Children’s skit: A true Christmas cheer

This skit was presented by three puppets during the Christmas Eve service at Faith Lutheran Church on December 24, 2018, as the children gathered around the manger scene:

[the sound of Jingle Bells, Jingle Bells is heard …. ]

MACY: [singing] “Jingle all the way, oh what fun it is to ride on a one-horse open sleigh …” I love this time of year! Meeeeerrrrrrrrryyyy Christmas everyone!

JILL: [looking sad]

MACY: Hi Jill, how are you? You look sad. Is everything ok?

JILL: Oh well, you know …

MACY: Come on, Jill, put a smile on your face! Christmas is great! The lights, the songs, the snow, the presents, the ginger bread dough …

JILL: [sigh] I just find this time of year kinda hard to take, is all.

MACY: The message of Christmas is joy! We went with friends to church, remember?

JILL: I know the message of Christmas: [speaks quickly, like rattling off a list] God so loved the world, and sent Jesus to us, born a baby in Bethlehem. Mary & Joseph and no room in the inn. The stable and manger. The shepherds in the fields. The angels chorus. The magi from the East …

MACY: And that doesn’t help? God is with us. God is with you! I can’t wait for Christmas dinner!

JILL: Yeah. But last Christmas my grandma died. She always made the turkey. And my family always fights when we get together at Christmas. And they complain about everything: the traffic, the busy malls, not having enough money, the hypocrites at church, the flu, Donald Trump, etc. etc.

MACY: Let’s not get political here!

JILL: Not only does Christmas make me feel I miss my grandma, everyone around me gets really grumpy at this time of year. Stress, or something. [shakes head] I don’t know how the Christmas message has anything to do with all of that.

MACY: [trying to cheer up Jill with some distraction] I went Christmas shopping yesterday, and look at this! [displays ugly Christmas sweater]

JILL: Very nice [sulking]

MACY: I even found another sweater I like that I’ll wear on Christmas day: On the front is a picture of Jesus’s face and the caption reads: “Let’s party like it’s my birthday.”

JILL: [shakes head as ISMAEL comes onto the scene]

MACY [with enthusiasm] & JILL [softly]: Hi Ismael.

ISMAEL: Hi Macy! Hi Jill! I heard your great singing! Getting ready for Christmas?

MACY: Yes [looks at Jill questioningly]. At least, I am!

JILL: What are you doing for the holidays, Ismael?

ISMAEL:  We don’t celebrate Christmas, but my family gets together and we make a whole bunch of baklava to take to take to my uncle’s restaurant in the Market.

JILL: I love sweets!

MACY: What’s ba-kla-va? [tries to pronounce]

ISMAEL: In my religion we eat it during the holy days. It’s a layered pastry soaked in honey and served with walnuts.

JILL: Yum! [rubbing her tummy]

ISMAEL: My uncle opens his restaurant on December 25thfor anyone who doesn’t have a home, to come and have a meal. Baklava is very popular!

JILL: My grandma always had a baking day before Christmas. I went over to her house every year to make cookies for the Christmas meal.

ISMAEL: Hey, we’re making the baklava tomorrow. You’re welcome to come over and help us.

JILL: I’d love to learn how to bake it! [her head is held high, obviously happy now]. I can bring some to my family dinner.

MACY: Can I come, too?

ISMAEL: Sure! The more, the merrier!

MACY: How do you like the snow, Ismael?

ISMAEL: Love it!

MACY: Can I teach you a song? It goes like this ….

MACY, JILL & ISMAEL interlock arms and skip off stage singing together the first lines of “Jingle bells, Jingle bells” fading to the rousing applause of the congregation!


The gift of the White-breasted Nuthatch

I walk quickly. In the first hour of walking I can manage 6 kilometres. Pretty impressive, eh? Well, I was zipping through the treed park near our house the other day when I heard birds rustling and chirping in the branches above me. 

I stopped when I noticed a small bird scampering down the trunk of the tree head-first. This tiny bird caught my attention. It had a disproportionately long beak, a black cap and a white breast. I memorized the details of what I saw, and scurried home to consult my three, different bird books.

It was a White-breasted Nuthatch. I was so thrilled to have made that identification. I love birds, and I enjoy the challenge. Most of the time.

I’m by no means an experienced, knowledgeable birder. Because most often I forget the names of the birds I identify or mis-identify. Because I don’t carry around with me my bird books and note pads wherever I go, I have to hone my skills of observation and memory. There are times even when my bird books don’t display sketches or photos of what I think I saw. That’s really frustrating!

When Paul and Silas were thrown into prison after being flogged for disrupting the peace, their future was uncertain at best, an absolute failure at worse (Acts 16:16-34). They were done, or so it seemed. The prospects of continuing their missionary journeys looked bleak no matter how you looked at it. What could they do?

I bet no one expected that earthquake to come when it did. A natural disaster always comes unexpectedly. The severity and life-changing magnitude of an earthquake, for example, cannot be predicted. It’s only after-the-fact when assessments and conclusions of what happened can be made. 

