For sixteen Christmases, Westminster Presbyterian Church has offered a gift to the Conejo Valley: a drive-through glimpse into the very first Christmas Eve.
Along the way,
Our First Bethlehem
It really seems like yesterday when Pastor Thompson proposed his vision of a drive thru Bethlehem to the WPC congregation. I was pregnant with our third child and by all calculations the baby would be born just in time to play the coveted role of the baby Jesus. I envisioned myself reenacting the part of Mary, sitting majestically in the manger gazing at my newborn to the delight of the visitors driving by.
Time went by quickly and I must have sewn over fifty costumes that year; all sizes and prints for various church members. Our baby was due on December 10th and I was all set with our swaddling blankets and costumes. There was only one problem; the baby was not ready for the big Bethlehem debut.
By opening night I was so huge that I decided it would be best to just drive thru by myself and let my family participate. I drove alone in our pick up truck. Not an easy task carrying an almost ten pound person inside of me while navigating the stop and go of the stick shift. But then I realized that it must have been so much worse for Mary. She was riding on a donkey…ouch! As I drove through the village I thought of how frightened she must have been; I’d already been through the birthing process twice before, but Mary was so young. As the Innkeeper called out to me there was no room and to keep moving I started to cry with compassion. I don’t mean sniffle, I mean sobbing hysterically! Poor me…poor Mary!
On Christmas Eve the congregation celebrated our huge success with a candlelight ceremony in the courtyard. There was a full moon that night and we were all filled with such joy, certainly the baby would be born that night. Not.
Our beautiful Tillie finally decided to join us on New Years Eve! She would have to wait another year before we would swaddle her up and walk her through the village of Bethlehem. Last year Tillie was eight years old and guessed the name of the Noah the camel. In a few years she’ll follow in her sister’s footsteps and play the role of Mary. I’m sure you’ll find me sitting on a hay bale sobbing as I reflect back on the year we were to be Mary and baby Jesus together. She’ll be holding the baby, the angels will be singing, the star will be lit and we will once again give our thanks and praise of the recreation of the night the King was born.
My Star Night
Last December was my eighth year of doing the Bethlehem Experience. The Bethlehem Experience is more than anyone can ever imagine. My favorite thing is to buy a sheep or a goat and walk through the village while calling out “Shalom” to the visitors in their cars.
Sometimes I’ll give up my animal for awhile and make pottery, or have Anne do my portrait, or braid fabric. But last year I had another task on my mind. A woman from WPC announced that whoever guessed the name of the camel would get a special picture taken with camel! The wheels in my head were turning! Towards the end of the evening the camel lady gave us all a hint. She said, “It has something to do with a ship.” That clue didn’t really help me figuring out the camels name because I didn’t know the name of any ships.
As I was working at the pottery stand I thought of the only big ship I know of….Noah’s Ark. That was a pretty big ship. When it was time for me to make my guess I just said… “Noah?” And that lady said, “That’s correct! You won!” I was jumping up and down and ran to share the news with my family. If you look on the flyer for this year’s Bethlehem Experience you will see my picture in the top left corner – that’s us, Tillie and Noah.
Shalom! See you in Bethlehem!
Stories from Starbucks
Standing in line at Starbucks, the woman in front of me orders two carry-out boxes -- coffee and all the trimmings. I’m next, and I order one of the same. While waiting for our orders, I casually ask her what she is doing with all of the coffee. “I’m the soccer coach’s wife,” she says. “This is for all of we parents. What’s your coffee for?” I tell her, “For the workers preparing the set for Bethlehem.”
Before I could even explain what Bethlehem was, she says, “I know what that is! Last year, my parents were visiting from England, and our family drove through. My parents loved it, and our two kids were thoroughly enthralled.” A highlight for her youngest son? Standing through the sun roof, spotting Noah, the camel, and exclaiming, “Look, there’s a camel!” His brother, in typical older brotherly fashion, says, “Oh, those are just props. They’re not real.” As if on cue, Noah and his handler walk by. “The moment was priceless,” the coach’s wife remarks. “Our family would not miss Bethlehem Experience this year for anything.”
