Over the years, Jan and I have found ourselves serving the Lord in several unique locations. One of those places was our assignment in the West Indies when our base of operation was out of Kingston, Jamaica. Thanksgiving time in Jamaica did not have the crisp air and falling leaves like our home back in Oregon. Jamaica had its own beauty at that time of year, but it was wrapped in the hot and humid climate of the Caribbean. Even more oppressive was the reality that at the time of our arrival, the city of Kingston was filled with a heightened sense of violence. At that time Kingston, Jamaica had the highest murder rate of any city in the world. It was a very different holiday season for our family.
Our first Thanksgiving in this new land was coming soon. I had to be in Florida for a ministry assignment and would be traveling back into Kingston just a day before Thanksgiving. My wife, Jan, grew up as a missionary kid so she always knew how to always make things special in a new environment.
While in Miami with some spare time before my flight back to Kingston, I had an idea. Because the tradition of Thanksgiving was uniquely American and because I had not seen any turkeys for sale on the island, I thought I would buy a frozen turkey and take it with me in my carry-on luggage back to my family. It would have time to begin thawing on the trip home. The presence of a familiar baked Thanksgiving turkey would take the edge off of being in a foreign environment on our first Thanksgiving in a new land. Somewhere in the back of my mind I thought there might be some regulation against importing frozen food, but I did not let my mind wander too far in that direction.
This was pre-9/11 so the security process was not as harried as it is today. As I stood in line, rehearsing what I would say to the security personnel if I were asked the question, “Do you have anything to declare?” I was determined to not lie. If someone were to ask if I was smuggling a frozen turkey, I would admit my error and hand it over. Boarding the flight in Miami was easy. No one asked me anything. I got on the plane and put my bag with the frozen turkey in the overhead bin above. I was hoping that during its thawing process the turkey would not begin to drip on the passengers near me setting of some kind of inflight emergency. I watched the overhead bin for the entire flight as we made our way across the Caribbean.
When I arrived in the Kingston airport, I tried to put on my most innocent face and not look like my right arm was overly elongated trying to carry a 20-pound frozen turkey. I got in the customs line and inched my way forward with the rest of the passengers. The Jamaican woman who checked my passport did not ask the usual questions. She simply looked at me and said, “Welcome back” and that was it. I didn’t feel as honorable as a Bible smuggler at some checkpoint in one of the Eastern European nations behind the old Iron Curtain, but it would be as close as I would ever get to that feeling.
When I walked in the door of our home in Kingston, Jan and the kids greeted me with hugs and kisses. Then I opened my bag and pulled out the turkey. Laughter and squeals of joy filled our home as the familiar Thanksgiving turkey came to visit four Americans for their first Thanksgiving in a new land. Jan prepared a beautiful meal with all the trimmings and we ate together with joy. That Thanksgiving reminded me of the importance of what each of us bring to this special holiday.
This Thanksgiving, what can you bring to make the unfamiliar feel like “family” to those you gather with? In whatever setting you find yourself there will be something you can bring. Thanksgiving is bigger than bringing a special dish of food. This special day is about a heart attitude and a reminder that God is our blessing and those people in our lives with whom we celebrate this day are part of that blessing.
The first mention of the word “thanksgiving” in the Bible is not until the book of Leviticus. The writer is describing the law of peace offerings.
“This is the law of the sacrifice of peace offerings which he shall offer to the Lord: If he offers it for a thanksgiving, then he shall offer, with the sacrifice of thanksgiving, unleavened cakes mixed with oil, unleavened wafers anointed with oil, or cakes of blended flour mixed with oil.” Leviticus 7:11-12
We have a tendency to think the idea of Thanksgiving might have originated within the American story of our history, yet here it was thousands of years ago in the Holy Land. What struck me were the words, “with the sacrifice of thanksgiving”. Whatever was required to be brought to the table for those important ceremonies would need to be brought with thanksgiving. God places a high priority on thanksgiving.
This Thanksgiving you might be asked bring a tangible contribution to the Thanksgiving meal. Jell-O salads, green bean casseroles or a potato dish or even a smuggled turkey could be your contribution to the feast. You might find yourself in place or circumstance that is less than desirable. You may not be able to celebrate Thanksgiving in any traditional sense of the word. In whatever setting you find yourself the most important essence you and I will bring to Thanksgiving Day is the presence of God wrapped in a heart of thankfulness. This will be the sacrifice of thanksgiving you will offer to those around the table and that sacrifice will be the most important gift you bring. Long after the taste of the turkey has passed your sacrifice of thanksgiving will continue to feed those present.
That Thanksgiving, that took place over 20 years ago in Jamaica is an enjoyable memory and reminder, not only of the unexpected turkey and it’s unique trip from America to Jamaica, but what actually made that hot and humid Thanksgiving in the Caribbean so special. It was the sense of thankfulness I felt as I sat across the table from three people I loved so much.
Have a blessed and thankful Thanksgiving.