Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Happy Thanksgiving

Do you have plans for Thanksgiving?  I’m looking forward to visiting my sister Jeannie in Missouri. I hope that you have plans with family and friends.

I learned in school that the first Thanksgiving was held by the Pilgrims in 1621.  I have later found out that it wasn’t quite true.

The Pilgrims did set apart a day to celebrate at Plymouth immediately after their first harvest, in 1621. At the time, this was not regarded as a Thanksgiving observance, but a harvest festival.  Harvest Festivals were existing parts of English and Indian tradition alike.  The English tradition of Harvest Festivals goes back to the Celtic celebration of Samhain which is of pagan origin.  There is evidence it has been important since ancient times.  It was the time when cattle were brought back down from the summer pastures and when livestock were slaughtered for the winter. At Samhain, it was believed that the gods needed to be propitiated to ensure that the people and their livestock survived the winter. Offerings of food and drink were left outside for them. The souls of the dead were also thought to revisit their homes seeking hospitality. Feasts were had, at which the souls of dead kin were beckoned to attend and a place set at the table for them. Other traditions involved people going door-to-door in disguise, often reciting verses in exchange for food.

When Christianity came to England the Christians sanitized the celebration turning it into a Harvest Festival.   Harvest is from the Anglo-Saxon word hærfest, which translates as autumn. It then came to refer to the season for reaping and gathering grain and other grown products. The full moon nearest the autumnal equinox is called the Harvest Moon. In ancient traditions Harvest Festivals were traditionally held on or near the Sunday of the Harvest Moon. This moon is the full moon which falls in the month of September.

One of the traditions was baking loaves of bread from the fresh wheat crop. These were given to the local church as the Communion bread during a special service thanking God for the harvest.  Harvest Festivals are still a part of British culture. Nowadays the festival is held at the end of harvest, which varies in different parts of Britain. Sometimes neighboring churches will set the Harvest Festival on different Sundays so that people can attend each other's festivals. Farmers celebrated the end of the harvest with a big meal called a harvest supper. Many churches and villages in England still have a Harvest Supper.

The celebration that we refer to as the first thanksgiving in the fall of 1621 was actually a harvest festival.  It was a bountiful feast, but the Pilgrims had grossly overestimated their harvest.  The only way they could possibly get through the winter was to cut in half the already meager weekly rations.   They struggled through the winter, but in May 1622, their food supply was completely gone and the harvest was four months away.

In desperation, Edward Winslow was sent 150 miles up the Maine coast to buy, beg or borrow whatever provisions the English ships there could spare.  Hearing the plight of this courageous little group, the captains were extremely generous. By the time Winslow returned, the settlers were literally starving.  The provisions were a godsend, but the long awaited harvest of 1622 was a dismal failure.  The Pilgrims had not yet perfected the art of growing corn; they had been busy building the fort and their lack of food that summer left them too weak and weary to tend the fields properly.  It seemed that they now faced the prospect of another year with little food.

Their hopes rested on a good fall harvest, but the harvest of 1623 was almost wiped out.  A six week drought began in June and the crops turned brown and were slowly withering away.  They turned to the only hope they had – intervention by God, and appointed a solemn day of humiliation and prayer. They assembled one July morning under a hot, clear sky and for nine hours prayed.  Their prayers were answered the next morning, and for the next two weeks said Winslow, "distilled such soft, sweet and moderate showers…as it was hard to say whether our withered corn or drooping affections were most quickened and revived".  Governor Bradford ordered that July 30,1623 be set aside as a day of public thankfulness.  That day of Thanksgiving was not a feast, but a solemn worship service thanking God for the rain.

The pilgrims were not the first Europeans to have a Thanksgiving celebration in America.  The first recorded Thanksgiving ceremony took place on September 8, 1565, when 600 Spanish settlers, under the leadership of Pedro Menéndez de Avilés, landed at what is now St. Augustine, Florida, and immediately held a Thanksgiving ceremony for their safe delivery to the New World; there followed a feast and celebration.   As far as we know this was the first Thanksgiving celebration held in America.

Canadians also celebrate Thanksgiving.  The history of Thanksgiving in Canada goes back to an explorer, Martin Frobisher, who had been trying to find a northern passage to the Orient. In the year 1578, he held a formal Thanksgiving ceremony, in what is now the province of Newfoundland and Labrador, to give thanks for surviving the long journey.

This is how a Canadian explained it to me.  We did actually have the FIRST Thanksgiving, a full 43 years before the pilgrims at Plymouth Rock, but, in true Canadian fashion, there was something wrong with it. That first North American Thanksgiving would have been "celebrated" in sub-zero temperatures on a barren, windswept moonscape by a muttering, mutinous crowd wondering whether "the chief" had all his marbles.

Sir Martin Frobisher set out to find the Spice Islands through the Northwest Passage. He landed instead on Baffin Island. The complete absence of trees and a pitiless terrain of unrelieved rock and permafrost barely dampened his determination to establish the first English settlement in North America. Ever the optimist, he spent two years mining "gold ore". When it was shipped back to England, it was found to be iron pyrite. Fool's Gold.

Throughout the history of the U.S. and Canada, Thanksgiving has been observed.  In the U.S. there has been an annual Thanksgiving observed since 1863.  In that year with the county involved in a horrific Civil War, President Lincoln issued the following proclamation declaring a day of Thanksgiving.

