Give Thanks Anyway

Be joyful always; pray continually; give thanks in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus. 1 Thessalonians 5:16-18 NIV

               Before me, on my desk sits a little Pilgrim lady, dressed in a plain white wimple and a brown dress. I bought her at a craft fair years ago; she’s been part of our celebration ever since. Her job is to remind us of the Story.

               Four hundred years ago, almost to the day, a party of English religious separatists, called Pilgrims, got their first view of the new land where they’d come to find freedom. William Bradford, in understatement, described them as “not a little joyful.”

               But they faced a long, cold New England winter with little food, shelter or time to prepare. Over half of them would be dead before spring. The saga of their survival, their courage, their faith, the feast they held in their second autumn, is what we call “the first Thanksgiving.” Perhaps, with so much of our extras cancelled this year, we can spend some time on that saga and the lessons to be learned.

               I even have a special family connection to the Pilgrims which helps their story be part of mine.

               My father’s grandmother is descended from Thomas Blossom–a member, perhaps even a deacon, of the original Pilgrim congregation.  

The Pilgrims hired two ships for their journey: the famous Mayflower and a second, smaller ship: the Speedwell. Unfortunately, the Speedwell did not live up to her name, developing leaks which required extensive and time-consuming repairs. After two attempts to set sail—the second one taking them as far as 200 miles from shore—they gave up, deciding to crowd as many passengers as possible on the Mayflower and leave the Speedwell behind. Eighteen people, including Thomas Blossom and his family, were forced to return to Holland.

               I can only imagine their crushing disappointment, as well as their fear. The King of England’s agents, seeking out Pilgrims for punishment and execution, had already been spotted in Holland. Dissent was not welcomed in the seventeenth century.

               Blossom and his family endured it all and made the crossing with a subsequent fleet in 1629. His daughter, Elizabeth, and her husband became one of the founding Quaker families of New Jersey.  

               Much has changed in our 400 years of history but I sense some familiarity, too. If our future feels uncertain, so did theirs. If we are haunted by deadly illness, so were they. If difficult circumstances test our faith, so did they theirs. People of God, they endured what they didn’t understand. And gave thanks, anyway.

               As must we.

FATHER GOD:  Help us endure…and give thanks as the Pilgrims did. Amen.

First published in “Bozeman Daily Chronicle,” November 15, 2020.

Two Days

Columbus Day.

               So much has changed in 75 years. The sad history of what happened after one half of the planet encountered the other has so overwhelmed Columbus’ story that the holiday I celebrated as a child (“Columbus sailed the ocean blue in fourteen hundred ninety two”) is almost embarrassing to modern American culture. Many places have even changed its name.

               But I hope you’ll indulge this old lady her upbringing and allow her to look at this day from the perspective of the explorer and his crew.

               Imagine yourself on a small, fragile, wooden ship—70 feet long, 23 feet wide–sailing a huge, unknown ocean with sails as your only power. You are at the mercy of wind and current, as well as the limited wisdom of your navigator. You get what sleep you can on the open rocking deck, washed by the occasional wave. You have one hot meal a day, if you’re lucky, of skimpy food eaten wherever you can find a place to sit. You strain your eyes and your senses, desperately looking for land but can find none.

Twenty days go by. Thirty. You begin to doubt yourself, the men you sail with, your captain. There may be no land ahead. You could sail forever. Starve to death. Die of thirst.

               It was a test of faith and endurance. They very nearly failed it.

               On October 10, Columbus wrote in his log, “they could stand it no longer. I reproached them for their lack of spirit.”

“…an all-out mutiny threatened. … Apparently, a bargain was struck whereby the men agreed to sail on for three more days, and Columbus agreed to turn back if no land was sighted in that time.” (“Columbus and the Age of Discovery”, Zvi Dor-Ner.)

