Thanksgiving Thoughts

Vertical and Horizontal Thanksgiving

A day to be grateful to all who bless our lives and for every way in which they have done so? If Thanksgiving Day were only that, it would be an important secular holiday. But what if it’s more?

(If you’re certain it should not be more or unwilling to consider that it might be, please just accept my earnest wishes for your happy Thanksgiving. You may not wish to read the rest of this.)

looking at stars

What if Thanksgiving is also a day to be grateful for everyone who blesses my life – that is, grateful to a higher power of some sort, who has caused my life to intersect with these people and their many generous acts and quiet virtues? What if today is for thanking a deity who put me in a place and time in which I have food to eat and work to do, some freedom to enjoy as I’m doing it, some faithful friends around me, and a comfortable place to lay my head?

What if this is a day to invite humility, gratitude’s plain and less socially acceptable sister virtue, to our happy feast?

What if Thanksgiving is inherently a religious holiday?

Circle the Wagons? Or Leaven the Loaf?

Circle the Wagons

Wagon trains crossing the plains parked their wagons in a tight circle at night for two reasons. The circle was a somewhat defensible, makeshift fort, in case the company came under attack. And it formed a sort of corral, to keep cattle and other livestock from scattering.

circle the wagons

The age of wagon trains is long passed, and “circling the wagons” has become a metaphor for the way we sometimes treat outsiders, when we feel threatened by their presence, their choices, or their views. Even in a religious context, we try to keep some people in and shut others out – as if sin were a germ we could catch against our will, and only on the outside.

As if we could fence in our children forever, to protect them, rather than preparing them to live and serve in the world.

As if we weren’t already sinners too.

As if you must agree with me about religion, politics, fashion, sports teams, tattoos, and adult beverages in order to fit the commandment I’ve been given to love my neighbor. (See Leviticus 19:18; Matthew 22:39; Doctrine and Covenants 59:6.)

As if God didn’t have a higher calling for us.

Of Light, When We Cannot See It

I wrote this for my congregation’s January newsletter.

They say that it’s darkest just before the dawn. Perhaps that’s physically true, but they usually don’t mean a sky without sunlight. They’re saying that rescue, recovery, revelation, or some other relief we seek comes only after – shortly after – we are stretched to our personal limits.

That was Joseph Smith’s experience in the grove, for example. Just as he felt himself on the verge of destruction, the pillar of light appeared (JS-H 1:16). We trust in our own happy outcomes too; in the end our darkness will be just that thing that happened for a while before the lights came back on.

That’s true, but it can be difficult to believe, when all we see and feel is darkness.

“Every Good Thing”

Author’s Note

Peter said that the Savior “went about doing good” (Acts 10:38). What if he had said something slightly different: “he went about doing no evil”?

That’s true too, and it’s important for us to avoid sin, with God’s help — and when we fail at that, to remove it from our lives, also with God’s help. But it’s not enough simply to do no evil. We’re to do all the good that we can.

Short Take: Skipped Are the Words of Isaiah?

Author’s Note

I recently baked some fresh Alaska salmon. It practically melted in my mouth. I almost didn’t need teeth.

But I also love steak. Think what I would miss if I avoided it, because it requires a lot more chewing.

Don’t skip the Isaiah chapters in the Book of Mormon.

This may help: remember we’re reading Hebrew poetry. Translation takes its toll, but even in English much of Isaiah’s poetry survives.

Hebrew poetry often repeats the same thought in different words. For example, we may think there will someday be two world capitals, one religious and one secular, because we read, “Out of Zion shall go forth the law, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem” (2 Nephi 12:3; Isaiah 2:3). Maybe – but he’s probably just saying the same thing twice.

A few verses later, we see more repetition. Isaiah describes Israel’s wealth, saying the land is full of silver and gold, then repeating (in different words), “Neither is there any end of their treasures.” Then he repeats the point – twice – by saying, “The land is full of horses,” (and) “neither is there any end of their chariots.”

