Monday, December 20, 2010

the best Christmas Pageant ever

One of my family's favourite books is called "The Best Christmas Pageant Ever", which was written by Barbara Robinson. It tells the story of a church in a small town, and its annual Sunday School Christmas pageant, which is hijacked by the "Herdmans", a sibling gang of the "worst kids" in the world. Because none of the Herdman kids have ever been to Sunday School, or church, in their lives, they need to hear the whole nativity story. Through their questions, the reader has the opportunity to hear the story again, as if hearing it for the first time.

Tonight I was at my wife's church, St. Paul's United Church in Oakville, for a public reading of this wonderful book. Each of the chapters was presented by a different reader. Each reader brought something of themselves into their dramatic reading. My sense of this was heightened because I know some of the readers, including our daughter Naomi, who presented the first chapter.

Some stories, like the one about the birth of Jesus, are worth hearing again, as if for the first time.

During the weeks of Advent I have been meeting on Wednesdays at lunch hour with a group to practice the ancient prayer discipline called "Lectio Divina", which is a contemplative approach to reading and praying scripture.

This Wednesday we will have our final meeting of the "Munching on the Word" group. We will spend time with this passage from Isaiah, which has often been read in churches on Christmas Eve. Here it is as found in "The Message", which is a contemporary paraphrase of scripture, which can be helpful for those seeking a fresh hearing of the words.

" The people who walked in darkness
have seen a great light.
For those who lived in a land of deep shadows—
light! sunbursts of light!
You repopulated the nation,
you expanded its joy.
Oh, they're so glad in your presence!
Festival joy!
The joy of a great celebration,
sharing rich gifts and warm greetings.
The abuse of oppressors and cruelty of tyrants—
all their whips and cudgels and curses—
Is gone, done away with, a deliverance
as surprising and sudden as Gideon's old victory over Midian.
The boots of all those invading troops,
along with their shirts soaked with innocent blood,
Will be piled in a heap and burned,
a fire that will burn for days!
For a child has been born—for us!
the gift of a son—for us!
He'll take over
the running of the world.
His names will be: Amazing Counselor,
Strong God,
Eternal Father,
Prince of Wholeness.
His ruling authority will grow,
and there'll be no limits to the wholeness he brings.
He'll rule from the historic David throne
over that promised kingdom.
He'll put that kingdom on a firm footing
and keep it going
With fair dealing and right living,
beginning now and lasting always.
The zeal of God-of-the-Angel-Armies
will do all this. "

Monday, December 13, 2010

Christmas Puppet Play

This past Sunday morning we had a special presentation by the Saint Paul's United Church Puppet Pals. They are children involved in the Sunday School at my wife's church, and my kids are part of the group.

What follows is the script I wrote for them. Their director, Rob Phillips made some changes and additions, but I don't have those!

The scene is the front of a church. Auditions are being held for the Christmas play. Molly and Martin the Mouse are waiting for actors to come out on stage. A camel comes out first.

Alice: My name is Alice, and I’m a camel. I will be auditioning for the part of the angel.

Martin the Mouse: Thank you for coming, Alice. What parts have you had in the past?

Alice: Two years ago I was in the Christmas play at my other church. I was the second cow next to the manger. I had no lines, but everybody said I had great presence. Last spring we had a Palm Sunday play, and I was the donkey Jesus rode into Jerusalem. I had to be very serious, even when the crowds were cheering.

Molly: Sounds like you have lots of experience. The angel in our play is actually a singing part. Can you sing for us?

Alice: Singing? Uh sure, of course. (Seriously off key) Row, row, row your boat, gently down the stream…

Martin: Thank you, Alice. (Trying to get her to stop)

Alice: Merrily (louder, and worse) merrily, merrily, life is but a dream…

Molly: Thank you, Alice, we get the idea.

Alice: Would you like to see me dance?

Molly: Thanks, no Alice. We will let you know.
(Alice leaves)

Martin: Who’s next?
(A giraffe comes on stage)

Jerry Giraffe: I think that’s me. My name is Jerry, and I am trying out for the part of baby Jesus.

