It’s strange to have a week between Thanksgiving and the beginning of Advent. Most years, it’s Thanksgiving, Friday to rest, Saturday to prepare church activities, and Sunday to light the first candle on the Advent wreath. These days are a strange bonus, extra time that I hadn’t expected and hadn’t thought to fill with planned activities or responsibilities. And the most extraordinary thing has happened: I’ve seen the moon every day as well as every night.
Seeing the moon while the sun hangs in the sky isn’t an every day occurrence, but it’s not exactly a rare thing, either. Noticing the moon by day is another thing. It’s easy to miss it, sitting at my desk, attending to the housework, driving to the market. Without night’s dark sky, the moon blends in with the clouds and is outshone by the sun. I have to look for it if I want to see it, otherwise I’ll miss it in the brightness of the day.
There’s an Advent lesson here for me, one I might have missed without this in-between week. If I don’t look for it, if I don’t leave some time open between holiday gatherings and the extra work they bring, I’ll miss out on the constant if understated presence of holiness this life holds. In the season dedicated to welcoming God-With-Us, it would be a tragedy to see the grace of God only in the expected times and places (Sundays, Christmas Eve, church services, saying grace before dinner).
The season of waiting is almost here, it’s true meaning almost in sight. Lord give me the good sense to look for it, day or night.
I’m not much of a Black Friday shopper, nor are my husband and sons. So yesterday we headed for Boston to enjoy burgers in Cambridge and a visit to the Museum of Science. As we drove through Quincy, we spotted the cars. Hundreds were lined up on I93 and Route 3, stretching up to a mile away from the exits for the South Shore Mall. A quick look at the mall parking lot and the roads leading to them revealed hundreds more cars, all trying to get into a parking space and into the stores. As we drove past, we were all happy to be heading elsewhere. A three mile walk, four delicious burgers, and a visit to a special football exhibit at the museum added up to a great outing. Leaving the T station just before six pm, we drove past hundreds more cars heading for a filled-to-capacity mall. I wondered how many people sitting in those cars enjoyed their day. Was a day shopping worth the wait?
Time is a precious resource, something I do my best to remember. The time I spent with my family didn’t provide me with packages and presents bought at the best possible prices: it gave me memories of a day spent together rather than spent apart. I can’t wrap them, but they are so valuable to me, worth every penny and every minute I spent.
My sons return to homework and class schedules tomorrow. My husband and I take up our work tasks and holiday responsibilities. It’ll be another four weeks before we have the pleasure of a day spent together. But that’s okay – such waiting fills my soul with love and gratitude, treasures that can never be discounted or found at the local mall. Is there any better use of my time?
One of the things I love about cooking is the simplicity of it. With a few basic skills and a minimum of utensils, I can make something that feeds the body, gladdens the heart, and delights the soul. Chicken soup, grilled cheese, cinnamon toast, scrambled eggs, and flatbread with dipping oil require time and effort, but making them is much like walking a familiar path – there’s little to trip me up and a lot to enjoy.
The food on my Thanksgiving table is much the same. I’ve used the same recipes for years: Salted turkey from a 2010 Bon Appetit, mashed potatoes like my mother made, stuffing and candied yams a la my mother-in-law, cranberry sauce, and my husband’s pumpkin pie. The cheese tray before dinner varies from year to year, as do the vegetables. Add some sparkling cider and a nice wine and there’s a feast. The peeling, chopping, seasoning, and baking are familiar tasks made enjoyable through years of repetition. I think I enjoy the preparation almost as much as the meal.
I’d like to enjoy the work that goes into the other aspects of my life the same way I enjoy making dinner. But to do that, I’ll have to limit the number of things I’m working on and I’ll have to put in enough time and effort for it all to become a familiar exercise. Will I get bored with a simpler life? Will I miss the complexity that keeping more options brings? These are questions I am pondering.
But if Thanksgiving is any indication, simple isn’t boring: it’s just a good way to focus on the beauty and holiness found in every single moment.
May your Thanksgiving be blessed, happy, and simple.
Simple Gifts, Liz Story, artist ( The Carols of Christmas: A Windham Hill Collection, 1996)
The other day, I heard someone say that Thanksgiving didn’t seem particularly important – it was a bump in the road from Halloween to Christmas. Judging by store displays, grocery stores being the exception, he’s got a point. Halloween decorations and Christmas ornaments leave little room for anything else. Sure, there are a few pilgrim hats or ceramic turkeys tucked away on shelves, perhaps a spare dreidel, but it’s much more difficult to commercialize a holiday dedicated to giving thanks than ones involving costumes and candy, blinking lights and wrapping paper. Is it really just a commute from handing out Halloween candy to eating the Life Savers and chocolate coins that fill our stockings? Is Thanksgiving just the bump in the road that rattles the car and cannot be avoided?
