The turkey was perfect…cooked to a scrumptious golden juiciness. The mashed potatoes were cooked with skins still on, just like she always did it. The pumpkin cheesecake was a new twist that she would have absolutely loved. The gravy, however…well, that came from a packet mixed with water. I’d been kicking myself for weeks for not paying closer attention the Thanksgiving prior. I had stood in the kitchen next to her chatting and laughing and munching on nuts while she made the gravy…“Oh, I’ll pay attention next year” I told her…unaware that it was my last opportunity to learn her gravy secret.
My table looked beautiful and our guests were seated, waiting for the presentation of the turkey. I stood at the oven, with my back toward my family as tears ran down my face. Here it was – Thanksgiving Dinner, the most savored meal of the year, my first year as hostess, my first turkey…and the one person that I most wanted to be there, the one who had taught me to cook in the first place, wasn’t. A girl needs her mom’s nod of approval for her first Thanksgiving turkey, you know? I was heartbroken…and I felt guilty for feeling heartbroken on a day that’s supposed to be full of celebration.
That first holiday season without my Mom was brutal, beginning with that teary moment with my turkey and lasting through mid-January when I finally (finally!) packed away all the Christmas dishes I’d inherited way too early. That December I couldn’t listen to any of her favorite Christmas musicians. Kenny Rogers? No way. Amy Grant? Not a chance. Neil Diamond? Floods of tears. Now five years later, here the season is again. Oh, I love this season, very, very much; but it still hurts. Next Thursday when I place dinner on our table, my heart will be full of joy and gratitude for God's goodness and for the family that's seated around the table, but I'll be thinking about my Mom the whole time I'm stirring my gravy packet with water and mashing my potatoes, skin on. Come December I may now be brave enough to play some Neil Diamond Christmas tunes, but certainly not with dry eyes.
Yet, for the month or so that I’m drinking coffee out of her Christmas mugs, I’ll feel closer to her again. I’ll feel like she’s in some way at the table with me when I set the table with all of her Christmas dishes and I’ll see her in the living room when I bring out her Christmas quilts. And when I pack them away again in January, I’ll cry. Because the holidays are never easy. Because even though we are entering what is absolutely the most wonderful time of the year, it’s also, for many, the most difficult.
Really, broken hearts are integral to this season. The fact that we are a hurting people in need of hope is the entire point of the season we’re entering. Jesus came into the world as our Emmanuel not because we are a holly jolly people who are fine on our own, but because we are a broken, hurting people in desperate need of God to be with us and save us. Jesus came to be our joy and peace not because our lives are going so well, but because without Him we are lost and destitute and can know no peace. Jesus came to conquer sin and death, not so that we would never grieve, but so that our grief would not be without the great hope of new life.
So maybe you’re struggling to muster up your Thanksgiving spirit because you’re dealing with loneliness or defeat or divorce or infertility or death or bankruptcy or infidelity or debt or unemployment or illness or loss of friendships or chronic pain or depression or a stressful work environment or childlessness or…fill in the blank. This season is all about broken people being made whole again, and because of that, it’s okay to admit you’re hurting. When our forefathers declared a day of Thanksgiving, it wasn’t because life was easy and happy-go-lucky, and I imagine they certainly didn’t pretend to be “fine” even on that day of feasting. Rather, life was hard and full of strife and staggering loss, yet they knew it was necessary for the soul to take time to reflect on the goodness of God in the midst of tumult. I bet on that first Thanksgiving, celebration was met with many shed tears as they remembered those who weren't sitting around their tables. But celebration in the midst of tears doesn't take away from our praise...rather, it makes our praise all the richer when we can give thanks through the tears. Scripture tells us to “give thanks in all circumstances” (1 Thessalonians 5:18) not because all circumstances are good, but because in all circumstances, God is good. Psalm 136 repeats over and over “Give thanks to the Lord, for He is good; His love endures forever” because in the ever-changing hardships of God’s people, His enduring love was the one constant in their lives. It’s the same for you and me.
So as we enter the season Thanksgiving and then head into Christmas, maybe you’re heartbroken. Friend, its okay… even though all the loud speakers everywhere are blaring at you to be holly and jolly. And it’s even okay if your broken heart shows up at your Thanksgiving table. Don't try to pretend that you're fine...the babe in the manger is absolute proof that we are not fine. Jesus left the grandeur of Heaven, emptied Himself of His glory, and came to Bethlehem as a human baby because of our brokenness.
It’s okay to just be real about our griefs this holiday season and admit that we're hanging all of our hopes and joys on a living Savior, a living Emmanuel, a God who is literally with us and whose love does in fact endure forever.
And that causes our hearts of thanksgiving to overflow.
May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in him, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit. (Romans 15:13)