I have a gift for words; or so I’ve been told. And it feels, well, warm and fuzzy to receive that affirmation. But here’s the thing: the phrase “you have a gift for…” is passive language. As easy as it is to take the warm fuzzy and run with it, the hard truth is that I must give credit where credit is due. My communication skills were not bestowed upon me by some mystical, beneficent hand. My linguistic ability is not a result of studying just a little bit more than you (I assure you I did not). I did not earn myself some special skill. No.
I sat at my mother’s foot as she embarked on a second (third?) career and a first avocation as an Episcopal priest. At her feet, I observed her apply rigor to her academics and I absorbed her relentless search for wisdom. Whatever skills I have are neither innate nor gifted to me. They rest upon the hard-fought foundation of someone who put her shoulder to the work; resisting societal headwinds and avoiding the immense pressure to set aside her needs and simply provide for me and my brothers. Nevertheless, she persisted. And I am the unwitting benefactor of that persistence. Nevertheless.
While I was trying my unsuccessful best to follow in my older brothers’ hellraising footsteps, my mother taught high school biology. Then she moved to teaching undergraduate anatomy and physiology at small college here in Connecticut. I then saw her enroll in the Yale School of Public Health to continue an already successful career arc. Seemingly out of nowhere, she jettisoned her studies in statistics, left her name on the honor roll, and transferred to the Divinity School.
As a middle schooler, you can be sure I appreciated neither the gravity of that risk analysis nor the guts it took to put herself first. I surely could not have imagined that I was about to receive the most valuable gifts I could ever ask for. My mother was ordained in 1989. For those of you keeping count, you will note that not too many women precede her journey into the ordained ministry. Apologies to the Catholics among us, but this is not a treatise on “Women in the Ministry.” This is nothing more than an homage to a trailblazing woman and mother who deserves her due – and I am woefully late in doing my part to recognize how she helped make me the man I am proud of today.
So today, on the eve of Thanksgiving, please enjoy these excerpts from a Thanksgiving sermon preached by my 4-year-old “baby priest” mother in 1993:
“. . . . Well, I think part of the reason that Christians don't celebrate Thanksgiving with as much splendor and energy as Christmas and Easter is that it is hard to give thanks for the whole of our lives because life is indeed a mixed blessing. Two of my sons are home to celebrate this day but the third is lost in his addiction. We will share our dinner with my dearest childhood friend, but she is weak from the therapy for her cancer. I delight in the joy of the couples I am preparing for marriage, but I also watch old marriages die with fireworks - or even worse, with a fizzle. Our soup kitchen feeds a few of the hungry souls and bodies [in our town], but the faces of starving children in Bosnia and Somalia stare from the newspaper pages. Say thank you? For all of this? No thank you. I want to pick my blessings carefully. . . .
“. . . . It is easy to be thankful for the joys of life, for a new job, a child's success, or health restored. But give thanks for war and death and loneliness and lost love? No thank you, Lord.
“We are not alone in our reluctance to give thanks for disappointments and difficulties. Moses knew that the experience of the Israelites in the desert, for all its harshness, was in some ways more blessed than the wealth and security of the promised land, for it was in the desert that they knew that they had only their God to rely on.
“It was out of their experience in the wilderness that the Jews understood that even apparent tragedy was deserving of thanks, and so they formulated benedictions for every circumstance of life. Come joy or come sorrow, they had words for it, for as far as they were concerned, people had a duty to pronounce a blessing on all aspects of life, because all life comes from God. They even had a blessing to be said on witnessing something unusual: ‘blessed are you, Lord God of the universe, for the diversity of creation and the wonder of the strange.’ The Talmud says that ‘it is forbidden to taste of the world without a blessing,’ and there are blessings for seeing the ocean for the first time, for observing a meteor and a rainbow, for the washing of hands. In this understanding, nothing, not even that which we cannot understand, is meaningless; everything, both good and bad, is suffused with God's presence, and in the absolute mysteriousness of providence, human beings cannot judge what is truly a blessing, for even our failures remind us of the eternal possibility of renewal.
“. . . . in giving thanks we strangle self pity and proclaim that God can redeem even hurt and pain. God may not command or originate the heart but in God's hands all things, even bad things, can be fashioned to work together for good.
This day, I give thanks for credit unions and for our uniqueness (my Thanksgiving wish: please stop calling it a “difference”). I give thanks for the fact that we are underdogs who punch well above our weight, and for the opportunity to serve an industry with a noble purpose. But most of all, I will hug my mom a little tighter, distract her while I steal an oyster, and try to let her know how much she helped me find gratitude in the midst of chaos.