Our first Thanksgiving in Central Asia was like a treasure hunt. One teammate stood in a long line to buy bread; another bought and baked an underfed chicken. Potatoes—the one food we had in abundance—were mashed and salted. But the real prize? A bowl of green Jello. Someone traveled six thousand miles with a box of Jello in his suitcase and decided to share it with the rest of us. It was the best Jello ever.
But even more than the food, I remember the laughter. We were in a dark place and we felt significant spiritual oppression, but the shared suffering created a unique camaraderie. We laughed together at our language mistakes and cultural missteps. We thanked God that we’d made it just one more day.
We were each living our own pilgrim story: far from home, sustained by grace, learning to love and adapt within another culture.
On our first Thanksgiving spent overseas, and for many since, I’ve been awed at the ways God has tenderly nurtured us as sojourners in a strange land, giving us joy and family and a new understanding of home. Indeed, over the years, the Thanksgiving holiday has reminded me less and less of the home we’ve left behind and more and more of the home that Jesus promises us ahead.
Longing for Home
My husband tells the story of his first trip to the US after living in Central Asia for a year. He sat in his childhood bedroom, finally home, and he was surprised to still feel homesick. In that moment he understood that he was longing for something beyond the tangible—beyond the warmth of his familiar bed cover or his mom’s cooking.
“Over the years, the Thanksgiving holiday has reminded me less and less of the home we’ve left behind and more and more of the home that Jesus promises us ahead.”
This place he ached for—that all of us long for no matter where we live—is the kingdom of God. Writer and preacher Frederick Buechner explains: “The Kingdom of God is where we belong. It is home, and whether we realize it or not, I think we are all of us homesick for it.”
This realization is one gift of living overseas. Of all of our American holidays, Thanksgiving encapsulates the joys of home—family, feasting, fellowship. To be far from home gives us the opportunity to peel away the layers of meaning, to ask the question: what am I missing? And if we sit with our homesickness long enough, we get to make a choice, just like Sarah and Abraham did, to fix our hope elsewhere.
“If they had been thinking of the country they had left, they would have had opportunity to return. Instead, they were longing for a better country—a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared a city for them” (Heb. 11:15–16 NIV).
Thanksgiving reminds me that we are all pilgrims, and we aren’t yet home.
Gifted with Family
If you ask my grown children, now living in the US, what they miss about Central Asia, they will tell you about the family gatherings. About “uncles” who stand outside on cold Thanksgiving mornings and deep-fry four or five turkeys, about “aunts” who bring pies and cookies and mashed potatoes and rolls. About all-day celebrations punctuated by worship and laughter.
These uncles and aunts are not blood relatives. They are teammates who have become family by choice and by God’s grace. They are the people who rescue us when our car breaks down, who remember the date my mom died, who feed and care for our kids when we have to leave the country for a meeting. They are the people who know how terrible I am at small talk or how excited I am to find Doritos at the store.
“Thanksgiving reminds me that we are all pilgrims, and we aren’t yet home.”
They make me angry and disappoint me. They love me, and they forgive me. And more than anything, they are to me a foretaste of a promise fulfilled: “Everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or wife or children or fields for my sake will receive a hundred times as much and will inherit eternal life” (Matt. 19:29 NASB).
On Thanksgiving day—and as often as we can manage otherwise—we gather to eat and pray and play and worship. And in the deep fellowship of those times, we catch the scent of heaven.
Looking toward a Harvest
But it’s not just our American teammates who are family to us. Thanksgiving reminds us of a harvest that God is reaping—a harvest of souls from every people and nation. Some of those precious people pull up chairs to our Thanksgiving table.
I think of Janabek,* who never misses a party. Orphaned as a child, he saw the love of Jesus in one of our teammates and longed to know this love and peace in his own life. A first-generation believer, he has suffered and stumbled, and yet he holds on.
Or Marat.* Also an orphan, adopted into an American family, he has embraced Jesus and now preaches the gospel to his own people.
Janabek and Marat are evidence of promises kept, as well as reminders of the promises yet unfulfilled: of the peoples among whom gratitude to Jesus is not yet a reality.
Not every missionary in every place gets the blessing of rich times of fellowship. Some labor a long way from teammates or other believers. Likewise, not every team is seeing a harvest yet. But no matter where we are or whatever our circumstances, the Thanksgiving holiday gives us an opportunity to celebrate God’s presence with us around the table. We turn our attention forward, not back. We look to the day when we will finally feast face-to-face with Jesus, shoulder-to-shoulder with brothers and sisters from every nation, tribe, people and language (Rev. 7:9).
We will finally be home, and the Thanksgiving celebration will never end.
Sarah Alexander and her family serve with IMB in Central Asia. She has been writing about the region since 1991.