Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Thanksgiving Day (3)

The story has often been told of how the Pilgrim Fathers, landing in Plymouth in December 1620, faced such a hostile Winter that only 55 out of 102 survived. How a native American (Tisquantum), who helpfully spoke English, helped them to plant crops, hunt and fish in the new country. And how the eventual harvest of 1621 was so glorious, so abundant, that they could invite 90 native Americans to join them for a three-day banquet.

Certainly, the Pilgrim Fathers would have been wary of all harvest excesses they left behind in England. They approved setting days of prayer and thanksgiving on occasions but seemed to have resisted celebrating !

Yet, the backdrop of such misery and hunger in those first months must have heightened their sheer wonder at that first harvest.  Surely, recollections of villages bringing in the sheaves and giving thanks to God that he had provided such abundance must have been stirred up in the Pilgrims' memories!   What they had experienced in England many times before was now happening in their new land!  They would survive.

We learn that the following harvest in 1622 was a poor one with much hunger as new colonists eked out limited supplies.  In 1623 after planting, a drought began in May that continued into July and threatened to destroy the whole corn crop.  Disaster loomed.  An entire July day was devoted to prayer and fasting.  It is recorded, that in the evening clouds appeared and rain fell.  They were on their way to a second good harvest.

I know that historians talk about several influences (and complex ones) that lie behind Thanksgiving Day, but it is hard to believe that Harvest Festival  in the old country, thanking God for all his goodness as harvest is gathered in, was not a major contributor.  I like to think so!   Let's go celebrate God's goodness this Thanksgiving Day.  There is so much to be thankful for.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Thanksgiving Day (2)

Carol and I were asked to give a British perspective to Thanksgiving Day!  Carol was able to share some wonderful stories including some about a succession of American visitors to Cambridge (where we were pastor and wife) who invited us for 13 consecutive years to share their Thanksgiving Day in the UK.  Missing their own families they included us and, on one memorable occasion, we had three Thanksgiving Day meals on ONE day because three families insisted we celebrate with them.  Actually, you can have too much of a good thing!

I also reflected on harvest festival traditions in England. As a six-year old, living in a rural village in Oxfordshire, I shall never forget the first time I saw harvesting in the cornfield at the bottom of our garden. Before the advent of combine harvesters, sycthes were swinging and others were binding sheaves together in stooks like wigwams across the field.  Around the field-edge children played as field mice scurried by.

Yet, more memorable still, was the Sunday morning in the little stone chapel (where my father was pastor). The church had turned into the harvest field. Sheaves of corn wrapped around the ends of the wooden pews and shrouded the pulpit. At the center was some huge plaited corn and a large flat bread in the shape of a corn sheaf. From every nook and cranny poked brightly colored apples, pears, plums, tomatoes and the rest. Arranged neatly were vegetables like marrows, cabbages and cauliflowers.  Bunches of carrots hung from ledges.  The smell was intoxicating. We sang hymns ever since etched in my sonic culture:  'Come ye thankful people come',  'We plough the fields and scatter the good seed on the land', 'All things bright and beautiful' and 'Now thank we all our God'.   Like Christmas carols freighted with seasonal memories.

How close we were to the land and how vital harvest was to our food cycle. And how important to thank God for his faithfulness in creation. "The land will yield its harvest and God, our God, will bless us" (Ps. 67:6); "Faithfulness spring forth from the earth and righteousess looks down from heaven. THe Lord indeed will give what is good and our land will yield its harvest" (Ps 85: 11,12)'.

In agricultural England harvest celebrations have long roots. Pre-Christian celebrations involved riotous feasting at "Harvest Homes" when entire villages let rip as the harvest was gathered with a Queen of the Harvest  chosen to lead the merrymaking.  We can be sure the Pilgrim Father's disapproved 100% of such behavior.  After all, they refused to allow Christmas to be celebrated as a holiday.  Yet within the Christian tradition harvest thanks became well-established.  By the sixteenth century Christians were celebrating "Lammas" - loaf mass- as the first corn was made into bread and used for communion.

Dare we let our imaginations run about the Pilgrim Fathers and how they responded to their harvests in 1621 and 1623?   Just one more post is required!

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Thanksgiving Day (1)

Carol and I enjoyed an unusual event (for us) yesterday.  We were both speakers at a session called 'Revisiting Thanksgiving' at Elmhurst Christian Reformed Church. It was a very well-organized Senior Ministry event which began with prayer and singing, a video, a visit to the pre-school children as they celebrated their 'Thanksgiving Feast', some poetry, our talk about Thanksgiving from a British perspective and then a fascinating sharing (it really was!) with others seated around separate tables about their Thanksgiving Day memories.

