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Disclaimer 1: I stole this idea from a colleague years ago as he presented it at one of our Estevan ministerial meetings for a devotional. The idea is not mine, but the words are. Nonetheless, the idea is used with permission.

Disclaimer 2: I steal LOTS of ideas. The best teachers are great thieves, and I strive to be a great teacher. As another colleague of mine once said to me (another stolen phrase): “I milk a lot of cows, but I church my own butter!”

I don’t know if you’ve noticed it amid the busyness of the fall, but September is now but a memory and today is that auspicious holiday known as Thanksgiving. Thanksgiving in Canada is a little strange as it never seems to have the same punch to it that we are accustomed to expecting from it. This is probably due to us being inundated with American media, for whom Thanksgiving is a much bigger holiday and celebration. But none the less it can still strike people with unexpected sadness and a sense of something missing if we do not prepare ourselves accordingly.

I remember one Thanksgiving Sunday back at my previous church where we planned a traditional Thanksgiving sharing time – one by one people stood up and shared their gratitude for the things God has been doing in their lives, for the ministry of that local church and for God’s provision and care through what has admittedly been a very difficult year for many people. Then something unplanned happened as someone shared about a struggle that they were going through that God hadn’t resolved. Someone spoke words of gratitude from a place deep inside the valley of despair and in that moment we were transported as a congregation from a time of thanksGIVING to watching as one of our own modelled a spirit of thanksLIVING.

I won’t go into more specific details but it really made me think: What do we do when it’s hard to be thankful for our circumstances? What do we do when, if we could have it another way, we would? How do we go on being thankful people when nobody is forcing us to manufacture reasons to say we’re thankful, or when there isn’t a special occasion calling for it, or when our circumstances seem to deprive us of reason for it? Personally, Thanksgiving these days always reminds me of my sister, whose birthday always falls on this weekend, and I grieve over our estrangement. It’s hard to be happy when the central connotation of the holiday is brokenness.

So for myself, as much as for you, I ask the question: how do we remain thankful in the valleys? How do we take an attitude of thanksgiving and turn it into a practice of thanksLIVING? How do we cultivate that discipline in the hard times? I propose that in those times we ask ourselves three questions:

1. Is there sin in my life that is causing my pain?

This should always be the first test we put our distress through. Not because I believe that God is up there in heaven, lightning bolt in hand just itching to throw down his wrath on somebody – but because sin hurts. Sin is by nature destructive and often sin is self-destructive. Am I in a bad situation through choices I have made, or am making? Am I perpetuating my own misfortune by unrighteous living? Is my lifestyle or are my actions hurting others? Sometimes the answer to our distress is quite simply to stop doing the wrong things. In this case the action of thanksliving is that we have a God who is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and rich in love – a God who, while we were yet sinners, died for us so that we could find forgiveness and reconciliation with him. Recognizing and dealing with sin is a path to experiencing thanksliving all year long.

2. What is God trying to teach me?

I would be a horribly callous pastor and grossly unfaithful to the word of God if I tried to tell you that all misfortune is a direct result of personal sin. Sometimes the valleys we walk through are not of our own making. Sometimes we walk in the consequences of the sin of others and sometimes all of our searching for causality leaves us, like Job, merely shouting at the whirlwind. At that point, it is wise to ask the question: “What is God trying to teach me through this experience?” What greater truth does he want me to learn? How is this process going to make me a better Christian? How does he want me to learn to depend on him more through this situation? The applications are as diverse as the valleys we walk through but God disciplines those he loves – and that means sometimes hurting can help. It’s prudent to ask the question if we want to be able to walk through those situations with thanksliving, knowing that like eating our vegetables as kids – our suffering is good for us.

3. How can God be glorified in this situation?

Some situations defy explanation. Sometimes the righteous suffer, and sometimes there is no rhyme or reason as to why. Sometimes there is not a lesson to be readily learned from an experience and sometimes the pain is so deep that to even suggest something as flippant as “God has a plan” is downright cruel and unloving. These are the hardest places to walk in thanksliving but also the time when I believe that blessing is nearest to the surface because it is in our times of greatest need and deepest sorrow that God draws near to his children as a loving father. The question at these times is very simple and very profound – “how can God be glorified in me?” How can God take the ugliness of my pain and make it into something beautiful? How can my suffering act as a spiritual sign-post that points to his love? How can he turn my mourning into dancing in a way that only God could? The precedent for this was set at the cross. The ugliest event in human history became the means through which God himself conquered sin and death for all people for all time. The cross was the darkest day in all of history but it led to the empty tomb and because of that we say, sing and pray time and again, “thank you for the cross” in a proclamation that apart from the intervention of God makes no sense at all. I believe that transformation of that sort is what God wants to do in our pain as well.

So, today, you may not be looking particularly forward to the celebration known as Thanksgiving, but you can put your efforts instead into the year-round practice of thanksLIVING. Ask yourself how you can praise him for the things you are going through, and perhaps as you do so, God might give you something to be genuinely thankful for after all.

Happy ThanksLIVING.

#Grief #Holidays #Thankfulness

The Bridge Church

of the Christian and Missionary Alliance

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