What kind of Thanksgiving are you planning? Is it a big meal of extended family and a celebration of what binds you together? A chance to try out some new culinary chops or a return to deeply held traditions? A prelude to shopping madness? A sports marathon? For some hosts, the work to make a big meal that will be consumed in an hour and the ensuing work to deal with the cleanup and leftovers is more obligation than celebration, and the onslaught of holiday shopping season may not seem all that spiritual. Still, there is something holy that happens when people put aside their agendas and eat together.
Most of the major religions of the world have an element of feasting as a spiritual observance. Offering food to one another is a way of connecting on the most basic human level. Sharing common meals builds unity, trust, and a sense of common purpose. And giving thanks for the blessings of life is a spiritual practice that all faiths share.
Recently a board meeting at Scarritt Bennett Center included a time for new board members and staff to reflect on our history, beginning with the desire of many church women to do ministry and be trained for that work, and later, the building of Scarritt College and the role of the United Methodist Women in securing the continuing mission of the center. One memorable feature of the history was a description of the daily life at the college including the unique system in the dining hall to assign students to dining partners. Because people tend to get into habits of sitting the same place and talking to the same people, the dining hall had table assignments that changed on a regular basis. Students and faculty ate with different table partners and got to know one another in that way. It broke down barriers of race, age, and habits. And it helped make the students more appreciative of diversity and more willing to engage others they did not know. Just sharing meals can be a radical act of turning strangers into friends.
What if we decided to see our families as places to practice hospitality? What if we chose to go beyond the roles we normally play and work to accept and support one another as a way of giving thanks for all that family and friends mean to us. Wouldn’t that be radical? This year the tensions about the election will spill over to our tables. We all might need to make a special effort to be gentle and to focus on what unifies our gatherings. Maybe for the space of an afternoon we can ban gloating and blaming. Let your conservative uncle sit next to your Bernie Bro cousin and ask them to make the gravy or set the table together.
One of my personal Thanksgiving rituals involves an after-dinner trip to a movie. Seeing a film in a theater with a big screen and a crowd of other people is one of those old-fashioned communitarian pleasures worth reclaiming. This year I am looking forward to seeing Arrival, which uses the science fiction genre as a way to explore some big themes about what makes us human. The main character of this film is a linguist who is brought in by the government when a group of alien spaceships makes contact with earth. Her job is to understand the language of the aliens and to discern their intentions toward earth. Do they come in peace? It seems like this movie might have come along at a good time for us to consider in order to examine our own language, what it reveals about our values, and how we can better communicate with those we share this planet with, those who might seem alien to us.
As you celebrate the holiday with your own unique set of rituals, look for the ways to begin a season of hospitality, of thoughtful speech and caring acts that feed the hunger we all share for connection and joy.
Melissa Tidwell has written about spirituality, music, metaphor, and zombies. She is the former editor of Alive Now magazine, and the author of Embodied Light: Advent Reflections on Incarnation. She contributed to the Companions in Christ small group formation series and has also written for Weavings magazine. In 2013, Melissa returned to seminary to finish a degree begun 20 years before, and has accepted a call to Westminster Presbyterian Church in Xenia, Ohio.