A Resource by Mark D. Roberts

A Week of Thanksgiving

by Rev. Dr. Mark D. Roberts

Copyright © 2004 by Mark D. Roberts

Note: You may download this resource at no cost, for personal use or for use in a Christian ministry, as long as you are not publishing it for sale. All I ask is that you give credit where credit is due. For all other uses, please contact me at mark@markdroberts.com . Thank you.

Table of Contents
Part 1 Finding the Heart of Thanksgiving
Part 2 American Thanksgiving: Familiar and Unfamiliar History
Part 3 "How Can I Be Thankful When . . . ?"
Part 4 Our Need for Gratitude
Part 5 And Don't Forget to Thank Others Too
Part 6 A Great Thanksgiving Tradition

Finding the Heart of Thanksgiving
Part 1 of the series “A Week of Thanksgiving”
Posted at 10:00 p.m. on Sunday, November 21, 2004

When you think of Thanksgiving, what images come to mind? Roast turkey? Pumpkin pie? Watching football with your family? Perhaps the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade?

I grew up watching this parade on television, marveling at the giant helium balloon representations of Underdog and Bullwinkle, and waiting for Santa to appear to kick off the Christmas shopping season.

In 1982 I had the privilege of spending Thanksgiving Day in New York City. Of course I had to see the Macy’s Parade in person. There, standing alongside Central Park, I watched the bands and giant balloons from only a few feet away. I discovered that it was a lot colder watching the parade in person than from the comfortable vantage point of my living room. But plenty of hot coffee kept me going through the whole spectacle.

That evening some friends and I had Thanksgiving dinner at the Helmsley Palace Hotel. (Yes, the one once owned and managed by the infamous Leona Helmsley and her husband.) We arrived an hour before our prearranged sitting and enjoyed appetizers in the hotel bar. It was the most elegant place I had ever enjoyed a drink and some peanuts. And, believe me, I paid for every inch of elegance. Thanksgiving dinner was served in the fabulously ritzy dining room. It was one of the most over-the-top meals of my life.

But it still wasn’t quite right. After all, the heart of the Thanksgiving holiday isn’t going to parades or eating fancy meals. It’s about sharing a day with family, and mine was 3,000 miles away. The best tasting turkey in the most opulent dining room didn't satisfy the real longing of my heart – to be home.

I wasn’t the only one who felt such a longing. In fact the Thanksgiving weekend is the busiest travel weekend of the year. Something like 40 million people travel at least fifty miles to hang out with their relatives.

If you think about it, however, the actual events of Thanksgiving Day can be rather underwhelming. In addition to watching the Macy’s Parade, tens of millions of people (mostly men) watch football, while tens of millions of people (mostly women) cook mass quantities of traditional food. Then they all get together to eat more than they should, only to top off their gluttony with pumpkin or mince pie. Then there’s clean up, a bit more TV, and that just about sums up the day for many of us. It’s more about our stomachs than our hearts.

A college friend of mine named Jeff decided one year that his family’s Thanksgiving was far too secular. So Jeff, as a new Christian, volunteered to say the blessing before the meal. It was usually done perfunctorily by the most religious of the uncles, which wasn’t saying much in Jeff’s family. But Jeff was going to redeem Thanksgiving once and for all. So when it came time to pray, he started in thanking the Lord for the family’s many blessings. Then he turned to larger issues, expressing gratitude for freedom, for our country, and so on. Finally Jeff got explicitly religious, using his prayer as an opportunity to evangelize his godless relatives. After about five or six minutes, these godless relatives were about ready tar and feather Jeff. Finally his mother tapped his arm and said softly, “Honey, don’t you think it’s time to eat now?” In response to which the slightly religious uncle yelled, “Amen!” Jeff’s family immediately dug into the turkey, leaving Jeff somewhere mid-sentence.

Now I do not recommend Jeff’s evangelistic strategy. But I do appreciate his heart. Thanksgiving should be about more than a parade and pumpkin pie. In spite of the modern penchant for referring to the day as “Turkey Day,” it’s still meant to be a time for intentional gratitude. This was, as we’ll see, at the heart of Lincoln’s establishment of Thanksgiving Day as a national holiday in 1863.

