Thanksgiving

This year I will make the annual pilgrimage back to South Carolina to be with family for the (American) Thanksgiving holiday. Fewer of my children will be there – a mark of the maturing of their own families and the difficulty of travel at this time of year. The year is different as well for it will be the first Thanksgiving holiday without my mother’s presence (may her memory be eternal). With years, the life of my family is changing.

What does not change in this holiday is the centrality of giving thanks. These reflections make much mention of my late father-in-law, a man who was the embodiment of thanksgiving. He unceasingly gave thanks to God for all things at all times and lived as a faithful witness of the goodness of God. Glory to God for all things!

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Everyone capable of thanksgiving is capable of salvation.

Fr. Alexander Schmemann

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I do not believe it is possible to exhaust this topic. I have set forth a few suggestions of how we might build and maintain a life of thanksgiving. Particular thought is given to those times when giving thanks is difficult.

1. We must believe that God is good.

I struggled with this for many years. I believed that God was sovereign; I believed that He was the Creator of heaven and earth; I believed that He sent His only Son to die for me. But despite a hosts of doctrines to which I gave some form of consent, not included (and this was a matter or my heart) was the simple, straight-forward consent that God is good. My father-in-law, a very simple Baptist deacon of great faith, believed this straight-forward truth with an absolute assurance that staggered my every argument. I knew him for over 30 years. When I was young (and much more foolish) I would argue with him – not to be out-maneuvered by his swift and crafty theological answers (it was me that was trying to maneuver and be swift and crafty) – but often times our arguments would end with his smile and simple confession, “Well, I don’t know about that, but I know that God is good.” Over the years I came to realize that until and unless I believed that God is good, I would never be able to truly give thanks. I could thank God when things went well, but not otherwise.

This simple point was hammered into me weekly and more after I became Orthodox. There is hardly a service of the Orthodox Church that does not end its blessing with: “For He is a good God and loves mankind.” A corrollary of the goodness of God was coming to terms with the wrathful God of some Western theology (or the misunderstandings of the “wrathful God”). At the heart of things was a fear that behind everything I could say of God was a God whom I could not trust – who could be one way at one time and another way at another.

This is so utterly contrary to the writings of the Fathers and the teachings of the Orthodox faith. God is good and His mercy endures forever, as the Psalmist tells us. God is good and even those things that human beings describe as “wrath” are, at most, the loving chastisement of a God who is saving me from much worse things I would do to myself were He not to love me enough to draw me deeper into His love and away from my sin.

The verse in Romans 8 remains a cornerstone of our understanding of God’s goodness: “All things work together for good, for those who love God and are called according to His purpose” (8:28). There are daily mysteries involved in this assertion of faith – moments and events that I have no way to explain or to fit into some overall scheme of goodness. But this is precisely where my conversations with my father-in-law would go. I would be full of exceptions and “what ifs,” and he would reply, “I don’t know about that. But I know that God is good.”

As the years have gone by, I have realized that being wise is not discovering some way to explain things but for my heart to settle into the truth that, “I don’t know about that. But I know that God is good.”

2. I must believe that His will for me is good.

This moves the question away from what could, for some, be a philosophical statement (“God is good”) to the much more specific, “His will for me is good.” Years ago, when my son was child, he encountered a difficulty in his life. As a parent I was frustrated (secretly mad at God) and my faith shaken. I had already decided what “good” was to look like in my son’s life and reality was undermining my fantasy. In a time of prayer (which was very one-sided) I found myself brought up suddenly and short with what I can only describe as a divine interruption. I will not describe my experience as an audible voice, but it could not have been clearer. The simple statement from God was: “This is for his salvation.”

My collapse could not have been more complete. How do reply to such a statement? How am I supposed to know what my child needs for His salvation (and this in the long-term sense as understood by the Orthodox?). I had prayed for nothing with as much fervor as the salvation of my children. Ultimately, regardless of how they get through life, that they get through in union with Christ is all I ask. Why should I doubt that God was doing what I had asked? In the years since then I have watched God’s word in that moment be fulfilled time and again as He continues to work wonderfully in the life of my son and I see a Christian man stand before me. God’s will for me is good. God is not trying to prevent us from doing good, or making it hard for us to be saved. Life is not a test. No doubt, life is filled with difficulty. We live in a fallen world. But He is at work here and now and everywhere for my good.

My father-in-law had a favorite Bible story (among several): the story of Joseph and his brothers. In the final disclosure in Egypt, when Joseph reveals himself to his brothers – those who had sold him into slavery – Joseph says, “You meant it to me for evil, but the Lord meant it to me for good.” It is an Old Testament confession of Romans 8:28. The world may give us many situations, and the situations on their surface may indeed be evil. But our God is a good God and He means all things for our good. I may confess His goodness at all times.

