Scripture: Joel 2:21-27
Normal Rockwell painted one of the enduring images of thankfulness. You probably know it.
A family is gathered around a beautifully set dinner table. An elderly couple stands at its head. The wife holds a platter bearing a gleaming brown turkey that looks like it weighs about two-hundred pounds. The husband, dressed in an immaculate dark suit and tie, looks on proudly. The seated family members—all smiling—chat merrily and prepare to dig in. Everything is perfect.
I’ve known this painting for as long as I can remember. When I was a child I loved and admired the idealized experience this image projects: perfectly prepared food arriving right on cue; perfectly mannered family members enjoying each other’s company; perfectly happy people relishing a perfectly wonderful Thanksgiving afternoon.
As I grew older, though, I came to find this painting, well, mildly irritating.
In my experience, things go wrong on Thanksgiving. Someone forgets to take the plastic bag of giblets out of the bird. When no one’s looking the dog eats the entire pan of stuffing. When everyone’s looking the dog gets violently ill. The only lawyer in the family breaks a tooth on an unfrozen pea. Somebody forgets to bring the pumpkin pie. Somebody brings a pumpkin pie but somebody else accidentally sits on it. Everyone’s favorite relative can’t make it. Everyone’s least favorite relative comes early and announces that they’re spending the week.
Oh, the horror, the horror.
All joking aside, Thanksgiving can be hard, and not just because of our irrationally elevated expectations. Thanksgiving can challenge us because it may arrive at a time when we just don’t feel very thankful, or, at least, at a time when our feelings of thankfulness are leavened by other feelings.
Life happens—we lose a loved one, we lose a job, we lose our health, we lose our way, we lose our hope—and Thanksgiving appears in the middle of it. Perhaps we have an unsettled home life or no family around us when Thanksgiving—with its emphasis on home and family—descends and casts a glaring light on our solitude and loneliness. And, even when these things aren’t happening to us, we know they’re happening to others about whom we care.
If we’re struggling with our sense of thankfulness right now then Rockwell’s painting may strike us as banal, even insulting. “Of course,” we say, “of course we would be able to feel thankful if the world looked like that. But it doesn’t. Not even close.”
The text from the book of Joel may inspire the same response. After all, this passage makes it sound like the author had good reasons to celebrate.
“The Lord has done great things!” the author tells us. There’s been plenty of rain; the pastures are green; the trees bear fruit; the fig trees and the vines are full; there’s an abundance of grain; vats overflow with wine and oil. Indeed, one of the verses from Joel seems to convey the same message as the Norman Rockwell painting: “You shall eat in plenty and be satisfied…”
But when we examine the context of these messages we find that things are much more complicated.
It turns out that Norman Rockwell painted his famous picture in 1943, when the world didn’t look much like that idyllic gathering around the Thanksgiving table.
The United States was at war in Europe, North Africa, and the South Pacific. The Nazis had begun implementing a fully developed plan of Jewish genocide that would result in the deaths of millions of innocent people. Panic here at home had led to the interment of 110,000 Japanese Americans who had done nothing except be Japanese Americans. And, ironically in light of the plenitude reflected in the painting, there was rationing of meat, sugar, coffee, and gasoline.
The author of Joel had ample reasons to despair as well. We don’t know precisely when the book was written. Unlike many texts in the Hebrew Bible, this one doesn’t mention any rulers or nations that give us a solid clue about its historical situation.
But the text does tell us something very important about the moment at which the prophet speaks. In the preceding chapter, we learn that his community has just survived a calamitous invasion of locusts. The locusts have eaten everything, laying waste to vines, stripping the bark off of trees and leaving the forests broken and white.
The book of Joel—like the painting of Rockwell—is the work of someone living through broken times.
We, too, dwell in broken times.
Perhaps our lives feel broken to us. Perhaps we’re struggling with broken health, a broken relationship, a broken sense of well-being, a broken hold on our identity, a broken confidence in who we are and why we’re here.
Perhaps the world feels broken to us. Perhaps we see a world set upon by difficulties as numerous and relentless as the locusts that plagued Joel. We don’t need to catalog those problems here. Tomorrow’s headlines will do enough of that for us.
And all of that brokenness can leave us with a deep existential question: What are we to do?
