Thanksgiving Day, commonly marked by celebrations with family, friends, feasts, and football, is one of those holidays rooted in tradition and firmly embedded in the American experience. Turkey may well be the staple fare, but gratitude is the dressing that makes the meal. It’s a table inviting to all.
But for the follower of Jesus, every day, not just the fourth Thursday in November, ought to be a day of thanksgiving and remembrance. We are called to “give thanks in all circumstances” (1 Thess. 5:18), whether in feast or famine. We should, like the psalmist, “remember the deeds of the LORD” and his “wonders of old,” “ponder[ing] all [his] work, and meditat[ing] on [his] mighty deeds” (Ps. 77:11-12).
Perhaps no one has demonstrated a heart of gratitude better than the Apostle Paul. To the church in Philippi he wrote: “I thank my God in all remembrance of you, always in every prayer of mine for you all making my prayer with joy, because of your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now” (Phil. 1:3-5). The church persecutor-turned-apostle opened his letters to the believers in Ephesus and Colossae and to his fellow laborer Philemon with similar thanks-filled words and equal joyful candor.
And he did so, remarkably, from prison.
Friends across the ocean
Two millennia later, here in the “land of the free,” my mind turns back this Thanksgiving, in remembrance and thanksgiving to God, to some special people I’ve encountered along my journey as well. Family and friendships born in the American context immediately flood my thoughts, of course. But I’m thinking in particular about some newfound friends—brothers and sisters—whom I met across an ocean, over in the Middle East, not long ago.
The calendar reads August. I, along with a small team from my church, have just arrived in the hot Middle Eastern sun, safely distanced from mortar fire and the clear and present dangers of ISIS, to minister to a band of believers heavily persecuted for their faith in the Lord Jesus. Our team of seven—six adults and a one-year-old child—would spend a week teaching, worshiping with, and seeking to encourage a gathering of two dozen believers. This would mark my third trip of its kind in four years.
These converts from Islam, a few of whom I had met on previous trips, are well acquainted with suffering, I soon realize. Many of them cannot get preferred jobs on account of their faith. None are free to speak of Christ openly or to worship with other believers congregationally. One has not experienced fellowship with other believers in more than a decade. Another, a young woman in her 20s, has endured beatings and broken bones from a Muslim brother. Several have been detained and imprisoned for their faith. Others are blacklisted from and barred return to their native land. Theirs is a homeland downright hostile, not merely inhospitable, to anyone bearing the name Christian.
The Apostle Paul’s declaration that “all who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted” (2 Tim. 3:12), I ponder, must mean something altogether different to them than to what I’ve known under a free church and a First Amendment. Christ’s admonition to the church in Smyrna to “be faithful unto death” (Rev. 2:10) surely carries pronounced meaning in their daily lives. Their testimonies of affliction and abuse, after all, sound more like harrowing scenes from first-century churches in Asia Minor than from the Christianity to which the church in America is accustomed.
A profound joy in suffering
Yet, noticeably, none of these beleaguered saints initiates talk of his or her own plight. Only point-blank questioning yields distressing insights. Instead, I find, all possess a “peace of God, which surpasses all understanding” (Phil. 4:7), and “rejoice with joy that is inexpressible and filled with glory” (1 Pet. 1:8). Theirs is the kind of joy the world promises, in fame and fortune, yet fails to deliver. They, like Moses, have “considered the reproach of Christ greater wealth than the treasures of Egypt,” for they are “looking to the reward” found in a crucified and coming King (Heb. 11:26). They gaze, beamingly, heavenward toward an inheritance ultimately theirs.
Much like what I shared following my first Middle East trip among Muslim-background believers, I witnessed worship without performance, a joy that could not be measured, and a thirst for the Word that could not be quenched. They gathered for Bible study sessions early and stayed late. I was the real student.
Then, building to crescendo, our week together concluded with a touchstone event: a wedding, two of the persecuted believers uniting their lives as one. The bride and groom, in fact, insisted that our team of Americans—people whom they had never met—organize the trans-Atlantic trip to align with the wedding day. And the seven of us, once strangers from the States, were welcomed as the guests of honor. It was a wedding and a feast, days long in preparation, I shall never forget.
Sitting here back across the Atlantic, on the eve of Thanksgiving, I can’t help but think that such an ending to our journey, a wedding, was only fitting, a picture of an “already, but not yet” kingdom of the Lord Jesus Christ and his bride, the church, for whom he laid down his life.
The love letter of Almighty God to sinful man, after all, closes with the wedding of all weddings, “the marriage of the Lamb” featuring the once slain but now risen and reigning Lamb, King Jesus, and his bride, the church, rescued and redeemed (Rev. 19:7). The invitations have been printed, and a world full of strangers—as I once was—with nothing to offer but garments stained by sin, have been invited to share in that altar and taste of that feast. That’s good news. Indeed, “Blessed are those who are invited to the marriage supper of the Lamb” (Rev. 19:9).
Yes, I have much to be grateful for this Thanksgiving. So does everyone else, for that matter, who has received “such a great salvation” in faith and repentance (Heb. 2:3).
Today and every day, let’s thank God for this indescribable gift, blood-bought by his Son, the Lord Jesus. Let’s thank him upon every remembrance of our brothers and sisters suffering persecution in the Middle East and around the globe. Let’s “remember their chains” (Col. 4:18). And, above all, let’s not neglect to extend an invitation to all who are thirsty to “come” and to “take the water of life without price” (Rev. 22:17).
There’s plenty of room at the table. Thanks be to God.