This Thanksgiving, when we sit down with our turkeys and pumpkin pies, the odds are that we have some pictures of Pilgrims in the room--not real Pilgrims, but those kids’ versions with black hats and buckle shoes. We will tell children that on Thanksgiving Pilgrims got helped by the Indians and gave thanks. Yet in almost every detail, we get it wrong. The real story is much more complicated.
The story began in England in 1609. The Anglican Church, believed the whole church should worship like them. The Puritans (not the pilgrims) said all churches should be under their version of strict Biblical law. Neither side wanted religious freedom. Both wanted to either convert or destroy the other.
In the middle was the pastor of a little church in Weymouth, England--William Brewster. He believed that English society was too bad to reform, and that believers should leave the country and start the Kingdom of God elsewhere. He and his followers were forced to leave the country. They landed in Leyden, Holland.
Unfortunately, Holland wasn’t any better. While they could practice their religion, they weren’t allowed to own property or practice a trade unless they were part of Dutch Reformed.
Brewster and his little flock had an idea. They would move to the New World. Unfortunately, once again they made a huge mistake. You can’t just leave for New England, you had to have the king’s permission, and the king of England hated them.
They thought they found a loophole that would enable them to go to New England. The king gave permission for a group of businessmen to start a new colony. These men were more than happy to have them in New England, for a price. They could go, if they gave half of their money to their sponsor. The Pilgrims reluctantly agreed.
So, they put their money together and bought a ship for the journey. It was called the Speedwell—a leaky bucket of rust and barnacles, barely able to leave Holland, but they were stuck with it. Pastor Brewster, refused to go. They loaded their belongings on the ship and headed for New England.
It soon became obvious that the Speedwell wasn’t going to make it to America, so their backers hired another ship to go with them called the Mayflower. It was a good thing too, because the Speedwell did not make it past England before it sank. So, the 41 Pilgrims joined a motley group of 61 other settlers and sailors on board the Mayflower for the three month voyage to the New World. They were stuck on a boat with a group of money-grubbing adventurers and profane sailors who thought the Pilgrims were the funniest people they had ever seen.
Over the three months, the other passengers came to regard the Pilgrims with respect, and some even joined them.
The Pilgrims believed that God would take care of them, but so far, however, everything had gone wrong. Every time they started doing what God wanted them to do, they wound up in a worse mess.
We think if we trust God, then happiness is just around the corner. But sometimes, the only thing around the corner is another corner.
When the Mayflower arrived (at Cape Cod, not Plymouth Rock), they expected to either find an unspoiled wilderness or friendly Indians. But two years before they arrived, small pox had wiped out eighty percent of the Native Americans in New England. Everywhere they saw abandoned villages and empty fields. There were tribes still there, but they were too busy fighting each other to pay attention.
When they established their colony, to look like an English village. They planted the cash crops that grew in Virginia and Carolina such as tobacco, sugar, and indigo. None of them grew. Tobacco doesn’t grow in Massachusetts. Not only that, the winter was the hardest ever recorded. Over half of the Pilgrims died the first year of cold and starvation.
Then in the spring, a nearly naked man walked into camp and addressed them in perfect English. He was Samoset, a Native American who had spent time as a sailor on an English fishing boat. He welcomed them to the New World. Later, he returned with Squanto, the chief or the Massasoit tribe. They showed them how to plant crops that would grow and how to keep warm in the winter. What they didn’t know was that this tribe was with war with other tribes, and wanted their guns for protection. Later, they would call upon them to fight.
One day the tribe dropped in for dinner. There were about forty colonists and about a hundred and fifty Indians. There were no turkeys, but plenty of wild game. The natives ate them out of most of their supplies, and if it weren’t for the Massasoit bringing wild game, they would have starved. But in the end, they gave thanks and survived.
Was this Thanksgiving? Not really, the Pilgrims gave thanks every day. They praised God regularly even as disasters hit.
Which brings us to Philippians 4: 10-13 Paul wrote to the Galatians that he had been stoned, shipwrecked, imprisoned, beaten, starved, persecuted, and treated with contempt. But like the Pilgrims, he kept praising God. He learned to be content.
How do people like Paul and the Pilgrims learn to be content when awful things happen? They had to learn this kind of peace. We think we can never be content with our life situation, especially if our situation includes divorce, death or illness. We think that our good days are over forever. We never think we’ll love or laugh again. But we can learn contentment, nevertheless.
