Throughout my childhood, my favorite special event on our church’s calendar was the annual Thanksgiving service. My love for the event was not because of the pies—a groaning potluck table of apple, pumpkin, and chocolate cream with no one to count how many slices we children ate—or the merry fire blazing in the church fireplace. It wasn’t the chance to run unsupervised down the cold, dim, familiar back hallways with sugar-fueled friends. It wasn’t even the promise of a delayed school-night bedtime.
I loved it for that moment when we all pulled our avocado-green vinyl chairs into a ragged semicircle around the piano, and my pastor-father said, “Who would like to start with a word of thanksgiving?”
And, after a brief silence, someone would rise to her feet and say, “I’m thankful for a new job this year that lets me pay the bills and gives me a chance to use my gifts.” Another would stand: “I’m thankful the Lord used this year’s chemo treatments to send my cancer into remission.” After that, people would rise—or, sometimes, speak falteringly from their seats—in rapid succession.
Even as a child, I treasured the privilege of hearing the stories of others’ lives. Every year, we would hear words of thanks for jobs and homes, for pastors and teachers, for physical healing and familial reconciliation, for power over sin and for the unmerited gift of salvation.
There were always a few surprises from people who waited for this service to announce a pregnancy or a wedding engagement. There were always a few tears as we remembered faithful saints, gone this year to be with Jesus.
At the end of the evening, church members would replace the chairs and rake the fire’s embers into ash. We located our sticky, crumb-strewn pie plates. We plucked mittens from coat sleeves and tugged on stubborn boots. We hugged one another. We smiled. And we walked out together into the cold, our hearts warmed with shared thankfulness.
Let Us Give Thanks
In recent years, thanksgiving has become a popular topic. It’s the subject of bestsellers and the object of pretty memes. Research extols gratitude for everything from improving mental health to enabling better sleep. In response, many of my friends keep a private thanksgiving journal, a lifelong list of mercies both small and great.
I’m glad we’re more aware of our need to give thanks, but I wonder if this individual focus on thankfulness neglects an important…