ith Thanksgiving fast approaching—the season of gratitude and thankfulness—I’m reminded of an experience I had in Africa that revealed the most sincere feelings of gratitude I’ve ever witnessed.
The tropical storm the night before had given way to a glorious, cloudless morning. My olfactory nerves were responding to the delicate fragrance of the frangipani flowers growing along the slippery road leading up to the mission bush hospital on the top of the hill. And I was thinking,
It’s a great day to be alive!
As I waited to assign that day’s duties to the mission workers, I noticed a man making his way up the hill. He was hobbling along on the grass beside the slippery road, leaning heavily on a crutch made from a tree limb. The fork of the crutch was under his right arm, and he had a cane, of sorts, in his left hand. His right foot was missing from just above the ankle, and he was having a hard time struggling along toward us.
As he neared he called out a cheerful greeting and then slowly lowered himself to his knees on the wet grass. It was then I recognized him.
The man had come to the mission hospital several months before with his right foot bandaged with banana leaves—and he begged us to remove his foot. One look was all it took to realize his plea was well-founded. I am not a doctor or a nurse, but I knew something had to be done. The flesh was rotting away, and we could only imagine the pain he was enduring.
Heavy rains had washed out the roads, so it was impossible to transport the patient to a more equipped hospital with doctors better trained to deal with serious injuries and disease. Ultimately, there was nothing else we could do except to remove the offending foot at the bush hospital. A few weeks later the man left the hospital on crutches made for him by one of the hospital workers.
Now—on his knees—he was crawling toward us. I touched his shoulder and spoke kindly to him, telling him not to do such a thing. But without looking up he said, “No, Bwana, I cannot stand before you. I have come to thank all of you for what you have done for me.” Then reaching into his ragged coat he withdrew a small dish holding a few eggs, and still without looking up, he lifted the dish and said, “My heart says thank you very much.” I wish I could have kept those eggs as a reminder of true, heartfelt gratitude.
The man slowly crept backward to where he had left his crutch and cane. Then standing he said again, “My heart says thank you very much.” Slowly, he then made his way back down the grassy path beside the slippery road.
We may have done the only thing we could to save this man’s life, but whatever the situation surrounding the loss of a limb, for most of us that experience would not elicit gratitude. But this man continued to come by the mission hospital, always making the same approach as he greeted me and the other mission workers.
That was more than 40 years ago, yet the memory still helps me to realize how ungrateful I really am for all the many blessings and kindnesses that the Lord has given to me. I was, and still am, humbled by that experience, and I thank my heavenly Father that He allowed His Son to come to this earth to cut away all the rotting flesh of sin from our lives.
Even as Christians, I doubt that many of us really understand true gratitude. For me, it took a poor, humble, uneducated child of God to show me what it truly means.
Gilbert Goodwin is a retired pastor and long-term missionary in Africa, having served in Malawi, Burundi, Rwanda, and Congo. He writes from Laclede, Missouri.