Martin: (Trying not to laugh) Interesting choice.

Jerry: My Mom says it is good to know what you want, and just go for it. Just stick your neck out!

Molly: We might need a bigger manger.

Martin: We might need a bigger stable!

Jerry: Mom says she can make me a costume. We have some king size sheets that would make great swaddling clothes.

Martin: Jerry, your enthusiasm is great. Have you ever been in a play before?

Jerry: I was in a play at my school. It was Jack and the Beanstalk.

Molly: Let me guess…

Jerry: I was the Beanstalk.

Martin: Yeah, I saw that one coming.

Jerry; Do you want to hear the lines I have prepared?

Martin; Go for it!

Jerry: I just need to clear my throat first. (prolonged coughing) Ahem, ahem, ahem.

Molly: You okay?

Jerry: I’m fine. Do you want to hear my lines?

Molly: Yes, we’re ready.

Jerry: Goo. (pause) Goo, goo. (pause) Goo, goo, goo. (pause) Goo.

Molly: Thank you Jerry, that was…. interesting.

Jerry: Should I tell Mom to start work on the swaddling clothes?

Martin: Jerry, we will let you know. Since you’re going out through the choir room, can you send in the next actor?

(Jerry leaves. A sheep comes on stage. And stands there, quietly. Looking a little sheepish.)

Molly: Welcome. What’s your name?

Barbara: I’m Baa-Baa-Raa. I’m a sheep.

Martin: Have you thought about what part you might want?

Barbara: Are you kidding me? I’m a sheep.

Molly: And…

Barbara: Of course I want to be in the flock the shepherds are watching over by night. I hope this isn’t one of those Christmas plays with a bunch of goofy extra characters.

Martin: What do you mean?

Barbara: They’re always trying to pull the wool over our eyes with little drummer boys and lost wise men and reindeers. Stuff that is not even in the Bible.

Molly: (a little defensive) What’s wrong with reindeers?

Martin: I think she is saying she hopes we are going to tell the real story, with nothing extra added.

Barbara: You’re darn right!

Molly: Barbara, thanks for coming to the audition. We will let you know.
(Barbara leaves)

Martin: This is going to be harder than we thought.

Molly: What’s wrong with reindeer? And what was she saying about Bible stories? Isn’t there just one?

Martin: I remember from Sunday School that the story of the birth of Jesus gets told twice. It’s in Matthew and in Luke.

Molly: But it’s the same story, right? Mary and Joseph go to Bethlehem, and the innkeeper lets them use the stable, because there is no room in the inn. Jesus is born, the angels sing, and then the shepherds and the wise men visit.

Martin: Sounds like every Sunday School pageant I can remember. Notice there were no reindeer?

Molly: There were no mice, either, smart guy.

Martin: Last year the minister said we should read the stories from Matthew and Luke , and look for differences.

Molly: Do you always do what the minister tells you?

Martin: No, but this time it was really interesting. In Matthew, Jesus is born in a house in Nazareth, so there’s no innkeeper, and no stable. No singing angels, and no shepherds. Only the wise men come to visit, after following the star.

(A cat comes on stage)

Jinx: Meow! Did I hear you’re looking for a star? I’m Jinx, the cat.

Molly: Hi Jinx! Are you here to audition?

Martin: Something about this guy makes me nervous.

Jinx: Don’t worry about me, I’m a vegetarian. Can I audition? I might be the star you’re looking for!

Molly: Of course. Do you have something ready for us?

Jinx: It’s a famous poem.

Molly: We would love to hear it, wouldn’t we Martin?

Martin: As long as he stays over there while he does it.

Jinx: 'Twas the night before Christmas, when all through the house, Not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse;

Martin: (whispering to Molly) What was that about a mouse?

Jinx: The stockings were hung, by the chimney with care, In hopes that St. Nicholas soon would be there…

Molly: Thanks, we get the idea. But we were just talking about sticking with the story from the Bible.

