Warmth in the Cold Places

This year my wife and I celebrated Thanksgiving with her family coming over to visit. My own family is scattered over four states and the District of Columbia, so we seldom see them all together in the same place. Thanksgiving this year with Bev’s family was fun, but I still miss the old days.

When I was growing up Thanksgiving was an event more full of liturgy and tradition than many worship services, and in some ways just as faithful. We ate the same things in the same order, in the same room, telling the same jokes and stories, for decades, then generations. We never tired of them and their repetition seemed to touch us in ways too deep for us to understand.

My Grandfather would always act like he was too hungry for just his own meal, and make passes at everybody else’s plate. My mother would invariably eat too much and then tell one of us to call her a dirty name so she could get mad and chase the name caller around the block and work off the food. My brother would always lean back in his chair at the end of the meal and say, “I wonder what the poor folks are doing,” implying that only the wealthy could possess such bounty as our Thanksgiving feast, and that we must have become rich to have had it. And during the clean up, my uncle would always waddle through the kitchen clutching his stomach in mock pain saying, “Gobble, gobble, gobble,” as though the abundance of his consumption had turned him into the bird itself.

We kids would roar with laughter each time we heard him do his turkey imitation. No matter how often he did it, year after year. We loved it, and we loved him for doing it. For there was something sacredly “family” about repeating the ritual time after time.

There is an ancient rabbinical story of a Jewish village that went through an historic ritual every year in order for God to hear their prayers. There are variations on the story, but in the one I know the people would go out into the forest, build a fire, lay out sacred stones, sprinkle water on the stones, say prayers, repeat liturgies, wait, and eventually God would hear them and answer their prayers. Over the years the people got old, the rabbi died, they couldn’t carry the stones, they couldn’t build a fire, they didn’t know what to do with the water. But they knew that something important happens to them in the forest so they still went out in their infirmity to the sacred place. They would sit down wearily, look at each other, repeat a few ancient words, say some prayers and wait. And eventually God would be there and hear their prayers. And they smiled and felt loved.

I think about that story often in my church work. We don’t always know why we still do the things we do, but they still move us. They still help us feel the presence of the “Holy” in ways that our logical minds can’t explain. There is something mysterious about ritual and tradition-whether raising the body and blood of Jesus Christ, or clucking like a turkey on Thanksgiving-that changes us and comforts us, and gives us warmth in the cold places of our hearts. I wouldn’t miss it for the world.

I enjoyed our big day with Bev’s family. They are fine people and I’m learning some of the rituals with which they celebrate their own version of this “eucharistic” meal. And they’re good rituals, full of life, and they always bring a smile. But they weren’t the liturgies from home, the ones I was raised on and the ones I passed on, and I missed that.

I called up Karla last week just before the big day. She’s thirty now, and my youngest, and she lives in Washington, DC. She, too, is far from home and this year she will be sharing thanksgiving with her fiancĂ© and his family, and all of her someday-in-laws. She’ll fit right in, though, because she’s good that way. She’s special and they’ll love her.

“I wish I could be with you,” I said.

“Me too,” she said. “I sometimes miss the old days.”

“I do too,” I said. “But it’ll be fun. You’ll have a wonderful time.”

“I know,” she said.

I thought for a moment, and then I had to say it: “But, you know, you’ll probably eat so much that you’ll have to have someone call you a dirty name so you can chase them around the block to work off the food.”

She laughed. “Well, that’s how it is,” she said. “’Gobble, gobble, gobble.’”

I laughed. And she laughed. And I loved her. And God heard our prayers.