Thanksgiving: a lesson from Psalm 107

When I was a child, every year we read Psalm 107 responsively in church on Thanksgiving Day. So for me it is the paradigmatic statement of Thanksgiving.

In case you don’t recall it: the body of this psalm consists of a series of narratives. In each one, someone is (or someones are) in a bad way. Then they call on the Lord in their distress, and the Lord rescues them, and the psalmist calls on them (and on the reader of the psalm) to give thanks.

Rereading this psalm a few days ago, I was noticing what story comes first in the sequence of example narratives. It is this:

“Some wandered in desert wastes,
finding no way to a city to dwell in;
hungry and thirsty,
their soul fainted within them.
Then they cried to the Lord in their trouble,
and he delivered them from their distress.
He led them by a straight way
till they reached a city to dwell in.
Let them thank the Lord for his steadfast love,
for his wondrous works to the children of man!
For he satisfies the longing soul,
and the hungry soul he fills with good things.”

What is the situation of these “Some,” these lead-off examples of what God’s people have to be thankful for, these prime instances of what it means to be God’s people?

  • They are wandering.
  • They not only have no city for their own, which means they are stateless; they do not even have a path to a city to dwell in, which means that are refugees with no legal guarantee of resettlement.
  • They are homeless and hungry and thirsty.

Deuteronomy 26 sets forth the liturgy to be recited by Israelites when they settle in the promised land. The first line: “A wandering Aramean was my father.” There is no way for a settled Israelite to say: “I am and always have been an Israelite. I have what I have by virtue of who I am.” No. The only true and faithful Israelite is the one who confesses every year: “My father was a wandering Aramean. My origins are elsewhere. I was lost. I was wandering in desert wastes, having no path to a city to dwell in. I am primally and essentially homeless and hungry and thirsty, and if in this present moment I have a home and food, it is all owing to the steadfast lovingkindness of the Lord. It is the result of his wondrous work, not my own. Oh, give thanks to the Lord, for his steadfast love endures forever.”

Of course one recalls the hymn “Amazing Grace.” It has to be the best known and most often sung Christian song. I don’t think it is so widely known and loved because the tune sounds good when played by bagpipes. I think there is another reason. John Newton wrote it in the 18th century, but even the day he wrote it, it was not really a new song. It was another rendering of the one song that the people of God have always sung. Since, whether we recognize it or not, we are all somehow God’s children, this perennial song resonates deeply in all of us, either as a joyful song of thanksgiving or as a plaintive questing after hope.

I believe it is impossible to be a Christian without being able and willing to say: “I once was lost, but now I’m found, was blind, but now I see” and to credit God’s “amazing grace” for accomplishing this transformation. In other words, this is the paradigmatic Christian story, the model story, the story in which one must find oneself as an indispensable precondition of Christian existence. And it’s no good claiming to be an inhabitant of that story unless one is also able and willing to cry out in thanksgiving: “Amazing Grace!—how sweet the sound—that saved a wretch like me!” “My father was a wandering Aramean.”

I must confess that I am always living my life from day to day in the territory between being lost and being found, between being blind and seeing. I never stop needing God’s grace.

Conversely, an absolutely reliable sign that one is a rejecter of Grace, that one is not a true Israelite, is to claim explicitly in one’s words, or to project the attitude through one’s deeds: “I am OK, and I have always been OK, because that is who I essentially am. I am well fed and prosperous by virtue of my own merit. This city is mine by birthright.”

Jesus has a word for the soul that says to itself: “I’ve got mine! Let me build bigger barns to store it in. Relax, eat, drink, and be merry!” Jesus has a word for the person who is self-crediting and self-sufficient in his prosperity and is not “rich toward God.” That word is: fool. (This is in Luke 12 if you want to read it for yourself.)

The confession “but now I’m found . . . but now I see” is not a triumphalist claim. It can be stated as a fait accompli only so long as it is expressed as a statement of gratitude for what God has done. The moment it becomes a statement of who I am apart from utter dependence on God’s grace, it becomes a proud statement of accomplishment, of my possession of an ontological status from which I can feel superior and look down on others. It must always remain dialectical. That is, I must confess that I am always living my life from day to day in the territory between being lost and being found, between being blind and seeing. I never stop needing God’s grace. The fact that in a certain moment I am given a true insight does not make me always infallible. The fact that in this or that moment I may wander, may revert to a feeling of lostness, may not see clearly, does not mean that I am not truly a recipient of God’s grace; it means that I continue to depend on God’s grace. This is why it is good news that God’s lovingkindness is not a fading memory of something stuck in the ancient Near Eastern past; it is new every morning. “Oh, give thanks to the Lord, for his steadfast love endures forever.”

Romans 1:18-32 gets cited rather often in Christian (and sub-Christian) discourse. It is a remarkable passage with multiple profound meanings. For me, the most profound is the central importance of thanksgiving. Read the passage, and watch for the phrase “nor were they thankful.” That is the decisive moment, the last straw. Failure to be thankful—not any other characteristic or act or habit—is the falling off point from which everything promptly goes forthwith to shit. “Nor were they thankful.” They did not honor God. They gave themselves or something else that place of highest esteem. After that their capacity for right understanding of anything tanks. Their mouths keep moving, but what comes out is nonsense. To look at that passage and read it as being centrally about anything else (such as the sinfulness of those other people) is to miss the main point. It can be a way of excusing one’s own differently expressed gratitude failure.

The heart that is formed by Psalm 107, by Deuteronomy 26, by “Amazing Grace,” by the perennial song of thanksgiving and praise, is a whole heart, a heart that will be expressed every day in all that I do. It is not a heart that will sing on Sunday and shut down for the rest of the week. It is not a heart that will come to expression when I am talking about faith and fall into silence when I am doing my work. It is not a heart that gives thanks for spiritual blessings but has a different attitude toward physical blessings and material possessions. It is the one undivided heart out of which I will live every aspect of my life, walk every step of my walk, not just in the house of worship but in the home where I life, in the workplace, on the city streets, in my Facebook posts and reposts. Not only in what I say and do, but also in what I read and listen to. In what I approve and in what I refuse to condone. In what I mourn and in what I celebrate.

And—yes, most certainly and inevitably also this, unless I think I can get away with cutting myself in two and contradicting myself, praising God from one side of my mouth and saying something different out of the other side of my mouth: in my public life, in my voting, in my commenting on political questions. There also I must remember and say: “My father was a wandering Aramean; I wandered though a trackless waste, with no way to a city to dwell in, hungry and thirsty. Amazing Grace, that saved a wretch like me!” And I speak, write, and vote out of a heart filled with that awareness.

This essay is slightly revised from a Facebook post in January 2020.

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