Like many American kids, I loved Thanksgiving. But, like most of my peers, there was one thing I dreaded each year: The "everyone go around the table and say one thing they're thankful for" part before dinner.
On the one hand, my dread was sheerly utilitarian—there were massive quantities of delicious food just waiting to be consumed, and I'd already been waiting an eternity while the adults cooked, baked, and carved.
But the bigger fear was trying to figure out what I was really thankful for without it seeming trite or untrue, but also that it would be something really deep. I wanted to impress my family with the depth of my thanks and with the depth of my humility. Usually I would take a pious breath and talk about how thankful I was that the whole family could be together (which, I mean, was true), but I was mostly thankful my turn was over so I could get to shoveling food into my mouth.
As I've gotten older, I've become (hopefully) a little more thoughtful and a little less food-driven in my approach to gratitude. And looking back, I think that my initial confusion about what to say was more telling than I thought. I was trying desperately to search for some thing to be thankful for. I didn't realize—and often still don't—that my thankfulness, my real thanksgiving, was rooted in the extravagant grace, beauty, truth, hope, peace, and love of God.
"The whole world sparks and flames"
In her book Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, author Annie Dillard records nature observations with the pen of a poet, finding meaning in the most mundane-seeming settings. She notes both the beauty and the brutality of creation, and near the beginning of the book, offers this:
If the landscape reveals one certainty, it is that the extravagant gesture is the very stuff of creation. After the one extravagant gesture of creation in the first place, the universe has continued to deal exclusively in extravagances, flinging intricacies and colossi down aeons of emptiness, heaping profusions on profligacies with ever-fresh vigor. The whole show has been on fire from the word go. I come down to the water to cool my eyes. But everywhere I look I see fire; that which isn't flint is tinder, and the whole world sparks and flames.
Think about that: creation as an "extravagant gesture." To borrow Dillard's phrase, the longer you're alive, the more opportunity you have to see extravagant gestures in your life. I take this phrase to mean sights, feelings, moments that are unnecessarily over-the-top that they somehow become infused with meaning, no matter how big or small the particular experience may be.
Those moments aren't restricted to nature, though nature certainly has plenty of examples. The creation account on its own in Genesis 1-2 is filled with God breathing meaning and wonder into the world and all its inhabitants. After all, humans are created in the image of God, which seems quite the extravagant gesture in itself!
But beyond that, think about some of the big people and moments in your life—your spouse, your parents, the birth of your child, the death of a loved one. Each of these, for good or bad, is imbued with meaning—each is an extravagant gesture.
Those types of gestures may also seem inconsequential to an outsider. A dinner with a friend, the kindness of a stranger, or eating some bread and cheap wine in the middle of a church service—each of these seems mundane, but each has the opportunity to be filled with meaning and purpose.
These types of moments signify there's something bigger going on than we can understand or grasp. Every human has events, sights, sounds, feelings, smells, tastes, and experiences that are bigger than we can explain. Even if we don't realize it in the moment, these seemingly isolated incidents or short periods of life can be filled with more meaning that we can possibly imagine.