My best friend in elementary school was named Louisa. We had a great deal in common. Louisa liked to sit in the yard on summer evenings and make clover necklaces. So did I. She liked to play hopscotch. So did I. She liked Joe Weatherford, the cutest boy in fourth grade, and so did I.
Even so, Louisa and her family had several customs that were unfamiliar to me. I discovered one of them when they invited me to Thanksgiving dinner. We gathered in the dining room where the table was set, but to my surprise there was no food in sight. Not even one piece of bread. We all sat down and then I noticed that beside each empty plate was a pile of corn, five kernels to be exact. “Oh no, I’m going to starve!” I thought.
Then I saw Louisa’s father nod to his son who then asked, “Dad, why are there five kernels of corn beside our plate?”
I wanted to know that too.
He told us that the Pilgrims faced many hardships when they came to America, one of which was hunger. One of their first winters was so brutal that they only had five kernels of corn to eat each day. However, the next spring, with help from their Indian friends they had a bountiful harvest. They then raised their voices in thanksgiving, inviting their new friends to a great banquet – the first Thanksgiving. So the five pieces of corn, he told us, were there to remind us of their suffering, of our bounty, and of our need to give thanks.
Her father picked up a kernel of corn and told his family how thankful he was for them. He then laid the kernel of corn on the other side of his plate. Then Louisa’s mother took a piece of corn and named something she was thankful for. They went around the table until they got to Louisa, and Louisa looked at me and said that she was thankful for me and for what a good friend I was, describing several occasions I had been there for her. I felt myself starting to tear up. Then it was my turn. I picked up a piece of corn and shared my thanks for Louisa and her whole family.
We went around the table until everyone had given thanks for five blessings they had received that year, one for each piece of corn. After that we all went to the kitchen and there, on the counter was lots of food. We then ate one of the most delicious meals I’ve ever put in my mouth. Food had never tasted as good to me as it did that night.
If you had five kernels of corn in your hand right now, for which five blessings would you give thanks? If you’re like most people, you might give thanks for your health, your family and loved ones, your job. You might remember those special things that someone unexpectedly did for you, or you might give thanks for the beauty of creation.
But what about those events in our lives that we don’t feel thankful for? What if a loved one is dealing with an addiction they can’t seem to break? What if you have recently lost someone close to you and this is your first Thanksgiving without them? What if you’re in a seemingly unresolvable conflict with someone you love? Or what if in today’s economy, you can’t find work no matter how hard you try? What then?
Paradoxically, it is within those very things in our lives we wish we could change, that we are most likely to find our Source of spiritual strength. It is in those times of difficulty, that we are most likely to let God into our lives, in whatever way we understand God.
If you had five kernels of corn in your hand right now, for which five blessings would you give thanks? You might give thanks that your loved one is resting safely in the arms of our Creator. You might give thanks for the illness or addiction that forced you to rely on your Source of spiritual strength. You might give thanks for the conflict with that family member, because it enabled you to ask God to be the unseen third party in all your dealings with them, transforming you both forever. While few would give thanks in this economy for losing their job, you might give thanks for discovering through such hardship that there are many people who genuinely care about you.
So as we give thanks this month, let us not just focus on those things for which thanksgiving comes easy. Let us remember to give thanks to our Creator in everything and for everything – today, tomorrow, and always.
Elizabeth Geitz is an award-winning author and Episcopal priest. She serves as spirituality faculty for the CREDO Institute and as Honorary Canon for Trinity Cathedral, Trenton. Enjoy her weekly blog at www.elizabethgeitz.com.