My friend in Beijing, China sent a greeting today and thanked me for her first and last “warming and touching” Thanksgiving celebration she experienced with my family many years ago. As she goes on “compliance leave” from work for a week, I try to imagine November without Thanksgiving, without a fresh reminder of the faithfulness of God, celebration with friends and family, and anticipation of Christmas, the advent of the Saviour into our troubled world. It seems that the whole of November culminates in turning our hearts toward God in gratitude.
Christianity is growing in China at a rapid rate, so on any given day many do give thanks to God for the eternal hope they have found. Expressing gratitude to God against the backdrop of trials causes me to think of Jewish friends as the advent of Hanukkah, the festival of lights, coincides with Thanksgiving this year and the Pilgrims who celebrated the first Thanksgiving feast in 1621 in their new world. When our hope is fixed on the eternal, we hold all things lightly, and with reverence and joy. And the worries of this world loosen their grip.
Here is a glimpse into the difficulties the pilgrims encountered. Landing in New England after a treacherous journey being tossed on the ocean for more than two months, the Pilgrims carried a missionary fervor to be a “stepping stone of the light of Christ in a new land.” Around ninety members of the Wampanoag tribe joined them for the Thanksgiving feast, but among the one hundred pilgrims who boarded the Mayflower, only fifty-three remained alive.
Many died during the harsh realities of the first winter from exposure, scurvy or other diseases. They had arrived in a howling wilderness without warm inns, prepared food or anyone to greet them. William Bradford wrote: “Being thus passed the vast ocean, and a sea of troubles before in their preparation they had now no friends to welcome them, nor inns to entertain or refresh their weatherbeaten bodies, no houses or much less towns to repair too, to seek for succor. And for the season it was winter, and they that know the winters of that country know them to be sharp and violent, and subject to cruel and fierce storms, dangerous to travel to known places, much more to search and unknown coast. Besides, what could they see but a hideous and desolate wilderness, full of wild beasts and wild men? And what multitudes there might be of them they knew not. What could now sustain them but the spirit of God and his grace? May not and ought not the children of these fathers, rightly say: ‘Our fathers were Englishmen which came over this great ocean, and were ready to perish in this wilderness.”
Blown off course by the storms, they had not landed upon the land of their charter, so they wrote a new charter, the Mayflower Compact, stating why they sailed to the new world.“In the name of God, Amen. We, whose names are underwritten, the loyal subjects of our dread sovereign lord, King James, by the grace of God, of Great Britain, France, and Ireland King, defender of the faith, having undertaken for the glory of God, and advancement of the Christian faith, and honor of our King and country, a voyage to plant the first colony in the northern parts of Virginia, do by these presents, solemnly and mutually, in the presence of God and one of another, covenant and combine ourselves together into a civil body politic.” However, their unity was quickly challenged during difficult times.
At the first Thanksgiving, the Pilgrims may have prayed a prayer like the following Puritan prayer:
“O My God, Thou fairest, greatest, first of all objects, my heart admires, adores, loves thee, for my little vessel is as full as it can be, and I would pour out all that fullness before thee in ceaseless flow. When I think upon and converse with thee ten thousand delightful thoughts spring up, ten thousand sources of pleasure are unsealed, ten thousand refreshing joys spread over my heart, crowding into every moment of happiness. I bless thee for the soul thou hast created, for adorning it, for sanctifying it, though it is fixed in barren soil; for the body thou hast given me, for preserving its strength and vigour, for providing senses to enjoy delights, for the ease and freedom of my limbs, for hands, eyes, ears that do thy bidding; for thy royal bounty providing my daily support, for a full table and overflowing cup, for appetite, taste, sweetness, for social joys of relatives and friends, for ability to serve others, for a heart that feels sorrows and necessities, for a mind to care for my fellow-men, for opportunities of spreading happiness around, for loved ones in the joys of heaven, for my own expectation of seeing thee clearly. I love thee above the powers of language to express, for what thou art to thy creatures. Increase my love, O my God, through time and eternity.”
During this season, let us delight in Him who created us for His pleasure.