BY COLLEEN TINKER
“Thanksgiving morning is my favorite morning,” Richard said to some friends a few days ago. “When I wake up, the whole house is filled with the smell of the bacon-wrapped turkey that has been in the oven overnight!”
I glanced at my husband—he wasn’t kidding! This was the man for whom food is usually a necessary annoyance. Meals for Richard are usually intrusions on his time that require him to break his concentration for the sake of ingesting nutrients necessary for health. (Yes, he’s one more victim of an Adventist upbringing built on bland vegan meals—preferably only two—spaced by no less than four hours and preferably by five or more with no morsel of food between times so the stomach can rest. In his childhood home, food was a necessary discipline as strict as the Sabbath and as necessary for a moral character that would be safe to save.)
It’s no small thing for a “cradle vegetarian” to look forward to that annual roast turkey and to pulling that crisp bacon off the bird when he gets up on Thanksgiving morning—knowing that the pumpkin cake with cream cheese frosting is only hours away!
Peace with Losses
In the United States, Thanksgiving is considered the family holiday; in fact, more people travel home for this holiday than for any other. The almost-mythic ethos of “Thanksgiving dinner” evokes images of extended families bowing their heads around tables laden with traditional family favorites while Dad invokes the blessing.
These idyllic images, however, often mock us. We who have left Adventism, for example, may not have warm memories of Thanksgiving dinners with family who loved us. Instead, our memories are often of mock turkey with cashew gravy followed by sugarless pie with no spices and, if family was present, the tension and power-plays among the siblings, parents, aunts, and uncles was often deflating, sucking the air out of the room.
Now, having left the religion of our childhoods, we face Thanksgiving Day with different eyes. Sometimes even those ascetic Adventist Thanksgivings look almost magical from our mental rear-view mirrors. We now realize that if we sat down around that Tofurkey and meatless gravy with our families this year, the distance between us would be even greater than it was when we all savored the soy meat and shared an Adventist identity.
Now, we may even find ourselves alienated from our families of origin. Whether we have put distance between us because of abuses from which we must protect our children or because our Adventist families resent our trust in Jesus alone and find reasons to be absent, the space between us seems almost unbridgeable.
Knowing Jesus, though, reveals reality that we couldn’t see when we still lived in our Adventist paradigm. Now we see in a new way what Jesus meant when He said, “Do not think that I came to bring peace on the earth; I did not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I came to set a man against His father, and daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; and a man’s enemies will be the members of his household. He who loves father or mother more than Me is not worthy of Me; and he who loves son or daughter more than Me is not worthy of Me” (Mt. 10:34-37).
Now we know a tiny bit of what Jesus meant when He said those words, but still we bargain. God made the family; we are told to honor our fathers and mothers; can’t we make this “work”? We feel envy and grief when we see a Norman Rockwell picture of a family seated around a Thanksgiving turkey, and we plead with God to help our parents and siblings understand what we now know.
The truth is, only God can soften a hard heart and open blind eyes—and sometimes our families have to hear the gospel from someone other than us. Ultimately we have to trust God with our loved ones.
Jesus profoundly said, “Do not give what is holy to dogs, and do not throw your pearls before swine, or they will trample them under their feet, and turn and tear you to pieces” (Mt. 7:6).
These words seem at first to apply to obviously evil people who love darkness, but in reality, these words apply to anyone who refuses to believe. When we insist on explaining the gospel to people who argue and refuse to “see”, we actually cause their sin to increase. People committed to Adventism, for example, when persistently confronted with biblical truth they don’t want to believe, harden their hearts and even argue and blaspheme God’s word. We are not calling unbelievers “pigs”; Jesus’ metaphor was for the purpose of illustration, not for the purpose of identity! Nevertheless, continuing to argue for the gospel with people who don’t want to hear is counterproductive.
In these situations, we have to give up the wish that our loved ones will understand us and instead allow them to pull away from our joy in the Lord. This sort of separation is excruciating, but the Lord Jesus assures us that He is faithful and will not leave us without comfort.
Gratitude for God’s gifts
It is here, in this intimate severing, that our Father brings us comfort. Jesus said, “Truly I say to you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or farms, for My sake and for the gospel’s sake, but that he will receive a hundred times as much now in the present age, along with persecutions, and in the age to come, eternal life” (Mk. 10:29–30).