Don’t worry. I’m not going to ask you to give up any of your prized Thanksgiving traditions. Go ahead and watch the parade and the games, if you wish. Drive several hours to grandma’s house and back. Eat way too much turkey. Take a long nap. Or whatever. These can be delightful traditions.

But I am going to ask you not to forget the heart of Thanksgiving. In fact, I’m going to encourage you to let Thanksgiving be more than just a day. Why not take time this whole week to remember God’s blessings? If your Thanksgiving Day is already full with family folderol, then set aside some time on the day before or the day after to remember all that God has given, and to say “Thank you.” Better yet, do this for several minutes each day this week. If you do, not only will you be doing the right thing, since God deserves thanks for all he has done for you, but also you will find that your celebration of Thanksgiving is richer and fuller than you have imagined it could be.

Expressing heartfelt gratitude to God is one of life’s greatest joys. It’s a joy that many of us rarely experience. And it is the true heart of Thanksgiving. So let me invite you – yes, urge you – to take time this week for real expression of gratitude to God. You’ll be glad you did.

I thought it would be fun to include with this series lots of images of Thanksgiving.

Underdog flies over the Macy's parade

The bar in the former Helsley Palace

The dining room in what is now the New York Palace

The family that watches football together stays together, or something like that. Where are the women? Oh, yes, cooking!

Family and friends praying before the Thanksgiving feast

Of course the irony of this euphemism is that Thanksgiving isn't exactly a happy day for turkeys

A traditional Thanksgiving card


American Thanksgiving: Familiar and Unfamiliar History
Part 2 of the series “A Week of Thanksgiving”
Posted at 10:00 p.m. on Monday, November 22, 2004

Yesterday I asked my six-year-old nephew, “On Thanksgiving, to whom do we say thank you?” He quickly responded, “To the native Americans.” “Do we say thank you to anybody else?” I added. “To the Pilgrims.” “And to anybody else?” I prodded further. “To God!” he exclaimed.

Well, though his order may be a little curious, that just about nails the historical roots of Thanksgiving. It’s common knowledge that the American celebration has its origin in 1621, as the Pilgrims invited the neighboring Indian tribes to join them in a feast of gratitude for God’s blessings. There’s no evidence, however, that they actually celebrated this on the fourth Thursday in November, or that it lasted only one day, or that they played a mean game of touch football after dinner.

New Englanders remembered the Pilgrims’ effort for many years through regional celebrations of Thanksgiving. Sometimes American Presidents would set aside a day for the nation to be thankful. (See, for example, Washington's Thanksgiving Proclamation of 1789.) But the idea of a permanent, national celebration each November came 242 years after that first Pilgrim-Indian festival. During the Civil War, many Americans clamored for some sort of national religious holiday. One of the most vocal was Sarah Josepha Hale (who, by the way, wrote “Mary Had a Little Lamb”). Hale used her clout as editor of the influential Godey’s Lady’s Book magazine to motivate President Lincoln to proclaim a national holiday. On September 28, 1863 she wrote a letter to the President encouraging him to “have the day of our annual Thanksgiving made a national and fixed Union Festival.” Five days later Lincoln issued the “Thanksgiving Proclamation of 1863” (which we’ll examine below).

In his proclamation, Lincoln set apart the “last Thursday of November” as “a day of thanksgiving and praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the heavens.” Throughout the next eight decades, all American Presidents followed Lincoln’s example. But during the 1933, as the Great Depression raged, many merchants appealed to President Franklin D. Roosevelt to change the day from the last Thursday in November to the fourth Thursday. The reason for this request? November 1933 had five Thursdays, which left the minimum number of shopping days between Thanksgiving Day and Christmas Day. Roosevelt denied this request, leaving the holiday on the last Thursday of the month.

