Wednesday, December 21, 2005

Perfection


It’s four days until Christmas and the frenzy of the season is in full swing. I don’t know about you, but I want everything to be perfect. I want everyone to receive the perfect gift that is perfectly wrapped. I want to serve the perfect menu cooked to perfection. You'd think after fifty-mumble years of living, I’d have learned that there’s no such thing as perfect. Yet I strive for it every year.

I’d like to share an article that I cut out of the December 1987 issue of Good Housekeeping magazine. I’ve used it several times for Christmas programs because its message is enduring and oh so true. I hope you enjoy is as much as I have.


THE PERFECT CHRISTMAS PAGEANT

By Rev. M.L. Lindvall

Last year I received a Christmas card from a former seminary classmate of mine. Inside the card was a letter – not one of those mimeographed Christmas letters in which people proudly share news of their children’s extraordinary achievements and their own various illnesses of the past year, but an honest-to-goodness letter, written to me personally. I sat down recently to reread this unusual piece of correspondence, and I want to share its contents with you here.

Dear Michael (it began), I accepted the call to that little church I told you about last winter – and yesterday was our annual children’s Christmas pageant. It was wonderful, but now that it’s over my blood pressure has probably dropped about 20 points.

The whole saga really begins 47 Christmases ago when Doris Peterson first directed the pageant, something she continued to do through seven pastors and who knows how many Christian Education Committees. Presidents came and went, three wars were fought, hundreds of children passed through Sunday school, and Doris Peterson directing her Christmas pageant was like a great rock in a turbulent sea.

I never saw one of Doris’s pageants (we’ve only been here since spring), but I’ve heard about them. They always had precisely nine characters, no more, no less: one Mary, one Joseph, three Wise Men, two shepherds, one angel and one narrator. The script was the Christmas story out of the King James Bible, which meant that two six-year-old shepherds had to learn to say “Let us now go even unto Bethlehem, and see this thing which is come to pass, which the Lord hath made known unto us.”

Doris’s goal was nothing less than perfection: perfect lines, perfect pacing, blocking, and enunciation – perfect everything. That is not easily achieved with little children, even with nine carefully selected ones. Critics said Doris would have worked with nine midget actors if she thought she could have gotten away with it.

Time and again people tried to get Doris to open things up so that every youngster who wanted a part could have one. “Doris,” they would say, “scripture says there was a heavenly host, not just one lonely angel.”

“Doris, why not have a few more shepherds, and then everybody could take part in the pageant?”

“Doris, if there were shepherds, there had to be sheep, too, right? We can make little sheep costumes.”

“No,” Doris would say. “When there are too many youngsters, there is no control.”

Early this fall, however, something happened. The Christian Education Committee included three mothers of last year’s rejected Marys, Josephs, shepherds and Wise Men. These young mothers passed the following motion: “Resolved: All children who wish to be in the Christmas pageant may do so. Parts will be found for them.”

Doris heard about it that night and was in my office the next morning at 9 A.M. sharp. “If those women know so much, let them be in charge,” she spit out. Before I could reply, she resigned as director of the pageant.

The pageant, as I said, was yesterday. The young mothers didn’t fall flat on their faces, but the program was, well, different from what everybody had come to expect over the past 46 years.

There must have been a dozen shepherds and 20 angels (a real heavenly host). And then there were the sheep – a couple dozen three, four, and five year olds who were dressed in fake sheepskin vests with woolly hoods and their dad’s socks, which were pulled up over their arms and legs.

Now, in your suburban Christmas pageants, I imagine sheep are well-behaved and fairly quiet. The only sheep suburban kids have ever seen are on the church-bulletin cover – quiet, grazing sheep who just stand there and look cute. But half of the kids in this church live on farms and they’ve seen real sheep. They know sheep wander around. They know that all sheep want to do is eat.

So, some of the sheep started doing an imitation of grazing behind the communion table. Some went to graze over by the choir and down the aisle. Some had donuts they found in the church parlor to make their grazing look more realistic. When the shepherds tried to herd them with their shepherds’ crooks, some of the sheep spooked and scattered, which is exactly what real sheep do.

Doris was watching all this from the last pew, and I could just see her from where I was sitting. She noticed me looking at her and lowered her head to hide a smirk.

The real climax of imprecision came, however, at the point of high drama when Mary and Joseph enter, Mary clutching a doll wrapped in a blue blanket. This year’s Mary, whose name was actually Mary, was taking the role with an intense and pious seriousness. Joseph was another story. He had gotten the part because he had been rejected from pageant participation by Doris more times than any other youngster in the church (and for good reason, some might say).

