THANKSGIVING IS A FUNNY THING. IT IS NOT, AS you would expect, the natural by-product of blessed good fortune. You will look in vain for correlations of health and wealth to gratitude. Moreover, where gratitude does episodically appear, it will soon wither on the vine without assiduous attention on our part, like the house ferns around me that languish for neglect as I type-though God and the nursery did the work of planting them, and all they ask of me is water and repotting now and then. I once had thought that graces such as gratitude and marital love must be spontaneous or naught at all, back "when I was a child and thought as a child."
Life and C.S. Lewis have taught me differently. "When God planted a garden He set a man over it and set the man under Himself. When He planted the garden of our nature and caused the flowering, fruiting loves to grow there, He set our will to 'dress' them" (The Four Loves). Gratitude (at the risk of spoiling the romance of it) is a matter of will, a muscle to be exercised.
Eden showed the danger of a passive, flaccid gratitude. A heart swept clean of good as well as bad, one without memory of God's beneficence, is fertile soil for the Serpent's sowing of ingratitude, which Paul calls the fountainhead of every other kind of sin (Romans 1).
That man is not, since Paradise lost, disposed to thanksgiving, is provable by every conversation on the weather. Bad weather (by which is meant the rains that have plumped our pumpkins) is on every doorstep groused about. Weather so good you want to howl like a banshee is taken as our due. The food on our Thanksgiving tables, that could easily have all come the taste and color of unsalted cream of wheat, is greedily consumed with no thanks for the delightful palette of its Designer.
The first Thanksgiving was not so. But who can understand it? What was there to celebrate in songs of thanks, that colonial leader Edward Winslow should in his first-hand account so laud the "goodness of God"? Not, surely, the Mayflower ordeal of the previous year, where westerly gales snapped open seams in the deck, dousing frightened passengers with icy waters, Pilgrims already sick with scurvy, typhus, and loss. Not the following winter, when the sick were stretched out in a makeshift storehouse and aboard the ship; nor in spring when 12 of the 18 married women succumbed, and the living had barely the strength to put in the next year's crop.
From the annals of that fateful venture comes a hint, the sheerest clue to thanksgiving in the fall of 1621. From the roster of the Mayflower company come the telltale names of children-30 of the 99 who disembarked at Plymouth. There, among the Johns and Richards and Elizabeths and more common English names are found odd christenings such as Resolved White, the 5-year-old son of William and Susannah White. Just before William's death Susannah also gave birth to a Peregrine White, whose name means pilgrim. And note their young companions, Love and Wrestling (with the devil) Brewster.
What's in a name you may judge for yourself. Here is what's in Psalm 84:5-6: "Blessed are those whose strength is in You, in whose heart are the highways to Zion." (Another version puts it, "who have set their hearts on pilgrimage.") "As they go through the Valley of Baca [weeping], they make it a place of springs."
The heart, and not the Valley, is crucial for thanksgiving. The stoking of hope, and not the circumstance, is all important. If the heart contains highways to Zion, if it retraces them mentally at every milepost, rehearsing God's past faithfulness and setting a watchful eye on His promises, then the winds may bellow and the waves assail, but thanksgiving will hold fast. "All the days of the afflicted are evil, but the cheerful of heart has a continual feast"-Thanksgiving Day and the 364 others besides.
Thanksgiving is a funny thing. America 2002: people with everything but gratitude. America 1621: people with nothing but gratitude. The difference, I think, is the "Peregrine White" factor, the setting of hearts on pilgrimage, the Resolve of forceful men (Luke 16:16) who "acknowledged that they were strangers and exiles on the earth" and made it clear "that they are seeking a homeland," that they "desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one" (Hebrews 11:13-16).
The history books speak truer than they know to call them "Pilgrims." The pilgrim heart is known by the quality of thanksgiving. But when the Lord returns, will He yet find their like in the land?