Thanksgiving Reflections

Thanksgiving Reflections
By Rev. John Gibbons & Rev. Megan Lynes
Delivered on November 18, 2012
At the 9:00am service at The First Parish in Bedford



A Thought to Ponder at the Beginning:

I am grateful for what I am and have.
My thanksgiving is
It is surprising how
contented one can be
nothing definite —
only a sense of existence.

My breath is sweet to me.
O how I
laugh when I think of my
vague indefinite
No run on my
bank can drain it,
for my
wealth is not possession

~ Henry David Thoreau (1819-1862)


Opening Words

Bless Their Hearts

At Steak ‘n Shake I learned that if you add
“Bless their hearts” after their names, you can say
whatever you want about them and it’s OK.
My son, bless his heart, is an idiot,
she said. He rents storage space for his kids’
toys—they’re only one and three years old!
I said, my father, bless his heart, has turned
into a sentimental old fool. He gets
weepy when he hears my daughter’s greeting
on our voice mail. Before our Steakburgers came
someone else blessed her office mate’s heart,
then, as an afterthought, the jealous hearts
of the entire anthropology department.
We bestowed blessings on many a heart
that day. I even blessed my ex-wife’s heart.
Our waiter, bless his heart, would not be getting
much tip, for which, no doubt, he’d bless our hearts.
In a week it would be Thanksgiving,
and we would each sit with our respective
families, counting our blessings and blessing
the hearts of family members as only family
does best. Oh, bless us all, yes, bless us, please
bless us and bless our crummy little hearts.

Poem copyright ©2009 by Richard Newman from his most recent book of poetry, Domestic Fugues, Steel Toe Books, 2009.


Rev. John Gibbons

Reflection on “Sadness”

Last year, just before Thanksgiving, Megan and I each reflected on a poem titled “Family Reunion” by someone named Jeredith Merrin and the poem began,

The divorced mother and her divorcing
daughter. The about-to-be ex-son-in-law
and the ex-husband’s adopted son.
The divorcing daughter’s child, who is 

the step-nephew of the ex-husband’s
adopted son. Everyone cordial:
the ex-husband’s second wife
friendly to the first wife, warm 

to the divorcing daughter’s child’s
great-grandmother, who was herself
long ago divorced. Everyone
grown used to the idea of divorce. 

Almost everyone has separated
from the landscape of a childhood.

And the poem ends with questions that often arise around the holidays:

Where are we going?
Is it scary? What happened? Can
I have more now? Who is that?

There is a bittersweet flavor to that poem as, I think, there is also a tender bittersweetness (that I savor and do not regret) to the holidays that again seem to be upon us.

So this year, today, Megan and I will reflect on two different poems.  I chose one titled “Sadness” and Megan chose one titled “So Much Happiness.”


By Michael Blumenthal

Sooner or later it comes to everyone:
the beautiful prom queen who has lost a breast,
the Don Juan of the tenth grade who has
turned up impotent, the fleet chiropodist
who has developed a limp. Sooner or later it comes,
and you are never prepared for it quite yet,
you who had hoped to be spared through another epoch
of your rightful happiness, you who had always
given to charity. Like a gargantuan tackle
lumbering toward you, it comes and comes,
and—though you may double lateral all you wish,
though you may throw a perfect spiral
up the middle to some ecstatic receiver
and be blessed blue-green some night
by the ministrations of strangers—it will not
spare you. It comes and comes, inevitable
as sunrise, palpable as longing,
and we must go on
laughing it right in the face
until it learns to sing again.

Tomorrow Sue and I will go to Florida where her Ohio sisters and a common-law brother-in-law have a couple of condos in a “retirement community.”  We’ll have Thanksgiving again this year at Wiggins Pass State Park, near Naples, on the beach. There will be an assortment of Ohio-based friends whom we see but once a year.  On the way to the beach I will receive my annual coaching as to who the heck they are, their names and how they fit in.

On a grill on the beach, I’m sure, Jeff will again cook a brined pork loin. Carol and Linda will make some Ohioan ambrosia salad.  Sue will get a couple of store-bought pies (or maybe some soon-to-be extinct Twinkies).

My job is to stay sober long enough to say grace.

And my other Thanksgiving job is to avoid talking politics with Jeff who is a diehard member of the white male voting coalition whose numbers appear to have diminished.  Jeff has for the last few months, of course, filled my email inbox with right-wing screeds.  Just before the election he said that this may be the last year for his Florida condo because, if Obama wins, everything will have to be shared…Obama being, you know, a socialist.  I’ve already asked Jeff to make me a second set of keys.  Bless his heart.

