Can you imagine what it must have been like for them? Never mind the trip, brutal by all accounts. Once ashore, the Pilgrims were poorly equipped to face the wilderness of this new world. They came in search of the free practice of their faith, but the cost of this freedom was immense.
They arrived late in the year, too late to plant. They grossly underestimated the amount of supplies they would need. And they were completely blindsided by the winter - a ghastly, cold experience. By springtime of the first year, half of them were gone, victims of a sickness for which they had no cure.
With the ship that brought them now headed back across the sea, this tangle of trees must have seemed less like the promised land and more like a nightmare to those left standing on the shore. When spring came, they planted, but had no idea how to manage this soil or what kind of food would grow. Had it not been for the nearby Native Americans - surprisingly peaceful and mercifully good - these Pilgrims surely would have failed.
Their native Samaritans were a compassionate people. Squanto taught them how to plant corn. Samoset assured them of the natives good will. By the middle of summer, the remaining community discovered in themselves a certain optimism.
As the crops grew, so did their hopes. And by the time the harvest bore fruit, they were overflowing with gratitude. These same people, ill-equipped for their journey, weakened by sickness and plagued by death, paused at the end of their first year here and gave thanks.
A remarkable story, actually, when you stop to think of it. Those Pilgrims had every right to self-pity and bitterness, but they opted instead for thanksgiving - for celebrating the proverbial glass half-full. It reminds me of that old hymn about ebenezers. Written a century after the pilgrims landed on American soil, the song recalls Samuels story in the Old Testament.
Samuel was another man unprepared for tremendous hardship. He was just a boy when God called him to do mighty things for Israel, but on the way to greatness, he fought great battles. He came up against a fierce, warring tribe. The Philistines wreaked havoc on his people and their faith. Twice, they attacked the Israelites, killing thousands.
The third time, however, Samuel asked for help and God intervened. The Philistines were defeated and never provoked the Israelites again. When that last battle was won, a war-weary Samuel took a rock - his ebenezer - and set it down as a marker in the place where God came to help. And as he did so, he declared, Thus far, the Lord has helped us.
In the midst of a painful place in Israels history, Samuels ebenezer became a celebration of the glass half-full.
Maybe thats the real point of our present-day Thanksgiving. At the heart of it, maybe this day is not so much for those whose glasses are filled to overflowing and whose testimonies are full of success. Maybe Thanksgiving is a day for the rest of us, the ones whose glasses are barely half-full but whose spirit overflows with gratitude nonetheless. A day to celebrate the simple yet profound fact that weve made it this far. Thus far, Samuel said. No claims on the future, just one sure and humble admission: Thus far, the Lord has helped us.
That is my hope for you. As you find your place at someones table to sit with family or friends or maybe even total strangers, my hope is that even in the midst of an uncertain journey, you will find it in yourself to celebrate the fact that you made it to the table at all.
After all, perhaps it is not the times when life is good that our spirits most freely overflow with thanksgiving, but the times when we sense, in the midst of the battle, that we have been helped by good Samaritans and carried on the wings of Gods mercy.
(Carolyn Moore is pastor of Mosaic United Methodist Church, a new congregation in Evans.)
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