The following Thanksgiving message is from my dear friend Dennis Teall-Fleming, who is the lead church planter and pastor of our small missional community (affiliated with the Disciples of Christ denomination) here in Gastonia, NC (just outside of Charlotte):
She is 11, as old as my second oldest child. Not much to her, though, about four inches shorter and 20 pounds lighter than my 11-year-old. She always looks hungry and tired, but from what I’ve learned about her, she’s a fighter. So I’ll call her Mary for now, in honor of the many fighters that go by that name in the sacred writings I call my Bible.
Mary lives a frightening life. Her father nearly beat her mother to death, and is now in prison for it. Mom suffered tremendously from the abuse, and now can’t keep a steady job. Too many incidents of PTSD flashbacks, tremors, and seizures probably associated with some kind of epilepsy, keep her from showing up on time and staying on task. So Mary and her mother really haven’t had much income to make a real life. They spend their lives in weekly-rate motels, on the couches of any friends and family that might be willing to bed them up for a while, or, if they run out of options, the back of the station wagon that miraculously still runs after all these years.
I meet Mary at the Mission now and then, when she and her mother can muster up the strength to get past their embarrassment and shame to show up. They really need to show up more than they do, as they’re constantly in need of food on a regular basis, and new clothes for a growing young girl. When they do show up, Mary is tremendously relieved. She hates wearing the same two or three outfits to school that still fit, as she knows that everyone talks down about her. Because of her lack of wardrobe, because of her constant lack of attention and sleepiness in class, because she’s “stupid,” and she “smells,” and has no real friends. Getting new clothes, along with a new cupboard full of food for the month, is just the thing Mary’s looking for.
She showed up last week, and so I asked her what she was up to for Thanksgiving. Yeah, her Mom still tries to create some kind of normalcy for her around these winter holidays, so Mary tells me they might try to show up at her great uncle’s house on Thursday. It might not last long, though, but at least she gets to watch some TV, even if it is just football games. Her Mom’s uncle is still drinking himself to death, so he’s not really that pleasant for long periods of time. But hey, it’s family, it’s a sit-down meal together, that Mary doesn’t have to eat out of a microwave. So we’ll see.
I then ask what turn into most important question for me this holiday: What, Mary, are you thankful for this year? Mary comes up with the best of answers for me as a Christian:
- She’s thankful to still be with her Mom. They have a hard time keeping it together, but hey, she says, don’t all families?
- She’s thankful for being able to go to school. It may be a long drive, or walk, sometimes; depending on the location of the motel, or the parking lot in which they’re sleeping in for the night; depending on whether the car’s working, and whether there’s enough gas to get there. But either way, and despite the torment of her classmates, Mary loves to learn, loves to be somewhere warm, even if that makes it harder to stay awake; loves the access to two hot meals and clean toilets; loves the teachers and other school staff that treat her like a real person. She knows that a great education may be a way to help her family get ahead and somewhere better, so despite how hard it is sometimes to keep up with her schoolwork living in a car, she’s very thankful for the opportunity to try.
- She also says, with the most sincerity, that she’s thankful for Jesus in her life. She says that, as a Christian, no matter what else may be missing in life, Jesus is there for her. She feels him close to her especially when no one else is; even when her Mom’s at work all night on third shift, or “out of it,” as Mary calls those moments when her Mom’s suffering the effects of a lifetime of abuse and privation. Even and especially when no one else is, Jesus is there. Even when it seems that hope is all lost, even in those moments when Mary just wants to turn out the lights on her loneliness and give up. Jesus is there for her.
Yes, Mary, Jesus certainly is with you. Much more so than for someone like me, surrounded by such luxury and largesse this Thanksgiving. Those of us that have never known the darkness and emptiness this life has to offer like you do, Mary, are nowhere as near to Jesus as you are. I see through you that this is the point of being a Christian, to see that Christ came to this world, this life, this reality, as someone like you, Mary, to show everyone the way to God; through people like you, through helping you, through becoming like you as much as possible in this world, this life, this reality. I see Jesus as well in my life, and I see Jesus with me more and more.
You may not know it, Mary, because I didn’t really know how to express this to you in your situation. But I’m thankful for you, because you are my Jesus. You are my Christ. You save me from my sinful ways, and you show me what being thankful is all about this holiday season. I thank God for you, Mary, as you walk the road with Christ in ways I’ll never be able to imagine.