On the one hand, there is thanksgiving; on the other, there is blessing.
by TINA BOESCH
HE LEAVES STRUNG from twine and draped over our dining room table turn slowly to reveal words of thanks. A couple of weeks before Thanksgiving, I spread out colored paper in autumnal shades on the den floor and sketched oak and maple leaves, trimming them into shape with my kids. Each day for two weeks before the holiday arrived, we’d write a word or phrase on a leaf, describing something in our lives for which we were thankful. By the time Thanksgiving Day arrived, our table was covered by a canopy of thanks.
LOOKING AT THE PAST
You can probably guess many of the words scrawled on the leaves: family, friends, health. The first few days, the words of thanks we wrote tended to be general. But as the days passed, I noticed that the words got more specific as we tried to recall the particular good we experienced over the year past: the taste of apples with cinnamon, Saturday morning snuggles, our summer vacation with Nana and Papa, the birth of a new cousin, a picnic in a nearby park when the sky glowed amber and fuchsia at sunset, holding hands around the table.
Thanksgiving requires remembering. Gratitude grows as we look back with attention to God’s provision that gives meaning and joy to our days. If we consider the orientation of our gaze when we’re thankful, it’s usually a backward glance. And that’s as it should be. God often calls His people to remember, and often remembering inspires faithfulness and praise.
In Psalm 118, the enthusiastic call to “give thanks to the Lord” alternates with remembrances of God’s saving grace in the life of the psalmist. “They pushed me hard to make me fall,” he remembers, “but the Lord helped me” (v. 13). As he reflects on the Lord’s redeeming intervention in his life in the past, he promises to “proclaim what the Lord has done” (v. 17).
The psalm writer’s testimony moves from remembrance of the past, to praise in the present, to hope for the future. By the end of the psalm, he’s looking forward to the Lord’s future coming, “He who comes in the name of the Lord is blessed” (118:26). This was the cry taken up by the crowd that welcomed Jesus into Jerusalem because it was understood as a prophecy of a coming Messiah who would rescue God’s people from exile by healing and restoring them. (See Luke 19:38.)
Past. Present. Future. The movement in Psalm 118 is from thanks, to praise, to blessing. The psalm demonstrates that the steadfast love of the Lord sustains all of existence from time past to our eternal future. As I’ve looked at those leaves turning slowly over my dining room table, I’ve realized that our family has been better at remembering God’s good work in the past and acknowledging it in the present than we have been at anticipating the future, eternal good God has promised us by blessing Him and blessing one another. And I’m beginning to realize that it is the forward-looking gaze that most reflects a heart full of faith. That’s because it’s easy to believe in what we’ve already experienced, but it takes faith to hope in future grace.
LOOKING TO THE FUTURE
How can we begin to introduce future blessing to our Thanksgiving table?
First, we bless the One who is the source of all good. In Jesus’ day, all prayers began with an affirmation, “Baruch attah Adonai,” a Hebrew phrase that means, “Blessed art Thou, Lord our God.” This declaration transcends time because it was, is, and will always be true of God. When we bless God, we’re joining the chorus of voices around His throne that cry out, “Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and strength be to our God forever and ever” (Rev. 7:12). In Jewish prayers before and after meals, the focus wasn’t on the food; the focus was on blessing God who provided the food.
Our first glance around the Thanksgiving table, then, isn’t really backward; it’s upward. We look up and bless the God who has sustained us through the year. We praise Him for His presence with us through the hard days and the good ones. That upward orientation — eyes fixed on Jesus — is the one we want to carry with us into the coming season.
Second, we bless one another. The peace and security we find in God’s presence should shape our interactions around the table and in our homes. Every one of us has probably experienced some relational friction around the holidays. (I know I have!) As families gather, we bring the wounds and frustrations accumulated over the years. We bring political differences, generational differences, differences in thought and style. We can allow our frustrations and differences to become walls that alienate us from one another, or we can let them open doors to conversation and deeper understanding and insight.
Blessing transcends controversy by focusing on a future good we long to see God accomplish in others’ lives. When we come into a relationship with an attitude that conveys blessing, we don’t skirt past controversy or disagreement; we enter into it with the pervasive sense that our deepest desire is for the flourishing of the other.
The apostle Paul often shows us what this orientation looks like in practice as he prays blessings for the recipients of the letters he writes. Take, for instance, Paul’s prayer for the Thessalonians: “We always pray for you that our God will make you worthy of his calling, and by his power fulfill your every desire to do good and your work produced by faith, so that the name of our Lord Jesus will be glorified by you, and you by him” (2 Thess. 1:11-12).
Can you see the future vision expressed in Paul’s blessing? He’s casting a hope that supernatural power will facilitate their good works for God’s glory. He reinforces this vision a bit later in the letter when he prays, “May our Lord Jesus Christ himself and God our Father, who has loved us and given us eternal encouragement and good hope by grace, encourage your hearts and strengthen you in every good work and word” (2 Thess. 2:16-17). Paul’s focus is not on who the Thessalonians have been; it’s on who they will become through the grace of the Lord Jesus.
This Thanksgiving, with hands folded and head bowed, consider balancing the gratitude inspired by a backward glance with the hope of anticipated blessing. As we open our eyes and lift our hands to celebrate the good of the past year, may we envision the grace that awaits us in the coming one.
TINA BOESCH has lived in seven countries on three continents. For 14 years, she and her husband and their three children called Istanbul, Turkey, home. She earned a MA in theology at Regent College in Vancouver, British Columbia. These days she serves as manager of the Bible Studies team at LifeWay Women. She’s the author of Given: The Forgotten Meaning and Practice of Blessing. You can find more of her writing at tinaboesch.com.