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November 2013

Through a Mirror Dimly: A Review of The First Thanksgiving, By Robert Tracy MacKenzie

TFTOne of the ways I tend to approach the various holidays we are given is to try to invest them with greater meaning, to establish and celebrate traditions, to discover their roots and nurture their fruit. At Thanksgiving, our least commercialized holiday, we gather with family for a meal, watch the Macy's Day parade, think about the Pilgrims and Squanto, and consider, albeit briefly, that for which we are thankful.

I didn't read Robert MacKenzie's The First Thanksgiving: What the Real Story Tells Us About Loving God and Learning From History to dispel such efforts, but to enlarge them. I had been schooled sufficiently in a post-modern skepticism to doubt that we had much of the original story correct, and yet I wanted to know what that first thanksgiving was all about, if we had any of it right or had manufactured it out of whole cloth. I received all that and more from MacKenzie's well-documented, widely accessible book.

The author, a Professor of History at Wheaton College, while documenting his work carefully, has not written an academic tome. The style is engaging and warm, and if he occasionally lapses into the first-person, it is only to demonstrate the profound impact that these ancestors of the past have for him. He disciples us both historically and spiritually, providing not only historical information but schooling us in a Christian view of the past, of how we have misused the past and yet how our reflection on it may be redeemed.  In a time that suffers from "presentism," when history is dismissed as irrelevant or suffers Chesterton's "chronological snobbery," he reminds us of how important is its study, particularly for Christians, reminding us that

[h]istory is utterly central to Christianity, for its core doctrines rest on theological interpretations of historical events, such as creation, the fall, the incarnation, the cross and the resurrection. (Go back to the Apostles’ Creed and note just how many of its statements are historical claims.) Through eyes of faith we recognize all of human history as “a story with a divine plot”—not cyclical, as many of the ancients believed, but linear, with God at its beginning, the cross at its center and the return of Christ to mark its culmination. And because God is the author and Lord of human history, we should see it as a sphere that he has created—and thus a form of natural revelation—every bit as much as the physical world around us.

So as the author looks at the Pilgrims and that first Thanksgiving, don't think of it as history, if that hurts too much.  Think of it as a primer on how we are to remember and speak of fellow human beings. . . in this case those who just happened to have died before any of us or anyone we ever knew were born.

What we learn, of course, is that our limited knowledge of that first Thanksgiving in the Fall of 1621 is really derived from all of 115 words written by Edward Winslow, assistant to William Bradford, Governor of Plymouth Plantation.  Ready? Here goes:

Our harvest being gotten in, our governor sent four men on fowling, that so we might after a more special manner rejoice together after we had gathered the fruit of our labors. They four in one day killed as much fowl as, with a little help beside, served the company almost a week. At which time, amongst other recreations, we exercised our arms, many of the Indians coming amongst us, and among the rest their greatest king Massasoit, with some ninety men, whom 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, and upon the captain and others.

That's it.  What we know is that there was a celebration, that Indians came, and that there was a meal. What we don't know is whether the Indians were invited or just, as Winslow puts it, "came up among them." What is now billed as a multi-cultural love-fest likely would have been tense, given that all of two years later the Pilgrims' fort was adorned with a severed Indian head and in light of the misconceptions that they had about each other. We also know that the meal bore little resemblance to what we eat today (and likely did not include turkey), and nowhere did it receive a billing as a Thanksgiving (though undoubtedly the devout Pilgrims did offer thanks, glad as they were not to face starvation as they did the previous Winter, their ranks thinned by 50% in that time.)

While such autumn harvest festivals appear to have continued, the Pilgrims reserved Thanksgiving Days for a special event, not a yearly celebration, as they would have regarded it as presumptuous to designate a special day for thanksgiving before its time. Rather, thanksgiving days arose from special proclamations and were solemn days of prayer, not festivals.

That brief summary does not do justice to the evidence-check that the author does, one that tempers our belief in the traditional story of Thanksgiving,  yet Professor MacKenzie is not out to burst our holiday bubble or set aside our celebrations. Rather, he goes on to tell us how he finds the Pilgrims inspirational, encouraging, challenging, and convicting.  In doing so he offers us a primer on Christian moral reflection and displays a gracious if unsentimental view of those who have come before us, counseling humility when drawing conclusions. As he reminds us:

To say that we see the past “as through a glass, darkly” only begins to capture the magnitude of our inadequacy. But there is One, the architect and Lord of history, who comprehends that incalculable expanse perfectly and exhaustively. When we realize this, it should cause us to drop to our knees and declare with the psalmist, “Such knowledge is too wonderful for me” (Psalm 139:6). In this sense, gazing into the past is like gazing into the night sky. Our natural response should be one of wonder and awe and a humbling awareness of our own limitations. Authentically Christian education always promotes such awareness. If an integral component of wisdom is self-knowledge, “the first product of self-knowledge is humility,” as Flannery O’Connor reminded us.

