A number of years ago, I concluded that it is officially an American tradition to have stressful interactions with parents, in-laws, grandparents, siblings, uncles, aunts and cousins on Thanksgiving Day. I have experienced some extremely relationally tense times with family members on Thanksgiving Day. I have a suspicion that I am not alone. Recently, a member of our congregation was telling me how thankful they were that a particular family member would not be with their extended family over Thanksgiving. This sentiment is not foreign to many in our church fellowships–though it is one for which our hearts should grieve. In light of the stress, tensions and discord that often serve to make Thanksgiving a time for which many are not thankful, here are six simple things each of us can seek to implement to help redeem Thanksgiving:
1. Pray in advance. Often the most important thing we can do to redeem Thanksgiving is the last thing that we do. Why would we expect peace, love and joy in our time with extended family if we are not seeking that peace, love and joy from our Father in heaven. As James says in his letter, “You have not because you ask not. You covet and cannot obtain, so you fight and quarrel. You do not have, because you do not ask. You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions.” (James 4:2-3). We should give ourselves to pray in preparation for the short time that we will be together. Ask God to make you loving and patient, gentle and encouraging, joyful and thoughtful as you plan for this potentially stressful time.
2. Plan a time of collective thanksgiving. No matter what place you hold in the family, you can always encourage the group to have a time of collective thanksgiving. This might include an opening devotional (I usually read a passage like Luke 17:11-19 —i.e. about the ten lepers whom Jesus healed). Then everyone present can take a minute to write down things for which they are thankful to the Lord concerning the events of the past year. Once they have, everyone can share those things with the group. It is amazing to watch how even unbelieving family members appreciate this practice. Finally, you could offer to thank God for those things in prayer or ask someone else to do so for the group. This way, you do not embarrass those who are not believers and who would be highly uncomfortable being asked to pray publicly by encouraging everyone to go around and pray.
3. Encourage a time of singing Thanksgiving hymns. Thanksgiving, like Christmas and Easter, is one time in the year when just about everyone will sing hymns. Plan on bringing some hymns printed out for the group to sing. If you play piano or guitar and have one accessible, you could offer to accompany the time of singing. Otherwise, there is no shortage of hymns on Spotify. There is a beautiful album called, “Thanksgiving Songs and Hymns on Piano” that you can stream on Spotify while the family comes to a time of singing. Here are few of the songs that I love to sing off of that album with family at Thanksgiving: “Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing;” “Come Ye Thankful People, Come;” “Now Thank We, O, Our God.“
4. Show an interest in others. One of the most straightforward ways to help foster joy and thanksgiving when gathered with family members is to ask them a lot about themselves. Ask about how their year has been. Ask them about their jobs. Ask them about their travels. I realize that some people are very closed off and do not like to open up too much; but, everyone I have ever met loves to talk about themselves and their lives. When you do this, expect that no one will ask you anything about your life. That’s the common experience that my wife and I have had when seeking to show an interest in those with whom we get together in just about every setting. Nevertheless, we are called to care about the needs and interests of others.
5. Seek to serve others. Thanksgiving can be a stressful time for some family members because they have taken up the call to help prepare 500 times more food than any rational person would ever think necessary for a group the size of the group with whom you are gathering. Offer to help bring things in advance; offer to help with food preparations; offer to help set the table; and, offer to help with the Turkey cutting. As soon as the Thanksgiving meal is finished, pick up plates and dishes and wash them for the group. This unburdens those who may have been burdened with preparations. One or two people usually get stuck with the clean up at most of the Thanksgiving gatherings at which I have been present. Take the initiative to be that one person–and do so with a joyful heart, not seeking thanks for helping to carry the burdens.
6. Participate in restful activities together. In addition to the above mentioned, I encourage you to play grames, watch football and enjoy doing other restful activities together. Everyone is overworked, underrested and in need of time off. Thanksgiving is a time when we can pull away from the busyness of life and enjoy spending time being refreshed and refueled.
While there is no sure way to guarantee a peaceful and joyful time with extended family, I do believe that if we seek to implement these things we will help stir up thankful hearts to God and redeem the time for all who are present. May the Lord grant that we have such times as we gather with family in the days ahead.