This month we are entering a season which, in the United States, has been devoted to gratitude and thanksgiving for nearly 400 years! While the Thanksgiving holiday has had a long and varied history within the United States, the practice of devoting sacrificial offerings, prayers, songs and psalms, and even entire days to Thanksgiving within the Christian faith goes back to the Old Testament foundations of our faith.
When we think back on the generations of Christian Americans who came before us, we remember the challenges that inspired their celebration of Thanksgiving: perilous ocean voyages; a long-fought revolution; the horrors of slavery; a civil war dividing our country; and times of great suffering, deprivation, poverty, racial conflict, widespread illness, and war. Yet the human heart manages through it all to turn toward God and give thanks for His blessings; and that we are capable of thankfulness, and have a relationship with God in order to express it, are in themselves gifts from God.
Like many years in the history of our country, 2020 has been a hard year! When you look back at the year so far, is it hard to find things to be thankful for? We have lost loved ones, jobs, and opportunities. We have missed out on traditions and events long looked forward to, been separated from family members, and experienced stress and worry. But hard times can lead Christians to feel deeply thankful and recognize the blessings of God’s provision. Often it’s when things go desperately wrong, and we feel our need for God’s help, that we feel the most thankful for His loving provision. 2020 is an opportunity we don’t want to miss to share these lessons with our children and their children.
How can your family create a practice of gratitude in this season of Thanksgiving, and prepare your hearts for the season of Advent that is just around the corner? Here are some ideas for devotional times, conversation starters, and activities your family can use to draw close to God and foster thanksgiving in your hearts:
1. Turn your mourning into thanksgiving: Psalm 30 is a psalm of thanksgiving. The last two verses say, “You changed my mourning into dancing; you took off my sackcloth and clothed me with gladness. So that my glory may praise you and not be silent. O Lord, my God, forever will I give you thanks.” (Psalm 30:12-13 NABRE)
Read Psalm 30 with your family. David and God went through some hard times together, but God was still faithful to David and did not abandon Him. On the left side of a piece of paper, make a list of some hard or disappointing things that have happened to your family over the past year. What can you see to be thankful for in those hard or disappointing times? How can God turn your mourning into dancing? On the right side of the piece of paper, write the things you have found to be thankful for.
2. Play a game to hide God’s Word in your hearts: Choose a verse about thankfulness or about God’s faithfulness to memorize. Make a game of it with your family: Write each word of the Bible verse on a different index card, and lay them out in order. (Don’t forget to write the Scripture reference on a card!) First try shuffling the cards, and then laying them out in the correct order. Next, read the verse out loud, then remove one card, and see if you can remember the missing word to repeat the verse again. Keep removing cards until you can remember the whole verse. If you play this game several times over the course of a week or a month, memorizing God’s word becomes easy and fun!
3. Learn about the Israelites’ altars of remembrance: The Israelites built some altars for ceremonial sacrifices, but they also built a different type of altar: an altar of remembrance to remind themselves of important events that demonstrated God’s faithfulness to them. Some translations call these “memorial stones.” In Joshua Chapter 4, they build one of these altars out of 12 large river stones.
Read Joshua Chapter 4 with your family. Then think of twelve ways that God has been faithful to your family. Find twelve small, smooth stones, and write on them the things you want to thank God for. Display them somewhere that your family can see them and remember to thank God for His faithfulness.
4. Learn some Greek words: Did you know that the word Eucharist, another word for Communion or The Lord’s Supper, comes from the Greek word eucharisteo? In Greek, the word means “to give thanks.” The prefix eu- means “good” or “well.” The root word charis means “grace.” Read Luke 22:14-20 together as a family. Notice the places where it says that Jesus “gave thanks.” What do you think He was giving thanks for? How does knowing that eucharisteo means “to give thanks” affect your understanding of what Communion is? Write these words and their meanings on a card and put it somewhere your family will see it frequently to remind you of your thankfulness for Christ and what He has done for you.
5. Make a prayer journal: Make or decorate a journal to use for a prayer journal. You can either make one for the whole family, or each family member can make their own. When you’re using your journal, make sure you’re doing three things: praising God, asking Him for what you need or want Him to do, and thanking God for what He has already done for you. You can either write your prayers, or draw pictures of them. Keeping a record of what we have prayed for helps us to look back over our lives and remember how God answered our prayers and showed his faithfulness and love for us.
