On October 3, 1863 President Abraham Lincoln issued a Proclamation, “to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next, as a day of Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens.” At that historic time of divisive war, no one was spared from grief. Everyone lost something - a loved one, property, or the God-given right of freedom. The Proclamation urges those who would observe Thanksgiving Day to pray for “all those who have become widows, orphans, mourners or sufferers in the lamentable civil strife”. Even today, 150 years later, we are among those who need prayer at this season of thanksgiving - we who are widows, orphans, mourners, and those who suffer in civil strife everywhere. And although it may seem like a paradox of extremes, gratitude and grief are inextricably linked.
For many of us, this emotion-laden time of the year can seem almost unbearable. As those around us celebrate, we’re painfully aware of the absence of the one we love and grieve. Perhaps a beloved father always carved the turkey and we feel the void of his faithful family leadership. Or an empty seat at the table reminds us of one whose presence will no longer be part of the occasions of our life. Yet even as we grieve our faith urges us to be thankful to God for the one we’ve lost and all we have left.
And as we gather together to feast and remember, when our heart is wounded by the neglect or insensitivity of another we overcome our momentary pain by focusing instead on gratitude. This happened to me recently. One Sunday I felt my heart simmering with some leftover resentment but as I entered into worship I found it was simply impossible to sing “blessings all mine and ten thousand beside” and still hang on to my hurt. Gratitude has the power to release our heart and cleanse our spirit. Gratitude puts us in a better place, a place that pleases God and honors the memory of our loved one.
In the sometimes tearful moments of holiday sorrow we pause to reflect on the rich heritage that's ours because of the life and love of the one now lost to us in death. Gratitude is our most natural response when we discern that spiritually we’re better and stronger because of their untiring care and lifelong devotion. We give thanks for the gifts of their spirit that enrich and bless our lives – kindness, gentleness, self-giving, generosity, faithfulness. Our grief inspires us to give thanks for the lasting legacy of their commitment to our spiritual welfare and their example of goodness and unconditional love.
As we remember with gratitude all that’s gone before, we better understand how the investment of ourselves in others is an endowment that lives on long after we die. We give thanks for hope and a future. And even when relationships are imperfect or flawed, there’s always some redeeming gift for which we can be truly thankful. We thank God for courage and perseverance and the certainty that we have “chosen the better part” (Luke 10:38 NRSV).
This is the grace of grief that sets us free from the past to live in peace and joy. Gratitude and grief are blessed by the steadfast love and faithfulness of God at this season of thanksgiving and always.
Let them thank the Lord for his steadfast love, for his wonderful works to humankind. And let them offer thanksgiving sacrifices, and tell of his deeds with songs of joy.
Psalm 107:21-22 NRSV
Keep me this day, O God, in the faithfulness of gratitude. Amen.