No, I’ll stay away from politics and force myself to talk Ohio State football.  I recently was warned, however, that I should not ask Jeff what bowl game Ohio State will be playing in…because, due to some recruiting scandal, apparently Ohio has been disqualified and banned from all bowl games.  Who knew?  Did any of you know this?  I also should not ask what bowl game Michigan is going to because Ohioans hate Michiganders.

Yes, the holidays are a minefield and I imagine you have your own crosses to bear.

But here’s what I notice most acutely when we gather on the beach:  We’re all getting older.  Yesterday, I officiated here at a memorial service and one thing I said was that “memorial services narrow the gap between the generations: children no longer seem quite so young; elders no longer seem quite so much older than we are ourselves.  And yet, ‘The great magic trick of human existence (so said Tennessee Williams) is to snatch the eternal from the desperately fleeting.’”

So, on the beach, when we join hands for grace, I’ll look around and we’ll say the  names of those not present but with us in spirit; and there will be names of those who have died, some who were on the beach a year ago or the year before but are not now.  In our group, at least, there aren’t or aren’t yet many fresh faces or babies and so I’ll think about …

the beautiful prom queen who has lost a breast,
the Don Juan of the tenth grade who has
turned up impotent, the fleet chiropodist
who has developed a limp.

Not that there were really any prom queens in the family, or 10th grade Don Juans, or fleet chiropodists.  But speaking of chiropodists, when I was in 10th grade, I took an occupational aptitude test and I was then informed that I had the makings of a top-notch chiropodist.  I’ve squandered my skills in ministry when I could have been a genius in the treatment of feet.

“Sooner or later it comes,” says the poet,
“and you are never prepared for it quite yet,
you who had hoped to be spared through another epoch
of your rightful happiness, you who had always
given to charity. Like a gargantuan (Ohio State Buckeye) tackle
lumbering toward you, it comes and comes,
and—though you may double lateral all you wish,
though you may throw a perfect spiral
—it will not
spare you.

“It comes and comes,” says the poet,  “inevitable
as sunrise, palpable as longing,
and we must go on
laughing it right in the face
until it learns to sing again.”

And so those are the poem’s punch lines and, I submit to you, the mandate of these holidays: despite time, and death, and the space between the stars, we must go on laughing it right in the face until it learns to sing again.  To snatch the eternal from the desperately fleeting.

Do you remember the story of the magician on stage who pulls a 5lb hammer out of his bag of tricks. Then he gets someone out of the audience and tells him to hit him right on the head. The guy says,  “You want me to kill you?”

“No, it’s a trick,” says the magician and lays his head on the side on a table.

The guy says “Alright,” hauls back and wham!

Ten years later the magician wakes up from a coma and says, “Ta-daaa!”

Take these holidays in their whole entirety: the aging, the diminishment, the scars and dysfunctions, the limping…and laugh it right in the face because…the truth is that we can learn to sing again.

I think I’ll be running off some copies of Over the River and Through the Woods for us to sing on the beach.

“The great magic trick of human existence is to snatch the eternal from the desperately fleeting.”  Ta-daaa!

So, Megan, what’s up with “So Much Happiness”?



Megan Lynes

“So Much Happiness”
By Naomi Shihab Nye

It is difficult to know what to do with so much happiness.
With sadness there is something to rub against,
a wound to tend with lotion and cloth.
When the world falls in around you, you have pieces to pick up,
something to hold in your hands, like ticket stubs or change.

But happiness floats.
It doesn’t need you to hold it down.
It doesn’t need anything.
Happiness lands on the roof of the next house, singing,
and disappears when it wants to.
You are happy either way.
Even the fact that you once lived in a peaceful tree house
and now live over a quarry of noise and dust
cannot make you unhappy.
Everything has a life of its own,
it too could wake up filled with possibilities
of coffee cake and ripe peaches,
and love even the floor which needs to be swept,
the soiled linens and scratched records…..

Since there is no place large enough
to contain so much happiness,
you shrug, you raise your hands, and it flows out of you
into everything you touch. You are not responsible.
You take no credit, as the night sky takes no credit
for the moon, but continues to hold it, and share it,
and in that way, be known.

The poem John read this morning speaks of laughing sadness in the face until it learns to sing again.  It is true that some of us learn to laugh sadness in the face.  Sometimes it’s the only way to live, let alone to thrive.  I know a young teenager who was adopted a few years ago into a new family.  She left behind a father who beat her, and a mother who shamed her.  Sadly, she also left her younger brothers whom she loved, but could not take with her.  At age 13 she escaped out a window to get away.  No one in her family had ever been in foster care before, but she fought to get herself into the system.  She says it saved her life.  A social worker at her school took her in for a while and helped her get a placement, where she’s been fighting to make a better life for herself.  She was like a refugee landing in America with nothing, hoping for anything better than from whence she’d come.