The next verse uses this pattern to make and repeat a key point: (1) “Their land is also full of idols; (2) they worship the work of their own hands, [now he repeats that too] that which their own fingers have made” (2 Nephi 12:7-8; Isaiah 2:7-8).

Slow down. Take small bites. Chew your food.

It’s often beautiful. It’s frequently powerful. And – don’t be turned away – it’s poetry.

Reading in Transit: Jana Riess and Julie Schumacher

Authors Bookstore at MSP -- irresistible section

Context (or Chatter)

I spend more time writing than reading, these days — too little of both — and I read online more than I read printed books. But if you read this blog, you probably don’t need me to tell you there’s a charm in holding the book in your hands and turning actual pages instead of staring at a screen. Also, actual books have a far longer battery life.

I’m in Bloomington, Indiana, just now, traveling with a family member who has an audition today at Indiana University’s sprawling, beautiful campus (which must be simply gorgeous when it’s green). I spent lots of hours in and between airports yesterday. Much of that time I spent reading actual books, and it was delightful.

On a similar trip to Pittsburgh a few weeks ago, I found Authors Bookstore, a charming airport bookstore at Minneapolis-St. Paul, and bought a very promising, shortish novel which claims to a national bestseller. I’m not disputing that; its renown is sufficiently compatible with my never having heard of it before. I started reading it then and finished it yesterday.

Authors Bookstore at MSP
A little bibliophile Mecca at MSP

Then I finished a book I picked up almost on a whim in Salt Lake City a few months ago and starting reading on the warm, sunny commuter train (and platform) at the end of workdays. It was excellent too, and the fact that I read the second half of it only yesterday doesn’t disparage its charms at all. I do that with books, even very fine books.

And yes, I’d be pleased to tell you more. Thanks for asking.

Short Take: Parallel Experiences

Author’s Note

In 1 Nephi 1 Lehi’s experience resembles Joseph Smith’s later experience with visions and the gold plates (see Joseph Smith – History), and foretells our own experience with the Book of Mormon.

Troubled by prophets’ warnings that Jerusalem must repent or be destroyed, Lehi prays “with all his heart in behalf of his people” (v. 5). Like Joseph, who prayed with a different question and later in penance for his own sins, Lehi sees a pillar of fire and hears much. Like Joseph, he is physically exhausted afterward (v. 6-7).

Another vision follows. In it a heavenly being (perhaps Christ) descends from heaven with twelve others. As Moroni to Joseph, they bring to Lehi a book. (See vv. 9-12.)

Lehi reads and learns of the imminent Babylonian captivity (v. 13) and other things. The book tells of God’s mercy, and “the coming of a Messiah, and also the redemption of the world” (v. 19).

Not coincidentally, this happens in the first chapter of a book we are commanded to read – a testament of Christ, and an account of the scattering and gathering of Israel – which was first delivered to our dispensation by an angel responding to earnest prayer.

Like Lehi and Joseph, we’re to teach what we learn from the book. We hope not to be threatened with death, as they were, but we can expect a common blessing with Lehi and Joseph nonetheless: as we read, we too will be “filled with the spirit of the Lord” (v. 12).

Tokens of Thanks

One of my first conscious acts on this Thanksgiving morning was to pull a folder from my file cabinet and thumb through it. It’s a file I started years ago. It’s full of thank-you notes people have sent me. (And yes, thanking me is the reverse of this day’s proper theme, but it leads there in its way.)

Many of them are from my years as an LDS (Mormon) bishop in American Fork, Utah, or from my time in a similar role in Ithaca, New York. This is not because bishops are the least bit more wonderful than anyone else, but because a pastor’s relationship with his or her congregation naturally includes being conspicuously involved in the difficulties of their lives, in both public and private ways — and because we get a lot of credit for splendid things done by others.

Some of my favorite expressions are not written at all. One man with whom I worked, as he endured severe, long-term trials, gave me a four-pound specimen from his petrified wood collection, because he wanted to give something but couldn’t think of anything else he had to give. Another gave me a wool hat which an Afghan tribal leader (I say warlord, to impress people) gave him as token of thanks for service to him and his people.