We all need heroes, people whose example calls us to live at a higher level; people who do, or did, something better than most; people who show us whatâs possible, if only we were willing to pay the price. But sadly, heroes are dying lately. Theyâre not dying a peaceful death; theyâre being executed systematically. Their statues are being removed from their pedestals, one by one. If anyone or any group stand out in history or any individual does a great thing in our generation, someone will take it upon themselves to discredit that person or group with what they call the âfacts.â Then they reinterpret history and reassign motives until that person (or group) who used to be a hero ends up looking as selfish and cruel as everyone else. It happens so often, and there are so few heroes left that a deep cynicism has settled over our nation. We assume that if you look closely enough at anyoneâs life, sooner or later, youâll find something unclean. We assume there really are no great people, no exceptional hearts, no one braver or better thanâ¦ we are. We sadly assume that everyone is just like us. So the message we and our children are taught is: Donât try to be better than you are; donât strive for something greater because, if the truth were known, even your heroes are as weak as you, maybe even worse. Everybody has âclay feet.â Iâve heard people attack George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King, Jr., Mother Theresa, and yes, even the Pilgrims who sailed on the Mayflower. It seems no one is off limits. Someone, somewhere, is determined to expose your flaws and make the rest of us feel like fools for having believed better of you.
This breaking down of our heroes is said to be bringing reality to our âmyths,â to telling the whole story, to finally be getting down to the âfacts.â But if you look at these hero-killers they often have an agenda of their own. Some are engaged in a systematic attack on what that particular hero represents, especially if that hero happens to be a Christian. Often people with academic degrees and readily available media outlets slaughter our heroes. And they attack no one more aggressively than Jesus Himself. No Christmas or Easter would be complete without an exposeâ on the âreal Jesus.â
The result of all this âdebunkingâ is to leave us with no heroes at all, which means there is no one left whose example can call us to be better than we are. I say this because I am going to tell you the story of the Pilgrims who conducted the first Thanksgiving in 1621, a feast many of us will celebrate again this year. A great deal of âdebunkingâ has been aimed at them lately, but the historical facts surrounding that event canât be dismissed. These events really happened and were carefully recorded. But peopleâs motives can always be questioned. Someone can ask, âWhy did they do what they did?â and then suggest that maybe it wasnât done for noble reasons after all. And letâs face it, the Pilgrims through no fault of their own had mixed into their numbers many selfish, even violent people, just as we do today. So if we look hard enough over a long enough period of time, we can find sad stories to discredit them.
But that something great happened between these Pilgrims who were looking for a place to practice their Christianity without persecution and these native Americans who generously welcomed and cared for strangers to their shores, that a peaceful relationship was begun on the shore of Cape Cod in 1621 and lasted for forty years, unlike the horrible relationships that often occurred with the Europeans elsewhere, is undeniable. So today, letâs for the moment have some heroes. Letâs admire the honorable way two very different peoples came together to thank God for His goodnessâ¦ and enjoyed being together. Letâs let them call us higher, to a deeper, more heartfelt Thanksgiving.
Giving thanks by faith
No human response better expresses genuine faith than thanks. When we thank God we recognize Him as the Source of the good things in our lives (Jas 1:17). Saying âthank youâ acknowledges that we are indebted to Him, that He gave us something good we didnât deserve. It announces that a blessing has arrived, that a promise has been fulfilled. And when such answers come, it is only right to turn to Him and give thanks (Lk 17:11-19). But it is also possible to thank God for things that havenât happened yet, or to choose to thank Him when events are unfolding in a way we donât understand. In those moments we focus our thanks more on who He is than what we can see. The arrival of what He has promised is confessed by our thanks to be as good as done (Ro 4:16-22). It might be said that faith is never more real than when it gives thanks to God in the darkest hours (Ac 16:23-26). The Pilgrims at Plymouth must have had this kind of faith because otherwise how could they have given thanks to God in the midst of such adversity. Letâs remember their amazing story.
Remembering their story
Peter Marshall, David Manuel, The Light and the Glory, Fleming H. Revell Co., 1977, pp.106-144.
Puritans and Separatists
There were two movements of fanatics in the Church of England: Puritans who wanted to purify the church from within while continuing to submit to church authority, and Separatists who believed the Church of England was corrupted beyond and possibility of purification. They believed the church could only be under the headship of Christ, not the queen. They wanted to separate from the official church and conduct their own worship services. They wanted to remove the liturgy and replace it with primitive preaching, teaching, singing and a personal encounter with Christ. The danger was they would start a movement beyond the control of the bishops. When Queen Elizabeth died, her successor James I (KJV) gave the bishops a free hand to crush the Separatists. They were hounded, bullied, forced to pay assessments to the Church of England, clapped into prison on trumped-up charges and driven underground. They met in private homes, to which they came at staggered intervals and by different routes, because they were being constantly spied on. Persecution finally reached the point where they sought religious asylum in Holland (paraphrased from The Light and the Glory).
