Monday, November 8, 2010

The Attitude of Gratitude

On a fairly mild, autumn day in October, 1621, the surviving half of a Christian congregation we call "Pilgrims" (though they rarely referred to themselves as such for that was their state, not their name) displayed a tremendous amount of thankfulness to the Lord for his provision. Most of us in some way or another attempt to replicate this event the fourth Thursday of every November. Sure, we have the turkey, dressing, gravy, mashed and or sweet potatoes, corn and or cornbread, cranberry sauce, pumpkin pie, green bean casserole and all served with a generous side of parade coverage and football on TV. We will also pull up that same grid iron determination to bear with our family's dysfunctions, and perhaps, relatives we are thankful we only have to deal with once or twice a year. This is the typical Thanksgiving tradition as experienced by most Americans to a more or less degree. Oh yes, and we try to stir up within ourselves some form of gratefulness to God for all of it. Not exactly a Norman Rockwell scene or "The Walton's," yet about average.

It's easy to think of the first Thanksgiving participants as stoic, funny dressed, stern faced, Puritans sharing their corn, deer and pumpkin pie with a bunch of friendly yet naive Indians, then engaging in a dry, pious exercise of thanking "Ye Olde Man Upstairs." right there on Plymouth Rock. Then there was something about the Mayflower, a cool Indian named Squanto, a swashbuckler named Miles Standish and that about sums up most American's and even many Christian's understanding of those folks and their little feast. While the afore mentioned, cartoon image is what most of us walked away with from school, movies, and television commercials for crescent rolls, the kernels of truth are scant and warped at best concerning this caricature of those tried souls.

There is not enough space on this blog for me to even begin to attempt to dissect all of the things factually wrong with our myths about those people of Faith and that historic event. However, I will try to put in real world perspective as to what those first group of Reformer/Congregationalist Christians to this continent had endured just months earlier. And, how ironic and unlikely it would be for most people to even dredge up any sincere giving of thanks to God while not letting him have it with their anger, complaints and deep depression.

The previous winter was so unusually brutal, even the local native tribes, who were generally used to and usually prepared for such, barely hung on. These European sojourners in this hostile land were not very well prepared physically nor skilled to deal with such climes. They did the best they could. Yet with food scarce, and shelters barely adequate, they were fighting a losing battle.

One after the other of the just 100 or so settlers began to die off due to exhaustion, exposure, undernourishment and disease, the latter of which can spread rapidly in cramped quarters. Many of them were still weakened from the three month voyage at sea. Nearly each day, for several weeks, one of their number perished. Also, the Mayflower and its crew were still anchored in the harbor and even many of the sailors were becoming ill and dropping dead. The crew couldn't share much of their provisions with these pilgrims as they barely had enough for themselves and were simply waiting for the weather to turn so they could get out fast. At one point, there were only about a half-dozen men and boys who were well enough to engage in the daily chores of simply taking care of the rest of their fellow Plymouth settlers.

The nightmare continued as husbands lost wives, wives lost husbands, and some of the children literally became orphans. Graves were dug when the ground was soft enough to do so. Sometimes the corpses were simply left outside. Often, loved ones would stand guard to keep the wolves from devouring the dead. Cannibalism became a real temptation too. It was in these darkest hours as these "pilgrims" veered between despair and madness that they began to dig deep into their Christian faith. They went deeper than they had gone before or even knew they could. Some prepared themselves for death and relentlessly, it came. Yet, others were fated simply to watch death take their loved ones, powerless to stop it. They even mustered compassion for a young, dying sailor who had cursed and mocked them just weeks before. By the mid-March thaw, they had lost 47 of their original members and many were just barely clinging to life and faith. Miraculously, almost none of the children had died. Still, there were only three complete families left intact at Plymouth Colony by Spring.

A second miracle happened at this same time as well. His name was Squanto. He was a local native who had been captured a few years earlier by seamen and traders who eventually took him to England. There, the young Indian learned the language and customs of the English. In a fabulous story too long to relate here, the young brave made it back to find his own tribe had all died off from disease. Now he ventured into the shanty village of these desperate colonists. Speaking perfect English, Squanto taught these literal "babes in the woods" how to plant corn, gather eels from the shore and acted as an ambassador between them and the local Wampanoags under Chief Massasoit. Was this all just fantastic coincidence or Divine
Providence and answer to dark hour prayers? I am convinced it was the latter.

That spring and summer, the weather produced perfect growing conditions and the Plymouth Colonists had a bumper crop of corn and many other vegetables and fruits that they planted. Game was also plentiful and they learned to harvest a variety of seafood. Their continued reliance and strengthened faith in the Lord was paying off in spades...and they knew it. But let's be honest here, these were human beings who, while rather young and some just children, must have longed for the love, touch and assurances of parents and spouses. There must have been many hearts still riddled with the holes of loss. Nor can we discount the trials and awkwardness of now blended and adopted families as they sought some semblance of normalcy.

The last of the Fall harvest was still coming in as the leadership of the Colony, namely Gov. Bradford, William Brewster, Captain Standish etc., decided to set aside a day in October to feast and give thanks to the Lord for such a successful harvest, the completion of homes, store houses and the amazing friendship of Squanto and the Wampanoag Indians.

Now lets think about this a minute. Squanto was a man of faith, but not Massasoit and his bunch. These Indians witnessed what the colonists endured, mainly one of the worst winters the Indians had, themselves, ever seen. Plus, they watched the relationship between Squanto and these English settlers flourish. Next, they witnessed God's power multiply crops into bounty for the "Pilgrims." Finally, they observed the faith of the colonists grow in their Great God. And to top it all, these odd looking Englishmen wanted to throw a feast of Thanksgiving while staring at nearly fifty graves?

 Make no mistake, these Indians were not stupid nor naive savages. On the contrary, they were well versed at the art of spying, gathering intelligence, stealth and observation. They must have watched this whole saga play out with intense curiosity and fascination. And now, they were being invited to feast with these strange Englishmen in honor of their give thanks?? Massasoit must have responded in his own language with something like "Are you kidding me? You better believe I gotta see and be a part of this thing. These people lost half their community and they aren't packing and leaving or turning on each other? They got more graves than houses and they are THANKING their God? I have to know what's going on here. I have to see this and learn about this faith!"

In fact, Massasoit and company showed up a day early and unannounced with ninety some braves and their families in tow. The Plymouth colonists almost gave into despair, but eventually, some of the braves showed up with many deer, several dressed wild turkeys and other game as well as berries, pumpkins and baskets of corn...some of which they parched in earthen pots much to the "Pilgrim's" delight. In fact, according to diary accounts of the event, including a moving prayer by William Brewster, the Indians and their chief hung around for three days! They must have been touched by the love of Christ they saw flowing.

I admire and envy the faith of those old Protestant, Reformed Congregationalists. Not just their sense of family and community amongst themselves (the likes of which are sorely lacking in our churches these days) do I admire, but an astounding faith that allowed them to posses an attitude of gratitude in the face of so much death and heartache. Honestly, how many of us would have just thrown in the towel or perhaps drunk ourselves into a stupor or worse. There was no Prozac or grief counseling centers back then-no Oprah or Dr. Phil shows or self help books were available. All they had was the Holy Spirit, the Bible and each others love. They had come to realize that their life in this New World was unmanageable and they needed God's power, which was greater than themselves. While life for those colonists was never a bowl of cranberries, that community of Christians discovered they could have a life of not only political and religious freedom in the New World, but spiritual freedom as long as in all circumstances, they maintained an "Attitude of Gratitude."