Thanksgiving Sermon

A few weeks ago I visited Alleman high school to talk to the students about Judaism. In one of the classes I visited, the teacher and students said a very short, but very catchy prayer right at the beginning of class. It went like this:

The teacher said: “God is good” and the students responded – “all the time.” Then the teacher said, “All the time” and the students replied – “God is good.”

A few things struck me about this prayer

  • its pithiness
  • its power
  • and mostly that it sounded so foreign to me

The part that sounded so unusual to my ears, was the very point of the prayer, that God is good all the time.

There’s nothing in Judaism that says God isn’t good all the time, and yet this isn’t really an idea that comes up in our prayers very much.

Short call and response prayers work really well, because they get the message across quickly.

In Jewish tradition, we have a number of them, but they are a bit different:

  1. They are in Hebrew
  2. They are directed at the congregation

But after thinking about it for awhile, I realized that we do have a prayer that is very similar to the “God is good” prayer.

We say: Hodu Ladonai ki tov, ki l’olam chasdo

It means: Give thanks to God, for God is good, for God’s loving-kindness has no limit.

Hodu means “give thanks.”  It also happens to be the Hebrew word for Turkey!  How uncanny is that?

As a prayer, Hodu is directed at the congregation.

The leader says: “Give thanks to God for God is good”

And the congregation responds: “for God’s loving-kindness has no limit.”

So basically, it is the exact same prayer!

But for some reason when I heard it expressed as “God is good all the time” I found myself questioning that idea.

Is God’s loving-kindness really limitless? Is God really good all the time?

Knowing that I wasn’t going to be able to answer this question on my own, I decided to do a little research.

So I dropped the question into Google: Is God good all the time?

Instantly I found an answer (just kidding).

Instead I found a blog post written by a woman named Heather. The post was titled with the exact wording of my question.

In the post, Heather described her own questioning of God’s goodness.

She had married her college sweetheart at the age of 25.

Just a couple of months after her father walked her down the aisle, he died of a heart attack at the young age of 49.

Nine months later, less than a year into her marriage, Heather’s husband and her sister’s husband both drowned in a boating accident.

The two sisters had very different reactions this tragedy.

While Heather’s sister remained steadfast in her faith, reaching out to God in her time of need, Heather felt abandoned.

God had always been good to her, but where was God now?

How could God have let these things happen?

Heather continued to struggle for quite some time.

She had grown up in a church where the call and response “God is good…all the time” was a staple of their worship service.

But three women in her family had just become widows and she was having a hard time seeing the goodness in her life.

One day Heather had an epiphany. Standing on a mountain in Vermont, she suddenly felt God’s presence with her, comforting her, grieving with her, and promising that everything would be okay.

She no longer felt that God had caused her pain or that God had let it happen.

Instead she viewed things differently – she saw God as holding her through the pain.

In his book, When Bad Things Happen to Good People Rabbi Harold Kushner addresses this very topic and comes to the same conclusion.

Insistent that God is benevolent, he prefers to accept a certain amount of powerlessness. He does not view God as the cause of our suffering nor does he believe that God allows us to suffer. Rather, he claims, perhaps God is actually NOT all-powerful after all.

Heather did not quite take her blog post that far – in fact she never addressed the logical issues, but instead talked about how God cared for her and helped her begin to look toward a brighter future.

Even after reading this moving spiritual epiphany, I thought – well, it’s not really a question of whether or not God is “good” — goodness is a human category anyway.

My tradition teaches that G-d is everything – God cannot be contained in such a category as goodness.

And everything is not always good.

Yet, I do believe that at every moment of every day for all eternity, God emits a limitless loving presence into the world.

What happened to Heather on that mountain that day was that she experienced the limitless loving-kindness that we all have access to all the time.

At that moment, God’s compassion touched her.

So, how did that happen?

She tuned into it.

When we experience pain and suffering, it can cut us off from our connection with God.

God does not abandon us, but our pain can prevent us from being connected.

That doesn’t happen to everyone. It didn’t happen to Heather’s sister. Her pain instantly caused her to reach for God.

I think that is rare though.

Most of us have to work at connecting with God’s presence, some of us have to really work to see God’s goodness in the world.

So, how do we do that.

For Heather it was standing on a mountaintop and crying and expressing her grief.

She needed to do that.

When we’re not in the throes of mourning, we may not require such dramatic circumstances.

Let’s come back to the idea that God is radiating limitless goodness all the time into the world.

It’s like a radio frequency.

If you don’t have a tuner and you don’t have it tuned to the right place on the dial, you may not hear it.

You might even hear a lot of really annoying static that could make you pretty miserable if you listen to it for more than a few seconds.

In order to know that goodness is there, we need to turn on the radio and tune to the right station.

One of the ways we do that is through a practice of giving thanks – and I don’t just mean in the moments when there is something obviously good happening.

