This is the text of a talk I gave in Sacrament Meeting around this time last year. Warning: it’s LONG, and it quite predictably incorporates the John Donne quote I force upon everyone every Thanksgiving.
November is an odd month–hard to say whether it’s the end of autumn, or the beginning of winter. This year I think we’ve even had a few days of spring. It doesn’t fit easily in the American cultural calendar, either–the somewhat belated harvest festival at the end of it seems to be mostly an impediment to full-out marketing of Christmas merchandise beginning right after Halloween and a decorating dilemma: no one can decide whether to stay with the gold and orange-tones of autumn, or go straight to red and green. And then smack in the middle of the month is Veteran’s Day, suggesting red, white and blue accents perhaps. There’s one overlooked holiday in November, though, that may help us make sense of these clashing themes. November actually begins with All Saints’ Day–not much celebrated by Latter-day Saints, but one which I think could actually fit well in our tradition. All Saints’ Day is observed by many Christian churches as a day to remember the lives of virtuous people and rededicate onesself to following their example. It thus introduces a major theme of the month of November–REMEMBRANCE, which is then made more specific and poignant on Veteran’s Day, when we remember the veterans of all wars, and also celebrate the armistice after WWI–a peace which, of course, turned out to be fragile and temporary. These dual celebrations of virtuous lives and noble deaths give us an opportunity to remember those who have died with gratitude for their sacrifice and their example. And there are deeper lessons there, too, that prepare us for Thanksgiving and Christmas, all bound up in the word “remember.”
“Remember” is a nice sturdy Anglo-Saxon word that means the opposite of “dis-member.” That is, it means, at its most basic, “to put together,” (especially to put together in one’s mind–to fit together the pieces of a mental image). My dictionary gives the following definitions: “to recall to the mind through an act of memory; to call to the mind with effort or determination.” It is this determination and effort that finally connect remembrance to thanksgiving. As human beings, we choose by an act of will how we will re-member our experiences. Sometimes this choice is barely conscious; sometimes it takes a long time before we can make sense of an experience enough to name and take control of our memories, but, as we tell and retell the stories of our lives to ourselves, we gradually sort out the narrative elements we will keep, the themes around which we will organize our recitations of events, the action that will occupy center stage in our memories.
Stories, like our lives, are usually organized around a crisis, a central tension of some sort. Just as the armistice after World War I turned out to be too fragile to last, we will find that the periods of contentment and peace in our lives are interrupted by sickness, by death, by sin, discouragement, and despair. The way that we choose to tell the story of our lives in these moments is especially important: we can become overwhelmed by the crisis of the moment, or we can situate the current problem in a narrative that includes the remembrance of God’s help in our past, and in the lives of those we love and revere. One of my favorite reminders of this possibility is in Hebrews, Chapter 11: 1-16, 30-34
Paul is not the only prophet concerned with our remembrance of the goodness of God to our forefathers and mothers. The stories of these people are told over and over in the scriptures; the Exodus is reenacted each year in the Passover, the Book of Mormon is full of the admonition to remember.
I want to digress for a minute and tell a small story about my own life: when I was a little girl, my mother used the hymnal as a weapon. If we were fighting, she would sing “Let Us Oft Speak Kind Words.” If we were resisting going to bed, she would sing “Now the Day is Over,” when we did not do our chores fast enough, she sang “The Time is Far Spent.” Now, my mother has many talents, but carrying a tune is not among them, so this was a pretty effective way for her to do battle. When we were upset about some perceived slight, or some little thing that wasn’t going our way, she would often sing “Count Your Many Blessings.” And I confess that it never worked to make me feel better, and I still really dislike that song. Moreover, I’m not convinced that my dislike of the song is entirely rooted in childhood trauma; I believe there may be something fundamentally wrong with the premise that “when upon life’s billows [we] are tempest-tossed,” counting our many blessings is the most effective way to snap out of our funk. I know it’s heretical to question the premise of a hymn, but bear with me a minute. Let’s compare the formula prescribed by the song with Psalm 137, which is about a moment when the children of Israel were “tempest-tossed:” “By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down, yea, we wept when we remembered Zion. We hanged our harps upon the willows in the midst thereof. For there they that carried us away captive required of us a song; and they that wasted us required of us mirth, saying, Sing us one of the songs of Zion. How shall we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?”
