Thanksgiving, When There is No Reason to Be Thankful

There was little to be thankful for in those first few, difficult, ravaging years. The bitter New England cold had claimed half of the Mayflower’s first courageous travellers. The comforts of their homes in England, warm food, adequate furnishings, reliable city infrastructure—this was all gone and replaced with a crude and uncertain reality in the New World. Still, these men and women stopped to say thank you. We don’t really know if this feast—perhaps in the early 1620’s in Plymouth, Massachusetts—was “the first thanksgiving”, but we do know that these hearty souls found time to offer gratitude to God, in the midst of their suffering.

It’s reminiscent of another unlikely call to praise, this time the faint whisper of a beleaguered prophet. Habakkuk, who groaned with longing and expectation for God to visit his sinful people, nevertheless offered up a feeble note of trust:

Though the fig tree does not bud
and there is no fruit on the vines,
though the olive crop fails
and the fields produce no food,
though there are no sheep in the pen
and no cattle in the stalls,

yet I will triumph in Yahweh;
I will rejoice in the God of my salvation!

(Habakkuk 3:17-18).

Those early American settlers, this despondent Old Testament seer, and, perhaps you, may have few visible reasons to offer thanks. Some families have empty chairs around the Thanksgiving table–a fallen officer, a mother succumbed to cancer, an empty high-chair where a miscarried baby should sit. Others have seen strife swirl through their homes like a tornado, unsettling what used to be comfortable and stealing what was once joyous. Still there are some whose economic situation is so dire that perhaps they are forced to sit around someone else’s table, dining on other’s generosity.

The world, as we see it, as the headlines and our timelines reveal, is broken, sinful, and bears much reason for sorrow. Why, then, would reasonable people stop and offer thanks to a God who seems to take away more than he might give?

Not because of the promise of better tomorrow in this life, but because of something all of God’s people understand: every breath, every morsel of food, every human relationship is a gift from a gracious Creator. What’s more, even the pain we endure is working for us and for God an even greater reward in that future kingdom.

We can whisper out our thankfulness because we believe in a God who is not absent from our struggles, but is near, very near. Jesus, who bore our pain and experienced the full range of human difficulty, has defeated the darkness that steals our joy. He is gathering, with his hands, all of human history to himself. He is ushering in a new Kingdom, restoring all things from broken to beautiful again.

This kind of faith, viewed through the cloudy and colored lens of our frail human existence, frees us from the prison of our self-interest and liberates us to lavish our gifts, however meager, on the abandoned, the vulnerable, and the sick.

Thanksgiving allows American Christians, blessed with historic wealth, opportunity, and temptation, to lift our eyes away from our own pockets of sorrow and toward the heavens in great and humble gratitude. We should not let Thanksgiving be overcome by football, by shopping, by trivial nothingness, but should gather, with those we love, and offer thanks to a gracious and benevolent Father. We should pause our hurried ways, cease our labors, disconnect from the world and offer simple, humble, heartfelt praise.

Thanksgiving is a good measure of the heart. Gospel people are humble people. Broken by their own sin and by the tragedies of life in a fallen world, they understand what it is to be dependent, not on their own ingenuities and gifts, but on the simple mercies of a powerful Creator.

This originally appeared as a column in Homelife Magazine.

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