My Thanksgiving Breakdown: Thankfulness in Sorrow

In November of 2001, we were one year into our first term as Assemblies of God missionaries in Cote d’Ivoire, West Africa. During Thanksgiving week, we were four hours from home staying in the capitol city because Phil was being treated for typhoid.

The Southern Baptist missionaries who were our hosts knew of our situation. All of their missionaries who were in the area were coming to a large Thanksgiving dinner and celebration, and they were kind enough to invite us to join them. “Just come,” they said. “You are welcome.” Having nowhere else to go and no way to cook a holiday meal, we accepted their invitation.

Thanksgiving morning, however, Phil woke up feeling worse than normal. The treatment for typhoid, they say, is rougher than the sickness. “I don’t think I can go,” he told me, “but you can go without me.”

I am typically a pretty introverted person. I’m not shy, but being around people drains me. Being around strangers drains me even more. Being around strangers without my husband beside me makes me tired, just thinking about it. But my only other option was to stay in the apartment with the two children, make a meal from whatever I had in the cupboards, and pretend it wasn’t a holiday. So I took our two little people and went.

We snuck in the door a few minutes late and I was immediately overwhelmed. There were at least fifty people in the small space, and I knew exactly two of them. The tables were full, the noise level was high, the room was warm and they were just about ready to eat. We took a seat on a bench along the wall next to the door and just waited.

A man got up and apparently everyone knew him, because he didn’t introduce himself. He welcomed everyone and said that before he prayed over the food, he wanted to take a few minutes to go around the room and let everyone there say a word or two about what they were thankful for.

There were lots of smiles and nods and whispers, but as they started around the room, nobody noticed the stranger against the wall, panic bubbling up inside like the carbonation in a shaken-up pop can.  I knew immediately that I would have to stick to platitudes or else the seal on the pop can was going to burst.

As they made their way around the circle, I grasped at straws. My turn was coming up quickly .What am going to say? This has been the most painful year of my life. What can I be thankful for? Thankful for my children? Of course. A bit cliché, but it’s true. I’ll say that. What about thankful for my husband? A home? Yep. More clichés but still true. Stick with that. The kids and family thing.

My turn came, I took a deep breath and opened my mouth

Remember, husband and kids. Stick to the cliché.

“I am thankful that God is still in control.”

What? Where did that come from?  This is dangerous territory. If you say one more word, the seal will break and all the stuff inside is going to come gushing out in front of a bunch of strangers. Stick to the cliché! Stick to the cliché!

But it was too late to stop it.

“We arrived in Cote d’Ivoire last November. Within the first week, I got violently sick from something I ate and it took me two months to get better. While I was still recovering, my husband, with no prior medical history, had a grand mal seizure in front of me and our children. We ended up going back to the US for two months for medical care. While we were in the US, my mother passed away unexpectedly at the age of 52.”
The seal started to crack. I could feel the tears stinging my eyes. Hold it together. Where are you going with this? You are supposed to be thankful. This is a huge downer! Stop right now!!!

I couldn’t stop.

“We came back just a few days after her funeral, and within a month or two, my husband got malaria. His malaria hung on and he couldn’t seem to shake it. Then I put my back out. And I got a kidney infection. And my son got cellulitis. And a few months ago, my children and I were at a restaurant with another missionary wife when armed gunmen robbed the restaurant. They pointed an AK-47 at my daughter’s head and took my purse.”

The tears spilled out. My voice wavered and I became that woman who is trying to talk and cry at the same time. I couldn’t stop it. The seal was broken and it was all spraying out all over these lovely people I had never met before. Heaven help you. You are hopeless.

“Once the thieves had ransacked the restaurant, they took my friend as their hostage and left, leaving me sitting there with her children and mine. (She was released later, by the way) Meanwhile, my husband’s malaria wasn’t getting better and just a few weeks ago, we came here to see if we could get better care, where he was then diagnosed with typhoid as well. And so, I guess I’m just thankful God is still in control. {long pause} even though I don’t really see how He can be.”

Silence fell like a heavy blanket. I couldn’t stop thinking what a depressing thing I had just done in the middle of a Thanksgiving celebration, even though I could see that there were tears in everyone else’s eyes too. I sat there looking at my hands in my lap, wallowing in the shame of vomiting all my pain all over everyone else.

Then the man who was leading stood up. He cleared his throat and he said, “I think we just need to pray for this family.”

And they did. It wasn’t cliché. It wasn’t polite prayers or lip-service prayers. Thirteen years later, I can’t even write this story without tears in my eyes. Those were some of the most heartfelt and tender prayers that have ever been prayed over me. God responded to them in power and he held me in that moment of weakness. I literally don’t know how else to describe it. Although I couldn’t see how God could still be in control, they could, and their prayers carried me another day.

In the end, what I was really thankful for that day, was that in the midst of my sorrow, He surrounded me with people who were in the right place at the right time to show me God’s amazing and abundant love. Among fifty strangers, I was with family.

Thanksgiving was never intended to be a day that we pretend we don’t have sorrow and pain. You only have to think for a moment about the circumstances around the first Thanksgiving to see that. I think it is a day when we look past our pain and our struggles, and we remind each other that God is still good.

 

 

 

 

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