On Wednesdays our Hebrew school students lead our weekday evening service.

During our silent prayer I invite the students to reflect and have a quick conversation with G-d.

They know by now that most prayers can be summed up with the following three words: Help. Thanks. Wow.

I didn’t come up with this – Annie Lamott wrote a book with that title. The concept is simple but profound.

So, our students spend a few silent moments thinking about something they need or want, something for which they are grateful or something they think is amazing. After a few moments of quiet reflection I invite them to share.

And they share incredibly beautiful thoughts! It’s mostly words of gratitude for family and friends.

They rarely ask for things!

Recently during the course of their sharing, one of our younger students said, “I think EVERYTHING is amazing.”   I thought to myself, wow, I wish that I could see the world through her eyes!

That day my mind had been preoccupied with a violent tragedy that had occurred in Jerusalem and the world was looking pretty glum.

But for a moment I imagined what it would be like to not have my perception tainted in that way. For a moment I really could see things from her perspective.

Perhaps we have something to learn from children about our own spirituality.

They seem to have a deeper sense of gratitude for life, a purer sense of awe at the world and less need for stuff. It’s pretty amazing.

How is it that they see things with so much more optimism? Is it just that they don’t watch the news?

When I spoke at Alleman, I talked with the students about prejudice and Antisemitism. To illustrate how our brains focus on the negative, I held up a piece of paper on which I had made a very small black dot and asked the students to tell me what they saw.

Almost all of the students focused immediately on the black dot, which took up less than 1% of the whole paper.

Only one student pointed out that actually most of the paper was white space.

It seems that as we mature we learn to focus on more difference.

Somehow our increased awareness of the negative can obscure our perspective, so that it looms much larger than it should.

At this time of year, American culture encourages us to focus on gratitude.

Thanksgiving is about training our brains to look for the positive.

Jewish tradition teaches us to do this every day. We are supposed to say 100 blessings a day, each one an expression of gratitude for things like food, shelter, friends, family and health.

Sure, 100 blesings is a tall order, but the concept of trying to notice the positive is a good one. It might be hard for those of us who read the news to utter the phrase “everything is amazing,” but we can try to look for the white space more and recognize that there is plenty for which to be grateful.

What happens when we express gratitude?

We actually become aware of the good things in our lives. We tap into that limitless loving-kindness pouring into the world. We notice the white space on the page.

So, is God good all the time?

Maybe that’s not the best way to phrase the question.

What if instead we ask: how can I recognize God’s goodness right now?

How can I get in touch with the limitless loving-kindness that emanates constantly into our world?

One answer is to that question lies in two simple words: thank you.

Thanksgiving isn’t for those who have had an easy life.

It’s not an occasion for those who feel like life has given them everything they’ve ever wanted.

If you’ve had an easy life, you don’t need to a holiday to remind you of the power of gratitude.

Thanksgiving is for those of us who have struggled.

It is for those of us who have been through stuff.

The point is to summon the courage and strength to look beyond our pain and find blessings even when they seem obscured from view.

Thanksgiving isn’t a holiday for the happy-go-lucky.

Metaphorically, winter comes not only in December, but in those colorless moments: boredom, isolation, feeling misunderstood or unloved, losing sight of your purpose and meaning in life.

In a very literal way, awareness of appreciation and expressions of gratitude serve us by helping us through the bleakest of times.

It’s impossible to feel a sense of gratitude all the time, because, sometimes life is a cold, dark winter.

Regularly appreciating the moments of beauty, enjoyment and love prepares us for the dark times. We can cultivate a predisposition for appreciation by expressing gratitude in those moments when we experience beauty, joy, awe, or satisfaction.

But we can also cultivate appreciation by finding something to be grateful for even in moments when we feel sad, lonely or bored.

Giving thanks even in difficult times, reminds us that there is still much for which to be grateful.

The holiday of Thanksgiving landed at the end of fall to comfort us in the moments before the first snowflakes land – although this year they landed early!

I think there is another reason that this holiday comes at the end of the fall harvest. Our ancestors did not have the food technology we have today and so for them Thanksgiving was as a genuine response of gratitude for the bounty which would get them through the cold winter months.

They had it much harder than we do – no central heating or frozen food section at the grocery store.

Yet, they felt gratitude for what they did have.

By saying thank you for what we do have, we can transform our perspective.

It doesn’t mean we suddenly think that life is perfect, because of course it isn’t. But can’t we all find at least one thing for which we feel grateful right now?

If you can, than perhaps you can tap into, even if just for a moment, some of God’s goodness.

Is God good, all the time?

It certainly does not always feel that way – but goodness is accessible to us right now, and at every moment in which we tune in to it.

We tune in by appreciating what is good in our lives – by giving thanks.

Happy Thanksgiving!

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