Updated: Nov 25, 2021
Dr. RB McFee
Thanksgiving is one of my favorite holidays, and time of the year. I celebrate the season with a somewhat quirky combination of prayerfulness, placing an inflatable turkey (or two this year) on the lawn, and visiting Plymouth Plantation and the Wampanoag Village in Plymouth, Massachusetts.
After all, nothing says “thank you God for what I have” like a light up turkey!
But for me during this season of gratitude, the real heartfelt feelings of thankfulness to our Lord for getting me through the storms of life is a visit to Plymouth. The experience, usually an annual pilgrimage, if you will excuse the turn of phrase, is a powerful reminder to be appreciative of God’s watchfulness. Fortunately there are woodland places to go off and pray, too.
That about half the initial passengers who survived – 53 out of 102 - revealed a thankful countenance for their deliverance through the severe storms of the Atlantic, and the storms of life in early 17th century North America, puts into specific relief the blessings we have, and often take for granted.
Perhaps I’m more fortunate than other folks in that I’ve sailed through near boat swallowing waves on the Atlantic Ocean, in a craft even smaller than Mayflower. Having shared experiences with those who have undergone challenging times often creates an understanding that can’t be acquired vicariously, and can enrich the dialogue.
Moreover the shared sense of relief that comes when the storm is gone, and the seas have become more tranquil, and the feeling of gratitude for God’s deliverance that permeates, these tend to be unique to the survivors. Perhaps that sense of simpatico also draws me to Plymouth Village, to share in those moments with folks representing the ones who also experienced the Lord’s protection, and take time between their chores to express their gratitude.
Or to quote from We Gather Together, the survivors lived this in many ways “Sing praises to His Name; He forgets not His own.”
Then there are the mental, spiritual, and bodily storms (health) we all go through in life.
How do we ride these storms? And not to make light of our challenges, but life in the 21st century is overall a much easier daily experience than that of the 17th century (my last chicken was courtesy of a supermarket, not a neighbor who just knifed one from the flock and traded it for my medical services). Nevertheless personal crisis can be devastating in any century. Death, disease, poverty, all can intrude when we least expect or invite them.
But there is something transformative when we approach life with a spirit of thankfulness. It is, perhaps, the ultimate act of trust in the promise of and provisions from our Lord.
That said, if you have never been to Plymouth, may I recommend the experience. It can have an amazing and inspirational impact, especially at Thanksgiving.
Speaking of which….
One of the great hymns passed down to us many generations ago is the song “We Gather Together.” It is a simple and beautiful piece of liturgical music that captures in many ways the heart and soul of Thanksgiving. Consider the lyrics
“We Gather Together”
Author unknown (Dutch? 1597), Dutch melody 1626, arr Eduard Kremser, published 1877
“We gather together to ask the Lord’s blessing;
He chastens and hastens His will to make known;
The wicked oppressing now cease from distressing;
Sing praises to His Name; He forgets not His own.
Beside us to guide us, our God with us joining,
Ordaining, maintaining His Kingdom Divine,
So from the beginning the fight we were winning’
Thou, Lord, were at our side, all glory be Thine!
We all do extol Thee, Thou Leader triumphant,
And pray that Thou still our Defender will be;
Let thy congregation escape tribulation;
Thy Name be ever praised! O Lord, make us free!
Truth be told, except for Christmas carols, this is one of my favorite hymns. Pity it seems relegated to one brief time of year, when it codifies simply, beautifully, and authentically our relationship with, dependence on, and gratitude for our Lord, our God.
And the message of gathering together, is as Christ-like as it gets.
As people of faith, we gather together in community worship. And we do so for multiple reasons. First, God ordained it! Why? Something happens with us, for us, in us, when we share our faith communally. We can affirm, teach, inspire, console, and share the Love of Jesus when we are together in a way that solo worship cannot provide.
Moreover, we can celebrate our rebirth in our Risen Savior when “we gather together.” In fact that sentiment and the song so named (Celebrate), are my first memories of the congregation I now call my faith family. I’ll never forget how much everyone seemed to really enjoy being together, and the crisscrossing of people from one part of the sanctuary to the other, just so greetings and well wishes could be shared among all.
That is both a powerful memory of who we are, who we must be, and the connection of Christ in us.
The power of gather together should never be underestimated. Perhaps that is why Jesus, through the Apostle Paul emphasized the sense of ‘community.’
To be sure, protected devotional and prayer time with our Creator on a daily basis is an essential sacrament where we share ourselves with the Lord. But to fully reflect our connectedness to God, we need to be connected with His other children, with each other.
Getting back to the song, for me, it just isn’t Thanksgiving without hearing a community of believers joining voices to praise God for his provisions and protections. To suggest I even need to hear it would be an understatement of epic proportions. It is symbolic of the best we can be, enjoying the best God can be for us.
