Grief and Giving Thanks

by Paul Gilbert

It would have been Mom's 67th Thanksgiving, and I have to keep reminding myself that she won't be here to celebrate it with us.  People often ask how my dad is doing. I tell them that I cannot imagine a more hope-filled griever than my father. He serves faithfully as an elder; his dance card is full of relationships, friendships, and dinners shared; and he's been wearing out the tires on his car visiting his kids and grandkids. However, when he goes to bed every night, I know his heart aches for his beloved. While she is away from the body and home with the Lord, my dad is still here in his body, and it's hard.  

The fall of 2011 saw one of our close friends, Shannon, suffer through the agonizing, early death of her mother to ALS (Lou Gehrig's Disease).  A year later, our bags were literally packed for a Tennessee Thanksgiving when the call came that another close friend, Leo, had lost her 44-year-old husband to sudden cardiac arrest. Each fall we remember Lloyd and all the events around his passing, and we miss him all over again.   And then, just two years ago, about this time of year, a pastor friend had to come to terms with the tragic, unexplained suicide of his brother. 

This holiday will, from this time forth, be seared with a sense of loss; the act of "giving thanks" forevermore infused with a gnawing grief. I know in this that I have plenty of companionship as I join the ranks of those who both grieve and celebrate, simultaneously, at Thanksgiving.

At the very end of the Lord of the Rings trilogy, Frodo gets to sail away with the Elves to the Gray Havens to live the remainder of his life in peace. While he goes forth in hope and thankfulness, he does not go forth unscathed. The wound incurred from a black blade of Mordor on Weathertop is a daily, permanent reminder to him that his world is one marked with loss and brokenness. He is thankful for his peace, but this peace has come at a price.

Psalm 92 is a vivid reminder that this intermingling of grief and giving thanks is not strange. This Psalm was penned for worshippers to sing on the Sabbath day. Most of us are probably familiar, through songs or readings, with the first four verses:

It is good to give thanks to the LORD, to sing praises to your name, O Most High; to declare your steadfast love in the morning, and your faithfulness by night, to the music of the lute and the harp, to the melody of the lyre. For you, O LORD, have made me glad by your work; at the works of your hands I sing for joy. (Psalm 92:1-4 ESV)

If there was ever a passage crafted to be read at the Thanksgiving table, this must be it. Yet, what many forget (including myself, until yesterday morning!) is that these stanzas of praise are imbedded with statements of suffering. Like finding that someone has put nuts in your holiday brownies (a travesty that should never be attempted), somehow grief and "giving thanks" find themselves wedded together in this Psalm:

...that though the wicked sprout like grass and all evildoers flourish, they are doomed to destruction forever; but you, O LORD, are on high forever. For behold, your enemies, O LORD, for behold, your enemies shall perish; all evildoers shall be scattered... My eyes have seen the downfall of my enemies; my ears have heard the doom of my evil assailants. (Psalm 92:7-9, 11 ESV)

There is no blissful ignorance here on the part of the Psalm writer. He recognizes full well that just outside the doors of the sanctuary lie untold heartache and pain. After all, the wicked are flourishing and growing like weeds.

Isn't that your experience as well?

No matter how safe, how secure, or how comfortable we feel, even for a brief Thanksgiving dinner, we know we have to walk out of the sanctuary and face the inevitable hardship. The fact that the Psalmist tells us that sin and suffering will be defeated "forever" is in itself a reminder that, for the moment, our life will be filled with our own Weathertops. 

Why in the world would God have given the Israelites this Psalm, a Psalm full of painful reminders of the realities of this life, to be sung on the Sabbath? The Sabbath, after all, was the day where God's people were supposed to "get away from it all," to find rest, strength, and renewal in the Lord. 

I think this is precisely the point. In order to find peace outside the sanctuary, God's people had to find peace within it. They had to taste the very presence of their Lord. While everything around them was fading, God's glory was a permanent fixture to their souls. And the way that God affixed this truth to their hearts was through the act of giving thanks.

Giving thanks, we must be reminded, is the antidote for our brokenness, because it is through this portal of thanks-giving that we find the truth of God's goodness.

What ills us may appear to have the upper hand now, but it is God who is "on high forever." He has the last Word. This is why we can give thanks not in SPITE of our circumstances but BECAUSE of our circumstances. These trials are God's ordained means to show us where our true haven lies - in Him.

Spurgeon says of this Psalm that, "It is good in itself, it is good for those who hear it: but it is especially good for our own hearts to give thanks unto the Lord and to sing praises unto the name of the Most High."

Let us do likewise. Happy Thanksgiving.