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Being Thankful Even in Times of Great Desperation

How can you not like the story of the Pilgrims?

They came to America to find religious freedom.

They were “separatists,” believing that the true church must separate itself from the corruptions of the world, in particular the Anglican Church and its state-supported status as an established church.

They were known as “nonconformists,” as in nonconformity with the state and with the Book of Common Prayer as its guide.

First, they went to Holland where there was greater religious freedom. All was going well, until they realized their children were speaking fluent Dutch and fitting in a little too well.

They couldn’t go back to England, so they struck a deal to go to the New World. They set sail with two ships, but one had to turn back. Only the Mayflower made it.

During the trip, there were divisions between the Pilgrims, and The Mayflower Compact was struck to keep harmony among the differing groups.

They left in September, went off course, and landed far off their destination in November. Over half died in that first winter – only three of 18 married women survived.

Without an English-speaking “Indian” named Squanto, they would never have made it.

According to church historian Edwin Gaustad in “A Religious History of America,” they considered Squanto “a special instrument of God for our good.”

Do you know the whole story of Squanto?

He has become the folk hero of Thanksgiving, a reminder that the Pilgrims would never have survived without him.

He was a Native American of the Patuxet tribe who acted as interpreter and guide to the starving Pilgrim settlers at Plymouth during their first winter in the New World.

Before he met the Pilgrims, he had been kidnapped by a ruthless English explorer who brought him to Spain and sold him into slavery.

He ended up in England and eventually made his way back to the New World in 1619, only to find that his entire tribe had been decimated by smallpox.

That misfortune explains why he was fluent in English and was able to stand between the Native Americans, the Wampanoag tribe that he now lived with, and the newcomers.

The Wampanoag chief, Massasoit, agreed in the fall of 1621 to assist the helpless Pilgrims, resulting in a joint celebration of the first Thanksgiving after reaping a successful crop.

Squanto was a mediator whose journey, like Joseph in the book of Genesis, began with an injustice: being taken from his home and sold into bondage.

That he would help the very people who had stolen his life is remarkable. What a merciless explorer intended for evil, God used for good.

Squanto helped the Pilgrims know what was poisonous and what was safe to eat, how to tap maple syrup from a tree, and how to plant, cultivate and harvest corn. By the next year, a successful harvest was cause for celebration.

The following fall, though, brought a drought. A proclamation by the governor called for prayer and fasting, and shortly thereafter the rains came. Thanksgiving may have begun in that lean and difficult year, when they barely made it through.

It is rather peculiar that a holiday so connected with abundance and the numbering of blessings would have begun as gratitude for bare survival, but it’s fitting.

Thanksgiving is for recognizing our dependence on God, not for congratulating ourselves. We are blessed, but not deservedly. Life is a gift from God, not something to which we are entitled.

It is a time to stop, take stock and celebrate in the spirit of those early survivors.

As Squanto appeared to those desperate and misplaced Pilgrims so many years ago, so do Christians speak of grace.

Jesus of Nazareth had a meal with a group of followers who would run off and leave him to die the next day, but still grace comes to us as a “special instrument of God for our good.”

He presided at the first Thanksgiving table, which is literally what “eucharist,” a word for the Lord’s Supper, means; he offered a way to God to us who do not deserve one.

He himself, the victim of treachery, dishonesty, self-serving, cowardice and fear, still offered a meal to remember that God loves us anyway – despite our oppression of one another, our injustices, grudges and ignorance.

As we sit down to offer thanks this year, what if we gave thanks not for the abundance of our means, but of our poverty and need to which God supplied all the more grace?

Thanksgiving is a sober and joyful realization that without God and God’s gifts we could not survive.

Whatever else this meal means, it means a time to stop, give thanks and hope once more that even in the face of death God can bring life.

Even if Thanksgiving has an empty chair this year of one gone too soon, hope is not finished.

Hope is not about circumstance. It is something deeper and more elusive. It is a confidence for which you do not have factual basis. But it is rooted in something real.

I love Jesus because of that story where, even on the cross suffering his own wounds, he offered life to the one next to him who realized too late that his life had been squandered in all the wrong things and begged, “Lord, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”

I am grateful for Jesus. And for Squanto. And for generosity and hospitality. Without them, we will descend into meanness and madness.

Here’s hoping for the best, and that the kindness of strangers might survive our frightened time.

Gary Furr is pastor of Vestavia Hills Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama. A longer version of this article first appeared on his blog, Flat Pickin’ Progress. It is used with permission. You can follow him on Twitter @FurrGary.