I’m sure I’m not the only worship leader to wonder what to do for the annual Thanksgiving Day service. Sometimes it feels like I have to manufacture a spirit of thankfulness for this one day before returning to business as usual the next morning. What if I’m not in a particularly thankful mood? What if my congregation is facing or enduring a tough situation? Manufacturing thankfulness for an hour of worship sounds trite and inappropriate.
The idea of meditating on a psalm of lament on Thanksgiving Day actually began as a joke between myself and someone on the Telkwa (BC) Christian Reformed Church worship committee. It sounded about as appropriate as singing through the Lenten section of the hymnal on Christmas Eve! But soon we discovered something very appropriate in connecting lament with thanksgiving, and it led to a service characterized by a more authentic spirit of thankfulness.
Consider the structure of a typical psalm of lament. It begins with an address to God quickly followed by a cry of distress; the psalmist pours out the problem to the Creator and Redeemer. Then comes a request, the desire that God do something about the problem. Finally, in most cases, the psalm closes with some sort of expression of trust.
Lament, therefore, is different than complaint. Anyone can complain, but only a believer can lament. When we complain, we voice our discontent, and the focus is on us. A lament wrestles with the apparent absence, inattentiveness, or unfaithfulness of God. It asks, “If you are YHWH (the God who is here), then why are circumstances the way they are?” Lament is not doubt or unbelief, not murmuring or complaining, but faith trying to make sense of the world in the light of what we know about God. To quote Chuck DeGroat in Leaving Egypt (Faith Alive, 2011), by “complaining, we give up on God; in our lament, we trust God with our deepest suffering and fears” (p. 136).
And God is trustworthy! In most psalms of lament, there is a distinct shift from complaints and requests to an expression of trust. There is a “but” or a “however.” In Psalm 13, for example, the psalmist experiences trouble with God (his Lord seems absent, v. 1), trouble within himself (he is tortured with anxiety, v. 2a), and trouble with enemies and foes (his wellbeing and very life are threatened, vv. 2b-4). The complaints and requests are then met with a “but”:
“But I trust in your unfailing love;
my heart rejoices in your salvation.
I will sing of the LORD’s praise,
for he has been good to me” (vv. 5-6).
Why the sudden change of mood from despair to thanksgiving? (Yanked out of context, those last two verses actually sound quite appropriate for Thanksgiving Day!) Have the psalmist’s fortunes just been reversed? Has everything just been fixed? I don’t think so. The hinge in psalms of lament like this one is that little word “but.” It’s as though the psalmist is saying, “All this chaos is happening around me, but you are still God, and for that I can be thankful. You have been faithful in the past, and my trust continues to be well placed in you today.” The psalmist is genuinely thankful even in the midst of anxiety.
This tells me that I can be honest on Thanksgiving Day (and every day). I don’t have to pretend to be thankful or try to manufacture thankfulness during the annual Thanksgiving Day service only to return to “real life” the next morning. In our worship on Thanksgiving Day and any other day, we are given permission to speak honestly with God and his people about
- the poor choices we see our children are making
- the unrest and war around the world
- the grief we feel following a death of a person, of our mobility, or of an opportunity
- our cynicism towards politics
- our recurring feelings of despair and depression
- the financial mayhem rocking our world
- the dissatisfaction we routinely feel about our lives.
This acknowledgment of true hurting allows for true healing and thanksgiving, not a fake, cheap thanksgiving we think we have to somehow muster up. To again quote Leaving Egypt, “Lament contains in itself the possibility of extraordinary hope, restored desire, and a changed heart” (p. 135; see also “My God, My God, Why?” in RW 96).
The psalmist (together with the Holy Spirit) leads us to say one important little word: but. But I trust. . . . But I will give thanks. . . . In Christ, God has indeed been good.” When thanksgiving doesn’t come naturally, we can still rejoice in God’s goodness, in the salvation he makes possible through Jesus. Even if it’s through a veil of tears, it can still be an offering of thanksgiving.
A psalm of lament is indeed suitable for a Thanksgiving Day worship service. It offers no easy answers, but it does open an invitation to honest thanksgiving.
