Thanksgiving during COVID
I found myself with an open Bible, staring at the page in a sense of quiet desperation. I was discouraged. This year has been particularly challenging for everyone and we have felt it too. Having just gotten rid of the squirrels in our attic, we recently discovered an infestation of mice in the basement of our new home. Just one more thing in a long list. Having moved across the country into a new position at a new church (in the middle of a pandemic), life has felt all over the place. Plus, I need physical fellowship. Without it, I feel regularly drained and out of sorts. Being a bivocational pastor, I often feel like I don’t have enough time to do many things I wish I could. And having just studied and preached through a particularly hard text (followed by a series of hard pastoral situations), I was feeling the heaviness of my own inadequacy.
And then there’s the virus. COVID-19 has lingered on with little sign of slowing. Some have lost loved ones, some feel isolated from their friends and family, some are wondering how they will make it through, and most are exhausted emotionally and physically. There is an atmosphere of tension and anxiety everywhere you turn. Social media, filled with mostly political and combative sound bytes, displays the finger-pointing frustrations of many hurting people. When will it end? Will we ever go back to normal?
Many families will be separated this Thanksgiving. As the holidays approach, family traditions may need to alter and this will be hard. How can we be thankful during this COVID season? How can we thank God when we are tired and hurt and weak?
The power of unclenched fists
I stared down at the text in front of me at 1 Thess. 5:16-18. “Rejoice always, pray continually, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.” Did Paul really mean that? That we are to rejoice always, pray continually, and give thanks in all circumstances? If anyone knew something about suffering, it was him. And the young, persecuted Thessalonian church knew suffering as well.
Ann Voskamp once wrote regarding her little sister being hit and killed by a truck, “I enter the world like every person enters the world: with clenched fists.” How true that is. How often we hold tightly onto our comforts and desires, constantly forgetting that all things belong to God and any good we receive is a gift from him. It reminded me of another quote by Corrie Ten Boom, who survived a Nazi concentration camp for hiding Jews in her home, “Hold everything in your hands lightly, otherwise it hurts when God pries your fingers open.”
If we are to know true thankfulness in hard seasons of life, we must come to God with open hands. I often find myself praying with open hands or singing in our church service with open hands because I want to be in a place of surrender. We must recognize that our lives belong to God and everything we hold dear must be surrendered to him. If we come to the Thanksgiving table believing we deserve any of the good things he gives to us, we will miss something glorious. That Christ is enough to meet our needs and satisfy our souls, even when we have lost everything. And it is in this profound surrender, this profound weakness, that there is power. Power to endure, power to rejoice, power to give thanks… This is God’s will for us in Christ Jesus. In Christ Jesus.
An abiding presence
Yes, we are in Christ Jesus. It is not in ourselves that we can find thankfulness. It is in Christ. Any foundation for thanksgiving must begin here: we are sinners worthy of God’s justice. We have no claim to anything in this life. We were destined for wrath yet God gave up his own son to save us. And when we repent and trust in him, we are brought near. We are brought into the throneroom of the King of the universe. We have access. We have the very presence of God. We are truly in Christ.
Oh, what marvelous words in Hebrews 13:5 that say, “... be content with what you have, for he has said, ‘I will never leave you nor forsake you.’” In this passage on contentment, there is a promise underneath it that Christ will never leave us or forsake us. No matter what this season may bring, our God has not left us. His presence is continually with us and in this truth we can find the satisfaction that leads to thankfulness. We can say, “Thank you Jesus that in this hard season, you have never left my side.”
An abiding purpose
But not only are we safe in the presence of Christ, we know that any suffering we experience does not come to us apart from the sovereign hand of God. We can even count it joy when we experience trials because the “testing of our faith produces steadfastness” (James 1:2-3). Consider the people that you respect the most? Who are your heroes? Were their lives easy or hard? Truly, if anyone had an easy life, we would have little to respect about them. It is often the hardship that we persevere through that shapes us, grows us, and sanctifies us. And we can know that all things work together for our good (Rom. 8:28). We can trust in this promise that anything we struggle with now is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory. He is using everything for his purposes.
When we stand before God face to face, we will have no reason to question his purposes or his plans. We will glorify him all the more that we were able to share in Christ’s sufferings and be made to be more like him. In this, even our suffering is a reason to be thankful.
And we can be thankful that God will bring his purposes to pass. They will not fail. They cannot fail. We need never wonder if God’s purposes will be accomplished in the world and in our lives. Our suffering does not define us. When we stand before God face to face, we will have no reason to question his purposes or his plans. We will glorify him all the more that we were able to share in Christ’s sufferings and be made to be more like him. In this, even our suffering is a reason to be thankful. We can say, “Thank you Jesus that your purposes will come to pass in my life, even through this hard season.”
An abiding hope
But there is another glorious dimension to our thankfulness. And it is our abiding hope. Truly, what we go through now cannot compare to the glory that will be revealed to us (Rom. 8:18). If our hope rested in this life, then we might have reason to be discouraged by hard seasons like this one. But our hope does not rest in this life but in the life to come. There are new heavens and a new earth that are being ushered in. And in that future glory, viruses and loneliness and pain and loss will be no more. When we see Christ face to face, we will not regret the pain we went through in this life. It will all be worth it.
This hope is an anchor for our souls. It is not wishful thinking. It is trusting in a certain future outcome. And when we have hope in the midst of COVID, we will be a beacon pointing to the all-satisfying goodness of Christ. We live not for a comfortable life or a pain-free existence. We live for a savior who is coming for us. And to this we can say, “Thank you Jesus that our future is secured and that you are coming again to take us home.”
A new perspective
I walked into the house and past the mouse traps in the kitchen to my 2-year old daughter as she squealed, “Papa! Papa! Papa!” I gave my wife a kiss and held her tightly for a moment. I sat down at the table and prayed for our meal: “Dear Father… thank you.”
Some moments, all I can think of is the harsh word I received, all the things wrong in the house, or all things I can’t enjoy because of COVID. But some moments, I drive home along lake Auburn to a vibrant sunset, come home to my beautiful family, snuggle on the couch with my kids, and am reminded of the unrelenting kindness of God. Even the trials are a kindness from him. I have much to be thankful for. I don’t deserve anything good in my life. I don’t deserve the abiding presence of Christ, the abiding purpose of God in my life, or the abiding hope of my coming King and savior and groom. Yes, there is sorrow. Yes, this Thanksgiving may be harder than most. But there is much for us to thank our great God for. We can be thankful, even in this season.
He has never taken his presence from me. He is using my hardships for his glorious purposes. And he is coming again to usher us into eternal joy. May we approach this Thanksgiving with unclenched fists and thankful hearts. May we rejoice always, pray continually, and give thanks in every circumstance. Our God has done great things for us, has he not?