the penultimate WORD
2004 - October
The Irvine Tartan • My monthly column in The New Brunswick Anglican
The words catch in my throat like a feared turkey bone at the harvest dinner. The liturgy is wonderful in its own way – familiar hymns of abundance and thanksgiving help accentuate the cyclical themes of Rogation and Harvest. The hymns are the same, the readings are the same, and the decorations are the same. The smell of apples and the rustle of maple leaves prepare us for chancels festooned with purchased vegetables. Tomatoes and carrots and potatoes and beets – they are all there. We are even thankful for the lowly turnip!
And above the steps, seedless grapes harvested at the grocery store and a baker’s loaf of fresh bread frame a chalice and paten.
I have come to expect choral anthems voicing praise and thanksgiving on behalf of men and women and youths occupying pews – enjoying the tokens of abundance expressed on so many levels.
But the words catch in my throat. “Creator of the fruitful earth, you made us stewards of all things.” And as stewards we approach the mystery of God to acknowledge what inestimable blessings we have received… at his hand. “Give us grateful hearts,” I go on to add, “for all your goodness, and steadfast wills to use your bounty well…” My words give depth to the heart-felt gratitude but strain at the thought of accepting the gracious gift of a steadfast will to act out of our gratitude.
Oh, the groceries will be packed in the plastic grocery bags stored in a back pew and they will be delivered to the local food bank. Someone will volunteer for the Monday delivery. Perhaps it will have to wait until Tuesday. But certainly by Tuesday the decorations will be delivered… a day or two after our feasts perhaps, but they will get delivered.
I remember getting my groceries a few days ago. My daughter, Sarah and I went to the local supermarket. At the checkout I noticed the tear-off slips for the New Brunswick Food Bank Association donations customers could make when they purchase their family order. I remember when food banks were first introduced… decades ago now. Nothing seemed routine then. There was no organization. A need expressed was met and in the process became acceptable. Now the NBFBA is a regular feature of our community and we are not in the least outraged by the need that requires such an effort.
Our steadfast will has been one of acceptance of outrageous terms by which ever-growing numbers of our community live their lives. As a church we provide tinned goods and non-perishable items but anonymously and without raising a voice.
And I continue, “that the whole human family, today and in generations to come, may with us give thanks for the riches of your creation…” I strain not to lose my voice. There are fewer people to be thankful than there are people who have little to be thankful for.
The homeless struggle and the underemployed struggle. Single mothers struggle and children of single-parent families struggle. Those who swallow pride and ask for help struggle and those who are alone and fearful struggle. Those who are fearful struggle and those who suffer addictions struggle.
The litany of the streets awaits us as we leave our churches. No Harvest Home is chanted there; no response of thanks is heard. The silence of so many taunts us. We run the risk of being beguiled into thinking that their lack of blessing and their lack of thanksgiving are the sign and seal of God’s displeasure towards them.
I have come not to expect those who have been marginalized to cram into our pews. They wouldn’t be very comfortable with us. And I don’t think that we’d be very comfortable either.
But for all that, I am resigned to the prayer and to make it ours. “May with us,” I pray, “give thanks…”
It seems clear to me that the steadfast will of each one returning from the Communion rail pauses only briefly at a familiar pew before entering a world where we are found – together. Our prayer and intention leads us from where we are to where redemption is found: amongst the tired and broken and discouraged.
We cannot give thanks alone.
Courage allows our grateful hearts to recognize the goodness expressed to us. Helping the blind, the captive, the discouraged see God’s favour and intent will encourage others.
We are not thankful in order to expose the ingratitude of others.
Redemption finds voice in a choir that joins it voice with others expressing mercy, and justice.
Copyright © 2004 James T. Irvine