Saturday I spent some time along the shore of Plymouth Harbor visiting a 17th century English village. It is a re-creation of the small maritime community built by the first pilgrims. Pretty cool to hear the stories and imagine what sixty-six days crossing the ocean must have been like. In some of these small houses I noticed Dutch ceramics–a reminder that these people launched from Leiden, The Netherlands (not England). It also brought back to mind an unsettled memory experienced in my first years in Holland.
We lived in a small Dutch village called Wassenaar, next door to Leiden. Leiden is home to Pieterskerk, a church consecrated in 1121. At first it was a Catholic church, but four centuries later it became a Dutch Reformed church, remaining such until its “secularization” in 1975. And I experienced some of its secularization on my first Thanksgiving.
I was invited with other clergy to participate in a Thanksgiving Day service, one sponsored by the American Community Council. I was overwhelmed with the thought that here I sat where the original pilgrims worshipped. I read their names on the walls of the church. These were deeply devoted Christ followers who had sacrificed everything to leave the state church in England and worship in freedom. They wanted to practice a more simple faith–not one encumbered by church and politics (one we should still be escaping today–but that is another blog).
For eleven years, these English believers settled and worshipped until they could no longer stay. Holland has always been a tolerant place, and there came a day these believers feared they would lose the next generation to the secular values of Dutch culture. For many of us expats living in Holland, we had to deal with the same tolerance gone to seed. Sexual permissiveness, availability of drugs in cafes, and drinking permissible at an earlier age played havoc with some of our kids.
On Friday, July 31st, 1620, these early pilgrims left from the Vlietburg in Leiden for a new world. How could it be anything but a gutsy faith? Ship problems required a change of boats in England, and they eventually crossed the Atlantic on the Mayflower. The delays led to an arrival close to winter. Many would lose their lives to disease and cold in the following months. But next year, those who survived, would stop on this November day to give thanks–beginning a tradition that continues to today.
So here we came to commemorate a day and remember these early saints. Pieterskerk, however, is no longer a church. It’s little more than a museum. A place to celebrate an American holiday. My part was to read a psalm. Rabbi Soetendorp did the invocation, Father Raferty read from Deuteronomy, Pastor Dawson gave the children’s prayer, Rev. Monsignor Green gave the Thanksgiving Day Litany, and Cantor Avery Tracht of Liberal Synagogue, Amsterdam gave the benediction.
It was all pleasant. The Dutch have a word for this, but I no longer remember. It speaks of things comfortable and cozy. I am guessing everyone went on their way feeling good. Perhaps thinking that actually God was pleased that they spent some time on this special day in, of all places, a church. Americans loved that Bill Clinton’s Thanksgiving Day Proclamation was read, and America The Beautiful was sung. But I remember going home troubled. These early pilgrims weren’t really remembered. The irony was that the state religion they escaped had come back to take over their church. More troubling was the absence of the name of Jesus.
For three years, I joined this–can I say it?–charade. I was the token Baptist minister, and my guess is a Psalm reading was intended to ensure I was kept on leash. Finally, in the third year, after the presentation of colors, the pledge of allegiance, the readings by every religious representation–after all of the political correctness–I introduced my psalm reading with these words–“We are privileged to come together to remember these names on the walls, these early pilgrims, who lived for Christ, and sacrificed to ensure they could live the gospel–and share the gospel. Jesus has come to pray the price for our failures and invite us to spend eternity with God.
It was my last service. I was no longer invited back. I had gone off-script. No one thought to remember that Pastor John Robinson, the pastor of these early saints, stood on that Dutch dock, surely filled with tears, to send them off. And these were his parting words–“We are now ere long to part asunder, and the Lord knoweth whether we shall see each other’s faces again. But whether the Lord hath appointed it or not, I charge you before God and His blessed angels, to follow Christ! Would that our prayers on this Thanksgiving day close with the same words.