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Giving Thanks Even in Difficult Times

Timothy R. Lannon, S.J.
24th President of Creighton University
November 24, 2011 Homily for the St. John’s Church Thanksgiving Mass

Not many words in the English language are used as often as the word “thanks.” We offer it multiple times each day to others, yet at times we may fail to examine what we mean when we “give thanks.”

At a glance, it appears we are showing appreciation.

And what do we appreciate? We appreciate the good things in life: the beauty of a sunny autumn day; help in need; a smile.

The list is endless and different for everyone. What you appreciate may not appeal to me. You may appreciate the opportunity to wear red and go to a football game, whereas I prefer wearing blue at a basketball game!

But what about when things do not go well? What do you do when your health is poor, your home is foreclosed, or you can’t afford groceries? What do you do with a holiday such as Thanksgiving when it just doesn’t make sense to be thankful?

There is certainly much in our world that we don’t appreciate: The continuing problems with our economy, including persistent unemployment; unrest overseas both in the political and financial arenas; and partisan bickering in our nation’s capital.

I propose that it is precisely at these times that we learn the true meaning of giving thanks, which is gratitude.

Unlike appreciation, gratitude allows us to look beyond present circumstances to a deeper reality. And that underlying reality is that we owe our very existence to God’s omnipresent love.

Difficult times especially point us in the direction of God – He is our refuge and our strength. We hear in Sirach (Sir. 50:22): “And now, bless the God of all, who has done wondrous things.” God has blessed us with the gift of our lives, our families, our friends – these are wondrous things, indeed. And in St. Paul’s letter to the Corinthians (1 Cor 1:9), we are reminded that “God is faithful.” What could be better than that?

And yet we are confronted with the immense challenges in our world. What do you do when difficulties stare you right in the face and dare you to even try to be grateful?

I suggest there are three approaches we can take to maintain a spirit of gratitude.

The first is to realize that how we view circumstances is very important. As Charles Dickens said back in his day, “Reflect upon your present blessings, of which every man has many; not on your past misfortunes, of which all men have some.” If we dwell on our shortcomings, we miss so much. If we don’t realize that everyone’s lives are mixtures of joy and sorrow, we are deceiving ourselves.

A second approach leads us to look closer at whatever is going wrong, in our own lives or in the world. If we focus long enough, we will see God at work – healing, reconciling, quietly righting wrongs. The Spirit of God, through those who listen and act, brings solace, comfort and restoration. I truly believe there is no evil that is stronger than the love of God.

The third response harkens back to my earlier point – that of trouble causing us to clarify our dependence upon God. Violence and mayhem in our world make it obvious that the here and now is not all there is. Christians and all people of faith believe there is more to life than what we can see, hear and touch.

When our lives feel perfect, we have no need for anything more. We believe we are powerful and in control. Problems cause us to remember that we are creatures who are loved by a Creator. And for the gift of that insight, we truly have gratitude.

Best-selling author Melody Beattie so eloquently examines what gratitude can do for us: “Gratitude unlocks the fullness of life. It turns what we have into enough, and more. It turns denial into acceptance, chaos to order, confusion to clarity. It can turn a meal into a feast, a house into a home, a stranger into a friend. Gratitude makes sense of our past, brings peace for today and creates a vision for tomorrow.”

So, on this Thanksgiving Day in 2011, in spite of all that is going on around us, my prayer is that you will take the time to experience and express gratitude. Approach it in whatever way works for you, but find it and savor it. And then make it a habit that stays with you for life!

Creighton University is a Jesuit, Catholic university bridging health, law, business and the arts and sciences for a more just world.