Thursday, November 28, 2019

Thanksgiving Proclamations

An Arkie's Faith column from the November 28, 2019, issue of The Mena Star.

Celebrating Thanksgiving in the United States has its roots in British Harvest Festivals and American history. In 1620, a group of more than 100 Puritans fleeing religious persecution, settled in what is now Massachusetts. The Pilgrims' first winter was so harsh that fewer than 50 of the group survived. The next spring, Native Americans taught them how to get sap out of the maple trees and how to plant corn and other crops. The harvest was successful, and the Pilgrims had enough food for the winter. Plymouth Colony's Governor, William Bradford, decided to throw a Harvest Festival and invited the colony's Native neighbors to take part.

Historians believe that this celebration took place sometime in the fall, though there are very few clues to reconstruct the feast.  All we know about it comes from a letter Edward Winslow wrote to a friend in England: “Our harvest being gotten in, our governor sent four men fowling, that we might rejoice together after we had gathered the fruit of our labors. They in one day killed as much fowl as served the company almost a week. At which time with many of the Indians coming among us, for three days we entertained and feasted; and they went out and killed five deer, which they brought to the plantation, and bestowed on our governor.”

It wasn't until two years later, after enduring a long drought, that the Pilgrims celebrated an actual Thanksgiving. The harvest of 1623 was almost wiped out by a drought that began in June. The crops turned brown and were slowly withering away. Without a crop, they would die. The Pilgrims turned to the only hope they had, intervention by God. They appointed a solemn day of humiliation and prayer. The Pilgrims assembled one July morning under a hot, clear sky and for nine hours prayed. Their prayers were answered the next morning. Edward Winslow wrote, “for the next two weeks distilled such soft, sweet and moderate showers that 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 thanksgiving.

Governor William Bradford’s proclamation is considered the first Thanksgiving Proclamation. “Inasmuch as the great Father has given us this year an abundant harvest, has spared us from pestilence and disease, and has granted us freedom to worship God according to the dictates of our own conscience. Now I, your magistrate, do proclaim that all ye Pilgrims, do gather at ye meeting house, on Thursday, November 29th, there to listen to ye pastor and render thanksgiving to ye Almighty God for all His blessings”. The first Thanksgiving wasn't a feast like the Harvest Festival of two years before; it was a solemn church service.

During his first year in office, President George Washington issued a proclamation that called for a day of thanksgiving. “Now, therefore, I do recommend and assign Thursday, the 26th day of November next, to be devoted by the people of these States to the service of that great and glorious Being who is the beneficent Author of all the good that was, that is, or that will be; that we may then all unite in rendering unto Him our sincere and humble thanks for His kind care and protection of the people of this country previous to their becoming a nation; for the signal and manifold mercies and the favorable interpositions of His providence in the course and conclusion of the late war; for the great degree of tranquility, union, and plenty which we have since enjoyed.”

The idea of a national Thanksgiving Day didn’t catch on, but in the mid-1800s, magazine editor Sarah Josepha Hale mounted a campaign to make Thanksgiving a national holiday. She wrote letters to five Presidents supporting a national Thanksgiving holiday. Her initial letters failed, but the letter she wrote to President Lincoln convinced him to issue a Thanksgiving Proclamation in 1863. In that year, with the county involved in a horrific Civil War, President Lincoln issued the following proclamation declaring a day of Thanksgiving. “It has seemed to me fit and proper that the gracious gifts of the Most High God should be solemnly, reverently and gratefully acknowledged as with one heart and one voice by the whole American People. 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 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.” Each year since 1863 the president of the United States has issued a Thanksgiving Proclamation.

Thanksgiving shouldn't be just a day; it should be a lifestyle. Philippians 4:5-7 (NKJV) tells us, “Let your gentleness be known to all men. The Lord is at hand. Be anxious for nothing, but in everything by prayer and supplication, with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known to God; and the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus.” As Christians, we should treat every day as a thanksgiving day. 

Gentle Reader, the Apostle Paul believed in Thanksgiving. In Colossians 2:6,7 (NOG), he wrote, “continue to live as Christ’s people. Sink your roots in him and build on him. Be strengthened by the faith that you were taught, and overflow with thanksgiving.” I want to live a life overflowing with thanksgiving. King David also believed in Thanksgiving. He said, “I will praise God’s name in song and glorify him with thanksgiving.” Psalms 69:30 (NIV) Do you glorify God with thanksgiving? One of the traditions of Thanksgiving is talking about the things we are thankful for. 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 every day. What are you thankful for this Thanksgiving? Happy Thanksgiving y'all!

