A Word from Our Pastor 2011 January Giving Thanks

Giving Thanks

The end of one year and the beginning of the next is often a time of thanking people, especially for all the gifts and kindnesses we have been shown during the holidays. Each of us has been taught how to respond to gifts. Some of us were taught the Japanese custom never to open a gift in front of the giver — as I was. Even now, I have to be reminded that many people are disappointed if you do not open the gift in front of them. All of us know what it feels like to struggle over finding the right gift for someone we care about, and the disappointment we feel if we discover that the gift was not pleasing. As children, we are told over and over again, “it’s the thought that counts”, so we should appreciate in our hearts and with our words the effort and generosity of the persons who give us gifts.
In Japanese culture as well, a gift must be reciprocated. Sometimes this goes to almost ridiculous lengths — giving gifts back and forth as an attempt to keep the relationship “in balance.” For many of us, this Japanese custom of always acknowledging a gift with another gift has been “translated” into the American setting in the form of thank-you cards. For many of us, thank-you cards are absolutely required, and must be sent before too many days go by. How many of you as parents stood over young children, making sure that the thank-you card was written? It is not just polite to send the card — the thank-you lets the giver know that we appreciate the gift, and all the effort and thoughtfulness the giver went through to choose the gift.
But how are we supposed to respond to the gifts we receive from God? The first problem is to become aware of how much in our lives is a gift from God — the blessings of food, safety, family, home. The times when we find meaning in our suffering, when we realize how much love we feel for someone who has passed away, or when we have the opportunity to take care of someone who is in physical, spiritual or emotional need: all of these are gifts from God. Through prayer, we can hope to be able to see all the ways in which God loves us through our everyday lives, and of course, in prayer we can thank God.
So, in light of the many gifts we receive from God, what kind of action, in addition to prayer, can we take to express our thanks? What can we do that God might “appreciate”? What in our lives can we dedicate to God?
There is a famous answer to this question from the book of the prophet Micah. It was written to remind people what was really important. Micah was also being critical of the traditional forms of giving thanks — people were just doing what was required.. For many, the Temple sacrifices had become empty rituals, like a thank-you card with a sentiment that does not come from the heart. Micah wanted people to think about what they were doing — to thank God in deeply meaningful ways. So Micah asks,
“What shall I bring to the Lord, the God of heaven, when I come to worship? Shall I bring the best calves to burn as offerings to him? Will the Lord be pleased if I bring him thousands of sheep or endless streams of olive oil? [These were typical sacrifices that people brought to the temple to show their faithfulness to God]. Shall I dedicate my firstborn child to pay for my sins?
No, the Lord has told us what is good. What God requires of us is this: to do what is just [or, “to love justice”]; to show mercy and to walk humbly with our God.”
(Micah: 6:6-8)
How might you show your gratitude to God? In the year ahead, how can you stand up for justice, be merciful and walk more closely with God? I hope that at the end of the holiday season, you may take a couple of quiet moments to commit yourself to thanking God in a concrete way that is meaningful to you.
Happy new year!
–Rev. Naomi