November 18, 2013
“Inquire, please, of the former age,” Bildad the Shuhite counseled Job, “and consider the things discovered by their fathers, for we were born yesterday, and know nothing” (Job 8:8-9 NKJV). Job’s friends aren’t remembered for their sage advice, but in this respect, at least, Bildad nailed it. At its best, the study of the past helps us to see our own day with new eyes. By giving us a memory before birth, it offers us a perspective that transcends the brevity of our own sojourn on earth. And yet we live in a present-tense culture that all too readily consigns our forebears to oblivion, rejecting what G. K. Chesterton called “the democracy of the dead” in order to bow to that “small and arrogant oligarchy of those who merely happen to be walking about.”
I’m especially mindful of our cultural myopia at Thanksgiving. While most of us still make time for a special meal on Thanksgiving Day before we turn on the football game or rush off to the mall to buy electronics, we have pretty much forsaken the idea of a Thanksgiving season. Who takes time anymore to anticipate the holiday, meditate on its significance, and take steps to live out its meaning? More particularly, who takes the time to follow Bildad’s advice and “inquire of the former age” about this quintessentially American observance? In a word, who has time for the Pilgrims?
I’m convinced that our lives are the poorer for it. The Pilgrims had their blind spots—as do we—but there is much in their example we can learn from. They were men and women of deep conviction, uneasily daunted, willing to suffer for principle’s sake. They loved their children, they loved the body of Christ, and they abandoned everything that was familiar to them in order to serve both. They exhibited enormous courage: can you imagine cramming 102 passengers into a ship’s hold the size of a school bus and making a 65-day voyage to a strange world? They then persevered in the face of unspeakable hardship and loss, half of the colony dying from exposure their first winter in New England. Finally, they exhibited a faith in God’s sovereignty that humbles us. What we remember as the “first Thanksgiving” was a celebration primarily of widowers and orphans. (Fourteen of the eighteen wives who made the voyage had died by spring.) That the Pilgrims could celebrate at all in this setting was a testimony both to human resilience and to heavenly hope.
But above all, the Pilgrims understood that they were pilgrims. By this I mean that they had a clear sense of their identity in Christ. Pilgrims is one of those words that we have used so much that it has lost much of the power of its literal meaning. Today when we use the word, we typically mean simply the group of individuals who came to New England on the Mayflower in 1620. When William Bradford used the word in describing that group nearly four centuries ago, however, he used it to convey the Leiden Separatists’ understanding that they were strangers passing through a world that was not their home. We read this in one of the most poignant passages in Of Plymouth Plantation, Bradford’s description of the emigrants’ departure from Leiden, South Holland, and their heart-wrenching parting from those in their congregation who would not be making the journey. Bradford wrote of the “abundance of tears” that was shed as the group said their goodbyes and “left that goodly and pleasant city which had been their resting place near twelve years.” They could find the resolve to press on, he explained (drawing from the eleventh chapter of the book of Hebrews), because “they knew they were pilgrims, and looked not much on those things, but lift up their eyes to the heavens, their dearest country, and quieted their spirits.”
I am convinced that if we shared this sense of pilgrimage it would shape not only how we celebrate Thanksgiving, but also the way that we think about God’s blessings throughout the year. Although he didn’t speak specifically of the relation between pilgrimage and gratitude, C. S. Lewis wonderfully captured what I have in mind in a favorite passage from The Problem of Pain. Lewis observed that
I think the Pilgrims, or most of them, understood this. I hope we can too. When we know that we are pilgrims, it changes how we approach the Thanksgiving table. The feast that awaits us is a “pleasant inn,” and we are right to delight in it, but we must not let it tempt us to “rest our hearts in this world.” The food we enjoy and the fellowship that warms us are mere glimpses and shadows—a taste of things to come. It is good if they nourish and encourage us, but it is better still when they increase our hunger for a different feast, the banquet that God is preparing for those who “desire a better, that is, a heavenly country” (Hebrews 11:16).
Robert Tracy McKenzie is professor and chair of the history department at Wheaton College. He is president of the Conference on Faith and History, a national association of Christian historians, and the author, most recently, of The First Thanksgiving: What the Real Story Tells Us about Loving God and Learning from History. McKenzie blogs on Faith and History.
Posted by Nate Baker-Lutz at 10:47 AM