Anyway, Mary and Joseph were to walk on as the narrator read, “And Joseph also went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth, into Judea, unto the city of David, which is called Bethlehem… to be taxed with Mary, his espoused wife, being great with child.”

At least this is what the narrator was supposed to read. It was what the narrator had read at the rehearsal. But one of the young mothers had observed that none of the children could really understand the English of the King James Bible, so they voted to switch to the Good News translation for the performance.

So, as Mary and Joseph entered, the narrator read, “Joseph went to register with Mary, who was promised in marriage to him. She was pregnant.” As the last word echoed through the P.A. system, our little Joseph froze in his tracks, gave Mary an incredulous look, then looked out at the congregation. “Pregnant? What do you mean, pregnant?” he asked.

This, of course, brought the house down. My wife, wiping tears from her eyes, leaned over to me and said, “You know, that may well be what Joseph actually said.”

Doris was now wearing a look that simply said, “I told you so.” But as the pageant wound into its concluding tableaux and the church lights were dimmed for the singing of Silent Night, a couple of magical, I would allow, miraculous things happened.

The sheep, when they were finished with their parts, bleated their way down a side aisle to sit in the last couple of pews and watch the end of the show. Doris suddenly found herself surrounded by a little herd. Then the church went dark, and we could all see what had been happening outside for the last hour. The first snow of winter was falling. Big, fat snowflakes floated down, covering everything with a white blanket. From both children and grown-ups, there was a group “Ahhh!”

We sang, “Silent night, Holy night, All is calm, All is bright.” Our voices were soft, and all the sheep were quiet, even the ones who were awake. Everybody looked at the snow. When the last verse of the carol finally died away, no one stirred for a long time. It wasn’t planned. We all just sat there and watched.

Then Minnie McDonnell broke the spell. She’s hard of hearing and always talks too loudly. She probably meant to whisper to her husband, but everybody heard. “Perfect,” she said. “Just perfect.”

And it was. It wasn’t perfect in the way Doris had tried to make her pageants perfect; it was perfect in the way God makes things perfect, the way He accepts our fumbling attempts at love and fairness and covers them with grace. Have a Merry Christmas, my friend.



There just isn’t anything more I can add to that because it’s – well, it’s perfect.

3 comments:

EveRyan said...

“I have often found that, even through fumbled attempts of love, if we look into the hearts of our family, friends, and neighbors, truly opening ourselves to see the world through their eyes for a moment, we will find that person, the real person, living in that place beyond the scars that life has inflicted, that place where goodness still lives and a desire for love and acceptance from our fellow human beings flickers with hope, and that person will look much like a reflection of ourselves…” Anonymous

I was reminded of this sentiment when reading through this beautiful story and thought it was fitting.

Here's to hoping that God will smooth over the Doris lurking in all of us and cover our fumbling attempts at love with grace. Thanks for sharing. Merry Christmas!

Eve

Problem Child said...

Did I ever tell you the story of the year I was the angel of the Lord in the Christmas pageant?

I was in college. I was hungover (for rehearsal, not the pageant), and the heavenly host--the 3-year-old Sunday school class-- had percussion instruments. I learned the meaning of the word cacophony that day.

Three year olds with tambourines. My head still aches at the memory.
I think God was telling me something.

Maven Beverly Barton said...

I’ve been told that I’m a perfectionist and I suppose, to some degree, I am. I’m highly organized, function better when all my ducks are in a row, dislike things being out of place and love for everything to match and/or coordinate. But life isn’t perfect, people aren’t perfect and everyone’s idea of perfection is not the same.

Recently my grandsons helped trim the tree. We gave the three-year-old unbreakable items, but the eight-year-old wanted to help with everything. Naturally, he dropped a glass ball, which shattered into pieces. He was so upset that he dropped the other glass ball he was holding. I’d had these ornaments for many years, since my children were little ones. I wrapped my arms around my grandson, hugged him and told him that those ornaments he’d broken didn’t mean anything to me in comparison to what he meant to me, that they weren’t worth one tear, one sad moment. Is my tree perfect? No. It is missing two old, gold ornaments, and I’ve been doing some minor rearranging because the three-year-old repeatedly put four items on one limb. The tree isn’t perfect, but the memory of the evening my little boys helped trim the tree is.

Sometimes it’s life imperfections that make moments perfect. I think that’s one reason I love antiques. A table with a few little nicks in the wood, a Victorian chair with the velvet upholstery slightly faded, a set of old crystal glasses with a little of the gold trim missing. In my opinion, it’s those slight imperfections that add character to antiques—and to people.