But in 1939, the next five-Thursdays-in-November year, President Roosevelt gave in to the requests of business owners and established the fourth Thursday of November as Thanksgiving Day. National chaos ensued, with some states following Roosevelt’s lead and others sticking with the traditional last, and in this year, fifth Thursday. This meant, among other things, that families living in different states were in many cases unable to celebrate Thanksgiving together. The national controversy over the day of the holiday continued, until Congress passed a law on December 26, 1941, making the fourth Thursday of November the one, official, national day.

Recalcitrant Canada, I might add, does not recognize the fourth Thursday in November as Thanksgiving Day. I learned this the hard way while in college. Some friends and I decided to celebrate Thanksgiving by driving from Boston up to Montreal. It didn’t dawn on us that Canadians celebrate their Thanksgiving on the second Monday in October. This wouldn’t have been so bad, except that the restaurant in which we had our Thanksgiving dinner didn’t even have turkey on its menu. I had to settle for quiche, of all things. Now that’s a Thanksgiving travesty!

I want to close by printing the text of Lincoln’s original Thanksgiving proclamation. I won’t add my own comments. But I will italicize a few sections that strike me as especially profound. As you read this proclamation, you might ask yourself: What would happen if an American President used this kind of language today in an official proclamation? What in this statement speaks to the heart of our national crisis today?

Thanksgiving Proclamation of 1863

  The year that is drawing toward its close has been filled with the blessings of fruitful fields and healthful skies. To these bounties, which are so constantly enjoyed that we are prone to forget the source from which they come, others have been added which are of so extraordinary a nature that they can not fail to penetrate and soften even the heart which is habitually insensible to the ever-watchful providence of Almighty God.

  In the midst of a civil war of unequaled magnitude and severity, which has sometimes seemed to foreign states to invite and to provoke their aggression, peace has been preserved with all nations, order has been maintained, the laws have been respected and obeyed, and harmony has prevailed everywhere, except in the theater of military conflict, while that theater has been greatly contracted by the advancing armies and navies of the Union.

  Needful diversions of wealth and of strength from the fields of peaceful industry to the national defense have not arrested the plow, the shuttle, or the ship; the ax has enlarged the borders of our settlements, and the mines, as well as the iron and coal as of our precious metals, have yielded even more abundantly than heretofore. Population has steadily increased notwithstanding the waste that has been made in the camp, the siege, and the battlefield, and the country, rejoicing in the consciousness of augmented strength and vigor, is permitted to expect continuance of years with large increase of freedom.

  No human counsel hath devised nor hath any mortal hand worked out these great things. They are the gracious gifts of the Most High God, who, while dealing with us in anger for our sins, hath nevertheless remembered mercy.

  It has seemed to me fit and proper that they should be solemnly, reverently, and gratefully acknowledged, as with one heart and one voice, by the whole American people. I do therefore invite my fellow-citizens in every part of the United States, and also those who are in foreign lands, to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next as a day of thanksgiving and praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the heavens. And I recommend to them that while offering up the ascriptions justly due to Him for such singular deliverances and blessings they do also, with humble penitence for our national perverseness and disobedience, commend to His tender care all those who have become widows, orphans, mourners, or sufferers in the lamentable civil strife in which we are unavoidably engaged, and fervently implore the imposition of the Almighty hand to heal the wounds of the nation and to restore it, as soon as may be consistent with the divine purpose, to the full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquility [sic], and union.

  In testimony whereof I have hereunto set my hand and caused the seal of the United States to be affixed.

  Done at the city of Washington, this 3d day of October, A. D. 1863, and of the Independence of the United States the eighty-eighth.

Two of my nephews enjoying Thanksgiving dinner in 2003. The one I interrogated is in the front.

"The First Thanksgiving" by Jennie August Brownscombe (1914)

The first part of Hale's letter to Lincoln. The underlined part reads "have the day of our annual Thanksgiving made a national and fixed Union Festival."