3. I must believe that the goodness of God is without limit.

I did not know this for many years and only came upon it as I spent a period of month studying the meaning of “envy.” In much of our world (and definitely in the non Judaeo-Christian world of antiquity) people believe that good is limited. If you are enjoying good, then it is possibly at my expense. Such thought is the breeding ground of envy. The ancient Greeks and Romans believed this to so much be true that they feared excellence lest they provoke the jealousy of the Gods. We do not think in the same metaphysical terms, but frequently on some deep level, we believe that someone else’s good will somehow lessen our own. Within this eats the worm of jealousy and anger.

To bless God for His goodness we also need to bless God for His goodness towards everyone and to know that He is the giver of every good and perfect gift – and that His goodness is without limit.

4. I must believe that God is good and know this on the deepest personal level.

God has manifested His goodness to us in the revelation of His Son, Jesus Christ. In Christ, we see the fullness of the goodness of God. The goodness of God goes to the Cross for us. The goodness of God searches for us in hell and brings us forth victorious. The goodness of God will not cease in His efforts to reconcile us to the Father.

My father-in-law had another favorite Bible story (I said he had several): the story of the three young men in the fiery furnace. This story is, incidentally, a favorite of Orthodox liturgical worship as well. It stands as a Biblical image of our rescue from Hades. In the midst of the fiery furnace, together with the three young men, is the image of a fourth. Christ is with them, and in the hymnography of the Church, “the fire became as the morning dew.” For my father-in-law it was the confession of the three young men before the evil threats of the wicked King Nebuchanezer. To his threats of death in a terrible holocaust they said, “Our God is able to deliver us, O King. But even if He does not, nevertheless, we will not bow down and worship your image.” It was their defiant “nevertheless,” that would bring tears to my father-in-law’s eyes. For much of our experience here includes furnaces into which we are thrust despite our faith in Christ. It is there that the faith in the goodness of God says, “Nevertheless.” It is confidence in the goodness of God above all things.

I saw my father-in-law survive a terrible automobile accident, and the whole family watched his slow and losing battle with lymphoma in his last three years. But none of us ever saw him do otherwise than give thanks to God and to delight in extolling the Lord’s goodness.

Many years before I had foolishly become heated with him in one of our “theological discussions.” I was pushing for all I was worth against his unshakeable assurance in God’s goodness. I recall how he ended the argument: “Mark the manner of my death.” It was his last word in the matter. There was nothing to be said against such a statement. And he made that statement non-verbally with the last years of his life. I did mark the manner of his death and could only confess: “God is good! His mercy endures forever!” For no matter the difficulties this dear Christian man faced, nevertheless, no moment was anything less than an occasion for thanksgiving.

I have seen the goodness of God in the land of the living.

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26 Responses to “Thanksgiving”

  1. fatherstephen Says:

    Photo: My family (September this year). Missing is one Priest-Son-in-law (Fr. Hermogen Holste) and one serious boyfriend. From left, my daughter-in-law, Anna, my son, James, my daughter, Khouria Kathryn Rogers, my grandson, Peter Holste, my son-in-law, Fr. Phillip Rogers, my daughter, Clare Freeman, myself, and my wife, Matushka Beth. Glory to God for all things!

  2. Barbara Says:

    Dear Fr. Stephen,

    Thank you for these thoughtful steps towards thankfulness. Your comments about the hopes you had for your son being different from God’s desire for his salvation reminded me of my own life, but also of Fr. Lev Gillet’s words.

    He said, ‘Do not confuse thy ‘hopes’, in the plural, and thy ‘hope’, in the singular. Thy hopes, that is for particular, limited things which thou wishest to see realised, often only reflect some egoistic desire. Success in this or that, for example, or a special healing. These are hopes. It is not Hope. Hope: a wish, a desire, an expectation that is not directed only at a specific objective, but encompasses thy whole destiny. it is no mere section of a curve which is concerned but the totality of that curve…look at the whole line of ty life with the confidence which love inspires. ‘ (In Thy Presence)

    I have so often confused my little hopes with the limitless Hope of God’s love for us. Thank you for this reminder.

    Happy American Thanksgiving from a Canadian!

  3. (another) Elizabeth Says:

    God bless you, Father, for your witness to God’s grace and the encouragement to us who read your words. This hits at a time of intense spiritual struggle: I am 8 weeks pregnant, with signs of a threatened miscarriage. We are now at the vigil period, only to pray and wait and trust God’s goodness is present, “no matter what.” That’s the hard part, the part that takes every ounce of faith, the no matter what part.

    Your words give my heart much nourishment, and thus it is with borrowed faith that I say Glory to God for all things.

  4. fatherstephen Says:

    May God preserve you and the child which you bear!

