During the month of November, our faith community, the Fig Tree Collective, is exploring the practice of gratitude. We began with an adaptation of an experience that hearkens back to my childhood in England – a harvest thanksgiving service.
Growing up, I have memories from both church and school of tables groaning under the weight of root vegetables, loaves of bread, tinned goods and other food items, which we admired as we sang hymns like ‘We Plough the Fields and Scatter.’ Later the food was distributed to “those less fortunate than ourselves.” Those are fond memories, and elementary age children are still creating those memories in schools today.
For our gathering this past Saturday I invited people to bring a food item that they loved and place it on the table that sits in the middle of our gathering. After our weekly potluck meal, we sang ‘Come, Ye Thankful People Come’ and then participated in an Examen, a practice that our family engages in at the end of every day. An Examen is an opportunity to pause and reflect on the day, and is often structured with these two questions:
- “What am I most grateful for today?”
- “What am I least grateful for today?”
Sometimes we change up the questions, asking, “What was your happy thing today?” and “What was your not-so-happy thing today?” Or, “What was the honey in your day?” and “What was the sting in your day?” For our time together in Saturday, I invited people to lift up the food that they had brought, and share why they were thankful for it, and then describe something about food for which they were not grateful.
Our daughter, Maggie, lifted up a Gold Rush apple from our favorite local tree and berry farm, Reed Valley Orchard. Gold Rush are crisp, sweet and long keepers, and our winter staple apple. Maggie’s ‘not-so-happy’ thing was that most of her classmates at school had never tasted Gold Rush goodness, and only knew the (not-so-holy) trinity of waxy Red & Golden Delicious and Granny Smith typically available in most grocery stores. Our son, Seth, brought blueberries from Reed Valley that we picked and froze in July, and which we will add to our hot breakfast cereal throughout the winter.
Some of us brought food we had grown ourselves: figs (of course!), a jar of homemade pesto, volunteer butternut squash from a compost pile. We were thankful for access to land and good soil to grow food, and not-so-thankful for people who are denied that. We were grateful for the people who work hard to grow our food, and not-so-grateful for the abuse this vulnerable labor force often suffers. I brought an empty egg carton, because I am grateful for the eggs our backyard flock provides, although as they’re moulting in preparation for winter, they’ve stopped laying, for which I am not-so-grateful. I am least grateful for the conditions in which the vast majority of chickens that provide eggs for our tables live.
Someone gave thanks for the tomatoes that a neighbor had shared with them. Another brought a bar of Swiss chocolate, expressing gratitude for the luxury of it, while being not-so-grateful for the way that luxuries so easily become necessities, and the consequences that come with that. Another person brought a jar of popcorn, grateful for the daily routine of air-popping a bowlful which he has enjoyed for two decades, not-so-grateful for the harm that industrially farmed corn has done to land, ecosystems and bodies.
Each item of food came with a story, a mixture of the good and the not-so-good, relationships whole and severed, food that provides a living and food that has decimated local economies. And in the midst of them all were the bread and the cup, the Eucharist, the meal we share each week that reminds us that the source of all life underwent death so that all the not-so-good and the downright evil can be restored, redeemed, made new – not least of all ourselves.
Expressing gratitude is a balm for much of which ails us as a society. We are continually encouraged to be selfish, self-centered, judgmental of others, by the actions of those in the highest offices of our country, in the ads that litter our visual space, and across social media. We are continually encouraged to view the world through the lens of scarcity, that there’s isn’t enough for everyone so you better get yours while you can. We swim in an ocean of judgment: of others, certainly, but also of ourselves. It’s all too easy to focus on the little things that need ‘fixing’ in others – especially the ones that push our buttons – while overlooking all the good things about that person. Some of us do this to ourselves constantly, and our perfectionism can be crippling.
Gratitude is a practice that helps us resist these cultural forces. When we’re grateful, we’re often focusing on others: it’s hard to be grateful and selfish at the same time. It’s easier to overlook the things that bug us about a person when we’re grateful for all the things we love about them. The power of the narrative of scarcity is weakened when we’re grateful for what we do have, and not just resentful about what we don’t have. When we practice gratitude, the unrealistic and unfair expectations we often have for others – and ourselves – become right-sized.
So, for the month of November we’re seeking to more faithfully live into our mission, ‘To cultivate the loving way of life through compassionate, creative and collective action steeped in prayer,” with the practice of gratitude. We might choose to begin to practice an Examen at the end of each day. We might keep a logbook of what we were grateful for each day. We might think of people we’re grateful for, and do something kind for them.
To conclude our time together on Saturday, we took time to express gratitude in various ways. With a short playlist filling our ears with songs of gratitude, we took time to write a note to someone expressing our thankfulness for them; we lit candles to give thanks for people who brought light into one of the dark places of our lives; and we ate the bread and drank from the cup, giving thanks to Jesus for the gift of Life and Love that he offers us all. I wrote a note to Trudie and Dana Reed, thanking them for providing us with the fruit that we love, and for caring for the land on which it grows, a note which we all signed.
There are so many ways to practice our gratitude – what way could you incorporate into your own life this month?