Spending Thanksgiving Day away from home for the first time can be difficult for some missionaries who associate the holiday with food and family. Elder Dallin H. Oaks of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles was able to provide a little feeling of the latter as he invited family members to participate in a special Thanksgiving devotional held at the Missionary Training Center in Provo.
The program included addresses by Elder Oaks and his wife, Sister Kristen Oaks, as well as musical numbers by a string ensemble comprised of members of the Oaks family including daughters, a daughter-in-law and six of the Oaks’ grandchildren. The ensemble performed several numbers including two musical tributes to the Savior — “Oh, Divine Redeemer” and “Amazing Grace” — which Elder Oaks referred to as “two of my favorite musical numbers, played by my favorite musicians.” Twenty-one family members also sang in a chorus.
In his remarks to about 1,200 missionaries gathered in Provo, as well as thousands more listening via broadcast to training centers around the world, Elder Oaks discussed the origin of the American holiday. Initiated by President George Washington but made a permanent national holiday by President Abraham Lincoln, Thanksgiving was established as a day to give thanks to God.
Thanksgiving is a time to reflect and ponder the blessings enjoyed by individuals, Elder Oaks said.
“For us, our foremost thanks is to God our Heavenly Father for the Plan of Salvation He has established for His children, for the gift of His Only Begotten Son, and our knowledge of these gifts through the restored gospel,” he said.
Citing scripture both ancient and modern, Elder Oaks noted that the children of God have always been commanded to give thanks.
“We are thankful for our Savior, Jesus Christ. He came into mortality to teach and show us the way. He suffered and paid the price for our sins if we would repent. He gave up His life, and He conquered death and rose from the grave that we all will live again. He is the Light and Life of the World. As King Benjamin taught, if we ‘should render all the thanks and praise which [our] whole soul has power to possess, to that God who has created [us], and has kept and preserved [us], and … if [we] should serve him with all [our] whole souls yet [we] would be unprofitable servants’ ” (Mosiah 2:20-21).
Elder Oaks explained that the standard of revealed truth provides a protection against despair and hopelessness. “We view every calamity and we measure every new discovery against the truths of the restored gospel. We need not be ‘tossed to and fro, and carried about with every wind of doctrine, by the slight of men, and cunning craftiness’ (Ephesians 4:14). We can be reassured and we can be at peace. God is in His heavens, and His promises are sure.”
Individuals should even give thanks for adversity and affliction, Elder Oaks taught, “because they turn our hearts to God and give us opportunities to prepare for what God would have us become.”
Brigham Young and John Taylor, for example, experienced persecution and hardship for their faith but praised God and thanked Him. “Through their challenges and the courageous and inspired actions they took to meet them, they grew in faith and in spiritual stature. Through their afflictions they became what God desired them to become, and they laid the foundation of the great work that blesses our lives today,” Elder Oaks said.
Like the pioneers, Elder Oaks continued, individuals should thank God for adversity. “Through that attitude and through our faith and obedience, we will realize the promises God has given us. It is all part of the plan. When we give thanks in all things, we see hardships and adversities in the context of the purpose of life. We are sent here to be tested. … When we understand this principle, that God offers us opportunities for blessings and blesses us through our own adversities and the adversities of others, we can understand why He has commanded us again and again to ‘thank the Lord thy God in all things’ ” (Doctrine and Covenants 59:7).
Sister Oaks told the missionaries, “Today marks another step in your journey of thankfulness to become a servant of our Savior.”
Citing her own experience as a missionary in Japan, Sister Oaks expressed her love for missionary work and for the Savior.
“[I’m] thankful for His sacrifice for all of us, thankful that [the Son of] God shall come down among men and work mighty miracles (Mosiah 15:6); thankful that He chose to teach us and heal us; thankful for His example; thankful that each individual is precious to Him; thankful for His great love of the little ones; thankful He healed the sick, made the lame to walk and the blind to see; thankful we live in the dispensation of the fullness of times and are privileged to share His truth. My joy is full,” Sister Oaks declared.
The special devotional served as the first of several activities planned for the day. Missionaries spent much of their Thanksgiving afternoon preparing and packaging approximately 350,000 meal packs for Utah children in need. All 60,000 pounds of pre-made casseroles were given to students throughout Utah at Title 1 elementary schools, which have a high percentage of students from low-income families.
Elder Riley Brandner from Pleasant Grove, Utah, who will serve in the Thailand Bangkok Mission, said being away from his family on Thanksgiving has been hard. Outside he can see the painted “G” on the side of the mountain and knows his house isn’t far from it. However, being in the MTC has been a blessing.
“Normally, you’re with your family and you’re thinking about what you’re going to buy on Black Friday the next day. But it’s good to think about what Thanksgiving is really for and to help other people. It’s different, and I like that. I’ve never had a Thanksgiving like this before,” he said.
Elder Ray Vejnar, from Denver, Colorado, who is serving in the MTC, said Elder Oaks’ remarks reminded him that “this holiday was set forth to thank God. It was about God then and it’s still about God now. And we still give thanks to God all along the way.”