Predating the Pilgrims’ arrival in Plymouth, this song, this hymn, written likely by a Dutch author in 1597 may very well have been read by or at least familiar to them. If not the lyrics, almost assuredly the Bible verses that inspired the hymn – Deuteronomy 31:12, and John 11:52.
“`12 Gather the people together, men and women, and children, and thy stranger that is within thy gates, that they may hear, and that they may learn, and fear the Lord your God, and observe to do all the words of this law:”
Deuteronomy 6:12 KJV
52 And not for that nation only, but that also he should gather together in one the children of God that were scattered abroad.”
John 11:52 KJV
How much like the first “Thanksgiving” do these verses and hymn animate for us?
Historically the first great celebration of the harvest and collective time of joy and gratitude wasn’t called “Thanksgiving” by the Pilgrims, albeit the three days were certainly infused with a sense of thankfulness. It would be difficult not to be appreciative, given their first few months in Plymouth, the hunger, the cold, the sickness, and the death which tugged at them on a daily basis.
But to quote the Psalmist, “joy cometh in the morning.” (Psalm 30:5).
One wonders how often we wake up thanking God, if for no other reason than the very fact we did wake up. Add to our bounty, the blessing that we woke up in a warm home, with food in the house, and maybe even someone to care about or love us.
It is easy to lose sight of gratitude when disappointments intrude. Perhaps this will be a Thanksgiving you spend alone. Or maybe a health issue is making life difficult. Might be a career set back, or financial speed bump. Could be a relationship loss, or sadness that a new one hasn’t yet emerged. The pandemic has put a dark cloud across the lands, and death has not escaped friends and family, regardless of the cause. Can we still be grateful under those circumstances?
Like most of the challenges we face, the Bible provides answers, and almost all the heavy prayers we see in the Old and New Testaments find a way to integrate gratitude amidst the pleas, and grief, requests, and hopeful expectations. From Proverbs to Philippians, and lots of other scripture, God, the Psalmists, Jesus, the Apostles, and others remind us of the transformative power gratitude, a thankful heart can have, refocusing us on God and our relationship with Him and His goodness in our lives.
This isn’t Pollyanna, it is a fundamental principle of Christ and living a good life. Thankful people and generous people (often the same) tend to be happier and healthier people. Jesus promised we would live better through Him; that also means His exhortations. Yes, sometimes easier said than done.
It is good to celebrate the good gifts of God when they happen. To “gather together” with your family, your faith family, too!
Consider after the challenging year from Europe then England, to sailing across the Atlantic, to landing in Provincetown and finally settling in Plymouth, from building a few dwellings (wading through frigid waters every morning, to get ashore,,and again every night then to the Mayflower after a day’s worth of building) to planting crops to the harvest….
Based upon historic documents, among the first accounts we have of the first “Thanksgiving” celebration is found in Mourt’s Relation – A Journal of the Pilgrims at Plymouth, published in 1622. While the authorship remains somewhat a topic of scholarly debate, this letter was likely penned by Edward Winslow.
Let me share an excerpt from….
“A Letter Sent From New England to a Friend in these parts, setting forth a brief and true declaration of the worth of that plantation; as also certain useful directions for such as intend a voyage into those parts”
“You shall understand that in this little time that a few of us have been here, we have built seven dwelling- houses and four for the use of the plantation, and have made preparation for divers others. We set the last spring some twenty acres of Indian corn, and sowed some six acres of barley and pease….Our corn did prove well, and, God be praised, we had a good increase of Indian corn, and our barley indifferent good….
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….
….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 govern, 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….
…I forbear further to write for the present, hoping to see you by the next return, so Itake my leave commending you to the Lord for a safe conduct unto us.
Resting in Him, your friend, E.W.
Plymouth, in New England, this 11th December 1621.”
Thanksgiving 2021 is in many ways similar, and many ways different from the Praise Meal and Harvest Celebration of 1621. But one commonality is the bond of faith, represented by the expression of gratitude the Pilgrims shared.
Were they always in upbeat spirits? Seriously? They were human. They were flawed. They made mistakes. Not unlike any of us.
But a lesson we can take from Thanksgiving – then, and now – when “we gather together to ask the Lord’s blessings,” and then remembering His deliverance, make certain we say “thank you,” we have opened Heaven to us, connecting our spirits to God in ways only a spirit of appreciation of our Creator can do.
God created us to “gather together” in His service, as a place to reflect His love with others, and as an empowering exercise in gratitude.
Perhaps that is what we need as a nation – more “gather together to ask the Lord’s blessings.” Together we can overcome the challenges that beset us, in the Power of God.
And when the cloud of the pandemic, and other challenges facing our faith family at CCUMC lift, may we devote ourselves to “gather together” in celebration of our spiritual, health, and physical harvest, assembling at a feast, that like the one in 1621 that reminds us how much we depend on God and each other. And that’s something worth giving thanks for!
In that Spirit, I wish you a blessed Thanksgiving.