Enter his gates with thanksgiving,
and his courts with praise!
Give thanks to him; bless his name!
For the Lord is good;
his steadfast love endures forever,
and his faithfulness to all generations. (Ps 100:4-5 ESV)
The command today to “give thanks” comes to each of us as we are, in this moment, formed into the people we are becoming by processes and choices spread throughout the year. As it came to me this morning, I had to once again admit that I don’t easily and naturally give thanks. As I started to have a conversation with God about it, I followed several streams of thought in my journal that helped me get my head and heart around it and thought it might benefit others as well. The pressure to “give thanks” gave way to an easy and hopeful posture before God of seeking to live in the kind of world with Him where giving of thanks would be easy and natural.
First, I realize that the disposition of my soul, particularly the bent of my will, will determine how I receive/perceive/interpret this holiday. Most of what happens today is not under my direct control, nor am I in direct control of my emotions. What is within my control, my influence, are my thoughts and interpretations. My interpretation involves what I think about (thoughts) and what I seek (will). I can position my body in particular ways, think particular thoughts, seeking to trust God with each moment as it is and not what it “should be.”
Second, the command to “give thanks” feels foreign and mostly external. My internal and external world is not yet prepared and ready for this! I have spent most of my days prior to this one in self-will, seeking above all to get my own way, to get my own needs met regardless of the cost. Thus, I lack capacity to understand and enter into giving of thanks, at least at some level. I am ready and ripe and prepared to seek my own way. I am not yet prepared and ready and ripe to trust, though I am seeking that and on the path that leads to that.
The fact is, giving of thanks is a byproduct of living in abundance, our experience of God’s care for our daily, specific needs. If we identify more with lack and “going without” then the command to give thanks comes as merely an annoying external prod, a corset of expectation attempting to force a shape upon our lives from outside that is unfitting and unnatural.
If, however, we identify more and more with a growing experiential confidence in God’s loving care, then the command to give thanks resonates with a deep internal reality within us. We find that we are ripe for it, ready for it. It is natural and easy, part of Jesus’ “easy yoke” and “light burden” (Matt 11:28-30).
Thus, we should not force ourselves and others to “be thankful” (God have special mercy on us parents, we are especially guilty of this with our kids – “be thankful, or else!!”). We start, instead, with where we are (this is always where we start!), admitting our need to grow in trusting God’s care. This is the indirect route to giving thanks, and it is the only way that is safe, light and easy. We take steps to actually trust him with the actual moments before us (as opposed to those “ideal” moments that flood our minds on holidays like these).
The moments in which we are called to trust God are filled with our actual everyday realities and broken relationships and circumstances. Being present to God in these moments, we can then name what is good in the here and now and give thanks for it, even if it feels pathetically small and insignificant (please, for your sake and the sake of those around you, avoid “heroic” expressions of thanks that are filled with platitudes and niceties but have nothing to do with what is broken in your world or the world around you).
Thank you, Father, that although parts of my body are not working right and I’m experiencing pain, that many parts are working and that for the most part, I can still do what I would like to do.
Thank you, Father, for my job. Sometimes it’s maddeningly annoying, but I thank you that you are there with me.
Thank you, Father, for my family, where I came from. I wish things had been different, but it is what it is. Thank you that nothing is irredeemable.
Practice the presence of God, as old Brother Lawrence called it, trusting God with each moment as it comes and what fills these moments. Stop trying to fix or change the moments that come, rather receive them and give thanks for what you can.
With this in place, we can say what giving of thanks “does for us.” It provides space to celebrate, space large enough even to include our enemies (we find plenty of these at home). It also sanctifies the two “F” words that are usually a part of every Thanksgiving – Family and Feasting. These two things can be and often are profound and ongoing sources of shame and pain. Giving thanks can bring them into the presence of God, place them under his care, his rule and reign, thus redeeming them, re-interpreting them through the lens of his goodness.
Like a turkey must be prepared beforehand if it is to be eaten on Thanksgiving day, so our souls need to be prepared if we want to be ready to be thankful. In our house, we have to thaw a turkey days in advance and soak it in Brine to get it ready for cooking, ready for celebratory use in the Holman house. We are like that; in ourselves we are “radically unsuited for joy” (John Ortberg, Living in Christ’s Presence) so we require training in order to become people who are “suited for joy.” If you tried to cook a rock-solid frozen turkey on the day of Thanksgiving, you might get the outside crispy, but the inside will remain cold and hard. So it is with us when we try real hard to give thanks.
We seek to grow in giving thanks, not by “trying hard” to give thanks, but by becoming the kind of people who live in God’s world where giving of thanks is part of easy deep breathing and loving.
“In the end, when all else has passed away, there will remain only love, the love that overflows your heart, O God, and animates the distant reaches of space and time. I seek fuller immersion in that great river, trusting that the small endings of daily life are true access points through which I can participate ever more fully in the fulfillment of your design for all that is. Amen.” (Reuben Job, A Guide to Prayer For All Who Walk With God, p. 383)