My young friend tells me that she didn’t know what happiness was.  The poem I read this morning about so much happiness being all around us would not have resonated with her back then.  The moon might have been shining above but she was hiding in the dark.  All she wanted at first was safety.  But I am glad to say that time and perseverance has helped.  This year she joined her school’s literary magazine and has written a column for the week of Thanksgiving.  I’ll let her words speak for themselves.

“Everyone says Thanksgiving is a time for joy and happy family moments, but some of us don’t have happy families.  I want to tell you if you don’t have a happy family you’re not alone.  I think in most cases you can do something to make it better for yourself, because there is happiness out there even if you can’t yet see it.  But if you feel stuck or sad right now and you don’t have a way forward, I just want to tell you that I believe you, and that I know it can be that bad.

Before I got into my foster family I only felt sad and scared.  Someone was always fighting or throwing something or beating someone else.  I had to escape to be free.  I used to always feel sad, but with a new start and family to live with that cares about me I’m finding happiness for the first time.

This year I made friends with someone whose dad got sent to Afghanistan.  She always had a happy life before this, but now she’s like I used to be, feeling scared for him every day, wondering if violence will win.  She and I started in opposite places but now we understand each other.  Now we both know happiness and sadness.  For some of us sadness is all around and we have to fight it off to find happiness.  I also think happiness is all around and that if you have it you should share it.  The real message of Thanksgiving isn’t just to be happy, it’s to share what happiness you have because some people really need it more than you think.

She closes by saying, “One of the best ways to make yourself happy is to make other people happy. One of the best ways to make other people happy is to be happy yourself.”

Yes, laugh in the face of sadness until it learns to sing again.

So often it is our wounds that allow us to make a difference in the lives of others.  Seeing another’s pain, we want to help.  Our own pain, fear or longing enables us to understand the suffering of others, and be able to connect with them.

In reading the poem “So Much Happiness” I could not help but think back to the UU Service committee trip to Haiti that Ali Hon-Anderson and I took last spring.  We went to help build houses for survivors of the earthquake.  I went on the trip because I felt deep compassion for the Haitian people, not only because of the earthquake but also because of the centuries long history of oppression by other nations and the long term disempowerment of the Haitian people.  Seeing their pain, I wanted to help.

What I didn’t know when I signed up was that I would come into contact with one of the most significant grass roots peasant worker movements in the world today.  I didn’t know how much hope is alive and spreading as a powerful people’s movement in the Central Plateau region.  Being there felt like discovering that the moon had been shining proudly, beautifully all through the night, all along.  And I had never imagined I would find it there, not in a wasteland far from my home.  I hadn’t known my pity kept my eyes closed.

Helen Keller put it this way:  “Many persons have a wrong idea of what constitutes real happiness. It is not obtained through self-gratification, but through fidelity to a worthy purpose.”

Arriving in Port au Prince was something of a shock.  The airport itself is in a tent city, a crowded jumble of three sided houses and tarps, with rubble still everywhere, even two years after the quake.  Hungry dogs roam wild, and there is no trash collection or traffic lights.  My heart broke for a single tree I saw which was overwhelmed by a mass of tents, its branches lopped off for firewood.  In the shambles of tin siding and plastic roofs, there is often no shade from the intense sun at all.  Haiti has now only 2% forest remaining, whereas less than 100 years ago, 80% of Haiti was forest.  “The poorest country in the Western hemisphere” hardly describes the dire situation in the city.

A few hours drive away however, is the forty year old Papaye Peasant Movement, a partner community with UUSC, and the destination of our service trip.  There, except for the fact that everyone is still poor, everything feels completely different.  The green of trees, planted and cultivated all year long, provide a lush cover over all.  Land is shared equitably, and community organizers work side by side to create an educational and cooperative environment of respect and dignity for all.

Educator, Paulo Friere, was the initial inspiration behind the initiative to build an effective and self sustaining organization into what is now 60,000 members strong.  According to Freire, liberation from oppression comes about first through awareness of one’s economic, historic, and social situation. The next steps are critical thought followed by action. Liberation involves not only freedom from dire situations, but also “freedom to create and construct, to wonder and venture”[1]  Awareness, critical thought, and action are reached through dialogue.  As founder, Chavannes Jean-Baptiste puts it, “When I recognize I can learn from somebody else, that person can also learn from me.”[2]  The tools of popular education include songs, theatre, and reflection on images.  Chavannes kind smiling face can be seen on the top of our Guest at Your Table boxes this year.