One of the reasons I think “Count Your Many Blessings” rubs me the wrong way is that tells us how to feel–it suggests that we should feel grateful all the time. It “requires of us mirth.” And that, of course, makes me feel guilty because I don’t seem to be capable of sustaining that feeling for very long stretches. It’s likely that I am exceptionally wicked and ungrateful, but still, I think that the kind of overwhelming gratitude we think we should feel is not an emotion we can manage to feel constantly. I think maybe the Psalms are a better guide than “Count Your Many Blessings.” I’ve been reading them over this week, and here’s the lesson I take from them: the Psalmists command praise of God, giving thanks, not as the result of an overflowing of feeling grateful–indeed these poems move from cursing the poets’ enemies, to imploring God for blessings, to giving thanks for God’s past mercies and praising Him for His miraculous interventions with a rapidity that is stunning, if we think of them as descriptions of how the poet is feeling. Instead, I think they make sense if we read them as a guide to the process of remembering, if we understand that we are to be grateful as an act of will, that we are to decide to tell the stories of our lives with emphasis on God’s goodness and mercies to us. And we have to practice telling our stories this way, so that it becomes the narrative we know best–perhaps this is why we begin our prayers with offering thanks, and try to do it when we don’t much feel thankful. Even when our thanks are routine or a little perfunctory, when our feelings don’t quite match up, it is useful to cultivate the habit of praise and gratitude. Discouragement, despair, sin can all feel like exile–when we feel like strangers in a strange land, we will not feel like singing. We will want to weep. And yet, if we have learned to sing the song of gratitude by long practice, then even in exile, in despair, when we are longing for “an heavenly country,” as Paul says, we will be able to remember the words of the songs–we will be cheered by the singing of those around us, and we will remember the lives of the faithful who have gone before, who have made it through their own wilderness places and found home at last. And this memory will make room for the happy ending of our own story, just as our Autumn rituals of memory and thanksgiving make space for the sudden glory of Christ’s birth, in the middle of the darkest nights of the year. Here is how the poet John Donne described this abundance in the midst of want:
God made Sun and Moon to distinguish seasons, and day, and night, and we cannot have the fruits of the earth but in their seasons: But God hath made no decree to distinguish the seasons of his mercies; In paradise, the fruits were ripe the first minute, and in heaven it is alwaies Autumne, his mercies are ever in their maturity. We ask panem quotidianum, our daily bread, and God never sayes you should have come yesterday, he never sayes you must again to morrow, but to day if you will heare his voice, to day he will heare you. If some King of the earth have so large an extent of Dominon, in North, and South, as that he hath Winter and Summer together in his dominions, much more hath God mercy and judgment together: He brought light out of darknesse, not out of a lesser light; he can bring thy Summer out of Winter, though thou have no Spring; though in the wayes of fortune, or understanding, or conscience, thou have been benighted till now, wintred and frozen, clouded and eclypsed, damped and benummed, smothered and stupified till now, now God comes to thee, not as in the dawning of the day, not as in the bud of the spring, but as the Sun at noon to illustrate all shadowes, as the sheaves in harvest, to fill all penuries. All occasions invite his mercies, and all times are his seasons.
May we more fully entwine the stories of our lives with grateful memories of God’s mercies, so that our yearly ritual of Thanksgiving will prepare us to receive light out of darkness as we celebrate Christ’s birth, just as our daily ritual of beginning our prayers with a litany of gratitude prepares us to recognize and give thanks for God’s continued presence in our lives.