Give Thanks for What?

We Canadians not only celebrate Thanksgiving a month ahead of our American cousins, we started doing so forty years before the Pilgrims landed in Massachusetts.

An English explorer named Martin Frobisher had been trying to find a northern passage to the Pacific through the ice floes of northern Canada. He failed to find a passage, but he did set up a column and said prayers of thanksgiving. He gave thanks, however, not for a bountiful harvest, but for the fact that his ship survived the trip—another ship traveling with him was lost in a storm. Eventually Thanksgiving became a yearly national harvest celebration.

I read the first Scriptural mention of a national time of thanksgiving in Exodus 15 this week. Led by Moses and his older sister Miriam, the Israelite nation celebrated on the eastern shore of the Red Sea. They, also, did not celebrate a bountiful harvest and food in abundance. All they had was leftover bread, and it was only flat, unleavened stuff.

Instead, they sang about their escape from Egypt, about the drowning of their slave masters, and, of course, about their firstborn children being spared when every firstborn man, woman, child, or animal in Egypt died. There was plenty of joy, though no mention of turkey and all the trimmings, and even less mention of ham. That first Israelite national thanksgiving, like Frobisher’s, was a celebration of survival.

HaitiThe same morning, I read this account in Exodus, I saw the devastation hurricane Matthew had caused in Haiti. The category 4 hurricane passed directly over the western part of this island, killing more than 130 people and turning cities into a gigantic garbage dumps. People are still mostly without electric power, running water or telephone. It will take years to repair all the damage.

I wonder what kind of thanksgiving Haitians will celebrate this weekend. Or million or more people who are desperately evacuating eastern Florida and South Carolina. There will be neither turkey nor ham. No cranberries either. Any celebration will likely be a celebration of survival, much like that first thanksgiving recorded in Exodus.

Survival may be a good thing for all of us to focus on in our thanksgiving celebrations. Instead of focusing only on the abundance of food and material things we have and enjoy, we could focus on the terrible things that did not happen to us. For instance:

For the yearly 40,000 kilometres of safe automobile travel, or the accidents we were involved in but we survived. For the fires or floods that did not destroy our homes, or which did, but from which we escaped with our lives. For the cancer that did not strike in our families, or which did, but we survived.  For safe arrival home after travel abroad in high-risk countries.

We live in a dangerous, suffering world. The nightly TV news shows death and destruction in myriad forms. We sit and watch the horrific results of suicide bombings, school shootings, of devastating floods and landslides, of raging fires, of countrywide conflict and the resulting millions of starving, fleeing refugees.

May the TV news drive us to pray for those still in the midst of these disasters. And while we watch, let’s not forget to breathe a prayer of thanksgiving to God that He spared us.

We Remember Them

I was about five years old when my parents told me what had happened to our country, the Netherlands, when I was a baby.

“Bad soldiers came from another country.” they said, “They came breaking God’s rules. They lied to us, and they stole things, they hurt people. There were so many of them, all with big guns, that they chased away all our good soldiers and our good policemen.”

I nodded. I had already seen lots of those enemy soldiers with their guns on the streets, and had heard about them stealing bicycles and radios from people’s houses.

“But now they are also starting to steal men—daddies, uncles, big brothers, even young grandpas,” my mom said. “They are locking them into train boxcars and taking them to their own country to work like slaves on farms, and in mines and in factories.”

“If you see an army truck on our street, with soldiers going into houses, you come right home. Don’t shout, just come home and once you are inside, tell us about it. Then daddy can hide.”

I remember times my dad crawled into a space below the floor of a back room and my mom closing the trap door. Then we rolled the carpet back over it and with both of us pushing, moved the heavy sideboard back into place. I brushed out the tracks on the carpet so it looked as if nothing had been moved.

poppyPinning on a poppy in preparation of Remembrance Day, I remember the day Canadian soldiers freed my city. I wrote the memory years ago and read it during a talk at a Remembrance Chapel at the local Christian School on Friday. I repeat it here in honour of those who gave their lives in war so that my countrymen and I might live in peace.

I squirmed and squeezed my thin seven-year-old body through the jostling crowd until I conquered a spot on the curb. The bright sunshine warmed my face, arms and bare knees as I squinted into the light. I clutched my little paper flag, the Dutch red, white and blue, ready to wave, ready to shout and ready to sing a welcome to our rescuers. It was Tuesday, May 8, 1945.

The approaching rumble of a column of Canadian army trucks started the crowd up the road cheering and singing. The noise grew louder as huge, dull green trucks blocked out the sun. Shouting, laughing soldiers waved their machine guns from the backs of the trucks. The applause and cheers of the delirious crowd lining the street nearly drowned out the singing of Wilhelmus, the Dutch national anthem.

Young soldiers whistled at the tall blonde girl jumping up and down behind me. Her homemade rose petal perfume fought the stink of the diesel exhaust fumes and the stench of close-pressed sweating bodies—bodies and clothing that had not been touched by soap for years. Camouflaged tanks grumbled past, pulling long-snouted artillery. Their thunderous booming had kept me awake for several nights. Now the cannons were sniffing the air, eager to rout the enemy from the next city.

The cheers died down suddenly as a column of prisoners of war in grey-green uniforms shuffled past. The Luger pistol holsters flapped empty on their brown leather belts. They walked with their fingers laced on top of their heads. Armed Canadian soldiers walked alongside them.

The crowd silently watched the infantry prisoners go by, but then began to boo and hiss as a small column of Gestapo officers came into view. Finally! No more strutting. No more haughty looks. No more death-dealing commands. Their once-feared black uniforms glistened with the slime of saliva as people rushed from the curb to spit on them.

The last trucks in the parade rolled past. I cheered myself hoarse, and waved my little flag until a soldier snatched it out of my hand and waved it high as his truck rumbled on down the road. I tasted the salt of tears, not for the loss of the flag, but for the joy of knowing the Peace Bringers had arrived and the enemy would never make me afraid again.

Today, again, I Remember Them.