Category Archives: Thanksgiving

Taking a turn

To turn, turn, will be our delight,

’til by turning, turning we come ’round right.

[These are the last lines of Elder Joseph Brackett’s Simple Gifts, a Shaker song. The last lines were a reference to turning one’s life toward God, and also an instruction for the dancers to turn back to their original starting places.]

Turning means a change of direction – up to down, left to right, front to back, over to under and any of these in reverse. Turn is found in all kinds of contexts, and all of them hold the possibility for change. We can turn over a new leaf, give someone a turn, turn something over in our minds, have a turn, take turns, and lose a turn. Turning cartwheels on the grass or spinning around and around seems to turn the world over and over, making us dizzy. It isn’t really the world that’s turned, but it sure feels that way. What a wonderful feeling such turning can give us.

When the world isn’t the way I wish it would be, sometimes I’d like to turn the whole damn thing over and give it a shake. But the world isn’t my personal snow globe, and it’s much too big for me to spin in my hand. Perhaps there’s another way, though: turning myself, giving my perspective a shake, is well within my abilities – an existential spin or cartwheel that can help me see the world from a different angle. Sure, it might make me dizzy, but isn’t that part of the fun? And such a turn might be the best way for me to come ’round right…

[Liz Story, artist. Click Simple (gifts) Thanksgiving above for details.]

We shan’t be ashamed…

‘Tis the gift to be simple, ‘tis the gift to be free,

          ‘Tis the gift to come down where we ought to be,

               And when we find ourselves in the place just right,

                    ‘Twill be in the valley of love and delight.

When true simplicity is gained,

     To bow and to bend we shan’t be ashamed,

          to turn, turn will be our delight,

               ‘til by turning, turning we come round right.

Simple Gifts, Joseph Brackett

From high school through grad school, I washed dishes, cleared tables, sat diners, waited tables, catered, and tended bar. I worked in hospital cafeterias, fine dining establishments, and a couple of Mexican food restaurants. With such a background (and because no one else knew or would admit to knowing how to tend bar), it was inevitable that I’d work in the seminary’s catering service. I oversaw hundreds of special dinners, and mixed more drinks than any other student in the seminary’s history. It was a lot of fun, the pay was decent, and the commute was a walk across campus. That’s why I found it puzzling that many of the other students found such work distasteful. Why was setting tables and refilling coffee cups, laying plates of food before professors and administrators somehow beneath the station of a graduate student?

I never felt that way about serving food and drink. Arriving before a function to set up, serving guests throughout the meal, then breaking down the room when it was over was elevating the biological necessity of eating into an aesthetically pleasing social experience. I made sure the socially awkward didn’t stand alone, making introductions among guests and bowing out once the conversation got going. Getting everyone seated in the right place and making sure the food arrived warm and beautifully plated was an exercise in good timing. It was forthright and literal service to others: simple work, done well, filling a basic need. Where’s the shame in that?

Was it because I was paid for my service, or because it was hands-on work in a place that set great store in the cerebral and intangible? I’m still not sure. I do wonder if part of the issue was the implied servant status that accompanied food service work. If that was the real issue, the irony is really hard to miss:

Jesus bent down to wash the feet of his disciples and he bowed his head to God in prayer. If such are the actions of God-With-Us, how can there be shame in any simple act of service?

[For more on Joseph Brackett and Simple Gifts, click Simple (Gifts) Thanksgiving above.]

Finding Ourselves

A few years back, the book club I joined read two books by women whose first books had sparked marvelous discussion and admiration. One was autobiographical in nature, the other fictional; both were full of pain, difficulty, and loss – but infused with a hope that difficulties can lead to greater understanding and love. The same could not be said for the second books by the same authors. Both were autobiographical, but without a larger love that could offer generosity to the great wide world. Both authors “woke up,” convicted by the belief that only by putting their wants first could they mature into the people they wished to be. Families were left, temporarily or permanently. Friends and lovers were notable for their shortcomings, not their attempts to overcome them. Women who grew in different ways were discounted as immature or sleepwalking through a world not of their own making. Neither book ended on a particularly good note as neither women seemed to feel embraced by their own lives.

Many of the book club members saw the authors as only selfish, self-promoting, and defined by anger. The writing was admired, the women’s conclusions contested. The conviction both authors professed – that women whose life paths went a different way were immature or somehow inferior in their understanding of the world – didn’t set well. Many decided they wouldn’t bother reading any more works by either author.

I understood how the book club members felt, and I also understood the authors’ newfound acceptance of the importance of their own stories and voices. The world is not a fair place, and women’s contributions have been undervalued and suppressed. Waking up to the injustice of it is not an easy experience. The question is whether this waking up inevitably leads to a single interpretation or stance for all women (not much is said about men in either book).

I believe the authors were women who were growing into their potential, and that their second books were autobiographies of a transition rather than of a final resolution or destination. Rejecting what demeans the self and limits the soul is necessary, but not something that can support a good and holy life by itself. The next step must be taken: loving the brokenness of others as much as our own shortcomings. Unless and until love and joy define how we see self and others, we aren’t yet where we need to be. Or, as Joseph Brackett put it:

And when we find ourselves in the place just right,

‘Twill be in the valley of love and delight.

Lord, help me love everyone who comes my way – and love the person you made me to be! Amen.

Elder Joseph Brackett, Simple Gifts, The Carols of Christmas: A Windham Hill Collection; Windham Hill Records, 1996; Liz Story, performer, recorded at Luna Recording Studio, Prescott, AZ, 1996

Finding My Place

’tis the gift to come down where we ought to be…

[For Simple Gifts complete lyrics and Liz Story’s version of this song, click Simple (gifts) Thanksgiving above]

One of the hardest parts of playing violin or singing in a chorus is learning how to find my place once I’ve lost it – something I found out during my high school years. It wasn’t so hard if I was playing the melody, or singing a familiar and simple piece of music; it was frustratingly difficult when I was responsible for the second violin part or singing alto in Handel’s Hallelujah Chorus. When I lost my place, the rest of the musicians didn’t stop to wait. The music continued on, with or without me.