At first the entire community was illiterate, but now most young people go to school, and every year the community saves up together to send some promising young people to university.  They bring back technical knowledge of farming, veterinary work, and the economics of small business management.  Equal numbers of females as males are sent for training.

With very few resources, the community has created all sorts of successful systems that we take for granted in the states.  Cisterns store rain water in fresh pools; water from showers is cleaned and then used to water gardens.  All waste from animals and humans is composted and used.  Tire gardens for growing vegetables retain water and keep the composting worms inside.  We bought citrus jam at a women’s jam-making collective, and visited a workshop where men and women make solar panels by hand.  Out in the fields, when someone needed to plug in a cell phone, they attached it to a small solar panel.  These same panels in a larger form are sold to nearby peasant families so that their children can have light to study at night.  Everyone is still very poor, but what they have they share, and somehow there is just enough to go around.

Each morning our team of Americans joined up with the Haitians who were building yet another eco-village for earthquake survivors.  Their successful self sustaining cooperative community was expanding outwards for the purpose of offering fellow Haitians a fresh start in life.  Some of those now pouring concrete were survivors themselves.  Each of them had so very little themselves, and yet this backbreaking work was their joy each day.  Songs erupted spontaneously, laughter was common place.  It was nothing but an honor to join them in their fidelity to a worthy purpose.  At the end of the day, our muscles were sore from lugging rocks from the fields to build the foundation.  But I can promise you we were happy.

It’s true that one of the best ways to make yourself happy is to make other people happy.  And it seems that one of the best ways to make other people happy is to be happy yourself.  In Papaye, not only do the members support one another, but their community has been spreading their knowledge and hope as far as it can go.  Their radio station called the “Peasant Voice” reaches two million people in the surrounding area and beyond, bringing encouragement, wisdom and joy to all who listen.  The radio programs may be educational, health information, peasant music, or be about discouraging divisiveness and embracing solidarity.  Young adults wearing headphones grinned to us as they swapped cassette tapes in the mixer.  We waved and grinned back.  Yes, happiness floats.  I think they knew they were empowering us too, giving us the encouragement to feel a part of this place, to give back to it, and then to keep on sending our caring out in waves into everything we touch, no matter where we go.

Through my time with the Papaye Peasant Movement I came to understand a key aspect of Freire’s philosophy.  In his book, he calls traditional pedagogy the “banking model” because it treats students as an empty vessel to be filled with knowledge, like a piggybank.  He argues for a pedagogy to treat the learner as a co-creator of knowledge.   I experienced first hand how much joy it brought everyone to share openly what we each knew.  I could feel how hungry we all were for this kind of equal back and forth teaching.  Out in the fields building the eco-houses, the Haitians had the knowledge and experience, and we followed their lead.  It was humbling to be so bumbly and awkward but they were always respectful to us, no matter how many times we had to pause in the shade while they kept working in the blazing heat.

One night, however, the teaching and sharing of knowledge and culture could go both directions.  Our group of Americans had been singing some hymns on the porch for our evening worship service, and we noticed a group of Haitian young adults standing near by.  It turned out that they were all “animators,” people in the community who are given special training and have a defined leadership role within each of their groups, to be the person to inspire and cheer on the team.  They often do this through music and when they start to sing, it’s contagious, everyone wants to join!  They are respected as leaders, teachers, and strong role models.  As a group of young people, they seemed to shine as one, with warmth and an eagerness to connect with us and to share their playful spirit.  So pretty soon there we all were, Americans and Haitians standing on the porch in a big circle, singing work songs.

“I’ve Been Working on the Railroad” burst from our lips.  They cheered us on.  Then they sang a rousing round of “Mekonnais Fas Nous,” a powerful song of Haitian empowerment, and after a while we were able to sing along!  There were hand motions to go with the song, and we really got into it, rolling our arms over themselves, leaning to the left, stamping our feet, and singing loudly and proudly into the dark night together.  We were singing out our belief in and support for the Haitian people too!  All of us had tears in our eyes.

We had come to Haiti to build homes, but more importantly we learned their philosophy of equality in teaching through the experience of creating something hopeful together.  It wasn’t taught in a classroom, but through connections made with others who cared about us as much as we cared about them.  I believe it is this joy found in a mutual relationship of caring and trust that lasts and continues to make waves.

Happiness is not obtained through self-gratification, but through fidelity to a worthy purpose.  To what end will you give your power and love?  How will you laugh sadness in the face until it sings this holiday?

It will be different for every one of us.  My young writer friend already knows her answer.  “I’m getting my brothers out,” she says.  “What happiness I’ve found in this life I will share.”

And may it be so.




[1] Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Paulo Freire.