A funeral at Thanksgiving

In elementary school, I was an altar boy for our Catholic services, meaning I’d help prepare for the Mass and put things away afterward. I assisted at weddings and funerals, too.

One funeral remains in memory after all these years.

A small group – perhaps two dozen people – gathered for a funeral the day before Thanksgiving on a bitterly cold day in Cleveland. At the cemetery, the wind off the lake turned their teary cheeks bright red. Their pain was palpable.

I wondered: What will these people feel tomorrow on a day set aside to give thanks? What does “gratitude” mean in such moments: death, divorce, illness, depression, separation, a lost job, not enough money to pay all the bills?

What is gratitude? Is it even possible in those times?

Our culture has rendered gratitude irrelevant. We’re told to earn everything. Everyone must pull themselves up by their bootstraps. You get what you deserve.

No wonder we skip over the one day annually set aside for thanksgiving. When we convince ourselves that everything is earned, we develop a sense of entitlement – I’m just getting what’s coming to me – that leaves no need for actual thankfulness.

The “prosperity gospel” sells the same illusion that we earn our health and wealth and God’s favor by believing the right things and following the right code of conduct. Some people are worthy; others are not. If someone’s struggling, just tell them to pray harder and live more like you.

Our prayers of thanksgiving can absorb this sense of entitlement: Thank you God that I have a roof over my head … unlike those other people; thank you that we have this food … unlike so many others.

Thank you, God, that I am not like them.

No wonder our thanksgiving is a miserly confinement to one meal on one day in the midst of a months-long Christmas spending splurge.

The illusion of worthiness

We need to get back to gratitude, which is more than a day or a prayer or a meal. It’s how we get to know God.

Gratitude sets aside our illusions of worthiness and grounds us in humility. We recognize all we have, all we are, is a freely given gift – none of it earned.

Creation has gone on a long time without you and me and could have continued just fine without us. Yet in this moment, God decided creation was incomplete without us.

Think of that! We’ve been invited to the divine party — an invitation totally unearned and unmerited on our part. And all we can say is: Thank you! Thank you! Thank you!

As we grow in the spirit of gratitude, we become less like the older child in the famous parable, the judgmental one who stands with arms crossed and jaw set, refusing to join the party. He’s not thankful for the Parent’s unlimited and unearned love; he’s only interested in making it an earned reward for those like him.

Like his prodigal brother, he lacks a grateful heart, one that recognizes love and trusts it. Gratitude involves a deep trust.

When we’re in tough times – someone has died, something has been lost, we’re struggling and confused and anxious – we’re reminded to trust that God’s love and presence are always with us.

Gratitude involves a deep trust

The One who decided creation is incomplete without us will take care of us and get us through whatever we’re up against in the moment, including the transformative moment of death. For that, we’re thankful.

Gratitude grows as we get to know God more intimately and trust more deeply. We become less clingy and let go of some of the anxiousness that blocks gratitude from taking root in our hearts.

We relax into God’s love and hear that voice calling us beloved. We’re thankful not just with the words of our prayers, but with the generosity of our lives. We’re grateful not only for what we have, but for all that is in the moment.

For all of it, we humbly say: Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.

Gonna fly now


A storm blew the cap off the chimney. Before it could be replaced, a bird managed to tumble inside and get stuck above the flue. I could hear it frantically flapping in the confining, dark space. Its wings were useless – birds aren’t helicopters. The bird had no way out.

You know that feeling too, right?

Most of us feel that way from time to time, I suspect. Our hands, our legs, our brains, our hearts, our intuition, our creativity, our talent, our courage, our self-confidence, our best intentions, our funniest jokes – none of that seems capable of getting us out of a dark place.

I opened the flue to give the frightened bird an escape route. After several minutes, it squeezed through the flue and landed on the floor. It saw light coming through a window and began flying toward what it thought was freedom.

Smack! It went beak-first into the glass. Then, like a cartoon animal, it slid down the wall and landed on the ground, stunned and dazed. I scooped it up and cradled it between my hands, holding its wings tightly so it wouldn’t try to escape and hurt itself again.

I could tell that the bird was really frightened. Its heart was beating so fast that I couldn’t keep count. And no wonder. It had escaped a dark place and spread its wings toward the comforting light, only to slam headlong into something that it couldn’t even see.

Now, the bird was totally helpless. Its life was in someone else’s hands.

The bird’s brain had no way of knowing that I was there not to hurt, but to help. I wanted to save it. I rubbed my finger over its head, trying to soothe it as I carried it to the front door and then outside. I put it down inside a flower box, went inside and watched from the window that it had flown into.

The bird didn’t move for quite a while. Then it seemed to regain its senses. The bird stood up, stretches its wings, and then took to the sky, flying toward a stand of trees that offered shelter and safety.

The bird had no idea of what just happened. It couldn’t even begin to comprehend that it had been saved by a pair of hands that enfolded it, protected it, and carried it where it needed to go.

Fast-forward to now. Birds don’t live all that long in the wild, so this one is probably dead. It’s in Someone else’s hands now.

I’m reminded of that from time to time – often in those soaring moments, and also in those other ones we all experience. The times when we feel helpless, stuck in a dark place, afraid and confused. All of our personal powers aren’t enough. We don’t know what to do next except uselessly flap our wings and let our hearts beat so fast that we can’t count.

And all we can do is trust that there are hands holding us.

Some people don’t believe in the hands. Or they do believe, but it’s hard to trust in them – I’m well-practiced at that one! I’m more of a do-it-myself person, always sharing my brilliant ideas with the One who seems more interested in giving me a hand than in taking my advice.

Just trust. That’s hard. And often, I’m so absorbed in whatever it is that’s making my heart beat so crazy fast that I can’t even feel the hands.

In my experience, we feel those hands in the times when we use our own. When we wrap our hands around someone else — even if they’re too afraid to recognize what we’re doing for them – we connect with the hands of  Someone wrapped around us, too.

Because in a sense, they’re the same hands, doing the same thing. Lovingly helping someone get to a place where they can fly again.