  5. Anna Says:

    (another) Elizabeth,

    I am so sorry to hear that you are in this intense struggle. May God’s mercy be with you. My saint is Saint Anna, the mother of the Theotokos. May her prayers join my feeble prayers for you and yours.

  6. NW Darla Says:

    Elizabeth, I will be praying for you.

  7. asinusspinasmasticans Says:

    May God bless the priesthood of your son-in-law and daughter at St. Gabriel in Lafayette, LA. He is a wonderful and zealous young priest. May God grant him many years of useful service.

    When I am tempted to despair, I remember him.

  8. Lena Says:

    Dear Father Stephen,

    Looking at the picture of your family I think again: it is possible to live christian live even in our time in our world. There was no time when it was easy, but it seems today it tougher than ever.
    I realized: the toughest test of sincerity of my faith is when it comes to my children. Raising a son with “problems” makes me to rely on Christ much more and I suspect my son much closer to Him than I am.

    Thank you dear Father!
    Glory to God!
    (it’s so wonderful to see Matushka Mary with your first grandson, she is really “matushka” now, and all of your family really🙂

    in Christ,
    Lena

  9. fatherstephen Says:

    Lena,
    What joy to have a note from you! I think often of you and your family and remember you in my prayers. Mary is indeed a wonderful Matushka (and her husband serves in an all Russian language parish in Menlo Park, California). And Kathryn is now Khouria (Arabic for Matushka). They give us such joy! My greetings to son and your fine husband!

  10. Margaret Says:

    Thank you for sharing, Fr. Stephen! For sharing these truths concerning thanksgiving and salvation and for sharing your family, Glory to God for All Things! (Happy Thanksgiving!)

  11. Bob Emeson Says:

    I am a an American Christian, attending a Lutheran church, but feel at heart a closeness to the Orthodox way of life. I’ve been reading Orthodox literature for 12 years and find that my thoughts line up a lot with Orthodoxy. My dilenma is, am I still saved even though I am not a member of an Orthodox church? I don’t read any clear statement on this from the sites I visit. Is my salvation dependent on “joining” an Orthodox church? Does Christ work outside of that church? I think he must, I mean look at all the people confessing Christ outside of the Orthodox. It always disturbs me that every denomination claims for themselves the true interpretation of scripture, even the Orthodox. It’s all so confusing to me, and I’m already 60 years old and can’t figure it all out yet. HELP!!!

  12. Mike Says:

    I think much can be said about a man whose children follow in his footsteps. You must have lived the faith you espouse for it is your children who know you so well and it is they who are following your path of leadership in the church. That, to me, speaks volumes of who you must be as a person. Maybe you could write a little bit some time on being a dad and what you’ve learned (or maybe you already have and I’ve just missed them).

  13. (another) Anna Says:

    Bob, Christ in His mercy acts where He will. I think all people who claim to follow Him must strive to do their best to be obedient to His direction. If you feel the closeness to the Orthodox Church, then I encourage you to visit a Vespers service. Open conversations with people about your questions, but mostly, I would encourage you to pray and ask God for His wisdom and discernment.

    All God’s best to you.

  14. fatherstephen Says:

    Bob,
    It is Christ who saves us and it is union with Him that we should seek. If someone were in the Orthodox Church but did not seek union with Christ, they would not be seeking their salvation. If someone anywhere seeks union with Christ – I have confidence in His mercy – He will save us. He saves us not because of where we are but because He is good and merciful.

    One theologian I know (actually a Methodist) said, quoting St. Cyprian: “There is no salvation outside the Church.” But then he added: “Because the Church is what salvation looks like.” I think this is a closer understanding of the truth of things. I am Orthodox because I wanted union with Christ and find that in its fullness within Orthodoxy. To be elsewhere would mean a loss of too much that is true. It took me years to make my way here (I’m 56 years old) but my parents became Orthodox at age 80. But the point here and everywhere is Christ. Seek Christ. If Christ draws you to Orthodoxy – then fine. But only for Christ.

    I am Orthodox and I do believe that this is the truth. There was a time when there was only the Orthodox Church. But I am here because of Christ. It is too easy for people to champion the Church as the true Church, etc., but they then fail to see their own sins.

    I heard Fr. Thomas Hopko say, a few years back. “After all, it’s really all about God.”

  15. fatherstephen Says:

    Mike,
    May Christ keep you. Thank you for the kind words – particularly regarding my family. I am deeply grateful – particularly for the prayers of my wife. I often feel that the blessings I enjoy in the lives of my children are a kindness from God in spite of my own failings. If there is a “cause and effect” then the cause if God’s mercy and my wife’s unceasing prayers.

  16. yeamlak fitur Says:

    Father thank you for this wonderful post and for sharing the picture of your beautiful family.

    Of all the holidays in this country, I love Thanksgiving the most. Where everybody stops and takes the time to thank their creator the LORD.

