I know! I know! Thanksgiving is past! Christmas is just around the corner! So, you may be wondering why my thoughts today revolve around “old stuff” (as in “why you gotta bring up old stuff?”).
Shortly before my 14th birthday, my grandfather unexpectedly died at the rather young age of 60. As you might imagine, this was an incredibly difficult period, especially for my father. The prospect of navigating the holidays without my grandfather’s commanding presence seemed to suck the life and joy out of what is traditionally one of the most joyous holidays in my family. A quick review of old pictures from Thanksgiving that year show a family that was still deeply hurting.
The lead up to Christmas was somber. Christmas day dawned without a whole lot of fanfare. Sure there were presents to be opened, but we were missing something. That evening as we gathered around the dining room table for dinner, my dad reached over and lit a candle. With tears streaming down his face, he looked at each of us around the table and said that while there didn’t appear to be much to be thankful for over the past year, he was going to find one thing and give thanks for it. Then he handed my mother a candle, lighting it with his own and asked her to do the same. She gave thanks! Then she handed me a candle, lighting it with her own. I gave thanks as well. This continued around the table until every person there was holding a lit candle and had found one thing to be thankful for. That was the beginning of a powerful tradition that continues in our family around the Christmas dinner table every year…no matter who the guests may be.
As I’ve been preparing for our Christmas Day tradition, I’ve been thinking a lot about giving thanks particularly during the difficult times when there seems to be little to be thankful for. I Thessalonians 5:18 says –
In everything give thanks: for this is the will of God…concerning you.
The conventional wisdom for those who believe in God is that we are never supposed to question the scriptures. We are just to swallow what was written thousands of years ago as the Word of Truth for us today. So, when I read something like the verse above, I get very conflicted. On the one hand my up-bringing and my faith constrain me to say that I am to be thankful for everything and then to live that out. On on the other hand I wonder what sort of sadomasochist the writer was.
Several weeks have past since we celebrated the most American of holidays, a holiday that was officially recognized by the federal government in 1941 but that was first observed in 1621. For those whose American History is a little rusty, here’s my version –
The Pilgrims landed on Plymouth Rock in December of 1620, and before the end of the first year they had lost nearly half of the 102 who sailed on the Mayflower. That first year was hard (something of an understatement) and didn’t provide much of a reason for thanks or giving, with a couple of noteable exceptions. (i) Natives – Some of the Pilgrims made friends with the “natives” who literally helped them survive that first year. (ii) Bountiful Harvest of 1621 – When the harvest rolled around, they were blessed with an amazing bounty. It only seemed logical then that they should throw a party with all of their bounty and so, that is exactly what they did…and, they included 91 “natives” in the festivities. Oh, and the party lasted for three days.
I thought about the history of this holiday as we drove down the Southern California coastline to spend the holiday with family and friends. In a Canyon, with only one way in or out, on a picturesque spread, far from the maddeningly fast-paced world I spend my life in, I begin to think of giving thanks. As a believer, I have tried to live out what I was always taught was “God’s will for me”…giving thanks for everything. But as I sat on a rock, looking out over Hell Hole Canyon, I got stuck. Everything? How the heck can I be expected to give thanks when I watched death and destruction the world over this year? How in the world can I be expected to give thanks when I hear of or see on TV the mistreatment of children or when I witness hunger in people around me? How in the world can I be expected to give thanks for all the crap that has gone on in my little world this past year? Everything?! Bah!
Once again, my mind went back to my American History lesson. I know that some of the Pilgrims died of starvation. Some died from diseases that were rampant. All in all, those who landed on Plymouth Rock had little, if anything, to be thankful for. Yes, I know I’m repeating myself. But history begs to be repeated. Of course, repeating the history lesson brought up an incredibly important question. Why the big party?
When we got home on Friday afternoon, I grabbed my Bible and went in search of the verse which told of God’s will. This sadomasochistic desire for us all to be these bubbly, effervescent, Barbi-n-Ken type cheerleaders, that act like we are having the best times of our life when all around us the sky is falling. I’ve met a few of these people and have found, without exception, that they have major chemical imbalances. There are just some things that I can’t be thankful for! And I don’t even need to list them for you because you understand…you’ve got a list as well. But as I read and re-read that scripture, a tiny little word stood out big as Dallas.
In everything give thanks…
I’ll admit, I was hung up on the word “everything” like it was the most important word in that command. But it’s not! For some reason, I kept equating the word “in” with “for” and that’s not what it says at all. With sudden clarity, I began to understand how the early Pilgrims could throw a three day party after being surrounded by death and destruction in a land totally foreign and unfamiliar to them. The operative word is…IN.
It doesn’t matter how bad things all around me are, I can always find something to be thankful for. No wonder it is God’s will for us! I am a happier, healthier individual when I focus on the good around me. By giving thanks for even one thing every day, I am focusing more on the good and that tends to keep me in better spirits (and by extension in better health). There will always be horrible things around me that will compete to put my attention on the negative, but if I can have one positive affirmation every day, I’ve minimized the impact the negative can have over me.
Perhaps it’s time to do like the Pilgrims after a long and horrible first year (not that I’ve had a long and horrible year…but there have definitely been some things I will be glad to put behind me)…you know, throw a party. Not just a little shindig, but a great big three day stunner, inviting all the friends and all who were part of the successes of the year before. Maybe, just maybe, that’s what this scripture is talking about. Not some stupid, sadomasochistic, assinine, cheerleader routine that is all about “hiding the tears” behind some bubbly, but truly fake veneer. Rather, reviewing the good things in light of the bad things. It’s a little tricky I’ll admit, but not nearly as difficult once you get started!