To pick up my part as a player or singer, I had to listen to the other players and singers. Only then could I match their notes to my sheet music and find my own part. Then it was a matter of rejoining the other players and singers on the right note at the right tempo. I may have lost a few bars, but that was better than playing on when I knew I was lost. It was also better to keep quiet and rejoin when I could than to give up altogether and leave the rest of the performance the lesser for my absence.

Losing my place happens in the larger sense, too. My life falls out of sync with the rest of the world and I cannot find my way back without stopping to listen to others. Some time out when I’ve fallen behind or gone the wrong way is the only way to get to where I ought to be. I may have to let the world go along without me until I find my place, but that’s okay. I won’t continue playing against the rest of the world and I won’t give up altogether.

Rejoining, finding where I ought to be, is the gift that keeps my imperfect self an integral part of this beautiful symphony we call life. Perhaps it’s the same for you…

Free For or Free From?

‘Tis the gift to be simple, ‘tis the gift to be free,

‘tis the gift to come down where we ought to be,

and when we find ourselves in the place just right,

‘twill be in the valley of love and delight.

When true simplicity is gained,

to bow and to bend we shan’t be ashamed,

to turn, turn will be our delight,

‘til by turning, turning we come round right.

[by Elder Joseph Brackett. For more information, click simple (gifts) Thanksgiving above]

Freedom is an interesting word, often understood in one very particular way: Freedom From something – want, fear, duty, work, responsibility, etc. A winning lottery ticket may buy freedom from a job and from having to curb spending because of budget restraints. Needing no job may bring freedom from a work routine with its inevitable irritations and time constraints, and freedom from holding one’s tongue around the one who signs the paycheck. Money can buy the latest security system to safeguard expensive items, and it can buy the services of others to clean the house, cook the meals, even transport the kiddies to school and soccer practice. 

I doubt freedom from is what Joseph Brackett was writing about; “to be free” is followed by “where we ought to be,” “simplicity,” and “to bow and to bend we shan’t be ashamed.” This isn’t a freedom from something: it’s a freedom for something. Freedom means the ability to find ourselves in the right place, which is defined by love and delight. It means recognizing what is eternal and holy, bowing down before it and bending our wills to the loving guidance of God the Almighty and Compassionate.

We will all serve someone or something – our own desires, the interests of others, an addiction, or something else entirely. Freedom lies in recognizing this truth and choosing what or whom we serve. I suspect that choosing to serve God freely is the only thing that frees me from anger, greed, anxiety, and selfishness.

It may be a simple choice, but it’s not an easy one…

Simple Gifts, written by Joseph Brackett, The Carols of Christmas: A Windham Hill Collection, Windham Hill records, 1996; Liz Story, performer, recorded at Luna Recording Studio, Prescott AZ, 1996]

Simple, not Simplistic

‘Tis the gift to be simple

My doctoral adviser once told me that it was common practice among theology scholars to have their spouses read whatever book or article they were writing; if the spouse understood it, the scholar complicated sentences and added technical vocabulary until it was adequately incomprehensible to even very intelligent readers outside the field. The rationale behind this rather curious practice: no one in the field would take seriously a scholar whose writing made sense to an outsider. I thought this was a curiously contradictory and self-defeating action in our given field: Christian education. If the whole point of learning and handing that learning on was to foster understanding, it made no sense to confound and confuse readers of any background. My adviser’s response: “Ah, but was that the point for most academics?”

I wonder if those academics back then (and many today) made the grave error of mistaking simple for simplistic. Simple is the revelation of what is essential in a way others can understand. Simplistic is mistaking the incidental for the essential in a way that causes others to misunderstand. Scholarship is about offering the world the gifts of mind and heart, not about avoiding self-revelation while withholding knowledge and understanding. At its best, it should be simple.

It is the gift to be simple, to shine a light on what is essential.

It is the gift to be simple, to foster self-revelation.

It is the gift to be simple, to make of words and actions a world that is all the more mysterious because it is seen clearly.

‘Tis a gift, because no one can be simple without the gift of God’s love and guidance.

May I lead a simple life. May I be a simple soul.

Simple Gifts for Thanksgiving

It seems like November gets squeezed out of the calendar, serving only as a place-holder between Halloween and the Christmas season. In a world where Christmas trees line Lowe’s aisles before the inflatable ghouls and ghosts have been put away, the day of thanking God for the bounty of the earth is given very little attention – but only if I take my sense of priorities from Retail Reality.

Every morning, I wake up with a song running through the back of my mind. This morning, it was the Shaker song, Simple Gifts. The words are few, the melody easy to sing, the meaning profound. What better way to welcome Thanksgiving than spending time with Simple Gifts:

Tis the gift to be simple, ’tis the gift to be free,

’tis the gift to come down where we ought to be,

And when we find ourselves in the place just right,

‘Twill be in the valley of love and delight.

When true simplicity is gained,

To bow and to bend we shan’t be ashamed,

To turn, turn will be our delight,

‘Til by turning, turning we come round right.

[composed by Elder Joseph Brackett in 1848. For more information, click Simple (Gifts) Thanksgiving above.]

Simple Gifts, Liz Story, performer; The Carols of Christmas: A Windham Hill Collection, Windham Hill records, 1996; song recorded at Luna Recording Studio, Prescott, AZ, 1996]