Saturday, December 20, 2008


December 19th, 2008

"Did you get the message?" announced my mother as I burst through the front door of our home fresh from school and ecstatic over completing the last day of classes before Christmas break. "The casting director from the church youth group has called. It's your turn to be in the living nativity scene. What part will you be playing tonight?"
All of a sudden a cloud of doom was cast over what had promised to be an evening of joyful abandon with my friends celebrating the beginning of a two-week vacation from the drudgery of high school. It's not that I was totally devoid of the Christmas spirit, but standing outside for two boring hours in the frigid Idaho winter just wasn't the most exciting way for a teenager to spend the holidays. Unfortunately, as the preacher's son, it was pretty much expected that I would be a part of all the youth group activities, and this particular activity had been a tradition for the youth of our church for years. The only redeeming element in a night of pure torture was the possibility of playing "Joseph" and sitting next to "Mary" whose role on this night was being played by the most alluring girl in the youth group. But, as fate would have it, I was chosen to play the part of a lowly shepherd. Resigned to suffering through an evening of discouragement and tedium, I grudgingly donned my sack-cloth and rope costume and took my place in the back of the scene while the "upfronters," decked out in regal splendor, received all the attention and my best friend reveled in the coveted position of "Joseph." Sometimes life has no semblance of fairness.
The manger scene was crudely constructed with bails of straw for the walls and a roof of canvas that was stretched over unfinished wooden poles. “Joseph” and “Mary” sat on a bail of straw behind a makeshift, wooden manger. “Jesus” was played by a cheap, plastic doll, imprisoned in a tightly wrapped blanket and barely visible in a pile of straw. Due to the extreme cold the actors all wore ski parkas underneath their costumes, giving the entire ensemble the appearance of needing a few months of faithful attendance at "Weight Watchers." The amateur quality of the production was clearly evident as "Joseph" had to be constantly reminded to remove his eyeglasses and the three wise men all had sneakers protruding beneath their royal robes.
Adding to the emphasis of a live show, a local farmer had loaned us the use of a donkey, named Jenny, and a sheep. Jenny was incorrigibly stubborn and refused to be moved anywhere unless we held a handful of hay in front of her nose. The sheep was very old, totally blind, and could be moved only by grabbing her backside by her thick fleece, lifting her hind legs off the ground, and pushing her forward. Getting the animals positioned correctly was a major undertaking. Keeping them in place was next to impossible. Filling out the scene was a chicken-wire and papier-mâché camel, much smaller than the donkey and missing one side of its nose due to an accident in transit from its storage. A dime-store, tree-top star placed above the roof completed the scene which was staged outside the church building next to one of the busiest streets in town. A loud speaker blaring Christmas carols helped to attract attention from passing motorists.
As actors we passed the time cracking jokes, trying to stay warm, listening to the local rock 'n roll radio station on earphones hidden underneath our head scarves, and wondering if the director would ever come to tell us our time was up. It certainly wasn't the most spiritually meaningful part of the season for those of us in the youth group. But I have often wondered if, in our sloppy, haphazard, unprofessional production of a living nativity scene, we actually made a difference for those whose hectic holiday schedules brought them in their stress-filled hearts and package-laden automobiles to spend sixty seconds idling at a stoplight watching a living portrayal of the reason for the season.
That crude production of the Christmas story has been on my mind during the current season's controversy over public displays of the religious meaning of the holiday. Our culture seems to be sharply divided over this issue. For some reason the true meaning of Christmas seems to be offensive to a certain small minority of seasonal "Grinches" who are using the courts to force their secular will upon the majority. But why should we be so surprised over this phenomenon as though it was something new? From an unsympathetic innkeeper and a murderous king Herod up until the present anti-Christian climate in our courts and schools, there has always been a group of Christmas scrooges eager to rain on our holiday parade. While I certainly applaud those who are determined to stand up to such attacks on our religious freedom, allow me to suggest another, perhaps more effective course of action.
I propose we all determine to become a living nativity scene, not seasonally staged at a local church, but continually displayed in our everyday lives; not decked out in first-century costumes, but attired in humble acts of kindness; a fully portable, walking, talking, breathing picture of Christ's coming to earth. Such a scene could be taken with us wherever we went, on public property or private, in local schools or shopping malls, at the office or in a city park. This take-it-wherever-you-go crèche would be far more difficult to litigate against and, in my estimation, vastly more powerful in broadcasting the true meaning of Christmas to a truth-starved world.
Which roles would we all play? Actually, as Christians, we are directed to play them all. We can be a beast of burden bearing the load which others cannot carry by themselves, but our service must be the real thing not a scaled-down imitation full of holes, and we must be led by the Spirit not stubbornly intent upon following the gratification of our own desires. Since we know what it's like to be sheep, blind to the ways of God and resistant to His prodding, we should make wonderfully caring shepherds who with empathy and compassion can lead others to find their places in the scene. As wise men, rightly discerning God's Word, we can guide others who are searching for the light, as long as our "sneaker sins" don't distract them and our footing is well grounded in the truth. Like Joseph, we know the grace of being chosen to play a role in the family of God for which we have no real claim. Like Mary, God has placed in us the seed of ministries we can barely fathom as we look forward to the birthing of Spirit-impregnated, holy dreams.
Whether we serve as an "upfronter" or take our place in the back of the scene we all have many roles in this production, including that of Christ. In fact, we may be the only Jesus our neighbors ever see. Are they witnessing a cheap, plastic, motionless, mostly-hidden Christ, or do they see in us a living, active picture of loving kindness, mercy, peace, sacrifice, and grace? "I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me." – Galatians 2:20. "...for it is God who works in you to will and to act according to his good purpose." – Philippians 2:13.
Perhaps our message would receive more encouraging reviews if we spent less time agonizing over how our secular society has removed Christ from Christmas, and more time wondering how we can be Christ to our secular neighbors—less time fretting over how the ancient symbols of Christmas are being attacked, and more time being concerned about how we can make these symbols come alive in the present—less time looking back at God's miraculous incarnation in the Christ-child two thousand years ago, and more time dwelling on His no less miraculous, continuing incarnation through Christ living and ministering daily in us.

Phillip Brooks' timeless Christmas anthem says it well. "O holy Child of Bethlehem! Descend on us, we pray; Cast out our sin, and enter in; be born in us today." Whether we are fully aware of it or not, the Church comprises each year's nativity display, living and dynamic. We may believe our individual scenes are amateur at best, but when the attention is directed toward Jesus, the results can be heart-rending and powerful. "May the God of peace...equip you with everything good for doing his will, and may he work in us what is pleasing to him, through Jesus Christ, to whom be glory for ever and ever. Amen." – Hebrews 13:20-21.
Did you get the message? The Casting Director has called. It's your turn to be in the living nativity scene. What part will you be playing today?

Bill, a child of God and a grateful member of the cast


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