This morning I had the great honor of speaking at Trinity High School's Thanksgiving service. Below are the reflections I shared.
We began with prayer, the school population reading the italicized text and I reading the rest:
Prayer of Thanksgiving
Vienna Cobb Anderson
God of all blessings,
source of all life,
giver of all grace:
We thank you for the gift of life:
for the breath that sustains life,
for the food of this earth that nurtures life,
for the love of family and friends without which there would be no life.
We thank you for the mystery of creation:
for the beauty that the eye can see,
for the joy that the ear may hear,
for the unknown that we cannot behold filling the universe with wonder,
for the expanse of space that draws us beyond the definitions of our selves.
We thank you for setting us in communities:
for families who nurture our becoming,
for friends who love us by choice,
for companions at work and school who share our burdens and daily tasks,
for strangers who welcome us into their midst,
for people from other lands who call us to grow in understanding,
for children who lighten our moments with delight,
for the unborn who offer us hope for the future.
We thank you for this day:
for life and one more day to love,
for opportunity and one more day to work for justice and peace,
for neighbors and one more person to love and by whom be loved,
for your grace and one more experience of your presence,
for your promise:
to be with us,
to be our God,
and to give salvation.
For these, and all blessings,
we give you thanks, eternal, loving God,
through Jesus Christ we pray. Amen.
Then I shared these thoughts:
Thank you so much for inviting me to speak this morning. Trinity has a special place in my heart, since I taught here for six years. In that time, I am sure I learned at least as much as I taught.
As you may be aware, Election Day was two weeks ago. The mention of this may make some of you uncomfortable, since it seems to elicit high emotion from lots of people, myself included. I mention it not to provoke, but simply because I can’t speak honestly here today without acknowledging that in our country, there is a lot of division, a lot of pain rising to the surface, and a lot of fear that is showing itself in many ways – as hate, as anger, as violence. I could have made the same statement months before the election and I would have made the same statement if the election results had been different. Our country is hurting.
What, you might ask, does that have to do with gratitude?
On the night of the second presidential debate, I started a new habit. That night and every night since then, before going to bed, I’ve posted a gratitude list on Facebook. The night of the debate, bogged down by the negative energy being hurled in every direction, I wanted – and needed – to acknowledge the good, to share something positive, and to remind myself that while there were and are daunting challenges ahead, there is a solid foundation from which I, and you, can face them. That foundation is gratitude.
My first night’s list included:
-being back with my wonderful church community after a few weeks away
-getting a bit of catch-up time with a friend and soaking in the sweetness of her five-month-old son
-walking & talking around the Cherokee Loop
-yummy pumpkin ravioli from Trader Joe’s
-friends who show up, stand up, speak up for justice
And so much more…
If you were to make a gratitude list today, what and who would it include?
My lists reflect only a small piece of what is good in my life and in the world; in no way do they capture all the good. I don’t think I’ve ever expressed gratitude for having enough food, a safe home, my own transportation. These things are so common in my life that I often don’t even think of them; I take them for granted, even though I know that many people in our world, in our country, maybe even in this school community, cannot take them for granted.
I started making my lists because I know that in the big picture, goodness is everywhere, but sometimes we get caught up in the small picture, the stuff that we can see. We forget that as God created the world, over and over, God said it was good. People, all of us created by God in God’s image, are, at our very core, good, even if we don’t act that way all the time.
So, during difficult times like now, we must try really hard to focus on the good. The more goodness we notice, the more we are able to share it because we know that it’s not going to run out. In fact, the more we are willing to share our own goodness, the more we have to share. Goodness and gratitude, most often, multiply goodness and gratitude.
I say this not because I think everything is happy and rosy. I am well aware that there is much darkness in our world. But we have a choice in how we face it: we can give in to the darkness or we can let the light that is within us shine.
In Matthew 5:14-16, we hear the words: “You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid. No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to our God in heaven.”
You are the light of the world. Do you know it?
Marianne Williamson says it another way. You may have heard these words in a movie or somewhere else. When I taught theology at Trinity, I used to use these words as prayer on the first and the last day of the semester:
Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won't feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It's not just in some of us; it's in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.
God has created you and given you gifts, so that you can shine and help others to do the same.
You wouldn’t be here on earth if you didn’t have something to offer the world. If you don’t believe it yet, I hope that when someone else, maybe a parent, a teacher, a friend, tells you how they see your light shining, you believe them.
We are all meant to shine. This is true of you, your family and friends, your teachers, and even the people you don’t like.
You may have noticed the pictures behind me. I wanted to share some of the people and places that have shone their light on me. Some of the people I’ll talk about today; most, I won’t. There’s not enough time. But I will share a few stories.
