Every Thanksgiving, it’s the same story. Gathered around the table. Dad peeks over at Mom with his sideways grin and reveals the familiar tale of a Cornish hen. Mom giggles uncontrollably as her mouth moves with his, and he reminds us of their very first holiday together. The year is 1968. Newly married with barely any money, they rent a tiny apartment filled with stick furniture and shag carpet. Although they have few worldly possessions, it doesn’t seem to bother them. They are thankful for each other. The evenings are spent cooking and hanging out. Such a simple time and how they love it. Dad even buys a cheap record player from Kmart to play the only record he owns, Glen Campbell’s, By the time I get to Phoenix. “He played that song over and over,” Mom jokingly reminds us. So much so that she decides she never, ever, with no disrespect to Glen, desires to get to Phoenix.
Mom does desire, though, to become a master chef in their home. She is a brand new wife, after all, and wants her husband to be impressed. Experimental dishes are cooked daily. Every night is a feast. My dad cannot fathom telling her that he doesn’t care for the Chateaubriand, the Eggplant Parmesan, or the Red Snapper Livornese. And convinced that each night’s dinner cost more than their furniture, Dad really just dreams of beef macaroni surprise and fish sticks. But just as she is determined to be the gourmet cook for him, my father is determined to be the supportive husband that she needs. So he gratefully eats whatever finds its way to his plate.
On their first official holiday, my mom is determined to outdo herself. Sitting on the table in perfect order as dad walks in from work, is the fancy china and silver they received from their wedding. This is his first clue that something special is on the menu, so he better get ready. The moment arrives, as usual, for the grand presentation. Out from the kitchen comes a tray carrying a pair of elegant and lightly browned birds, carefully lined up like they are making their debut. As always, mom serves the plates, looks hopefully at my dad, and waits for his reaction. Should I ask out loud what it is? He thinks with reluctance. “These are Cornish hens,” Mom offers as she proudly sits down, “I thought I would make us something special.” Feigning his delight, Dad slowly lifts his fork and knife to begin eating this night’s delicacy. Not sure if it is the pressure he puts down on the bird or the table being moved a little, but something interesting starts to ooze out on the plate. A clear plastic bag becomes visible. Its contents look strange. Is this a fortune cookie? He wonders. A special sauce I’m supposed to take out and pour over the top? When he pulls out the bag that reveals some sort of goo and a few bony items, he becomes certain that now is the time to draw the line about what he is willing to consume. Mortified over this unplanned surprise, mom grabs the bag with her bare hands, flinging much of the goo and bony items onto the floor, and runs into the kitchen. The young husband, still completely confused and hungry- still dreaming of a chili dog- waits patiently for what he is supposed to do next. Mom comes back, cleans up the floor as she explains what the giblets are, and that she simply forgot to remove them. She takes a deep breath and all is well. They finish their meal. He praises her hard work. She appreciates his encouragement. And once she falls asleep, Dad sneaks out for a late night trip to Burger King. Two, naive 20-somethings in love. The beginning of a life together. Creating memories that, 46 years later, many generations will enjoy at their Thanksgiving table.
Aren’t these memories the best? What stories does your family tell? I’m sure they are special and bring laughter and joy into your home. How pleasant to allow ourselves, especially at the holidays, the opportunity to just sit back and enjoy. Enjoy a funny memory, a little extra pecan pie, a precious moment with a loved one. Why can’t it always be this simple? Unfortunately, many of us see the holidays as filled with stress, overcommitment, and the pressure to perform. Others view it harder than any other time of the year due to financial strain, loneliness, or the loss of a loved one. We can feel displaced, discouraged, and incomplete at a time when we are supposed to be full of wonder and happiness. So what do we do?
1 Thessalonians 5:18 says,
“In all things give thanks; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus…”
It is important to notice that these verses do not encourage us to be thankful for all things, but instead thankful in all things. Your Heavenly Father understands that times may be hard. He knows your heart may be aching. He is aware that others may have hurt you and that life can be unfair. But He still desires for us to remain grateful. Why? Because through gratitude we receive both peace and joy, through gratitude we recognize the beauty in our lives, and through gratitude we draw closer to the heart of God.
Psalm 100:3-5 says,
“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…”
When reading these verses, we are reminded to praise God for all His goodness. But how come this is sometimes the last thing we seem to do? Why can we so easily find ourselves complaining or focusing on what is not right in our lives? It can be easy to lose sight of what we have as we focus on what is dissatisfying or still out of our reach. Do you find this to be true, my friend? Sometimes the stress that has been created or the pain we have endured can lead us to take our eyes off what is most important. At times, we can even become harsh and hard. Bah Humbug, we may say, as we see others entering into the holiday spirit. So, how do we pierce this numbness in our hearts? How can we cut the callous to get to the tender skin again? How can we change our perspective when we become down or negative? In all things, God encourages. We must change the lens by which we see our lives.
