This morning I took my coffee out on the porch and read how the Pilgrims who settled Plymouth Colony in 1620 lost almost half their people the first winter. The Wampanoag (remember Squanto?) taught them to fertilize corn with fish guts and other life-saving tactics, helping to save them from near extinction. Squanto’s own tribe had been completely wiped out by a mysterious disease years before.
Less than a year later, the Pilgrims, newly regrouped and thriving, feasted with their unlikely native friends on turkey, mussels, berries, and gourd pumpkins filled with cream. In a fabulous three day celebration complete with games, dancing the jig, and “exercising of arms” (and we think football and snoozing on the couch after turkey is awesome), two people groups to whom death was a present and very possible reality gathered together to praise God for his goodness.
They had lost so much, and still, they gave thanks.
This week death stole a loved one in our family, just a month after it extinguished her spouse. No one is saying this outright, but I can see it in the faces around me. Mouths are saying,
“I can’t believe this happened,” but what we’re really asking is, “Is God still good?”
No one really feels like it’s the right time to be grateful, but tomorrow is Thanksgiving.
Before the Pilgrims set sail for North America, religious freedom, and peace, they had a worship service on the shores of Delftshaven, Holland. Through prayer and tears, they solidified their identity as pilgrims passing through this world onto the next. If they had known how many of their company truly be departing for the next great adventure in such a short time.
Death is not a daily companion in Western society, unless you happen to be a doctor or nurse or a binge-news watcher. So when it strikes, we tend to question rather than trust, as the Pilgrims did.
As I was taking cheese from a wrapper the other night, I suddenly remembered how my grandparents passed within 2 weeks of each other when I was 16. When my mom got the news while making breakfast, she hid in her room, weeping, but she trusted. We packed our bags twice within a fortnight to see them off to the next world, first my grandfather, then my grandmother.
“Wouldn’t you question God?” my husband asked me today.
“What would you do if your parents died, or me? Wouldn’t you question God?” Of course. I would be devastated, but the theological dialogue I was raised into was a conversation of trust with God. I find that I naturally do, instead of despairing.
So words spill out of my mouth, as naturally as if they’re my own, but I’m not sure they are. They seem so strange when everyone is doubting. “Isn’t it wonderful that God welcomes our doubts?” I hear my lips saying.
The other night I shut the door to my room and made myself kneel by my bed and sing, “You are good. You are good,” to God.
Singing felt right and holy and kept me from despairing the next day.
As much as a strange spiritual strength comes to me like breathing, I find my body aching and tensing when I think of my dear one’s sobs shaking my arms less than 24 hours ago. I wanted to absorb her pain, but I could not.
Last night the family played a loud charade game to forget their woes momentarily. I slipped out under stars and palm trees. Trying to process all of this, I walked the block with a panicky feeling in my chest. Trust was not so easy now. Why, God, did you not save your servants? We prayed for resurrection. My feet hit the pavement, again and again. Three laps around the block and no answers.
Thanksgiving began from people who knew pain, but who praised anyway. They begged God for a promised land, and half of them received a death sentence, never to give harvest thanks this side of heaven. They believed in spontaneous prayers inspired by the Psalms, which do not give concrete answers, but rather, acknowledge life’s pain and God’s glory in poetry and song.
One of the only Pilgrim hymns still sung today by Christians is Psalm 100 or “The Old Hundredth,”
O enter then His gates with praise;
Approach with joy His courts unto;
Praise, laud, and bless His Name always,
For it is seemly so to do.
Here is the only reason given for praising God,
For why? the Lord our God is good;
His mercy is forever sure…
-From Don Sweeting
Is God good? Yes, but not on our terms. I do not think the Pilgrims naive, but powerfully capable of praise because of their circumstance. This is how they survived and thrived, ultimately maintaining a 50-year peace treaty with the Wampanoag. (Post-election, let’s take a clue.)
I hear someone downstairs playing a song on the T.V., a memory posted to Facebook to bring comfort. It’s the voice of the soul we have just lost, singing over us:
When you don’t move the mountains
I’m needing you to move
When you don’t part the waters
I wish I could walk through
When you don’t give the answers
As I cry out to you
I will trust, I will trust, I will trust in you
I will trust in you
I will trust in you
I will trust in you.*
Tomorrow we will thank God, trusting pilgrims that we are.