Exodus 3:6 “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.”
For the past several months I have been in the process of documenting enough of my heritage to earn a place in the Society of Mayflower Descendants. When I first discovered the Mayflower connection, it gave me the proud feeling that goes with the national myth about the Pilgrims, Plymouth Rock, and that first Thanksgiving. But, after the first blush of pride, came other memories.
Only about half the passengers were technically “pilgrims:” those seeking religious freedom after being run out of England to the Dutch town of Leiden. My ancestor, Stephen Hopkins, was not a pilgrim but one of the “strangers” on the ship—part of a group selected by the company sponsoring the voyage to take the seats of pilgrims who backed out at the last minute. So there go my religious creds.
Furthermore, Hopkins had already been to the New World. He had been part of a shipwreck in Bermuda (which inspired Shakespeare’s The Tempest) and had so incited the crew to mutiny that he was sentenced to hang, worming his way out of the hangman’s noose with what were probably crocodile tears for his wife and children back in England. He was quite useful to the Plymouth colonists when it came to scouting out territory and negotiating with the Native People, but he doesn’t to appear to have been the kind of guy you want to bring home to meet the family on, say, Thanksgiving.
Winner of the National Book Award, Mayflower by Nathaniel Philbrick can fill you in on the more honest assessment of the Mayflower passengers and the Plymouth Colony they founded. Suffice it to say that my heritage reminds me that I come from stock that is both courageous and cowardly, devout and intolerant, gracious and bigoted. In other words, stock that bears an unsettling and uncanny resemblance to myself.
Scripture reminds us of this every time we hear the reminder that God is the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. The myth says they are the great patriarchs of the faith; but that is only part of the truth. The nuanced reality of the Hebrew Scriptures shows us that they were both saint and sinner with ample doses of both courage and cowardice, nobility and thievery. Yet God is willing to be associated with each of them, nonetheless.
It’s important to get past the myth that being a Christian makes us part of a pure and unspoiled heritage and to realize that our reality is also more nuanced. The pilgrims from the Mayflower and later voyages soon created such an intolerant society in Massachusetts Bay that Baptist minister Roger Williams had to flee and found Rhode Island for the sake of religious freedom. It is a tension that has marked us from the beginning.
But it is also important to remember that our lack of moral purity doesn’t cut us off from the love of God. If God was willing to pitch tent with Jacob the wily thief and King David the lust-driven murderer and Peter the blustering coward and Paul the intolerant persecutor, then maybe Stephen Hopkins wasn’t truly a stranger to God. And maybe I’m not either.
God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, thank you for your grace. Amen.
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Be sure to check out my books: Blowing the Lid Off the God-Box and God’s Top 10: Blowing the Lid Off the Commandments. Order now on Amazon.com or check local bookstores.