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November 23, 2014

Fourteen years ago, just before Thanksgiving, our twenty-seven-year-old son, Erik, died suddenly. Some people lamented that our Thanksgiving would be ruined. We found just the opposite to be true. Beyond the parades, the football games, and the turkey, Thanksgiving became more meaningful.

Thanksgiving in this country has often been linked to times of hardship. For the Pilgrims of New England, the first winter in the New World was severe, and disease was rampant. Pneumonia and scurvy decimated the ranks of the colonists. By spring, fifteen of the eighteen wives had died, as had five of the twenty-eight children. Nineteen of the twenty-nine hired men and fifteen of the thirty sailors died from hard work in the harsh weather. Only five Pilgrim Fathers remained alive. Teenager Priscilla Mullins lost her entire family.

The bereavement and hardships of the winter of 1621 bound together Pilgrims and Strangers, the soldiers, sailors, and tradesmen who traveled with them. A hardened soldier, Miles Standish tended the sick alongside Separatist William Brewster. Sneering sailors and praying Pilgrims now shared a bond of common suffering.

On March 16, a tall, half-naked man walked into the circle of startled villagers. He introduced himself as Samoset. He spoke only a little English. So, he left in frustration. Three days later, Samoset returned with Squanto, who knew English very well. These two Native Americans were largely responsible for the survival of the depleted English colony. Perhaps aware of the hardships the colonists had endured, the Indians taught the Europeans how to hunt and fish.

Following the death of Governor William Carver in April 1621, the Mayflower set sail for the return voyage to Europe. The fifty people of Plymouth Colony, more than half of them children, stayed in America.  Widows and widowers were united in marriage. Priscilla Mullins became the bride of John Alden.

Massasoit, Chief of the Narragansett tribe, befriended the Pilgrims. Native Americans advised the colonists on agricultural methods that enabled the Plymouth community to enjoy a good harvest.  On December 13, 1621, a three-day feast was planned. Massasoit came with ninety Indians. We often refer to that feast as the first Thanksgiving.

Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday. It is the least commercialized of all of our celebrations. It is the one day that all people of every faith can celebrate.

The Thanksgiving Proclamation of George Washington in 1789 during the first year of his presidency encouraged a fledging country to “to acknowledge with grateful hearts the many and signal favors of Almighty God.”

In 1863, at the height of the Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln issued his Thanksgiving Proclamation. Even with a divided country in crisis, the president remembered the blessings of God.

“They are the gracious gifts of the Most High God…. It has seemed to me fit and proper that they should be solemnly, reverently, and gratefully acknowledged as with one heart and voice by the whole American People. I do therefore invite my fellow citizens in every part of the United States … 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 … 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…”

Our deepest expressions of gratitude come in the midst of our greatest difficulties.

A pastor and his wife from eastern North Carolina suffered the loss of their young adult son.  One dark, rainy night, he was badly injured in an automobile accident.  At the emergency room the bleak diagnosis of severe trauma to the head prompted transfer to the neurological intensive care unit.  Over the next few hours, a team of physicians concurred that the young man was brain dead.

The father knew from his experience as a pastor that his son’s death was imminent. The parents were reminded that their son had indicated a desire to be an organ donor.  His driver’s license confirmed his wish. Arrangements were made; paperwork was completed, so that when death came, as many organs as possible could be used for transplants. The following day, the decision to remove all life support was made.  The young man died within a matter of minutes. His organs were taken and distributed to other hospitals where recipients were awaiting transplants.

Organ donation procedure allows for the donor’s family to know the names of organ recipients if both the donor’s family and the recipients agree.  The pastor and his wife wanted to know the names of the recipients, and three of the recipients agreed.  The couple received their names about the first of February.  They decided to invite these three recipients to a Thanksgiving meal at their home on the Saturday preceding Thanksgiving Day.

On the appointed day, the organ recipients and their spouses arrived at the couple’s home.  The pastor greeted them at the door and welcomed each one as the pastor’s wife put the food on the table.  Together they gathered to enjoy a Thanksgiving meal.  The pastor related the story of their Thanksgiving experience.

“As we stood in a circle to have the blessing, the woman who had received our son’s heart moved between my wife and me.  As we reached out to hold hands, she placed my wife’s hand on her right wrist and my fingers on her left wrist.  My wife and I could feel her pulse. We realized that we were feeling the pumping of our son’s strong heart, now transplanted in this woman’s body.

“Another of the recipients, a man, asked if he might return thanks.  We agreed and heard his prayer, blessing our home and us and giving thanks for the life of our son.  We were aware that his voice was strong because our son’s lungs had been transplanted into his chest.

“Sitting across the table from us during the meal was a young woman.  We realized that she looked at us with steel-blue eyes that were once the eyes of our son.

“It was,” concluded the pastor, “the most meaningful Thanksgiving we have ever had. Of course, we were still grieving. But we also had discovered hope. Our son had died, but he literally left a part of himself to everyone around the table. Our hearts were filled with gratitude as we met the people whose lives had been so changed by our son.”

The Apostle Paul wrote to the early faith community, “give thanks in all circumstances” (I Thessalonians 5:16). It is not an easy instruction to follow. We find some comfort in noting that Paul did not say that we are to be thankful for every circumstance. Rather, within the difficulties of life, we are to find reason to be grateful.

When life is hard, as it is for everyone, our tendency can be to become bitter and cynical. If we can find reasons to be grateful, even our most difficult experiences can be transformed.

Thanksgiving does not depend on our external circumstances. Thanksgiving is an internal condition of a grateful heart.

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