November is a unique month in the United States. As Americans we elect a president and other leaders and then pause for a national day of thanksgiving that was created by a president in a time of extreme crisis.
Today is Election Day. Although we usually know the results of voting the same night the polls close, this year many are anticipating that we will not know the final outcome for several more days.
Twenty-three days after Election Day will be Thanksgiving Day. Perhaps it would be good to stop now to consider what we can be thankful for three weeks, three months or even three years from now. Like the distance in days from cross to resurrection, three seems to be a key number for the followers of Christ.
We are focusing this month on unity and gratitude in A Pastor’s View. These attributes are strong and consistent threads in the biblical story from the creation all the way to Christ’s eternal kingdom.
Psalm 133 is dedicated to this theme: “How wonderful and pleasant it is when brothers live together in harmony!” (v. 1 NLT). Having declared unity’s power to soothe and refresh, this short song of David ends with the assurance: “And there the Lord has pronounced his blessing, even life everlasting” (v. 3 NLT).
Wherever God’s blessing is, that’s where I want to be. Too often now in our country, our congregations and across the generations, we are experiencing the exact opposite. The examples of disunity, ingratitude and downright hate abound in all the screens we peer into daily.
Our best gratitude requires reflection and humility, which is fundamental to good relationships and unity. Romans 12 offers us a plan for grateful unity. Reminding us of the mercy of God we receive in Christ and the grace-filled gifts we are given to use in partnership with God, Paul challenges us, “Don’t just pretend to love others. Really love them” (v. 9 NLT).
What follows is a doable prescription. The game plan includes hungering for what’s right, showing affection and appreciation, hanging onto your hope, dropping your drop-dead list, releasing vengeance and your need for vindication to God, and removing the venom of evil by doing good everywhere and to everyone you can.
Christians learn about spiritual disciplines from God’s word and from the long history of the church. I heard it said long ago, “salvation is the miracle of the moment; sanctification is the miracle of the marathon.” Holiness should be the daily, delightful pursuit of every believer through partnership with the Holy Spirit, anchored in God’s word, and lived out in the context of a local church.
The list of training tools for soul development is well known and includes intentional prayer, corporate worship, engagement with the Bible, solitude and fellowship, generosity and fasting. Less well known, I think, is the discipline of thanksgiving.
We tend to look at gratitude the way we look at honesty, you either have it or you don’t. However, neither of these virtues works this way. As with all the fruit and characteristics of the Spirit, thanksgiving grows in us through dedicated focus and pursuit. Appreciation for God’s goodness to us is a learned spiritual art. The fact that the Bible so often commands gratitude from us as worshippers is the clue to its nature as a learned skill.
Here’s one simple Thanksgiving exercise I adopted a few years ago. Pastor Jeff Warren and I shared overlapping ministry fields for a decade. I once heard him challenge others in the month of November to “turn their Thanksgiving into Thanks living”. I tried to take that challenge seriously because I am by nature skeptical and some days I drift towards ungodly cynicism. The world and the church can sometimes be nasty places!
I don’t know if it was Jeff’s or someone else’s idea, but I asked my assistant to get me a small jar with the words, “Thanks Living” painted on the side. For the last several years this jar has sat on the kitchen counter. Next to it are three-inch colored paper and a pen. Most days I try to jot down three things I am thankful for from the previous day or going into the new day.
My list can be as profound as the grace of God in Christ, my wife and family or as simple as a good cup of coffee. The goal is to live out the Spirit’s call to “Be thankful in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you who belong to Christ Jesus” (1 Thessalonians 5:18). That is not always easy for me to do because of my brokenness and the world’s limitations.
Sometime between Thanksgiving and New Year’s I’ll dump out this jar, read most of the pieces again and reflect on the year. In the haywire year of 2020, I’ve tried to stuff this jar more consistently. The value of this kind of exercise is also affirmed in Martin Seligman’s book on wellbeing, Flourish.
What if a spiritual discipline of growing gratitude could actually position us to develop greater unity with the people around us? In what ways might all your relationships be healthier through a more consistent spirit of appreciation?
Jesus prayed just before the cross that we would be one (unified) with him and other believers as he was united with his Father and the Holy Spirit. I believe the intimacy, security and belonging we desire with God travels across the bridge of thanksgiving that we construct daily. The same is true with all the people to whom you relate.
For many of us, Thanksgiving Day is about stuffing ourselves with too much delicious food. But when have you ever expressed too much gratitude? Who needs to hear you express true thanksgiving when you finish reading this?
Why not stop, bow, kneel and start with our Father?