A heart whose pulse may be thy praise

Thanksgiving Sunday,   October 12, 2014

I am always struck by the exuberance of Fall.  It is a time of decline, of dying, a prelude to winter – and yet what a celebration of the fullness of life.  It is the time when the earth brings forth good things most abundantly: fat juicy apples, beets, squash.

I spent a few years in my younger years living in Germany.  Now autumn in Germany is beautiful; it is one thing that central Europe does exceptionally well.  There is a mellowness to the Germany fall: a time of golden beechwoods, and valleys filled with mist, and ripe grapes.

But returning to Canada, I realized that Fall here has a very different kind of beautiful.  There is an exuberance in the Canadian Fall.  The leaves here push out this incredible colour, driven by the cold nights and clear sunny days.  A final, intense, joyous expression of life just before they die.

The thing about Fall colours, is that they are totally unnecessary.  They are pure celebration, pointless from any practical point of view: sheer praise.

This is what Thanksgiving is about.  This is why we bring the emblems of Fall into church: not just the good things to eat, but also the brilliant exuberance of the leaves – for the sheer beauty of it.  Our decorations stand for all we give thanks for: for food, for a home, for the prosperity we enjoy; for friends and family, for the love that enriches our lives; for life itself.   For all the good things we need – but also for the sheer astonishing beauty of it all.

Thanksgiving is about particulars, about the thousands of things we have to be thankful for.  But each of these things, and each act of thanksgiving on our part, is part of a whole.  Together it marks out an attitude of thanksgiving, a grateful attentiveness to life’s goodness.  We could call this attitude by different names.  We could call it joy: the joy of being alive.  We could call it praise: the song of a heart overflowing with delight.

That is what Thanksgiving is all about.  It’s about joy. we have been created to enjoy creation.  Not in a self-indulgent, wasteful, selfish way; but with a joy that is attentive to the beauty of creation, that delights in this world, this life.

It’s about praise, about giving voice to so much beauty around us.  Because when we see something beautiful, we want to share it with someone, to show it to a friend.  That is what we are in this world to do: so that God can share the beauty of creation with us, and we with God.

This is what Thanksgiving is all about.  Not those mealy-mouthed Pilgrim Fathers piously doing their duty and thanking the Almighty, the way they did everything: from grim duty.  We don’t give thanks from duty.  That is about as sincere as a well-brought-up child composing a thank-you letter to a snooty aunt for the gift of, oh I don’t know, a pair of dress pants.  That is not how we are to give thanks, dutifully – but joyously, exuberantly, with a joy that responds to what we see around us.

That is the ideal, the vision, the promise, of what our redeemed lives will be like.  That, I suppose, is what heaven is like.  Not a bunch of disembodied spirits playing harps on a cloud, but all the beauty we have come to love here, glowing in fullness of being, and celebrated from the depths of our souls.

The problem, of course, is that we are not there yet.  We can have moments of pure joy, pure praise, like a breathtaking taste of what fullness of life could mean.  But as we know, so much gets in the way of living life with joy and praise.

•    There are our daily worries and fears and busyness: the challenges we face, small everyday anxieties, and sometimes quite big ones.

•    There is the simple effect of familiarity, of habit.  No matter how wonderful something may be in our lives, over time we start to get used to it, to take it for granted. If we are not careful, habitualizaiton can swallow up huge portions of our life.  We just no longer notice what a special blessing our home, or our friends, or our spouse really is.

•    There is the culture we live in, a culture of entitlement and dissatisfaction that can infect us and teach us to complain.

•    There is the simple fact of envy: the temptation to concentrate not on the blessings we have received, but on the good things our neighbour has.  Envy is the most childish of sins, taking us back to the childish quarrels about who got the bigger piece. It is rooted in that primal fear that we are not loved as much as the others

Oh, there is so much that gets in the way of enjoying the good things of this life, of giving thanks and praise to God.

That is why we are here – today, and, well, every Sunday:
•    to step back from our cares and worries, and count the blessings we have;
•    to be attentive to what we have come to take for granted, to open our eyes and learn to look at it again in wonder and astonishment;
•    to say no to the dissatisfaction of the world around us, and to reclaim our freedom to be thankful, joyous people;
•    and to hear again that we are loved, and so to learn to trust and believe in our own gifts we have received from a loving God.

The priest and poet George Herbert wrote a poem entitled Gratefulness that sums up what we are about this day:

THou that hast giv’n so much to me,
Give one thing more, a gratefull heart. . .
Not thankfull, when it pleaseth me;
As if thy blessings had spare dayes:
But such a heart, whose pulse may be
Thy praise.

Thanksgiving is not about saying thank-you once a year, in order to discharge our obligation to God.  Today we take something of the beauty and exuberance of this season, and use it to remind ourselves of what it would mean to be truly and fully alive: to ask for the gift, not just of occasional thankfulness, but for a “heart, whose pulse may be thy praise”.