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James Burns: A stranger at the table

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James F. Burns is a retired University of Florida professor.

A stranger appeared just as we were sitting down for Thanksgiving dinner. And he sat in the chair that we always leave empty to symbolize those, who due to death or distance, could not be with us this year. The stranger then began to talk — and even sometimes sing.

“Let us bow our heads. Dear Lord, we gather together to seek thy blessings, to remember and to reflect, to share sadness and joy. We draw inspiration from many people and places. From Jackie Robinson who endured bigotry with grit, grace, and excellence. From Lou Gehrig who faced death with dignity, saying he ‘was the luckiest man on the face of the earth.’ From soldiers who secured our freedom but never made it back home, who lie buried at Arlington, overseas, and elsewhere, white crosses row upon row and Stars of David to soften death with divine grace.

“Dear Lord, we grieve with those who have lost loved ones in California wildfires as well as in shootings and other attacks in Pittsburgh, Parkland, Thousand Oaks, Annapolis, Charleston, Las Vegas, Orlando, Sandy Hook, Boston, 9-11, and Oklahoma City. We also grieve with those who have lost loved ones from illness and age and suffered far more privately. A farmer’s wife was so grieved over the death of her daughter and granddaughter that she could barely write to her son-in-law—‘I write a few words and then have to stop and give way to my feelings.’

“The farmer himself said these deaths were ‘the most trying circumstances that I have ever met with.’ And yet he was able to put his grief in perspective by being thankful for his blessings. ‘We live in a land of plenty. The all-wise Giver of every good thing bestows on his unworthy subjects the necessities and comforts of life — and yet how little do we appreciate the unbounded love and mercies, both spiritual and temporal, that He is constantly bestowing upon us. I blush at my ingratitude, especially when I am disposed to complain at my lot and consider it a hard one.’

“Dear Lord, our partisan political divide has become so viciously toxic, so infected with malice and vitriol, that my friends here at the table today may have forgotten these words that I will now sing as a reminder.

“‘O beautiful for spacious skies, For amber waves of grain, For purple mountain majesties Above the fruited plain! America! America! God shed his grace on thee, And crown thy good with brotherhood From sea to shining sea.’”

A period of silence followed as we pondered these words and reflected on our blessings, our family and friends and magnificent country which are gifts that overcome all the trials and tribulations of everyday life.

When we looked up, the chair was once again empty. We had been blessed. We are blessed. And we are thankful.

James F. Burns is a retired professor at the University of Florida.

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