A Simple Thanksgiving
My office sits a few dozen paces away from our campus photo studio. Our photography professor is a friend and fellow raconteur. He needed a project for his students to tackle and since I needed a birthday gift for my wife, I suggested a portrait of yours truly. To make things interesting, we decided to have the students stage a reproduction of the famous photo “Grace.” You may not know its name, but you’ve probably seen the shot. It shows a grizzled old man with white hair and a beard, with folded hands and bowed head, before a meager meal of bread and porridge, as light streams in from outside the frame. A tinted copy of it may have hung in your grandparents’ kitchen or dining room. This year, Minnesota’s state photograph celebrated its centennial.
Like many famous photographs, the existence of “Grace” can be chalked up to randomness. Photographer Eric Enstrom had set up a photo studio on the Iron Range in Minnesota, a region located up north and surrounded by big woods and glacial lakes, and chock full of open-pit iron ore mines and mountains of rust-colored mine tailings. Enstrom emigrated from Norway, trained in photography down in the Twin Cities, and in 1907 arrived in the then up-and-coming town of Bovey with its twenty taverns. A little over a decade later, toward the end of the Great War, the peddler Charles Wilden happened to walk into town to sell his stock of boot scrapers. Stories say that he lived in a sod house. Enstrom pulled him into his studio, sat him at a table, placed a few objects in front of him, and took the beloved photograph. After the session, Wilden went on his way and, in spite of the fame that came to his image, little else is known of him.
In the shot, Wilden’s face is etched by world-weariness. He bows his head over folded hands in piety, yes, but also, it seems, out of exhaustion. He takes a moment of prayer before the sparse table setting before him: a Bible, a delicate pair of spectacles, a knife, a bowl of porridge, and the remains of a loaf of peasant bread. Gathered together, these items are not much to be thankful for. For many in 1918, life itself was meager and sparse. Death was inescapable. There were sixteen million dead from the war. That year, the influenza epidemic claimed another 50 million lives. Life expectancy had fallen to 36.6 years for men, and 42.2 years for women. The veil that normally allows us to feign immunity from our last enemy was particularly thin.
Yet God promises to give us our daily bread. In the Small Catechism, Martin Luther interpreted that as “everything needed for this life.” Enstrom’s photo fits the bill of fare for daily bread. Its simplicity stands in sharp contrast with the extravagance of our expectations in an age of entitlement. We are like the main character in Leo Tolstoy’s short story “How Much Land Does a Man Need?” He sought more and more land but died and was buried with the words, “Six feet from his head to his heels was all he needed.” All we really need is a loaf and some broth, the Word of God and the vision to see it, a relationship with the Lord who promises to hear us and a moment to speak those prayers. All we really need is to recognize the sufficiency of God’s provision, to know what enough is, is to trust that, when nations are in an uproar because of war and kingdoms totter under disease, we might yet be still and know that God is God (Psalm 46).
Enstrom’s “Grace” allows us to imagine what prayer Wilden is praying. Enstrom himself, having arrived on a ship from Norway, would have known the standard Scandinavian mealtime tropes. Food is served with the words “Vær så god” or “Here you go.” The proper reply is “Takk for maten” or “Thanks for the food.” This is what Luther sought to teach us with his table prayers in the Small Catechism. God’s gifts are received, and the faithful heart offers gratias, and thanks are given in return. Luther provided two blessings for meals. Before the meal we pray, “Lord God, heavenly Father, bless us and these your gifts, which we receive from your bountiful goodness, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.” After the meal is eaten, we return thanks by praying, “We give thanks to you, Lord God our Father, through Jesus Christ our Lord for all your benefits, you who live and reign forever. Amen.”
Luther’s table prayers guide us in rightly using God’s name — the way we grasp God — in prayer, praise, and thanksgiving. Hovel or mansion, gruel or gazpacho, simplicity or splendor, God’s gifts render us thankful, because behind them all stands Jesus Christ, the one whose gifts of life, salvation, and the forgiveness of sins open our eyes to see God present even when the veil between life and death is at its sheerest.
To be posed in our campus photo studio as a model performing the role of Charles Wilden offering thanks was a delight. But it gave me more than a goofball gift for my wife. It brought me back to Luther’s hymn: “Were they to take our house, goods, honor, child, or spouse, though life be wrenched away, they cannot win the day. The Kingdom’s ours forever.” Truly, my thanks comes more fully when the circumstances of my life turn my eye away from my self-sufficiency to see that Christ’s grace is sufficient indeed. Then my grateful heart can sing of the Lord’s open hand that gives me plaid flannel, a chewy slice of bread, steaming Minnesota porridge, life-bestowing scripture, and grace. Sheer grace. How can I not bow my head, fold my hands, and pray?