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Nov. 19—Being Thankful

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Dear People and Friends of the Diocese of New Jersey,

And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in the one body. And be thankful. Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly; teach and admonish one another in all wisdom; and with gratitude in your hearts sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs to God.—Colossians 3:15–16

One of the things for which I am grateful is the view from my desk into the backyard of our residence in Trenton. It’s a relatively large backyard, surrounded by tall trees. The family room in which my desk is located has two large picture windows and the view from them into the backyard is often “picture perfect.”

I love gazing through these windows when life is being renewed in Spring. I love it when snow is on the ground and clings to the tree branches. I love it in summer when the trees are full and green. And of course, nature’s show is especially spectacular at this time of year, the Fall, as colors explode and leaves fall. Yes, it is beautiful. It stirs my soul. Glorify the Lord, all you works of the Lord, Canticle 12 says (BCP. P. 88). There is lots to glorify, lots to give thanks for.

Still, as we continue to live under the oppression of a worldwide pandemic and continued angst and polarization in our nation, there is, for many, a general malaise defined as “a vague, unfocused feeling of mental uneasiness, lethargy, or discomfort.” What should we do when we feel this way, especially as a holiday approaches with a traditional greeting telling us how we’re supposed to feel—happy?

I would like to suggest that it is possible to be thankful even when we may not feel especially “happy.” I recently visited my mother, who is in a nursing home in New York City suffering from advanced dementia. She no longer recognizes nor remembers me and this makes me sad. And yet, I have the joy of reintroducing myself to her each time I visit and also of reintroducing her to herself. I have an album of pictures for her on my smartphone which has photos of her as child, a teenager, and a young adult. I have pictures of her parents, of her children, grandchildren and great grandchildren. Each time I visit I have the privilege of telling her all about them.

My mother loves music and was a fine pianist. Her mother had been a concert violinist. One of my mother’s favorite pieces to play was Claude Debussy’s Clair de Lune. It’s a stunning piece of piano music which requires musical sensitivity to play well. My mother used to play it well, dare I say, with passion.

In recent visits with my mother, I’ve been playing a recording of Debussy’s Clair de Lune on my phone for her. As the piece unfolds, she “fingers” along as if playing it on the piano. She hums the melody and gets every note. Sometimes I have noticed tears in her eyes.

That piece of music (and others—we recently sang Handel’s Hallelujah Chorus together) live deep within her brain and within her soul. When I am with my mother in these visits, I feel a mixture of deep joy and profound sadness. I am also filled with deep thankfulness that I have an opportunity to return the gift of generous love that she had so generously bestowed on my brothers and me and many others throughout her life.

My mother has not had an easy life, but she has always had a generous and gracious heart. In many ways, it is sad to see her as she is today, and yet, I can’t help feeling profound thankfulness. Words from one of my favorite hymns come to mind:

Ye saints who toil below, adore your heavenly King,
And onward as ye go, some joyful anthem sing;
Take what he gives and praise him still
Through good or ill, who ever lives.

Hmm, maybe I’ll sing that with my mother the next time I visit her. Perhaps, she’ll even sing along!

Susan joins me in wishing you and yours a blessed Thanksgiving Day.

Faithfully yours in Christ,

Bishop Stokes's Signature

The Right Reverend William H. Stokes
Bishop of New Jersey