Well, it’s that time of year again in the United States of America. The week where we celebrate Thanksgiving (Thursday) and remember the Pilgrims who first celebrated that feast after sailing over here from Europe to find a place where they could worship and live as they felt God was calling them to live. But more than half died during the first winter they were so ill prepared for.
Since I’m a direct descendant of these European expatriates, I probably spend more time thinking about them and what they endured (three out of the four of my family died during that first winter) than a lot of other celebrators. I can only imagine what went through the head and heart of the surviving teenager in that family, Priscilla Mullins. The pain, the sorrow, the dread. The fear of the unknown. No more father William, no mother Alice, no fourteen-year-old brother Joseph. Within one week in late February, between the 21st and 28th, all three of them died. Only God knows why He spared young Priscilla’s life, or any of the others. (I find it ironic that my birthday is February 25, but maybe I’m just stretching to relate.)
But the Pilgrims (technically, Separatists and not part of the Puritans who came later) were a real multigenerational, family oriented crew, and I’m sure they gave her as much physical, emotional, and spiritual comfort as they could. Like Priscilla, so many had lost family members. Forty-five of the 102 immigrants died that first winter from lack of shelter, scurvy, and starvation. With a daily ration of only five kernels of corn a day during the worst of it, fourteen of the eighteen married women died. As mothers, to whom do you think they were giving their corn rations?
And their arrival timing was terrible— too late in the season to start growing any food. And they actually hadn’t arrived where they intended to arrive. They were way off course. Their goal was to set up shop farther down the coast, near the mouth of the Hudson River, but because of the late arrival, they had to settle for the northern point in what is now Massachusetts.
I’m sure they grieved, but they didn’t have much time to even do that. Life was hard, terribly hard. They had to keep working, keep moving, keep planning and building just to stay alive. There wasn’t any corner store to walk to if your remaining head of garden lettuce you’d planned to use that night for dinner was found snatched by an opportunistic bird. Or if your corn you planned to grind for corn cakes was found moldy and inedible in the storage barrel. If you were lucky, you might have hunted down a scrawny deer or goat to slaughter, but how far would that meat go? And much of it had to be prepared—pounded, salted, hung up, and dried before eating.
Thankfully, a young Indian named Squanto, who spoke English, took pity on them and showed them how to farm, grow crops and fish in that area. And a peace treaty between the Pilgrims and the Wampanoags and their chief, Massasoit, secured a relatively friendly, helpful, and protective living arrangement between the two groups for fifty years—considered the longest peace treaty in the history of our nation.
It was with this tribe that the Pilgrims gathered to celebrate their blessings from God—a feast to celebrate their first harvest in 1621, a year after their arrival. According to record, ninety American Indians and fifty-three Pilgrims attended, and they feasted for three days. Nice!
It shouldn’t surprise us that they would hold a feast. They were god-fearing, Bible devoted people who knew that God instructed his people to celebrate with feasts. A lot of them. The Israelites seemed to be feasting and celebrating all the time. To give thanks. And interestingly enough, of the three definitions given for “peace” in the Old Testament, (we’ve specifically been studying Shalom), one of them is translated “thank offering”. So when God instructs the Israelites to offer up peace offerings of thanksgiving, what He’s telling them is that He wants them to offer voluntary “peace” offerings to Him. Amazing, isn’t it. Have you ever considered being thankful an action of peace? A peaceful state of your heart? Thankfulness and peace being so interchangeable?
The other thing to note is that this offering was to be voluntary. While God gives them instructions for how to offer it, they were not commanded to do so. This was an offering that was to come from a heart overflowing with gratefulness to Him for… What? His provisions? His protection? His bountiful blessings? His salvation?
All of this giving thanks and three-day feasting with the Indians seems amazing in light of what the Pilgrims had suffered so soon after their arrival in November 1620 and into early 1621.. Within five months nearly half of them had died. Family dreams had vanished. Short lives ended. Orphans, widows, and widowers left grieving, and possibly sick and recovering. Just exactly how could the survivors pull themselves together to have a peace offering feast in the fall of 1621? What could they have been thankful for?
Maybe for the remnant who did survive? This might seem callous, but this group viewed themselves not so much as individuals but as a “tribe” or band carrying out God’s will. They still had each other.
For the Indians who so generously taught them how to survive in that unforgiving, harsh environment?
For the future they looked forward to, together?
For the overwhelming peace they felt now that they were out from under the dictating eye of people who punished them for living the way they felt God called them to live? For feeling safe? For no longer being persecuted by the English crown?
Maybe for the miracle they were given? If they had made it to the Hudson, they would have found a hostile Indian tribe there that would have likely ambushed and killed them.
Perhaps for the fresh river teeming with fish that they found near their landing point?
Or for the three acres of land the Indians had already cleared for growing and had abandoned? (A plague had already killed many of the Indians.)
For the high knoll nearby, a perfect to park a canon for protection?
When the Mayflower captain set sail for his return trip to England in the spring of 1621, not one surviving Pilgrim returned to their mother country with him and the crew. They were counting their blessings and looking to God for sustenance and direction. They were undeterred and determined.
That fall they asked Massasoit to gather with them for a feast. They invited him to come with members of his immediate family. There must have been something lost in the translation, though, because Chief Massasoit showed up with ninety-nine of his braves. Then Governor Bradford placed five kernels of corn on everyone’s plate and asked them to give him five things they were thankful for that first year in Plymouth. As Reverend Paul Jehle, a Plymouth re-enactor who heads up the Plymouth Rock Foundation says, "They believed this: that God was the provider of everything. You owed everything to your Creator God, and your Redeemer Jesus Christ. And therefore the things that you did have, since you deserved nothing, you are thankful for."
So, instead of dwelling on what they’d lost, they were thankful for all they had.
And there were so many other things that the Pilgrims did besides just survive and eke out an existence, like writing the Mayflower Compact, the first document of self-rule in this country.
They had so many reasons they could point to that could rob them of their thankfulness.
But they had so many reasons to be thankful. And they didn’t hesitate to offer a peace offering—a thank offering—to the God who provided those reasons. They chose to steer their heart toward Him.
And give thanks.
So what are you thankful for? If I sprinkled five corn kernels on your plate in front of you, what would you give thanks for as you picked up each kernel of corn? I encourage you to try it this week, in the presence of your family or friends on Thanksgiving Day or in private. And when you do, I think you’ll notice a change in your heart’s attitude. I think you’ll feel your heart opening and being flooded with peace. And then your heart will be prompted to offer up more thank offerings. On a daily basis. It’s like a snowball gathering more powder and getting bigger as it rolls downhill. A heart filled with gratitude is content.
A heart filled with gratitude is at peace.
So, until next Monday, may your week be full of blessings that you receive and give, your heart be full of joy and thankfulness, and your days be filled with laughter. Build a little heaven in your life right now, and watch your heavenly garden grow!
When the eyes of the soul looking out meet the eyes of God looking in, heaven has begun right here on earth. ~ A. W. Tozer