November 20, 2011
As we Americans prepare to celebrate Thanksgiving Day, I think about a man named Richard Warren. I know almost nothing about him, except that he was one of a group of about 100 people, who in 1620 sailed from England on a ship called The Mayflower and landed on the shores of a land that eventually became known as the United States of America. We know them as the Pilgrims.
I really have no reason to think of this particular man as I prepare to celebrate Thanksgiving. Except that my wife Joan and our daughter Christine and son Ray are 12th and 13th generation descendants of Richard Warren. Of course, over all those generations he has had many thousands of descendants, ranging from President Franklin D.Roosevelt, to the Wright Bothers, to Johnny Carson – and even Sarah Palin. At least, that’s what professional geneologists show in their records.
This means all these descendants of Richard Warren are Joan’s cousins at some level, and since she is my wife, I could consider them to be my cousins too. But not one of these cousins ever invited us over to their homes for dinner. Well, that’s okay, I’m just thankful for his plain ordinary descendants who are my wife and kids. Without Richard Warren I wouldn’t have them.
Actually, I think of a lot more than just Richard Warren during the Thanksgiving season. I think about the whole contingent of Pilgrims. I am reminded that they did not come to the new world with the idea of material profit, or of converting the natives to Christianity. They came to escape religious persecution by other Christians. They came to do what they could not do in the old world. That was to establish a new society in which all would live according to God’s will. A society in which people could live under God as equals. They understood that to do that they needed to keep focused on who God called them to be and what God called them to do. They understood they were meant to establish and live in “the kingdom of God on earth as it is in heaven”. While they did not achieve perfecton, they were for the most part successfully fulfilling their purpose and hopes, because they made and kept a commitment to love God, each other, and the natives.
I used to think that on the first Thanksgiving celebration, a year after their arrival at what became Plymouth, Massachusetts, they were simply expressing thanks to God for a bountiful harvest, which didn’t seem to me to be a particularly memorable event. But after a visit to Plymouth, which included an excellent guided tour of a reconstruction of the original Plymouth Plantation, I was able to see the real significance of this event. I began to be able to visualize what they had endured during the first winter, and the reality of their situation when they held that celebration.
Their troubles started even before they arrived in the new world. Because of stormy weather they had been blown off course. They had planned to settle in what is now Virginia. Instead they landed far to the north. And they landed much later than they expected. There was no time to plant and harvest crops or build solid housing before the winter set in. Half of them died that winter. No doubt on that first Thanksgiving Day they were still mourning their losses. The significance of that first Thanksgiving celebration was that they were giving thanks for the blessings they had received, despite the suffering they had endured. They were celebrating good news in the midst of bad news. They were celebrating hope fulfilled.
While their circumstances had improved after the previous winter was over, they were still not out of the woods. Yes, the natives were friendly. They had shared food with them and generally helped them get settled. But there was always the possibility that some incident or a change of leadership could stir up hostilities. Yes, the harvest assured food for the coming winter. But how about next year? What if there was a drought next summer and the crops failed? Yes, they had built solid houses, providing shelter for all. But what if a spark from a fireplace started a fire in one of the thatched roofs, and it spread, destroying the whole village?
A realistic assessment of their situation would say that there was little chance of survival. I’m sure they did realized how slender was the thread of hope on which they were hanging. Yet despite what things looked like, they held on to their faith and hope in God. So they knew that they must thank God for the hopes which He had fulfilled and the new hope He was giving them for the future. They knew they needed to always be thankful – because there is always hope.
One of the problems today with setting aside one specal day as Thanksgiving Day, is that it is viewed by some as the one and only day for giving thanks. Or as just another holiday. A day (maybe a long weekend) off from work or school. But the Pilgrims, before and after that first Thanksgiving celebration, were always faithful, thankful and hopeful for the rest of their lives. Every day. Patty and I pray that we will all do the same.
Grace and peace,
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