Shout to Jehovah, all the earth. Serve ye Jehovah with gladness: before him come with singing-mirth. Know that Jehovah he God is.
Its he that made us, not we; his folk, and sheep of his feeding. O with confession enter ye his gates, his courtyards with praising:
Confess to him, bless ye his name. Because Jehovah he good is: his mercy ever is the same; and his faith, unto all ages.
(Psalm 100, 1612 Ainsworth translation)
“Thank you. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you,” is the prayer author Anne Lamott used to say “in gratitude for any unexpected grace in [her] life.” She writes, “As I grew spiritually, the prayer became the more formal, ‘Thank you,’ and now, from the wrinkly peaks of maturity, it is simply ‘Thanks.’” In her book Help, Thanks, Wow: The Three Essential Prayers, Lamott writes, “Now as then, most of the time for me gratitude is a rush of relief that I dodged a bullet—the highway patrol guy did not notice me speed by, or the dog didn’t get hit by someone else speeding by. Or…that it was all a dream and my child…[is okay], I didn’t pick up a drink or appear on Oprah…[horribly underdressed]…The constables found my passport. The brakes held. The proliferation of white blood cells was about allergies, not leukemia: the pediatrician canceled the appointment with the head of oncology and instead recommended Benadryl. Oh my God: thanks. How can you help saying thank you after moments like these, when real danger is averted?...I personally clutch my chest and cry, ‘Thanks, my God, thanks’…Then I usually move to: ‘I owe you big this time, I’ll never ask for anything else. This time I mean it’” (pp. 43-44).
The Apostle Paul said we should give thanks always and in every circumstance (I Thessalonians 5:18), which I find to be totally unrealistic and impossible, at least for me. It is easy to give thanks when we are on a roll in life and everything’s coming up roses. The good times never last of course, that’s the bad news. The good news is that the bad times never last either. In the roller coaster of life we may be up or down, but usually in life we are somewhere in-between. For better or for worse, it is a “package deal” (p. 45) and so we do the best we can.
While saying thanks to God is a good place to start, cultivating gratitude as a daily attitude is the goal. Lamott writes, “Gratitude begins in our heart and then dovetails into behavior. It almost always makes you willing to be of service, which is where the joy resides…When you are aware of all that has been given to you, in your lifetime and in the past few days, it is hard not to be humbled, and pleased to give back” (pp. 56-57).
Which is where I believe the Pilgrim Separatists, Congregationalists like us, found themselves some 398 years ago. The Pilgrims set the bar high when it comes to gratitude. They came closer than I ever will to giving thanks to God no matter how grim the circumstance. I honestly do not know how they did it. Here they were, a faithful band of believers, seeking to take the Bible seriously and follow Jesus as best they knew how, and what did they get for their troubles? Not much, at least not much in the beginning. For their faithfulness they received persecution in England. It became so bad that they chose to abandon life as they knew it—some left family and friends behind, others left comfortable homes and successful businesses. Determined to worship God as they saw fit, the Pilgrims sought a new life in the New World.
So did God bless all of these faithful Separatists who boarded the Mayflower and prayed for success? That’s a question you’ll have to answer for yourselves. Their voyage on the Mayflower across the stormy Atlantic was treacherous, and the ones who survived the trip found themselves totally unprepared to face the hardships of a New England winter. They didn’t even begin building their new village until December 23. Did the survivors reap divine blessings for surviving the harsh trip from England? Not exactly.
