When Allen from my church invited me to take part in our annual Thanksgiving Eve service, I was more than happy. It's one of my favourite traditions at my home church. We gather together on Wednesday evening and praise God for what He's done in the past year. And then, since everyone in the Brethren church seems to have an inherent ability to bake delicious pies, we head downstairs for a pre-turkey-day pie-fest. (Gladys, if you're reading this, I'm trying not to think too hard about what I'm missing this year!)
I wrote this a few weeks ago, when I found out that the service is going to be focused on giving thanks even through hard times. My dad was supposed to be reading it, right about now, but instead he's in Toronto meeting his granddaughter. My life is so full of such a strange mixture of joy and heartache these days; I wouldn't want it any other way.
It's hard to know what to write, because I'm sitting on a ship off the coast of West Africa. Outside, the sun is burning away the clouds from last night's rain. The faint ocean breeze is the only thing that breaks the stifling heat, and nothing in the air tells me that it's Thanksgiving. When I leave the port and walk to town, I pass ruined buildings, walls riddled with bullet holes and children hawking wares on street corners instead of going to school; nothing in this place looks like Thanksgiving. On the wards, our beds are filled with little kids in various stages of malnutrition, crying for their mothers or their fathers or just a cup of milk, even though their throats are scarred so badly that they can't drink anything. Women lie swathed in thick bandages and men whimper softly in pain as their wounds are cleaned and nothing feels like Thanksgiving.
I was working on the wards yesterday evening. An old man had just come back from surgery and lay propped up on pillows, a clean white bandage around his head. How are you? I asked him, expecting the standard reply of fine or trying. Instead, he answered immediately. I am grateful to God.
Liberia is a country recovering from more than a decade of brutal civil war. Almost every person I talk to can recount horrific stories of families torn apart, loved ones savagely murdered, lives gone up in flames. In the face of all this, they are the most grateful people I have ever met. They have been teaching me this lesson all year long.
When I want to complain about the heat outside, I remember Victoria, who spent three hours crammed into the back of a Liberian taxi, just to come to the ship to say hello to me. Because, as she said, we did well for her, and she is thankful.
When I feel tired and think I can't handle one more shift at work, I remember Seikou and Saran, children wrapped in bandages from neck to navel, shoulders to wrists, recovering from surgeries to release necks and limbs trapped by burn scars. They laughed and played and endured painful therapies, and when we were finished stretching their joints and winding fresh gauze around their sores, they would look up through tear-filled eyes and say, thank you.
When my whole body ached and I could barely walk after my car accident and I just wanted to stay in bed, I remember Alfred. They reached into his leg, cut his bone and put it back together with pins and plates. And it wasn't long before he was hopping around the wards on his crutches, telling jokes, solemnly informing us that he was the scientist who would find the cure for AIDS and thanking us for taking care of him. We were, in his typically-teenaged words, cool.
When I missed my family, my mother and the Haggans and my cousin, and everything seemed to be happening so far out of my reach that all I wanted was to be angry and bitter, I remember Marion, a woman living under a curse. She has lost three children, been abandoned by her father and her boyfriend and shunned by the people of her village. And when I greet her as she comes through the gate and she shares all this with me, her face is resolute. No man can make a way for me. Thank God that He can make the way for me.
I am now, more than ever, convinced that nothing can separate me from the love of my God. Not death, not distance, not pain. Weariness, frustration and heartache have no power over Him. And no matter how hard I think things are, I have been given friends who show me with their lives that God can make a way for me.
And I am now, more than ever, thankful.