I think there’s a value to this bump in the road. It’s enough of a holiday to require intentional planning and not a small amount of work. It’s a time to join others around a table, either our own or someone else’s, or enjoy the hospitality of a restaurant. There are things to buy, cleaning to do, and cooking involved – but none of it gets wrapped in paper with a gift tag because it’s not given by one person to another. Thanksgiving isn’t about getting gifts or giving them out. Everyone brings something. It might be food or drink, it might be helping to get the meal on the table, or it might be washing pots and pans when it’s all done. It might just be showing up, telling stories and listening to the stories of others. This bump in the road causes us to look up from our shopping lists and over-filled calendars just long enough to look across the table and see the holiness of God in the faces looking back.
No matter how familiar the Thanksgiving menu, it’s still a lot of work to get the turkey in the oven and the fixin’s on the table. Shopping, cleaning, and making sure everyone gets home are tasks already begun. There are still a few outdoor chores to do as well – getting the leaves raked and bagged, putting away the hose and collecting the garden tools. It’s the same every year before Thanksgiving because it’s time to prepare for the winter months as much as it is time to prepare dinner. Isn’t that the point of Thanksgiving? Giving thanks for the bounty of the earth as we approach a time when the earth sleeps and nothing grows? In the season of canning and drying, storing apples, cranberries, sage, and other herbs for use during the cold months, I sometimes forget what a counter-intuitive act of faith it is to throw a feast when summer’s bounty had come to an end. Would I be as generous with my Thanksgiving meal if I had to depend on what I’d grown and preserved to get me through to Spring? With a market right down the street supplying more than I’ll ever need in the cold months, it’s hard to know the answer.
I think preparing for this Harvest celebration is trying to teach me something more than gratitude for the food on the table and loved ones around it. I’ve been wondering lately about the garden that is my spiritual life. What are the fruits of this harvest? If I’m honest, there have been many times I’ve neglected to tend this inner spiritual space. I can name quite a few of the weeds that choke its growth because I haven’t put in the time to pull them out – impatience, arrogance, and lack of gratitude come to mind. As far as I know, there is no spiritual grocery store down the street: My spirit lives on what I’ve grown in my God-given garden.
The older I get, the more I realize that my inner spiritual garden becomes more and more visible as I age. How I treat others, especially those whose actions or attitudes frustrate me, is a glimpse into the state of my spiritual growth. Like everyone, I am imperfect and easily broken. If I don’t tend to my spiritual life, I will push my own brokenness on others. If I don’t want to do that, it’s going to take some inner work. If I want enough generosity of spirit to celebrate the bounty of this life, if I want to share what I’ve been given rather than hoard it for myself, it’s time to do some gardening…
Last night, Halloween dinner was at my house. Phyllo puffs, a cheese board, bread and dipping oil as we gathered, then a choice of soups and salad. We finished with an apple pecan pie and coffee. The food was wonderful, but it was the company that made the evening – eight amazing people who grace my table and my life. There were stories of John Denver’s Take Me Home Country Roads and Amazing Grace sung together in three different countries during the same vacation and the Blues Brothers buying chairs on the way to Martha’s Vineyard. The latest family news and losing electricity in the last storm were tossed back and forth, along with what’s happening in the oyster beds and maternity wards. All too soon, coats and purses were gathered up and everyone headed out the door, the evening a memory.
My husband and I know these eight friends through two churches. Four were on my husband’s church board, three added their voices and instruments to church choirs, two were on search committees that called my husband as a pastor. Two gave us their beach house when we first moved to town, two others hosted Easter Egg Hunts when all our children were young. Three came to the book club I led a few years back, and two included us in the Chinese naming ceremony for their grandchild. I’ve spend countless hours walking streets and trails with two of them. I’ve spend birthdays, anniversaries, holidays, funerals, baptisms, and graduations with every one of them. In more ways than I can comprehend, they have brought joy into my life.
Sixteen years ago, I hadn’t met any of them. I’d have missed them entirely if the Spirit had taken us somewhere other than Wareham. For a bit of cooking and cleaning on my part, some cooking and driving on theirs, the ten of us gathered together. I’d have to be blind not to see in their faces the love of God.