Giving thanks then and now

Silence. A wilderness of unimaginable hardship and abundance before them. From the narrow ribbon of dunes and beach along New England's shore, the New World to the first settlers there in 1620 was an enormous unknown. The great inland lakes, the prairies, Rockies, lush California valleys, were not even dreamed of, let alone possessed. The Northeast's mountain forests were not yet veined with ski runs. The suburban mall - how extraordinary to voyagers to whom a few precious seeds, given them by a native, meant the margin of survival after their first winter.

That winter! Half their number died.

And yet out of adversity the Plymouth settlers the next fall gave thanks for the start of a new existence, in anticipation of a second winter for which they were better prepared.

Similarly, Thanksgiving was declared a national holiday by the nation that eventually emerged, during the great winter of its political discontent, the Civil War. William Bradford at Plymouth, President Lincoln at Gettysburg, both raised their assemblies' thought to a higher source of power and guidance. ''No human counsel hath devised nor hath any mortal hand worked out these great things,'' said Lincoln's first Thanksgiving Proclamation. ''They are the gracious gifts of the Most High God.'' For tomorrow, 362 years after the first simple thanksgiving and 120 years after the first national day of thanksgiving, President Reagan's proclamation again reminds us of the ''singular expression of the transcending spiritual values that played an instrumental part in the founding of our country.''

Thanksgiving reminds us that we must go forward through trials. A people cannot wait idly for hardship to overwhelm them. Seed must be planted and shelter built, no matter what the odds. Where there is no apparent aid, we must turn inward in prayer for guidance, endurance, and vision. The Pilgrims found, to their surprise, an Indian who could speak their language. Another Indian showed them how to plant grain.

Today it is the sheer clatter of abundant material existence we must face - a temptation to think of it as substance. Indifference to nature. Unawareness of the hungry in our midst. The desolation of aloneness in cities. How much surface life changes while the instinct to turn to our Maker for reliance and thanks persists.

The first Pilgrims sought freedom from religious persecution, the right to worship without interference from church-dominated states. Others came in subsequent years for the correlative opportunities of political and economic freedom. Oppressive traditions like slavery, also imported, had to be defeated here.

After all these Thanksgivings in America, what remains? A sense of the momentum of life, ever moving forward under a great and loving spiritual power, to whom many of us will humbly give thanks again tomorrow for the journey here and to come.

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