Why am I lying awake at 4:30 on Thanksgiving morning?
Well, for one, this hotel room bed is less than ideal. We started our journey down for family Thanksgiving yesterday. The girls were pumped. A swimming pool in November? Score! We walked into the tiny room with all our stuff (it amazes me how much stuff we have to haul even for one overnight) and Marqui exclaimed, “I could call this home…it’s a tiny home, but I could call it home.” Evie is sleeping in her travel crib in between the beds. Selah is in one of the beds with Brittney and I’ve got Marqui with me…this kid is a little furnace!
But I can’t blame it all on the bed or sleeping arrangements. Truth be told, this Thanksgiving brings a little extra lament with it. Lament is “a passionate expression of grief or sorrow,” and it’s an art that we have largely ignored here in North America. We like to push down our disappointment and grief and “skip to the good part.” That’s just not possible for me this year.
You see, Thanksgiving 2021 was the last time I spoke to my dad, the last time I saw him not clinging to life on a ventilator. I have so many regrets about that last visit. We stopped by to visit for a few minutes before heading to the big family feast on my mother’s side. I knew he was sick, I knew he desperately wanted us to stay longer…but I rushed things. Even on our best days, my dad and I had a very complex relationship. I suppose we both tried in our own way—keep the focus on baseball or the kids and we’d be fine. Years of relational trauma dating back to my childhood (and likely his) kept us from going much deeper than that. He was a phenomenal grandfather, though. The girls adored him and he them. We had a brief visit and then we had to move on to the next place…too quickly for his liking. And now, nearly a year after his death, looking back…too quickly for my liking,too. I would give a lot to go back to his living room and re-do Thanksgiving 2021. There are so many things I was just gaining the maturity to say to him in the hopes of fixing our relationship, but I didn’t think I was ready. Given the opportunity, I’d say them all. I’d linger there. I’d revel in the small talk about how the Cubs’ ownership was driving the team into the ground, gloat about my kids, spend some time being thankful together.
But alas, death has robbed me of the opportunity of that conversation this side of eternity. And last night as we drove down and stopped for dinner, it occurred to me that Thanksgiving will never be the same again. Because for Brittney and I, ever since my parents divorced, Thanksgiving began on Wednesday night. Before dad got sick, we would drive down the night before and he’d take us out to dinner somewhere. Those are actually great memories. And as we imbibed on Olive Garden last night, I realized there was at that moment, and always will be, an empty seat at our Thanksgiving table.
I share all this because I doubt I’m the only one who approaches Thanksgiving day with a very complex blend of gratitude and lament. And since we struggle so much with accepting, acknowledging, and even embracing lament—I wanted to share my story a bit to say that it’s okay to do both.
As your homes fill with the aroma of fresh baked rolls and turkey, it’s okay to acknowledge your lament and sorrow as well. Gratitude does not mean that we are happy all the time or free of worry. A favorite line of mine in preaching has been, “we’re not grateful because we are happy, we are happy because we are grateful.”
For some of you, like me, there is an empty seat at your table today. A parent, sibling, a child, the spouse that left. For some, you have no one to gather with today. For others, you’ve already discovered that your pumpkin pie tacos are gross and are nothing like you saw on social media. For some of you there’s the anxiety that your family is terribly broken and there’s a slew of subjects to avoid at the table—anything political, the war in Ukraine, grandma’s new tattoo.
Listen, any time we gather on this side of heaven, it’s an imperfect celebration. And I think the beauty of lament is that it teaches us to openly acknowledge the empty seat, the broken relationships, and the dry turkey…and give thanks anyway. Give thanks for the fact that you had someone you loved enough to miss them. Give thanks that even though some subjects need to be avoided, for one day those can be put aside and smile. Give thanks that the meal may not look like Gordon Ramsay prepared it, but you had the money to buy the stuff, and the space to gather.
For me, Thanksgiving will likely always be different now. It will be a reminder of the both/and-ness of this world. We live both in the celebration AND the lament. Accept and embrace the power of sorrow, then run headlong into the celebration!
Lament actually makes me more grateful today. Grateful that although there is an empty seat at our table, I’ve got my worth-beyond-rubies-wife and my 3 beautiful daughters. And although our celebration today will be imperfect, it’s OUR celebration. Our gorge of complex carbs today can be wonderfully perfect even in the context of grief or suffering or disappointment or pain.
Something like 75% of the Psalms are lament. Sure we usually prefer the “happy ones.” “Your word is a lamp unto my feet and a light unto my path.” “The Lord is my shepherd.” “This is the day the Lord has made, let us rejoice and be glad in it.” You get the idea. The psalter fully embraces the both/and.
The psalms have been giving voice to my own lament, not just over my father’s death, but so many other deep griefs and pains.
This morning I read Psalm 42.
For the choir director: A psalm of the descendants of Korah.
1 As the deer longs for streams of water,
so I long for you, O God.
2 I thirst for God, the living God.
When can I go and stand before him?
3 Day and night I have only tears for food,
while my enemies continually taunt me, saying,
“Where is this God of yours?”
4 My heart is breaking
as I remember how it used to be:
I walked among the crowds of worshipers,
leading a great procession to the house of God,
singing for joy and giving thanks
amid the sound of a great celebration!
5 Why am I discouraged?
Why is my heart so sad?
I will put my hope in God!
I will praise him again—
my Savior and 6 my God!
Now I am deeply discouraged,
but I will remember you—
even from distant Mount Hermon, the source of the Jordan,
from the land of Mount Mizar.
7 I hear the tumult of the raging seas
as your waves and surging tides sweep over me.
8 But each day the Lord pours his unfailing love upon me,
and through each night I sing his songs,
praying to God who gives me life.
9 “O God my rock,” I cry,
“Why have you forgotten me?
Why must I wander around in grief,
oppressed by my enemies?”
10 Their taunts break my bones.
They scoff, “Where is this God of yours?”
11 Why am I discouraged?
Why is my heart so sad?
I will put my hope in God!
I will praise him again—
my Savior and my God!
Do you see the both/and? “Now I am deeply discouraged, BUT I will remember you…” Even in the midst of deep distress, “Why am I discouraged? Why is my heart so sad? I will put my hope in God! I will praise him again—my Savior and my God!”
So it is for many of us this Thanksgiving, and probably most days and celebrations to come. By coming to terms with and even taking hold of lament, the true celebration of Thanksgiving can be reestablished.
For as long as I live, or as long as Jesus tarries, there will be an empty seat at my table, and today I’m choosing to lament that loss and allow myself to feel the disappointment of reconciliation denied, to feel the hatred of cancer, and to sing the song of God’s people…”Why am I discouraged? Why is my heart so sad? I will put my hope in God! I will praise him again—my Savior and my God!” That’s not a denial of the pain, it’s a song of broken hallelujahs!
And at the same time, though there be an empty chair, I will do my best to live in the moment of this day. To look at the chairs that are occupied. To see the beauty of my family, to listen for the laughter of my children; to give thanks for how far God has brought me, and for the grace that leads me onward.
Happy Thanksgiving, friends.