by Margaret Marcuson for The Christian Citizen

This is an unusual Thanksgiving—some families will gather and others won’t due to COVID-19 restrictions and personal concern for health, as well as the challenges of travel in a pandemic. Whether or not you see your extended family for Thanksgiving, I invite you to give thanks for them.

My own father recently died. While we spent many Thanksgivings apart, this will be my first Thanksgiving without him alive in the world. I’ve been reflecting on his life and feeling grateful for his 97 years on earth.

I’ve also thought about aspects of him I’m now grateful for that I used to hate. For example, his extreme frugality used to drive me crazy. I wished he could be more generous with himself (and my mother). He once spent a year without a dryer, going with my mother to the laundromat. Finally he broke down, spent the money, and bought a dryer. Late in her life, when my mother’s filter had lessened, she pronounced, “He doesn’t want to spend ONE PENNY!”

However, at the end of his life, I was grateful for his lifelong frugality. One result: my brother and I had no need to worry about paying for his care until he died. That was a tremendous gift. Another result: he taught me to be frugal. Mostly, it’s a gift. Knowing how to be frugal has given me choices I wouldn’t have if I had to have the best of everything. I wish I’d been able to relax and give thanks earlier for how he related to money, and the gift that has been to me.

You may wonder how it could be possible to give thanks for your family members’:

  • Tendency to ridicule;
  • Political views which repel you;
  • Distant relationship with you;
  • Constant requests for financial help.

Make your own list of the quirks (or worse) that drive you around the bend. Think of it as a prayerful practice to take these qualities which make you crazy and change them into a blessing. You might turn any one of these around and say:

  • I’m grateful I had to learn to toughen up early.
  • I’m grateful I’ve had to learn to be less reactive to diverse political perspectives.
  • I’m grateful I’ve had to learn to take responsibility for myself and my relationship with a distant parent, without expecting much in return.
  • I’m grateful I’ve had to learn how to say no.

One pastor I coached said he was able to handle serving a church prone to conflict because of his conflict-ridden family. As challenging as his upbringing was, it became a blessing in his ministry. He knew the conflict in the church was not about him. He was able to stay grounded in the middle of it and continue to be a leader in that congregation.

Family connections can be intense and painful. If it’s too tough to work on specifics, you might try simply giving thanks for someone by name. Offer your desire to be thankful to God, without any expectation.

Why bother to make the effort to give thanks for problematic family members? It’s a step toward emotional and spiritual maturity. Family members can be our greatest teachers in the challenging school of relationships.

What about your family can you give thanks for this Thanksgiving?

The Rev. Margaret Marcuson helps ministers do their work without wearing out or burning out, through ministry coaching, presentations and online resources.