This year will be the first time in recent years when my family will have Thanksgiving dinner in our own house. Our family usually travels north to my mother’s house or south to Kristin’s mother’s house. But this year, we’re staying put. No traffic, no crowded rest stops, no endless back-up at the nearest toll booth. It might, in fact, be the first time I ever get to watch the Manchester Road Race in person.
The daunting part of the whole plan this Thursday is putting together the meal. Because you can’t just eat any old food on Thanksgiving. At least in my house there are rules about these things. Family rules and iron clad traditions. The other day I proposed the idea of cooking a turkey breast instead of a whole turkey and my family looked at me like I had two heads, unleashing a verbal barrage worthy of an obsessed parent yelling at the referee from the sidelines of a soccer game. “What about the dark meat?” they all said. When I caved in and bought a whole turkey at the store, I thought to myself, “I hope people appreciate this.”
Now don’t get me wrong. I’m up for the challenge of Thanksgiving. I’m pretty adventurous when it comes to cooking and pretty self-sufficient. Whether I wind up making a whole turkey or part of a turkey, I’ve used roasting pans and I’ve used racks and I’ve used cooking bags. I’ve started cooking the turkey at a high temperature and then lowered the temperature a short ways into the cooking process. I’ve cooked a turkey low and slow overnight. I’ve yelled at the pop up thermometer in the turkey for popping too early…or never popping at all. I’ve stuffed a turkey with stuffing and I’ve stuffed a turkey with all kinds of aromatic fruits and herbs.
The only thing I won’t have on Thursday is my mother by my side. A real expert…sort of like a Thanksgiving safety net. So mom, how do you make the stuffing balls and then cook them and get them so crispy? What are the ingredients in the crumb topping you always put on the top of the apple pie dad loved so much? Can you give me the recipe for your homemade banana bread? There’s a good chance I will call my mother or face time her once or twice before the day is over…
But here’s the bottom line when it comes to Thanksgiving. Even if I mess a couple of things up along the way, I can always taste the food as I go. And I’m fairly confident I can fix most mistakes on the fly before it’s too late. Because even when something doesn’t look right. Or some specific Thanksgiving food doesn’t have an exact recipe that goes with it. When all is said and done, I still have faith in the connection between my memory and my sense of smell and my taste buds and my heart. At the very least I go into Thursday having some idea of how food is supposed to turn out. And let’s be honest…if I don’t get it right, there’s a good chance we’ll be on the road next year anyway…
No matter where I am and no matter who is or is not gathered around the Thanksgiving table, there is one thing I can be sure of. A potent and sacred combination will come together. Quality ingredients. The correct seasoning. Proper cooking time. People working together with a common purpose and impeccable timing so that everything comes out hot at the same moment. Coupled with the indelible memories of Thanksgiving meals in years past. I’m certain come Thursday that I will be able to access the deepest parts of my food-based emotional self. And for that I am grateful…
God’s love is like that, too. No matter where I am or what’s going on in my life or in the lives of people I love. No matter what may be happening in the world or how I feel in that particular moment. Through a sacred and potent combination of ancient Biblical writings, songs both old and new, a beloved community working together to love God and neighbor, and my own journey through wilderness and promise and exile and redemption, I know God’s steadfast, sustaining, uplifting love.
Granted, some years it’s easier to give thanks than others. Some years we have more people and more things to be thankful for because our circumstances are simply better. Some years we come to the Thanksgiving table aching for the beloved who graced our table last year and full of uneasiness about what the coming year will bring. Some years we get up from the table stuffed and yet, paradoxically, still hungry. We complain about the food or the company or the effort required to pull it off, but our emptiness runs deeper and we can’t quite put a finger on why.
What I learn from the ancient Hebrews is the practice, the art, of taking the long view. The Psalmist who wrote Psalm 136 reminds us of how important it is to remember who God is and the countless things God has done. So just like the Psalmist long ago, our opportunity in this Thanksgiving season is to be aware of God’s constant presence, to name our own sacred stories, and to have enough faith to recognize God’s role in them.
Beyond your own personal prayers of gratitude, what other prayers will you lift up to God this Thursday? For whom will you be praying around your Thanksgiving table? I’ll be praying for brothers and sisters whose homes and a part of their lives were washed away by Hurricane Matthew to the south of us. I will pray for all those who are afraid in this deeply divided country…afraid on account of their religious beliefs and practices, afraid due to their skin color and orientation and gender identity, afraid because of their immigration status and their ethnicity. I will pray for those who are unemployed and depressed and lonely, for those who are caught in the seemingly endless cycles of injustice and addiction and revenge, for those who have seen too much violence and grieved too much death.
But my prayers will not only take the short view. Even if it’s hard to find hope and peace and justice and wholeness in the present moment, God continues to work God’s saving purpose out. So I’ll offer prayers in the name of God who assures us we are forever loved. A God who promises to rescue and liberate and redeem and heal the frightened and despairing and downtrodden. A God who remains steadfast in all ages.
Whether we are considering the universe and all the wonders of creation around us. Or reflecting on the arc of our own lives and imagining the potential and the uncertainties of the future. Or focused on the people sitting around us at the table and the food that makes the table complete. I hope and pray that you and I and God’s people will be able to give thanks for God’s love in all of it.
“O give thanks to the Lord, for he is good, for his steadfast love endures forever. O give thanks to the God of gods, for his steadfast love endures forever. O give thanks to the Lord of lords, for his steadfast love endures forever.”
God’s steadfast love endures forever. That sounds like the perfect refrain for us to recite on Thursday. Or if you prefer something a little easier to recall, Eugene Peterson once translated Psalm 136 with the words, “God’s love never quits.”
This Thanksgiving may we know the love of God which endures and never quits. May we build our lives on a deep hunger not for turkey or stuffing or pie or mashed potatoes, but a hunger for the everlasting love of God. And may we put our trust in a God who brings us through every storm, who sustains us in times of trouble and uncertainty, and who reaches out to invite us and welcome us home.
Have a good and blessed Thanksgiving wherever you and those whom you love gather this week. Thanks be to God, Amen.