Sunday, November 24, 2019

Hawksbill Crag

An Arkie's Faith column from the November 21, 2019, issue of The Mena Star.

The sunshine felt good as we headed down the trail on a crisp November afternoon. Leaves drifted down in the light breeze, and soft muted fall colors were all around us. The light of the sun filtered through the tree foliage on each side of the trail. I was finally on the trail to Whitaker Point Trail headed to Hawksbill Crag. Hiking to Hawksbill Crag had been on my bucket list since the first time I visited the Jasper, Arkansas area. It is easily one of the most photographed and recognizable features in Arkansas.

The Hawksbill Crag, also known as Whitaker Point, is located along the northern edge of the Upper Buffalo Wilderness in the Ozark National Forest. The three-mile round-trip hike has scenic vistas, huge boulders, and culminates at the iconic photo spot where a rock formation that juts out from the bluff's face resembles a hawk's beak.

My anticipation was high as I walked along the busy trail. I was surprised by how many people were on the trail. Our “older” group of hikers often stopped to let other hikers pass us. The Whitaker Point Trail allows dogs if they are on a leash, and we met many dogs – and their owners – as we hiked. My wife talked to every one of them. When I saw all the people out enjoying nature on a beautiful fall day, I was impressed by the amount of effort they all had to put into being there. The trailhead is six miles from the highway on a steep, narrow, rough county road. It is many miles from the nearest town. But hundreds and hundreds of people made an effort to see Hawksbill Crag that day.

We took our time as we hiked, occasionally stopping to take in the breathtaking beauty of the area. As we got closer to our destination, the trail followed the bluff, and there were numerous rock outcroppings with amazing views. After hiking for an hour and a half, the Hawksbill Crag came into view. I was thrilled to see it. It was as beautiful as I had imagined. After photographing it from our vantage point, we walked the last few yards to the crag. As I walked out onto the almost flat top of the crag, I felt safe and secure with solid rock under my feet, even though it was hundreds of feet down from the edge. After taking lots of photos and soaking up the moment, we headed out to the trail to make our way back.

With the anticipation of photographing and experiencing Hawksbill Crag no longer pushing us on, the return trip took us a half-hour longer. The fact that we were getting tired and that on the return we gained 320 feet in elevation might have also been a factor. As we were nearing the end of the trail, we heard a strange rumbling sound. “Could that be traffic on the road,” we wondered? But as we went around the corner, we saw that it was a man pulling a large carrying case on wheels. I assumed that the case carried camera equipment. I can’t imagine the dedication it takes to carry a large heavy case three miles over rough terrain to get a photograph.

We were tired when we reached the parking area and found the rest of our group, but excited to have accomplished our goal of hiking the Whitaker Point Trail. My wife, who has a fear of heights, enjoyed the hike and had no fear as she stood on Hawksbill Crag. When you are standing on the crag, you have no sensation of height. You feel like you are walking out onto solid rock. Before the hike, we had discussed the fact that it can be a dangerous hike, and that four people have fallen to their deaths in the last decade.

Standing on the solid rock of Hawksbill Crag reminded me of the words of an old hymn, “on Christ the solid rock I stand. All other ground is sinking sand.” The Hymn uses the Biblical imagery of God as a rock. King David wrote in Psalms 61:2 (NIRV), “from a place far away, I call out to you. I call out as my heart gets weaker. Lead me to the safety of a rock that is high above me.” And Deuteronomy 32:3,4 (NCV) uses the imagery of God as a rock. “Praise God because he is great! He is like a rock; what he does is perfect, and he is always fair.”

Jesus described how those who hear His words were like “a wise man who built his house on the rock.” Matthew 7:24 (ISV) The wise man did not live a problem-free life. The storms still rolled in, with dark clouds and raging winds. But because the man had chosen wisely and built his house on the solid rock, his house did not fall. Jesus said, “the rain fell, the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, but it did not collapse because its foundation was on the rock.”

As solid as the rock is at Hawksbill Crag, it isn’t a safe place if you get too close to the edge. If you slip and fall on the rock, you can pick yourself up and go on. You might skin a knee or get bruised, but you will live. But if you slip and fall too close to the edge, you might tumble hundreds of feet to your death.

Gentle Reader, God has provided a place of peace and safety for us. "Great peace have those who love Your law, and nothing causes them to stumble." Psalms 119:165 (NKJV) Sometimes we look at God's law as a jail. We feel that it creates uncomfortable restrictions. We need to ask God to give us a love for his commandments, to instill in us a desire for the peace and safety of His law, and build on the rock. “Loving God means keeping his commandments, and his commandments are not burdensome.” 1 John 5:3 (NLT)