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I am thankful for...
My heart goes out to the parents of the young men and women who are dying over there every day with no end in sight. I cannot imagine their grief. I cannot imagine the feeling around the Thanksgiving tables in those homes where there is now one extra empty chair. The Psalmist sings, "Enter his gates with thanksgiving, and his courts with praise. Give thanks to him, bless his name. For the LORD is good; his steadfast love endures forever, and his faithfulness to all generations." But, for some devastated families, those words may choke on the way out this year.
What can we say to those folks? Or to any for whom a Day of Thanksgiving rings hollow? Perhaps there is some comfort in remembering the event we commemorate, that first Thanksgiving celebrated by the pilgrims. Those folks had had an exceedingly difficult time.
For starters, they had begun their journey full of hope for a new life of religious freedom in a warm and welcoming land - Virginia. Oops. Instead they landed at Plymouth Rock on December 21, 1620, not the best time of year in Massachusetts. Until such time as they could build houses and establish themselves on the land, they made their home on board the Mayflower, the vessel in which they had sailed.(2) The men went ashore every morning to work, returning to the little ship at night. They built a "common house" to which the sick and dying were transferred, placed their four little cannon in a fort, which they built on a hill close by, built two rows of houses with a wide street between and finally landed their stores and provisions. Then the whole company came ashore toward the last of March, and in April the Mayflower sailed away.
The winter was hard and bitter. At one time all but six or seven of the Pilgrims were sick. Eighteen women denied themselves food so that their children could eat. Thirteen of them died. Half of the 102 Pilgrims died of malnourishment, disease, and exposure. Only about 30 of those who survived were over the age of 16. Those who died were buried in unmarked graves because the pilgrims did not want the natives to know how small their numbers had become.
In the spring they planted three crops; English Peas, Barley, and Indian Corn. The peas were planted too late - though they came up beautifully, the hot sun parched the blossoms and the plants died. One of the Pilgrims described their barley crops as "indifferent." Apparently the barley was not worth harvesting either. Only the corn survived. Of course, not the corn we are used to with big, plump yellow kernels; this was "Indian Corn" with ears only two to three inches long and kernels of different colors. The Pilgrims harvested only twenty acres. And to top it all off, a second shipload of thirty-five settlers arrived without any provisions because they expected to live off the crops the first settlers had raised. By the end of their second winter in Plymouth, food had to be rationed again: five kernels of corn for each person per day.(3)
A hard life. In fact, some proposed a Day of Mourning to honor all those who had perished. But the others said no, a Day of Thanksgiving would be more appropriate. After all, even though half had died, half had NOT. Reason to give thanks. Good for them.
As time went on, a Day of national Thanksgiving was occasionally observed. In 1789, President George Washington declared in the flourishing idiom of his day,
"Now, therefore, I do recommend and assign Thursday, the twenty-sixth day of November next, to be devoted by the people of these States to the service of that great and glorious Being, who is the Beneficent Author of all the good that was, that is, or that will be, that we may then all unite in rendering unto Him our sincere and humble thanks for His kind care and protection of the people of this country, previous to their becoming a nation, for the signal and manifold mercies, and the favorable interpositions of His providence, in the course and conclusion of the late war; for the great degree of tranquillity, union, and plenty, which we have since enjoyed; for the peaceable and rational manner in which we have been enabled to establish constitutions of government for our safety and happiness, and particularly the national one now lately instituted; for the civil and religious liberty with which we are blessed, and the means we have of acquiring and diffusing useful knowledge; and, In general, for all the great and various favors, which He has been pleased to confer upon us."(4)For whatever reason, a Thanksgiving observance in our nation did not become an annual event until a most persistent lady, Sarah Josepha Hale, the editor of a prominent magazine for women, the author of the poem, "Mary Had a Little Lamb, a widow with five children, began a campaign in 1846. It took seventeen years for her dream to be realized, but in 1863, in the midst of the most devastating war our nation has ever encountered, President Abraham Lincoln issued the following:
"...I do therefore invite my fellow citizens in every part of the United States, and also those who are at sea and those who are sojourning in foreign lands, to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next as a day of thanksgiving and praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the heavens. And I recommend to them that while offering up the ascriptions justly due to Him for such singular deliverances and blessings they do also, with humble penitence for our national perverseness and disobedience, commend to His tender care all those who have become widows, orphans, mourners, or sufferers in the lamentable civil strife in which we are unavoidably engaged, and fervently implore the interposition of the Almighty hand to heal the wounds of the nation and to restore it, as soon as may be consistent with the divine purposes to the full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquillity, and union..."(5)Now, with that as background, try to put yourself in the place of a parent of one of those young soldiers who have died this year. Is that what you need to hear this Thanksgiving? Be thankful even in the midst of adversity? As the Pilgrims did, look at the glass as half full rather than half empty? Get real. If I were one of them, I doubt that I would be hearing much of anything. What I would hope is that, somehow, someone, something could cut through the fog of my grief and touch my "faith nerve."