In the beginning…
In the beginning there was a newly arrived young pastor who surveyed the landscape which brought him a vision…“ a drive-thru Bethlehem with real animals”, he declared, “where shepherds and centurions mingle through the crowd of nomads and travelers bartering and paying taxes. Cars will come from far and wide to experience this unique re-creation of the nativity. It will be our gift to the community!”
Being a newly ordained elder, I was skeptical and perhaps a little scared. I could only envision an In & Out Burger stand with a faint:“Pickles or Mustard?” in the background.
But, then real visionaries went to work …the buzzing and sawing of wooden sheep figures filled the courtyard one early Saturday morning. Sheets of plywood were transformed into gates, large gates. And, the call went out for sheets….striped and solid, preferably. Copper pots, dried flowers and coins. A historic workshop was scheduled for theatrical training.
Bethlehem was underway. God has worked in so many wonderful ways through the Bethlehem Experience. New talent and leadership have arisen at each turn of the corner. Children (including ours) have advanced from young shepherds to Roman Centurions. Friendships and wonderful new traditions have begun in Bethlehem and been sustained over the years. And, indeed, families and friends do come from far and wide. They regale the stories of the villagers and the baby Jesus. And, oh the star!
The young pastor's vision has inspired and guided so many in their walk of faith. The gift we give to the community is a lasting one and it is a privilege to share it with a world that is much in need of a respite from the commercialism that assaults us during the holidays. Bethlehem is about inspiration and the giving of the most precious gift of all, Jesus.
Admittedly, it's a busy time of year… the DeVries family has found that our time in Bethlehem is the best time we could spend together. Have you found that time flies so quickly from year to year? We couldn't tell you what we received for Christmas last year, but, our experiences in Bethlehem are fresh and memorable.
While planning your holiday calendar this year, remember… dromedary camel rental $200; 20 pieces of plywood $65; bales of hay $100. Heartfelt memories… priceless. There's some things money can't buy… for everything else, there's Bethlehem.
We had driven through the Bethlehem Experience for a couple of seasons when in 2003 my wife, Linda, thought it might be fun to actually participate. It sounded like a neat idea. We really didn't know anything other than just to "show up." We asked the kids and they responded enthusiastically. We explained that we would dress up and walk amongst the others and wave to the people in the cars driving by - just like people did to us when we drove thru in years past. When we arrived, most everyone had already gone outside. We assembled our clothing, which was an experience itself, and made our way to the tents on the front lawn, not quite sure what to do or say.
That's when we met Bob Smith.
Bob was a big fellow dressed as one of the Kings. He was sitting on a large couch under the tent behind a wide spread of food. I'm sure we appeared as apprehensive as we felt as we neared the tent with the kids hanging onto our legs. Bob's strong voice was in character as he greeted us and invited us up to sit with him and tell him "of our journey from afar to see the new King!" He offered the kids some food (to which they took him literally and began to eat some bread) and we sat down. We told Bob this was our first time and he made us feel right at home. He told us about how he enjoyed the Bethlehem Experiences over the years and how much he enjoyed the Church and the people there. After talking further, Bob asked "Did you bring your camera?" We hadn't thought of that. Bob said "You have to take a picture!" and proceeded to reach into his pocket and pull out his keys. He handed his keys to me and insisted that I go to his car and get his digital camera so that we could take a picture and he would send me the pictures. I couldn't believe it! We had just met this fellow and he is giving me the keys to his car! Bob took a picture of us and I took one of him and the kids. Ever since, I have kept that picture of "King" Bob and the kids on a wall in my office. It reminds me of how much it can mean to reach out to people we may not know and the impact it can have in their lives. Since then, we have found that "experiencing" the Bethlehem Experience has also been about "experiencing" the Westminster experience.
