It has certainly been busy this last month at Messiah. Breakfast with Santa, Cookie Walk, Advent Services, Giving Tree and of course children’s Christmas pageants. We have two of them every year at Messiah, one from our Sunday School and one from our Preschool. My five year old grandson Keegan was on the top row at both, singing enthusiastically the parts he knew and kind of mumbling the rest. Mumble… Fa, la, la, la, la…
My niece Kyleigh in Toledo who is about twelve had a solo in her church’s Christmas Program at Grace Lutheran. After all of the little kids acted out the skit, then Kyleigh went to the mike to belt out, Go Tell It on the Mountain. Her mom posted it on Facebook so I got to see it. It was really cool. She did a great job. I found out last week on a visit to Toledo, that it wasn’t actually a solo but a trio. Kyleigh had kind of blocked out the other two kids as she took the mike. Sometimes, a star has to be a little aggressive in order to give the people what they want.
Kyleigh’s solo reminded me of my own solo when I was 8 in the Christmas Pageant in 1972 at St Lukes Lutheran Church, Temperance, Michigan. It was the standard production, toddlers as sheep and cows, bathrobe clad shepherds, kings with paper crowns and awkward 10 year olds as Mary and Joseph gathered around Baby Alive, a doll that really ate and then really did what happens when you really eat. Thankfully, our baby Jesus was diapered in our manger.
I sang at a pretty dramatic part of the play. Mary and Joseph had taken their spot around Baby Alive. The sheep and cows were aimlessly milling about. The angels and the shepherds all had had their speaking parts. We ended up with only two kings. The third king got the flu in the sacristy and had the same problem as Baby Alive, but with no diaper, unfortunately. Pretty gross but kind of a cool story for an eight year old to tell his friends. The entire cast sang Away in the Manger with the house lights up, then dramatically all of the lights were brought down. I was the ending, the finale, the climax, a solo of Silent Night.
I sang my solo from the loft, behind everybody. I had practiced and practiced. I knew the first verse by heart. I was ready to rock. I would be like David Cassidy in the Partridge Family. My ultimate hero. As I sang, people started to turn in the pews to see where this voice was coming from. More people were turning. They began to point. They were smiling, almost laughing. It was clear to me. I was a hit. They loved me.
Afterward, I enthusiastically asked my mom how she thought I did. “Perfect, certainly loud enough. People could really hear you and that is important.” It didn’t occur to me that singing loudly was a pretty lame compliment. I was so sure a star had been born. Which made it all the more curious I was never given an opportunity to do a solo again.
Our imperfect children’s Christmas pageants seem a good representation of the real thing, an imperfect beginning for the savior of the world. We would call the birth of Jesus today an unplanned pregnancy. The birth happened not at home, but on a road trip to Bethlehem. Since someone forgot to make reservations at the Bethlehem Bed and Breakfast, they had to make do for the night in a barn. Sanitary conditions were poor, they had to clean the baby from his afterbirth with rags just used to wipe down the donkeys in the next stall and place the newborn in a feeding trough instead of a sanitized crib. With no family in town, the only ones who showed up to celebrate his birth were dirty shepherds still smelling from the field with language that would probably make a sailor blush.
God with us, Emmanuel, does not come to us in a well produced, high brow Broadway play, but in a comedy starring Adam Sandler and Seth Rogen. It is hard to imagine that any of it went according to plan. Yet, like our children pageants, it all worked out. The crowning moment might have been a little off key, with only shepherds to sing the alleluias. But surely God smiled and said the right thing, “Perfect, you certainly were loud enough, people could really hear you and that is important”.
God doesn’t need tight production values, just people ready to be saved. And let’s face it, perfect lives don’t need a savior. What is there to save? The beginning of Jesus’ life makes clear that God came to save imperfect lives, by joining us right in the midst of the messiness of the creation. And, the gift Jesus bears that will save our imperfect lives is the same gift my mom used to encourage me, love, pure and simple, love. Love that can see the perfect underneath all of our sloppy, fumbling humanity.
I heard two thirteen year olds, Maya and Charlotte interviewed on a radio broadcast in May of This American Life. Maya was one when she was adopted from a Chinese orphanage. It was soon evident just how smart she was. At five, she wrote a song about dinosaurs, an early obsession for Maya, and learned to play the guitar in order to sing it for her family at Thanksgiving. By six, Maya had moved on from dinosaurs to an obsession with horses. She carefully researches race horses, taking notes on their wins and losses, then shares with anyone she can buttonhole the details of her investigation.
Maya is on the autism spectrum. She is sensitive to being touched, has trouble making eye contact and reading normal social cues, and obsesses over a singular topic like dinosaurs and horses. Childhood has been hard for Maya. In elementary school she was not invited to birthday parties or play dates. At recess, she sat alone and drew. In fifth grade, she went over to a neighbor’s house to ask if they could play. The mother said they were busy, but Maya could see them playing behind her with another friend. When the door shut, Maya sat on the porch and cried hysterically. The mother had to call her parents to come and get her. This was a turning point for Maya, almost as if she realized just how alone she was. She became sad, refusing to bathe, not completing homework, fighting about chores, throwing tantrums at school and at home.
Worried after a year of this, her parents sent Maya to horse camp that summer. They just wanted to see her smile. At horse camp she met Charlotte. The parents noticed on camp visitation day that Maya and Charlotte did everything together. Tentatively, they edged close to Charlotte’s mom, and said it looks like our daughter Maya has found a friend in your daughter. Charlotte’s mom said enthusiastically, oh Charlotte loves Maya. She told me that Maya is perfect. Her parents drove home that day from camp excited that Maya had found something she had never had before a friend. They wept together as they said the words over and over again, Maya is perfect. Someone saw what they saw in Maya.
Maya and Charlotte have been best friends for two years. The change in Maya has been so remarkable, her parents call it BC and AC, before Charlotte and after Charlotte. She bathes and does chores and no longer throws tantrums. She is working hard at making eye contact and to understand social cues. In the first few months, her parents could tell there was something different about the way Maya looked. They came to realize it was just happiness that had changed the look of her face. Just happiness. Her mother remembers hearing Maya and Charlotte giggle for hours in her room at a sleepover that first year. It was like music to her.
Maya loves Charlotte. Charlotte loves Maya. Maya herself articulated the importance of this friendship. She said she had been trying to learn how to be a better friend to please Charlotte. It is hard for Maya, but she is trying. Charlotte still says Maya is perfect, while acknowledging that her conversation skills aren’t the best and sometimes she is stubborn about what they play. Charlotte doesn’t like to talk about horses all the time she said, but quickly adds that it is awesome all she has learned about horses from Maya. BC, AC, before Charlotte, after Charlotte, Maya has been changed. Someone gets her, loves her, thinks she is perfect.
Jesus comes to us in an imperfect world, in an imperfect way to save our imperfect lives. Jesus comes to be with us. To love us. With the eyes of love, sees the perfect within us, even after hearing our bad singing and experiencing our social miscues. Love can change our lives. Just ask thirteen year old Maya. BC, AC, where are you at? Emmanuel, God with us, sees the perfect in you wrapped up in your very imperfect life. May his love be found by you in the year ahead.