Friday, November 28, 2008

Thankful for God’s Providence

As we reflect on God’s goodness to us over the past year, let’s take a longer look back to the Mayflower Pilgrims that we may be able to look ahead. The Pilgrims left England, spent time in Holland, and then came to the New World in pursuit of freedom to worship God according to Scripture and conscience. Arriving late in the year put them at a disadvantage; winter was upon them. The winter of 1620-21 saw the deaths of half their number from starvation and disease. The survivors buried their dead in unmarked graves to conceal their losses from the Indians.

At winter’s end sprung signs of hope. David Beale gives an interesting account in his book, The Mayflower Pilgrims (Greenville, SC: Ambassador-Emerald International, 2000).

Those who were fortunate enough to have garden seed proceeded to plant it on March 17. There was a desperate need for green vegetables, the lack of which probably caused most of the sickness, which was a type of scurvy. Captain [Miles] Standish called another meting on March 26 to discuss military strategy. Suddenly, Chief Samoset walked right into Plymouth, speaking English. He was an Algonquin and had learned English from various fishing captains. The story he told gave the Pilgrims cause to thank God once again for His Providence. According to Samoset, this area had been the territory of the Patuxets, a large hostile tribe that killed every white man who landed on these shores. Less than four years prior to the Pilgrims’ landing, a mysterious plague had devastated the tribe. Convinced that some great spirit had destroyed the Patuxets, neighboring tribes had shunned the entire area. So the cleared land on which the Pilgrims had settled apparently belonged to no one. Their nearest neighbors, explained Samoset, were the Wampanoags, some fifty miles to the southwest. These Indians numbered about sixty warriors and Massasoit, their chief, also ruled over several other tribes. (p. 139)

God provided the Pilgrims another blessing through neighboring Indians. On his next visit Samoset brought a Patuxet named Squanto, an English-speaking Indian who was to become “a special instrument sent of God for their good, beyond their expectation” (Beale, p. 140). Having escaped the plague that destroyed his tribe, Squanto had lived with the Wampanoags until coming to Plymouth Colony, where he spent the rest of his days teaching the colonists how to hunt, fish, and plant. “Without Squanto’s help, the Pilgrims would have suffered even more severely over the next year” (Beale, p. 140). Through the mediation of Squanto and Samoset a peace treaty was struck between the Pilgrims and chief Massasoit. In October or November of 1621 the Pilgrims hosted the Indians in the first ever American Thanksgiving, three days of feasting, playing games, and thanking God.

In spite of heavy losses the first year the colony survived and grew to about three hundred after a decade in the New World. Looking back, Governor William Bradford observed, “Thus out of small beginnings greater things have been produced by His hand that made all things of nothing, and gives being to all things that are; and as one small candle may light a thousand, so the light here kindled hath shone to many, yea in some sort to our whole nation; let the glorious name of Jehovah have all the praise” (quoted in Eerdmans’ Handbook to Christianity in America, p. 29).

These people suffered severely because they had a conscience for God and acted on their convictions. Out of 103 persons that survived the voyage, half died the first winter. How could they be thankful instead of bitter or at least disappointed? Answer: They saw God’s hand in all that happened to them. They were students of two books, the Word of God (Scripture) and the work of God (providence). They looked back and took note of mercies along the way. They looked around and saw evidence of their growing influence on others. They believed God would not abandon His work in the future. What kept the Pilgrims grounded during difficult times? Their perspective and priorities were right. Their aim—the glory of God. Their outlook—“here by thy great help I’ve come.”

God’s pilgrims progress the same way in the 21st Century. Instead of looking for their best life now they expect hardships. “Through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God” (Acts 14:22). They know that suffering isn’t inconsistent with the teaching of the Bible.

God’s pilgrims also know that suffering isn’t permanent. The hard times are only temporary, like school days, and “we know that we at the end, shall life inherit.”

In the meantime we can count on God to honor His Word and prosper His work, supplying our needs and gladdening our hearts as we humbly trust in Him and submit ourselves to Him.

We still hear and tell the story of that first Thanksgiving. Who knows? Maybe someday people will talk about the faith we once displayed against all odds. Maybe they will glorify God through us.

God moves in a mysterious way,

His wonders to perform;

He plants his footsteps in the sea,

And rides upon the storm.

Deep in unfathomable mines

Of never failing skill

He treasures up his bright designs,

And works his sovereign will.

Ye fearful saints fresh courage take,

The clouds ye so much dread

Are big with mercy, and shall break

In blessings on your head.

Judge not the LORD by feeble sense,

But trust him for his grace;

Behind a frowning providence,

He hides a smiling face.

His purposes will ripen fast,

Unfolding every hour;

The bud may have a bitter taste,

But sweet will be the flow'r.

Blind unbelief is sure to err,

And scan his work in vain;

GOD is his own interpreter,

And he will make it plain.

~William Cowper

from Olney Hymns