The thankful season is upon us, as we make our shopping lists and get ready to cook the Thanksgiving feasts that are traditional for our families. Along with our favorite holidays come a big set of familiar expectations. We know who likes cranberry sauce and who doesn’t; who prefers apple pie to pumpkin; which grandchild is a vegetarian this year, and who is most likely to fall asleep after the big dinner is over. For the most part we enjoy all the normal occurrences that are part of the day. The more smiles, the more laughter, the more stories, the better. And we’re not too far past COVID to still appreciate the fact that we can gather together at all. What a blessing it was—although a painful one—to discover how empty our lives are when we’re not able to be together, to share the love of family, the warmth of connection, and the never-ending blessings of God.
But for many people—and this is true every year, not just in the years since COVID—it is a struggle to get to a feeling of thankfulness, even with family all around. Things just don’t feel right. Life is somehow falling short; things aren’t the way we want them to be this year. Someone is missing, or there’s a conflict in the family. Maybe holidays trigger stress and painful memories from the past. Perhaps someone we love dearly isn’t with us this year, and their absence is all we can see. When inner worries, fears, or hurts take center-stage in our hearts, it is hard—if not impossible—to feel grateful. We need to get the problem solved first, we think, and then we’ll be able to feel thankful that the bad stuff is behind us.
We all do it, but there’s a problem with that kind of thinking. It we wait to feel grateful until life is just the way we want it, we may wait a long, long time—maybe forever. Because as we all know so well, life gives us a never-ending stream of experiences that stir up our emotions and challenge our problem-solving capabilities. There’s always more to deal with. I think ultimately we’ll see that it all has been a blessing—even the painful things—moments of grace that helped us grow and learn, be more loving with others, and draw closer to God day by day. But when we’re living the problem in real time, it can seem like a huge insurmountable boulder on our path toward thankfulness.
When we postpone our gratitude until that nebulous future date when everything is perfect, we miss the way that gratitude can change our hearts—and even our lives—from the inside, out. When we intentionally look for something to be thankful for, right in the middle of a difficult time, a little spark of light begins to shine in the heart of the trouble. If we keep looking for things that make us feel grateful, that flicker starts to grow, quickly igniting other ideas. We see more blessing around us; we notice synchronicities that help us; we begin to feel encouraged and hopeful, as we see evidence that God is providing the help we need. As the situation resolves itself, not only does our gratitude expand into a blazing light, but forever after we will look back on that time of struggle and instead of seeing the fear and worry, we’ll see how God loves us and guided us through it all. What an amazing blessing that is. And it strengthens us for the road ahead.
For example, on our prayer chain we’ve been praying for a young man—43-years-old—who is the husband of one of the social workers on my hospice team. About six weeks ago, out of the blue, he had an incident that took him to his local emergency room. The doctors quickly realized he had a serious heart problem, and as they ran tests over the next few days, the situation went from bad to worse. His heart was so damaged that he would need several procedures to get his heart strong enough that he could make it through having a defibrillator put in. All of this was a shock to him and his family—he’d never had any heart trouble before.
Our prayer chain began praying for Chris as soon as we learned of his situation, and the young couple began focusing, with thankfulness, on the fact that this incident happened at the perfect time for the doctors to discover the damage before a big heart event occurred. Over the next few weeks, as they prepared for what the doctors told them would be a difficult open-heart surgery, they stayed positive, they trusted in the prayers that enfolded them, and they joked with each other about Chris’s “go big or go home” personality.
It makes me think of a quote from William Penn, Early Friend and the first governor of the state of Pennsylvania: ““The secret of happiness is to count your blessings while others are adding up their troubles.”
Chris had the surgery a little more than a week ago and the surgeon said not only did everything go better than anticipated but some of the damage they’d seen in the tests didn’t seem to be there when they went to correct it. Was it a healing? Only God knows for sure. But the happy ending is that Chris went home from the hospital last Friday with a much-strengthened and healthier heart and a new defibrillator to keep things in rhythm. And Jen, our social worker, still has her sense of humor after all this, which seems like a miracle in itself.
Finding God in the tiny moments all the way along—especially in a crisis—is key to inviting Christ’s Light to be with us right where we are, right where we need him, in our confusion and upset and fear. Once we see that little spark, we realize God is with us, and that flicker of gratitude grows until we know that God is shining through our whole experience. The blessing overflows into the lives around us.
I had that experience when I broke my collarbone and had surgery some time later. I was initially of course not happy about the fall or the broken bone, but I noticed that very quickly afterward that good things were beginning to happen. First an excellent HR person introduced me to the orthopedic practice with the surgeon who turned out to be a true Godsend and a wonderful human being. And every experience I had through that time—from the office visits to the surgery, through the healing period and back to wholeness—just shined with the comforting and unmistakable presence of God. I look back on it now and that’s all I see. I just feel loved. And deeply, deeply grateful.
