—by Twila Schock

It was November 1994. I was a brand-new missionary in Slovakia, and I was homesick. Our trainers in missionary orientation had warned us missionary novices about culture shock. But I had cavalierly dismissed it, judging it to be for the faint of heart.

Despite my bravado, I found myself in the throes of culture shock. The euphoria of being in a new country, with a new culture and a new language had worn off. It was a tough fall.

Bratislava, Slovakia, in 1994 was not the youthful bustling European capital that it is today. Shortages were the order of the day. Creature comforts, as we Americans had come to appreciate them, were scarce. The religious education program that I was called to help develop was bereft of resources. We barely had enough Bibles, much less textbooks. I wanted to go home.

Yet, there I was. It was November and Thanksgiving was on the horizon. Happy Thanksgiving? Bah humbug!

With the shortages, I had no way of getting a turkey, short of buying a live one from a distant farmer and butchering it myself. Unless I made a trek to Austria, mashed potatoes were not an option because of a potato blight. Cranberries were nowhere in sight, much less pumpkin pie filling. And, even if we had pumpkin pie filling, I had no pie pan.

Showing courage and optimism

But, perhaps worst of all was this: I was a pastor. Pastors are supposed to rise above such petty things, aren’t they? Pastors aren’t supposed to complain about Thanksgiving without turkey, are they? Pastors are supposed to show courage and optimism when the going gets tough, aren’t they?

Yet, it was when I was feeling the least thankful ever that Paul’s exhortation to the Philippians began to gnaw at me. “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God” (Philippians 4:4-6). What could Paul have been thinking as he issued this joyful admonition? And, why were his words nipping at my soul now?

Paul was not issuing a casual invitation. He did not say “Rejoice when everything turns out OK.” Nor did he say, “Pray when you have time to get around to it.” Or, “Give thanks when the going is good.” That would border on what theologians call prosperity theology.

Rather, Paul tells us that when tensions increase and resources decrease, when our world is coming apart at the seams, then (even then) pray always. Rejoice. Give thanks.

Paul was basically telling me to do what did not come naturally. He was saying that he wanted me to be content. Not in a surface, shallow kind of way, because I had plenty of turkey at Thanksgiving. Rather, he wanted me to be filled with a deep satisfying gratitude. He says that we can find that type of gratitude by being tolerant of every person, by worrying about nothing; by having peace that passes understanding; by praying for what we need rather than what we want.

Gratitude and thanksgiving

These words might sound like pabulum and pious platitudes. Yet, they form the basis for living a life of thanksgiving. And little did I know in 1994 that my upcoming 18-year-trek in global ministry would afford me many more opportunities to learn a life of gratitude and thanksgiving. Despite that, living a life of gratitude is often easier said than done.

Even years later, I challenge Paul. “Easy for you to say, Paul,” I think defiantly. “Way to sweep grief under the carpet. You haven’t stood with me at the bedside of my father as I watched him die way too young.”

“You haven’t walked through a slum in Nairobi where children dig in the sand looking for grains of rice fallen from the relief truck to cook for their siblings’ supper because their parents have died from AIDS.”

“You were not one of the parents left standing in Newtown, Conn., when the announcement is made: ‘No more children will be united with their parents.’”

I defy and challenge Paul about this concept of living with thanksgiving until I remember that Paul uttered these words in prison before a trial that could lead to his death.

Rejoice always

As I think of these words of Paul, I think of some of the people I’ve worked with who had precious little reason for thanksgiving. I think of Changjwok Awan Nyikako–Dr. Chan, for short.

Dr. Chan was my staff assistant when I was a missionary pastor in Russia. A refugee from the Sudan, he was in Moscow after fleeing a bloody civil war of the early 1990s. Dr. Chan, as head of the university student movement in Darfur, was on Sudan’s most wanted list for inciting student demonstrations against an oppressive Islamic regime.

A devout servant and employee of the church I served, Chan was fluent in English, Russian, Arabic, and Chollo, his mother tongue. He had his Ph.D. in economics and was living in exile. It didn’t take me long to identify him as talent to be nurtured and so my congregation and I fought valiantly for scholarships and visa support so that he might study theology in the United States.

