THANKSGIVING AT BETHLEHEM
By John Thomas Tuft
It is the most human of organizations, dare we say, institutions — the Church. Conceived by the people, of the people, for the people. Mix in Jesus story ingredients, loosely fold in prescription strength raw emotions, top with holy sugary crumbs of dogma, set it aside to breathe and rise covered by the warm cloth of piety, then into the oven to bake in the convective heat of self-satisfaction. Serve warm, with bread and wine and incantations. Decide who is and who is not invited to sit at the table. Set said table with the finest available hierarchy of needs; be they the chinaware of self-pity, the silver flatware of disorganized imaginations, or the elusive crystal goblets of desired self-actualization. Remember, it is, and always will be, a room full of human beings. Perishables, if you will. Filled with fears, hopes, desires, secrets, and hurts. Along with the dawning awful realization that electronic connections are inevitably unsatisfying and that no matter how much is consumed, we are left with a gnawing hunger for something other. We are always back at square one.
Which brings us to Thanksgiving at Bethlehem. Bethlehem is in small town Virginia, being of the Methodist persuasion, for better or worse. Pay that no nevermind if you can. There is a tradition of a community feast of Thanksgiving at Bethlehem, open to any and all. One of the more remarkable things about this Thanksgiving feast is that there is no cover charge, no tickets to pay for, and no offering taken. I know, I know, pick your jaw up off the floor! How does one do church without taking an offering? That’s as much of an oxymoron as “correct theology!” But one may wonder, as we perishables are wont to do, how do they control who comes to this feast of thanksgiving? For all I know, that may be precisely their point. Some sort of grace thing, maybe. Feel free to ask them.
We are greeted at the door by Mary (I’m making up all these names). Mary, as it turns out, is one of those who leads the group at Bethlehem that makes prayer shawls. They knit together soft yarn and thoughtfulness and sweat equity into warm shawls. When they complete a certain number of these prayer shawls, they bring them forward during worship and lay them on the communion table. I can’t think of a better purpose for such a table. For what is prayer? It is not magic words said with the correct theology and forced sincerity. It is yarn and thoughtfulness and sweat equity and mindfulness mixed with weeping and laughter and keening and desperation consecrated by the needs of other perishables. Nearby is her husband, Big Chuck. Big Chuck started, with others, the Green Team. Their whole purpose is to be as careful and gentle with this earth that sustains perishables as possible. Consume while paying conscientious attention to everything that sustains our buildings, transportation, food, and so forth and how if effects the caregiving, the stewardship of where we live. It’s really just another form of prayer when you think about it.
The kitchen is bustling with determined busyness and controlled chaos. Preparing the turkeys and hams are some of the preschool staff and The Crew. Homeschooling is for those ruled by their own anxiety. Bethlehem is in the vocation of preparing young perishables to venture into new experiences in learning with eyes, minds and hearts open wide. The teachers are joined by the “show us what needs doing” likes of John and Mumbles. They are part of The Crew, the group who do adaptation of living space for the disabled and the fixer upper stuff in the community for any and all, really, as well as packing up trucks with tools and supplies and going to disasters around the country and beyond to pitch in and help. Mumbles may not be loud, but his work with a hammer and saw screams like a prayer. John has gone as far as Hungary to help Bethlehem’s sister church install a new roof. The Crew supports themselves through the sale of roasted flavored peanuts at the holidays, but you need to get on the list early, mind you, and be sure to try the spicy ones.
Back in the fellowship hall members of the Stephen Ministry and the book club take the side dishes and desserts arriving by the armful and arrange them on the buffet. The book club delights in reading all the latest banned books because they’re not real big on who decides who gets left out and who makes it into stories. The Stephen folks have received special training on being wide open conduits of compassion and free flowing vessels or calm pools of good listening. Which is, of course, another way to say prayers. There is a commotion at the door as the Friends Group arrives with their friends from the local nursing home. Laughter mixes with the thumping and clanking of walkers and wheelchairs and the pinching of cheeks of the college and high school aged perishables who will wait on them hand and foot.
Thanksgiving is about family. Bethlehem could not agree more with that sentiment. The designated perishables, Pastor Frank and Associate Pastor Charlotte, clamor for attention. It takes a good minute for the room to settle down. A silence descends on them all, a sigh, a true prayer. It is the infinite “Amen.”
Words are magic and writers are wizards.