They came to the city of Leyden as near-penniless foreign immigrants. They qualified for only the most menial labor and had to work extremely hard just to survive. By 1619, after nearly a dozen years of toil, they finally decided they had to move again. Their life was so hard: 1) almost no others were coming from England to join them; 2) their life was aging them pre-maturely (working 12-15 hours per day; if they did not move soon they might become physically unable to do so); 3) their children were being lured by the temptations of the world around them; and 4) they wanted to carry the âlight of Christâ to remote parts of the world. Increasingly they came to believe America was the place God wanted them in spite of the reports of suffering that had reached their ears. They knew the death rate at Jamestown colony was still well over 50 percent.
But getting to America was another question. Just the cost of transporting them would be enormous, to say nothing of the expense of sufficient food supplies to last them until they could grow and harvest a crop. And they also needed a fishing boat and tools. So families sold their homes and all their immovable possessions, and they looked for a group of investors to sponsor them, which led to an involvement with greedy, dishonest men. The Mayflower, the ship that was hired by their sponsors, could only take a third of their 600 plus congregation. That meant pastor John Robinson would have to stay behind with the main body of the flock. So it was decided that elder William Brewster would be their teacher and acting pastor until such a time as Robinson could come over.
When the time came to depart, Robinson declared a day of prayer and fasting to prepare them for the voyage. Then at the end of the day they had a farewell dinner, and the next morning as many as could went by barge to the harbor. On the dock John Robinson slowly knelt, and all the others followed his lead. As he invoked Godâs blessings, tears came to all their eyes, and even the young men wept unabashedly. Quickly they boarded the ship that would take them to England, and the crew cast off. They sailed to Southampton and joined the 90-ton Mayflower. When they arrived they found there were about 80 âstrangersâ also sailing on the Mayflower, a surprise brought into the project by the corrupt investors. After several failed attempts a second, smaller ship (Speedwell) had to be left behind and their number was reduced even further to those who could be squeezed onto the Mayflower. It was mid-August, 1620 when they finally got underway (paraphrase from The Light and the Glory).
Narration (The Light and the Glory, pp.117-144).
The men and women gathered at Plymouth were able to give thanks because they focused on what God had provided, not on what they lacked. And because of that attitude, joy arose. They didnât mutter thanks; they celebrated Godâs goodness with a great feast, especially focusing on the fact that those who had died would be waiting for them in heaven. It would have been so easy to become bitter toward God because so many had died. But they didnât become bitter. Why? Because they had a genuine relationship with God. They still trusted Him. They saw their situation as a spiritual battle. They saw the sickness, troubles, even deaths as painful but necessary elements in winning that war. They didnât fixate on the suffering but on the eternal plan of God in which He will make all things right. In other words, they thanked God, not only for preserving some of them from dying but for the certainty of heaven for the dead. They thanked God by faith. They honored Him as faithful after enduring incredible hardships and as victorious when the war wasnât over yet. Like Abraham and Sarah before them, these Pilgrims didnât see this earth as their final destination. They too were âlooking for a city which has foundations, whose architect and builder is Godâ (Heb 11:10), and people like that should be our heroes.
A thankful nation
Isnât it wonderful that we still have a national holiday in which all citizens are invited to give thanks to God? Sure, there will be homes this Thursday where there will be only a brief sense of awkwardness before diving into a lavish dinner. And there will be homes where there is not a trace of anything special to mark the occasion. But there are still many in this nation who will pause to thank God for His goodness, and that simple act of faith, mixed with humility, will not go unnoticed in heaven. God will hear our sincere prayers and answer with a blessing.
Yet regardless of how others respond this Thanksgiving, the real question is how we, the believing Church, will respond: Will we be thankful? Will sincere prayer rise from our hearts? What attitudes will that special day reveal in us? Is our faith still strong or have hardships, trials and sorrows numbed our hearts? If thanks comes hard this year letâs let those heroes at the first Thanksgiving remind us of the good things God has given us.
Celebrating Thanksgiving (suggestions)
1) Remember, itâs a national holiday, not a family holiday. As a nation, we are thanking God for all He has provided; we are recognizing Him as our Source.
2) Donât eat alone, if possible. Add places to your table and invite those who might not have a place to go. Or invite someone to join you at a restaurant. Consider having turkey (or venison) unless youâre allergic.
3) Spend time discussing the good things God has done for you this year and mention promises in the Bible for which you are especially thankful.
4) Pray for our country, our church, the Church worldwide, missionaries, our leaders (national, denominational, congregational).
5) And have a blessed day!
Questions (see above)