On the very next day, the crew saw reeds and a carved stick float by. That night, Columbus saw a light “like a little wax candle, bobbling up and down” to the west. Later, a sailor on the Pinta thought he saw land in the moonlight. They tacked back and forth, waiting for daylight. Was it land at last or their too-eager imaginations? After all, they’d had other sightings…which turned out false.

               At dawn on October 12th, after 33 days and nights at sea, they finally saw what they longed for—an island they christened San Salvador. A whole world, a culture as ignorant of them as they were of it, awaited. And the world was changed forever.

               Two days.

The goal they sought was a mere two days ahead …and they almost missed it.  

               In this strangest of strange years, it feels as if we, too, have been on a long sail across uncharted waters. Storm after storm rocks our fragile craft; we’ve lost all our landmarks. We don’t know where land is or even what it will look like when we get there. We’re worn and weary, not sure we trust our Navigator.  The temptation, as it was for them, is to give up.

               But the relief, the answers, the end we so desperately seek could be as close for us as it was for those old Spanish sailors.

               If we but dig deep and endure.

A Sign of Hope

To all who mourn in Israel he will give: Beauty for ashes; Joy instead of mourning; Praise instead of heaviness. Isaiah 61:3

I saw these verses in living color recently.

Like everyone locally, we had been concerned about the Bridger Foothills fire. As we prepared to leave town for our Labor Day camping trip, it looked small, even innocent—a single plume of smoke rising straight up into the summer sky. But when the last of our group arrived at the campsite, they showed us horrifying pictures of a wall of smoke and flame roaring across the mountain front. As the evening progressed, we heard news of evacuation orders. Some pondered going home to protect their houses.

So we all rejoiced at Monday morning’s rain. The fire smoldered on, but its raging fury was over. We could breathe a sigh of relief.

But next came the question of what was left. Would we find only a blackened shell of the country we had hiked, skied and ridden horses in for years?

When my husband heard the canyon road was open, we dropped what we were doing to drive up and see.

It wasn’t as bad as we had feared. True, there were huge swaths of blackened grass and trees, sad foundations of burned houses, cars reduced to grey shells, piles of rubble. But other homes had somehow survived—though burned to their doorsteps.

Then, the most surprising sight of all. As we drove by the newly-burned pastures, we became aware of a slight green haze. Tiny blades of grass were sprouting in the ashes. Only ten days after the fire, the land had started to heal. It felt like a tiny miracle…and a sign of hope.

Perhaps, I thought, if the plants and pastures can come back after a horrible assault like that, we can, too. And I remembered this ancient promise from Isaiah.

For we, too, have suffered assault—to our lives, our health, our peace of mind. We’ve become well acquainted with “mourning and heaviness.” Just when we think it couldn’t get worse, it does. We find it hard to breathe, much less relax.

Then the Old Snake slinks in, hissing that things will never get better, tempting us to, as Job’s wife said, “…curse God and die.” (Job 2:9) But let’s remember: Jesus called him “a liar and the father of lies.” (John 8:44)

God has promised comfort for our grief, joy for our sorrow, “beauty for ashes.” In His time. What He restores will be better than what we lost.

If we trust Him and don’t give up.

FATHER GOD: Thank You for that little sign of hope. Keep them coming; we need every one. Amen.

Published in Bozeman “Daily Chronicle”, October 11, 2020.

Seventy Times Seven

If possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. Romans 12:8 NIV

Do you find yourself on edge lately? Easily irritated? Do you find yourself getting offended over relatively minor things? Do you suffer from compassion fatigue? Bouts of depression and anxiety?

Me, too.

Writer and counselor John Eldredge believes we all have some form of PTSD from six months of living in what he calls the “toxic atmosphere of undefined disaster”– a disaster without boundaries or rules, with no safe places or defined end point. We’ve been shut off from normal social contact, the stress-relief of sports events, concerts, church services. We can’t even see the smiles on each others’ faces. No wonder people in hot, crowded cities are exploding into senseless violence.

