The search for religious freedom on American shores began nearly four centuries ago. In 1620, Pilgrims arrived in America seeking to escape religious persecution in England.
The following year, this group celebrated the very first Thanksgiving of English-speaking people on our shores. After a hard winter and loss of a number of settlers, but a bountiful harvest, the Pilgrims held a three-day feast with their indigenous neighbors as guests. Thus began a national tradition.
Our grand, national custom of acknowledging religious freedom and abundance through a national day of gratitude to the Divine Author of Liberty remains enduringly impressive. However, for some, remembering the purpose of that celebration may be a bit more difficult.
Memories from my childhood Thanksgivings many decades ago still occasionally steal into my thoughts, unbidden. Those memories are of a room warmed by both copious quantities of food, fresh from the oven or stovetop, as well as love and good cheer. Smiles, laughter, and lively chatter abounded in that warm room.
The extended family gathered around the big table in my grandparent’s large dining room. Everyone, my parents, siblings, the aunts, uncles, and cousins from near and far, crowded into a space intended for no more than a quarter of the number present. Amazingly, no one seemed to mind.
When it was apparent to all of the children that starvation was mere minutes away, my grandfather, a retired pastor, would ceremoniously rise to say grace. To us youngsters, it sounded like nearly the same prayer every year. As every head was bowed, he would express gratitude for the food and the hands that prepared it.
As young children, we always peeked during the prayer to see him surreptitiously nudge my grandmother at this point. He went on in his prayer to thank God for the bounty our nation and our family enjoyed but most especially for our freedoms. Uncharacteristically, his booming voice always seemed to crack a little bit at this point in his prayer.
It wasn’t for quite a few years that I understood the real reason his tone changed at that portion of his prayer. During the prayer one Thanksgiving, various “bits and pieces” of family stories seemed to “magically” assemble themselves in my mind. The uniformed young man in the living room portrait was my uncle… my grandfather’s son. He had returned from World War II in a flag-draped coffin.
I sat thunderstruck with my head bowed long after everyone else, realizing why my grandfather’s voice had changed at the same point in his prayer year after year. When expressing thanks for our freedoms, it wasn’t only because of religious freedom and the fact that he was a pastor. It was because of a very personal price that he and my grandmother had given for those freedoms, their son.
The years have flowed ever more swiftly since those childhood Thanksgivings and that revelation. As is nature’s way, my grandfathers and father have bequeathed to me the patriarchal duty of the holiday prayer. Likewise, someday in the not-too-distant future, I will pass that duty to my son.
As that time draws nearer, I want to make sure that he remembers that the bounty of Thanksgiving must not make us forget others: those who are away from home, in the military, or other avenues of service. We must also remember those who are struggling to take care of their families because of illness, unemployment, or other challenges.
Furthermore, we cannot forget to be thankful for the churches, the nonprofit organizations and others who not only seek to take care of our neighbors on Thanksgiving and Christmas, but do so year-round. There are people around the world, even in our own country, who will not be able to enjoy the bounty that families like ours tend to take for granted.
Perhaps, this Thanksgiving, we can be a little more grateful than usual. Of course, all of the wonderful food and drink along with fellowship and family are still great reasons to be appreciative. However, along with gratitude for abundance, fun, and friendship, maybe, say a little extra prayer thanking God for those who have paid a great price so that we can remain free.