Thankfulness and Tom Turkey

As a child, Thanksgiving was one of the most yucky holidays I could imagine.

For Thanksgiving, children across the United States get to make an outline of their hand and turn it into Tom Turkey.  I am sure that at one time, I, too, made Tom Turkey.  Tom Turkey is somehow supposed to remind us of thankfulness.  It doesn’t work for me.  For one thing, I do not like the taste of turkey.  For another, it seems more than a bit morbid to draw a smiling turkey to remind myself I’m thankful for eating turkey.

And then there is the list.  The dreaded list.  Somewhere on the list could be a drawing of an anthropomorphic turkey, to remind me to be thankful for eating him.  And on that cheerful note, the list is titled “Things I am Thankful For”.

As a child, I had the impression it was my duty at Thanksgiving to bring up what were to me the most boring, banal things for which to be thankful.

I’m thankful for food.

I’m thankful for water.

I’m thankful for a house.

I’m thankful for my mom and dad.

And so on.

As I grew up, I wondered why I had been prompted to recite such a list or listen to one be recited.  Didn’t every human have a right to these things?  Why did I have to thank anyone for them?  Was God a stingy tyrant waiting to take basic needs away from bad children who forgot to thank Him?

And anyway . . it almost seemed evil to me to thank God for these kind of things.  Was I supposed to thank God for giving me food, when there was a far more worthy child in another country starving to death?  Was I supposed to be happy that I had a mom and dad when children in orphanages around the world waited for a family of their own?

It didn’t seem right.  It seemed like I was bragging about what God had done for me–and even back then I saw myself as a selfish and undesirable child–in the face of beautiful and precious children whom God had not done the same for.  When I thanked Him, was I thanking Him that He had chosen my name out of a lottery to bless, when another little girl would be “cursed”?

As I grew, Thanksgiving became more sickening to me.  I looked forward to sales and time-off the next day far more than the actual holiday.

When my father became ill, the idea of Thanksgiving almost altogether revolted me.  It became sickening to think of saying in some loud voice in a classroom somewhere, “I’m thankful that God gave me good health”–when my own father’s body was falling apart before my eyes.

The animosity that built up in me was far beyond disliking the drawing of a smiling turkey to represent the one I’d be eating.  I was growing an underground hatred toward God.  I had dutifully thanked Him for things in a rote prayer for years and years–and how resentful I was!

I was thankful for just about nothing, and what I was thankful for, I gave full credit (secretly) to people.  I was thankful for friends and family and how they helped out–but I wasn’t thankful to God for sending them.  In my heart, I wondered, Why should I be thankful to God for allowing people to do the kind things they wanted to do anyway? 

I saw God sometimes as a love assassin, just waiting in wrath to cut people off from the love they wanted to share with me if I wasn’t grateful enough or if I didn’t worship Him enough.

When my father died, my pretentious thankfulness died, too.  In my mind, I was no longer the one drawn out of the lottery to have a good life.  I could no longer thank Him for my parents.  In my heart was a very strong urge to say, Adios, God.

And so I closed thanksgiving in my life.  I thought I could do just fine without Tom Turkey–or his weird thankfulness.

Looking back on that time in my life, even though I am not at all who I used to be, I wouldn’t disagree with my thinking about Tom Turkey.  I haven’t drawn my hand print on construction paper to turn into a Tom Turkey in years.  And I don’t feel like I’m missing out because I no longer give weird-thank-yous to God.

But what I didn’t realize  back then was I’d given my judgement about thanksgiving based on a holiday every fourth Thursday in November . . on rituals and compulsions and misunderstandings . . and not on the everlasting holiday that comes from walking in the garden of God’s love.

Thanking God for food, water, shelter, family, friends, etc. simply doesn’t make sense if you believe (like I did) that He is eager to withhold these things from people He doesn’t like.  One of the most curious–and absolutely, totally indisputable–things about God in Scripture is that He is deeply moved by the living conditions of the poor, needy, and oppressed.  Reading even just the short book of James will prove this to anyone who doubts it.

Look again at that “dreary list of things to be thankful for” I made as a child: food . . water . . shelter . . parents.  Was I really thankful?  Not a bit.  It was a contrived effort to conform to what to me was a ritualistic holiday or state of mind.

