As a young child, most everything I knew about our American Thanksgiving celebration revolved around a mental picture of Pilgrims and Indians feasting on the wild turkey, corn, and pumpkins one fall day hundreds of years ago. In our home, the traditional way was to gather all the family at grandmother's house in the countryside and feast on a cornicopia of delicious food. If there was any thought of thankfulness to God, I don't remember it...unless it came from a simple prayer my father gave "saying the blessing."
Being an elder in our church was his qualification...but I cannot ever remember him reading the Bible or even having one. Or ever, even once, talking about Jesus. The attention was, of course, Macy's Thanksgiving Day parade on the television, then the feast, then the football game and dominos. That was Thanksgiving.
Years later I learned the meaning of thankfulness, not from the annual feast held at my grandmother's house in the country, but from two women I never met nor would ever meet: Corrie Ten Boom and her sister Betsie.
Corrie's book The Hiding Place told the story of their incredible experience in a Nazi Death camp during WWII. Both of the sisters were deeply committed Christians, and their only reason to have been put into prison was because their family voluntarily sheltered and hid persecuted Jews in their home in Holland.
Betsie seems to have been the one who inspired everyone--including her younger sister Corrie. There was so little to be thankful about--the most they could expect to eat was a broth with a bit of cabbage, some turnip soup, or a small boiled potato and a tiny slice of bread. The smell from the smokestack of the crematorium sickened the air. The hours spent at attention in
rollcall in the freezing cold were tortureous.
"Medical inspection" was a humiliation. Forbiddened even to wrap themselves with their own arms, the women filed slowly past the grinning guards who took a sick pleasure in inspecting their naked bodies. Corrie described it:
"It was one of these mornings while we were waiting, shivering, in the corridor, that a page in the Bible leapt into life for me.
He hung on the cross.
"I had not known--I had not thought...The paintings, the carved crucifixes showed at the least a scrap of cloth. But this, I suddenly knew, was the respect and reverence of the artist. But oh--at the time itself, on that other Friday morning--there had been no reverence. No more than I saw in the faces around us now. I leaned toward Betsie, ahead of me in line. Her shoulder blades stood out sharp and thin beneath her blue-mottled skin.
"Betsie, they took His clothes too."
Ahead of me I heard a little gasp. "Oh, Corrie. And I never thanked Him..."
Their first night in Ravensbruck had been spent outdoors on hard cinder ground in the midst of a thunderous rainstorm. The next day they would again stand in line stark naked past the German guards to cut their hair and after a shower, put on a prison dress and a pair of shoes.
Miraculously, Corrie "managed" to smuggle in her precious Bible beneath that cotton dress, despite the hands-on search by the men. They simply overlooked Corrie. Given their assignment barracks, they spent the next night in a single bed, sleeping sideways with three other women. Later, moved to a more permanent building, Corrie and Betsy were horrified to find it also horribly infested with fleas.
"Betsie! how can we live in such a place?" Corrie asked her sister.
"Show us. Show us how."
"It was said so matter of factly it took me a second to realize she was praying. More and more the distinction between prayer and the rest of life seemed to be vanishing for Betsie."
"Corrie!" she said excitedly. "He's given us the answer!! Before we asked, as He always does! In the Bible this morning. Where was it? Read that part again!"
Corrie looked around to see if guards might be present, then opened the little smuggled Bible to First Thessalonians.
"Here it is: 'Comfort the frightened, help the weak, be patient with everyone. See that none of you repays evil for evil, but always seek to do good to one another and to all...rejoice always, pray constantly, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus--"
"That's it, Corrie! That's His answer. "Give thanks in all circumstances! That's what we can do. We can start right now to thank God for every single thing about this new barracks!"
"Such as?" I said.
"Such as being assigned here together."
I bit my lip. "Oh yes, Lord Jesus!"
"Such as what you're holding in your hands."
I looked down at the Bible. "Yes!" Thank You, dear Lord, that there was no inspection when we entered here! Thank You for all the women here in this room, who will meet You in these pages. Thank you for the jammed, crammed, stuffed, packed, suffocating crowds."
Betsie went on serenely, "for the fleas and for---"
The fleas! That was too much. "Betsie, there's no way even God can make me grateful for a flea."
"Give thanks in all circumstances" she quoted. "It doesn't say, 'in pleasant circumstances.' Fleas are part of this place where God has put us."
And so we stood between piers of bunks and gave thanks for fleas. But this time I was sure Betsie was wrong."
Corrie had been worried about their Bible reading and ministry to the women. It had become the most important moment of the day as they gathered around a single light bulb and read from the Word of God. Wouldn't it attract a guard? But strangely, guards were almost never seen in the dormitory of Barracks 18. Corrie asked an inmate. "Why do the guards never come in the dormitory?"