When I was in high school at Sacred Heart a long time ago, I, like you, learned about history and social justice and about some of our world’s problems. I don’t remember the particulars, though I imagine some of the problems included war, poverty, hunger, slavery, discrimination, violence, and violence, and more violence. What I do remember is realizing that my life, in comparison to a lot of other people, was pretty easy. Learning that prompted me to join the school’s Amnesty International club. There we wrote letters to governments and leaders around the world asking them to respect human rights, asking them to release political prisoners, asking them to protect peace activists and truth-tellers. Realizing that I had so much freedom compelled me to use that freedom, that power, my voice, so that others might also enjoy freedom, peace, security, things that I could take for granted and others couldn’t.
You, too, have a lot of freedom and power and a voice you can use. At this time in our country, who needs you to use your voice? Who needs you to speak up for their safety and well-being and rights?
Between my freshman and sophomore years of college, as part of a group from the Church of the Epiphany, I visited El Salvador for the first time. There I learned about the recently ended civil war. I visited where Archbishop Oscar Romero had lived and been killed and I learned about the way he became a voice for the Salvadoran people. I was burdened with stories of brutality from the war, I was burdened by the knowledge that my government had given many millions of dollars to support the forces responsible for some of the worst atrocities of the war.
And I was also blessed. I was so blessed by the Salvadoran people who opened their hearts and homes to me, who taught me about hospitality and generosity. Another delegate, named Joann, and I stayed in the home of Mary and Panfilo. Mary and Panfilo didn’t have running water. They had a large concrete basin that collected water during the rainy season. During the dry season or when there wasn’t enough water, they had to walk up the road to a spigot to get water. They had been told before our arrival that we were used to bathing with hot water, so they heated water on their stove and put it in a separate area just for us so we would be more comfortable.
Most of their living space didn’t have walls around it. The only place with walls was the room the whole family slept in. Because they’d been told we were used to privacy, they put sheets up around 2 beds, giving Joann and me our own space to sleep. The beds we slept in weren’t extra beds; Mary and Panfilo’s sons doubled up, so that Joann and I would each have a bed.
The family always served us food first to make sure that we had enough to eat. They gave us not what was extra – they didn’t have extra – but offered us their very best, even if it meant being less comfortable themselves.
I received the same kind of generous hospitality in India almost 20 years later. Five years ago at this time, I was in India teaching sixth and seventh grade English.
Let me tell you a little about the school. While technically it had electricity, most often it didn’t work. There was no running water. There was no cafeteria, so all students brought their own lunches and ate in the classrooms or out in a concrete patio area. The school was in a walled-in compound that also had the house where I lived with Indian Sisters of Charity of Nazareth. On my first day of teaching, the sixth grade boys invited me to eat lunch with them. So instead of walking back to the house to eat with the sisters, I sat in the classroom with the boys, where they asked me questions about the U.S. and we looked at maps and laughed and learned about each other. Because I didn’t have any food, each student tore off a piece of his bread or gave me a bit of his potatoes or cauliflower and by sharing in that way, they had enough to eat and I also had plenty. At the end of our meal, they asked if I would eat with them again the next day. I said yes.
By the time we sat for lunch the next day, the boys had gone home and told their mothers about the new American teacher. I was a novelty, the only foreigner for many miles around. In India, as I experienced in El Salvador and so many other places, guests are treated with the utmost care. The boys’ moms had gone out of their way to make fancy dishes and include sweets in their sons’ lunches. Like the day before, the boys gave me a small part of their lunches – bread, potatoes, other vegetables, sweets – they gave me so much food that I had to urge them to help me eat it. I felt like I was living the Bible story of the loaves and fishes, where food multiplies and everyone has enough to eat and there’s even extra left over. None of the boys hesitated in giving up some of their food, because when they each gave me a little, everyone still had enough.
I have, and have always had, more than enough. After spending time with people who don’t have much stuff, I’ve learned that I need much less than what I actually have. I’ve learned that I can live out of a backpack for nine months. I’ve learned that I can give a lot away and still have plenty.
In El Salvador and India and other places, I’ve learned about generosity, about how as a person who has enough stuff, I can and must use my resources to support people who are suffering from need.
As a person with so many privileges, I can and must use my voice to speak up, like Archbishop Romero did, for people whose voices have been stifled or silenced. For many years after that first trip to El Salvador, I was involved in justice work for Latin America. I also became a Spanish teacher, where I got to share not only the language, but also the stories of people I had met.
That teaching brought me to Trinity 11 years ago. Three years into my time at Trinity, I was getting a Masters degree when I went into Mr. Zoeller’s office to ask him if I could miss 2 weeks during the school year to participate in a class that would take me to Israel and Palestine for the first time. Without hesitation and to my surprise, he said yes. That trip has shaped all the years after it. I have gone back to the area five more times.
