Tuesday, November 20, 2012

A Pilgrim's Perspective

“Therefore, since we are receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, let us be thankful…"

There are approximately 6.4 million U.S. citizens living abroad—students at universities in Mexico City and Manila, members of trade delegations in Peking and Pnom Phen, embassy staff in Jerusalem and Johannesburg, newspaper reporters in Moscow and Madrid — and this Thursday most, in some way, will take time to observe Thanksgiving. However well they connect with their host country's culture the other 364 days of the year, on Thursday they will be very consciously American. 

Many other nations give thanks, of course. The Hebrew people have been celebrating the ingathering of the harvest since the earliest times. In Canada, Thanksgiving Day is celebrated in early October... mostly because by the end of November it is much too cold to be thankful for much of anything J. One of the most popular services in a British church, often crowding Christmas and Easter for prominence, is Harvest Home. Folks in small parish churches scattered across the English countryside decorate the sanctuary by piling upon the altar the produce from farm, field, and garden.  Mankind has sought expressions of  thanksgiving for the harvest since the dawn of creation.

Yet for most of us that idea of Thanksgiving is an anachronism. Few of us earn our living by working in a field and only a very small percentage till up that plot of ground in the backyard to produce a crop (love the veggies Mom & Dad). In short, the harvest has little to do with typical life these days. And yet, each November we celebrate it still by taking a day off from work, eat until we can't consider another bite, and watch parades and football on television.  

That’s all well and good for your average harvest festival, but the truth about Thanksgiving, as far as the United States of America is concerned, is that it was intended to be much more than a simple expression of gratitude for a good yield of produce. The original design of this November holiday was significantly more profound.  Thanksgiving is most emphatically a celebration of the birth of a nation and a statement of devoted thankfulness to God for His faithful hand upon this great land of ours.  Thanksgiving is an intentional connection with that small company of pilgrims who landed at Plymouth Rock and laid the foundations of a new world founded on life and liberty.  These pilgrims came for reasons of faith, not fortune. They, in the language of the New Testament, "showed plainly that they desired a better country"—not only a life without poverty, but a life without fear, a life in which they could obey God and serve Him according to conscience.  The songs we sing at Thanksgiving include not only, "Give Thanks with a Grateful Heart" but also "Land where my father’s died, Land of the Pilgrim’s pride, From every mountainside, Let freedom ring!"  The word "pilgrim" has vastly extended its range since 1620. Wave after wave of pilgrims have surged to the United States of America stubbornly determined to carve out a new life. And whether the pilgrims were English or German, Hungarian or Irish (God’s favorite); they were all seeking liberty to breathe, act, think, and worship in their own way.

Unfortunately, the truth about Thanksgiving is that the pilgrim consciousness disappeared from the national life for a long period of time. It was 240 years after our ancestors first sank a knee at Plymouth that Thanksgiving was reinstated on the calendar and proclaimed as an official holiday; and that was done when things were going quite badly. Sir Isaac Newton once said, "all nations grow odious in prosperity." While I am not sure that is true, it does seem they grow careless. Sadly, it took the tragedy of the Civil War and the scarred spirit of Abraham Lincoln to recall our pilgrim heritage, hoping that remembering the devoted disposition of our forefathers might in some way soothe our nation’s hurting heart.

In Lincoln’s words: "We have forgotten the Gracious Hand which preserved us in peace, and multiplied and strengthened us, and vainly imagined all these blessings were produced by some superior virtue or wisdom of our own. Intoxicated by unbroken success we have become too self-sufficient to feel the necessity for redeeming and preserving grace, too proud to pray to the God who made us."

Thanksgiving as we now know it was a stroke of genius that Lincoln sought to bind up the nation’s wounds by instilling in a divided national heart its former unity. His attempt was to bring North and South together by recalling their pilgrim beginnings. On October 3, 1863, Abraham Lincoln issued the first national Thanksgiving proclamation:  "In the midst of a civil war of unequal magnitude and severity . . . I invite my fellow citizens in every part of the United States . . . to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next as a day of thanksgiving and praise to our beneficent Father . . . And I recommend they fervently implore the interposition of the Almighty’s hand to heal the wounds of the nation and to restore it as may be consistent with the Divine purpose to the full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquility and union."

We all tend to romanticize the past, but it is practically impossible to over-idealize the Pilgrims. They had tremendous courage in venturing to the New World, leaving their homeland and families in order to establish an intellectual, educational, and spiritual community in a foreign land. The truth about Thanksgiving is that, for Americans, it is more than a harvest festival—it is a time to remember the sacrifices and accomplishments of those who have gone before us, and God’s hand of blessing that was so evidently upon them.

Now is the time to thank God for those things He has allowed us to accomplish. Few persons beg for new opportunities at Thanksgiving time. Instead we enjoy the rich blessings God has already given us. The harvest is in, so to speak.  It is quite clear to each one of us what he or she will have accomplished by the end of the year. Therefore, Thanksgiving is a time of remembrance, yes—it is a time for gratitude, yes—it is a time of celebration and enjoyment. But let us celebrate in the spirit of the hymn writer, who said: All good gifts around us are sent from heaven above; Then thank the Lord, O thank the Lord for all His love. J 

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