Hear, O Lord, and have mercy upon me;
O Lord, be my helper.
You have turned my mourning into dancing;
You have put off my sack-cloth and clothed me with joy.
Therefore my heart sings to you without ceasing;
O Lord, my God, I will give you thanks forever. –Psalms 30: 11-13
A man hurt his thumb on the job and went to a nearby clinic. As he walked in he noticed two doors that might have described his condition. He chose one, only to be in another room with two more doors. This continued for some time until the man finally found himself out on the street again. How many times does that happen to us? We try to make a connection only to find that after a lot of effort we have not really gone anywhere at all.
Thanksgiving, one of our greatest American traditions, is right on the horizon. In a few days we will pause and give thanks for the blessings God has given. People will gather to remember one of the toughest groups of Americans, the English Puritans, who called themselves pilgrims in allusion to a verse in the Bible, “These all died in faith, not having received the promises, but having seen them afar off, and were persuaded of them, and embraced them, and confessed that they were strangers and pilgrims on the earth.” (Hebrews 11:13) Because these pilgrims felt as if they were in route to another place, they were able to express thanksgiving in the midst of dire circumstances and live courageously.
This poem by Lilian Guthrie exemplifies how they lived life with heaven in mind:
Want to go home;
Aching with longing
Where’er I roam.
Wishing to be
There in the glory
Great trumpet sound!
Joy will abound.
Body of clay,
For one immortal;
Hasten blest day!
The pilgrims had a purpose in life, a goal that brought resilience to their present. Pausing from life’s busyness and giving thanks reminded them of God’s generous strength. Their thankfulness has become an annual reminder that God’s blessings truly overflow. When we remember that life is a journey given by God and moving towards God, our lives gain focus. The big picture comes into view. The little things in the picture of life that distort our clarity suddenly gain perspective when they become part of the grand view, which is, we are all pilgrims going to the same place- God.
There are many ways to remind oneself that we are in fact pilgrims. In the nineteenth century people who passed the Rothschild mansion in the fashionable quarter of London noticed that the end of one of the cornices was unfinished. The question may be asked: Could not the richest man in the world afford to pay for that cornice, or was the lack due to carelessness? The explanation is a very simple yet suggestive one when it is known. Lord Rothschild was an orthodox Jew, and every pious Jew’s house, tradition says, must have some part unfinished, to bear testimony to the world that its occupant is only, like Abraham, a pilgrim and a stranger upon the earth.
Another way to remind ourselves that we are pilgrims is to actually make a pilgrimage. A pilgrimage is a journey to a place of personal significance. Geoffrey Chaucer’s Cantebury Tales gives an entertaining look at how each pilgrim comes with a unique perspective. The narrator describes the hypocrisy, bravery, and indulgence of the characters, among other things. In the midst of such diversity, each pilgrim shares one fact in common- a destination. Do you have a place where you go to recharge yourself? Whenever I go down a dirt road in the forest of west Alabama to the family cemetery, my father’s tombstone reminds me, “Be not afraid,” and I breathe in courage. Maybe there is a special place in your life, too. Recently I returned from Israel, a place for pilgrimage throughout history, with 15 other members of our church. When one is a pilgrim, there is a destination in mind. But when there is no goal, life is lived at another level, because drifting aimlessly saps all energy and purpose from life.
The story of Abraham in the Bible describes how God called his people. Abraham wandered as a nomad of the Mesopotamian Valley. God called him, and Abraham became a pilgrim. He heard a call and obeyed it. This is what makes pilgrims of people.
Pausing on Thanksgiving Day allows us to look at our lives and ask where we are going. No doubt, we are on the move, and going somewhere, but where? A man hired a small airplane to fly him to a business appointment a few hundred miles away. After being in the air longer than expected, the man asked the pilot, “Where are we?” The pilot replied, “Well, I think we are lost; but we’re making good time.” Of course, it doesn’t count for much when you are making good time in the wrong direction. A similar story happened when a man on a hunting trip realized he was lost. He told his guide, “I thought you said you were the best guide in Minnesota.” To which the guide responded, “I am, undoubtedly; but I think we’re in Canada now.”
Whether we have made a pilgrimage or not, we may realize that we are lost as these two gentlemen did. Then what do we do? We can do the same thing that Abraham did- we can pause to listen for the call of God to turn our lives around. The blessings that God has bestowed upon us point our lives toward a heavenly goal. Thanksgiving fills life as a new purpose sets a pilgrimage into motion. Suddenly we have become pilgrims in life’s journey. The good news is that although we may feel that we need to go somewhere, in fact, we do not need to take a literal trip. The pilgrimage can be internal.
Yes, we may not have to move from where we are to begin this pilgrimage of thanksgiving. The Biblical character Jacob slept while on a journey. He dreamed of angels, and when he woke up realized that he was already in a holy place. He said, “Surely the presence of the Lord was in this place and I did not know it.” He built a memorial to mark the spot. While traveling in Israel I experienced the holiness of many memorials. The 9/11 Memorial in the Jerusalem forest hills has all of the names of the victims encircling a huge American flag that waves upward like a flame. As I looked at the names of the victims in silence, the reverence was interrupted by a massive explosion nearby that shook the ground as a work crew blew through rock for a cellular tower’s base. The surprise punctuated the shock that the victims’ surviving families must be feeling. Memorials can shake us to the core of our being. But when our nerves settle, we can give thanks that one day we will join our loved ones who have gone ahead of us.
When a pilgrimage impacts our inside, our soul, our spirit, we realize that an internal pilgrimage trumps any external one. An internal pilgrimage leads us right to who we really are, once the onion of our external trappings is peeled. In thankful humility we realize that without God there is no past, present, or future. This is the real lesson of thanksgiving given to us early in the Bible. Moses tells the people of Israel in Deuteronomy chapter 8, “When you have eaten your fill and have built fine houses and live in them, and when your herds and flocks have multiplied, and your silver and gold is multiplied, and all that you have multiplied … Do not say to yourself, ‘My power and the might of my own hand have gotten me this wealth.’ But remember the Lord your God, for it is the Almighty who gives you the power to get wealth.” (Deuteronomy 8:12-13, 17-18)
Pause and give thanks to God on Thanksgiving Day. Begin that spiritual pilgrimage that points your life in a new direction, filled with generosity and love towards others because God has been so generous and loving toward you. Amen.