GRANADA HILLS, Calif. (BP) — Thanksgiving is a holiday with a twin focus in our culture. On the one hand, it’s a day dedicated to cultivating and expressing our thankfulness to God for all His many blessings in our lives. On the other hand, Thanksgiving has also come to be very closely associated with the concept of family: the family dinner, the family reunion. Indeed, as Thanksgiving approaches, some people will travel huge distances to share one meal with relatives that they may not see at any other time during the year. And it’s precisely here that Thanksgiving can become a bit “complicated.”
Family is certainly a blessing, but for some it’s a mixed blessing. The bonds of affection that unite family members can be strained by the challenges and frustrations of everyday life. And sometimes the strain on our relationships becomes so serious that it leads to a rupture and estrangement between loved ones. Thus, as countless Americans look forward to getting together with parents, children, siblings, cousins, aunts and uncles, some do so with a sense of trepidation; the memory of some past and unresolved falling-out hangs over the anticipated get-together like a cloud.
It’s at this point that the history of Thanksgiving may have something to say.
Most people are aware of the origins of Thanksgiving: Religious refugees from England, known as the Pilgrims, traveled to North America seeking greater freedom to practice their faith. The first New England winter the Pilgrims faced, however, was extraordinarily harsh and, as a result, many of them perished. But with some help from a friendly tribe of American Indians, the Wampanoag, the Pilgrims were able to adapt to their new surroundings, reaped a bumper crop at their first harvest, and celebrated with their native friends with a feast that we now imitate each November.
What’s perhaps not so widely known is that this original Thanksgiving, and the genial relationship between the Pilgrims and the Wampanoag that it evidenced, didn’t just come together in some casual, off-hand way. Rather, the cross-cultural element of that first Thanksgiving grew out of very intentional and conscientious efforts on both sides to forge a lasting alliance.
Just as the Pilgrims had their opponents back in England, the Wampanoag had their own enemies in the New World: other native tribes such as the Narragansett. When the great chief of the Wampanoag, a man named Massasoit, learned of the arrival of the Pilgrims, he saw in them a potential ally against the threat posed by his Narragansett neighbors. As such, Massasoit approached the leaders of the Pilgrims, and together they entered into a treaty which would stand for approximately 50 years. The treaty not only established peace between the Wampanoag and the Pilgrims, it called for each side to come to the other’s aide in the event that either was unfairly attacked by an outside power. Further, and perhaps most beautifully, the treaty required that, when visiting the Pilgrim settlement, the Wampanoag “should leave their bows and arrows behind them,” and that the Pilgrims would do likewise when visiting Massasoit and his people.
It was out of this loamy soil of friendship and peace — friendship and peace actively pursued — that the flower of Thanksgiving grew. And we’d do well to remember this bit of history as we approach our own Thanksgiving celebrations.
As I’ve said, for many families, Thanksgiving will involve a family reunion of sorts — a family reunion in which old wounds and grudges may be present, buried just beneath the surface. And rather than approach this possibly contentious meeting with either a spirit of gloomy resignation or a naïve hope that things will just work out on their own, let’s be proactive. Let’s reach out to Uncle Brian, or Cousin Judy, or to whichever relative we’ve perhaps quarreled with. Let’s reengage those people in love before Thanksgiving, trying to repair things, so that a warm and God-honoring Thanksgiving might grow out of the soil of our own reconciling efforts. In other words, let’s communicate to our family members that, when we travel to meet them on Thanksgiving, like Massasoit, we intend to leave our “bows and arrows” behind.
In so doing, we won’t just find ourselves embracing the wisdom of the chief of the Wampanoag, however. We’ll actually be upholding the command of a far greater King. For in his sublime Sermon on the Mount, Jesus emphasized the importance of reconciling with others — even in the very face of thanking God. As we read in Matthew 5:23-24, “if you are presenting your offering at the altar, and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your offering there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother, and then come and present your offering.” While those words apply at all times, they nevertheless seem especially apropos around this time of year.
Eugene Curry is pastor of First Baptist Church of Granada Hills, Calif.