First, we learn contentment by studying who God is and what He is doing for us. Here’s a few basic facts we need to learn about Him.
1. That He created heaven and earth, and called all things good. Everything in life that we enjoy in life comes from the hand of God. Satan created nothing. Even forbidden pleasures are pleasures that God created. He gave us the capacity to receive and appreciate pleasure.
You may think your life is miserable, but why? You wouldn’t know misery unless you have sometime experienced its opposite. Even the absence of contentment is a sign that God created us to experience contentment.
2. That we will all die someday. God creates us to spend eternity in heaven, not in these frail bodies on earth. There is only one way to get there, and that is death. All the things we’d rather avoid are part of the ordinary cycle of life and death. They are not bad in themselves, but are part of something that is ultimately good, a journey from birth to heaven.
3. That God loves us and shares our sufferings. Since suffering must exist until death has been destroyed, God chooses as a demonstration of His love to suffer our pains with us. His incarnation in Jesus proves that. God entered our lives by the Holy Spirit, not just to give us strength, but to assure us that He is alongside us in our sufferings.
When Paul says, “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me,” he is not promising us super powers! Instead he’s saying that we can endure whatever life throws at us when we are in Christ. He is not taking us out of the cycle of birth, sickness and death, but is saying that Christ suffers with us.
4. That sufferings are temporary, but blessings are permanent. Our real joys in Christ are made permanent in heaven.
We don’t appreciate what God does, because we can’t see life from His perspective. When we see a great tragedy, we ask ourselves, “How could God allow so many people to die?” In heaven they ask, “Why does God so bless these saints so that so many have entered heaven?” Leaving this world is going to God, where suffering has ended.
The more we study and know God’s mind and heart, the more thankful we become for what He brings to pass.
Learning to be content requires practice as well as study. We must practice giving thanks for everything, large and small.
Giving thanks is a spiritual exercise well known among the Puritans. They understood that giving thanks turns our hearts from seeing our problems to seeing our blessings. It reminds us all the time that God is in control.
Practice giving thanks daily by making a “gratitude journal.” Keep a daily list of things to be thankful for. I have begun doing this recently. At the top of my list is always this—that I am personally and specifically loved by God. I may not always feel it, but I always know it. Christ died on the cross, not just for everyone’s sins, but for mine specifically.
Then, I give thanks for the small joys of everyday life—the joys of life, the weather, beauty, the sheer joy of breathing and being alive. I can appreciate the small blessings too.
Finally, I thank God for the big blessings in my life like my salvation, my life, and my joys. A recognition of these blessings lifted me out of temporary funks and frustrations. I try not to compare myself to others, but try to appreciate what God has given me overall, in the full span of life.
Suppose that God suddenly today gave you a gift. Suppose you could step out of time and space and see at one glance the day of your birth through the day of your death. Some would have longer lives than others, but most lives would follow a similar pattern. There would be a few times of struggle and pain. But there would be decades in between of peace and safety. The end of life might be rough, but only after a life of peace and blessings. Is it so bad to endure five years of suffering if before it had fifty years of joy? Rejoice in what God gives you over time. The more you give thanks, the more you will appreciate the blessings that are yours always.
Blessedness does not come from the outside world. It comes from the heart. It is not an absence of trouble, but an absence of cares in our trouble.
Suppose you were one of those seasick Pilgrims, hanging over the rails of that little Mayflower as those sailors laughed at you. Would you be giving thanks? Probably not. But suppose that God suddenly gave you the gift of seeing time sideways. You saw yourself on the boat, of course, but you could see on ahead. There you were, sitting at the feast with the Massasoit tribe, building a settlement, having children, prospering in a new world. Suppose then, you would see beyond your lifespan, and see the descendants of your children as leaders in the land, prospering more than any nation or people have ever prospered. Do you think if you could see what God was doing in the future, you would have any trouble giving thanks? That is just what the Pilgrims did.
Paul also had that same vision. That’s how he learned to endure whether he abounded or was abased. He knew that neither state could bring contentment or take it away. He was content as long as he had Christ.
Don’t wait until later to give thanks—learn to start now. When we thank God, we recognize that He is in control, and that the important things in life come from Him alone. The Pilgrims knew this. Paul knew this, too. God’s grace in Christ will help us to endure the worst of circumstances, and give us contentment today.