My mom loves thank-you cards. She sends them on a whim, joyfully, breathlessly. She keeps a stack in her house for any occasion that requires giving thanks, such as when she watched my two little boys overnight and then thanked me for the joy they brought to her house and the love we shared as I had become a mom. 

I’ve never been as good at thank-you cards as my mom. I guess my excuse is that I’m a writer and people must expect me to write something profound. That’s why I spent several days writing thank-you cards for my high school graduation party: I wanted to say something special and unique to each person. This took forever, but I have to admit, it also brought me joy. 

Thank-you cards, like politeness and political correctness, have fallen out of favor in the U.S. lately. They seem sometimes an archaic emblem of the past, resurrected only for weddings and baby showers. Sometimes I prefer the thank-you text; occasionally I stoop to the thank-you Bitmoji. 

Unsurprisingly, given her love of thank-you cards, my mom also loves the annual Thanksgiving tradition of going around the table and sharing what makes us thankful. As a Lutheran pastor’s kid, she famously roped my dad’s sometimes-reluctant Catholic family into the tradition. As I got older, it seemed harder instead of easier each Thanksgiving to think of the right thing to be thankful for.  

Kid answers were specific and particular: my best friend, Ryan; mashed potatoes; my new green scooter; my mom and dad. 

Adult answers were often vague: my family, my health, my life, my faith. It’s harder to name the particularities of our gratitude because that requires real self-revelation—a tall task in an age of filtered photos and privacy settings.

As we get older, too often our Thanksgiving meals become a performance of family life and duty. We roast the turkey, we mash the potatoes, we avoid talking about politics, we hide the alcohol from the relative who has had one too many. We keep our prayers and our conversations light and vague.

I remember reading several hand-wringing articles in November 2016 about the prospect of Thanksgiving dinners in extended families divided by the recent presidential election. Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton supporters alike wondered how they would face their opposing family members. Several recounted that they’d survived by texting or tweeting. Some ate their feelings. Some hid out in the bathroom.

Few, if any, chose to lead with love and self-revelation. What if more of us that year had taken a page from my mom’s well-worn book of gratitude? What if more of us had said: “I’m thankful for this moment, when I can pause before this ample meal with people I love, and trust that God’s voice of grace and mercy will overcome the anger and hatred that divide us—as a family and as a nation”?

U.S. families and U.S. Christians (including Lutherans) have much to discuss this Thanksgiving. There is a need, especially for white families, to confront generational racism, sexism and prejudice. There is a need for families to talk about politics and where they see Jesus’ life, death and resurrection resounding or sounding a warning in the U.S. today.

But before those important conversations can begin, before we carve the turkey and watch the Detroit Lions lose again (maybe this year they’ll finally win), we have to break down the walls of misunderstanding, resentment and grief that have been built up in so many of our lives and so many of our families.

Many of us are wondering where we can begin—to heal and to talk together from different backgrounds, ages and walks of life. I believe this Thanksgiving may offer an opportunity to begin with giving thanks. Not in general—for family, health or friends—but in particular ways: naming our loved ones, naming our blessings, naming what holds our heads above the rushing sea in a world that often feels tumultuous.

Paul began his letter to the Philippians with words I remember every time I think of the ones I love: “I thank my God every time I remember you” (1:3). 

Dear Living Lutheran readers, I’m thankful for you. May our gratitude for one another open the door to a thank-filled thanksgiving.

Angela Denker
Angela Denker is an ELCA pastor and journalist. Her book, Red State Christians: Understanding the Voters Who Elected Donald Trump, was published in August 2019 by Fortress Press.

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