Nearly thirty years ago, I married into a family that celebrated Thanksgiving Day with All-American fervor, featuring a day-long gathering and a loaded table. As the new bride, I was eager to prove that I had what it took to be the holiday hostess. Having done my research, I had planned all the best sides, multiple-choice pie selections, and a huge bird to fill the oven — but I had not planned for my mother-in-law’s life-threatening illness.
We rejoiced when she was released from the hospital on the Wednesday before the Big Day and decided to take the party to her place. As we rose early to prepare the feast, she was delighted to be present for all the kitchen activity, savoring the aroma of fresh rolls and roasted turkey from her recliner. We set the table with her best china, rolled out the amazing feast, and gathered for the celebration.
Since no one had expected Ma to be well enough to come home for Thanksgiving, most of the family had made other plans for the day, so there we were: my husband and I in our cute matching sweaters, my very ill mother-in-law, my father-in-law in advanced stages of dementia, my brother-in-law who announced that he would be fasting for the day . . . and a mountain of food.
Ma made a valiant effort, but could swallow only a few bites. My patient husband and I filled our plates, labored hard in conversation, and spent the afternoon packaging up left-overs and cleaning up the aftermath.
The haze of disappointment hung heavy in the air.
God graciously gave us another ten years with Ma, and a good many celebrations as well. However, I have spent the years since that first fiasco of a feast slowly learning that whenever we gather on this planet, it is for an imperfect celebration in which our only hope for joy is to look squarely at the empty seat, at the strained relationships, at the flawed execution of all our Pinterest-worthy plans. And then to give thanks.
Thanksgiving Day serves as an annual reminder that we live with one foot in celebration and the other in lament. Our only prayer for peace is to own the sadness; to recognize the power that grinding sorrow has over our hearts — and then to throw the door wide open to the feast.
By acknowledging and even embracing lament — an art we have lost here in North America — our celebration can be restored. Our feasting can be deeply sincere, even in a context of deep suffering or deep disappointment.
In the Old Testament, Nehemiah pronounced words of blessing over a feast during a time when the people of Israel were citizens in captivity, living as an oppressed people. Forking over up to 50% of their earnings in taxes to the Persian Empire, they were only just beginning to recover from the exile’s comprehensive shattering of their self-perception as God’s people. They were still in the process of learning their way back into fellowship with God. Governor Nehemiah’s gracious pronouncement to kick-off their feasting was desperately needed:
Do not sorrow, for the joy of the LORD is your strength. (Nehemiah 8:10)
And so it is today. By acknowledging and even embracing lament, our celebration can be restored. Until Jesus comes, it will be this longing and this feasting that keeps my heart’s sonar trolling for kingdom shalom. I will lament the loss and allow my heart to feel the disappointment of longings unfulfilled, to sing the wistful tune of the broken hallelujah.
But when I grasp warm hands and gaze at the faces around my table, by faith I will celebrate the given, see the beauty, hear the laughter. I will give thanks for the forgiveness that lubricates our relational gears; for the gifts of transformation and wholeness that mend the broken; and for the cords of grace that hold our hearts in joy.