One of many critical communications Roosevelt received in light of his controversial Thanksgiving decision. This telegram, written in November 1940 by two restaurant owners reads: CONGRATULATIONS ON YOUR REELECTION. WHEN SHALL WE SERVE OUR THANKSGIVING TURKEY 21ST? OR 28TH? (For a larger telegram, click the picture.)

Well, they may have the wrong date, but at least the Canadians got the turkey part right.

Abraham Lincoln in 1863

Several giant balloons in the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade in New York City. This may not have been exactly what President Lincoln had in mind. (Yes, that is a giant Barney wearing a hat. Sorry.)

This illustration by Thomas Nast is entitled "Thanksgiving Day, November 26, 1863." Nast was an influential and famous illustrator, who, among other things, came up with our modern Santa Claus image, as well as the Democratic donkey and the Republican elephant. For a larger picture and more information on Nast, click here.


“How Can I Be Thankful When . . . ?”
Part 3 of the series “A Week of Thanksgiving”
Posted at 11:40 p.m. on Tuesday, November 23, 2004

The Bible instructs us to be consistently thankful. In writing to the Thessalonian Christians, the Apostle Paul said, “Give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you” (1 Thess 5:18). This sounds nice enough, until you find yourself in difficult, even painful circumstances. Then inspired biblical truth can feel like an insensitive platitude.

“How can I be thankful when . . . ?” Various scenarios complete the sentence. “How can I be thankful when this is the first Thanksgiving since my mother died? Or when my family is in such disarray? O when I’m in the middle of chemotherapy?” Throughout my years as a pastor, I’ve often heard this sort of question, especially as Thanksgiving Day draws near. People would really like to feel grateful, but their life circumstances seem to make genuine gratitude impossible. They feel stuck in discouragement and despair.

If we take the Psalms as a model for prayer, then we should certainly feel free, even obligated, to share with the Lord our frustrations and disappointments. Genuine prayer is not putting a happy face on our true feelings. If you’re grieving the loss of a loved one, or feeling afraid because you’re facing a serious illness, you should surely share these feelings with God in prayer. Being thankful in all circumstances does not mean pretending or denying.

But it does mean that we must look beyond our particular circumstances. Gratitude comes when we look at the bigger picture, when we remember the multitude of ways in which we are blessed, even if we’re also feeling sadness or fear or whatever else seems inconsistent with being thankful. For example, this will be my nineteenth Thanksgiving without my father, who died of cancer in 1986. Every year on the holiday I think about my dad. I miss him. I wish we could watch football together. I wish he were there to carve the turkey. Mostly I just wish I could be with him. So, ironically, on Thanksgiving Day I feel more sadness than usual over the loss of my father.

And yet I also feel thankful for him. Although I wish I could have had more time with my dad, I treasure the time I did have. I thank God for the hours my dad and I spent playing Candy Land and Star Reporter; and for his subtle sense of humor; and for his solid example of Christian faithfulness; and for his support when I desperately needed it. I am able to offer genuine thanks for my father, without denying the sadness I feel over his early death.

“But,” you may object, “you lost your father a long time ago. You still feel pain, but the wound isn’t fresh. What about people who are in the midst of suffering right now? Can they be truly grateful?” My answer is “Yes.” How do I know this? Because I’ve seen it time and again in my ministry. I’ve watched people in the midst of a crisis nevertheless be able to express authentic thanks to God.

When I think of gratitude in the face of suffering, I think of Martin Rinkart. He was a pastor in the city of Eilenburg, Germany during the first decades of the seventeenth century. If you remember your European history, this was during the so-called Thirty Years’ War. Eilenburg, as a walled city, was often overcrowded with refugees. This often led to famine and disease. Conditions were so horrible in Eilenburg that thousands of people died, and, for a season, Rinkart was the only minister in town. During this period of time he performed up to fifty funerals in a single day. Over his lifetime he officiated at over 4,000 funerals. We can only imagine the horrific suffering Rinkart experienced.

