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Footsteps to Follow: Choose gratitude, always

The holidays look different this year, no matter who or where we are. Big box retailers have missed the memo; by the last week of October, Christmas goods were back-to-back with Halloween candy, same as always. Too many small businesses have reduced their hours or shut their doors, hoping and praying it’s not permanent. Anyone with dollars to spend is well aware that we are voting with those dollars: which businesses have a chance to survive the pandemic?

There’s always more “stuff” to want for those with dollars to spend. But when we gratefully realize that our basic needs are met, we also realize it is time to be triply generous to local non-profits that serve our neighbors’ needs.

More than ever this year, gratitude is a choice. I would argue that for all people, gratitude is a basic survival skill, and for people of faith, it is “job one,” every day of our lives. Sincere thankfulness requires us first to resist the contagion of fear and anger. Next, precisely because both the worst and the best sides of life are very real, we have to decide not to let the negative drown out the positive.

Thanksgiving isn’t just a holiday in November; it is a state of mind. Gratitude is not the art of denying life’s hardships or tragedies but choosing, in spite of those, to stay awake to everything good: to remain aware of the simple comforts, beauties, and kindnesses we experience.

Surely this year all of us have suffered losses. If we have not lost loved ones to death, we’ve lost the ability to spend time with someone we love. People of faith turn at such times to the book of Psalms, which shows us how to express our feelings honestly and forcefully to God, while holding tight to God’s “steadfast love, which endures forever”(Psalm 107:1, 118:1, 136:1).

Psalms are Biblical cognitive therapy; they will shape us into grateful people. Dietrich Bonhoeffer treasured them while imprisoned by the Nazis. In 1943, he wrote: “I am reading the Psalms daily, as I have done for years. I know them and love them more than any other book in the Bible.”

As hard as 2020 has been, there is always something to be thankful for. In the words of a children’s book: It’s a beautiful world, but it’s not an easy one. If we wait to be grateful until the world is fair, or until our expectations are met, we’ll wait forever. And that would be a shame! Gratitude makes all our ordinary joys sweeter.

Whatever you treasure most, it’s not likely to be anything money can buy. It’s the experiences that still connect us to other people: respect, humor, music, convictions, faith, friendship, family, and the beauty of the outdoors. What price tag could you put on those? Even if you had all the world’s wealth but lacked those, what could possibly make up for them?

Maybe gratitude itself is a gift that we can only receive when we’re not “spinning our wheels,” not too rushed, anxious, or covetous. Maybe all it requires is to open our eyes to the colors of this day, while there is still some bronze and gold in the trees, with the purple shadow of the hills as backdrop and the smell of woodsmoke on the air.

Surely each of us has blessings and gifts that money could never buy. So do not let anything rob you of your Thanksgiving. The holly jolly holidays will come soon enough.

Elizabeth Affsprung, pastor of Covenant Central Presbyterian Church, Williamsport

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