Every Fourth of July, Coney Island plays host to Nathan’s Famous Fourth of July International Hot Dog Eating Contest. It’s the most disgusting thing you will ever not be able to stop watching on ESPN. I read an article a while ago about a man who was a professional eater—that’s a real thing—and who won the competition several times. The article was about how he trained for eating competitions. It involved more water than food and was surprisingly rigorous. I always imagined those contestants were people who, on a whim, stood in line at a sign up table the morning of the competition and wrote their name on a paper pinned to a clipboard. I guess I was wrong. Who knew eating required training??
All that to say, if you are planning to consume obscene amounts of pecan pie today and you haven’t put in the training time, it’s too late. Maybe next year.
Before our children could speak, we taught them some basic sign language. Signing was a helpful way for us to communicate without frustration, but I was surprised by the benefits it provided long after they learned to talk. The chief was that, in social settings, I could communicate with my children without having to say anything. For example, if they asked for something and didn’t say “please,” I would subtly make the sign for “please” to remind them to say it. Not long ago my youngest accidentally ran into a little girl on the playground. I noticed that as he helped her up he didn’t apologize for the mistake, so when he glanced over at me, I reminded him to say “I’m sorry,” with a simple hand motion. It’s enlightening to me that the sign we have had to employ the most frequently and for the longest amount of time, though, is the one for “thank you.”
Thanksgiving is one of those days built on good intentions, but it always feels a little forced, as if everyone at the table knows they need to be grateful, but no one is exactly sure how to express it—assuming they’ve even given any intentional thought as to why they are personally thankful. In years past, I have tried many schemes to stimulate deep gratitude in the hearts of those with whom my family gathers for the Thanksgiving feast. One year, before Pinterest, I purchased a tablecloth and some Sharpie markers. I intended to have everyone write on the cloth a thing for which they were grateful and reuse the table cloth year after year. The idea is that it would become a family tradition; each consecutive year would be a stroll through memory lane and a chronicle of our family thanksgiving. I forgot, though. We’re not a family that clings to tradition. Needless to say, I have no idea what happened to that tablecloth. One of the things that disappointed me about that failed-to-take-flight tradition is that when asked to write something for which they were thankful, most people either had stage fright or couldn’t think of anything to write beyond “a roof over my head, family, and friends.”
Of course, those are things for which to be thankful, but what kind of family chronicle does that make? Year after year we could only be thankful for only three things? Ivan Denisovich could do better.
Here’s the point: humans aren’t naturally thankful. Unlike fear, disgust, anger, happiness, sadness, and surprise, gratitude is not a basic emotion.
Thankfulness, like professional eating, requires training.
If it’s true that thanksgiving is a muscle that must be built, where do I begin?
Second Corinthians 4:15 gives me the clue.
Indeed, everything is for your benefit so that, as grace extends through more and more people, it may cause thanksgiving to increase to the glory of God.
A few sentences before this, Paul acknowledges that he and his fellow laborers are “afflicted in every way,” yet his understanding is that his suffering is a benefit so that grace (in Greek, charis), would result in ever-increasing thanksgiving (eucharistos).
I’ve included the Greek words so that you could see the word play and understand what it means for a thanksgiving training regimen.
Thanksgiving is built around grace.
I wrote this definition of thanksgiving in my journal one time, but I can’t give proper attribution to it. I’m sharing it anyway because I think it’s helpful in this discussion.
Gratitude is an estimate of gain coupled with the judgment that someone else is responsible for that gain.
When I experience gain and someone besides me is responsible for it, that’s grace, and it is impossible to meditate on grace and not grow in thanksgiving.
Where does one start meditating on grace?
Start with the cross.
In the shadow of the cross, thanksgiving is inevitable and ever-increasing.
I cannot stare at the cross of Christ and fail to acknowledge the overwhelming grace that flows from it. I cannot magnify the cross and underestimate the personal gain someone else purchased for me. I cannot behold the cross and walk away ungrateful.
All thanksgiving begins with this: Jesus, thank you for your cross.
As people of the cross, this is our day to shine.