Thanksgiving has always been a favorite holiday of mine. Food was a big part of the day but even more vital was the gathering of the family. Of course turkey with all the fixin’s was the primary meal and it was the only turkey that I really liked. I’ve never been a fan of turkey sandwiches which aren’t made from the leftovers from the Thanksgiving meal. And all the fixin’s for me included the olive and pickle tray which never made it to any other meal, and the variety of sweet breads and pies that supplemented and extended the meal far into the afternoon.
But more important that the food was the family that gathered. My grandparents lived right behind us when I was a boy but Thanksgiving was the only meal I remember having with them at our house. (My grandfather insisted that he could tell the difference between a pumpkin pie and a squash pie and my brother and I used to make him prove it every year. He didn’t mind cause he got two pieces of pie whether he accurately identified either one.) Often also my sisters and their families would come for Thanksgiving. It was great to all be together.
My Dad always had us go around the table and state something that we were thankful for this past year. The younger ones usually referred to food or some sporting achievement while the adults were often more relational in their items of thanks. When my children were young I began the practice of having them draw a Thanksgiving picture of whatever they thought represented the holiday to them. I saved all their drawings. Some consist of the traditional Pilgrim/Indian table and the Mayflower, while others contain maps of where everyone traveled from to arrive at the family table that year. Later drawings were of a more relational nature, pictures of friends, of wedding rings, of doves and angels and of flowers, all of which were symbolic of loved ones for whom they were thankful.
Psalm 136 is a good thanksgiving psalm. It starts and ends with the instruction to “give thanks.” In between verse 1 and verse 26 are a variety of times, general and specific, that God has done something noteworthy, something for which his people should give thanks. Each verse ends with the same refrain, “His love endures forever.”
What I find particularly significant in this psalm is the variety of things that God does all of which are expressions of his eternal love. I get the creation verses (136:4-9), “who by his understanding made the heavens…” (136:5). That is certainly something that expresses the great love of God and for which I am indeed thankful. I also get the redemption verses (136:10-15), “he brought Israel out from among them…” (136:11), for I too have been redeemed. The verses on the conquest (136:16-25), “he gave their land as an inheritance”… (136:21), enable me to thank God for personally caring for me. Yet I am forced to ponder his love when viewed from the perspective of those who reject him. I note that the effect of his care for Israel and for me brought death to others. He “struck down the firstborn of Egypt” (136:10)…“and killed mighty kings” (136:18). Each of these lines is immediately followed by the echoing phrase “His love endures forever.” How is the intentional killing of the firstborn and the death of world leaders expressions of God’s love?
My Thanksgiving ponderings bring me back to the first American Thanksgiving which was always idyllically portrayed to me as a happy and harmonious mixture of English settlers and Native Americans. All were joyful and contented as they shared together the food of their harvests. There was no mention of the death of half of those who came on the Mayflower. The exhausting trip, the cold, the limited supplies, the lack of housing, all contributed to their losses the previous year. And the Native Americans received little from their new neighbors, and sooner than they could imagine wars would break out over land and property. Are these akin to the land given “as an inheritance” that Psalm 136:21 references? Oh there is much that is still confusing about Thanksgiving
I suppose the same could be said of my fond memories of Thanksgivings around the Chaffee tables or around the Amber Church tables. I see folk no longer alive, unable to now assemble with us. I see others who are very much alive but who choose not to gather with family. I see wounds that will not heal and losses that are painful to remember.
And still I turn to Psalm 136 and refresh my weary mind on what real thanksgiving is about. It is always about God or it has no hope of enduring forever. So I intentionally sing with a full measure of nostalgia, a questioning mind of death’s reality, and a firm and strong belief that says…
Give thanks to the LORD, for he is good. His
love endures forever. Give thanks to the God of
gods. His love endures forever. Give thanks to
the Lord of lords. His love endures forever….
Give thanks to the God of heaven. His love
endures forever. (Psalm 136:1-3,26)
See you in Worship.