Order of Worship
This order of worship certainly includes typical elements of a Thanksgiving Day service, but space is made for the congregation to acknowledge how being thankful is sometimes difficult. This is done, though, in a context of expressing an ongoing trust in our Lord.
Gathering Song: “Praise and Thanksgiving” LUYH 873, PsH 631, SWM 43, WR 722 st. 1, 2 (sung in a round)
Psalm of Thanksgiving: “Praise Is Your Right, O God, in Zion” LUYH 545, PFAS 397, PsH 65
Responsive Prayer of Thanksgiving
Leader: Let us give thanks to the Lord, our rock, our fortress, and our deliverer. Let us remember his mercy, for he is gracious and compassionate.
People: We thank you for calling us to faith in Christ, for putting your Spirit within us, for giving us the mind of Christ, for gathering us into your church.
Leader: We thank you, Lord, for extending your grace to us, for calling us to a life of gratitude, for calling us to service in your kingdom.
All: Thanks be to God!
Leader: Let us give thanks to the Lord, for he satisfies the thirsty, he fills the hungry with good things,and he heals the afflicted. Let us celebrate his abundant goodness.
People: We thank you, gracious Father, that you provide for all our needs, for the food on our tables, for the clothes on our bodies, for the beds we sleep in, and for the dwellings that shelter us.
Leader: We praise you for all your gifts that go beyond our basic needs, for the things that make our work easier, for the conveniences of modern life, for the beauty and pleasure that you bring into our lives.
All: Thanks be to God! Amen.
—Reformed Worship 1, pp. 16-17
Song: “God Is Here” LUYH 246, PH 461, PsH 516, WR 1, GTG 409
Prayers of Thanksgiving
At this time we passed a wireless microphone up and down the rows and everyone was invited to offer a short prayer beginning with “Thank you, God, for. . . .”
Song: “We Plough the Fields and Scatter” PsH 456, TH 714
Scripture and Meditation: Psalm 13
Sung Prayer of Response: “Remember Not, O God” LUYH 632, PFAS 489, PsH 254, TH 488, GTG 430
Lament and Thanksgiving in Small Groups
This time of lament and thanksgiving gave people the opportunity to compose psalms of lament in small groups. Each group wrote down one thing that troubled them. This lament was then followed by “but . . .” and an expression of trust in God. These “homemade psalms” could be collected at the close of the service, typed up, and crafted into a display. By reading what other worshipers wrote, people may find words to express what troubles them as well as words encouraging them to continue trusting in their faithful God.
Song: “How Long” (Stuart Townend) Along with “Remember Not, O God” the song “How Long” by Stuart Townend elegantly moved from distress and petition to thanksgiving and even joy. An alternate selection for either hymn is “How Long, O Lord” by Brian Doerksen (PFAS, 13C).
Video Reflection: Fearlessly Giving Thanks (tinyurl.com/RW121thanks)
Sending Song: “Praise and Thanksgiving” LUYH 873, PsH 631, SWM 43, WR 722
Sample Psalms of Lament
Written by members of Telkwa (BC) Christian Reformed Church
How long will our children wander aimlessly?
How long does it take for them to learn from their mistakes?
When will they be able to express what they believe
in a world that does not follow God?
Yet we remember your covenant promises
and are thankful that they are your children
and that you have a plan for them.
Why do politicians lie?
We thank you nonetheless for freedom,
the freedom to voice opinions,
and for the quality of life we have.
When will we feel relief from war, hatred, and loss of life?
There is so much brokenness in this world.
But you are the one to make us whole again
and bring peace to this broken world.
We rejoice in your faithfulness.
the realities of life get us down.
Choices are made that we don’t approve of.
People die when we wish they’d live.
There’s hate all around us.
But we choose to keep our eyes fixed on Jesus, our Redeemer,
for we know that he will forgive!
Why do you let dissatisfaction enter our hearts?
If you really love us, why do you let us go through so much pain?
Why do you allow us to be tempted by what seems to be greener pastures?
But we have so much to be thankful for:
Health, a roof over our heads, support of family and friends,
And—no matter how hard it gets—we know we can always depend on you!