A Table of Thanks

Sketch by Alfred Waud of Thanksgiving in camp (of General Louis Blenker) during the U.S. Civil War in 1861

Very soon, many of us in the United States will gather around a table with family and friends to celebrate the Thanksgiving holiday. The history and “origin story” of this holiday is a little murky, mired in myth and legend. For the traditional celebration in the United States, we are remembering the story where in 1621 (thanks to a great harvest) Pilgrims feasted for three days and invited about 90 of their Native American neighbors to join them. Edward Winslow, one of the attendees, recounts the events of the feast this way:

Our harvest being gotten in, our governor sent four men on fowling, that so we might after a special manner rejoice together after we had gathered the fruits of our labor. 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 we brought to the plantation and bestowed on our governor, and upon the captain and others. And although it be not always so plentiful as it was at this time with us, yet by the goodness of God, we are so far from want that we often wish you partakers of our plenty.
From Mourt’s Relation Or Journal of the Plantation at Plymouth

What strikes me about this account of the “first thanksgiving” is how happy they were at the abundant harvest and the over-abundance of fowl and deer. I find the mention of “amongst other recreations, we exercised our arms” interesting. Whether this means they shot their guns recreationally or they actually had the freedom to exercise  their arms and hands and not work with them, I am not sure. But, this type of excitement and recreation is something I think we have little context for in the United States. Many of us are so far removed from hunger and the concept of needing a harvest to survive that reading this account becomes quaint rather than feeling the immense joy and celebration of life that I think the account is getting at.

What challenges me about this account, in light of the Thanksgiving feast many of us will be enjoying, is the response of the Pilgrims to this abundance. They did not hoard it, they did not store it silos, they did not “exercise their arms” in defense of the abundance, they did not try to profit off the abundant harvest, and they did not waste it.

They were unselfish and benevolent with their blessing.

When the 90 Native Americans showed up, nobody drove them away because they were outsiders. There were no cries of, “You don’t deserve this…you didn’t work for this!” The 90 Native Americans did not try to steal the harvest or say, “You wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for us.” No, everyone shared in the blessing of the great harvest and everyone was welcomed to the table. Benevolence led to even more abundance and benevolence. The Pilgrims shared with the Native Americans and they, in turn, hunted deer and brought even more food to the table to share.

This reminds of the story of the infant church at the end of Acts 2:

All the believers were united and shared everything. They would sell pieces of property and possessions and distribute the proceeds to everyone who needed them. Every day, they met together in the temple and ate in their homes. They shared food with gladness and simplicity. They praised God and demonstrated God’s goodness to everyone. The Lord added daily to the community those who were being saved
Acts 2:44-47 (CEB)

A tradition at our table, and I know at many others, is to go around and talk about what we are thankful for. I fully support this tradition and think it is a good idea to consider our blessings and to recount what we are thankful for. However, this story challenges me to make an extra step in giving thanks. The story of the first thanksgiving is not notable that the people gave thanks for their abundance, it is notable because they celebrated and gave thanks by sharing. Again, to quote the above account, “by the goodness of God, we are so far from want that we often wish you partakers of our plenty.” In the account of the early Church, the demonstration of God’s goodness comes through sharing with those in need, “with gladness and simplicity.” So, instead of just saying what you are thankful for this year, share how what you’re thankful for moves you to share that blessing with others.

If you’re thankful for your family, invite people to your table who might not have a family to share a meal with.

If you’re thankful for your food, share your meal with someone who might go hungry.

If you’re thankful for your health, spend some time with those who are sick or burdened by extreme healthcare costs.

If you’re thankful for your job, spend some time with (or donate some money to) those who can’t find work or (due to circumstances outside their control) are unable to work.

If you’re thankful for your freedom (to vote, to worship, etc.), spend some time learning about or listening to those who do not have the same freedoms.

Thankfulness shouldn’t just end with us. As the story of the first thanksgiving shows us, our thankfulness should cause us to create moments of thankfulness in others by inviting others in and by sharing out of our abundance and blessing.

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