    Happy Thanksgiving to you all!

  17. fatherstephen Says:

    It is a good holiday. Canada has a Thanksgiving day (earlier in the year). I wonder how many countries have such a holiday. I recently received a copy of an Orthodox service composed for the American holiday (composed during the time of St. Tikhon). I’ve not had a chance to use it yet (I’m usually out of town for the holiday) but look forward to it in the future. I had not known of its existence until this year.

  18. Nemanja Says:

    Dear Father Stephen,
    I just want to sincerely thank you for this post. It is exactly what I needed to hear, and the lesson I need to learn.

  19. Stephen Says:

    Fr. Stephen, Thank you for this. It has become increasingly more difficult to be thankful to God as life’s difficulties have become more than one can bear. Your writing here and the gentle witness of your father in law serves as a good example of the potential to see the goodness of God in all circumstances, even the most difficult ones. “Mark the manner of my death.” This phrase is deeply profound (it brought tears to my eyes) and shows me that we have little control over anything, not even our own death, but we do have a choice in how we embrace our death. Death also seems to be a punctuation on our lives that will reveal who we were and will be as a person. Your father in law shows that the actions we take in this life will be much more lasting than the arguments we have imposed on others. I wonder when we pass from this world, if love will not be the only thing left, while everything else fades away and this will be the measure of who and what we are? Please pray that God would be with me in the fiery furnace.

  20. pmpattye Says:

    Thank you for a wonderful post.

    I watched my daughter struggle with depression, and she eventually attempted to take her life. She now lives in a semi-conscious state. I believe that we will never know why she went through all of this, but when my other children ask why, this is a perfect time to let them know that God is good and this happened for a very good reason – we just don’t know right now what it is – but it could be her eternal salvation or someone who witnessed her struggles.

    God is good and is good to all his people.

  21. fatherstephen Says:

    Stephen and others,
    I often think that the confession of the goodness of God is the bold confession of a martyr. We can all understand the stories of great martyrs, who, in the face of terrible torments, refuse to renounce Christ and are faithful to Him. Of course, sometimes their sufferings are short while there are others who suffer for a lifetime. But I believe the confession that “God is good,” to be the essential confession of every martyr and the most essential confession of our struggle as Christians on any given day and throughout the course of life. To say, “God is good,” is to confess an inherent part of the content of the statement, “Jesus is Lord.” For if Jesus is Lord, then God is good. And come what may – the natural disasters of the course of this life – the prosperity of the wicked – the torments of circumstance and our fallen bodies – the taunts of the wicked-one and those who ally themselves to his cause – come all this – the Christian response through the ages is, “Jesus is Lord!” “God is good.” It is to unite ourselves with the good confession of the three young men in the fiery furnace. And together with them our good confession will echo through eternity and we will not be ashamed.

  22. Paul Says:

    Father Stephen:
    Thank you for your labor of love in writing this blog. I read it everyday. Many times your posts benefits me spiritually, clear up some confusion or strengthen my confession of the Trinity. I hope the Lord gives you joy in your service.
    Paul

  23. Thanksgiving « Biblical Paths Says:

    […] HT […]

  24. Jesse Says:

    Abbot Tryphon of the All-Merciful Saviour Monastery on Vashon Island, WA, had this statement on his blog this morning:

    “Thanksgiving Day (for we Americans) should not be a time of giving thanks to God for all the worldly and pleasurable things in our lives. Rather, as Christians, we must be filled with gratitude for those things that lead, ultimately, to Life Eternal. Being grateful only for those things that are pleasurable and self-centered (nice house, great friends, good family, wonderful job, lots of money in the bank), but not being thankful for the difficulties and hardships that come our way, is not the way of a Christian. Only when we can be grateful for hardships and sorrows that lead to total dependency upon the mercy of God, can we acquire a grateful and contrite heart.”

  25. Sean Says:

    Father Stephen,

    you commented: “I wonder how many countries have such a holiday. I recently received a copy of an Orthodox service composed for the American holiday (composed during the time of St. Tikhon)…”

    You may already know that but here in Greece, the Divine Liturgy (Θεία Λειτουργία in Greek) has another very common name used widely between both clergy and laity, and that name is Θεία Ευχαριστία (Divine Thanksgiving) – this term is used mainly to denote the part of the consecration of the Gifts and also as a name for Holy Communion itself (as a process and as the Body and Blood of Christ). It’s something people usually say without really thinking about it but it’s quite interesting that this ultimate part of Christian worship is termed as “thanksgiving” to God.

  26. Thanksgiving for God’s Goodness « Pray for Lucy Jarrett Says:

    […] 17, 2010 by James I first read this article by Fr. Stephen Freeman in early December of last year. I am not Eastern Orthodox, but I follow his […]

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