Thinking about Thanksgiving from the sinkhole otherwise known as 2020 seems at once harder and easier than it has in years past.
Unless you got married or had a baby or backed into a positive life-transforming event, you’ll probably agree 2020 is the sorriest year in most of our lifetimes. But it also has revealed — in contrast — the simple pleasures and joys for which we can be thankful in any year.
Whenever Christians gather, someone will join me in citing Philippians 4:4-7 as their favorite Scripture passage: “Rejoice in the Lord always; again, I will say, Rejoice. Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”
Look right in the middle of this remarkable reminder — “with thanksgiving.” If “with thanksgiving” doesn’t stick in your throat this year, you’re probably too numb to notice what it means. Always, in all seasons and on every occasion, give thanks, even while petitioning God for what we think we need.
How to give thanks in 2020? Do we compartmentalize our thanks, separated from our need? Thank God for the blue sky outside as I pray for the surgeon preparing to operate on me? Or do we integrate our thanks into our petition? Thank God for the lessons to be learned — maybe patience or endurance — from the trauma I’m about to endure?
The Apostle Paul seems to affirm the integrated approach. He thanked God for the hard times, even as he prayed to endure them. Beatings? An opportunity to identify with Jesus. Imprisonment? A chance to tell his guards about his Savior.
So, this Thanksgiving, of all Thanksgivings, I’m trying to identify objects of gratitude embedded within the chaos, calamity and confusion that has dominated this confounding year. It’s a struggle, and I’m not sure I’m up to the task. Maybe you’ll join me; call it our socially distant communal Thanksgiving exercise.
“I’m trying to identify objects of gratitude embedded within the chaos, calamity and confusion.”
This year, we could focus on a multitude of catastrophes from which we might mine gratitude: The ongoing tragedy of police killings of Black sisters and brothers, and the racism they reveal. Climate degradation and resultant disasters. The United States’ paralyzed political system. Threats to democracy, both at home and abroad. The expanding chasm between haves and have-nots. The broken immigration system, as well as root causes propelling desperate souls to leave their homelands.
Since this is a column and not a book, let’s focus on the topic that has dominated our lives this year: COVID-19. Here are several points of pain for which I’m praying, and the related elements for which I’m grateful:
- The afflicted. Globally, the numbers are 55.6 million cases and 1.34 million deaths; in the United States, 11.6 million people have been infected, and 250,000 have died. We can be thankful for front-line medical responders and myriad essential workers, who risk their own lives to care for others. Also for scientists creating vaccines, neighbors who look out for neighbors when family can’t, and business owners who set profits aside to protect workers. We can thank God for the rare governors, mayors and county judges who put public health and the common good ahead of political expediency and place courage and compassion ahead of fear and greed.
- Friends dear. COVID took on beautiful faces in the past few weeks — our son-in-law’s mother; two friends (and their spouses) who have been like chosen brothers for decades; a young colleague, who many days seems more like a third daughter. Reports of their infections tore our hearts. Thankfully, all seem to be pulling through.
- Family near. My parents tested positive the third week of November. At their age, this is the scariest news we’ve received in a long time. I’m thankful for their love and presence all my life, as well as for skilled and caring professionals, who can tend to them even as my brother and I cannot. This happened just as they reunited, following her stays in the hospital and physical therapy — their longest separation in 66 years of marriage. So, I’m also thankful they’re together again.
- Separation. Joanna and I haven’t been with our daughters and their families since before school started. And this week, we all decided to remain apart through Thanksgiving and Christmas. If tears were vaccine, Joanna and I could’ve covered our city in the run-up to this decision. So, in lieu of being present, we’re thankful for FaceTime. We’ve been able to remain part of the lives of our grandchildren, Ezra, Eleanor, Abram, Rosie and Margo. Even on a phone screen, their smiles melt our hearts.
- Cooped-upness. Who would’ve imagined we’d ever stay home so much? I’m grateful Joanna hasn’t gotten totally tired of me, and we still make each other laugh every day. More than ever, I appreciate getting outdoors, going for runs and walks, sitting at far, empty corners of soccer fields, and just sitting in our backyard.
- Generic separation. The last in-person worship service I attended happened more than eight months ago, March 11, at Iglesia Bautista West Brownsville. Since then, as we used to say, I haven’t “darkened the church door.” Same with work. Riding in planes and renting cars used to be almost-weekly occurrences. Now I sit every day at this laptop. I’m grateful most of Fellowship Southwest’s ministry can continue through virtual contact with colleagues and constituents. And although I’m naturally introverted, I thank God for Zoom, the lifeline to faces, voices and cherished lives.
- Chaos, calamity and confusion. That’s how 2020 will go into the books. But since life has become more precarious, it seems sweeter. Since they’re nonexistent now, hugging friends, eating out, gathering in church, sitting at kitchen tables playing Mexican Train and all sorts of “normal” things are absolutely abnormal and powerfully precious. I pray I never take them for granted again.
Well, that’s my list, for now. I’m thinking of other calamities with blessings tucked inside, but I don’t want to test your forbearance. Besides, you need time to make your own list.
May the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. And even this year, may your Thanksgiving overflow with gratitude.
Marv Knox serves coordinator of Fellowship Southwest.