This past Sunday was one of tradition, the annual Thanksgiving sermon at our church and the community-wide Thanksgiving service. Sunday morning wasn’t completely traditional. The service started with a little excitement when a red wasp buzzed the congregation. Dr. Barry Justice got a round of applause when he threw his jacket over the intruder and stomped it. After the confusion subsided, Pastor Jason asked the expected question: What are you thankful for? Then he gave some of the normal answers for what he called the big things: family, health, a comfortable home, a good job. Then he smiled and gave a list of the little things: bar soap, hot water, apples, toothpaste, pencils, paper. Then he delivered a less traditional Thanksgiving sermon about why we should be thankful for the things that God has not done.
I went home in a thankful and somewhat contemplative mood, thinking of all the things I’m thankful for. As the afternoon progressed, I added one more thing to the list when the Dallas Cowboys beat the Cleveland Browns, and before long, it was time to go the church again. Every year on the Sunday before Thanksgiving a number of churches gather at Lake Fork Baptist Church, the largest in the area, for a service of community praise and worship. It’s always an uplifting way to spend an evening, and cookies are served afterward which makes it extra special. One of my favorite parts, though, is the music. Area musicians join their talents to present solos and choral numbers, and there’s lots of congregational singing. One of the songs that grabbed me this year was 10,000 Reasons (Bless the Lord) by Matt Redman. After the service was over and we had finished our cookies and coffee and said good night to our friends, David and I were walking to our car, and the thought that had been rolling around in my head came out.
“How long do you think it would take to make a list of 10,000 things to be thankful for?”
“A long time,” he said. “It would take forever just to write down the numbers.”
“But you could do it on the computer, and it would do the numbering for you.”
“It would still take a long time.”
I continued to think about the 10,000 reasons Monday morning. As I took my shower, I thought about being thankful for bar soap and hot water. I looked at all the lotions and potions and pills and gadgets just in the bathroom. That added up to a lot of reasons. Then I thought about the apple. If I listed all the fruits, vegetables, meats, breads, all the foods I like, that would be a lot more reasons, especially if I named my favorite recipes and all the flavors of Blue Bell ice cream.
Then I thought about Anna, a woman whose story I read years ago in one of the forwarded e-mails we’re all so fond of sending. I did a little research and discovered that lots of ministers use the story, especially at this time of year. The version I’ve included here is from a sermon by Rev. Stephen Elkins-Williams given on Thanksgiving Day of 2010:
Fulton Oursler told a rather lengthy true story of an old woman he had known, who had been born into slavery on the Eastern shore of Maryland…
Oursler remembered eating with Anna as she sat in his home with her hard old black hands folded, praying, “Much obliged, dear Lord, for my vittles.”
“But Anna,” he pointed out, “you’d get your vittles whether you thanked the Lord or not.”
“Sure,” she responded, “but it makes everything taste better to be thankful.”
“You know,” she went on, “it’s a funny thing about being thankful; it’s a game an old preacher taught me to play. It’s looking for things to be thankful for. You don’t know how many of them you pass right by, unless you go looking for them. Take this morning for instance. I wake up and I lay there wondering what I got to be thankful for now. With my husband dead and having to work every day I can’t think of anything. What must the good Lord think of me, His child? But the honest truth is I just can’t think of a thing to thank him for. And then what do you think? My daughter comes and opens the bedroom door, so from the kitchen comes the smell of coffee. Much obliged, dear Lord, for the coffee and a daughter to have it ready for an old woman when she wakes up.
“Now for a while I have to do housework. It’s hard to find anything to thank God for in housework. But when I come to the mantelpiece to dust, there is Little Boy Blue. I’ve had that little china boy for many years. I was a slave when I got it as my one Christmas present. I love that little boy. Much obliged, dear Lord, for Little Boy Blue.
“And almost everything I dust reminds me of something. Even the pictures that hang on our cracked, unpainted wall. It’s like a visit with my family who have all left this world. They look at me and I look at them and there are so many happy things to remember. Much obliged, dear Lord, for my memory. And then I go for a walk down town to buy a loaf of bread and cheese for our dinner. I look in all the windows, so many pretty things.”
Fulton Ousler broke in, “But Anna, you can’t buy them, you have no money.”
“Oh, but I can play — play dolls. I think of your ma and sister, how they would look in those dresses and I have a lot of fun. Much obliged dear Lord for playing in my mind, it’s a kind of happiness.
“Just like once I got caught in the rain,” she said. “It was fun for me. I’ve always heard about people’s shower baths; I’ve never had one, but now I have one. You know God is just giving heaven away to people all day long. I’ve been to the park and seen the gardens but you know what I like? The old bush in my back yard by the railroad track, but better. One rose will fill you with all the sweetness you can stand.”
Oursler ended his story with these words. “The soul of long dead Anna was a big soul, big enough to see God everywhere and she taught me a great deal about life; for I will never forget when word came to me from the dingy street where she lived, that Anna was dying. I remember driving in a cab and standing by her bedside; she was in deep pain and her hard old hands were knotted together in a desperate clutch. Poor old woman, what had she to be thankful for now? She opened her eyes and looked at me. `Much obliged, dear Lord, for such fine friends.’ She never spoke again, except in my heart but she speaks to me every day there and I’m obliged, dear Lord, for that.”
After reading Anna’s story again, it occurred to me that if I were to spend the rest of my life looking for things for which I’m thankful, it might not be too hard to find 10,000 reasons after all. I think I’ll start right now as I thank God for each of you.