Holiday movies have always been the custom in our family. One of my faves is The Miracle on 34th Street, circa 1947, in original black and white. The movie begins with the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade and culminates at Christmas. In our home, these are the bookends of the holiday season; the tree goes up, the day after the turkey goes down.
A year round Thanksgiving movie, that always waters my eyes, is “Pollyanna.” The main character is a 12 year old orphan who proceeds to teach an entire town about finding gratitude no matter the circumstance. Both versions (1960 & 2003) are excellent and inspire me to find the bright spots in my life for which I can be glad. (I’m a bit partial towards the later version.)
Growing up, I recall learning about the Pilgrims in school and watching my mom do lots of cooking at home. As we raised our own family we sought to more intentionally integrate the theme of being thankful into the holiday, along with good food of course! We read books, to introduce our children to the historical figures prominent in those first Thanksgiving feasts. Whether historical or fiction, finding context in the story of others helps us to reflect upon our own stories.
Thanksgiving Day became an official American holiday when President Abraham Lincoln issued a proclamation in 1863. “I do therefore invite my fellow citizens in every part of the United States, and also those who are at sea and those who are sojourning in foreign lands, to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next, as a day of Thanksgiving and praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the heavens.”
The proclamation concludes with an invitation to prayer. “With humble penitence for our national perverseness and disobedience, to commend to His tender care all those who have become widows, orphans, mourners or sufferers in the lamentable civil strife in which we are unavoidably engaged, and fervently implore the interposition of the Almighty Hand to heal the wounds of the nation and to restore it as soon as may be consistent with the Divine purposes to the full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquility and Union.”
The Thanksgiving holiday was forged in the fire of great heartache and loss. Conservative estimates list 620,000 deaths over the four year period of the American Civil War. The grief and sorrow in families, in both Union and Confederacy, was overwhelming. Countless homes gathered around a table of bereavement – far from a Hallmark holiday moment. In many respects, the inauguration of the Thanksgiving holiday reminds me of the Biblical verse – “a sacrifice of praise.”
America was two years into a devastating war that would continue for another two years. No one could foresee that even after the war ended, the respite from racial and regional strife, would be short lived. The celebration amongst black Americans was derailed by prejudice and greed, and though free from slavery, they were plunged into a state of discrimination for the next 90 years. Perhaps we could all relate to the irony, the paradox, of aspiring to abide in a state of gratitude while the circumstances of life have stacked the odds against us.
If I was a pastor around the time of the Civil War, I may have preached a sermon from one of the great restoration chapters in the Bible. “This is what the Lord says: You say about this place, It is a desolate waste… Yet… there will be heard once more the sounds of joy and gladness… and the voices of those who bring thank offerings to the house of the Lord, saying, ‘Give thanks to the Lord Almighty, for the Lord is good; his love endures forever.’” Jer. 33:10-11
The ebbs and flows of life are the “eye of the needle” through which we are invited to offer the sacrifice of praise. The metaphor Jesus uses in Matthew’s gospel is to illustrate that spiritual transformation can be a challenge. Mt. 19:24 A narrow opening (eye of the needle) and the largest animal known to the people of his day (camel). Thankfully, he adds that, “With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.” Mt. 19:26
Being a pastor for 37 years, I’ve sat with many people who suffered great loss. There is one in particular that stands out. Her name was Maureen – stricken by a disease in her teen years that required her to be on a ventilator machine around the clock. Her younger brother died from the same illness, and their dad died at a young age from a heart attack. I had the privilege of visiting she and her mom often, during the ten years of my pastorate in their city. Yes, they had their days of “Why Lord?”, as we all sometimes do. But they so inspired me with their grateful hearts towards God.
Maureen endured many trials, on her way to an enduring city, where she resides now in a redeemed, glorified body. “For here we do not have an enduring city, but we are looking for a city that is to come. Through Jesus, therefore, let us continually offer to God a sacrifice of praise, the fruit of lips that openly profess his name.” Heb. 13:14-15
Thanksgiving is more than a holiday; it’s a way of life. Every Christian will agree that a lifestyle of giving thanks, is the will of God. “Rejoice always, pray continually, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus. 1 Thes. 5:16-18 A well known inspirational verse encourages us that “weeping may endure for a night, but joy comes in the morning.” Ps. 30:5
If you’ve been enduring a season of trial, you know that the morning is not always tomorrow. The timestamp of our breakthrough is unknown, but the sacrifice of praise is for today.