Wednesday, November 20, 2013


As we prepare for Thanksgiving, my thoughts turn to a moment during my Bosnia Sabbatical. Toward its end, I had an encounter with gratitude that y’all might find stimulating.

We- meaning I and the middle-aged man who was my sabbatical guide- began a journey to the country’s south one morning, knowing a ninety-minute drive loomed ahead. You should know that my guide worked for several years as a Church World Service employee. His job was directing charitable donations- from Disciples of Christ and others- to poverty relief and redevelopment projects following the 1990s war. So stop one on our trip was a church, whose building and community he’d helped restore. Next, we drove to a famous tourist site; a centuries’ old Islamic monastic (Dervish) house.

Noon arrived. It had been a full morning, and we had several more visits planned. But suddenly, my guide stopped the car and said, “Tell me Shane- yes or no?” Conspicuously, he’d not shared the original question, though I saw he was wrestling with something internally. Being generally positive, I figured “Yes” is usually best, and that’s what I said.

He responded, “Okay. Then we’re going now to meet another family I know. Their farm is in a village about twenty minutes away that CWS helped rebuild after the war. The problem is, the man from that family who I’d worked most closely with died last January. I haven’t seen them since. I kept wanting too, but it’s far from my home. Now that I’m close, however, I thought we could stop, but I wasn’t sure that was right, since we’d arrive without a gift to give his mother.”

My “yes”, then, was the deciding factor for his paying condolences now or waiting for another time. At first, his concern confused me. Do we need a gift to say, “I’m sorry”? But I figured it wasn’t my culture, so I’d best sit back and observe. Then, it occurred to me that the woman we’d meet had experienced a parent’s worst fear- seeing a child die before her. Our visit could stoke the fires on painfully hot memories. A gift to cool the flames was the least we might do.

Yet we went, rather anxious whether we’d be a welcome distraction or renewed burden. My guide said hello and offered regrets to the still-grieving mother, ninety years old. She gave us homemade pomegranate juice and several cookies beloved in that country. My guide told her how much her son had meant to him, and the fondness his memory still brings.

I couldn’t understand most of this, of course. They spoke Bosnian; I smiled and watched. But as my guide translated to me what was happening, I saw a change in the woman’s wrinkled forehead. The burden of years and conflict and loss didn’t leave her, but they shifted noticeably. And a sincere, relieved smile emerged. She grabbed and patted his hand.

Right then, I realized- and I hope my guide did too- that he had brought the woman a gift. It wasn’t tangible, not like the boxes of pomegranates and vegetables they loaded into our car as we left, despite our protests of “It’s too much, too kind, really.” They kept giving. Rather, my guide’s gift was something a woman in her situation couldn’t buy, but desperately wanted. She saw that she wasn’t alone in her grief, in missing her beloved boy. Indeed, because my guide went out of his way to witness her sorrow, to share his with her, she learned that her son’s memory endured in more hearts than her own. I’ve grieved before. I know how lonely, how isolating it can be. So to discover others are in it with you, to be assured your loved one’s life made a difference, isn’t forgotten…well…she was grateful.

We stayed for just a few minutes longer, toured their farm and moved on. I saw more tourist sites, heard further stories, ate the best ice cream you can imagine. Night had fallen as we arrived back home. I opened the door and said goodbye. My guide said, “I’m glad we said hello to that family.” I was too.

Happy Thanksgiving.

Grace and Peace,
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