The account of Paul and Silas in the Philippian jail (Acts 16:25-34) captured my attention as a child. Being in prison was about the worst situation I could imagine at the time. The fact that Paul and Silas praised God and sang hymns surprised my young mind and provided a powerful testimony of what it means to trust God. But my marvel at what happened did not stop with them singing praises – it continued as God used them to lead an entire family into the faith that night. The events that happened that night in Philippi still amaze me. How could they be thankful in such difficult circumstances? How could they trust God so fully? I want to emulate Paul and Silas. I want to praise God amid the struggle.
This year has been a challenge. Many of us know people who lost their lives to COVID-19. We all know others who have lost jobs and businesses due to the efforts to control the virus. And COVID-19 did not bring an end to all the other “normal” struggles of life. Many families are dealing with a cancer diagnosis or another illness this year. Some have received a late-night call informing them that a loved one has died in a tragic accident. All of us have grappled with isolation and restrictions in our communities. Our churches have struggled. Life is anything but normal in 2020. That brings me to Thanksgiving in 2020. Can we be thankful this year?
Two-thousand and twenty is hardly the first year Americans have faced a similar dilemma. Thanksgiving celebrations had to be difficult in 1919, the year of the Spanish Flu pandemic. My grandparents experienced years of challenge and difficult Thanksgivings as children and young adults during the Dust Bowl and Great Depression in western Oklahoma. They told me that their families were thankful to God despite bitter poverty and what seemed like a hopeless situation. They trusted God in those difficult days. My grandparents remained thankful people who trusted God throughout their lives. Can we be thankful this year?
Like many other families, my family won’t be traveling to visit our extended family this Thanksgiving. The three of us will have a small celebration together here in New Orleans. Will our celebration be marked with thankfulness and prayer? Will we look at our circumstances and despair, or will we follow the example of Paul and Silas in the Philippian jail? Will we follow the example of my grandparents and pour out praise to God in this difficult time? Will we trust God with the future? Can we be thankful?
In his final exhortations in the Letter of 1 Thessalonians, Paul calls the believers to rejoicing, prayer, and thankfulness. His words, inspired by the Holy Spirit, await us today. Ready to convict us, challenge us, and encourage us if only we will read them.
“Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.” - 1 Thessalonians 5:16-18
Paul mentions three things in 1 Thessalonians 5:16-18 that offer us a guide for our Thanksgiving celebrations in 2020.
If you are looking for reasons to rejoice in 2020, start by counting your blessings. Make a list if necessary. Salvation – freely given to us by Jesus – should top that list. Rejoice about your family. Your friends. Your church. Rejoice that we have purpose and abundant life in Christ.
Work through your prayer list and empathize with the struggles of your brothers and sisters in Christ. It is difficult to worry about your own situation as you think about the challenges your neighbors are facing.
3. Give thanks to God.
Even in this long, challenging, confusing year, we have much to be thankful for. Thank Him for life, for salvation, and for the purpose He brings to our lives through His gospel.
Can we be thankful this year? It will take focus and intentionality, but yes, we can be thankful even in 2020. Perhaps our thankfulness and praises to God will be a witness that bears much fruit – like Paul and Silas in the Philippian jail.
Gary D. Myers (MDiv '03, MABA '18) is director of communications and marketing at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary and Leavell College.