Thursday, November 22, 2007


Hundreds of years ago, a group of religious idealists grew tired of their government and its gloomy oppression, and crossed the ocean to freedom. The pilgrims we place in Thanksgiving dioramas resemble quakers more than open ocean explorers yet they endured hardship for their faith that most hope they will never suffer. They weathered blistering sun and relentless seas, disease, and hunger while embarking on the reckless task of crossing an ocean with nothing more than stars, paper and strings to plot their course. When they finally reached land, they found a completely mysterious world filled with seemingly hostile people with whom they could not communicate. But rather than fearing what they did not understand, they had dinner.

The pilgrims embodied so much of what Christ called people to be. They stood up against oppression, they welcomed and endured suffering, and they sought peace and community with even the most discomforting of people. The pilgrims found their freedom, yet like most things that start well, there was corruption to be had. The pilgrims brought plagues that killed the natives, and their ancestors would steal their land, murdering along the way. The Bible would be treated as a weapon of judgment, a means of segregation, and the freedom the pilgrims fled their homes for would be bound up in false teaching. The people would forget where they came from and take their nation for granted, and as a result we today clearly live as a people with a loose and selfish grip on our freedom.

How can we properly give thanks for something that has cost us nothing? The heart of this day is good. It is a day where people gather with the ones they love, share food, drink, and stories of the paths that lead to this point. It is also a day where we think of what we are grateful for. A day for telling the people who matter to us how we feel. A day where the poor and homeless are fed. Again, the heart of Thanksgiving is good but the spirit of it is lost.

I have had the privilege of going to church in an improbably poor African community torn apart by HIV/AIDS. I have been broken by the joy of people worshiping in freedom as if they never were sick, never understood class, and never suffered under apartheid. Yet it was because they lived in all of those things and so much more that they did worship freely for the God who delivered them. Because they understood where they had been, they graciously shared their joy before God with all they met and all they did.

Today I consider how little I understand about where I have come from. I live in that selfish freedom and the expectation that what has always been there will always be there though I know that is not true. And because I live so selfishly I am often blind to the awesome deliverance I have experienced and the freedom that comes of it. Now we have to have a day set aside to show gratitude, and we sit and create lists in our minds and on paper of all the things that we a thankful for. While we certainly do have much to be thankful for, I rarely express my thanks to the spring of graciousness, but rather to the waters it yields, and that is idolatry.

So on this Thanksgiving day I recognize that the heart of this day is good, but that the spirit of this day is lost amidst the sea of everything I have to be thankful for. I hope to be the sort of person who gives thanks in the midst of suffering, like my friends at Masiphumalele, or the Pilgrims before them, but first I must learn to hold loosely to the things I historically thank God for and rather cling with white knuckles to the freedom that was given long ago. Today it is my hope we remember just where it was we came from and the ocean we crossed to get there.