What would you say if I told you that you should be thankful for the fleas in your life?
Well, aside from being exceedingly confused, you would probably tell me that my advice was preposterous. I mean, who wants fleas? Not me – at least, not until this past week. But I am getting ahead of myself; Let’s rewind, and I will share my story.
It all started the weekend before Thanksgiving, as I was packing up my many bags and suitcases to return home from college for a fall break. The semester had been a long and tiring one so far, and I needed a break, physically and mentally. I was so excited to come home and see all of my family and friends again, and I was looking forward to getting to celebrate Thanksgiving with them. Now, one thing you need to know about my family is that Holidays are a big deal to us, especially Thanksgiving and Christmas. Every year my extended family on both my mother and father’s sides gather together to celebrate with mountains of food and good stories (not to mention football, for those who enjoy that sort of thing). My grandmother usually hosts the dinner for the maternal side of my family, but our family has the privilege (or perhaps simply the responsibility) of hosting my dad’s side of the family. Although having my twenty-seven relatives packed into our one-story rancher might seem stressful and slightly overwhelming, especially to the more claustrophobic among us, I look forward to the Shearin family thanksgiving every year.
Preparing for Thanksgiving is almost a science at this point; everyone in my family plays a part in getting our home ready for the masses to descend upon us. My mom knows exactly when to start making each dish, and my siblings and I have mastered the art of childproofing the house and creating seating arrangements. Then, of course, there is the good silverware that has to be pulled out and cleaned, tablecloths that need to be ironed, and decorative turkey-shaped butter sticks to set out (to be fair, we have only used fancifully shaped butter once in our many years of hosting). It has always been strangely comforting to know that the routine of Thanksgiving stays the same. It was one constant that I had thought might look the same in this year of ever changing circumstances. And yet, plans had changed once again. Because of the governor’s order limiting the number of people allowed to gather and the distance some of my family members had to travel to get to our home, our annual tradition had been cancelled, or rather, postponed to the summer when the virus might not be such a threat.
It’s OK, I told myself, this year has been full of surprises and challenges. We have made it this far; we can still have a great Thanksgiving. Besides, Mom’s side of the family is still getting together, right? I will still get to see all of them. It is going to be fine…
On the car ride home I daydreamed about pumpkin pie, cranberry sauce and family gathered together. But as I pulled my suitcases into my home a few hours and a long dive later, I was met with bad news: my sister was sick. Thankfully, it was just a mild cold, not COVID-19 or something dangerous, but even the slightest presence of germs was enough to scare some of my extended family away. After many tears, a few desperate phone calls, and a couple days of agonizing, our family made a difficult decision. We would not be meeting with my mom’s side of the family for Thanksgiving either. Instead, we would be alone.
I was frustrated, to say the least. We have made it so long without getting sick, I reasoned, why did she have to get sick this week? Could the illness not have waited a week until we had happily gathered with our family? There just doesn’t seem to be a point.
It was during this time of frustration, when my anticipation and gratitude had dwindled, that I found myself picking up one of my favorite novels- The Hiding Place by Corrie Ten Boom. For those of you who have never read this gem, The Hiding Place is the story of the lives of Betsie and Corrie Ten Boom, two Christian women who were imprisoned for sheltering Jews from the Nazis during World War II. Although they were abused, mistreated, interred in a concentration camp, and in Betsie’s case, killed by the harsh conditions they faced, these women never stopped sharing the gospel and encouraging every one they met.
In my spare time, as I devoured the stories in this novel once again, and I came across one of my favorite passages in the book. Having just been transferred to Ravensbrook, a women’s concentration camp, and realizing that they would be living in a filthy, cramped, inhospitable barracks with hundreds of other women, Betsie and Corrie are at the brink of despair, but Betsie suggests that they turn to the Lord with Thanksgiving even in the midst of their difficult circumstances. The following quote is part of their prayer:
Corrie 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.”
“Yes,” agreed Betsie. “Thank You for the very crowding here. Since we’re packed so close, that many more will hear [God’s word]!” She looked at her sister expectantly and prodded, “Corrie!”
“Oh, all right. Thank You for the jammed, crammed, stuffed, packed, suffocating crowds.”
“Thank you,” Betsie continued on serenely, “for the fleas and for …”
That was too much for Corrie. She cut in on her sister: “Betsie, there’s no way even God can make me grateful for a flea.”
“ ‘Give thanks in all circumstances,” Betsie corrected. “It doesn’t say, ‘in pleasant circumstances.’ Fleas are part of this place where God has put us.” So they stood between the stacks of bunks and gave thanks for fleas…The Hiding Place by Corrie Ten Boom
When I read this, my heart began to be convicted by my own ingratitude. When faced with immeasurable trials, The Ten Boom sisters had remained grateful even for the very fleas that had made their lives miserable, and here I was inwardly moping about Thanksgiving not being the way I had planned it. From that moment I resolved that I would be thankful for everything that happened on Thanksgiving, even though it looked very different than I thought it would.
On the day of Thanksgiving, as my family worked together in the kitchen to get all of the food ready for our own personal feast, I realized that this was the first time all of us had cooked together (at least, that I could remember). In a normal year, we would be too scattered about the house doing our own preparatory tasks or distracted by the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade to spend much time together as a family. The lack of anywhere for us to go, ensured that we spent a whole day as a family and enjoyed conversation, good food, TV shows, and laughter together. The funniest thing was, the lack of large family gatherings that I thought would take the joy out of the holiday actually created new precious memories that I could have never experienced otherwise.
One of my favorite things about Betsie and Corrie’s flea story in The Hiding Place is that it doesn’t end with their prayer. Later in the book, the sisters find out that they really had much to be grateful for after all:
[Betsie] had hours each day she could spend moving from platform to platform reading the Bible to fellow prisoners. She was able to do this undetected as the guards never seemed to venture far into the barracks. One evening when Corrie arrived back at the barracks Betsie’s eyes were twinkling.
“You’re looking extraordinarily pleased with yourself,” Corrie told her.
“You know we’ve never understood why we had so much freedom in the big room,” Betsie said, referring to the part of the barracks where the sleeping platforms were. “Well—I’ve found out. This afternoon there was confusion in my knitting group about sock sizes, so we asked the supervisor to come and settle it. But she wouldn’t. She wouldn’t step through the door and neither would the guards. And you know why?” Betsie could not keep the triumph from her voice as she exclaimed, “Because of the fleas! That’s what she said: ‘That place is crawling with fleas!’ ”The Hiding Place by Corrie Ten Boom
The Ten Boom sisters had been able to share the gospel freely because of the fleas in their barracks that kept the guards out. The very biting, painful, seemingly unnecessary inconvenience that plagued them had been the very thing God had used to advance his kingdom. Betsie had no idea months before that the very thing they begrudgingly thanked the Lord for was actually the greatest blessing they would receive in Ravensbrook.
So let me ask you- What are the fleas in your life? Those persistent nagging troubles that won’t leave you alone, that seem to serve no purpose other than to wear you down? It could be a person you have to deal with, or a sin you struggle with on a daily basis, or a circumstance you can’t control. You may never see the purpose behind the fleas or find a blessing hidden in them, but as 1 Thessalonians 5:16-18 says, we are to “Rejoice always, pray constantly, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus…”
Whatever it means for you, let me challenge you this week:
Will you thank God for the fleas?