The feature image for this year’s Thanksgiving post was chosen with specific intent. Although it evokes America’s iconic past, it also has the original Pilgrims arranged uncharacteristically, looking out to sea.
In this beautifully lit painting by N.C. Wyeth, the Pilgrims are in sunlight. Perhaps it is chilly, but it’s bright, on the Massachusetts coast, instead of overcast and dark and bitter cold. Sun glints off the clouds. And the Pilgrims seem alert, expectant, as if waiting for – you regulars know what I’m going to say – hope and a future.
For nearly 400 years, our collective memory of the first Pilgrims has been a more daunting one. We have thought of their hardships and sacrifices, their grit and courage. We have understood their thankfulness on the first Thanksgiving, but we have never associated it with idyllic conditions.
But a remarkable thing is happening this year, something that owes less to a particular individual – significant though he may be – than to a quickening of millions of hearts. For the first time in a very long time, it seems like many Americans are looking forward.
There’s a sense that we are at a great inflection point in history, both the history of our country and the history of men. For many of us, the outlines of “looking forward” are quite simple. We have real hope that the next few years will be better; that things will improve in our own lives, more than we’ve had reason to envision for a decade or more.
For others, the reflections are wider-ranging. For me, as each day goes by, I perceive more and more that our inflection point today is the biggest one, not in 250 or 400 or even 800-odd years, but perhaps in 2,000. The sense of old baggage falling away, and a brittle framework cracking up, is strong.
It’s just possible that we have emphasized storms, struggle, and the hurts of the past long enough. We honor those first Pilgrims for the tremendous sacrifices they made in faith. But if death in the cold of an unknown land were the only nobility – or the chief end-state of faith – we’d have little to look forward to. Perhaps it’s time for us to think of the Pilgrims differently: not facing a rocky, windswept shore in shivering apprehension, but looking out from it with the vision of faith, toward the sunlight of a new beginning.
That, after all, is what they thought they were doing. They didn’t come to America to build themselves a dark, chilly box to live in, one rigidly bounded by dour expectations and rearward-looking orthodoxies. They thought they were escaping one. For them, the end-state of mercy and grace was to be an explosion of possibilities.
If we want to truly honor our Pilgrim forebears this year, perhaps we might take conscious thought to this proposition: that our thankfulness should only begin with what we have averted, and the dwindling inventory left in our storehouse. Maybe the most heartfelt thanks should be for a future that is suddenly opening wide, as bigger things than we ever imagined are being swept out of our way.
May we, with N.C. Wyeth’s Pilgrims, see ourselves sunlit in hope, a broad blue horizon before us instead of sharp rocks and a turbulent gray tide. This disorganized time feels unsettled in our spirits. It won’t be without bumps and bruises. But its variable winds are the freshest and cleanest we have felt for a long, long time. They have not come from any ordinary source.
To all in LU Nation, the happiest and most blessed of Thanksgivings.
Concluding with our Thanksgiving tradition, here is the beloved hymn “We Gather Together to Ask the Lord’s Blessing.” The audio is adequate, not spectacular. But I chose this video because of the strong organ — which is how this one should be heard — and the memories it will evoke for many of singing the hymn just as the congregation here does.