What is a person of faith to do? How can I spread peace and sanity in in a mad world at war?

I can begin with the simple act of minding my own business. It’s not my job to control others; I have plenty to do keeping my mouth shut and my criticisms to myself.

Then I remember what a beloved pastor friend said years ago, “No one can give me offense if I don’t take it.” I watched him live that principle in the bumping and banging of church life; it made an unforgettable impression on me. Right now, when everyone’s nerves are stretched beyond the breaking point, refusing offense is more important than ever.

And most of all, I need to forgive, as Eldredge says, “…everyone, everything.” We are all suffering—to a greater or lesser degree. Some of us are staggering under loads that would be heavy under normal circumstances. Adding them to the weight of COVID restrictions and losses makes the job overwhelming. I must remember “hurt people hurt people”—now more than ever.

What to do? Forgive, forgive, forgive yet again.

Is it easy? No! Do I feel like it? Absolutely not. I’d far sooner take the offense, snarl right back and vent my own pain. I will need forgiveness myself when I break down and backslide.

But I know my Lord calls me to live higher.

“You’re kingdom subjects,” declares Jesus in Matthew 6, (The Message), “Now live like it. Live out your God-created identity. Live generously and graciously toward others, the way God lives toward you.”

I’ve learned I can’t do something this difficult by mashing harder on the “try” button. I must ask for God’s help…over and over.

For without Him, I can do nothing. (John 15:5)

FATHER GOD: Life is difficult here right now; You know that. Help me to refuse offense and forgive. Seventy times seven. (Matthew 18:22) Amen.

First published in “Bozeman Daily Chronicle,” September 6, 2020.

His Faithfulness, Our Refuge

He will cover you with his feathers, and under his wings you will find refuge; his faithfulness will be your shield and rampart. Psalms 91:4 NIV

How has my summer been so far? Strangely good. On the one hand, despite our hopes, desires and fervent prayers, the Storm goes on and on. The demons of rage, panic and fear cackle in the thunder, howl in the wind. It is hard to keep my lantern of hope and faith alight. On the other, our mountains bloom in their full summer glory. Streams burble through meadows fat with wildflowers; lakes glisten blue under sapphire skies. So far, at least, we’ve been spared the smoke of recent summers.

God has not given us an answer but a refuge.

So we flock to the mountains eagerly—fishing the streams and rivers, floating the lakes, riding and hiking the trails. We set up our campsites by the roadsides; we fill the campgrounds, our campfires crackling joyfully in the star-spangled darkness.

For years, I longed for a summer without the pressures of travel and company, with ample time to relax and enjoy this beautiful piece of the world we live in. This summer I have it.

Have there been problems? Sure there have; life on this earth is never trouble-free. The losses and limitations of age have even created some new ones, great and small. But our compassionate Father-God has given us the grace and help we’ve needed to resolve them–every single time.

I can’t explain it; I can’t justify it; I know I don’t deserve it. I just “know that I know that I know” His love and His faithfulness are real. He has proved it to me this summer, over and over and over. As the old hymn put it, “All I have needed, Thy hand hath provided/Great is Thy faithfulness, Lord, unto me.”

The mountains in their beauty are, indeed, a refuge in this summer of turmoil, but I’m finding His faithfulness to be a greater refuge yet—a shield which protects me and a rampart which lifts me above the Storm.

You, too.

“Yes, we are in a dark time,” writes John Eldredge, “But God is still protecting and comforting me. I am not alone. … Not only that, God has a feast of goodness for me…he fills my life with blessing! … God will always be faithful to me.”

When you’re tempted to doubt that, look for the ways He has blessed you, the times He has provided exactly what you need at exactly the right moment. Then I think you will, like me, stand amazed.

FATHER GOD: How can I thank You? I am, indeed, humbled, and grateful. Amen.

First published in “Bozeman Daily Chronicle,” August 8, 2020.