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I was the most ungrateful person on Thanksgiving this year. Every year, I fly from Los Angeles to northern Virginia to visit my parents for Thanksgiving. And this time, I flew there with an attitude.
I could blame how I barely slept on a red-eye flight next to a child who kept stretching her legs out on top of me. I could blame how I was cold and hungry throughout the 5½-hour flight. But the fact is, that attitude comes from a fundamental truth that I can never change: I am a pastor’s kid.
I’ve written twice about the challenges of being a pastor’s kid and a missionary’s kid. I’m both—double the whammy, or double the blessing, depending on how you look at it. In both of my articles, I tried to emphasize the blessings we PKs and MKs reap from the challenges. Well, this Thanksgiving weekend, I completely forgot what I myself wrote: hence, the attitude.
You see, every Thanksgiving weekend, my parent’s church holds a three-day conference consisting of about eight hours of sermons and church fellowship each day at a hotel. That means I had to check in to the hotel as soon as I got home to Virginia, and for the next three days, I barely saw my parents.
Here’s a true-life story that captures life as a pastor’s kid: On Sunday, we had two services—a morning service at the church conference, then a second one at my parents’ church in Maryland that lasted four hours. On the drive home, my father was so engrossed in discussing church matters with another visiting pastor that he missed the exit to that pastor’s hotel. So he did a long, inconvenient U-turn, and then ... missed the exit again, so distracted was he by his conversation with the pastor.
When we finally reached the hotel, it was freezing and pitch-dark—but since the church talk was not over, we sat in the car outside the hotel entrance for another 35 minutes so that my father and that pastor could finish their conversation. By the time we let that pastor go, my father’s car had run out of gas, and I was highly irritated, tired, hungry, and ... well, steaming with attitude.
From my perspective, I had flown to the East Coast to spend time with my family. I had six days with them, but four got sucked away into Church Time. My old frustrations and resentments about being a pastor’s kid frothed out: Why is it so hard to extricate family time from church life? My family has never once had a family Thanksgiving dinner, or a Christmas morning, or a New Year’s Eve apart from the church. Neither have we ever had a normal family dinner without a dense theology lesson from my preacher father.
But even as I felt my heart wrestle with these old, familiar complaints, I watched my parents interact with the other church members. I saw a single mother who barely survived a suicide attempt 15 years ago smile with genuine joy and insist on cooking a feast for her pastors, even though she’s still frail after destroying her physical body. She does it because she loves her pastors, loves her church, loves the God who delivered her from brokenness.
I saw another young, single mother of two kids latch on to my parents, desperate for comfort and wisdom during a recent crisis, and watched my parents hug and pray with her. She’s always the first to arrive at church and last to leave, loving every minute she spends with her brothers and sisters in Christ. In a way, she’s our church’s modern-day Mary Magdalene—a life full of hurt and sins and sorrows—but I’ve not seen her wallow in shame at church. Somehow, her past drives her boldly toward the front pews, eager to soak up all the grace she can get.
I saw a young man with Down syndrome whom doctors said would be extremely low-functioning but is now a store manager. He attends every church service and goes on mission trips in the summers. Not everyone in church knows how to deal with him, but some people take special notice of him—he’s the one person my mother treats out on his birthday each year.
I saw an elder and his wife whose marriage was shaky for many years, now serving full-time together as a power couple. I saw a young couple with four kids who are still struggling in their marriage, which I know grieves my parents and is the content of much of their private discussions and prayers.
I also saw that my parents are aging. They have joint pains and deeper wrinkles and grayer hairs. Arthritis has pinched my mother’s hands, and when I first saw her, she could barely curl her left hand into a loose fist. She often wakes up at night in pain. Seeing her in such a state wrung my heart so much that I later cried privately. It made me realize that I can’t be a child anymore—I’m now a 31-year-old woman who should be mature enough to realize the time of demanding attention and things from my parents has passed: It’s time for me to serve them, not the other way around.
So while I was with my parents, I took them out to an Italian restaurant, taught them how to do proper lunges and squats, taught them how to shop online and use online coupons, and gave them as many hugs as I could. But that’s just six days out of a year. There are limits to how much I can do for them while living on the opposite coast of the country.
That’s why I was comforted to see that as much as my parents take care of the church, the church takes care of them, too. Their daughter may be away, but their family—the church—is still with them physically, emotionally, and spiritually. When church members found out about my mother’s health issues, they gave her finger massagers, Chinese potions, special gloves, and all sorts of advice to help alleviate her pain. Throughout the year, they make my parents hand-crimped dumplings and homemade chili sauce, spend time with them several days a week, and give them more hugs than I can.
In Mark 3:33-35, Jesus asked, “‘Who are my mother and my brothers?’ And looking about at those who sat around him, he said, ‘Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does the will of God, he is my brother and sister and mother.’”
It’s always a temptation for me to think that the church “stole” my parents from me. Scripture says that’s not true. I may not have a so-called “normal” family, but I gained a whole lot more brothers and sisters and mothers instead of losing my earthly parents. And for that, I am so grateful.