No one could see it coming the way it did: The fires in northern Alberta around Fort McMurray, despite the dry hot Spring, could not be predicted. Who could forsee precisely how it’s actually played out, and continues to play out? It just happens. And people have to react to the moment, when it does.

Despite the life-changing magnitude of events unfolding around Paul, he still seems to find stride in his faith, and yes, even joy. He shows resilience in faith. Despite all the losses, earthquakes, imprisonments, floggings, shipwrecks, rejections, threats on his life, thorn in his side — he still demonstrates an incredible passion for, dedication to, and joy in his life in Christ.

They are in the Roman colonial city of Philippi when Paul and Silas are arrested. Paul’s famous letter to the Philippians was written, later, when Paul sat in a Roman prison cell. And it is in this letter where we find some of the most joyous and aspirational words from Paul’s hand: 

“Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say: Rejoice! Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” (4:4-7)

Paul is instructing his good friends in Philippi, and followers of Christ in all times and places, to rejoice — not when everything is perfect, not when your problems have been resolved, not when certain conditions have been met, not when we are prepared for rejoicing, not even when the stars are aligned.

But, to rejoice, precisely when things are chaotic and messy. Rejoice, precisely when things are not going well, nor planned, nor pre-conceived, nor forseen. How is this even possible?

When installing our new dishwasher recently, I screwed clamps into the cabinetry on both sides. Tightly.

When I ran a cycle for the first time, water started streaming out the side of the door. It’s as if the door wasn’t even sealed! I discovered later that because I had fastened the clamps too tightly, the whole unit twisted and warped the door in an unnatural way and therefore could not seal properly and do its job. 

As soon as I loosened the screws a bit so that the dishwasher could rest naturally, evenly and squarely on the floor, everything worked fine.

Indeed, to be faithful is to know how to celebrate, even in difficult, unpredictable times. Trying too hard without a break can actually damage our commitment in faith. 

When things don’t go well, is it that we are trying too hard? Or believe the solution is simply to work harder? And then do we get all tense, anxious, impatient and frustrated when nothing in our power seems to work or when things don’t always go the way we planned? And we don’t ask for help. Or recognize or confess openly our limitations. Who do we think we are?

Especially during the long journey of a dark night of the soul, it is vital for our health to pause from time to time, loosen the screws, and lighten up a bit. Doing so will improve our endurance, open our hearts, deepen our trust in the good Lord who comes to us, who is alive and lives in us.

It is the freedom of God who comes to us, quite unexpectedly. Like the gift of the White-breasted Nuthatch. All I needed to do, was to stop my rushed march through the woods. Stop my over-thinking, incessant mental machinations. 

Just stop, and look up.

Who’s feeling the pressure?

Feeling the pressure lately?

You’d have to live on a different planet if you didn’t notice in the people around you — in the malls, community centers, sports venues, wherever people gather — and perhaps in yourself, too: a heightened intensity, pace and anxiety.

There are people to please, stuff to buy, items to check off the list, more food to digest — and only a couple more weeks till Christmas! Traffic’s snarling, noise is rising, patience wearing thin in crowded places.

Feeling it yet?

But maybe the pressure you feel isn’t associated with the typical distractions of the season. Maybe you’ve simply refused to participate in all the hubbub. Good on you. But maybe the pressure you feel has more to do with a personal challenge you face at this time.

And discordant it can feel — especially when everyone’s supposed to be in a jolly mood. How can you feel happy when your health is failing, or you’re facing bankruptcy, or your marriage is on the rocks, or you’ve just lost your job, or anticipating the first Christmas without a loved one? The pressure to make things right weighs heavily. Maybe you’re not up to it. Maybe you just want to give up.

That last thing we want to hear this time of year is a word like the one from Malachi. But at least we can relate to the rhetorical question Malachi poses here in anticipating the coming of the Lord: “Who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears?” (3:2)

It certainly isn’t what we feel we need — a little more sweetness, softly falling snowflakes, quiet, rest, peace. We envy those who claim they ‘feel’ Christmas in the air, and chide ourselves for whatever circumstances sour our mood in any pressure-filled moment.

Indeed, trying to get the right feeling is part of our problem. Getting in the right mood may very well be causing us the undue pressure. Because we have to feel right before we can truly celebrate the Lord’s coming. And if we’re not feeling the right things, then how can we celebrate?

The text of Malachi 3:1-4 appears in one of the signature choral works of this season, Handel’s Messiah. Indeed, the music of the season can affect how we feel. Music can get us all emotional; music stirs the heart’s strings, makes us feel good and lifts us up. It can also — as it does with the Messiah — “sing the Word, and proclaim the good news” (Deborah A. Block and Seth Moland Kovash, Feasting on the Word, Year C Vol.1, p.30-31).

After the first presentation of Messiah in London, England, in 1741, Handel wrote to a friend: “I should be sorry if I only entertained them. I wished to make them better.”

Handel’s confession suggests that the message of the season needs to go beyond feelings, beyond sentimentality. At some level, if we are to make it through (read, ‘survive’) this season so full of pressure, we will need to go beyond feeling good to doing good.