In the midst of this ordeal he wrote several hymns. One caught on among German speaking people and, in translation, among English speaking people as well. What was this popular hymn? In the original language it begins: “Nun danket alle Gott, mit Herzen, Mund und Händen.” In English translation the hymn is a Thanksgiving favorite:

Now thank we all our God
With heart and hands and voices,
Who wondrous things hath done,
In whom this world rejoices;
Who, from our mothers' arms,
Hath blessed us on our way
With countless gifts of love,
And still is ours today.

O may this bounteous God
Through all our life be near us,
With ever joyful hearts
And blessed peace to cheer us;
And keep us in God's grace,
And guide us when perplexed,
And free us from all ills
In this world and the next.

All praise and thanks to God,
Who reigns in highest heaven,
To Father and to Son
And Spirit now be given.
The one eternal God,
Whom heaven and earth adore,
The God who was, and is,
And shall be evermore.

I’ve always liked this hymn. But I had probably sung it fifty times before I learned about its background. Now it means so much more to me. Martin Rinkart was call for thanksgiving, not in a season of plenty, but in the midst of want. He was reminding us to look above our pain and to remember God’s “wondrous things” and “countless gifts of love.” The hymn acknowledges that we will sometimes be “perplexed” and suffer “all ills.” But by lifting our eyes above these immediate circumstances, we are able to give thanks to God. The last verse looks, not to the good things God has done for us, but to the very nature of our good God, who deserves “all praise and thanks.”

The ability to look beyond our immediate circumstances is itself a gift of God’s grace. If you’re struggling to be grateful, ask the Lord to give you a fresher and truer perspective on your life. Allow yourself enough time to remember and reflect upon God’s gifts. Most of all, think about who God is. Meditate upon his mercy and love. The more you do, the more you’ll find true gratitude flowing from your heart.


I've often wondered what it's like for military people to celebrate Thanksgiving, especially when they're in a dangerous place, and far away from home.

Many people extend themselves at Thanksgiving to care for others in need, doing things like feeding the homeless. Focusing on the needs of others often helps people to put their own struggles into a healthy perspective.

My dad in 1984, two years before he died of cancer.

The box (above) and board (below) from the Parker Bros. classic game, Star Reporter. If you have an extra $100, you can buy the game from E-bay. (I wish I'd saved mine!)

Martin Rinkart, pastor from Eilenburg, Germany

"Thanksgiving" by Normal Rockwell. A mother and son peeling potatoes.


Our Need for Gratitude
Part 4 of the series “A Week of Thanksgiving”
Posted at 11:40 p.m. on Wednesday, November 24, 2004

When my daughter was in kindergarten, her teacher planned to have the students celebrate Thanksgiving by making—you guessed it—painted turkeys. But were they going to use brushes to apply paint to paper? No, that would be far too neat. The teacher’s plan called for the children to paint their hands with poster paint and then press their goopy, multicolored hands onto white paper plates. The teacher, realizing that this assignment could prove to be tricky, asked for parental assistance. I offered my body as a living sacrifice for the sake of my daughter’s education.

My goal was to help the students create their turkey masterpieces without getting paint all over themselves. I quickly discovered, however, that kindergarteners don’t share my commitment to neatness. They rather enjoyed smearing paint, not only on their paper plates, but also on their clothing and even their parental assistant—me! It took all the leadership ability I could muster to keep the kids on task so they’d end up with brown, red, orange, yellow, and green turkeys—but not brown, red, orange, yellow, and green classmates. I was exhausted after just one hour of helping thirty youngsters complete their assignments and return to class relatively unscathed. And when it was over, I found that I had managed to avoid looking like the victim of a paintball massacre.

As I was escorting the last student back to her desk, she turned to me and said, “Thank you, Mr. Roberts.” I was startled, but somehow managed to mumble “You’re welcome.” Only then did it dawn on me that she was the only one of thirty students to thank me for my Herculean efforts. I couldn’t help but remember the occasion in Jesus’s ministry when he healed ten lepers but received thanks from only one. I wondered if Jesus felt a bit taken for granted, as I did.

I must confess that I am too often just like those ungrateful kindergartners. I can easily forget to say thank you to humans who assist me in life, and even to God who is the Source of every good gift in my life. Why, I wonder, is gratitude the exception rather than the rule in my life?

