A few years ago, I was asked to share something for the youth standards night hosted by our church for kids between 14 and 18. These events sometimes get a bad rap as being forums for old people to tell young people about the things they shouldn’t be doing, and as a result the leaders organizing this particular one wanted to lighten things up some. They asked those of us participating and sharing messages to focus on something the youth “could” do. I was to talk about how the youth could be grateful.
The first thing that came to mind when I got this request was a story from “The Hiding Place.” For the uninitiated, this book details the experiences of Corrie Ten Boom during World War II. Her family had been sheltering Jews in the Netherlands who were being rounded up by the Nazis. Ultimately, they were caught and Corrie, her sister Betsy, and their father were arrested. Their father rather rapidly succumbed to the combination of his age and the conditions he was forced to live in and died. Corrie and Betsy were sent to the Ravensbrück concentration camp in northern Germany.
Conditions in Ravensbrück were abysmal. However, in the process of processing into the camp Betsy, who was already frail and sick, was able to keep hold on her sweater to help keep her warm, and they were able to hide and keep their Bible. As the day progressed, they were introduced to the bunk house where they would sleep and spend most of their time. This introduction made quite the impression on Corrie… The filth was overwhelming, the inmates disturbing, and the fleas something along the lines of a biblical plague.
Growing up in Utah, I had little experience with fleas. The winter’s are too col, and the Summers to dry for fleas to really thrive. In fact, I don’t remember ever treating one of my dogs for fleas before I left the state. I had never had a flea bite, never seen one of the nasty little buggers up close, and had no idea how awful they were. Then I moved to Ohio, Florida, and Texas — all home to perfect conditions for flea infestations.
My first experience with fleas was in Ohio. We owned a house in something of a distressed neighborhood, and the home across the back fence was a poster child for a distressed property. In the back yard of this house was a dilapidated shed full of who knows what that spontaneously collapsed one day late in the fall. This collapse sent a large colony of rats that had been living there scrambling for shelter from the coming winter. They found my house.
Over the course of several weeks, I trapped or otherwise killed something like two dozen rats the size of a puntable puppy, including a few that crawled up into inaccessible spaces before dying and leaving their rotting carcasses where we could smell the lovely aroma of routing rat and not do anything about it. That wasn’t the only blessing the little devils left though… They brought fleas. Fleas that got hold of my dog and made him miserable. Fleas that laid eggs all over my house that would hatch, crawl into things like my wife’s slippers, and bite her all over. Fleas that were bad enough we bug bombed the whole house and then washed every piece of laundry and every dish, washed every wall and horizontal surface, and treated the dog with rather expensive stuff. It was a horrible experience, and one that was repeated several more times over the course of the next several moves, without it being any easier. I have since developed a pure loathing for the little blood sucking vermin.
Given my experiences with fleas, I can sympathize with the state of mind that must have been prevalent in the inmates at Ravensbrück. I would have been revolted, disgusted, angry, and a whole host of other negative emotions if I were to have been introduced to that environment. However, at least one of the Ten Boom sisters managed to overcome that natural tendency. That first night, while the two were paying, Betsy expressed gratitude to their God that they were together, that she had her sweater to keep her warm, and thanked the Lord for the fleas.
Corrie, like I would have been, was horrified. How could Betsy be grateful for fleas, the pestilent bringers of itching and sores, the transmitters of disease, the good for nothing detritus of creation. Betsy didn’t back down, and again thanked the Lord for fleas. However, as time wore on, they realized the guards NEVER came into the bunk house. While in there, the prisoners were free from the abuse. Free from torture. Free from oversight. Free to use the Bible they had smuggled to teach and comfort the other inmates. At first, the reason wasn’t clear, but eventually it was discovered that it all came down to the fleas. The guards hated the fleas, and wouldn’t go in the bunkhouse because of them. The fleas were in fact a blessing, and Corrie learned to become truly grateful for them.
When I shared this story with the young men and women in our congregation, none of them were facing challenges like the Ten Boom’s. However, I’m certain that every one of them were struggling with something challenging that was hard to see how it could be a blessing. I still struggle to be grateful a lot of the time, especially when times are tough, but I try to keep this story and it’s perspective in mind. So far, life has been pretty effective at teaching me to trust that things will turn out to my benefit eventually. Most things I viewed as trials in the last have found a way to be a blessing in the end. For the remainder, I have faith that the things I can’t yet chalk up to blessings will turn out to be one in the end when I have a little better perspective.