I do therefore invite my fellow citizens in every part of the United States, and also those who are at sea and those who are sojourning in foreign lands, to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next, as a day of Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens. And I recommend to them that while offering up the ascriptions justly due to Him for such singular deliverances and blessings, they do also, with humble penitence for our national perverseness and disobedience, commend to his tender care all those who have become widows, orphans, mourners or sufferers in the lamentable civil strife in which we are unavoidably engaged, and fervently implore the interposition of the Almighty Hand to heal the wounds of the nation and to restore it as soon as may be consistent with the Divine purposes to the full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquility and Union.

One of the traditions of Thanksgiving is talking about the things we are thankful for.  There are many things, but I am truly thankful for my family, my friends, my country, my community, and especially for Jesus Christ and the grace that he shows me.

What are you thankful for this Thanksgiving?  Happy Thanksgiving y'all!

Friday, November 20, 2015

Thank God For Grace

We are looking forward to celebrating Thanksgiving with my sister. We will be leaving next Wednesday and heading for Ashland, Missouri.  The purpose of Thanksgiving is eating until we are stuffed... and giving thanks.  I appreciate the reminder to give thanks for our blessings, but realize that we should be giving thanks 365 days of the year. 

In the U.S. there has been an annual Thanksgiving observed since 1863.  In that year, with the county involved in a horrific Civil War, President Lincoln issued a proclamation declaring a day of Thanksgiving. 

One of the traditions of Thanksgiving is talking about the things we are thankful for.  There are many things, but I am truly thankful for my family, my country, my community, nature, and especially for Jesus Christ and the grace that he shows me.

The Greek word translated in the Bible as thanksgiving is eucharistia.  The English spelling is Eucharist.  My dictionary gives the following definitions.   1.  The sacrament of Holy Communion; the sacrifice of the Mass; the Lord's Supper.  2.  The giving of thanks; thanksgiving.

The word that most people use to describe the Lord’s Supper means thanksgiving.  What a great thought.  The Lord’s Supper is a ceremony in which we give thanks for what Jesus has done for us.  The root word in Eucharist is charis.  Charis is normally translated as grace.  That makes sense.  Think with me for a moment.  What happens at the beginning of your Thanksgiving meal?  Someone says “grace”.  Why do we say that they say grace?  Saying grace is giving thanks. 

At a British conference on religions, experts from around the world debated what, if any, belief was unique to the Christian faith. They began eliminating possibilities. Incarnation? Other religions had different versions of gods appearing in human form. Resurrection? Again, other religions had accounts of return from death. The debate went on for some time until C.S. Lewis wandered into the room.  “What’s the rumpus about?” he asked, and heard in reply that his colleagues were discussing Christianity’s unique contribution among world religions. Lewis responded, “Oh, that’s easy. It’s grace.”

After some discussion, the conferees had to agree. The notion of God’s love coming to us free of charge, no strings attached, is singularly Christian.  Of all the world’s religions, only Christianity dares to make God’s love unconditional.

In 2 Timothy 1:9, the Bible says, “He has saved us and called us with a holy calling, not according to our works, but according to His own purpose and grace which was given to us in Christ Jesus before time began”.

Before you were born there was grace for you.  Thank God for grace!  As wonderful as it is, grace is not well understood and often not really believed. We use the word a lot but rarely think about what it means. It's probably true that most of us think infrequently about God's grace. 

Part of our problem is in the nature of grace itself. Grace is scandalous. It’s hard to accept. It’s hard to believe. It’s hard to receive. We are skeptical when a telemarketer tells us, "I'm not trying to sell you anything. I just want to offer you a free trip to Hawaii." Automatically we wonder, "What's the catch?" because we have all been taught that "there's no free lunch."

Grace shocks us in what it offers. It frightens us with what it does for sinners. Grace teaches us that God does for others what we would never do for them. We would save the not-so-bad. God starts with prostitutes and then works downward from there. Grace is a gift that costs everything to the giver and nothing to the receiver. It is given to those who don't deserve it, barely recognize it, and hardly appreciate it.

Grace means that no one is too bad to be saved. The Bible is full of examples; Liars, cheaters, murderers, adulterers, prostitutes.  God specializes in saving really bad people.

Grace also means that some people may be too good to be saved. That is, they may have such a high opinion of themselves that they think they don't need God's grace. They may admit they are sinners but they don't admit they are spiritually dead.

This view of grace is hard for good people to accept because it means we must give up our "goodness" in order to be saved. We must admit that nothing we have done matters in the least when it comes to being forgiven by God. God has designed our salvation so that he alone gets the glory!

Ephesians 2:8,9 tells us,  “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, not of works, lest anyone should boast”.

Imagine what heaven would be like if you had to earn your way there. "I was a preacher." "I built churches across the world." "I gave a million dollars to world missions." "I had hundreds of baptisms at my meetings." "I volunteered at the hospital." “I baked cookies for the school kids.” As good as those things are they will not help forgive even one sin. They will not save you or help save you. 

Can you just imagine someone putting his arm around Jesus and saying, "You and me, Jesus, we did it: You died on the cross and I baked the cookies”? I am so thankful that it's not like that. When Jesus died on the cross, he paid the full price for your salvation. Jesus paid the price all by himself.

Grace is never cheap.  Grace costs the ultimate.  It is just that you and I aren’t the ones paying.  “For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whosever believes in Him shall not perish, but have everlasting life”.  John 3:16

Thank God for grace!   Look for grace in unexpected places. I know that you will find it. Paul tells us in 1 Timothy 1:14, "the grace of our Lord is exceedingly abundant".