour out in thanksgiving prayers that someday America’s “lamentable civil strife” will have been fully engaged and overcome.
This column was first published in the Concord Monitor.