Two years ago around this time, I no longer had a job at a firm (I had been let go, or I left, depending on who you ask) and was frantically working on putting together the foundation of what would become The Griess Law Firm, LLC. It was providential that the timing was around Thanksgiving. I remember feeling a high level of anxiety and uncertainty, wondering how I was going to provide for my family over the next few months (four kids eat a lot), and I remember being disappointed with how things had turned out at the old firm.
But even with the anxiety and uncertainty, I was extremely thankful. The adversity at the time only accentuated my sense of thanks. I was brought back to the core of things: my family, my community and country, my freedom and opportunities, my dependency on others, my ability to do much more than I often realize. But while I was thankful for a great many things, I was specifically thankful to God as the author of all of this. He was not surprised by any of the events taking place in my life. He was in control.
The pilgrims who arrived in Massachusetts were Separatists and Puritans who either desired the reform of the Church of England, or believed the Church was beyond reform and therefore sought to separate from it completely. The Church of England had formed under Henry the VIII in the 1500s when he wanted to get a divorce because he was having no success producing an heir, but the Catholic Church in Rome refused to sanction his plan. This is the time period of Sir Thomas More, the subject of A Man for All Seasons. More was a Catholic lawyer in England who was executed for opposing Henry the VIII’s creation of his own Church which the monarch could unilaterally control. Over time, the Church of England, and the monarchs, allowed common people to have Bibles, then refused to allow them Bibles and persecuted them for having Bibles, then allowed Bibles again but only under a kind of licensed control, and so on. All in all, the monarchs decided the Bible had to be preempted by the Church of England as the sole authority on religious matters, even when the Church was contradicted by the Bible. (Monarchs/government, it seems, like most of us, do not like limitations and restrictions on our authority.) However, Separatists and Puritans held the Bible was the sole authority, not the monarch or the Church. And they held this belief so strongly that they endured persecution, and sought to find a place they could live out their beliefs without interference. Eventually, they got permission to go to the new colony in Virginia to live out their beliefs.
Of course, the Mayflower did not arrive in Virginia, it arrived in Massachusetts in 1620. And by the Fall of 1621, when the pilgrims celebrated a harvest thanksgiving, half of the people who had come on the voyage in the Mayflower had died, 50 of 102. It would seem the whole expedition was heading for ultimate disaster, but what is truly amazing is how it was instead a miraculous success.
After surviving the winter, the pilgrims were surprised to meet English speaking Indians, including Squanto, who had been captured by an English sea captain and sold into slavery before escaping and returning to North America. Rather than being bitter and vengeful toward the English pilgrims, Squanto acted as an interpreter, and taught them how to cultivate corn, catch fish, and avoid the natural dangers of the new world. He even assisted in helping the pilgrims form an alliance with the local Indian tribe which lasted around 50 years.
The pilgrims would have called this providential provision, not luck or good fortune. Accordingly, when the harvest was successful that year, Governor Bradford organized a feast which included the Indians. It is safe to say the pilgrims who had set out for religious purposes, gave thanks to God for God’s provision and blessings, despite the hardships they had suffered and losses they had endured.
A hundred-fifty or so years later, my family, the Griesses, left Edenkoben, Germany to travel to New Russia (present day Odessa, Ukraine) during the Napoleonic wars to escape the ravages of those wars and to obtain religious freedom as protestant Lutherans. After the politics in Russia changed and became more hostile to German’s at the end of the 19th Century, several Griesses and other families, moved to America, to the Sutton, Nebraska area. (Our relatives who stayed behind in the Ukraine were imprisoned in the Gulags by the Bolsheviks and Stalinists and have never been heard from again.) Now, over a 100 years later in America, I’ve married the most wonderful woman in the world, a woman who’s family originally happened to arrive in American on the Mayflower 400 years ago.
This Thanksgiving, I am thankful not only for this years provision and blessings, the new and renewed relationships, and the opportunity to continue on for another year, but also for the years of provision and blessing that have traveled down through the ages to my benefit here and now.
It is possible to view all of this history of family and country as mere chance, but I do not. Giving thanks is a relational activity, one of humility that admits we are not in control, while presuming there is someone in control, worthy of the thanks we give. Merely thanking each other, without turning to thank God, trivializes the grandiose reality of what we have received and inherited through no right of our own. Accordingly, I join the generations of Americans who have given thanks to God for his blessings and his weaving together of an incredible story in which I am primarily an undeserving beneficiary.
No people ought to feel greater obligations to celebrate the goodness of the Great Disposer of Events of the Destiny of Nations than the people of the United States. His kind providence originally conducted them to one of the best portions of the dwelling place allotted for the great family of the human race. He protected and cherished them under all the difficulties and trials to which they were exposed in their early days. Under His fostering care their habits, their sentiments, and their pursuits prepared them for a transition in due time to a state of independence and self-government. In the arduous struggle by which it was attained they were distinguished by multiplied tokens of His benign interposition. During the interval which succeeded He reared them into the strength and endowed them with the resources which have enabled them to assert their national rights, and to enhance their national character in another arduous conflict, which is now so happily terminated by a peace and reconciliation with those who have been our enemies. And to the same Divine Author of Every Good and Perfect Gift we are indebted for all those privileges and advantages, religious as well as civil, which are so richly enjoyed in this favored land.
James Madison, Thanksgiving Day Proclamation, March 4th, 1815