We recently looked together through the lens of the story of Job at the great question marks that fill our lives: Why do bad things happen to good people? Why do the righteous suffer? Why do we park on driveways and drive on parkways? Life is full of these mysteries, of course. It's only natural that some of our time is spent searching for answers. But at the end of the day, I don't want my life to be about question marks. I'd really be sad if the most vivid memories that people had of me was how I went around asking: Why won't you clean up after yourself? When is this economy going to turn around? How are we going to pay for this? And where is the channel changer?
The punctuation marks of life
I don't want to have my grave marked with a great big comma either: "Wow, Dan really knew how to pack a lot of stuff into the sentence of his life. I mean he did this, and then he did that, and then he went here, and then he went there." If we're not careful, the defining mark of our lives can become a comma. We can become known as the people who were always moving on, always focused on the next acquisition, the next item on the to do list, the next rung on the ladder. Obviously, there's a string of stuff that needs attention. But I doubt any of us want to be remembered as the person whose loving and listening happened mainly in the brief pauses of a run-on sentence.
Life can also become too punctuated with periods. It is really important to make a full stop now and then. But it's tragic how some lives are overly marked by them. Maybe you know somebody who had something really painful happen to them at some point in their lives, and they've never gotten past it. A great big period went down on the page then, and what lay behind it has defined them. It's like they've never been able to write a truly fresh sentence since then. I've seen young people get stuck in this way, and I've met older people who've made a full stop. Their lives are mainly focused on the storyline behind them, as if God doesn't have a contribution that he still wants to write through them.
I wonder what the people closest to us would say is the punctuation mark most evident in our lives. Is it the question mark? Perhaps it's the comma, comma, comma. Or maybe it's the full stop. Period. The truth is that every one of us has all of these marks in our lives. But, if you think about it, what underlies all of these marks is the common theme of discontent. I don't have the answers or the ease I'm looking for: Why God? I don't have what I'm supposed to have, so I need to keep going, going, going. I don't have the life I used to have: It's over. Period.
It's so easy to get caught in any of these discontented places—and maybe that's especially true in America right now. The refrain of loss and discouragement and anxiety is everywhere. So much of the national focus is on all the things that are wrong, that are going to be so hard to fix, that may never be the same again. That is why we are making a choice to purposefully, maybe even painstakingly, punctuate the storyline of our lives with the exclamation point that is Thanksgiving. And we are not the first ones to need this.
The Bible's exclamation point of thanksgiving
If you are at all familiar with the storyline of the Israelites, then you know how much their lives were filled with the same punctuation marks we find in ours. They suffered more than enough to have plenty of question marks. They journeyed on and on, their lives "comma'd" by a seemingly relentless series of battles and breakdowns. At times they came to a full stop against seas and mountains that seemed uncrossable, fortresses and foes that seemed unconquerable. And sometimes it led them into seasons of deep despair and complaint. But the Israelites had one saving discipline that kept them from going under. Time and again, we see them pausing on the pathway. We see them stopping for a moment and purposefully raising their eyes to heaven, in order to give thanks to God.
In 1 Chronicles 16, we get a picture of just such an exclamation point in the life of Israel. By now the controversial reign of King Saul is over, and a young warrior named David has been elected king by prophetic designation and popular acclamation. He's led the Israelites in successful battle against the Philistines, and the armies of Israel have captured the ancient acropolis city of Jerusalem—the crown jewel of Canaan. David orders that the ark of the covenant—the box containing the Ten Commandments—be brought up to the city so that God can be reverenced there in the capitol of his new kingdom. David leads the procession into the city, literally dancing with joy in front of the ark as it is carried in. Let's pick up the story there.
And they brought in the ark of God and set it inside the tent that David had pitched for it, and they offered burnt offerings and peace offerings before God. And when David had finished offering the burnt offerings and the peace offerings, he blessed the people in the name of the Lord and distributed to all Israel, both men and women, to each a loaf of bread, a portion of meat, and a cake of raisins (1 Chronicles 16:1-3).
David goes on to appoint members of the tribe of Levi as the official worship leaders of the people. Their job is "to make petition, to give thanks, and to praise the Lord, the God of Israel." In other words, some of them are to name the prayer requests, some of them are to list all the reasons for thanksgiving they can think of, and the rest are to make music with guitars, piano, drums and pipe organ, or the ancient Hebrew equivalent thereof. You get the picture, don't you? It's a Thanksgiving worship service! Do you know that it was at that first Thanksgiving in Jerusalem that David gave to Israel and the world the first of his famous Psalms? It's the one with that now famous verse: "Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good; his love endures forever."
What I want to underline, however, is that this sort of celebration was by then an ingrained tradition in the life of Israel. It wasn't always on this scale, but exclamation points like this are found all through the storyline of Israel up to this point. From the time they first fled persecution in the land of Egypt, the Israelites learned to stop along their journey to give thanks to God. We read how in many places they'd build a pile of stones to mark where they'd become particularly conscious of God's blessing. They'd bring a special offering and sacrifice it as a way of saying thank you for God's protection or provision. One of the leaders of their family would stand up and recite in detail the record of God's providence over the long haul of history behind them. They'd gather the tribes together from various parts and hold a feast at which God was named the honored guest, and everyone around the table would exclaim how good and glorious God is.
In these various ways, they both exalted God and re-engaged a wiser perspective. They'd be reminded that as hard as life could be, they were a richly blessed people. They'd remember that they had gotten this far on life's journey not by their own genius, sweat, and merit alone, but by the grace of God. They'd get clear again that God had been profoundly active for good along their journey and that there was every reason to believe that, if they remained faithful to him, there would be many blessings ahead.
The invitation to live with thanksgiving today
Do you see a bit better now where this tradition we are celebrating today truly comes from? It was from the example of the ancient Israelites that our forbearers learned the pattern that became in this country what we now call Thanksgiving. Fleeing persecution in the land of England, the 110 pilgrims who crossed the sea faced many challenges here, too.
Half of their number died of cold, disease, and malnutrition that first hard winter, raising I'm sure some serious question marks about God's providence. Those who survived the winter immediately set about trying to construct better shelter and to cultivate the land. The challenges were so great there was hardly room for a comma in the daily struggle. We know that some of them gave up hope—period. Some actually boarded ship and started to leave the colony, only to be reinvigorated by the sight of another vessel making its way into the harbor with medical supplies and food. Somehow, they persevered and, as the second winter crept in, their governor, William Bradford, proclaimed that on November 29, 1621, the colonists should cease their striving, gather as a community, and raise an exclamation point of Thanksgiving to God.
It has been more than 380 years since that day in Plymouth, Massachusetts, and some 3,000 years since that day in Jerusalem. But the capacity of God's people to handle with courage and wisdom the great questions, the daily demands between those commas, and those inevitable periods when hope seems finished still flows from our relationship with God.
So here's my invitation to you. When you go to your Thanksgiving table today, bring a copy of the Bible with you. Read aloud 1 Chronicles 16. Go around the circle, if there is one, and talk about which verse comes alive for you and how. Then share with one another an exclamation of gratitude to God—for the gift of life on this remarkable planet; for the people you love and who have loved you; for your mentors and models; for the abilities and resources he's entrusted to you; for his Word that guides you, his grace that forgives you, his mercy that preserves you, and his eternal arms that await you; and for whatever else comes to your mind or pours from your heart. Just stop and "Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good; his love endures forever."
Dan Meyer is pastor of Christ Church.us, a nondenominational, multisite church with locations in Oak Brook and Lombard, Illinois.