"Give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God's will for you in Christ Jesus." - 1 Thessalonians 5:18
Thanksgiving is approaching, and it's my first Thanksgiving home in the U.S. after close to ten years abroad: two in Japan as a missionary, and eight with my Brazilian husband back in his native Brazil.
Winters and summers in other countries have increased my love of fall a hundredfold: pumpkins, apple cider, frost on the grass.
I love fall.
And I love Thanksgiving. My mouth waters in anticipation of creamy sweet potato casserole topped with melty marshmallows (a Southern specialty). Crusty brown turkey dripping with juices. Green bean casserole and fluffy yeast rolls and mashed potatoes with gravy. Pumpkin pie and Jello salad. (Yes, the Southern, quivery, artificially-colored Jello salad with Cool Whip - whose ingredients I couldn't begin to pronounce).
Dinner fantasies aside, everywhere I look I see thankfulness - joy - appreciation for the wonderful things God has given my fellow brothers and sisters in Christ. Even my friends who do not yet believe in the One who died for their sins are thankful, making lists on Facebook and recognizing the blessings that overflow in their lives.
As fall fades to winter in rural South Dakota, I am reminded of thankfulness.
And I am reminded of pain.
Of mistakes made that can no longer be corrected. Of relatives gone and buried, covered by wild cemetery grasses and the faint honking of geese overhead.
I am reminded of hard years - painful years - harsh years - where living sometimes seemed more difficult than giving up, and the balance of what seemed "fair" and "unfair" tipped so far toward "unfair" that the entire scale threatened to topple over.
I am reminded of emptiness. Of grief. Of questions that, until today, do not have answers, or even comfort.
And yet, as I look out over the snow-frosted mountains and rolling fields of the Black Hills, I realize that those things - all of them, as dark as they are - form the basis for one unexpected thing: thankfulness.
They are what cause me to pause, wide-eyed, at a forgotten elm tree in a scrubby cow pasture that has suddenly turned to gold.
For true thankfulness, you see, begins in the heart - and the heart cannot find true contentment until it has learned to give thanks in all things.
In all things, both joyful and heartbreaking.
Not for all things, perhaps, but in all things. In all seasons. In and out of our corridors of grief, and in the half-glow of hindsight that sheds wisdom and grace and even healthy regret along our pathway.
In injustice and suffering, and in the valley of the shadow of death, even, "for You are with me."
Thanksgiving is not just about the good, it's about the whole.
And therein lies the crux of thankgiving: a steady leaning up Christ with our wobbly faith, weak as it is, and looking upon all of life as a blessing - as a sacred gift - as a mysterious glory that plays out all across the length of our days.
Ten years ago, you see, I was surrounded by perfect Virginia trees aflame with autumn: reds, golds, rusts. Would this single elm, alive with sunlight, have captured my admiration as much if I not spent nearly a decade away from the America I love, away from fall, away from golden leaves?
Would I delight as much in the rounded globe of my belly if I had not spent eight years praying for a blessing on my empty womb?
Would I love these rolling hills of South Dakota so dearly if I had not wrestled with years of numbing homesickness? Would I delight in the utter silence of vast and empty plains if I had not struggled to fall asleep in the roar of urban delivery mopeds and un-mufflered trucks?
Would I love anything, anything as much if I had not first tasted the grief of sin, the regret of guilt, and finally the surprising joy of redemption?
We have all suffered, lost greatly, groaned along with creation as we wait for our Lord's returning. And by some inexplicable paradox, He uses it all to make us better people.
Who would I be without my mistakes, my failings? Without the pain and suffering just under the skin that reminds me I, too, am a fragile sojourner on this earth, in desperate need of Christ's mercy and transformation?
Who would I be without the injustice that build in me tenderness and forgiveness, the rejection and suffering that instruct me in compassion, the disappointment in human relationships that cause me to look to my Father and Healer and to our eternal home?
This, to me, is true thanksgiving: embracing it all for the sake of Christ.
And still daring to whisper "thank you."
For all of it, Lord, thank you.
What are you thankful for this year?
What difficult circumstances has God used to increase thankfulness in you?
Jennifer Rogers Spinola is the author of Barbour's "Southern Fried Sushi" series and an upcoming novella collection about Yellowstone National Park (also with Barbour). Her first novel, "Southern Fried Sushi," was named a Christy Award finalist in 2012. Jenny lives in South Dakota with her husband, Athos, and four-year-old son, Ethan, with a second son due in December (if he waits that long!) Right now she's trying to get the swelling her feet to go down and wishing she didn't have to make dinner.