No American needs to be told about the significance of Thanksgiving Day, a national holiday celebrated on the fourth Thursday in November.  It celebrates the Pilgrim Fathers landing in Plymouth in December 1620, and their 3-day long thanksgiving feasting after their first successful harvest in 1621.  It has become the main holiday each year, far eclipsing Christmas, as families gather together in thankfulness.  Sharing memories at our table, several friends spoke about how every family member always made a supreme effort to go to the family home where grandma would cook for them all!  49 family members at one, 22 at another, 30 at yet another, gathered round for the turkey meal. They spoke about their traditions such as each person round the table shared the one thing they were most thankful for in the past year,  of cooking the large turkey and wrestling with the wishbone, of guests invited because they had nowhere else to go. All of them spoke excitedly of the plans they have this year to celebrate on Nov. 22nd. - just a week to go. 

At one point, Carol said how she felt 'deprived' that we had no such memories because we in Britain have no equivalent Thanksgiving Day, when families (extended) come together just to be together.  Of course, the nearest equivalent is Christmas Day itself but sadly that is so often wrapped up in commercialism, pressure of present-giving, card-sending etc and too little thanksgiving for the Christ child.  Yet, Thanksgiving Day seems motivated mainly by a huge desire to be together for the sake of giving thanks.

What could we as Brits say to this?   Well, perhaps it deserves another post shortly.     

Thursday, November 8, 2012


Just to pass on two very different encouragements.

First, I have just returned from seeing my cancer surgeon at hospital and my six month test has declared me clear of cancer.  Oh yeah!  We are praising God and so thankful for all your many continuing prayers and this wonderful answer. I have had several high points, especially when my class gathered round and laid hands on me with prayer on Tuesday evening.  My doctor told me that the largest number of 'failures' for this kind of surgery occur within two years so I have to remain vigilant (and prayerful!),  though 5 years of clear tests is necessary before he will declare the cancer removed.  As you can imagine, Carol and I are exhilarated. 

Actually, other family news has tended to take priority.  Milo, our six-month old London grandson, cracked his skull when his poor mother fell a couple of days ago.  After an overnight hospital stay with scans etc. he was released with the need for careful observation over these next days.  So, there's an urgent reason to remain vigilant and prayerful.  Thank you so much for journeying with us.

Second, and as markedly lower-order very different news, I have heard from my publisher  (Baker Publishing) two things.  One is directly commercial and they asked me to post the details.  The other is commercially motivated (!) yet thrills me with its possibilities.
  • Preaching as Worship is now on specially reduced rates as an ebook.  For the rest of November it is being sold for $6:99 - a 61% saving.  It is part of my publisher's drive to increase ebook sales. 
  • Preaching as Worship is being translated into Korean. My 360degree leadership book was translated into Korean just a couple of years ago and I am excited to think that I might have just a little more influence on leaders of this vital part of the Christian family. 
It's interesting to reflect that this second-order news would hardly have registered if my cancer news had been different, and little Milo does not continue to improve!  But if the good Lord is giving me continuing health and strength (as He seems to be) this has given my writing ministry a small boost.  Yes, there's more to do!

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Take to heart

This morning a colleague of mine, Dr.Sam Hamstra, greeted me as I parked and went into my seminary office.  "I was thinking of you during my quiet time this morning" he said. "You were?," I responded, surprised by his obvious enthusiasm.  "Yes," he replied," I was reading Ezekiel 3: 10,11, and I said to myself, that's exactly what Michael Quicke teaches his preachers." "Oh, what does it say?" I asked, struggling to remember the early part of Ezekiel.

"It's about how the prophet first has to take to heart God's words to himself before he can go and speak with his people.  Isn't that exactly what you teach students?  You have to take to heart what God is saying personally before you can speak out!"

Of course, I had to look it up. "And God said to me: 'Son of man, listen carefully and take to heart all the words I speak to you.  Go now to your people in exile and speak to them. Say to them, 'This is what the Sovereign Lord says' whether they listen or fail to listen.'"

I was so glad to be reminded of this basic principle.  First listen to what God is saying to you (completely immerse in the text) before you dare speak God's word to others.  For us, as Christian preachers, this means listening to Scripture with heads and hearts for God to reveal his truth and then, and how vital this is, to check our listening with commentaries.   I have to keep stressing to my students that preaching involves both personal engagement with Scripture and then humble research of commentaries.

I shall look forward to telling my students of Sam Hamstra's insight when I teach tomorrow.  Good old Ezekiel!