A Little Thanksgiving Smoke

It's pretty quiet around here, early on Thanksgiving morning. I got up while it was still dark and put the turkey in my smoker, an eight hour project hopefully worth the trouble. (Say a prayer for the bird. Sixteen people coming for dinner.) Rather than head back to bed, I put on some coffee, ate a banana, and decided to collect my thoughts as I reflect on the day.

Thanksgiving can get a little cheesy, being reminded to count our blessings like ungrateful children, which of course, we are. Historically, we can take our pick - William Bradford and his pilgrim crew, George Washington as our government was founded, or Abraham Lincoln when our nation was deeply divided. Each one proclaimed a day of giving thanks for the blessings of Providence. Maybe Lincoln is most appropriate for this year.

Nothing is more nostalgic and predictable than Thanksgiving dinner. Most families eat the same meal every year with few creative alternatives. Something about marshmallows on sweet potatoes and stuffing parked beside our turkey makes the day complete. I wonder how many pumpkin pies are smothered in Cool Whip and passed around the table today. These are foods that we don't indulge any other time of the year, and I guess that's a good thing, keeping them special, as if they carried some kind of gratitude virus.

So what does Thanksgiving mean to me this year? I mean, beyond the basics, besides the obvious, what moves me to give thanks this morning?

First, home. Suz and I have lived in a tiny country house, a seminary apartment with a serious roach problem, three parsonages, and we have owned two houses. Like most people, we hate moving, but we've always had somewhere to go, a place to unload our stuff and make a new home.

Sunday afternoon my friend Jon, our son Jake and I were handing out hot Thanksgiving meals to homeless people in one of our local parks. The guys were very appreciative, sitting on park benches eating in the dark. I wonder where they are today. The local shelter? One man told me with a smile that he had an invitation, a place to go on Thanksgiving. I wanted to bring them all home. Maybe I'll find the nerve to do it someday.

I've always had a home. My parents were never on the street. My family has never known the kind of desperation that millions of refugees live with everyday. Mothers and fathers huddling their children together in the harshest of circumstances, running from war, pleading for provision, struggling to find a roof to come under. They love their children as much as I love mine. How heartbreaking, to be without a home.

Second, family. Suzanne and I went out on our first date on Thursday, November 6, 1980. No, she doesn't remember the date, but I do. Boy, did I fall fast, head over heels, goofy in love. Two weeks later, on Thanksgiving Day, I called her from my parent's house in Grandview. It was the first time I said to her, "I love you." How corny is that? We had only been going out for two weeks. What did I know know about love? Well, apparently, thirty-seven Thanksgivings later, I knew all I needed to know.

All these years Suz has followed me around, spurring me on, backing me up, and making the journey immeasurably better. Sometimes I think we know each other too well. Even our disagreements have a familiar ring to them. I know we've been good for each other.

Along the way, three kids have joined the show and they are the real stars. Sam, Jake, and Becca have staked a claim to my heart that I can't deny or resist. From diapers to diplomas, to finally getting off our payroll, we couldn't be prouder of the people they have become. Makes me glad I didn't kill them.

Like most families, Thanksgiving is a divided holiday, some are present and others are absent, and I'm not just talking about geography. This is our first Thanksgiving since Suzanne's mother passed away. Her whole family will feel her absence as we do. Some are gone and some remain, this is the nature of life. I am grateful for our family, near and far, present and absent.

Finally, church. How could I say otherwise? The church has been my life, my work, my calling, from the time I was a nineteen year old kid. Without the church, I would have had to get a real job. In the first three churches I served, I was the youngest pastor in their history, but that has proven a difficult streak to maintain. I'm an old veteran now, though I don't really feel much different then those early days. Maybe not quite as much vim and vigor. Maybe a little more savvy.

I have seen the church at its best and its worst, and the churches I have served could say the same about me. Ministry, I have learned, has its seasons, its ebbs and flows, its dreams and its nightmares. No one makes that journey without a few regrets, a wishful do-over or two, but we live and learn.

And through it all, by the grace of God, the church moves forward, sometimes haltingly, hesitantly, but always moving ahead, even with people like me leading the charge. God has blessed along the way, not so much because of me, sometimes in spite of me, but either way, I am blessed and the church is blessed as well. God is faithful.

So now my turkey has been in the smoker two hours and I'm hoping that the smell of wood smoke becomes a new Hill tradition. Six hours to go. We'll see. Thanks for reading my thoughts today. May your Thanksgiving be filled with good food and grateful hearts.

"If the only prayer you said in your whole life was, "thank you," that would suffice." - Meister Eckhart


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