Being thankful and giving thanks are not the same thing. “Being thankful” is a state of being. It’s good to feel grateful. But being happy about one’s fortunes is one thing, giving thanks is another.
Thanksgiving should be about giving thanks. Sadly, it has evolved into thanks-gorging. Families get together to indulge and imbibe, yet in the midst of all the joviality, family members are too often strung-out and frayed. This was certainly the case in my family.
As a child, I could never put the holiday and the purpose of thanksgiving together. Aunt Dorie would come drunk and weep at the table. No one ever knew why, and no one asked. Grandpa refused to speak to Grandma. My older brother showed his face only at the meal. Otherwise, he was conspicuously absent. In trying to make everything perfect, Mom would always have a migraine, and Dad would be steaming because Mom didn’t feel well. All the while, the Detroit Lions stormed our living room, making it impossible for anyone to do anything except sneak as many hors d’oeuvres as possible.
Oddly enough, Thanksgiving was the one time Dad said his “own” grace before dinner. Throughout the rest of the year it was the standard, “Our father, we thank thee...” At Thanksgiving, he quietly, almost tearfully, thanked God for the many blessings that had been bestowed upon us. I always waited anxiously for something more, something of love to break in after the prayer. Some hidden secret in Dad’s heart was trying to reveal itself to us. But with the “Amen,” the silence was broken and the business of carving and passing dishes swung into full swing. The moment of grace had slipped away.
Our Thanksgiving feast never lasted long. And despite the lavishness of everything, I always felt a gnawing emptiness. How could everything be so good and right on the outside when I felt so isolated and estranged on the inside? Why were we so afraid of showing love to one another?
I wonder whether all the feasting at Thanksgiving is more an escape, a kind of therapy or narcotic, than a meal of celebration. I wonder because I see so little thanksgiving going on. When was the last time you or I sat down with someone and really thanked them—for who they are, for all the deeds of kindness they have shown to you and to others, for being there? When did you last look into the eyes of your son or daughter, mother or father, wife or husband and express gratitude for his or her life? What about your employer or employee, or even your neighbor?
Expressing a heartfelt thank you isn’t as easy as it seems. As a parent, I know that getting a child to say a simple thank you—and meaning it—doesn’t always come naturally. But when children are truly thankful, they not only say it, they show it.
A few years ago I had a chance to spend time with my dad. Though I had written him letters and spoken with him on the phone from time to time, I hadn’t been with him for ten years. Dad can barely walk now, and he struggles to remember things. And though I had expressed my love to him in the past, before we said goodbye I just had to say it one more time: “Thank you, Dad, for being my dad.”
When we give God the Father thanks I wonder if we really know what we are doing. Is it enough to just say thank you or say a prayer before a meal? And when we give thanks, are we thanking Him or are we just glad to be alive and well and to have an excuse to have a good time? The Apostle Paul writes: “Give thanks in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you.” Giving thanks, in the most profound sense, involves far more than counting one’s blessings. This is little more than selfishness with a smile. Giving thanks is about acknowledging with joy God’s will—despite circumstances.
But more than this, offering thanks is a matter of showing it, both to God and to those with whom we are connected. “No one has seen God; but if we love each other, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us,” writes the Apostle John. If we fail to show one another our thanks, what good is a meal of thanksgiving? A truly thankful heart knows that things pale in comparison to people. We are created for relationship, not riches. Sharing a table full of food is wonderful, but it is whom we share it with that counts.
This year’s Thanksgiving could be different, but only if our focus is on our fellowship, not the feast; on giving thanks, not on getting full. We must get beyond the tradition of the meal and meet each other heart-to-heart.
Though many of us won’t be able to spend Thanksgiving dinner with our families, or with our best friends, all of us can still give thanks. We can each give ourselves. The question is: Will we?