The first time, I went to teach English to Palestinians in the West Bank. I had a class of children, a class of teenagers, and what I called my man-class, a class of six young men who were all friends. My teenagers were, like I’m sure many of you are, plugged into social media, so I thought it would be cool to set up an exchange between my Palestinian students and my former students in the U.S.
In preparation, I asked my Palestinian students what they thought of when they thought of the United States. “Los Angeles,” they said. “New York! Justin Bieber,” and the list went on.
Then I asked them what they thought students in the U.S thought of when they heard the word Palestine. “Israel,” they said. “The West Bank.” The third word they said was “terrorists.”
It broke my heart, because I had heard, and still hear, people in the U.S. lump all 1.6 billion Muslims into that category. I knew that when some people thought of Muslims, which all of my students happened to be, or Palestinians, which all of my students were, they did indeed think they were terrorists.
When family members say such a thing, I remind them that we who share bloodhave different ideas and ways of living in the world, so it‘s possible that the 1.6 billion Muslims, living all over the world, don’t all think or act the same.
In the case of my students, I was in a classroom of guys and girls worrying about their homework, complaining about their classes, sending texts, posting on Facebook, making plans for the weekend, some working jobs in the evenings and weekends, and basically doing the same things I’d seen my students in the U.S. doing. Except that they were also living under a military occupation and living with a label that few, if any, of my students here would ever have to worry about.
During that class, I told them about how Palestinian shopkeepers I didn’t even know had invited me for tea, how they, my students, had invited me to meet their families or offered to show me around town. I explained what a great experience I was having. Then I went on with class.
As I was walking out of class that day, one of the girls stopped me, looked me straight in the eye and asked, “Do you think we’re terrorists?”
For the second time that day, my heart broke. With tears in my eyes, I looked right back at her and said, “No. No! I don’t think you are terrorists. I think you are teenagers who worry about the same things as teenagers in the U.S. and who just want to have a decent life.” I never saw evidence of anything different. For my birthday, those students organized a party for me, buying a cake, complete with candles that shot up sparks. They showed me such love and care and thanks to Facebook, I am still in touch with a few of them.
The next four times I was in Israel/Palestine, I worked as a human rights defender. I’ll go back again. Often the work involves documenting human rights abuses, like Palestinian children getting teargassed on the way to school, something I cannot stop from happening, but can at least document, so the world knows it’s happening. Hopefully, when enough of us know and demand that it stop, it will stop. Those days are really hard, especially when it happens day after day after day. Occasionally, thankfully, I have days when I can step into a tense situation and break it up before things get violent.
I’m fortunate to have met and worked with Palestinians, Israelis, and other people from around the world working for peace and justice. It is from them that I learn what courage looks like. Courage doesn’t mean being without fear. It means walking toward fear and through it, over and over again. I’ve learned about dedication from people who’ve been working for years or decades for a more just and peaceful world.
My own learning – about generosity or courage or dedication – is slow. Sometimes I have to learn the same lessons many times. One of those repeat lessons is that all people I encounter are made in God’s image. This is true even if I disagree with what they are doing or saying. It is true if they are insulting me or otherwise not living up to their godly nature.
When I am at my best, one thing I do to remind myself that they, too, are God’s children is I look them in the eye and I think as I hold their gaze (if they are brave enough to look back at me) something like, “I wish you peace. I wish you joy. I wish you love.” Looking them in the eye reminds me that we – me and that other person – we are in this together. My well-being is tied to theirs. Looking them in the eye that way can be really hard to do. But when our eyes meet, it is clear that we are connected. In our connection, we become better than we were moments before when we tried to pretend that we were disconnected or really different from each other.
Today in our country, we need as many people as possible to be connected, to be at their very best, shining brightly and inspiring others to do the same. We need to find our grounding in gratitude for all the goodness in our lives.
Then we need to share all that goodness. Mrs. Emrich told me that the reason you all are dressed down today is because you – the whole school – met your goals for the Dare to Care food drive. Because you knew you had enough, you shared it with people who don’t.
You also have other gifts to share. Your talents and abilities add beauty to our world and help it to function better.
This morning we’ve heard the wonderful music of the jazz band and choir. Everyone else in this room has something to share, too, whether it be words, music, visual art, math skills, athleticism, a memory for history or statistics, great jokes, compassion, generosity, dedication, or courage.
And so I ask you once again: What are you thankful for?
What gifts have you been given?
What do you have that the world needs?
You are the light of the world.
Grounded in gratitude, with your light shining, may each of you find a way to make a difference: today, tomorrow, and as we face whatever challenges lie ahead in our country and in this world.