Thanksgiving is a peculiar holiday. As with most special days, it seems to be far less about the event we are supposed to remember than the odd traditions that have grown up around it. The pilgrims survived the harsh conditions of settling in the new land and were able to celebrate a bountiful harvest. History (or is it tradition?) tells us they saw a need to give thanks to God for their survival, and did so with a celebration and feast.
Images of a long wooden table out in the middle of the forest full of pumpkin pies, roast turkey, and a can of Ocean Spray cranberry sauce sets the scene. People in tall black hats and funny shoes dance through our heads. We imagine Pilgrims and Indians all holding hands around a campfire singing Kumbayah.
Today, the holiday has morphed into a contest in personal gluttony amongst family members. We dress the dining room table up in the colors of Autumn, set it full of sweet potato casseroles and dressings and crown it with a turkey. At best, there is the initiatory prayer at the beginning of the meal (which is really more like the firing of a pistol than a prayer of thanksgiving) and then off we go. In closing, everyone must name one thing they are “thankful for” before being allowed to leave the table for football games on television.
So goes Thanksgiving.
At the risk of writing yet another one of those snippets that tells people they should be more thankful on Thanksgiving, I would like to share a little about my observance of the holiday here in Africa. Let me assure you, this post will have nothing of inconvenience or doing without niceties on Turkey Day. Quite to the contrary, our little “family” got together for a spread that would put most American households to shame. Dressing (or stuffing as my Yankee friends prefer to call it), green bean casserole, rolls, broccoli, and yes, two big turkeys, to name just a few of the things in our cornucopia this year. Sure, we had to use food coloring to make the African yams look orange, but that is a minor detail. A mountain of mashed potatoes, and six dessert pies later, we sat around sharing with each other about God’s provision.
As of yesterday, I have observed the last two Thanksgivings in Africa. Needless to say, my perspective has changed from one year to the next.
Last year, we gathered for the holiday in much the same way. People from all the different outreaches in our country gathered, and we sat down to a spread not unlike the one we had this year. The table was full of good food, and the conversation was a blessing. But at that time, I had only been in the country for a little over a month. My thoughts were still captivated by all the things that were not, by the lack of amenities I had very recently considered necessities to life. I was getting used to a life with no electricity, no luxuries, no English, and no stability.
Now for certain, when I walked into that house and saw the Thanksgiving spread on the table for the first time last year, I was astonished by the fact that we even had these things. It was then that I found out the trouble it took to create a meal this special in Africa. Turkeys are an extremely rare find here, and terribly expensive. There is only one store in the entire country that sells them (if they are ever available), and it is a great distance outside of the capital at a mining base that has western groceries shipped by sea container periodically. So they get bought and stay frozen in the capital (where there is enough periodic electricity to keep things frozen) for the entire year just for this special day. Most of the other dishes are made completely form scratch by things found in the market and keen substitutes when something is not available.
Last year, I was thankful for this rare treat. I was thankful for people who cared enough to prepare it, despite the trouble. I was thankful that God was faithful, and in the midst of all that I felt I was lacking, that he had promised to take care of me. However, even sitting at that table, my thoughts were primarily on what I did not have. I was dwelling on the things that were not.
Yesterday was different.
Same table. Same spread. Same people. Yet it was not the same experience for me. I was not concerned with a lack of anything. Quite to the contrary, my mind stopped dwelling on what I was “lacking” many months ago. Now, my mind was filled with the things that were. It was a list far longer too. This year, I was not only thankful simply for God’s promise. I was thankful that he had indeed lived up to it. In the past year, God has provided in abundance. My needs have all been met, and I have a far better understanding of necessities now. Further still are the rich blessings I have discovered in the past year. God has given me new friends and family, and new eyes through which to see the world.
I am not sure if it is just me, or if this is part of the human condition, but it seems a whole lot easier to focus on hardship than blessing, on a lack of luxuries instead of an abundance of necessities. This year, I learned the difference between dwelling on the things that are not and thanking God for the things that are.
God is indeed faithful. May we be thankful recipients of a faithfulness we do not deserve.
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