Seven years ago, just before Thanksgiving, one of my parents was diagnosed with cancer. There were many tears that November. The future was uncertain. The only thing we knew for sure was that suffering awaited someone we loved.
Six years ago, just before Thanksgiving, another one of my parents was diagnosed with cancer. Again the tears flowed. Again the anxiety creeped in. For the second year in a row, I found myself sitting in a Thanksgiving church service where everyone seemed happy and content with their lives except for me. I stood silent while others sang. "How can I lift my voice in thanks to God when my grief is so heavy?" I wondered.
That season of life taught me the deeper meaning of the ancient and famous poem, Psalm 103.
"Praise the LORD, my soul.
All my inmost being, praise his holy name.
Praise the LORD, my soul,
And don't forget all his benefits."
The poet has to tell his soul to praise God--to give thanks In the first two verses, the lyricist reminds (no, commands!) his inner self to find a place of gratitude three separate times. This psalm is often sung or read in churches with a smile on the face of the reader, but I imagine it being written in tears. "Come on, Soul! Praise! Give thanks!" He tells himself not to forget what the Creator has done for him, because apparently he's in jeopardy of memory loss. Grief, fear, and anxiety can be awfully forgetful.
I think the psalmist thrusts himself into thanksgiving because he needs to exercise his gratitude muscle as much as his lament. If lament is like the ab muscles that give you a solid core, gratitude is like the back muscles that keep you from curling in on yourself, able to turn your face toward the sky.
We give thanks in challenging times not to give ourselves false comfort or glib silver linings. Rather, we exercise gratitude in order to resist the pessimism, cynicism, and bitterness that can creep into our souls. We give thanks in challenging times because we are ruthlessly realistic, both in our laments and in our gratitude. We thrust ourselves into thanksgiving because it opens up for us a bigger story--a story of God's faithfulness to us in the past and his good promises for the future. And situated in that grander story, we can move into the world with a joy deeper than our sorrow, a hope more foundational than fear, and a love as basic as the breath in our lungs.
Praise the LORD, my soul.