Thanksgiving in an Age of Pleasure

Image courtesy of saccodent via Creative Commons

By Jordan Andlovec

I have a friend who works at a local homeless shelter here in the great city of Portland, Oregon, and one of the constant topics of conversation between us is the sort of cognitive dissonance we experience between the world we inhabit and the one we hope for. Both of us read the same Scriptures and feel as if our cities, and especially our churches, seem to be out of sync with the hopeful post-resurrection-of-Jesus world. My friend in particular has had a hard time reconciling the reality of his job, in which he deals with poverty, addiction, and mental illness on a daily basis, with the rest of his life as a young and vibrant man in a city with almost endless opportunities for recreation and pleasure. He has an acute awareness of this dissonance between normal everyday situations that many of us in more fortunate circumstances take for granted (like warm new clothes, education, and 4 dollar lattes), and the world of the displaced he ministers to. As philosopher James K.A. Smith writes, many of us "shuffle between our upstairs and downstairs world, decrying poverty while benefitting from it." At the bottom of these deep and conflicting experiences we find the unsettling mix of pain and pleasure, but it is also here where we can experience genuine thankfulness. 

The truth is that we live in an age of pleasure, in which all of our work and progress is done with the goal of making our lives easier, more efficient, and more comfortable. Even the very fact that I have the time or energy to sit down with a good cup of coffee and write this blog is a privilege afforded to only a tiny minority in ages past. Tomorrow a majority of people in this country will have the day off work (which some will even get paid for) to spend it with their loved ones eating a gigantic meal and watching football. If any time of the year shows off our pleasure-filled lives, it has to be Thanksgiving. We are all pleasure-seekers — it's woven into the fabric of Western culture. This is why it is so jarring when pain and suffering push their way into our comfortable lives; It's so counterintuitive to our warm and cozy world.

But this hasn't always been the case. The daily life of someone living, say, in the time of Jesus would have a radically different experience of daily life. Their life was not one built around pleasure, but one built to withstand pain. With 12-15 hour grueling work days, no access to medicine, transportation, or even sufficient food, an individual of the late Roman Empire would be intimately acquainted with pain, suffering, and turmoil. It's likely that pleasure would've likely been jarring as to them as pain is to us. While pleasure tends to have a numbing effect on one's life, pain can be a wake-up call, a shot of adrenaline that reminds us to look out at God's world and realize what we have been given. This is the way to true thanksgiving.

Thanksgiving is just another meal for many, one where they force a smile and try to get along with their relatives. But for those who have nothing, or for those like my friend, who spend their lives among those with nothing, Thanksgiving is a incredible example of God's grace. It's a time where woeful sinners come around a table to enjoy God's bounty and the gift of one another. The eyes of thankfulness are only opened by this grace, and often that healing balm comes in the form of pain, in both seeing and experiencing it in the world. In fact, the incredible chapter of the Christian narrative, in which we approach beginning this Sunday, is that the God of the universe entered into this world. The very world that juggles pain and suffering like a circus act became the stage where the Son of God experienced both for himself, teaching us that thankfulness is readily available when we pursue solidarity with the poor, broken, and oppressed — for they are often the ones who know what they have given.  

From all of us at New Wine, we hope and pray your Thanksgiving is full of the grace and peace of Father, Son, and Spirit (and maybe some pumpkin pie as well).