This Thursday, I will celebrate Thanksgiving with international students who’ve come to Massachusetts for graduate school. We’ll board a bus in Harvard Square and head to New Hampshire for two nights of pies and hiking and board games. This will be my family’s fourth year of hosting this get-away, and it has become my favorite holiday.
Each year we read Lincoln’s Proclamation, an invitation for the entire nation to observe the last Thursday of November as a day of thanksgiving. It’s a remarkable piece in many ways, most remarkable perhaps because it was ordered just weeks before he delivered the Gettysburg Address. How do you order a day of “Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father” during the biggest blood bath in your country’s history?
For ten years now, instead of going around the table to say what we are thankful for on Thanksgiving, Jeff and I have asked people to share one of the most difficult or painful experiences of the past year. When the person finishes his or her story, those of us gathered around the table lift our glasses and say, “Praise God.”
Over the years, we’ve witnessed stories of lost faith and lost marriages. Spiritual desolation and fear. Illness, addiction, and failure. Loved ones who died and other who are not speaking to them. I always feel honored to hear and hold these stories.
It can be hard, though, to lift my glass after hearing them. “Praise God for what?” I want to shout.
Last week, I watched The Hiding Place, which chronicles the lives of Corrie and Elizabeth ten Boom, who were sent to a concentration camp for hiding Jews in their house during the Holocaust. At one point, Elizabeth thanks God for her lice because the lice have kept the guards out of her bunkhouse. Really? I mean, really?
Some of the grad students there will likely talk about the spouses and children and sick parents they left behind to come here. About the lonely hours they spend in their rooms. About how deeply afraid they are of failing.
Our sorrows will likely be small in light of the ten Boom story, in light of other stories we’ve heard over the years and struggles happening all over the globe. Still, pain is pain, and I imagine that I will find it difficult to lift my glass as I listen to my new friends share what has been hard this year. I’ll do it anyway, trying to live into what I believe: that somehow all of this pain and horror and loss is being redeemed, that the world is being put right, and that goodness and mercy will follow us all of our lives – even when we don’t see it.
You may not believe that right now. You may even find my praise insulting. I understand. I was there once too. Please know that I am praying for you as I type this, and I hope you’ll understand…