As we approach a holiday season like none we have lived through before, it’s easy to focus on what's missing. For some, what’s missing is the regular rhythm of life—things we’ve always taken for granted—church on Sundays with warm hugs and potlucks afterwards, school for the kids, the quietness of a commute to work, a grandparent’s weekly visit to watch the kids and give young parents a break.
Now, as November wanes, we are looking at the likelihood of a drastically altered holiday season. In many churches children’s pageants and standing-room-only Christmas Eve services are being curtailed or canceled. Even Sunday services, when occurring in person at all, feel fragile, altered in a hundred small ways.
The trends that impact our church families have also made their way to our own homes as one family after another makes the difficult decision to cancel long-established holiday gatherings. My family is no different. We’ve canceled all the extended family holiday gatherings, and now, due to direct exposure and possible illness (we are in the long wait for test results) my wife and I will, for the first time in our lives, celebrate Thanksgiving away from parents and extended family. Of course, it could be worse. For the families of over 250,000 people, there’s always going to be an empty seat at the table.
In the face of these somber realities, how can we lead our churches, our families, and our own hearts into gratitude this Thanksgiving week?
Thankfulness as Remembering
One of the first steps toward cultivating thankfulness in difficult times is learning to remember well. In fact, this is exactly what David reminds us in Psalm 103, a Psalm that I frequently turn to in life’s dusky seasons. David begins by blessing the LORD, and then quickly offers an admonition (to others? to himself?) to “forget not all his benefits.”
What does this refusal to forget look like? David begins listing one benefit after another. As the list goes on, we see that the benefits abound. God is the one who heals, who forgives, who redeems, who shows compassion to us, who treats us with the love of a truly good father. David, no stranger to life’s ebbs and flows, finds gratitude welling up in his heart as he leans into remembering well.
Modern writers like Ann Voskamp offer us similar wisdom by poignantly demonstrating how the art of remembering well, remembering all God’s benefits in their simplicity and multitude, shapes us as it molds our lives around gratitude. As Voskamp chronicles a thousand of God’s gifts, she discovers “that slapping a sloppy brush of thanksgiving over everything in my life leaves me deeply thankful for very few things in my life….Life-changing gratitude does not fasten to a life unless nailed through with one very specific nail at a time.”
Thankfulness as Prayer
Gratitude not only connects us with the action and gifts of God; it also deepens our relationship with God. Most Christians know, even if they feel somewhat helpless to carry it out, that a lifestyle of continual communication with our heavenly Father (i.e., praying without ceasing”) is both the bedrock and the end goal of the Christian life. We are made for relationship with our Maker, and communication is at the heart of any healthy relationship.
But how, apart from becoming a monk or waiting until our young children grow up and stop needing our moment by moment attention, can we enter into such a life?
Gratitude is part of the answer.
Gratitude pulls us out of our own mental echo chambers and offers a ready-made path of communication with God. Does prayer come hard? Does it feel like your mind always wanders when you try to listen for God’s voice? If so, try cultivating gratitude for the small things throughout your day. As we thank God for one thing and then another through the day, we will find that we are soon communicating with God all the time as we give thanks for his unceasing goodness to us.
No wonder passages about prayer like Philippians 4:4-7 and I Thessalonians 5:16-18 highlight praying with thankfulness no matter what the situation. Indeed, in I Thessalonians Paul bookends the admonition to “pray without ceasing” with a call to first “rejoice always” and second “give thanks in all circumstances.” Gratitude leads us to prayer even when our hearts and minds might be inclined to turn in a different direction.
Thankfulness Lights the Way
Our gratitude in all circumstances (not necessarily because of all circumstances) isn’t just for us, either. A little bit earlier in his letter to the Philippians Paul lays out the way in which our gratitude (or lack thereof) shapes the people and places around us.
In Philippians 2 Paul follows up one of the great Christ hymns of the New Testament with an encouragement that the believers in Philippi should similarly obey God and “do all things without grumbling and complaining” (2:14). The result of obeying God and carrying out his will and works with hearts defined by gratitude, rather than the complaining and grumbling that mark gratitude’s absence, is that this posture allows God’s people to shine as stars for all the world to see. In a real sense, our gratitude shapes us, but it is also for the world.
A Time for Thanksgiving
If there was ever a time for God's people to “shine as lights in the world” or to learn to “pray without ceasing,” now seems like as good a one as any. In fact, now is the only time we have, the only place we can start.
Now—this moment, with this breath in my lungs, this feeling in my fingertips, this strength in my legs, with these home-bound kiddos sounding like a herd of buffalo above my basement office—is the first thing I can be grateful for.
And I can be confident that my gratitude with change me and connect me to God in such a way that may very well change the places my life touches. In the midst of change, loneliness, sickness, and a host of other potential anxieties, my prayer for myself, my family, and all of us in the family of God is that we may be people who remember well the many benefits of God, and who also remember to give thanks.
Charlie Cotherman is program director of the Project on Rural Ministry at Grove City College. He is also a pastor at Oil City Vineyard, a church he and his wife Aimee had the privilege of planting in 2016. He has written on rural ministry, church planting, and history for a variety of publications including Christianity Today, Evangelicals, and Radix. He is the author of To Think Christianly and a contributing editor of Sent to Flourish. He lives with his wife, four children, and a cat in historic Oil City, Pennsylvania.