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Giving thanks in grim times

Rev. Jack Van Ens
Vail CO, Colo

The Pilgrims didn’t have much for which to be thankful after surviving a harrowing cross-Atlantic voyage and landing on Massachusetts’s frozen shores. Yet, gratitude gripped their spirits. They weren’t thankful for the fierce ship ride across the Atlantic Ocean. Still, they exemplified what the Apostle Paul taught: “Always and in everything give thanks…” (Ephesians 5:20).

The Pilgrims prayed:

Thanks be to God

for the strength which He has given us

and the blessing He has provided

in bringing us to this hour

which is laden with possibilities for the future.

What fortified Pilgrims to press on? What toughened backbones and sustained spirits when thankless days almost suffocated them? What put wind in their emotional sails?

Elie Wiesel, when accepting the Nobel Peace Prize in 1986, caught the gritty resolve of Pilgrims. He stated, “No one is capable of gratitude as one who has emerged from the kingdom of night.” Wiesel, who survived the Holocaust, didn’t understand how anyone could be grateful for this genocide. But he was thankful that he could talk about it and fight against its return. With the Pilgrims, Wiesel experienced how, even in the worst of misery, a sliver of memory is still redeemable.

In July 1620, a Pilgrim band of religious separatists left Leiden, sailing from Holland to Southampton on England’s southern coast. Their craft was the cramped, over-rigged wreck of a ship, the Speedwell. It neither speedily skimmed across the waters, nor did the ship sit well in the seas. It bounced atop churning waves, like a dingy at the mercy of angry sea gods.

After gathering supplies, the Pilgrims headed to Plymouth, a rendezvous point where the stubby 60-ton Speedwell joined in port the 180-ton Mayflower. The Mayflower, prior to setting sail for the New World, had been used as wine transport vessel. Pilgrims preferred it to the Speedwell because of its cargo capacity. Moreover, the Mayflower stayed buoyant when violent seas swelled.

Shortly after embarking, the Speedwell sprang serious leaks. Both ships limped back to Dartmouth for repairs.

Those gritty Pilgrims started again towards the end of August. But fate forced them back a second time. The Speedwell, after sailing only three hundred miles, sunk deeper into the sea because of more leaks. Returning to Plymouth, 20 of the 120 would-be colonists gave up the ship and the ill-fated journey to a land about which they knew little. They settled at Leiden or migrated to London.

Though the future looked grim, the remaining 102 Pilgrims boarded the Mayflower. From September 6 to mid-November they eked out an existence on board. Massive storms lashed the Mayflower’s rigging. One man swept overboard was barely rescued. Another Pilgrim succumbed to “a grievous disease, of which he died in a desperate manner,” wrote Pilgrim leader William Bradford.

Finally, on November 9, 1620, these voyagers saw what we know as Cape Cod. Hugging the coast for a few days, the Mayflower dropped anchor where today tourists visit Provincetown Harbor in Massachusetts.

Once on firm ground, would troubles end for the Pilgrims? Governor William Bradford in the Records of Plymouth County bluntly described their miserable circumstances. “Being now passed the vast ocean, and a sea of troubles before them in expectations, they had now no friends to welcome them, no inns to entertain or refresh them, no houses, or much less towns, to repair unto to seek for succour; and for the season it was winter, and they that know the winters of the country know them to be sharp and violent, subject to cruel and fierce storms, dangerous to travel to known places, much more to search unknown coasts.”

Were the Pilgrims kidding themselves in desperate times when they prayed, thanking God for arduous hours “laden with possibilities for the future?”

How does a gritty gratitude pierce the darkness?

When knotty questions pester the mind, I try to unravel them before dawn while on a morning jog. A touch of magnificence sprung before me on a miserable running path.

Rehearsing the Pilgrims grim ventures on sea and land, I jogged along a frosty footpath. My fingers turned brittle. Bare legs exposed beneath jogging shorts blanched like overripe turnips the nippy air stings. The path lay shrouded in inky shadows. Fingers of light barely illumined the morning sky.

The day started out miserably”pilgrimish”with its darkness and deathly chill. Then I saw light cascade across prairie grass, burnished golden by the fall’s frost. A coyote ahead crossed the path I ran, only to slink back into the brush. Saffron leaves crunched and snapped underfoot.

In this grim wilderness a quiet beauty shimmered. Like Pilgrims of old, I thanked God for a day ladened with possibilities, magnificence hidden in misery. Doc:pilgrimgrit

The Reverend Dr. Jack R. Van Ens is a Presbyterian minister who heads the non-profit, tax exempt CREATIVE GROWTH Ministries, enhancing Christian worship through lively storytelling and dramatic presentations aimed to make God’s history come alive. Van Ens’s book, “How Jefferson Made the Best of Bad Messes,” is available in local bookstores for $7.95.


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