He is interested not in making idols of our ancestors but in seeing them as heroic and yet very human people.  He is interested in honesty, accuracy, and in how study of the past reveals God's glory --- and the latter, in his view, comes from seeing the power of God manifested in the weakness and frailty of humanity.

While the actual details and educated speculations about the Pilgrims and that first Thanksgiving are interesting, I found myself more drawn to their legacy, to what they bequeathed us.   Here the author's reflection on what we know of the Pilgrims is rich.  He finds that the Pilgrims inspire by their communal perseverance in the face of trials more arduous than most of us will ever face.  He is encouraged by the fact that these "plain men" of "moderate abilities" (using their own words), though flawed and weak by worldly standards, were used by God in powerful ways.  Finally, he is challenged and convicted by their implicit indictment of the radical individualism of our American lives as well as the worldliness of the church, our preoccupation with this world and its ways as opposed to the one to come.  

The Pilgrims remind us that we are all of us pilgrims, "strangers and aliens" in the world.  As the author says, "It is not their poverty that I find most convicting, but their hope of heaven." His extended reflection on our history ends with humility and doxology, on our "littleness" and His "bigness" --- the only right place for the Christian to stand after reflection on both Word and World.

I highly recommend The First Thanksgiving.  Read it to learn more of our history.  Read it to learn how to think about history.  Better yet, let it school you in humilty and awe before the mystery of what has been and what will come.  Let it free you from yourself. In the end, the book became for me a work of devotional literature, a meditation on God's providence, a school of humility, and an aid to worship.  Finished, something like this prayer drifted upward frome a heart unsprung from what my mind absorbed: "Come Lord Jesus, come, and deliver me from my hellish preoccupation with myself, from the petty, puckish, and paltry preoccupations of my days, from the ill-formed judgments of others past and present, from presumption and pride.  Teach me what it means to be a pilgrim.  Keep before me the hope of Another Country.  Yes, "come Lord Jesus, come."

Sabotaging the Regime of Speed

AllFleshIsGrass"The power of history is not to make us more informed, but more whole. . . . Remembering is sabotage against the regime of speed. . . . It's an act of faith too."

(D.J. Waldie, in Where We Are Now: Notes from Los Angeles)

I once had a conversation with one of my children about the importance of history.  It amounted to a back and forth of "History is important" countered by "No, it's dumb."  I said "You remember how you walked up the steps to your room?  Now, what if you couldn't remember?"  (Visualize rolling of eyes.)  See, history is important, right?"  And then there was that conversation closer, "Oh, that's different."

That is different, only it's different because that's our own micro-history and what we were really discussing was macro-history, history writ large, like WWII, the fall of the Iron Curtain, or even medieval times.  About this, as it is well known, we have a cultural amnesia, living as we are in a time in which the disease of present-ism is epidemic. 

Others may speak eloquently to that, but what I was taken with was Waldie's initial comment that "remembering is sabotage against the regime of speed."  Our time is characterized by the idolatry of speed, whether it's faster hard drives, instant communication, or a flattening of the time from here to  there.  Pretty soon we can suspend disbelief and pretend there is no there, that everything is here, as it virtually is.  Right now, if I wanted to, I could see a place in and speak with a person from every time zone on the planet.  I don't want to.  There is something deeply unsettling about such a flattening of time and place and ignoring of the natural rhythms of day and night.  My contrarian bent rears its head.

For Christians, the regime of speed and homogenizing of time and place is deeply unbliblical.  Remembering - something we are repeatedly exhorted to do in Scripture - forces us to stop movement of mind and body, to, as God commands via the Psalmist, "be still and know that I am God,"  to take note of our place in our Creator's economy. Whether it is the constant exhortation of the Israelites to remember the Exodus, God's deliverance of his chosen people, or the Apostle Paul's exhortation to remember the death and resurrection of Christ, remembering is a rebel act of sabotage by which we are delivered by God from a regime of speed to a place of light where time nearly ceases in the presence of truth.  I think of those very long minutes that ticked by in 4th grade as my friends and I waited for the big hand on the clock to hit 3:30 and the bell to ring.  Like that, remembering is also waiting --- waiting for God, for revelation, for the jig-saw puzzle of the past to shed a bit of light on the present, for God to show up in the higgledy-piggledy details of a life already lived.