I think Joel offers us two ideas.
The first may strike you as a commonplace sentiment. Joel suggests that we take stock of the things in our life for which we can be thankful.
He describes the great plague that threatened the survival of his community, but he doesn’t dwell there. He looks around, sees how things have gotten better, and finds reasons for praise: “Thanks be to God, who has dealt wondrously with us.”
That approach may help when we can see the blessings in our lives or when things have in fact improved. But sometimes staring at the current state of affairs doesn’t help much, if at all.
So, Joel offers us a second idea as well. After he shares his words of thankfulness, he goes on to say this:
“And it shall come to pass afterward, that I will pour out my spirit on all flesh; your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams, and your young men shall see visions. Even upon the menservants and maidservants in those days, I will pour out my spirit.”
This may sound familiar to you even if you’ve never read the book of Joel.
If it does, that may be because these are also the words Peter speaks at Pentecost. In the second chapter of the book of Acts, Peter recites this passage from the second chapter of the book of Joel.
The great Hebrew Bible scholar Walter Brueggmann describes what this might mean for us:
“Peter, quoting Joel, imagines a community of free, bold, hope-filled men and women, boys and girls … What a stunning vocation for [us], to stand free and hope-filled in a world gone fearful … and to think, imagine, dream, vision a future that God will yet enact. What a work of visioning for [us] when society all around is paralyzed in fear, preoccupied by commodity, mesmerized by wealth, seeking endless power, and deeply, deeply frightened.”
In other words, even in the midst of our brokenness, even in the context of a “world gone fearful,” we retain our God-given capacity to think, to dream, to imagine, to hope, and to have courage. If we cannot find any other way to thankfulness, this freedom gives us a path, and it opens up to us only and precisely because our lives and the world in which we live them are imperfect.
I’ve discovered that this idea softens my view of the Rockwell painting. I’ve come to believe that he was getting at very much the same point.
His painting doesn’t offer us a conveniently and extravagantly retouched photograph of real life. It offers us a dream, a vision, an imagined world in which we gather in joy and peace and share in abundance and love. I understood this as soon as I learned about the context of its creation and the title of the painting: “Freedom from want.”
What does this mean for each of us as individuals? I think it means something very important, indeed. For if in this idea lies the remedy for a broken world, in it also lies the remedy for our broken lives.
Let me put it this way. Many of us maintain a polite but distant relationship with God when things are going well. We draw an artificial line between the sacred and the secular and then dwell in the latter space. And, in the process, we come to confuse the idea that God made us free with the idea that God made us independent.
Then trouble comes. Tragedy strikes—or threatens to strike. We become aware of our limitations, our finitude, our weakness, our brokenness. In the midst of our freedom, we discover our dependence. And then we throw ourselves at God’s feet or into God’s arms. As a friend of mine used to say, in our relationship with God we are often “foul weather friends.”
But here’s the amazing thing: God welcomes us, even us, even as we come, even as we are. We come to God like beggars at the door and—astonishingly—God takes us in. Every time. No exceptions. “Knock,” Jesus said, “and it will be opened for you.”
Of all the things for which we have to be thankful, surely this must be the greatest of all—that God works in us even through our brokenness, perhaps—I venture to say—especially through our brokenness.
I don’t have the right words to describe this. But I think the poets do.
The 17th century clergyman and metaphysical poet George Herbert wrote about how our “restlessness” tosses us to God for “rest.” The great Irish wit and poet Oscar Wilde put it this way: “How else but through a broken heart / May Lord Christ enter in?”
But my favorite expression of this sentiment comes in the work of Leonard Cohen. One of his songs includes a refrain that you may know: “Ring the bells that still can ring / Forget your perfect offering / There is a crack, a crack in everything … That’s how the light gets in.”
We must come to each day in search of thankfulness, fully awake to the blessings of this life, filled with gratitude for those with whom we share our days on earth. We must say, with Joel, “praise God who has dealt wondrously with us.”
But we must also come to each day aware of the hard news too, fully awake to the fact that we are a broken people living in a broken world, aware of the reality that there is, indeed, “a crack in everything.”
Still, that is also—in the true “gospel” sense of the word—the good news.
That’s how the light gets in.