Friday, November 28, 2008

The Thanksgiving After-Glow

When my family gathers for Thanksgiving we have a number of traditions which are probably not so different from those of most of the rest of America. We eat turkey, And dressing. And usually a vegetable made into a rich, delicious, heart-stopping casserole with all the pesky nutritional value pretty much lost somewhere in the middle of vats of cream of mushroom soup, Velveeta cheese and Ritz crackers. We also follow the tried and true American tradition of following up this massive and wonderfully fat-laden meal with...why not...a dessert array that can bring you to your knees. How can you not be grateful for Red Velvet Cake, Applesauce Cake, Caramel Nut Apple Pie, Boston Creme Pie, Chocolate Creme Pie, Pecan Pie, and of course...Pumpkin Pie...all topped with your choice of Cool Whip or vanilla ice cream?

My siblings and cousins and I live thousands of miles away from each other and Thanksgiving is one of the rare times when we're all together in the same city for a few hours. So after the meal is over, and some football has been glanced at (in between cleaning the kitchen and perusing photo albums), we have another important tradition we all enjoy...we go to the movies. Figuring out what movie we can all agree to go to at what time is no small feat--and the fact that we manage to do this without anyone freaking out, stroking out or walking out, is a testament to the years and years of therapy we've all invested in.

When the movie is over we used to just go back to our various hotel rooms to sleep off the annual carb overload. And possibly to have a glass of wine or beer with our spouse in the privacy of our own Holiday Inn Express suite, since drinking is strictly forbidden in my parents' house. Not only is my dad an "alcohol is of the devil" type Southern Baptist minister, so are two of my uncles as well as one of my brother-in-laws. As was my grandfather. But for the last several years a few of us who enjoy the occasional adult beverage have gotten together at one of our hotel rooms to share a bottle of wine and catch up. We call it the "After-Glow" -- with some level of irony, because this is what they used to call the youth group gatherings after worship in churches Gary and I went to when we were growing up. This "After-Glow" has turned into one of most meaningful traditions of the Thanksgiving holiday gathering. Over plastic hotel room cups of cheap pinot noir we talk about our lives. And after a day of the "sanitized for polite company" conversation about our jobs, our finances, our kids, our churches, we finally open the window a little wider and become slightly more honest about what has been happening with us since we were last together. About what we've been thinking and feeling, where we've been growing, where we've been hurting.

Last night was no exception. Gathered in the little sitting room of our suite, with my 13 year old daughter asleep in the other room, my cousin Marcus and his college-age daughter along with my sister Lynn and her husband, my husband Gary and I, talked for several hours. At some point during the conversation Marcus was telling us the story of how he got into the mental health profession--he'd been in seminary and on track to become a Southern Baptist minister like his Dad, when something happened...or in fact, many things happened to him that ended up sending his life off in a different direction. One of the things that was pivotal though was a time when he was going to a church in the inner city and trying to find a way to serve the poor people in the neighborhood surrounding the church. It was discouraging work--there were too many folks with too little resources and too many problems and Marcus felt alone in this church in his concern for them. In the middle of the lobby of this church was a beautiful antique Oriental rug. It was massive and clearly worth a ton of money, and after a while, after several months of hardly being able to make a dent in the desperate situations of the people living all around this church, every time Marcus walked into the front door of the sanctuary and set foot on that carpet it struck him that something was very wrong. There were poor, hungry people scraping by just outside the door. And a very expensive Oriental rug on the floor inside the door.

Marcus is a person who no longer goes to church. He's a person who has seen too many Oriental rugs on the floor. And he can't make sense of a church that has seemed to him to be more about naming what's wrong than doing what's right. I wanted to tell Marcus last night that it's not always like that. That there are some churches made up of people who care deeply about the poor, who also believe in grace and mercy versus lists of rules, churches in which people can be honest and vulnerable with each other relatively often, honest about their lives, about their questions, about their appreciation for pinot noir.

An Oriental rug in the middle of a church lobby. That hurt Marcus. He couldn't make sense of it. Thinking about my little band of Affirmands this morning, one of the things I realize I want to do is prepare them for their own Oriental rug moments. Because they will come. They come for all us. Times when you ask "how could you?" questions of God, when the church seems like a massive mess, when none of it makes any sense whatsoever.

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