Mr. Thisby’s Opus

I grew up in rural Pennsylvania where you were either Christian, Amish, Mennonite or backslidden.


My mother loved to tell guests how wonderful our town was because, “grocery stores played Christian music…”

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…and “neighbors swept their sidewalks.”


We were religious and tidy. As a town, we couldn’t possibly get any closer to godliness if we tried.

We were a simple people. Simple in a good way…content, resourceful, and always had a starter bag of “friendship bread” to share.

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And we didn’t just embrace these simple, utilitarian values — we revered them! We “English” (as the Amish called us) may have a zipper in our pants and a telephone in our kitchen, but we were also raised to see past the razzle dazzle of materialism. Just a quick scan of the local newspaper supported this!

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(It goes without saying that this couple is STILL together 25+ years after the exchange. Diamonds may be forever, but they aren’t necessarily a girl’s BEST friend…)

It’s not that having nice, glitzy things was wrong… or even that embracing technology was bad. It’s just that if we could get along without it… we would.

For instance, back in 1999 when everyone was scrambling to prepare for the Y2K apocalypse, we just went about our business.


“But what will you do when computers no longer work…???” a news reporter asked our bank.

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The banker shrugged and replied, “I suppose we’ll just go back to pen and paper.”

I would be lying if I said we were all like this.

We weren’t.

Specifically, Mr. Thisby was not.

Nothing about him was practical, including his walk …which was a ramble that rolled instead of strolled.

By day he was an office coordinator….but by night, he was the church thespian.

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He would wear long sweaters with a belt cinched around his waist. If it was breezy, he wore a scarf around his neck and sometimes a beenie on his head. We always knew which church service he was attending (the 9:00 or the 11:00), because he drove a candy red convertible…

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…with a license plate that cleverly read, “THISBYN.”

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All the church ladies, my mother included, loved him.

Mr. Thisby once hosted a Bible study in his apartment and it changed my mother’s life.  She returned home motivated… called to action…  and inspired…

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to decorate!

My mother could not contain her excitement. She was like an unhinged Pentecostal, channeling the Spirit as she clapped her hands and recited the gospel of Thisby:


“Layer, layer, layer…Add a splash of red!”


“Layer, layer, layer…Add a splash of red!”


“Layer, layer, layer…Add a splash of red!”

If it weren’t for Mr. Thisby and his many talents, we would have celebrated the birth of Christ like any other small town church. There would have been a children’s choir (maybe a few toddlers thrown in from the nursery if attendance was low) followed by a candlelight service.

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But we weren’t like any other small town church.

We had Mr. Thisby.

When I say that he had a flair for the dramatic, I don’t mean he acted like a moody, self-absorbed teenager. He had a flair for drama…. you know, story lines, character arcs and spotlights with colored gels.

“Luke 2 is just so… flat… so one dimensional,” he’d sigh.


“We need context…motive….!” So he penned a three act musical for Christmas Eve.


Honestly, this all made us nervous. Not that we were afraid of sacrilege or that a musical number might have a little too much rhythm.


We were nervous because we were a pragmatic people who for the first time had to wonder, “Am I under-dressed for this?”

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A string quartet tuned their instruments in the auditorium as we found our seats. Adults nodded politely to one another. Children squirmed. Somewhere a sheep bleated and the church lights dimmed.

It was Mr. Thisby’s opus.

Today, critics would have described it was “Teen Mom” meets “Syrian Refugees.”  Sure, there was a sweet baby in a manger, but that… that was the eye of the storm, not the end of the story.




It was complicated. It was messy. At moments, terrifying. It was filled with outcasts and degenerates. Risk and sacrifice.

The story was not simple, practical or utilitarian.

And it was wonderful.

By the time the curtain fell, every face was flush and every eye wet.

“What did you think..?” my father asked.

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“Layers, layers, layers with a splash of red,” my mother whispered.