Can you relate to my question? Do you ever find yourself short on thanksgiving? Do you find it easier to complain about small things in life than to express gratitude to God for the greatest gifts of all?

Why should we tell God “thank you”? Well, the most obvious and most important reason is that God deserves it. The Lord showers blessings upon us, graciously and generously. Good manners alone demand appropriate thanks be rendered to God.

But today I stumbled upon another reason for gratitude. This one, I must admit, is rather self-centered, but it’s worth mentioning nevertheless. Recently I’ve been making my way through Gregg Easterbrook’s fascinating book, The Progress Paradox: How Life Gets Better While People Feel Worse (New York: Random House, 2003). Easterbrook fulfills the promise of the title, showing that, while life in America is better than any other time or place in history, in general people are less than happy. Toward the end of the book Easterbrook suggests ways we can increase both our well-being and our general happiness. One of these is gratitude. He summarizes many psychological studies that show that grateful people are happier and healthier. Thus, Easterbrook argues, for purely selfish reasons we ought to become regularly grateful people.

I’m not quite sure that selfishness can actually propel one to genuine gratitude. Something about this equation doesn’t quite add up for me. But it’s interesting to find a purely secular, even self-centered rationale for gratitude. Add this to the fact that God deserves our thanks, and that Scripture calls us to continual gratitude, and you’ve got a compelling formula for a fulfilling life.

On this Thanksgiving Day, may you find the time to reflect upon your many blessings and acknowledge the Author of those blessings. But, beyond this, may gratitude be for you, not a once a year exception to the rule of taking good things for granted, but a daily discipline and a daily delight. God deserves it, and you need it.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Ah, now that's a turkey!

Funny how the turkey wattles end up looking like neckties.

Here is a turkey with a real wattle. (Yes, that's what the red thing by the neck is called. The red thing by the beak is called the snood. Both of these help the male (Tom) turkey to be more attractive to a female. And you always thought women weren't attracted to rednecks!

An interesting and challenging read by Easterbrook, who is a senior editor of the New Republic.

A Thanksgiving table ready for food and people. Now there's a reason to be grateful!


And Don’t Forget to Thank Others Too
Part 5 of the series “A Week of Thanksgiving”
Posted at 12:30 a.m. on Friday, November 26, 2004

The primary purpose of Thanksgiving Day is to express gratitude to God for his many gifts. Although sometimes this gets forgotten in our secular culture today, still most people realize that our thanksgiving should be directed most of all in God’s direction. Though I’m a reticent Presbyterian, nevertheless I’d say “Amen!” to that.

However, this season of year also gives us a chance to say thanks to others, to the people in our lives for whom we are grateful, and who sometimes don’t get to hear this from us very much. As long as I’m thanking the Lord for my wife, my children, etc. etc., doesn’t it make sense to tell them?

Here are a couple of guys I'm thankful for, my son Nathan (right) and his friend Matt, as they enjoy Thanksgiving dinner together.

We see an example of this sort of thing in the letters of the Apostle Paul. On several occasions he not only thanks God for his churches, but he tells them of it. Consider Paul’s letter to the Thessalonians Christians, for example. Here we read:

We always give thanks to God for all of you and mention you in our prayers, constantly. (1:2)

How can we thank God enough for you in return for all the joy that we feel before our God because of you? (3:9)

Imagine how you’d feel to hear this from someone important in your life. My guess is you’d feel honored, happy, maybe a bit embarrassed, and even thankful. It’s a wonderful thing to hear that someone is truly thankful for you. In fact it’s one of the best feelings in life.