A few months after arriving at the Lutheran School of Theology in Chicago, Chan got his first car ever–at age 40. And, two weeks later, it lost its transmission. Chan, not yet a U.S. citizen and still a refugee, would most surely be despondent about this, and so I called him. I was hoping to offer him a shoulder to lean on as he faced, yet, another setback in his quest for a normal life.

“I’m so sorry, Chan, about your car problems,” I consoled. “Just what you need with all of your student bills and burdens.”

“Pastor,” he admonished, “Why are you sorry? Thank God!”

“Thank God, Chan?” I questioned.

“Of course, pastor.” he laughed. “Let me explain this to you. When I was a little boy, growing up in Africa, I would sometimes get to see TV. And I would watch Americans on TV complain about having their car break down or other bad things that happened to them.”

“When I played with my friends, we would sometimes pretend to be Americans,” he continued, “and we would say things like ‘Oh, my car broke down,’ or ‘Oh, my hamster is sick.’ We never had hopes of having either a car or a hamster.”

“But, today,” he continued, “thank God, pastor. I can finally say ‘Oh, my car broke down.’ because I have a car to break down. Thank the Lord.” But, his jubilance runs deeper than mere ownership of stuff. I have spent many hours with Chan, listening to him share the agony of warfare in Sudan and marveling at how he and his family have survived, taking refuge in distant lands, while others–peers and friends–were slaughtered.

While he shared his life’s painful and sometimes brutal story, he never complained. He didn’t ask God why tragedy or hardship struck his life over and over again, and whether it will continue to do so. He accepts it and looks forward to building a new life with whatever is left at the end of any given day. “Because Pastor,” he would remind me, “even in the worst of times, God helps us find grace in the most unexpected places. And even more importantly, God gave us Sunday. God gave us the day of resurrection before we even knew we needed it.”

As luck would have it, Chan’s real name Changjwok means Sunday in Chollo.

Grace unexpected

“Rejoice in the Lord always?” Some people manage to do it. And in November of 1994, with no turkey and no textbooks, I was called to do the same. After weeks of struggle, I had begun to make peace with St. Paul and his exhortation to the Philippians. Determined to live a life of gratitude, I began to do what any new missionary should do.

I asked my Slovak neighbors how they celebrate times of thanksgiving in their culture. They taught me about preparing geese, celebrating the new wine, eating the garden vegetables they had grown and preserved. They told me about making noodles and how to puree chestnuts.

It should come as no surprise that in my new-found missionary poverty I was becoming rich in relationships and experience. But, then came the part that I expected the least.

As I began to imagine how I might help our new missionary community rejoice in the Lord always on our first Thanksgiving away from home, I found grace in a most unexpected place: the back of a U.S. military truck.

Months earlier, the chaplain of the Lutheran military chaplain’s group in Hanau, Germany, heard about the new Lutheran missionary community in Slovakia. He knew about the shortage of provisions and felt called to invite the Lutheran military community to share from its abundance. So they loaded their vehicles and they trekked across Europe.

And they shared abundantly. They brought computers and textbooks, Bibles and literary books, catechisms and science books. They were used treasures, but we didn’t care. They transported pans and kettles, plates and flatware. Because these military personnel were displaced from home, too, they understood how it felt to miss our creature comforts. They offered us Doritos and chocolate chips and peanut butter–treasures we would ration for months to come.

When we least expected it, they brought us Thanksgiving. They hauled turkeys, stuffing mix, potatoes, sweet potatoes, cranberries, pumpkin pie filling, and pie tins to us. They even remembered Cool Whip!

What rejoicing there was. In the midst of our scarcity, we found ourselves giving thanks in a new way. We couldn’t have been more thankful if we had been the original Pilgrims.

“Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. In everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made know to God.”

It was November of 1994, and we were homesick. And, we were grateful. But, thanks to a Lutheran military chaplaincy group, we were also lucky. Each of us had come to a fuller appreciation of living a life of thanksgiving in the midst of scarcity.

And, more importantly, each of us was reminded of the many who live lives of thanksgiving without ever having it delivered by a truck.

The Rev. Twila Schock serves as senior pastor at Christ Lutheran Church in Belvidere, Illinois. She spent 18 years working in ELCA Global Mission, serving as a missionary in Slovakia, Germany, and Russia, and as director for missionary sponsorship and global gifts.

This article is appeared in the November 2013 issue of Gather magazine. To read more like it, subscribe to Gather.