1:00 P.M. EST Nov. 24, 2010
Words uttered by a person celebrating escaping the streets. A robust “thank you” directed toward heaven by a proud man looking toward the final acts of a life well spent. The silent symbolism offered by a woman who toasts God, family and friends by hoisting her bounty-filled plate.
These words, prayers, acts offer a common message on this holiday: “Thank you God for the life you have given me.”
That’s actually the translation of a note detailing the many reasons for giving thanks as written in Spanish by the Rev. Luis O. Diaz de Arce, 93, a native of Cuba and retired member of the Florida Annual Conference.
Diaz, who uses this holiday to embrace many decades of blessings rather than dwell on hardship and loss, is one of several people — from various stations of life — who today share their thoughts, prayers and special traditions of this American holiday.
Those struggling for just the right words may want to borrow the tradition of Marcia McFee, a creative worship consultant from Truckee, Calif.
In her home, a simple toast — not with a beverage but with a plate — is silent testimony of gratitude for life’s abundance.
Actually, she borrowed her tradition from a friend, Nina Reeves, North Alabama Conference leader of youth ministry for decades.
“She told me once: ‘Marcia, when I go out to dinner with my interfaith friends, words sometimes get in the way. So when we pray before the meal, we just lift the plate.’
“Then she grabbed her plate full of food, and I grabbed mine, and we lifted (them) silently into the air.
“‘Amen’ is the only word uttered as we replaced the plates on the table.”
McFee finds this particularly appropriate on Thanksgiving. When family and friends of different spiritual bents and traditions gather to celebrate a holiday, breaking bread together is more about the unity of hope than the difference in beliefs.
“Lifting the plate can include everyone in a common practice that offers a way to give thanks for the food, for the gathering, for life.” Amen.
In a nation where the economy is struggling and homelessness is far too common, not all celebrants are in the bosom of their families on the holiday.
Even in that population, there are those who offer thanks for little victories and blessings as they bow over plates of food provided by churches and shelters across the nation.
The Rev. Neelley Hicks, a deacon at Sixty-First Avenue United Methodist Church in a hard-scrabble section of Nashville, Tenn., describes the thoughts of one of her friends, “Ed.”
“Ed” was forced to flee his “home” when May’s historic floods washed away Tent City, the city’s long-established homeless encampment on the banks of the Cumberland River. Hicks says Ed is thankful that he since has found permanent shelter in Nashville. And he wants to remember the less fortunate. He “wants to lift up those people from other countries who don’t have anything to eat, and those in the U.S. who are struggling,” Hicks says.
“He wants everyone to pray for (the) homeless living on the streets.”
Those, like Hicks, who aid the homeless, share those sentiments.
Take the “The Sandwich Girl,” for example.
Meredith Medlin, a student at Boston University, calls Christ United Methodist in Franklin, Tenn., her home church. It’s an existence that could be far-removed from the streets.
Instead, last summer she earned her nickname by delivering sandwiches and sharing conversation with Nashville’s homeless.
The experience moved her so much that when she bows her head on Thanksgiving, she will count the people she met among her blessings: “It humbles me to see how few material possessions some of my brothers and sisters have, yet all they can do is praise you, God. Thank you so much for those blessed children. I thank you not only for giving them your grace and peace, but also for putting them in my path, that I may experience you and be humbled by their gratitude… .”
When she begins to count her own blessings this Thanksgiving, Maria Teresa Santiago, a diaconal minister from Puerto Rico, looks back at her humble upbringing and realizes that what she once thought was poverty was really a life of bounty, in spirit and grace, if not in material possessions.
“As children, we were taught to say please and then to give thanks,” she recalls.
“... I would ask my father why we always had to give thanks. He would reply that we should not only say it but feel it, since we are not rich and everything we have is a blessing from God.”
She remembers thinking that she didn’t really know why to be thankful, since “we don’t have a place to live and I don’t have what other children have, and my father earns so little.”
“I could not understand the wealth my father was talking about, nor the gratitude he felt.”
Now she understands “the wealth which my father spoke of and the gratefulness he felt… . When I see the injustices of the world, I no longer think God is unjust. I believe that God has called me, my father, my mother and you who are reading these lines to make a change.”
Gratitude “does not derive from our possessions or our achievements, but from our attitude toward the circumstances. Today I can say that if I hadn’t learned to be grateful, I could not understand God’s plan in my life… .
“If I hadn’t been able to develop this gift, I would have lost the opportunity to fill my life with so many colors and flavors.”
Back in Florida, the Rev. de Arce approaches Thanksgiving by celebrating 93 years of blessings that began when he was born in the “bosom of the large family saturated with love.”
He goes on to describe how much he has been blessed by teachers, preachers, schools, churches, doctors, medicines, all things, great and small, that helped him negotiate a life well-spent.
There are words of thanks for “a partner that sweetened my life” and the resulting children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren who “have lighted my earthly journey.”
He also is grateful for being allowed to work as a pastor, “grazing sheep in your flock” and even rescuing some of those who were lost.
He is “at the end of my pilgrimage,” he says, and he tells God, “thank you for the long life you have given me.”
*Ghianni is a Nashville, Tenn.,-based freelance writer. Barbara Dunlap-Berg, internal content editor for United Methodist Communications, gathered information for and contributed to this report.