Sometimes we need something to jar us out of our complacency so that we actually tell people we’re thankful for them. When my dad was fairly close to death, for example, I wrote him a letter, telling him all the things I appreciated about him. Or consider the example of General H. Norman Schwarzkopf. On January 17, 1991, he issued the order to begin the offensive campaign against Iraq, the start of Desert Storm. In the moments before the bombing began, the General retired to his office so he could write a letter to his family. Here’s what he wrote:

General H. Norman Schwarzkopf, commander of the first Gulf War, Desert Storm

My dearest Wife and Children,

            The war clouds have gathered on the horizon and I have already issued the terrible orders that will let the monster loose. I wish with every fiber of my body that I would never have had to issue those commands. But it is now too late and for whatever purpose God has, we will soon be at war.

            As a soldier who has had to go to war three times before, I want you to know that I am not afraid. I know that I might face death but you should know that I am far safer than most of the fine young men and women under my command. Some will die; many could die. I pray to God that this will not happen but if it does and if I am one of those chosen by God to sacrifice my life, I wanted you to know that my last thoughts before this terrible beginning are of you, my beloved family. 

            Brenda, I have never been very eloquent with words and far too guarded in expressing my love for you. I truly regret this but it is the way I am. That is why I wanted more than anything else to write to you tonight and tell you how much you mean to me. I cannot tell you how many times I have thanked God that I married you, nor can I adequately tell you how many times you have made me so proud that you are my wife. Especially during these past difficult five months it has given me great strength to know that you were there, always there, taking care of our family and so many others. Thank you for that and so many other things: the loving, the understanding, the forgiving, the helping, the caring, the supporting -- just being my Brenda Pauline.

            Cindy, Jessica, Christian, I hope you know how much I love you. The three of you have become the most important reason to me for my being on this earth. I could lose everything I possess and if I still had you, life would be worth living; I could be rich and famous and have everything I desire but without you my life would be meaningless, my heart would be empty, and I would not want to live. The three of you are my immortality! You are the best thing I will leave behind when I leave this world. And you have each returned that love to me. I am a father who knows his children love him and that makes me a very lucky man! As I told you at Christmas, I am so proud of each of you for what each of you are. Be proud of yourselves for you are find human beings. Thank you for being my children; thank you for letting me be your father; thank you for loving me!

            Take care of each other, love each other, and if it be God's will, we shall be together soon.  If that should not happen, then know that wherever I am I will be with each of you every day, always!

                                                                        Your loving husband and father,

                                                                        H. Norman & DAD

Letter from General H. Norman Schwarzkopf, with Peter Petre, It Doesn't Take a Hero, (New York: Bantam Books, 1992), 412-413.

What a moving letter! Every time I read this, I want to go hug my wife and children and tell them how much they mean to me. (Actually, right now they’re in bed sleeping, so I don’t think they’d appreciate the gesture very much.) Of course most of us will never face the kind of dangers General Schwarzkopf encountered. Yet this means we might not communicate our feelings of gratitude to those who have made such a difference in our lives.

Thanksgiving provides a salutary occasion for saying thanks, both to the God from whom all blessings flow, and to those who are conduits of divine blessings in our lives. It’s a time to stop what we’re doing and say “Thank you” to the people in our lives who deserve to hear this from us. Even if you manage to thank only one other person this Thanksgiving, that small gesture can make a big difference in the life of that person.

So, even though the official day of Thanksgiving is over, and even though we’ve officially entered the Christmas shopping season, why not extend thanksgiving for just a little longer? Tell those who are close to you that you are thankful for them. Drop someone a note. Or make a short phone call. This will enrich your life as well as the lives of those for whom you are grateful.

Here are many of the people I'm most thankful for, my immediate family (mother, brother, two sisters) and their spouses and children. We took this picture after our Thanksgiving meal at the home of my mother, my brother and his family.



A Great Thanksgiving Tradition
Part 6 of the series “A Week of Thanksgiving”
Posted at 10:40 p.m. on Friday, November 26, 2004

In this post I want to tell you about a great Thanksgiving tradition. But I’ll admit to a not-so-hidden agenda. I want to commend this tradition to you as something you might wish to add to your yearly Thanksgiving repertoire. I guarantee that it will pay rich dividends in delight and expanded gratitude.