Our Old Testament reading from today captures that idea of praising God no matter what our circumstances might look like in the present moment:
“Shout for joy to the Lord, all the earth. Worship the Lord with gladness, come before him with joyful songs. Know that the Lord is God. It is he who made us, and we are his; we are his people, the sheep of his pasture. Enter his gates with thanksgiving and his courts with praise; give thanks to him and praise his name. For the Lord is good and his love endures forever; his faithfulness continues through all generations.”
Notice that there’s nothing in there that says, when things get better or when that person apologizes or when the test comes back the way I want it to. The psalmist reminds us to pray with what we know to be foundational truths, the bedrock of our faith. The Lord is God. The One who made us. We are God’s, the sheep of God’s pasture. God is good and God’s love for us endures forever.
What a blessing! What more could we need than that? We would be such thankful people if we could simply hold on to those truths day in and day out. None of them ever change—they are solid and dependable—and circumstances that temporarily upset or bewilder us can’t touch them. We are God’s own children. All shall be well. Answers, people, comfort, wisdom will be provided. We simply need to have the eyes and hearts, minds and souls to watch for that spark of God’s Light in our experience and to fan it, with our gratitude, into a flame that burns bright enough first to lead us, then to share.
And the remarkable part is that God isn’t only “an ever-present help in the time of trouble,” a presence that helps to smooth out the rough and difficult places in our lives, but a continual companion, as immediately close and tender and real as we are ready to discover. Think of God in the Garden of Eden with Adam and Eve—the picture is one of friendship, communion, togetherness, walking through the garden together, discussing the day in the cool of the evening. Not too different from what we’ll experience when we gather with our families this week, is it? The great blessing here isn’t that we get the solution we need when we need it. The heart-expanding, mind-opening blessing of it all is that we are loved and we are love, and that God is the tender, all-abiding presence, always at the heart of it all.
It’s God in us who gathers us together at the table, God who inspires the prayer to bless the meal, God who warms the hearts and brings the smiles, God who acts in the hands that prepare and serve. God is among us and within us, inspiring, helping, cheering, guiding, loving. That is the real blessing that animates all we do and all we are. We can’t but help share that blessing with others—it overflows in every act of our lives, whether we realize the source of it all or not. But gratefulness draws us toward the truth. And in our lives of faith, as we turn God’s way again and again, we begin to see and know and love God’s presence with us for its own sake, not just for the solutions, the “way opening” that God brings. We recognize and know and love and appreciate the friendship of God.
Paul carries on this same theme of thankfulness always in his letter to the Philippians. Paul had a special relationship with the people of the church in Phillipi. They had been very supportive and encouraging to him from the outset, they told Paul they “held him in their hearts” as he went through various trials in his ministry. Even though Paul wrote this letter to the church while he was in prison, he nonetheless encourages them with these words:
“Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice! Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near. Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”
The Lord is near, Paul says, echoing the psalmist and sharing the reality he knew from his own times of trial. Paul says we can be at ease in our circumstances, whatever they are, because God is our strength and our helper. When we pray and ask God for help (that’s what a petition is), and we do it with thankfulness, we begin to see those glimmers of light in our situation. And as we say thank you for those blessings—however small they may be—things begin to change, inside and out. The peace that passes all understanding is the calm comfort of knowing God is truly with us, bringing the best to us in love.
So this holiday, no matter what, we can find an endless number of things to be grateful for. Even as we notice the small things, let’s not forget the big ones. We can be thankful not only for family and good food, but a warm home, a quiet moment, the laughter of children, eyes to see with, ears to hear with, this next breath, and then this one, and most of all, a God who loves us, who is closer and dearer and more faithful than anything our human hearts and minds can conceive. We are a blessed and blessing people. And then we begin to live with the awareness of the infinite goodness God brings into our lives, gratitude becomes a way of life, a daily living prayer.
I like the way Quaker economist Kenneth Boulding puts this:
“There is a quiet, open place in the depths of the mind, to which we can go many times in the day and lift up our soul in praise, thankfulness and conscious unity. With practise this God-ward turn of the mind becomes an almost constant direction, underlying all our other activities.”
Happy Thanksgiving, Friends. This year, may our thanks be a blessing, a practice, and a turning point—bringing more Light, more grace, more joy and peace into our daily walk with God, and overflowing into the world around us.
- OT Psalm 100
- NT Philippians 4: 4-7