Our Pilgrim ancestors began the American tradition of Thanksgiving, just as wind-swept leaves fell relentlessly all around them, the frigid morning air demanded a fire in the hearth and a woolen outer garment, and the encroaching shadows asked candles be lit to push back the late afternoon darkness. Yet in this seemingly harsh new world, they offered the “first fruits” of their little harvest to God with gratitude and hospitality. We may wonder how it was they practiced gratitude instead of exhibiting bitterness, offered thanksgiving instead of sullen anger at all the difficulties they had encountered in this new land.
How? They had a vision, a purpose, a mission, which was larger than their immediate conditions. Their gratitude grew out of the strength God had given them to leave the confining legalities of religious oppression which had robbed them of integrity in their lives. They were now living into the reality of freedom of worship, stepping out in faith that “there is a power in the universe forever on the side of those who are brave enough to trust it.” They had the courage of their convictions.
And what of us here at First Congregational Church in Winchester? “Our purpose is to be a Christ-centered, nurturing community, growing in faith, serving in love, welcoming all with joy.” Will this vision help guide us through these changing times? Will we be able to practice gratitude in the midst of what may be for us a time when we see only the clouds and can’t begin to grasp the silver linings found somewhere in the experiences? As the Pilgrims understood well, change is difficult, even when it is “good” change. As William Bridges reminds us, “A known world must be surrendered in order to be able to have room to receive a new world.” Perhaps one of the most challenging aspects of faith is that God asks us to let go of our fundamental illusion that we are in control of everything, and recognize that only God is God. God is the one who holds all our beginnings and endings. God is the one offering us new life out of losses and deaths, new hope through the very experiences we have been avoiding through our denial, apathy, neglect, and illusions.
In our own entitled world, gratitude is sometimes hard for us to fathom or understand. Grace breaks in to us unexpectedly in moments when we recognize we can’t earn the love God offers us. We don’t “deserve” it. We are not entitled to it. Grace is a gift. Jesus points to this vulnerability of receptivity as the ground of the spiritual life. Dare we trust God enough to be receptive to a new world we would not have chosen and at times we do not even believe is possible? Courage is needed.
Will Thanksgiving this year find us courageously following our ancestors in faith, not merely glorifying a past, but thankfully crafting and visioning a future God is yearning to open to us? Faith faces forward. As God guides us, will we be bold enough to tell our stories of grace, release our fears, and trust in God’s all-loving power? May we let our thanks—and our Thanksgiving 2016—be to God!