As crazy as this year has been, it has been a banner year for gallows humor. One of my favorite things about this year has been the memes commenting on 2020:

“Turns out the Mayans were only off by 8 years! (referring to the ancient Mayan prophecy that the world would end in 2012)”

“Twenty years from now, kids will ask their parents, “Mom, why is there a whole semester of American History dedicated to 2020?”

“I cannot believe ‘Tiger King’ was the most normal event of 2020.”

As we enter Thanksgiving, a season in which we have to opportunity to express gratefulness for God’s blessings over the year, I’m reminded of Habakkuk’s words in the midst of Israel’s desolation, times that were much worse still than these:

             “Though the fig tree should not blossom,
             Nor fruit be on the vines,
             The produce of the olive fail
             And the fields yield no food
             The flock be cut off from the fold
             And there be no herd in the stalls,
             Yet I will rejoice in the Lord,
             I will take joy in the God of my salvation.
             God, the Lord, is my strength;
             He makes my feet like the deer’s
             He makes me tread on my high places.”

As Christians, we believe that the Holy Spirit transforms our hearts, making us more holy, Christ-like people. And, yet, we play a part in that process. Spiritual disciplines, or means of grace, are the part we play. Whether it’s reading God’s Word, engaging in prayer, fasting, or solitude and silence, I like to think that disciplines or means of grace are the way we move ourselves under the shower of the Holy Spirit, allowing Him to do His work in us, raining over us, helping us put to death the old ways and renewing us.

Gratitude is a spiritual discipline, a means of grace. It’s a conscious decision we make, rather than an involuntary response to circumstances around us. And, like disciplines of prayer or solitude or silence, gratitude has to be cultivated. If we’ll cultivate gratitude, and allow the Spirit to transform us through our gratefulness, we can experience that abundant life Christ promises: contentment in all circumstances; joy through grief; meaning in suffering; finally, peace.

All of this is why I love Thanksgiving, and why it competes in my heart with Christmas and Easter. It gives us a time to rest, and reflect. It’s at the end of the year, so we can look back on how God has worked and what He has done. And, it typically provides us the opportunity to surround ourselves with those who mean most to us, reminding us of what is most important.

As I’ve had a chance to reflect in anticipation of Thanksgiving, I don’t think any of us will ever forget this extraordinary year. Despite all the struggle, the turmoil, and the challenges which have been well documented and commented upon, the Lord has used this year to give us blessing upon blessing.

People say tough times reveal character, and pandemic, natural disaster, debates over social justice and politics, and many other times of adversity showed us who we were, in all the best and the worst ways. I’ve never been prouder of our faculty, our leadership team, and our families as I have during all the turmoil surrounding COVID-19. Watching our teachers come together over a matter of days to assemble what was recognized throughout our community as the best example of virtual learning around was extraordinary. It’s a feat that still amazes me. Although it wasn’t perfect, when we consider we were building an airplane in midair with no notice, God truly did an amazing thing through our faculty and staff.

The way our community loved kids, teachers, families, and each other was amazing, too.  Roving bands of teachers dressed as gorillas and dinosaurs, travelling to kids’ houses to check up on them, to pray over them and to bring them love. Figuring out creative ways to make Rodeo Days, fifth grade graduation, eighth grade sendoff, and senior commencement happen for students, even when it meant working twice as hard, was extraordinary. When the impact of COVID and quarantine hit family budgets and threatened students’ ability to finish the school year and afford school tuition, watching families come together to raise hundreds of thousands of dollars on extremely short notice to keep kids in school and our school family together were acts of kindness, generosity, and love I’ll never forget.

As we moved through the summer and I watched teachers around the country express unwillingness to return to school, I was deeply blessed by seeing the Holy Spirit embolden the hearts of our teachers. It’s easy to look back now and say everything has gone reasonably well under the circumstances, but we didn’t know that then, and there was none of the messages bombarding us were encouraging. Watching our teachers and staff step forward in faith was a beautiful act of Christian love and courage, one that I’ll also always remember. Every day since then has been a blessing, too, watching our teachers and staff respond with maximum flexibility to constantly changing situations, and our parents and students expressing gratefulness for every day we’re in school, every cocurricular activity we get to enjoy, and with patience as we work through the struggles of illness, quarantines, and constant change.

This week, I had the opportunity to travel to Southern California to conduct a review of a Christian school about our size. The sobering fact is that there are whole states, like California, where kids are not going to school, being with other kids. I spoke with a second-year high school principal who hasn’t even met all his students yet, because he can’t get back in school. No sports, no fine arts, no class time with each other–all virtual learning. God has blessed us by allowing us to be together this year; we are a richer people and our kids are better educated because of it.

This year has stressed us all out, and families fuss at each other from time to time; we know we shouldn’t, but we’re tired and it’s wearing after a while. But, I’m grateful to see us work through the most challenging of times, talking and walking through issues and conflicts like a family. If, as the old song goes, they’ll know we are Christians by our love, we have all given deep and profound testimony to Christ’s love within us as a school community. I have been blessed by it, and I’m thankful for it.

We’ve also had an opportunity to be convicted and reflect deeply on those things which threaten us as a people, living as disciples of Jesus, maybe not so much as a school community, but as the broader church of Jesus Christ operating as His people within this nation which we’ve been called to live in and to serve. Ethnic discord and injustice, the impact of social media as liturgies, shaping our hearts and minds in ways that aren’t always edifying, and how all of this sows disunity and dissension over things like politics and solutions to operating within the pandemic.

As Christians, we should always see opportunities like these, revealing our flaws, as gifts from the Lord, a calling out to His people to reflect, to consider, and to repent. I know I have thought and prayed more this year about what it really means to be a follower of Jesus Christ, to repent, and to align my heart with the gospel rather than the philosophies of the world, than I have perhaps in any other year. I’ve been more challenged by what it means to love lavishly as I’m commanded and as it’s my privilege to do, with people who are hard to love and those who are different than me, than ever before. These seasons of our lives are good and holy and just and true, and I am grateful that God loves His children so much that He’s not content with leaving us where we are, but wants to raise us up to look like Him and walked as He walked. He will do what needs be done to get us there.

Finally, and personally, while I won’t look back on stay-at-home orders and quarantine with fondness, I already know that having all three of my girls–my adult working child and my two college kids–under my roof together for one last extended period will be a bonus season Ashley and I will always treasure, and always be grateful we had.

So, what about you? As you look back on your year, how did God use these extraordinary events of 2020, this remarkable year, to mold your family, to shape you, to convict you of what needs to change so He can draw you closer to Him because He loves you, to teach you something, remind you to be grateful of something, and help you to love more wholly, completely, and fully?  How did He cause you, or challenge you, to become a more faithful disciple, so you can enjoy all He has to offer?

As you sit around the table next Thursday, talking with your family and friends about your year, l pray you’ll let the conversation eventually turn from funny memes, vaccines, hotpots, who got sick, and the political ramifications, to these questions. I pray that will be a beautiful, binding time for your family, and one that allows you to experience true Thanksgiving. Even in a pandemic.