Thanksgiving is a highly idealized American holiday. Our imaginations sparkle with visions of tables loaded with turkeys, mashed potatoes, and cisterns of gravy. We anticipate stuffing ourselves with second and thirds of the main course and a few slices of pie. Then there’s football to watch, naps to take, and even more pie to eat.
But by far, the greatest joy or sadness of Thanksgiving comes from the relationships with our family and friends. For some families, this is a time of joyful reunion and great celebrations. For many, there’s the dread of anticipating the awkward, strained, and rather uncomfortable moments with family. Other people are dealing with loneliness at this time of year.
Depending on your situation, you may be anticipating conversations about God. Maybe you’re looking to bring the subject up or find ways to politely avoid the topic. Either way, I’d like to suggest some principles to make faith at Thanksgiving something we can all appreciate.
Look to build trust
Zero in on this question: “how can I build trust?” Write this question down on a note card and take unnecessary trips to the bathroom to review it. Memorize it in three languages. Whatever you have to do, keep asking yourself how you can build trust with your family and friends.
Obviously, this is going to mean that sarcasm, snide comments, and put-downs are ruled out. Instead, we’re aiming for a relaxed, authentic, and warm acceptance of one another, with a genuine interest in each others’ lives.
Ask great questions
Sometimes people say there’s no such thing as a bad question. I’m not so sure. Perhaps, “So, are you still planning on going to hell? Or would you like to come back to Jesus?” is the exception that proves the rule. But more likely, we just need to think a little bit about how to open up conversations with curious questions. Greg Koukl, in his wonderful book Tactics, suggests we try, “What do you mean by that?” and “How did you come to that conclusion?” as two ways to jumpstart dialogue about the deeper issues of life. Whatever the specifics, the best questions are sincerely meant, open-ended invitations for someone else to share their perspective.
Keep an open mind
Everyone can teach you something. Ok, almost everyone. But really, you might be surprised by what you can learn from listening with an open mind. Maybe your overzealous, evangelistic cousin is a little naïve about science, but perhaps she volunteers at a local homeless shelter. Or your jaded sibling might be hostile to anything religious, but still have an energetic commitment to justice. Look for the good and build on that.
Don’t make it personal
This one is simple: don’t go on the attack or become defensive. Your goal is to love one another and seek the truth. If you start to feel heated, head to the bathroom and review your note card: how can I build trust? And its okay to say, “Hey, this is getting a little intense, can we take it down a notch or two?”
Don’t force it
Ok, so you have a captive audience. Its true, no one is likely to flee the dinner table when the pumpkin pie hasn’t been brought out yet. Instead of using this as leverage for bringing up unpleasant topics, make the conversation so intriguing that people (at least temporarily) forget about the pie.
There’s a good chance everyone will be gathering again at Christmas. And in January for Uncle Bob’s 60th birthday party. And so on. Offer a loving, accepting, and heartfelt curiosity about everyone else in your family. When the time is right, there will be a good opportunity to share your own views. Be prepared for that, but in the meantime, enjoy the turkey!
Thanksgiving can be a time of wonderful memories or agonizing frustration. With so much delicious food to eat, and so few opportunities to gather with your whole family, I pray you will make the most of the holiday. As you build trust, ask great questions, keep an open mind, avoid making it personal or forcing spiritual conversations, and think about the long term, I hope you have an incredible time with your family and friends this year.