Look at the last item on the list I’d made: parents.  The truth is, I wasn’t any less thankful when I lost my father than when I had him with me.  It isn’t that I didn’t feel a grief from separation from him, but I had never been thankful for him.  I didn’t know how to be thankful for him.  Though I used his death as an excuse not to be thankful (for just about anything), the reality is, I hadn’t been thankful for him when he was alive!

All gifts in our lives are like flowers grown in a desert.  When Jesus was on earth, one way He revealed God was as the most masterful Gardener of all time.  Though our lives are not like a fertile garden, God still comes to our wasteland of sin to plant good gifts.

When we try to pull a gift up from God’s love so we won’t have to acknowledge or thank Him, it is like pulling a flower up from the ground.  Any gift, not rooted in God’s love, will soon wilt and become nothing more than the dried remains of something that was once beautiful.

The reason Thanksgiving meant nothing more to me than a hand print turkey with a contrived list of gratitude was because thankfulness meant nothing more than to me than a holiday with lots of food, or something you pretend you have so you can keep God from stealing gifts from your life.

And what about now?

Well, Tom Turkey and list-making are still booted out of my life . . but not thankfulness.

I still walk through the wasteland of what used to be the sum total of my life when I didn’t love God.  This wasteland is all my sin, all my disappointments, all my failures, all my losses.

But now I stop to look at the flowers.

Every gift is exquisite: a daffodil, chrysanthemum, alstromeria, poppy, daisy, bouvardia, marygold freesia, larkspur, honeysuckle orchid, lily, sunflower, queen ann’s lace, heather, star flower, anthurium, tulip, bird of paradise, hyacinth, king protea, lilac, snap dragon, pansy, goldenrod, meadowsweet cypress, dianthus, wisteria, hollyhock, lantana, foxgove, gardenia, angel’s trumpet, partridgeberry . . and on and on and on . . each a different sort of beauty, all alive and rooted in Him.  And most of all, greatest of all, the rose of knowing Christ.

I once held my gifts like a bouquet in my arms, clinging tightly to them, fearing God to steal them from me.  Now I let them grow roots way down deep in His love, where they were always meant to be.

Here I thank God for my father, a gift that keeps blooming in my life, because now the gift that was once dead in my hands is alive in Christ.  (I am not talking about my father himself, but the gift of God giving me my father to be my father.)  Before I knew God’s love, I couldn’t be thankful for wilted gifts held limp in my arms.  Now that I have planted them in Him, I see how beautiful they really are.

Rather than fear God will rip these gifts out of my arms, I am learning to fear instead that I will rip these gifts out of His love, claiming them for myself rather than marveling at the wonder of what they are in God.

Now I see that the poor, the needy, and the oppressed are not so because God has delighted in it, but because He is giving the world time to repent–even the greedy, power-hungry, and cruel people within it (and by the way, we are all guilty of that description, to one degree or another).

God wants everyone to experience the eternal garden of His love.  Once He brings justice to our world, our opportunity to have faith in Him will be over, for we will see Him as He is and it will either bring the greatest joy or the worst terror to us.

God allows the gross misappropriation of wealth and power to continue for now so that everyone–the poor and rich alike–can have more time.  He allows the suffering and death that sin brings to continue for now so that everyone–healthy and dying alike–can have more time.  God knows that the overwhelming beauty of Christ can change even the most parched and thorny dust into garden-ready ground, and He is giving everyone in the world a chance to see this, too.

And in the meantime–as God gives us all more time–He calls all Christ-followers everywhere who have means to share that they share with those who do not.  (You cannot read the Bible and come to any other truthful conclusion.)

I don’t dread thanksgiving anymore.  Just the opposite.  Rather than wait for the fourth Thursday of every November, I can thank God every second of every day.  Not by pretentious prayers or a long list in my neatest handwriting . . but by delighting in every precious flower God has grown in what was once the utter wasteland of my life . . and delighting even more in the God who grew them.

That’s thanksgiving.

And now, just as you accepted Christ Jesus as your Lord, you must continue to follow him. Let your roots grow down into him, and let your lives be built on him. Then your faith will grow strong in the truth you were taught, and you will overflow with thankfulness. (Colossians 2:6-7, NLT)

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