On December 21, 1620, a group of English separatists – people we now refer to as “pilgrims” – landed at Plymouth Rock. There were 102 people who had boarded the Mayflower when it sailed from England, but two had perished during the disease-ridden 66-day voyage. After reaching land, they entered headfirst into a devastatingly cold and windy winter. Their food supply dwindled next to nothing, and many succumbed to devastating disease and incurable illness. By the time winter gave way to spring, half of the pilgrims had perished.
In the space of six months, an eager, adventuresome group of people were reduced to a downcast, decimated group of people. In the space of six months, for every two people who set sail, there remained but one – where there were once 102 people, there were now but 50.
And yet throughout that long, deadly winter, the pilgrims continued to trust God for His leading and provision. They remained thankful while trusting that God would never leave them or forsake them. And God didn’t.
That March the Lord gifted the pilgrims with what William Bradford described as a “special instrument sent by God.” This special instrument went by the name of Squanto, an Indian who would teach the pilgrims how to plant, hunt, and fish, and who later would broker the 50-year treaty between the pilgrims and Indians that allowed both groups to exist peacefully for five decades – a miracle in itself.
Squanto was exactly what the pilgrims needed at that time, and he was instrumental for their very survival. He knew the land up and down because he grew up there. He knew how to speak English because as a boy he was taught the language by a visiting group of English traders (though a few years later his trust in the English would lead him and other Indians to board an English ship bound for Spain to be sold into slavery). And Squanto knew God, because he was purchased by a group of Friars from a Catholic Monastery who introduced him to the Gospel.
When we consider what took place at the original 1621 Thanksgiving feast – when 90 Wampunoag Indians joined with 50 English pilgrims for three days of celebration – we can’t help but conclude that it was a true miracle of God.
It was a miracle of God because Squanto had ample reason to be bitter after being forcibly taken away from his people for more than ten years, then coming back to his family and people to find that most of them had recently died from what they called “white man’s disease,” possibly smallpox. For Squanto to trust, let alone befriend, yet another group of unfamiliar foreigners is nothing short of miraculous.
And the pilgrims had reason to be bitter as well. They were despised in England because of their open disagreement with the English Act of Uniformity, which demanded that all British citizens attend services and follow the traditions of the Church of England. And so they followed God’s leading by setting sail to the “new world, “ but within six months they were ravaged by hunger, disease and death. Yet, like Squanto, they didn’t become bitter, choosing instead to remain thankful.
Remaining thankful had to have been exceedingly difficult for them, just as it often is for us. The truth is that being thankful – truly thankful – for any length of time is a challenge, so being thankful at all times can seem nearly impossible. And yet that is exactly what we are called to do:
“Give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.” (1 Thes. 5:18)
God does not call us to be thankful for all circumstances, but to be thankful in all circumstances. Squanto didn’t thank God for being wrongfully enslaved, and the pilgrims didn’t thank God for experiencing so much death and disease. God allows these kinds of circumstances, but they’re not of God. Rather, they are a byproduct of the fall.
Yet for all who place their faith in Jesus Christ, it is both natural and biblical to thank God in all circumstances, including the most extenuating circumstances. And for me at least, this begs a question: Why does God call us to be thankful?
Here is what I have come to believe: God calls us to be thankful because it’s only through having a heart filled with gratitude – with thanksgiving – that we are truly able to live into the fullness of life that Christ came to give us.
We can be so quick to fix our focus on what’s happening in the moment. And to spend more time wishing for what we don’t have than thanking God for what we do have. But being thankful in all circumstances can only flow from a place of deep understanding and acceptance of the grace of God given to us in Christ Jesus.
Have a blessed Thanksgiving!