Our Adult Forum has recently been discussing the book Gilead, a Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Marilynne Robinson. Ms. Robinson writes with a gift for polishing sentences that lead us into the lives of the people she writes about. Let it suffice to say that Gilead is a book about a family with generations of ministers. Parts of it take place during the Depression, a time my grandmother would often tell me about, when her family used to burn their crop of corn to keep warm.
If you have watched the Ken Burns series about the Roosevelts and the Depression, you can get the flavor of what I am talking about. My grandmother once told me that for Christmas she received a stick of chewing gum, which is very different from her grandson’s experience, even when my dad was unemployed for many months.
So, in this book a young boy accompanies his father on a trip to visit his grandfather’s grave and to clean up the overgrown cemetery plot. On the way home, with little money and hungry, the boy’s father steals some carrots from a garden, leaving a dime in payment. In a field not far away, they sit on the ground, and the father scrapes the dirt off the carrots with his knife and cuts them into pieces and puts them on the crown of his hat, which serves as a table between them. The boy, telling this as an adult, notes that his father never failed to say grace. He says, “For all we are about to receive”. The carrots were all they were about to receive, in fact. Robinson puts it this way: “The carrot was so big and old and tough, he had to whittle it into chips. It was like eating a branch, and there was nothing to wash it down with either.”
The story stuck with me, not that I have really known hunger or was ever starving. On the contrary, I cannot remember ever missing a meal. I have tasted old and tough carrots from my aunt’s garden when I was young, however. What fascinates me are the words “For what we are about to receive”. I have heard it said in erudite places like dinner at St. Andrew’s University in Scotland where I was studying, or in movies such as Chariots of Fire. Usually it goes “For what we are about to receive, may the Lord make us truly grateful.”
What fascinates me about these words in the book is that saying grace is so much about the fabric of these people’s beings that even in the harshest of times, such as the Great Depression, with very little to eat, they are able to utter thankful words to their Creator. Today too often we see what is not there, rather than what is. I am convinced that a grateful heart in small things will be grateful in large things. I am not sure it works in reverse. Webster’s Dictionary defines thankfulness as “a sensitive awareness of what is around you.” I am certain this awareness must include appreciation and generosity. The list could be great and small, from the new day that greets us, the family we are a part of, to the church we attend.
Before we eat our turkey this year or toast one another with a glass of champagne, may we give thanks at God’s altar.