Yesterday, our Pastor preached a Thanksgiving message that relied heavily on the nostalgia of family holidays. I can certainly relate to that.
As a child, holidays were a wonderful time. I remember Thanksgiving as a day spent happily with family and with a lot of food and discussion. By the time I reached high school, my three older siblings had moved out of the house and begun families so it was also a day when they would come to visit. Thanksgiving was always a good day.
When I lived in New York, Thanksgiving was good for different reasons. We had a lot of single friends and tried to open our home for them on Thanksgiving. One of my favorite Thanksgivings ever was when we had a loft in Brooklyn. We opened it to our friends, many single with no family near by. We set up folding tables and had probably 20+ people packed around them. I know that isn’t a huge gathering…unless you are in a New York apartment. It was good times.
But, life is hard. It is full of disappointments.
Thanksgiving and Brokenness
The last few years have been hard. I’ve documented our ordeal in Louisiana on this site. I’ve also written some about my wilderness after leaving Louisiana. There is no doubt that these last seven years have been difficult.
The happy family times of my childhood have deteriorated into broken relationships. Rather than blissful conversation over pumpkin pie, there are now overt attempts to devastate my family. The hazy nostalgia of yesteryear is replaced by the dark grit of a dystopian now. We (my wife, children, and I) face huge obstacles forged out of familial avarice. As we claw for survival, home, and career, I do not feel very thankful. As my shoulders buckle under the maliciously induced pressure, I do not feel thankful.
This all came to mind yesterday as I listened to the sermon. The warm nostalgia stung rather than comforted. It occurred to me that I am not alone in fighting these feelings on the holidays.
In Baptist churches, we often sing old standards such as Count Your Blessings:
When upon life’s billows you are tempest-tossed,
When you are discouraged, thinking all is lost,
Count your many blessings, name them one by one,
And it will surprise you what the Lord has done.
In many ways, this is sound advice. But, there are also times when that count seems to come up short. There are times when that ledger of blessings versus curses seems far heavier on the side of curses. It is true that Count Your Blessings ultimately points to eternal rewards (verse 3) and God’s sovereignty (verse 4) as the blessings that truly matter. But, these are two lines buried in a song focused on God’s temporal works.
Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness
In the United States, we tend to interpret scripture through the lens of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” We want to live our best lives now. We want a ledger with bold and capital text under blessings and lowercase italics under curses. But, for most of humanity that is not the life of faith.
There is no doubt that it is good to notice the blessings in our lives. It was good for my soul to notice the simple pleasure of my daughter sitting next to me playing a game on my phone as I write this essay. Likewise, it was good to take pleasure in helping another daughter of mine cut some roasted chicken to heat up for lunch. These simple pleasures are indeed blessings. But on the ledger of curses versus blessings, these do not balance well against the real acts of hatred causing pain in our lives. In a gospel of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness these small pleasures hardly balance the ledger.
I know that I am not alone. The suicide statistics, by themselves, demonstrate that there are many who are not comforted by the nostalgia of the holidays.
Remember the Prophets
A couple of weeks ago in Sundays School, I brought up a verse in James as a counter-example to the life, liberty, and happiness gospel.
As an example of suffering and patience, brothers, take the prophets who spoke in the name of the Lord. (James 5:10)
We are instructed to look to the prophets as examples of suffering. These are people who spoke, “thus says the Lord.” And, they suffered.
The next verse brings up Job. The classic Biblical example of one who suffers. Evangelicals are always quick to point out that he regained his wealth and more as if that is the measure of life and faithfulness. But, that isn’t true for his wife and children who died. Nor can we pretend that he always handled his suffering with grace. While in faith, he refused to curse God. He did curse the day of his birth and did plenty of complaining along the way.
I have found a lot of comfort in the person who many call “the last Old Testament prophet, ” John the Baptist. Jesus said of John, “among those born of women there is no one greater”. (Luke 7:28) Yet, this great prophet ended his time on earth by being beheaded. I admit it is strange to draw comfort from a great prophet losing his head. But, we live in a Christian culture that often tacitly equates a comfortable life with spiritual standing. It is reassuring, at times, to remember that rain falls on the just and the unjust. (Matthew 5:45)
Benediction… of sorts
I don’t have words of comfort for those in pain. I don’t know how to encourage you to be thankful despite the troubles of life. All I can do, and I am speaking to myself here, is look to the prophets as examples of patience and suffering. I can remember that Job did not always face his pain with grace. I can remember that John the Baptist was beheaded not because of his own evil but because of the evil done against him. Finally, I can remember that God is sovereign and that the blessings that matter are eternal. When I count the blessings maybe I don’t need to view it as a ledger. Maybe the sole blessing that matters is the blessing of the love of God.
This essay is from our Anastasis Series where we resurrect articles from the past that are still relevant today. This piece was first published on November 19, 2018, and has been lightly edited and updated.