But wait a minute, now! By doing good, aren’t we just adding to the pressure?

Let’s take a closer look at the text from Malachi and see for what purpose we experience the “fullers’ soap” and “refiner’s fire” (v.2) — phrases often associated with God’s judgment.

But why did the people in the post-exilic, second temple period (circa 500 B.C.E) receive this word — this pressure-laden word — to be righteous in the first place? What is the underlying purpose of the pressure to present themselves as “acceptable” or “pleasing” offerings to God (v.4)?

Well, God is coming! And God is coming unexpectedly, “suddenly” (v.1).

Which can only mean God is coming despite us. Whether we perform or not. Whether we do all the right things or not. Whether we get everything done in time or not. Whether we feel like it or not.

You know, God desires to be in our presence. God wants to be with us because God loves us. God created each one of us, an image of God’s divinity in our being.

Whatever we do, then, it is not for our sake, but God’s. Whatever little act of compassion we give to another, whatever singular act of mercy we offer, whatever gift from the heart we render — these are not for our glory or benefit, but God’s glory, God’s purposes, God’s mission.

The purpose of the “refinement” that we endure in this life, is not punishment for any wrongs we have committed, any sins that we will continue to commit. The end game of any burden we carry through this life is restoration with God, union with God and one another.

That’s why we do the work. Because the end of history will be good, no matter what. The promise of Malachi is that our offerings “will be pleasing” to God. The promise of this restoration with God is sure. It will happen, and it will happen under God’s control and in God’s time. The refining is not waiting for us to feel good about it.

So, what do we have to lose in doing the right thing whether or not we feel like it yet, whether or not we feel we’re up to it? As Martin Luther once instructed: “Sin boldly, and trust in God even more.” I don’t think Luther was encouraging any one to sin. But he was emphasizing the need to take a risk for the sake of God. And not to worry about results, reputation or reaction. Just do it!

Although by 1751 Handel was blind, until his death he conducted Messiah as an annual benefit for the Foundling Hospital in London which served mostly widows and orphans of clergy. The intent was not just to entertain and make everyone feel good. Handel’s hope was to make people better and just. His ear was open to the prophetic word: “Present offerings to the Lord in righteousness” (3:3).

Christ is coming. So, let’s prepare the way of the Lord. And do good.

(Hint: And after doing some good it will make us feel good, too!)

Leadership stress; my problem, or yours?

It didn’t dawn on me how serious and pervasive the problem was until I had car trouble.

Or so I thought.

Stuck in a big city rush hour jam, windows open, engines revving all around me, I first heard it: A loud, clanging sound emanating from somewhere beneath me. The sound followed me, inching along, pretty much down the entire block to the corner.

Even when I made the crawling turn at the intersection, it sounded like I was dragging and scraping my entire exhaust system on the tarmac below.

My hands gripped the steering wheel; was I suddenly going to lose a tire?Which appointments would I have to postpone or cancel for the potentially day-changing delay?

As the good grace of God would have it (and I didn’t even pray for it!) the dealership was right there. I immediately veered my ailing automobile into the garage half expecting my car immanently and literally to fall apart.

The technicians had my car on the hoist in minutes. After a quick check, they approached me slowly, their eyes searching me carefully. “There’s absolutely nothing wrong with your car, sir,” they reported.

If it wasn’t me then whose noise was it that followed me down the road? I so easily positioned myself to assume someone else’s problem was mine. Understandable, you might say, since they were so close to me their noise sounded like mine.

But that’s just the point. It is precisely those close to us — our family, spouse, close friends, those we lead and care about — where the temptation to be triangulated with someone else’s problem is most seductive.

Edwin Friedman in his book, “A Failure of Nerve; Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix”, suggests that this natural tendency to take on the emotional problems of others inhibits, even undermines, effective leadership –whether in families, marriages, or nation states.

It is not hard work — or even over-work — that causes stress. Stress in leaders is primarily caused by becoming responsible for something that rightly belongs in the purview of others.

Consider these brief citations from Friedman’s book:

“The stress on leaders … primarily has to do with the extent to which the leader has been caught in a responsible position for the relationship of two others” (220)

“Stress and burnout are … due primarily to getting caught in a responsible position for others and their problems” (202)

“Stress is due to becoming responsible for the relationships of others” (194)

Leaders will be wise to remain connected and engaged within the natural relationships of home, family and work. However, the effective leader will be able to self-regulate her/himself so as not to become enmeshed in the emotional reactivity of those relationships.

This may be particularly difficult for personalities who tend to over-function anyway, and compulsively step over the boundaries of others. They often do so on the pretense of care and love.

Especially in caregiving professions where this practice may even be expected and encouraged, the healthy leader will nevertheless take a stand and not lose nerve when asserting one’s stance and self-differentiating, despite the criticisms coming her or his way of being crass, uncaring and cold.

By the way, they did find something wrong with my car. But it had nothing to do with what I thought was my problem.

The only thing a leader can do is focus on his or her own self — to understand one’s position and function within marriage, family, and community.

And give thanks for the sometimes unexpected opportunities that arise to examine one’s self in context.