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Being Thankful is Always in Style

(RNS) Calling it a “beloved American tradition” in his official proclamation this week, President Obama reminded us that Thanksgiving is an opportunity “to focus our thoughts on the grace that has been extended to our people and our country.”
Thank you, Mr. President. I needed to hear that.

Surely 2010 has been a year of great blessings and much grace, but as we head into the holidays, many of us—myself included—are feeling a bit lean (and not necessarily around the waistband).

Money is tight. Our options seem limited. I’ve made less money this year than I did when, just out of college, I made cappuccinos for a living. If my bank account balance were the sole indication of the blessings I’ve received of late, things would be looking rather glum.

We want to give to charity, to our friends and family, to celebrate our abundance, but … it’s hard.

It’s easy to drown into a choppy sea of self-pity and malaise, but we must not. We are bigger, stronger and better than that. We have, and are, so much more than the tally of an accounting ledger.

“In confronting the challenges of our day, we must draw strength from the resolve of previous generations who faced their own struggles and take comfort in knowing a brighter day has always dawned on our great land,” Obama said in his Thanksgiving proclamation. “As we stand at the close of one year and look to the promise of the next, we lift up our hearts in gratitude to God for our many blessings, for one another, and for our nation.”

“This harvest season, we are also reminded of those experiencing the pangs of hunger or the hardship of economic insecurity. Let us return the kindness and generosity we have seen throughout the year by helping our fellow citizens weather the storms of our day,” the president said.

Thanksgiving is the high holy day of American civil religion. It calls us to remember all that we’ve been given and to give thanks. Gratitude is a habit of the heart we’d all do well to practice at Thanksgiving and every day of our lives, especially when material blessings appear scarce.

Thanksgiving calls us to cling to faith—the substance of things hoped for and the evidence of things not yet seen, as St. Paul put it. G.K. Chesterton said America is a “nation with a soul of a church.” It wasn’t a description of a religious creed, but rather a particular posture, one that recognizes that blessings come from outside of ourselves, whether from a higher power or from fellow travelers on the journey of life.

As a person raised and grounded in the Christian tradition, for me gratitude invokes the powerful idea that every good thing—whether it’s family, health, wealth, or just enough coffee left in the bottom of the can when it’s sorely needed—comes from Above.

When I sat down to write my annual Thanksgiving column, the well felt dry. What in the world could I say about our annual holiday of gratitude that would be fresh, new or helpful?

When I wondered just that aloud to my editor, he had an answer: “Giving thanks when your mouth and heart are tired—sounds like a column to me.”

Thanksgiving is about community. When the Pilgrims sat down for a meal of gratitude with their Wampanoag neighbors in Plymouth all those years ago, it was a gesture of thanks for community that said, “We couldn’t do this without you.”

For those of us with tired hearts this Thanksgiving, there is power—wonder-working restorative power, perhaps—in hearing words of encouragement from the community. It helps to hear that things will get better, that a new year and a new day hold new promise for all of us, that we’re all in this together. The community will hold (grace) space for us until we’re strong enough to move into it.

This Thanksgiving, when our spiritual cupboards feel bare, may we practice the habit of gratitude. May we remember that it will get better, that there are second (and third, and fourth, and 2,000th) chances, that abundance isn’t a number, and blessings—even when listed aloud—are too abundant even to count.

And may we all give thanks.

(Cathleen Falsani is the author of “Sin Boldly: A Field Guide for Grace” and the recent book, “The Dude Abides: The Gospel According to the Coen Brothers.”)