The smell of roasted turkey filled the house.  The island in the kitchen was covered with all of the traditional Thanksgiving dishes — a mound of mashed potatoes with a dab of butter melting through the center, homemade stuffing crammed with bits of apples and walnuts, broccoli and rice casserole loaded with melted cheddar cheese (my son’s favorite), baked oysters (my mom’s specialty and another of Graham’s favorites), candied yams sticky with gooey marshmellows, fresh baked crescent rolls — all topped off with a Ghirardelli chocolate pecan pie.  My son (he was 12 years-old at the time) and I stood by the island surveying the Thanksgiving bounty, and tears began to flow down his face.  Two days earlier Graham had been in the hospital with his tenth episode of strep throat and we had made the decision to have his tonsils removed.  The surgery promised that the strep throat would stop, but it also resulted in an extremely sore throat and an upset stomach from the various medications.  Graham looked longingly at all of his favorite foods.  I’m sure that he thought about the rarity of a homecooked meal in our house and the likelihood that it would be another year before he got this chance again.  As Graham tried to reconcile the reality that all of his favorite food was right before him and he couldn’t eat one bite, he was overwhelmed.  Finally he plopped down in a chair by the kitchen table and with a hoarse, sorrow-filled voice announced, “It just won’t be a real Thanksgiving unless I can find some way to be thankful for people cutting up my throat and making me feel like crap!”

Maybe you’ve had your own version of a tonsillectomy at Thanksgiving.  In the midst of all of the commercial pressure to experience a holiday with a Hallmark family, a beautifully prepared meal, and a home filled with joyous sentiments I have sometimes collapsed like Graham did that day and felt that it couldn’t be Thanksgiving unless I could find a way to be grateful even when I felt like crap!

I am learning that true gratitude involves acknowledging all of the reality of our lives, exposing it all to God’s love, and letting Him weave it all into the design that He is making.  In his book, The Gift of Being Yourself, David Benner writes that, “To do this, we must be willing to welcome [all parts of our lives] as full members of the family of self, giving them space at the family table and slowly allowing them to be softened and healed by love and integrated into the whole person we are becoming.”

What parts of yourself can you invite to the table this year for Thanksgiving?  Maybe we start by acknowledging the things in our lives that we have been ashamed of or hated.  Perhaps we can invite those realities that cause us to struggle, doubt our faith, and lose hope.  I wonder what would happen if we could confess our needs, vulnerabilities, and insecurities?  Maybe it would be a real Thanksgiving that allows us to see the real gifts in our lives.  Some of the guests at my table would be . . . .

Neediness — the neediness that makes my heart ache and my mind scramble with ideas to make the needs go away, and yet no matter how busy or full my life is that beautiful ache remains.  Without it I wouldn’t need Jesus — I mean really need Him.

Brokenness — the brokenness that makes me collapse, so tired that I am struggling again, so ashamed in feeling like I am good for nothing.  Without it I wouldn’t have a chance to believe that I am loved for who I am, not for what I do.

Failure — the failure that restates how lost I am and how much I need to be saved.  Without it I wouldn’t need a message of grace and mercy.

Loneliness — the bone-aching loneliness that greets me in all of my comings and goings.  Without it I wouldn’t experience the care of my friends.

Sin.  Wow!  That’s hard to write, but it’s true.  I have done a lot of things that lie about the Gospel — that I am a new creation.  Without sin, though, the blood of Christ, which cleanses from every sin, would not be that meaningful.

Alcoholism — the addiction that compels me to face myself one day at a time.  Without it the presence of the Holy Spirit in me would not seem so miraculous and merciful.

Losing — all those days that I feel like a loser.  You know what I mean — those bad hair days, when nothing I wear fits right, nothing I say sounds right, and nothing I do feels right.  Without this reality I wouldn’t feel compassion for other hurting, broken people.

Desperation.  I’ve been Graham — desperate for something wonderful to fill me and desperate in knowing I can’t do anything to make that happen.  Without that desperation, I wouldn’t know — heart and soul — a God who is desperate for me.

On that tonsillectomy Thanksgiving years ago I ended up putting most of the food in tupperware to save for a later date.  Graham and I watched a movie while the rest of the family ate.  When Graham finished that year in school he had to complete a questionnaire for his Bible class.  One of the questions was, “What is unconditional love?”  That’s a pretty big question, but I loved Graham’s answer.  I actually still keep a copy of it in my Bible.  He wrote, “It’s when you can’t eat any Thanksgiving dinner and your mom doesn’t eat either but she watches a movie with you.”

Maybe when everything works and looks like the bright and shiny advertisements on television, we miss the real gifts.  I probably won’t ask for neediness, brokenness, failure, loneliness, sin, addiction, loss, or desperation, but I’m coming to believe those are the real gifts.  When we miss them, we miss Jesus.  And when we miss Him, we miss everything.

“For grace to be grace, it must give us things we didn’t know we need and take us to places we didn’t want to go.” Kathleen Norris