The Best Christmas Pageant Ever by Barbara Robinson
Did you read this book as a child? I’m getting ready to read it to my kids as something of a non-liturgical person’s Advent. One chapter each night before Christmas. If you’re a devoted fan, you know there are seven chapters and I really only have six days left. That’s because I’ve built in one night when I know we’ll all say, “JUST ONE MORE CHAPTER!” Brilliant planning, friends, not procrastination.
So, of all books, why do I wish I had written this one? For me, it has all the classic elements. First of all, it is perfectly funny. The narrator is witty and sharp but with a tender heart. She’s a church kid, but she has compassion for those not quite like her. The Herdman’s, the welfare-fed and shockingly rebellious siblings without a stable parental figure, are cartoonishly wicked, and as a kid that is fun stuff to read. When I showed my son Jesse a draft of a children’s story I was working on last year, he loved it but thought I should “let the boy get into a little more trouble.” The Herdman’s are enough trouble to keep everyone entertained.
But after funny, this story is poetically and practically spiritual. I love it when those two elements work together in literature. In this story, the Pharisees, um, church kids, are exposed and the outcasts are celebrated in a re-telling of the Nativity. The Herdman’s understanding of Jesus’ birth spurs them to sacrifice and action. As it should for all of us.
Have you read this classic? Seen the movie? I can’t wait to share it!
A week ago, church communications guru Tim Schraeder wrote a blog post that explored the subject of wonder in the church. His closing question: “When was the last time you left church in aweâ€¦ not of the production, music, lights, or anything elseâ€¦ but truly left in awe of who God is and what Heâ€™s done?”
Now for a girl who likes an experiential, interactive worship service, this question made perfect sense to me. But I know there are others who might question the necessity of a wonder filled experience, especially in a religious setting. Won’t that make us more susceptible to brainwashing? Won’t we be manipulated to react emotionally?
Well, now I have the definitive answer for you. And it comes from Oprah herself.
Pause here for dramatic crowd reaction. Are you shocked? Well, it comes from Oprah somewhat indirectly. I found it in the Favorite Things edition of O Magazine (December 2010).
You can read the fascinating article by David Hochman here, but I’ll sum up by telling you that your need for wonder is now scientifically proven. Mom, believing in Santa is good for you! Dad, standing on mountaintops is practically prescribed! Dan, snuggling newborns makes you a better person!
Hochman describes a university study that asked participants to complete 20 statements that started, “I am . . . ” Divided into two groups, half the participants completed the statements while facing a life-size replica of a Tyrannosaurus rex skeleton. The other half completed their statements while sitting in a hallway.
From the article:
The result: People who could see the awe-inducing T. rex were three times likelier to describe themselves as part of something larger (“I am an organic form,” “I am part of the human species”) than those who completed the questionnaire facing the hallway (“I am a soccer player,” “I am a member of the Tri Delta sorority”). In Keltner’s words, awe shifts a person’s thinking “toward the collective.”
“With awe, it’s not, ‘Wow, that’s a really tall dinosaur,'” he says. “It’s, ‘Wow, there’s something bigger than me.'” And the feeling can become a spur to action;
In other words:
Scientists say it pays to cultivate more wonder in your life, whether by forwarding heart-swelling news stories or hiking the Grand Canyon. That’s because channeling awe not only produces pleasant physiological effectsâ€”such as the warm feeling in the chest activated by the vagus nerveâ€”and gives a sense of fulfillment; it “can help a person reflect on how an upsetting event fits into their philosophy of life, or how their personal experience unites them with humanity,” says Michelle Shiota, PhD, an assistant professor of psychology at Arizona State University.
Fortunately, there is no season as awe-inspiring as Christmas. If I’m looking for ways to add more wonder to my life, I don’t have to look far right now. In fact, last week it happened in 5th grade music. Struggling with the words to verse three of “Silent Night,” my students needed help decoding the old-fashioned language. Explaining it to them, I was struck by the beauty myself:
Silent Night, Holy Night
Son of God, Love’s pure light
Radiant beams from Thy holy face
With the dawn of redeeming grace
Jesus, Lord at Thy Birth! Jesus, Lord at Thy Birth!
That songwriter had an idea about how to cultivate wonder. Just imagine looking upon the infant Jesus, the God-head humbled into human flesh, and yet shining on his face was the beginning of all our hopes for salvation fulfilled. There’s a little bit of that in every newborn face, too. Wonder isn’t hard to find. If you need some ideas, check O Magazine’s suggestions here. But I think you know what to do.
Chase wonder this holiday season.
Last week I re-read an excerpt from Hannah Whitall Smith’s classic The God of All Comfort. Although my students found the style somewhat repetitive and dull, I was surprised by how deeply Smith’s words resonated with my experience. While my heart was with my sister, Serenity, who was recovering from lung surgery, I found Smith’s challenge to be just what my soul needed. (And I can personally attest to the fact that Serenity was oozing this comfort, despite her physical pain. She’s a star, that girl.)
When in need of comfort, whether because of internal or external circumstances, Smith reminds us that God’s promise is comfort. Every time. I’ve quoted it enough, but I never considered the weight of it: “Blessed are those who mourn for they WILL BE COMFORTED.” Not a suggestion or an idea. Comfort is available.
The in-dwelling Comforter ‘brings to our remembrance’ comforting things concerning our Lord, and, if we believe them, we are comforted by them. A text is brought to our remembrance, perhaps, or the verse of a hymn, or some thought concerning the love of Christ and His tender care for us. If we receive the suggestion in simple faith, we cannot help being comforted.
Our problem, Smith believes, is that we fail to receive that comfort. She describes it as a child who, instead of softening to his mother’s embrace, stiffens his back and refuses to be soothed. I know there have been seasons of trial in my life when I felt an unexplainable peace. So unexplainable, in fact, that I was nervous people might not understand how deeply I was truly suffering if I didn’t complain occasionally or wear a long face. Funny, isn’t it, that I have thought about acting more distraught than I actually was. I couldn’t accept the comfort.
But if we refuse to listen to the voice of our Comforter, and insist instead on listening to the voice of discouragement or despair, no comfort can by any possibility reach our souls.
After reading this scolding from Mrs. Whitall Smith, I felt an intentional shift in my attitude. It didn’t matter that certain issues in my life were completely unsettled and difficult. He offered comfort, and, instead of fighting it, I decided to accept.
And it made all the difference.
Every age has its own characteristics. Right now we are in an age of religious complexity. The simplicity which is in Christ is rarely found among us. In its stead are programs, methods, organizations and a world of nervous activities which occupy time and attention but can never satisfy the longing of the heart. The shallowness of our inner experience, the hollowness of our worship, and that servile imitation of the world which marks our promotional methods all testify that we, in this day, know God only imperfectly, and that the peace of God scarcely at all.
Tozer’s answer to the problems he saw in the spiritual landscape then – one that seems quite familiar to the one I see now – was contained in the title of his book, The Pursuit of God (1948), from which this excerpt comes.
His solution is explored in depth in the book but I’ll short-cut you to one of my favorite lines:
To have found God and still pursue Him is the soul’s paradox of love, scorned indeed by the too-easily-satisfied religionist, but justified in happy experience by the children of the burning heart.
I’m interested in what this looks like in my life and in yours.