I remember an evening many years ago. It is late November as I head home from an early dinner with my kids. Feeling wounded and bitter about this being the first Christmas as a new family- a broken family- I am concerned about how I will pay for Christmas gifts, how the kids will handle the back and forth between divorced parents, and how I will hide my broken heart on Christmas morning. It is brutally cold out as we climb into the car and seems like forever before the heat finally kicks in.
Overcome with frustration, I moan and groan about the freezing temperature, the traffic I see up ahead, and the meal that was not to my liking. My diatribe continues for miles. As though my children are a willing audience, I find more things to complain about until our car rolls up to a red light. I glance over my shoulder and see a man walking beside the car. He is dirty, dressed in layers of oversized clothes and his tattered shoes are held together with duct tape. The luggage of plastic bags filled with no doubt all of his possessions proves that he is certainly homeless. He has pulled his baseball hat down so tightly, I guess in hopes to shield his face from the cold wind, that I cannot tell if he is young or old. And right at that moment, he turns toward me, lifts his head, and his eyes meet mine. He is in fact a young man, even though his frail body and weathered skin would suggest otherwise. As I look into the face of a man with no home; a man with all that he owns in grocery bags; a man with no way to get warm on this frigid evening, I am instantly ashamed. Ashamed of my complaining about the weather. Ashamed of my lack of gratitude. Ashamed by all that I have. I call him over to the car and give him some money, just the remainder that my wallet had held. His instant smile reveals stained teeth and cracked lips in need of moisture. What has this poor man been through to find himself in this state on this freezing night? Seeming speechless, his eyes open wide as he sifts through the bills. His excitement over such a small sum amazes me. I can see his breath from the cold as he finally says, “Oh, thank you ma’am. Thank you. May God bless you,” and he walks slowly away. My children and I drive in complete silence for the entire ride home. All of us are in awe of the short experience and the effect it has had- especially on me.
May God bless me? Why? Do I deserve more blessings when I am not even thankful for what I already have? I am driving in this car. I am with my children. I am headed to our home with the promise of a soft bed to climb into. He did not know that moments earlier our car had been filled with my complaints. I was not thankful for the dinner I just received, the comfort of my now heated vehicle, or the company around me, but he was grateful for a handful of cash that may bring him a hot meal, another item of clothing or maybe even a place to stay for the night. But only this night. But probably only one meal. I didn’t give him enough for more than that. But still he was grateful. His tremendous amount of gratitude for something so small only highlighted the lacking amount of mine.
“I’m so sorry, Father,” I prayed as I climbed into bed later that evening. I thought of the man and wondered where he would sleep. “Have I ever thanked you for my bed, dear Lord? Or my warm covers? My shower…my refrigerator full of food…my closet full of clothes? The peace I feel in my neighborhood…the safety in which my children sleep? I have so much, but I chose to complain. He has so little, yet he chose to be grateful. “Give us this day our daily bread,” the scripture says. This man was living this and tonight I was not. He was grateful for what God provided this day. Why wasn’t I?
Can you relate at all, dear reader? It is these moments that are a gift. Even though my holidays had changed from the past. Even though my family had struggled, I could still choose to be grateful. I needed to change the lens through which I was looking at my life. When we only see our lives through the pain, the disappointment, the bitterness…we miss an opportunity to see the favor of God. But wearing the lens of gratitude enables us to see the fullness of our life, what our Savior Jesus Christ has accomplished for us, and what can bring us joy. Was I justified in being sad? Of course I was. Was my situation difficult? Yes, no doubt about it. We are all justified when our world is upside down. That is what God’s love and grace are for. But is this what He really wants for us? Why does He encourage gratitude in all things? Why does He desire for us to change the lens and see through to the blessings all around us? It is because God wants us to live the best life we can, even in the midst of tough times. He wants us to remain grateful when times are good, so we do not lose sight of His provision and His goodness.
In all things keeps us close in relationship to Him- where He desires for us to be. It’s where he can do His work in us, show us His glory and fulfill His purpose in our lives. Don’t worry, God knows when you are struggling. He understands when you’re frustrated that life is not what you hoped it would be. He wants to be there for you in those times, so cast your cares on Him. But keep embracing gratitude. Look around and find things to be thankful for because in doing that you will find God. It will remind you that He is indeed there, that He loves you, and is working on your behalf.
Through the lens of gratitude my parents saw that stick furniture, a Glen Campbell record, and spending each night together could bring them happiness. Through the lens of gratitude the homeless man saw a treasure in a handful of cash. Through the lens of gratitude, I saw all the favor that God had provided me, even in the midst of my pain. What could you see in this season of Thanksgiving? In all things, your Father encourages. You just never know what blessings your lens may reveal.