Perhaps there is something providential in this Sunday occurring as it does. On our national calendar, this is Thanksgiving Sunday. Other nations have Thanksgiving Days at other times. But all around in world, in churches everywhere, the liturgical calendar notes this as Christ the King Sunday. It is the climax of the church year, the culmination of all we have learned in the birth, life, ministry, death, resurrection and ascension to glory of our Savior, Jesus Christ. Today we remind ourselves that JESUS IS LORD, in charge, in control, and a day will come when every knee will bow and every tongue will confess it. That is why Paul could write to the church at Colossae, and through them to you and me and all those devastated by tragedy or disaster anywhere, "Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts...And be THANKFUL. Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly...sing psalms, hymns and spiritual songs with GRATITUDE in your hearts to God. And whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving THANKS to God the Father through him.(6)
Gratitude. Not for all the awfulness in the world, but for the fact that we know in our heart of hearts that awfulness is not the end of the story. I like the way our friend Al Winn, for years and years one of the great souls of the Presbyterian Church, deals with the issue.(7) He notes that at the heart of biblical faith we do not find air-tight arguments sealed with a "therefore" - all is right with the world, therefore, let us have faith; therefore, let us praise God; therefore, let us give thanks. Rather at the heart of biblical faith we find things that do not logically follow at all, sealed with a "nevertheless." Much is wrong with the world, the mystery of evil is great, terrible accidents happen, NEVERTHELESS let us have faith, NEVERTHELESS let us praise God, NEVERTHELESS, let us give thanks. Perhaps we can better deal with the miseries of life if we remember NEVERTHELESS.
Jesus Christ is Lord. Jesus Christ is in control. We continue to preach it and teach it. We do well to remember it in the face of tragedies such as we get news of every day.
Some are particularly poignant. Just three weeks ago we heard about 16 soldiers killed when their helicopter was shot down, 16 soldiers who were not going into combat, but rather were leaving it - they were coming home for R & R. Ernie Bucklew had not planned to be in that group but word had come that his Mom had passed away suddenly in Pittsburgh - it was an aneurysm, they said - and he had grabbed a last seat on the chopper. Her funeral would be held when he got home. It became a double funeral. Sgt. Bucklew is survived by a devastated wife and two young sons - one age eight, one just four.
The helicopter pilot, 1st Lt. Brian Slavenas, a 30-year-old National Guard officer from Illinois, also died as he landed the flaming aircraft just seconds after the rocket hit. They say his piloting may well have been why 20 other soldiers on board survived the attack.
Word is that Lt. Slavenas had not been eager to fly in Iraq. "He did not want to go on this operation," his mother said. "He told me on the phone that he resigned his commission, and then he wasn't allowed to resign. The last time I saw him, he said, 'I don't want to hurt anybody.'"(8)
Unfortunately, there are hundreds of stories like these this year despite Washington's attempts to keep them quiet. Funeral services have been and will be held for these young men and women struck down in the prime of life for what far too many are convinced is a questionable purpose. So sad. So sad. But it is in those sad moments, the "faith nerve" is touched once again. And we remember the unshakeable truths that support us as we travel through the valley of darkest shadows.
Thanksgiving Day, 2003, this Thursday. I am thankful for so much; there is so much for which to be thankful. And I am thankful most of all, in the face of all that life can throw at us, for the faith that sustains us. I am thankful that, despite all the evidence to the contrary and everything that would seem to deny it...I am thankful that I know who is ultimately in charge; I am thankful that JESUS CHRIST IS LORD! Happy Thanksgiving.
1. Carlos Wilton, via PresbyNet, "Bottom Drawer," #4004, 11/18/99 originally found in Family Circle Magazine
2. "Thanksgiving in America" by May Lowe from the book, Thanksgiving, Copyright (c) 1907 by Dodd, Mead, & Company
3. Graham Fowler, sermon via PresbyNet, "In Everything Give Thanks," 11/25/92
4. Excerpt from Presidential Proclamation, October 3, 1789
5. Abraham Lincoln, October 3, 1863
6. Colossians 3:15-17
7. Albert Curry Winn, A Christian Primer, (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1990), pp. 79-80
8. "For One Soldier's Family, a Double Funeral," The Washington Post, via internet, http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/articles/A60011-2003Nov3.html