Community Thanksgiving

Last night I stood in a prayer circle with friends and colleagues as we prepared to lead a community Thanksgiving service. For our town, the group was fairly diverse. We were black and white, male and female. Of the group, I’ve been serving the longest, but there were two colleagues with whom I’ve shared service for more than a decade. Others have been around shorter amounts of time. We were Church of God in Christ, Episcopalian, Lutheran, Methodist, Presbyterian and United Church of Christ. Worship in the congregations we serve ranges from pentecostal to high church. Before our prayers we were talking about what services we would be offering on Christmas this year. Since Christmas Day is a Sunday, all of our schedules are a bit different than other years. Most of us, however, have very similar schedules: two services on Christmas Eve and one on Christmas Day.

The worship service, as is our custom, reflected the liturgy and order of our host church. Last night we were at Emmanuel Episcopal Church, so the liturgy was formal and written out with careful and precise language, a bit different from last year when our Presbyterian hosts had a less formal service with more impromptu prayers and roles for pastors. I also had the opportunity to sing with the combined choir, which was a delight with good direction and a lively anthem.

It is our tradition to invite the newest clergy person to deliver the message. Our preacher for the evening serves two congregations on the north side of our city: St. Matthew’s Episcopal Church and Woyatan Lutheran Church, both of which are predominantly Lakota congregations.

As I settled into my seat in the choir and allowed the formal language of the liturgy to wash over me, I was aware of how “at home” I was feeling. Although it isn’t my personal tradition, the Episcopal order of worship is very familiar to me and the traditional language of the Book of Common Prayer holds deep meanings of the faith that we share.

In a season where our attention has been distracted by deep divisions in our nation it was very good to be celebrating our unity.

While my feelings about the service are warm and positive, it is worth noting that our mostly-mainline gathering is not all inclusive. Rapid City is home to many fundamentalist congregations who, despite persistent invitation, have chosen not to participate in our celebration. And the mostly fundamentalist Rapid City Christian Minister’s Association has erected barriers that exclude some of us from membership. We certainly do not celebrate Christian unity in our community. There are a few notable bridge builders, however, who faithfully persist in trying to find places of shared faith and common ministry.

There is something about human nature that prevents us from fully living God’s promise in this life. We speak of the beloved community. We work for that community. We reach out and build bridges. We find common work and occasionally worship together. We have, however, failed to discover the essential unity of discipleship. Most of us have experienced deep Christian community in our own denominations, but there are certain aspects of the faith to which we have been called that are not scalable - close community doesn’t reside in mass meetings of huge numbers of people.

As a result, each gathering of our people is confessional in nature. We have glimpsed a vision, but we confess that we live it out imperfectly. There remain many invitations that are yet to be issued and many others who need to be included.

The wonder of God’s grace, however, is that we can fully be the church in our times of worship even though we are imperfect people. We can sing and pray and listen to Scriptures together despite our differences. We don’t have to wait for perfection in order to be people of faith.

Our gathering is no small feat. Our shared liturgy is more than ritual. Our persistence in gathering every year is more than habit alone. It is with deep gratitude that I offered thanks to God not only for the blessings of my personal live, but also for the blessing of community. I am deeply grateful for my colleagues who share ministry in this community with me. I am deeply grateful for congregations who call such diverse and capable leaders. I am grateful for faithful church members who go outside of their comfort zones to worship with those outside of their usual circle of contacts. I am grateful for gracious hospitality extended by our sister church and for the opportunity to share our hospitality when it falls to us to host.

As I commented in my blog yesterday, Thanksgiving is a holiday of mixed emotions with a varied history. It has been both uniting and dividing in its observances. The urge to give thanks, however, is an important and powerful drive in humans. Gratitude is a virtue that can be ennobling when expressed.

After the service, one person commented to me that he was disappointed that more people didn’t participate. The congregation was probably about the same number of people as an individual service in a singe congregation. It would, I guess, be nice to have a larger congregation - to pack the pews. However, I don’t believe that faith is about counting numbers or having the biggest crowd. I was pleased to see people sitting with those with whom they don’t normally worship. I was happy to see a racially, culturally and economically mixed congregation gathered for a simple liturgy of praise.

Our preacher reminded us that we each bring our own story to the place of worship and the combination of those stories becomes a song of gratitude to God. The stories in the room last night certainly are sufficient to constitute a symphony that is complex and subtle and glorious. Despite our divisions, we are blessed to live in community together. Despite our differences, we are one in the Spirit of God.

Thanksgiving doesn’t reside on the calendar or in the feasts we prepare. It resides in the heart.

Copyright (c) 2016 by Ted E. Huffman. I wrote this. If you would like to share it, please direct your friends to my web site. If you'd like permission to copy, please send me an email. Thanks!