Over the past eight months, we have asked this question many times, but during this Thanksgiving holiday week, and especially on this Thanksgiving Day, it bears repeating: “At the beginning of this year, would you have expected this week, this holiday, this Thanksgiving Day, to be as it is now?”
One of the many traditions of the Thanksgiving holiday time is for pastors in their sermons to ask people to make a list of their blessings. I’m going to ask you to make a list this week, but not the traditional one. When we make a list of our blessings, we normally begin and end with our material blessings. That’s good and proper, but it doesn’t exhaust the subject.
I’m going to ask you to sit down and make a list — a very personal, private list — of the things from which you have been weaned in the past year. That is, make a list of the things which through suffering and hardship, perhaps through COVID-19 and conflict, through pandemic and problems, God has taken away from you in the last 12 months. As you consider this list, may I suggest that now your faith is stronger and deeper. And now your walk with God means more than it ever did before. Has that happened for you?
I want you to list those things you used to think you couldn’t live without, but now you know you can. It could be a dream you had for your life that consumed all your energy, but God has taken it from you and you have found, “Yes, I can live without that.” It may be a relationship, an idea, something you owned, a personal possession, something you just had to have, or set all your hopes on. It may be a person around whom you built your life and now that person is gone from your life. It was difficult to let go, but you did, and now you are stronger for it. It may be something you fought for, strived for, lived for, worked for, and when you got it, you found it wasn’t as important as you once thought.
On your list may be things which are quite good and proper in themselves. Most of the things on your list will not be bad or evil or sinful. It’s anything that has happened in your life in the last year about which you can say, “God has shown me that I don’t have to have that in order to be happy.”
To illustrate that concept, on April 15, 2013, one of the best-known sporting events in the world, the Boston Marathon, turned deadly when two homemade bombs planted close to the finish line exploded. The blasts killed three people, wounded 260 others, and cost 16 some of their limbs. In commemoration of the one-year anniversary of the bombing, Samantha Storey for The New York Times profiled several survivors about how they were coping with the trauma. Naturally, the interviewees expressed a great deal of sadness, fear, anger, and even rage. But, surprisingly, there was also another theme that emerged from the interviews: gratitude.
One survivor put it this way: “Life, it’s short. The day of the marathon just reinforces my belief. Life is short, and you need to cherish each moment.”
A 45-year-old female lawyer reflected on what she’s learned after a year: “It was such a terrible tragedy that sometimes I feel guilty because it was a blessing for me. It made my life more rich, more full. I learned how to appreciate living in the moment. And I learned not to worry and stress about things as much. I don’t let work bother me. I don’t let piddling money issues bother me. It was not even a conscious effort on my part. It just changed my attitude.”
A 39-year-old scientist said, “I’ve had moments where I can’t believe how close everything came. Now I embrace life for what it is. I want to keep on living and propel my positive energy to help other people be more positive.”
Few have understood what having a thankful heart can mean to an individual as thoroughly as Elie Wiesel, Holocaust survivor and novelist. During an interview by Oprah Winfree, Wiesel proclaimed, “Right after the war, I went around telling people, ‘Thank you just for living, for being human.’ And to this day, the words that come most frequently from my lips are, ‘Thank you.’ When a person doesn’t have gratitude, something is missing in his or her humanity. A person can almost be defined by his or her attitude toward gratitude… For me, every hour is grace. And I feel gratitude in my heart each time I can meet someone and look at his or her smile.”
That attitude is precisely what the psalmist was pointing toward when he said, “I will bless the Lord at all times; His praise shall continually be in my mouth.” (Psalm 34:1). The “at all times” aspect of this attitude of gratitude is what we are talking about here when we talk about the true Thanksgiving spirit.
As the song says, “Count your many blessings, name them one by one, and it will surprise you what the Lord has done.”
The surprise is not just in the outward material blessings of the last year. It is also in the times of pain and suffering which seemed to be for no good purpose but turned out to be blessings in disguise. That, too, is the goodness and grace of God.
This week we are celebrating another Thanksgiving holiday. We ought to be the most thankful people on the face of the earth. Let us be thankful not only for the things we have, but also for the things we no longer have to have. And let the people of God hope in the Lord both now and forevermore.
That, my friends, is the true essence of “Thanksgiving Living.”
Chuck Tabor is a religion columnist for The Times-Gazette and a former Hillsboro area pastor. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.