I can boast about this tradition without hesitation because it’s not something I invented. Rather, I inherited it when I came to Irvine Presbyterian Church. It was a choice fruit of the ministry of my predecessor, Ben Patterson. What am I talking about? A Thanksgiving Eve Worship Service.

The Thanksgiving Eve congregation singing our opening hymn and song.

When I was an associate pastor at Hollywood Presbyterian Church, we had a Thanksgiving day service. From 10:00 to 11:00 in the morning we gathered for prayer, song, and a sermon. Though I loved this service, the timing was inconvenient for many, who missed the service because they were cooking or driving to grandma’s house. Thus, in my first year as Senior Pastor of Irvine Presbyterian Church, I was pleased to experience the tradition of a worship service on the night before Thanksgiving.

For the past fourteen years I’ve participated in this service, and it’s one of my favorite events of the whole year. Why? Well, for one thing, because of the timing of the service, my celebration of Thanksgiving begins in earnest at 7:00 on Wednesday evening. Thus my celebration of Thanksgiving is longer and fuller. Moreover, I like beginning my personal Thanksgiving celebration by remembering God. I have nothing against watching the Macy’s parade, eating turkey, and getting together with my family, mind you. But I’m glad to give God first place in the festivities.

Being led in worship songs by some of our high school students


Another thing I enjoy about our Thanksgiving Eve service is the multigenerational, family dimension. We include children from about four years of age on up. Many of them have a chance to participate, as I’ll explain in a moment. The presence of children means that we have to plan a service with their interests and capabilities in mind. We include music that they will know. The sermon is short and relatively child-friendly. It usually involves interaction with the congregation, sort of a whole-congregation children’s sermon, if you will. With children present, the sanctuary is a little noisier than usual. But there’s something wonderful about having the whole church family together on Thanksgiving Eve.

The content of our Thanksgiving Eve service is pretty simple. In the hour-long service we sing hymns (including “Now Thank We All Our God” and “Great is Thy Faithfulness”) and songs (including Matt Redman’s “Blessed Be Your Name” and “Let Everything That Has Breath”). There are Scripture readings and prayers.

Perhaps the central element of the service is an “open mike” time when we ask members of the congregation to share briefly that for which they are thankful. Children express their gratitude for their parents and pets. On the other side of life, this year one man thanked God for fifty years of marriage. Usually there are moments of laughter, like a few years ago when my five-year old daughter thanked God for paper. (She was serious, and upset when people laughed.) There are often tears as well, as when an elderly woman once thanked the Lord that her husband was in heaven and suffering no longer.
My daughter and her friends sharing their thanks

Our other special tradition involves writing on a small piece of orange paper shaped like a pumpkin. We receive our “pumpkin” when the service begins. Then, throughout the service, we write down on the paper things for which we are grateful. Near the end of the service we bring our pumpkins forward and place them on the communion table as part of a giant cornucopia. In this way every person participates in tangibly and actively in shared corporate gratitude.

Following the worship service we have an informal reception, with hot cider and snacks prepared by folks in the church. It’s a pleasant time of conversation and shared gratitude.

Congregational members bringing forward their pumpkins and a special offering for needy folk and our mission partners

I would strongly recommend that all churches consider adopting the tradition of a Thanksgiving Eve service. I realize that some churches already do this. But many are missing out.

If you’re a lay person in a church and you’d like to encourage your pastor to adopt the Thanksgiving Eve Service tradition, you might send this post to your pastor. If it turns out that your pastor is unable to do this service because of family plans or whatever, it could easily be led by others.

I’ve got lots of pastors who read this blog, so here’s my personal word to my colleagues: Our Thanksgiving Eve service is not only one of the best things we do as a congregation, but it’s also one of my favorite services of the year. I get out of it far more than I put into it (partly because my sermon is short, and partly because the service is so rich). Believe me, the last thing I want to do is to make your life busier and crazier. But I am convinced that a Thanksgiving Eve Service promises returns far greater than the investment of time required for planning and leading. If you have any questions, please e-mail me.

Happy Thanksgiving!!

The cornucopia with "pumpkins" of thanks after the service is over