Two years ago, my parents and I drove with friends to see the Bethlehem Experience for the first time. I was so surprised when a Roman soldier actually came up to our car! We popped in the CD and it felt like we were in a different time and place. All of the people, animals and villages really showed me what Jerusalem must have looked like to Mary and Joseph. My favorite part was seeing baby Jesus and the animals, especially the little lamb. We wanted to drive through it over and over, but the line of cars was too long. I was amazed that so many people worked together to make this special time happen for all of us to enjoy at Christmas. This year we were looking for a new church and I asked my parents if we could see the inside of the church that had the Bethlehem Experience. We went on Good Friday and I remember loving this church right away. I got to help build the playhouse for the victims of Katrina and I have been helping serve meals at the shelter. Best of all, I get to actually be a part of the Bethlehem Experience this year and can?t wait for my friends to drive through and see me with the animals!
It was 1998, and our family had recently moved from Studio City to Agoura Hills. We'd decided to find a new church close to our new home, and had begun the process of "church shopping." This process had not been made easy, due to our very vocal and verbal three year old son, Henry. He had a way of letting us (and everyone else in the church) know when it was "time to GO!" Jeff read about the Bethlehem Experience in the local Acorn, and we agreed it seemed a safe way to get the Christmas spirit. We'd already be in the car...
From the moment we "extinguished the torches on our chariot" we entered a new world. Henry sat bolt upright in his car seat, eyes wide with wonderment. We had been transported to an ancient land, with exotic sights and sounds. Soon a friendly gentleman in a head scarf approached our chariot. He walked up to Henry's window. "Have you seen the star, yet, young man?" "A star? Where?" Henry asked. "In the eastern sky," our new friend responded. "It proclaims the birth of a king." Our guide continued to accompany us around the corner, where, just as he had promised, a huge star twinkled gloriously over the manger scene. "It's true!" Henry sighed in awe. "A baby?| is in there....the baby Jesus!" "The King has come!" our friend proclaimed with a smile, and we all waved goodbye as he turned back to welcome other visitors to Bethlehem.
We flipped on our headlights and pulled out of the church driveway. Henry called out from the back seat, "MommyDaddyMommyDaddy!!!"
"What, sweetie?", we answered.
"MommyDaddy, look at me!" He was ever so serious. "I want to go to church HERE!"
And so, that Christmas Eve, we all came to the family service at WPC. Henry never asked to leave. We even saw our Bethlehem tour guide that night. His name was Dick Thompson...pastor Dick Thompson. Henry's been in every Beth Ex since that one eight years ago, walking a sheep, fishing at the river, bartering for groceries, and asking other wide-eyed children as they glide by, "Have you seen the star?" I'm there, too, whispering a silent prayer as the cars pass, "Lord, let the little children lead them- to You." Matter of fact, I even wrote a kids' musical for this upcoming Christmas Eve, titled "The King Has Come." It tells the tale of the very first Christmas in song and dance, and is open to all our preschool, elementary and middle school children. We have our first get together on Sunday, October 29th at 4pm in the Chancel Choir room. Consider this a shameless plug for BethEx, and the Christmas pageant. We'll look for you there!
Have you ever reluctantly entered an event then departed with great joy and satisfaction? That is what happened to me, two years ago when I went along with my wife, Barbara, to attend the Bethlehem Experience at W.P.C. Having spent most of my childhood years in the Biblical lands, I was at first skeptical as to how anyone in Westlake could duplicate the original to my satisfaction. As I made my entrance into the W.P.C.courtyard that advent eve, a long forgotten atmosphere of strangely familiar sights, sounds, and smells invaded my senses and transported me back into the depths of my dormant memory. The sight of the hay in and around the manger, the sheep, the goats, the donkey- all with their peculiar smells, the blacksmith's hammer, the aroma of the freshly baked bread mingled with vivid colors of the costumes of the cast - all this and more helped me cross half the globe to Bethlehem of old. In a word, the ambiance recreated was intensely authentic.