When we were growing up, my brother and I drove with our parents for eight hours to Grandma and Grandpa's huge Victorian house of porches, and at least a dozen aunts, uncles, and cousins.
At the big Thanksgiving dinner, Grandma always reminded us (several times) how much we had to be grateful for, and then Uncle Will would go on and on about how this was also the season to forgive each other, especially cousin Albert, and Sarah's long-lost husband, and "our dear Alison."
Nobody explained to us third-, fifth-, or seventh-graders what exactly was to be forgiven, but we picked up enough from the hushed talk in the parlor after dinner to know that there were serious problems in the family, - like alcoholism, a child who had run away, and some kind of immorality. That's when the grown-ups talked about the two "givings" as if they belonged together.
Now, 60 years later, I still feel a connection between giving thanks to God and forgiving people. In these early months of our nation's recovery and renewal after the Sept. 11 attacks, I've been noticing that many people are saying that they feel it's more natural than ever to give thanks, and they also want to learn to forgive.
Giving thanks is part of acknowledging the grace of God and wanting to love our neighbors. Offering thanks feels good; it's good to think about God's unconditional love for all His children. My brother and I were taught that love explains what God truly is, whether people worship Him by the name of Jehovah, Allah, Elohim, Yahweh, or Great Spirit. It's love that enables us to be grateful for every church, synagogue, mosque, meeting house, sacred dwelling in our neighborhoods as well as in far away places.
The spirit of love is why thanksgiving joins hands with forgiving. Though it's much harder to do, most people are convinced that it's important to forgive. Christ Jesus said it's necessary to love everyone - even people who might be doing wrong or actually hurting us. It's easy to love someone who thinks the way we do, or who treats us well. The real test is whether we will love someone who acts mean, steals, or lies. And it all goes back to the fact of God's love for all His children.
The founder of this newspaper and of Christian Science, Mary Baker Eddy, wrote: "Love is the fulfilling of the law: it is grace, mercy, and justice.... We must love our enemies in all the manifestations wherein and whereby we love our friends;... do them good whenever opportunity occurs" ("Miscellaneous Writings," pg. 11).
At times we argue, "But why should we forgive?" or "What that person did is so bad I couldn't forgive him." A Polish Christian who, with his family, had suffered terribly in World War II was asked if he would be willing to meet with Christians from West Germany who wanted to ask forgiveness for what their country had done in the war. At first the man said it was impossible. Then he thought again: "I could no longer call myself a Christian, if I refuse to forgive. Humanly speaking, I cannot do it, but God will give us his strength!" (Philip Yancey, "What's so Amazing about Grace?")
History is full of stories of people who felt that the grace and power of God had given them strength to forgive. In the Old Testament, Esau forgave his brother Jacob, who had cheated him, and Joseph forgave his brothers, who had sold him into slavery. Many followers of Jesus, such as Paul and some of the disciples, were put into prison. But in his teaching, in parables like the prodigal son, and in his healing work, Jesus emphasized forgiveness. He was persecuted; yet he thanked God and prayed for the people who crucified him: "Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do" (Luke 23:34).
It isn't a question of ignoring evil, or of simply running from those who want to kill and hurt people. That doesn't help them to reform, and it doesn't help us as we try to be honest, to make and keep peace and honor God. Obeying moral and spiritual law and enforcing it out of respect for each other are practical expressions of thanks.
Forgiving is also the best way to be free of pain and heal ourselves. As Lewis Smedes was quoted in Mr. Yancey's book: "The first and often the only person to be healed by forgiveness is the person who does the forgiveness.... When we genuinely forgive, we set a prisoner free and then discover that the prisoner we set free was us."