It’s tempting to look at texts such as this one and think, “Oh, good—God will restore everything I’ve lost!” In reality, though, His provision does not always look familiar.
How are we to understand Jesus’ promises?
This account from Matthew 12:46–50 has helped me navigate this new territory:
While he was still speaking to the people, behold, his mother and his brothers stood outside, asking to speak to him. But he replied to the man who told him, “Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?” And stretching out his hand toward his disciples, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.” (ESV)
In that moment of reaching toward His disciples, Jesus redefined family. His mother and brothers and sisters were not defined by a common gene pool; they were defined by their trust and obedience to His Father. When we have been born of God through faith and trust in Jesus and His finished work of redemption, we are adopted into God’s family. We are transferred out of the domain of darkness and placed into the kingdom of the beloved Son (Co. 1:13). We have new family—those others whom God has also birthed through His Spirit and transferred into the kingdom of the Son!
These new brothers and sisters, however, may not feel familiar to us at first. They may not bring the same dynamics and even dysfunctions into our lives that we had grown to expect. They will sometimes feel challenging and unpredictable at the same time that they seem loyal and “real” in ways we have never known.
At first it doesn’t occur to us to think of these people as our new family. Gradually, however, we begin to realize that these fellow believers understand us and love us in ways we can’t explain by our old standards. These people love the Lord Jesus, and He is a far more powerful unifier than our physical gene pools ever were!
Gradually it becomes clear: God has given us far more than we lost. He has not necessarily brought our genetic siblings and parents back to us, but He has given us a far broader and deeper connection to those who share a love for Him. This realization, though, is not necessarily comforting at first. Sometimes it even makes us angry.
Ultimately, the Lord asks us to trust Him and to take Him at His word. If Jesus said He will give us a hundred times what we lose for His sake “in the present age”, then our proper response to His provision is thankfulness.
Sometimes we don’t want to feel thankful; we wrestle with God and beg Him for the family we think we “deserve”. He gave us a dad and a mom, brothers and sisters, didn’t He? Why should we settle for less than flesh and blood?
Paul has words for us when we see God’s work but don’t want to accept it: “For even though they knew God, they did not honor Him as God or give thanks, but they became futile in their speculations, and their foolish heart was darkened” (Rom. 1:21).
The difference between a life of belief and growth in the Lord and a life of idolatry and self-deceit is found in two basic things: honoring Him as God and giving Him thanks. When we refuse to honor God as our sovereign Provider and refuse to thank Him for His provisions for us, we become futile in our mental gymnastics, and our hearts become darkened.
God brings us face to face with our idolatries. Sometimes, when our families and familiar lives suddenly disappear when we embrace the gospel of Jesus, we get sidetracked trying to win them back. The Lord, however, confronts us with the fact that He has given us family in Him, people who will love us enough to speak truthfully to us, and for these people we must thank Him.
It is only in our submission to His gracious will and provision that we begin to find peace in the life He provides as we follow Him.
So, what does a true Thanksgiving Day look like?
Each believer’s home will be unique, but in our home it will begin with the fragrance of bacon-wrapped turkey that has baked overnight in a slow oven. My formerly-vegetarian husband will sit at the kitchen counter with our friend who lost his family when he left Adventism, and together they will munch bacon and sip hot coffee while I put dinner rolls into the oven to bake.
Later, our table will be full—and I realize that no person at our dinner will be genetically related to me. Our two sons were born to my husband, but I adopted them nine years ago after being their stepmother for nineteen years. They and their wives and children could not be more “mine”. Our Traci, while not legally ours, has been our daughter for sixteen years, and we claim her and her husband and their adorable baby. The former Adventist couple and their children whom we count as grandchildren, who share life and ministry with us and have celebrated Thanksgiving at our table for the past seven years, are our true family. There may even be others at our table that we haven’t yet counted.
We will feast on turkey and dressing, warm rolls and butter, and savor pumpkin cake with raisins and cream cheese frosting, and Richard will ask us to share what we thank God for this year.
I have learned that the Lord is the One who gives and who takes away. I cannot explain why some of the people I have loved the most deeply do not see the beauty of the gospel and have moved away from me. Yet I have learned that the Lord has kept His promise and has given me far more than I have lost. He has given me family in Him. I acknowledge that this provision is the work of my sovereign Lord, and I give Him thanks.