Martin: Actually, we were talking about how there are two stories.

Jinx: Do you want to hear the rest of my poem, or not? I was almost to the part about the reindeer!

Martin: No. we’re good, thanks. (mutters to himself) Again with the reindeer.

Molly: We will let you know. Thanks for coming by.

Jinx: Suddenly I feel quite hungry. Think I’ll go out for a bite. Know any mice, I mean nice restaurants around here?

Martin: I think the nice restaurants are really far away. You might want to go there, and see.
Jinx : Thanks for the audition. I hope you have a tasty part for me!

Molly: Bye, Jinx.
(Jinx leaves)

Martin: That was disturbing. Maybe we should move on to the next actor.
(A giraffe comes on stage.)

Molly: Jerry, is that you? We said we would call you.

Gary: No, I’m Gary. You must be thinking of my brother. We do look quite a lot alike, although Mom says I am a bit taller.

Martin: Do you want to be in the play?

Gary: I’m way too shy to be on stage, but I wondered if you need other kinds of help. Like if the wise men are following the star, I could hold it over their heads.

Molly: You have a great voice. Maybe you could be a narrator. Or read the Bible story.

Gary: I’ve always loved the Charlie Brown Christmas cartoon. You know the one where Linus reads from Luke’s Gospel. He says, “In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be taxed...”

Martin: That’s the story that happens in Bethlehem, after Mary and Joseph travelled there.
(Donkey comes on stage)

Donkey: That’s where I come in. I’m their ride!

Martin: But the Bible story doesn’t tell us how they got there.

Donkey: Kind of makes sense though, doesn’t it?

Martin: Maybe they put a donkey in the Christmas story, because when Jesus grew up, he rode a donkey on Palm Sunday.

Donkey: I heard that in one church play Jesus rode into Jerusalem on a camel. Guess they couldn’t find a donkey!

Gary: Uh, guys, when you get this all figured out, I would love to help any I can. Just let me know.
(Gary leaves)

Martin and Molly: Thanks, Gary!

Donkey: So do you have a part for me or not?

Martin: Maybe, Donkey. I think we have to decide what story we are telling.

Donkey: What story do you want to tell?

Molly: I can’t speak for Martin, but I just want to tell the story of God sending us Jesus, to teach us about love.

Martin: I agree with Molly. That’s the whole point.

Donkey: That’s good. I’d like to help with that.
(Barbara the sheep and Alice the camel come out)

Barbara: We’ve been listening from the choir room. Jerry and Gary are back there too.

Alice: Yeah, Jerry’s reading the Matthew story, with the star and the wise men, and Gary’s looking at Luke’s Gospel, with angels and shepherds. We all want to help you figure this out.

Barbara; There’s just one thing…

Molly: What’s that?

Barbara: No reindeer, okay?

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Of war, and silence, and the Dixie Chicks

This past Sunday I re-told the story of the “Christmas truce” of 1914, when peace spontaneously broke out and interrupted the carnage of World War I, along the Western Front in Belgium. There are some excellent online resources that explore this true story. The ones I drew on the most for my sermon are the Wikipedia article, and one from

I also talked about Stille Nacht, the beautiful carol known to us as Silent Night, which is part of the reality and the mythology of the Christmas Truce. There are, of course, countless websites that detail the story of the origins of this hymn. The article I found most helpful was written by Bill Egan, and first appeared in Halifax Magazine. It is reproduced at this site:

A follow up to last week’s fifth page:
The response to my fifth page article about the choice to play a “Dixie Chicks” song as part of a sermon about Hope was quite heartening. All the people who emailed told me that they actually appreciated the song. I was encouraged to continue to take risks, to push the envelope of what “normally” happens in a sermon, and to keep on with my project of interpreting the culture in which we live.

(Not that it was a vote, but were I to count the responses I received to the sermon and the fifth page, it would be 3 votes against the Dixie Chicks, and eight in favour.)