Surviving the voyage might have seemed easy when one considers that during that first hellacious winter, half of them died. Since it was winter when they arrived in the New World, the Pilgrims might have wondered if winter was the only season is this harsh, unforgiving climate. But of course in due time spring came as it always does. Can you imagine how elated the Pilgrims must have felt when they saw the first crocus bloom and the forsythia unfold into a sea of yellow? Their main problem at this point was food. The crops they were used to growing in England did not flourish so well in Plymouth…but all was not lost. God would help them find a way to survive. It is my belief that most of the time when God wants to act in the world that God works through people—the doctor who performed the lifesaving surgery, the church member who donated blood, the firefighter who emerged from a burning house cradling an infant. Help came through the Wampanog tribe who befriended the fledgling colony, and advised them on fishing, hunting, and growing crops suitable to the area. These Native Americans almost certainly saved the Pilgrims from starvation. That autumn, the Pilgrims rejoiced at their abundant harvest and prepared a feast of thanksgiving to God for the many blessings they had experienced. They invited their new friends to join in the celebration.
An account of that first Thanksgiving feast was written by Pilgrim Edward Winslow in a letter dated December 12, 1621. He wrote, “Our…[wheat] did prove well, and God be praised, we had a good increase of Indian corn, but our peas were not worth the gathering, for we feared they were too late sown. They came up very well, and blossomed, but the sun parched them in the blossom. Our harvest being gotten in, our governor sent four men on fowling, that so we might, after a special manner, rejoice together after we had gathered the fruit of our labors. They four in one day killed as much fowl as, with a little help beside, served the company almost a week. At which time, amongst other recreations, we exercised our arms, many of the Indians coming amongst us, and among the rest their greatest king Massasoit, with some ninety men, whom for three days we entertained and feasted, and they went out and killed five deer, which they brought to the plantation and bestowed on our governor, and upon the captain and others. And although it be not always so plentiful as it was at this time with us, yet by the goodness of God, we are so far from want that we often wish you partakers of our plenty.”[i]
And we have. We are partakers of their plenty when every Thanksgiving Day we remember them and remember to give thanks to God for life’s bounty and blessings, including the people we love. Anne Lamott writes, “Most humbling of all is to comprehend the lifesaving gift that your pit crew of people has been for you, and all the experiences you have shared, the journeys together, the collaborations, births and deaths, divorces, rehab, and vacations, the solidarity you have shown one another. Every so often you realize that without all of them, your life would be barren and pathetic. It would be Death of a Salesman, though with email and texting” (p. 57).
Had I been one of the Pilgrims back in 1621, I’m not sure how thankful I would have been despite the fabulous harvest. I’m not sure I could have found gratitude in my heart remembering all of those who died during the trip or during that first fateful winter. How do we move from looking back with sadness or anger at all of the things that didn’t go our way to looking forward with gratitude and hope?
Lamott reminds us of the priceless role that God’s grace plays in our lives writing, “‘Thanks’ is a huge mind-shift, from thinking that God wants our happy chatter…and is deeply interested in our opinions…to feeling quiet gratitude, humbly and amazingly, without shame at having been so blessed…When we go from rashy and clenched to grateful, we sometimes get to note the experience of grace, in knowing that we could not have gotten ourselves from where we stuck, in hate or self-righteousness or self-loathing (which are the same thing), to freedom. The movement of grace in our lives toward freedom is the mystery. So we simply say ‘Thanks.’ Something had to open up, something had to give, and I don’t have a clue how to get things to do that. But they did, or grace did. Thank you.”
On this day and everyday may we take the time to say, in the spirit of the Pilgrims, our spiritual ancestors, thanks be to God. Giving thanks. Thanksgiving. AMEN.
Hear now this Native American Thanksgiving Prayer from the Iroquois people:
We return thanks to our mother, the earth, which sustains us. We return thanks to the rivers and streams, which supply us with water. We return thanks to the herbs, which furnish medicines for the cure of our diseases. We return thanks to the corn, and to her sisters, the beans and squash, which give us life. We return thanks to the bushes and trees, which provide us with fruit. …We return thanks to the moon and the stars, which have given us their light when the sun was gone. We return thanks to our grandfather He-no…who has given to us his rain. We return thanks to the sun, that he has looked upon the earth with a beneficent eye. Lastly, we return thanks to the Great Spirit, in whom is embodied all goodness.