We were settling in for our feast. I was fifteen, my mind elsewhere, longing to cut loose and rendezvous with friends. I glanced around the room at the Van Tatenhove clan. What a cast of characters! Grandparents, uncles, aunts,
cousins – all vying for attention with loud voices. Presiding over the circus was my Mom, the iron lady herself. She called on Dad to say grace, which we knew Grandma would punctuate with tears and whispers of “Yes, Lord, yes…”
Suddenly the doorbell rang. I didn’t know it, but the next moments would change my Thanksgiving perspective forever.
I’ll return to that scene. First, consider this. Diamonds in a white setting are pretty; against black velvet, they’re brilliant. The same is true with giving thanks. Context makes all the difference.
The Mayflower Pilgrims knew this. After arriving in the winter of 1620, nearly half of them died from starvation. When the harvest of 1621 proved bountiful, they found their appreciation heightened by memories of hardship.
Lincoln’s original Thanksgiving decree came during the Civil War. Surrounded by suffering, he still called Americans to render “Praise to our…Father who dwells in the heavens.”
Maybe you never take things for granted. As you enjoy God’s abundant blessings, you pause daily to give fervent thanks.
But for many in this land of lavish privilege, it’s easy to forget our context. It’s easy to become complacent in our gratitude. This is what changed for me on that Thanksgiving Day of my youth.
I accompanied Mom to the door. She opened it to find Uncle Jerry standing there with a loopy grin. Jerry was schizophrenic, a gentle giant who rarely attended family affairs. When he did, he hung in the background, smoking cigarettes, drinking coffee, holding court with the voices in his head. Jerry was crazy, but he had a heart the size of Texas. He forever found people less fortunate than himself, spending his meager disability checks to help them.
Standing next to him was a stranger, a thin man with greasy hair and rumpled clothes.
“This is Ray,” Jerry said. “I met him on the street. He has no family for Thanksgiving. Can he eat with us?”
Mom swallowed hard. Strain showed in her eyes. I knew this was the turning point. She had veto power over all variances, and she did not cotton to change.
Suddenly her countenance warmed.
“Of course, Ray. Come in and have a seat.”
So, his hunger ravenous, Ray ate with us. He also laughed and shared his story. My teenage cynicism morphed to admiration as I watched my family treat our guest with grace. When Ray left that evening, my Mom stuffed extra food in his backpack, even hugging him goodbye.
To this very day, my family sets an extra chair at our Thanksgiving table. Sometimes we fill it with struggling people we’ve invited. Sometimes it sits by itself. Either way, it ALWAYS changes my outlook, setting my context of gratitude, sharpening my focus.
And I think of Hebrews 13:2 – “Remember to welcome strangers in your homes. There were some who did that and welcomed angels without knowing it.”