A Practical Way to Keep The Thanks in Thanksgiving

I learned more in some ways what it means to be American by living overseas than I did living here. Living abroad, you quickly learn the stereotypes about your home country (including how they have a lot of truth in them).

One stereotype I was happy to own was that Americans are optimistic, positive people. And the fourth Thursday in November was a special time to shine.

When we first arrived in England, we gravitated towards other Americans on Thanksgiving. We would gather for a big feast and play American football (as opposed to “their football”). We all got excited when we found a small gas (petrol) station owned by a British lady who had grown up in America and was keen enough on some of the traditional American foods that she had them shipped over. I still remember paying 9 pounds (at the time about $16) for a can of pumpkin and some marshmallow crème. It was money well spent to get some of the traditional Thanksgiving menu right.

The longer we stayed, though, the more we shared this holiday with British friends. It was fun for us to introduce them to this uniquely American holiday. They always enjoyed it, partly because they don’t have anything like it, and partly because it played into some of their favorite stereotypes of us: we love sweet food and are just so darn positive. An entire holiday devoted to eating and counting all the good things that have happened? It sounded foreign and enticing to our British friends. I remember being really conscious as I prepared this American tradition for them, that I wanted to make sure that I represented both aspects well – the sweet food AND the thanksgiving part. My guess is that most of us have the sweet food already planned out for tomorrow, but do we have the gratitude part planned?

One of the simple ways we try to cultivate thanksgiving in our family is to all go around the table before the meal and say something we are thankful for. Everyone participates, and there are very few rules. Items for giving thanks have ranged from the 3-year old being thankful for dragons to more serious things like clean cancer screens and surviving marriages. Raucous laughter and tears are a welcome part of the mix. Modest though this tradition is, we have enjoyed it over the years because it doesn’t require any preparation, it can be tailored to all ages, and it allows each individual to take whatever light or serious approach they feel comfortable with. Above all, it offers a chance to pause and reflect on the last twelve months and notice specific things that might otherwise be overlooked but are worth being grateful for.

Saying thanks and acknowledging that God is the orchestrator of all the details of our lives is one of the most basic forms of worship. But if you are anything like me, often the urgent overtakes my attention, and I can overlook the more important tasks, the ones with more lasting significance. Thanksgiving is no different. When do I put the turkey in? Do we have enough chairs for everyone? Those questions feel pretty intense in the moment. It’s awkward if I can’t answer them. They do matter.

But what matters even more is how my heart is relating to God through all of this. That’s why we give thanks. It points our hearts in the right direction and helps us tap in to a deeper level of what matters. What I hope I can do is pay attention to those urgent details, while paying even more attention to the Lord of the details.

Happy Thanksgiving!

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