In his own inimical way, Waldie does not always draw out the meaning of a phrase, good prose-poet that he is.  He says remembering "is an act of faith too."  That bears thinking about, and our thoughts may carry us (as with poetic language) on paths not necessarily intended by the poet. But what I think this means is that when we remember rightly we mark our belief in a providential ordering of past events, both the big stories and our own little thread of personal history.  For if we don't believe that history is in any sense ordered, that all is random, that there is nothing predictable but unpredictability, then history is valueless.  The way home may not be the same way home as it was yesterday.  The ground may have shifted.  Power that corrupted 100 years ago may do so no longer.  People who can't seem to be good will all of a sudden act justly, kindly, and wisely all the time, or vice versa.  Even the atheist can't live with a nihilism that renders history meaningless.

Note I didn't say that history never appears random or seems meaningless.  It does.  Whether it's tsunamis or tornadoes or the less than equal distribution of resources to nations, or why we can never seem to get a leg up, lost our job, or suffer unrequited love, the question of why stretches far across the landscape of history, both communally and personally.

"An act of faith?"  I think he means not faith in history nor God forbid faith in man.  It's not the why of history but the Who behind it all that matters.  Why addresses secondary causes; Who, the primary.  When we know the Who, we can trust that all the seemingly meaningless threads of our lives will come together, in the end, in the One who holds together all things, and who on that day sets aside even time.  May He speed that day.

Until then, we wait, and remember, watch the clock, and somewhere in our past see what is timeless and beyond the regime of speed.

[The image is of a mult-media work by Asheville, NC Carol Bomer entitled "All Flesh Is Grass."  Carol describes it this way: This is an assemblage which includes a clock that turns the hand in front of a light box. The light box shines through a pair of X-ray hands (a poignant night light) that reach upward like the grass motif repeated twice at the top of the piece. The photo is my husband and friends when he was six. It has a removable frame which exposes text that reads, "...for all flesh is like grass, and all its glory like the flower of  grass; the grass withers and the flower fades, but the Word of the Lord abides forever."   I liked it for the clock, in its reference to time, in the time-lessness it exudes.  For more information on Carol's art, visit Soli Deo Gloria Studio.]

Glory Down Deep (Late Fall)


"One drifting leaf on a windowsill can be a city dweller's fall, pungent and melancholy as any hillside in New England."  (E.B. White)

Late Fall is my favorite time, a time of deciduous glory, a last flinging of yellow, orange, and red before the browns and evergreens of winter command.  Leaves skip across my lawn, a ragged throw.  Some, blown by the exhaling sky, gather by fenceposts, huddle and gossip, while others flap in the breeze, clinging to twigs.  I am wasting time well, sitting here and listening in.

That everything is falling makes some people sad.  I understand that.  "Why can't the earth just get over it," said one friend, "just drop the leaves all at once, and then we can get on with the Christmas lights and something happy?"  There is the sense that everything is dying, and yet that is an emotional response to what appears on the surface.  Underneath that lies reason for joy. 

I walk.  On familiar streets I begin to see the lay of the land, its contour now revealed by trees near bare, and I realize that developers have superimposed house and streets and water and sewer over what was already given, on what persists. In some places the leaves form a foot deep covering, over time decaying and seeping nutrients back into the soil, giving life even in death.  Sight increases and deeper thoughts come.  "If everything is dying," I say to my friend, "it sure is a lovely dying."

In late Fall, glory goes down deep.  Roots grow stronger, life percolates beneath, and yet the evidence is hidden.  The leaves crunching underfoot tell me that they are ready to go, that death will yield new growth. Trees whisper sap, creak of the past, stand tall and comfort.  I put my hand out for a pine and rest it there, for empathy.  I am not ready to go, and yet some things must die even in me.

Late Fall portends a season of hidden fruit.  God works down under.  I am Judah down under Nebuchadnezzar, an Israelite down under Pharaoh, Jonah in the whale, Myra Scovel in a Japanese prison, writing "'Dear God,' I cried,/ before the gates clanged shut,/ 'However dark my cell may be,/ grant that its window/ frame a tree.'"  God gave her not just a tree but "pink ecstasy along a bough,/ spring against sky!"  We are all of us waiting.

I look up at an azure sky, then down to feet that fall.  I have to keep walking.  I have to die to self, to those dreams about me that become idols if they persist.  I have to realize I cannot hold the world, even my little one, in check.  That I have no control.  That I must let the world spin and seasons turn.  And yet I have to keep believing that great and good and yet ultimately mysterious things are going on down under, in me, in those I love, in the world even, though I can't see them, that “he who began a good work in  [me] will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ” (Phil. 1:6).  Soon it will be Winter, and then I really have to believe, have to accept that buried under the snow or on the other side of a bitter wind lies light, that new life will sprout in what dies.

All I need to remember is "one drifting yellow leaf."  That'll be my Fall. That'll be my "pungent and melancholy" hope of Spring.  That'll be what I take and hold.