Many years ago, (twenty? twenty-five?) I went with my friend Gary to his new church in Chicago. He was super excited about it and he wanted me to experience it with him, because I was the one who encouraged him to find it. He had a long and difficult relationship with the church, and he struggled to understand himself as someone loved by God. At this new church he attended, everyone wore name tags. So when you came forward for communion, the minister spoke your name, looked into you eyes, and said very directly, “God loves you.” For my friend Gary, that was almost like a miracle. His first experience there left him in tears. When I joined him at that church for one service, I was moved beyond words. It has stayed with me all these years, what happened there.
It was the Sunday before Thanksgiving, and at this urban church, there were many people who were away from home–whether living in the city because of work or because of family difficulties or because of other parts of life not quite working out as they had intended. On that particular Sunday, the minister shared an announcement before worship began. The pastor said something like, “I know there are many in our community here who don’t have family and struggle with what to do with holidays like Thanksgiving. That’s why there are many Thanksgiving dinners you can go to being hosted by people in this church.” And then he had people stand up and personally invite everyone to their home for Thanksgiving. About six or seven people stood to give personal invitations to anyone looking for community that Thursday. One man said, “Well, we’re probably eating turkey TV dinners, but at least we’ll be doing it together and we won’t be alone.” People were encouraged to talk with these various hosts of holiday meals after church during the coffee hour. Then worship began. I felt the tears in the corners of my eyes, this time. This, I thought, this is what church is supposed to be!
Fast forward to 2016. I just got off the phone with someone today who was asking me about whether or not some of our newer members have places to be on Thanksgiving. It was a generous thing to ask, and I have known this particular family to extend invitations to people who were away from family at holiday time before. This time, however, I realize it is not just this one family extending invitations. It has become a kind of culture in this church. To my knowledge, three households are willing to enlarge their dining tables, willing to share the blessing. To add to these expressions of kindness are a number of other families that have “adopted” people and brought them into their homes for this celebration or that one, or taken care of them in various ways because of this crisis or that one. In this way, some of the most unlikely families have emerged. After the phone call today, I was transported back twenty or more years to that day in Gary’s church when people stood up to offer invitations because, as the pastor said, “No one who comes to this church should be alone at Thanksgiving.”
We sort of guarantee that people will have an interaction with community on Thanksgiving because of our wonderful Thanksgiving Prayer Breakfast at First Christian Church. Until this congregation, I had never experienced such a thing on Thanksgiving morning. Remembering back to other churches I’ve belonged to and how busy everyone got around holidays, I scratched my head a bit about this tradition. Wasn’t that prayer breakfast happening right exactly when someone needed to be setting a turkey in the oven? How do the pies get made, if everyone’s at the church? Every year, however, I’m grateful for and astonished by the gathering. I’m grateful for the opportunity to name, before my community, what makes me thankful each year. It changes my whole day. Because of this tradition, I spend Thanksgiving doing exactly what I’m supposed to do with that day (and every day!): giving thanks. I’m grateful for the gathering of the people of God and the collective witness. I’m grateful for the people (often mostly men) who get to the church so very early to start things cooking so that by the time we start praying, the whole place smells like eggs and bacon and grits and biscuits. I’m grateful for the welcome of that morning and the breakfast generously shared. I’m grateful for the laughter around the tables and the well-wishes to one another for a good holiday. I’m grateful for those who stay to clean up, even though there are things requiring their attention that day at their homes. I’m grateful for the graciousness of families that are willing to sacrifice a few able hands to the effort at the church as Thanksgiving dinner preparations continue on without them for those morning hours.
Sometimes, I marvel how it is that God brings things full circle. It happens to me all the time. I know it happens to many of you, too. That thing you wish for, that deep panicky prayer you pray, that dream you ponder as you say, “If only . . . !”–all these things and more have a strange habit of finding fruition, when we’re paying attention, when God is at the heart of it all. Long ago, I sat in a strange church in Chicago and thought, through tears, “this, this is how the church is supposed to be.” Today, I realize the church I’m serving is exactly that way. Maybe even better, because these are people I know and love, who share history together that has become my own story, too.
To all of you who are looking for a place to be on Thanksgiving, I have some ideas. At the very least, join us for breakfast? We start at 8 am, and you won’t be sorry.