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Embracing Gratitude

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Thanksgiving has always been my favorite holiday. I love families gathering together, the fall weather, autumn colors, and the simplicity of the focus on gratitude. I love the smells of familiar traditional foods wafting from the kitchen. In our house that includes pecan and vegeburger loaf, mushroom stuffing, mashed potatoes, gravy made with Vegex (we hoarded some before they quit making it), fresh rolls, sweet potatoes, broccoli, fresh cranberry sauce, and pumpkin and pecan pies (we MUST have both). I love the process of everyone being in the kitchen working together to create the meal—through the years each of us knowing what we were to do. My younger sister complained that she always got stuck with setting the table, but she sets a beautiful one.

With the passing years, the number of people around the table grew, with brothers-in-law, a niece, and a nephew, and then got smaller as we experienced losses. We learned to hold gratitude and grief in the same space.

I love sitting around the table, holding hands and each expressing what we are most thankful for, then praying a blessing over the abundance that is before us. I love the reminder that every good and perfect gift comes from the Father above (James 1:17).
I loved hearing the story from my parents every Thanksgiving about how they brought me home after my birth on Thanksgiving Day. It always felt like it was indeed my holiday too.
I love the Thanksgiving church services and singing the songs of gratitude. I love the tradition of everyone bringing food from their own pantries and then collectively making baskets to deliver food to who those who otherwise wouldn’t have a feast.

I love inviting extra people who live alone with no family nearby to join us around our dinner table and be family with them.

I love taking time to go to shelters or other ministries where volunteers work tirelessly throughout the year to feed the underserved—giving them a break on Thanksgiving Day so they can go home to their own families for a meal.

Thanksgiving is a time for gratitude, but it is also a time to serve. Those two things go together.

A heart filled with gratitude overflows into a longing to give to others and walk along beside.

After I was an adult living away from home, my parents started a thankful journal during their morning worships together. When I would visit and have morning worship with them, I was invited to add things I was thankful for to the list. I was also on their list of things they were thankful for. Every single morning.

My mother continued this tradition even after my father died. Life had been tough for them as they aged, and they found that starting their day by verbalizing and writing down the things they were most thankful for helped them have an attitude of gratitude no matter what the day ahead held. They actually felt more grateful.

From that well of gratitude, they realized they still had much to offer and give to others. They volunteered at the school and in the ministries of the local church and community. They served the Lord with gladness (Psalm 100:2).

Gratitude compels us to serve.

I have seen it work in the reverse as well.

Engaging in tangible acts of service to others can nudge hearts toward gratitude.
Most of my ministry has been in the area of youth ministry, and through the years I have taken hundreds of high school students on short-term mission trips to some rather remote parts of the world.

Some students started these trips with a rather self-centered frame of reference, complaining about the lack of showers or familiar food or comfortable beds. They wore brand name clothes and did not want to get them dirty. But over and over again, I watched these very students begin to express gratitude as they played with the children in the places we were working. They noticed how happy and satisfied the children were, even though they had nothing. They noticed how excited the kids were with the gift of a pencil or a crayon and some paper. The students began to realize they had much to be thankful for, and that led to more generosity. They gave people their clothes, the extra money they had brought with them, the snacks they had stored up. They would literally empty their pockets before heading home with gratitude for the resources they had, gratitude to God, and gratitude for the learning experience.

“Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, since as members of one body you were called to peace. And be thankful. Let the message of Christ dwell among you richly as you teach and admonish one another with the wisdom through psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit, singing to God with gratitude in your hearts. And whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father though Him” (Colossians 3:15–17, NIV).

As we enter this Thanksgiving season, there is much that has gone wrong in this world. There has been loss, and we are not really all OK. It has been a tough year and a half for all of humanity. And yet, we are called to be thankful. We are called to serve. We are called to be salt and light, hope and healing in this world.

Today, I carry on the tradition of my parents with a journal of thanksgiving. I find it a helpful spiritual practice when things around me are falling apart. I find that my heart bursts with gratitude when I take time to contemplate the cross and the grace extended to me once again this day.

It is that grace that makes space for gratitude, and it is that grace that invites my deeds and words to be done in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ as I give thanks. It is that grace that allows me to hold gratitude and grief, questions and hope, longing and giving all in the same space around the table of my soul.

May your heart be grateful this Thanksgiving. May that grateful heart compel you to bring some hope and light into the world through loving service this season.
“Give thanks to the Lord, for He is good” (Psalm 107:1).
_____________________________
Sandra E. Roberts is the executive secretary of the Pacific Union Conference.

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