An Exercise in Thanksgiving
Don’t worry, this exercise won’t involve an hour sweating on the stair-master…
Today, many of us in North America prepare for the annual traditions associated with plump and tender turkey, cranberries and gravies of countless varieties, and yammy, applely, and pumpkin side dishes with enough to cover a table with enough calories to power the launch of the next mars land rover. Yet despite the hustle in the kitchen, we can’t escape the namesake of today’s holiday without considering what it means, or what it looks like, to express thanks.
J.A. Shedd is credited for the adage:
“He who thanks with the lips
Thanks but in part;
The full, true Thanksgiving
Comes from the heart.”
I’m certainly thankful for the reminder that thanksgiving is hardly genuine if it is only lip service. Just as a child can easily spit out the words “I’m sorry,’ without any genuine guilt or half-a-heartbeat of repentance (well, and adults for that matter), so too can we easily say “thank you” without having gardened gratitude and appreciation for what we have received.
But, hope helpful is this rhyme? What does “true thanksgiving com[ing] from the heart” even mean? Does that mean that we just need to try really really hard to be more thankful? Is there a certain threshold on the thanks-o-meter that we need to qualify as having true thanksgiving?
This begs me to ask: What is the appropriate response that thanks should produce?
For help, let’s look at somebody who we would suppose had a really eyewitness perspective on the first “Thanksgivings.” On a Thanksgiving sermon preached in 1739, Jonathan Edwards provided clarity on what true thankfulness looks like from the text of Luke 8:2-3:
“And also some women who had been healed of evil spirits and infirmities: Mary, called Magdalene, from whom seven demons had gone out, and Joanna, the wife of Chuza, Herod’s household manager, and Susanna, and many others, who provided for them out of their means. ( ESV)”
So, what does true thanksgiving look like? Casting demons out of the neighborhood girls? Not quite. Edwards highlights the behavior of these women. In response to their savior, they prepared meals, clothed and sheltered him during his earthly ministry, and boldly prepared to go and to embalm his body after his death and burial. Edward says “how suitable and becoming was the behavior of the women that when Christ had been their deliverer from such grievous calamities, they thus showed their dear love and gratitude to him, and fed and clothed him as long as he lived.”
Edwards’ application to his congregation was, in the spirit of Matthew 25, to serve, to clothe, and to love “the least of these,” because we cannot physically care for and serve our savior in bodily form as these women did. For Edwards, true Thanksgiving was a life of proactive mission. When it came to caring for the outcast, deprived, and poor he says “we are not to wait till they come to our houses, but we are to go to theirs.”
Perhaps those who volunteer distributing thanksgiving meals to the homeless are on to something. Although if we are to look at Edward’s exposition and see that the women of Luke two spent not one day, but the rest of their days serving Jesus and his disciples, perhaps the application is to ask why aren’t we proactively and intentionally including service and love to “the least of these” as a regular pattern of our life?
And let’s add another angle- in Thessalonians 5:12-28, we find one of the most remembered verses pertaining to thanksgiving “in all things give thanks” (v. 18), a command on the heels of exhortations to rejoice always and to pray without ceasing. Although these commands (and most of the imperatives in v. 12-28) are grammatically independent, perhaps it is not ironic that these verses, which we might tend to pick and digest as advice for spiritual disciplines and the individual spiritual life, immediately follows commands on how the Christian community is to behave. Paul calls the church to esteem their leaders, be live at peace amongst each other, to lovingly correct those out of line, to encourage the weak and fainthearted in their midst, and to do good to those who wrong you. In these concluding applications from the apostle to his church, might it make sense that the joy and thanksgiving expected in the Christian’s life requires practicing these disciplines not just inwardly, but outwardly?
This leaves us with our blessing, but also our challenge for this special holiday. May we resolve to practice true thanksgiving (today and tomorrow) through Christ-inspired sacrifice and service to others. Especially to those without the same bumper crop of blessings that has been harvested and graced to us.
 Yes, for those who weren’t aware, Canada has a Thanksgiving Holiday of their own. It’s too bad we’ll never have the same date as them though, as Columbus Day currently occupies the second Monday of October on the US Federal Holiday Calendar.
 See Wednesdays post for the full history.