Spirit Quest

Give thanks — and live responsibly!

By The Rev. Dr. Hanns F. Skoutajan
True North Perspective

What a surprise!  I was amazed one Sunday to discover that much of the outdoors had moved inside the church. Around the alter/communion table were beautifully arranged fruits, vegetables and colourful leaves. It was, of course, Thanksgiving. But we were new in this country and had never experienced this annual transformation of a place of worship.

Thanksgiving is a universal celebration, albeit not at the same time for everybody. People throughout history have sensed a need to express gratitude particularly at harvest time. Sacrificing the first fruits of the land as well as livestock was a common and elaborate religious practice in many traditions. In the Hebrew faith which is of course the background for Christianity as well as Islam. Thanksgiving has been a most important harvest festival.

The Jewish feast of Succoth was celebrated on the 15th day of the month of Tishrei (late September to late October). It was also known as Festival of Booths  or Ingathering, a  time when the people moved out of their permanent homes into a simple dwelling with a roof of branches through which the sky can be seen. The purpose was to remind the people of the 40 years of wandering in the wilderness by their ancestors, a time when they lived very primitively and depended on what nature/god provided.

Some years ago I was privileged to live next door to the local rabbi and was able to observe the building of the “succoth” in their back yard. Friends and family gathered there and sang joyful songs and feasted together. We were welcomed to join them in this celebration.

Thanksgiving in Canada and the United States recalls the experience of the first settlers. Their lives were difficult and depended on a good crop. The winters were hard and long. Many newcomers were saved from starvation by the generosity of the aboriginal people of this land.

Having been a city dweller in my early youth I became more aware of thanksgiving in the years when we struggled to farm. When the harvest  had been gathered in, we paused in our activities, to be thankful even though often the pickings were slim. Rain and even snow and frost threatened to destroy the crops. It was always a rush to get the harvest finished before bad weather intervened.  Winter came early in northern Saskatchewan.

Later during my teens I lived in a small community near a very large shoe factory. One year a wise church member suggested something that at first sounded rather bizarre. He insisted that along with the festive decorations we also place footwear of all kinds, running shoes, rubbers, stylish ladies and elegant men’s shoes that were manufactured at the plant at the church front.

It was a strange but poignant idea. Shoe making was our livelihood. Our wages were soon transformed into food on our tables.

There are many empty tables in the world. Millions today wonder what to be thankful for when a particularly wrathful monsoon turns fields into rivers and lakes, floods communities and sweeps away houses, or the ground shakes sending buildings toppling trapping hundreds in the rubble, or huge waves wash inland devastating coastline communities, to say nothing of the manmade tragedies of violence and war. Millions are left homeless and of course foodless, dependent on the good will of foreigners which is often slow in coming.

When hurricane Igor caused a major disaster in Newfoundland the army was called in to help repair the damage, to build Bailey bridges across steams where bridges had been washed out. Supplies were brought in by helicopter and ships. It is a much better activity than  fighting wars.

Thankfulness is two sided. On the one hand those of us who are “blessed” by plenty need to give thanks but  on the other hand we need also to be conscious of our responsibility to share. Thanksgiving is a time when we need to remind ourselves that we live in a one-world community and to be aware of our need to preserve our common environment.

There are forces that threaten global well-being. Unfortunately there are still people who do not believe in global warming or that the residents of this world, particularly the affluent people, leave tremendous unsustainable footsteps on this planet. If everyone on this globe tried to live as do most Canadians the world would face a disaster.

Glaciers at both poles are dwindling, violent storms are proliferating, birds and insects are migrating to areas that are more conducive to their existence.  We are faced with rising sea levels changing the geography of the world.

I have recently read a rather harrowing account about the migration of the fire ant, a particularly vicious insect, moving further north and making its first appearance as far as Halifax recently. Not only does it have a painful sting but it kills other insects and birds and devastates crops. It also feasts on technology and has been known to attack the covering of wires. In one case it caused traffic lights to short and turn green. Its hard to imagine the confusion that it caused.

We are facing a very different and difficult world. Thanksgiving needs to be a time of commitment to more sustainable living. It is counterproductive if it only focuses on plenty and encourages consumption. We shall need more than mere adjustments but radical changes to our way of living.

Conservation has a bad name. It means cutting back, finding new and better, less invasive ways of living than what we are used to. When 9/11 happened the president of the United States told the people to go out and shop. “Shop till you drop” may be good for business but is hardly responsible advice to overcome the fear of terrorism.

Recently  Stephen Hawking, the world renowned scientist, suggested that we think seriously about moving from this planet because by our prodigal ways we are making it uninhabitable. Does that simply mean that we start all over again to pollute and despoil some other planet? Obviously he feels that humans are incapable of making a major change or that we have moved past the point of no return.

We have been told that our way of living is like that of a large ship that takes time to stop or to turn, and it may be too late for that.

This sounds very pessimistic but we really have no alternative. Change is imperative. However, I believe that there is a spirit abroad in the world, a spirit of responsibility and genuine thankfulness. I am very proud of my son, an elementary school teacher, who has instituted a program of composting and recycling in his school. He and his pupils have also set up a garden which the parents have tended during the summer. The children and their parents are very enthusiastic about the program but it needs to be expanded and duplicated throughout this land.

There may be little time left but it is not too late.  Therefore give thanks and live responsibly that All may live.