What are we thankful for? Who are we thankful for? How do we acquire an attitude of thanksgiving in a world where we are told that we never have enough? How do we expand our horizons of thankfulness to include the great diversity of people, cultures and lifestyles that are God’s gift to us? Are we thankful for all people, including those referred to by Jesus as especially blessed: the poor, hungry, mourning and persecuted? What about people who live with disabilities that cause them and their families to suffer the pain of rejection and stigma? Why can’t our reason for thanksgiving be confined to what is obvious and easy? Why does thanksgiving have to include realities that make us uncomfortable?
Many of our attitudes toward thanksgiving are influenced by our upbringing. How are we raising our children? What kind of message about thankfulness are we giving our grandchildren? Years ago at a large gathering of people with disabilities, their families and caregivers, Walkie Charles spoke about the word INQUN. This Yupik Eskimo word refers to a song created for each child by a respected Elder. He spoke of how, in his childhood, his INQUN helped him recognize his special uniqueness. He shared with sadness how this practice seldom occurs in his culture. His INQUN gave him honor, strength, self-worth and uniqueness. It softened the world for him.
I hope we all have people in our histories who have sung our praises, softened our lives, and given us the gift of self worth and uniqueness. As God’s creation we are all unique and special. Our loved ones, friends, and all people are a gift from God. If we can view God’s gift of people with thanksgiving, then we can find reasons to celebrate the lives of people too often labeled as “problems.” Then people, who are misunderstood or negatively labeled, can rightfully be appreciated and cared for with dignity.
Our places of worship, community, nation and world need to be safe places to be different. If we approach people with thanksgiving for their God-given existence, we have a basis for mutual dignity and growth that is not possible in an environment where people different than us are viewed as a threat. What a blessing it would be if, as a nation, we applied mutual dignity, compassion and compromise to difficult issues! When words and actions demean and diminish others, the result is exclusion, rather than inclusion. Our comfort zones need to be challenged for genuine growth to occur.
If only there was an INGUN celebrating each of our lives. If only we could offer the gift of understanding, peace, respect and appreciation for each person. If only we could advocate for one another across existing barriers. It is a blessing to promote a togetherness that reflects God’s presence in our lives.
It is normal to struggle with all kinds of issues. Different stages of life contain different struggles. Identity issues change within our own being. These struggles are often great teachers to us who experience them. Over time we may even grow to realize that our struggles were gifts that promoted growth in our ability to be truly thankful people.
It is my hope and prayer that we be resources to one another for celebrating our uniqueness. Our struggles can unite us in oneness rather than separate us in division. God created a rainbow of realities that can be viewed as a threat or as a reason for thanksgiving. May we use our abilities and disabilities to create an environment that values each person as a gift from God. May our places of worship be safe places for people to experience acceptance, love and strength to live a life of faith.
• Rev. Larry Rorem is a retired minister of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America, living in Juneau. “Living & Growing” is a regular column written by different authors and submitted by local clergy and spiritual leaders.