6. Say grace: The longstanding Christian tradition of praying before meals, or “saying grace,” traces back to a Jewish tradition we see reflected throughout Scripture, such as in Deuteronomy 8, in Jesus’ prayer when he fed the multitude in each of the Gospels, in Luke 24:13-35, and in the example of Paul in Acts 27. Read some of these passages with your family. How did the people in these stories experience God’s provision? How have you experienced God’s provision? How does understanding God’s provision affect how we pray? Does your faith tradition have any traditional graces that are prayed or sung at meal time? What is your family’s favorite way to say grace? If you were going to write a grace to say before meals, what things would you want to thank God for on a daily basis?
7. Experience God through nature: Read Mathew 6:25-27. Then, take a walk or a hike and count the number of birds and animals you see. How does God provide for the animals He has created? Collect some fallen leaves on your walk, and when you get home, arrange them somewhere your family can see them and remember what you learned about God’s provision.
8. Tell your family’s story: Sometimes it is easier to see God’s faithfulness when we look back over past circumstances and can see how they worked out for our good, even if we might not have seen it at the time. How has God been faithful to your family? Read Psalm 78:1-7 with your family. Then make a list of the ways that God has helped or protected your family:
What is your family’s faith heritage? Do you know the first person in your family to become a Christian? Do you have a family member or ancestor who was miraculously preserved from an illness or accident? Has God protected your family during a natural disaster? Has God seemed to direct a family member into a career or volunteer position where they could see God blessing their work? Has He seemed to give a member of your family favor when they were doing something hard, or there were circumstances they could not control? When did God bless your family with the home that you live in? What events have caused your family to rejoice and thank God for His goodness or His protection?
All Christians are adopted into God’s family. Even if you are the first person in your family to become a Christian, all Christians have a lineage that stretches through Jesus all the way back to Adam and Eve. God always keeps His promises to His people today just as He did in the Bible!
9. Tell someone how thankful you are for them: Make or buy a card for someone you are thankful for! This could be a teacher, someone who works in your church or parish, a first responder or member of the military, a family member or friend who lives far away, or another member of your family or community. Tell them how they are a blessing to you, and pray for God to bless them, as well!
10. Thank God and praise Him: The difference between thanks and praise is usually that we thank God for what He does for us, and we praise God for who He is. God’s people do both! The Psalms are full of examples of God’s people praising Him and thanking Him for what He has done. The first verse of Psalm 9 says, “I will give thanks to you, Lord, with all my heart; I will tell of all your wonderful deeds.” (Psalm 9:1 NIV) In 2 Corinthians Chapter 4, Paul writes, “All this is for your benefit, so that the grace that is reaching more and more people may cause thanksgiving to overflow to the glory of God.” (2 Corinthians 4:15 NIV.) Celebrating what God has done for us and praising who He is helps spread the gospel so that more and more people come to trust in Christ, and God is glorified everywhere.
There are so many ways to praise the Lord! In the Bible we see His people praising God by singing, shouting, playing musical instruments, and dancing. But there are other ways to bring glory to God, too: through art, through serving others, or by doing our daily work well and in a way that honors God. What is your favorite way to praise God? What can your family do in the next week to help spread God’s good name?
11. Find a way to share your blessings: Generosity both flows from and results in thanksgiving. When we are thankful for God’s blessings, it often leads us to share what we have with others, and that leads them to gratitude, as well. Read 2 Corinthians 9:6-15 with your family. How can your family share your blessings with others? Consider some of the following activities:
- Donate canned goods to a food pantry, homeless shelter, or women’s shelter
- Buy or collect winter hats, scarves, gloves, and socks for a homeless shelter or women’s shelter
- Look through your family’s clothing and toys for gently-used items which have been outgrown, and can be donated to a shelter, clothing ministry, or foster care ministry
- Make pumpkin bread, a batch of cookies, or another favorite food, and share them with your neighbors
- Be generous with your time by volunteering together as a family in a ministry in your church or community
- Set aside time and resources as a family to purchase a Christmas gift for a child who might not otherwise get one. These opportunities can be found through various churches and ministries across the country! What opportunities do you see in your community?
- Look for opportunities throughout the year to be generous in your immediate community, and in other areas of the world. Involve your whole family in looking for opportunities to be generous!
12. Celebrate what God has done: Over the course of November, have each member of the family write down things they are thankful for, and put them in a jar. To make it extra fun, put the slips of paper in balloons, or a piñata! On Thanksgiving Day, read the slips of paper out loud. Pray as a family to thank God for all of His blessings.
And whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through Him. –Colossians 3:17, NIV