A True Story: The Christmas Program.
The idea came to me so clearly. It was a gentle nudge by the Holy Spirit. Little girls were to perform worship songs in sign language as someone reads the story of Jesus and His coming according to the first chapter of St. John. It would be a God-honoring program but less traditional since it would be based on the first chapter of John.
I inquired of the Sunday school teachers about any program they might have planned this year. “No, there’s not enough time for practice.”
Perhaps they were right. Perhaps there really wasn’t enough time to practice anything. I began to doubt the idea and the nudge. The self-doubts hauntingly remained with me…until the star-filled night of the program.
I gave the pastor a sketchy description of what we wanted to accomplish – specific enough only to obtain his permission for the use of the sanctuary for the unusual Christmas program. Auna, the 20-year-old who lived with us, agreed to take the challenge to teach the rowdy, unruly group of girls from the church and the neighborhood how to sign the worship songs. She and several other young ladies from the church had already learned to perform in sign language for the congregation at two events. Both were a huge success.
Auna was the perfect pick. She might even find it was fun. It seemed like an easy assignment…easy until the ‘anything but feminine’ group of elementary-age girls showed up for their first practice. Sweet loving Auna was overwhelmed by all the pushing and shoving. The second practice was worse with more teasing and generally not paying attention to Auna. My ‘mother heart’ realized Auna needed to have someone step in and enforce the rules of conduct at practice. That someone was me.
One little girl seemed especially slow at catching the signs or even the songs. I walked her home after each practice and went over and over them as if we were playing a game. She began to improve. At the fourth practice, all the girls slowly began to pull together and work as a unit. The worshipful words of the songs accompanied by the dramatic signs began to etch those healing truths into their already scarred little hearts. They would remember them forever.
The girls belted out the songs as they signed, but their singing wasn’t much better than their behavior had been. The melody was noticeably missing. Auna began the search for taped music so the girls could just sign and not sing. Robby, the good-natured builder/maintenance man that had stayed with us while we remodeled the house, could provide the music easily and accompany the songs with his guitar, but he had moved away to Kansas City the previous month. When Auna learned Robby would be traveling back to Virginia to spend the holidays with his family, she wondered if he might come a few days early and practice with the girls. His presence might also provide another needed authority figure to the still slightly unruly group. He agreed to come, and we all expressed a sigh of thanks for the answered prayer.
Not a single girl had a denim skirt and navy blouse for the performance. Nor did any family have the means to purchase them. Auna explained the need to the lady at Goodwill, who searched diligently for the matching clothing for the special evening. Another answered prayer.
Who could we find to read the scripture story? We prayed. Joe, our poor neighbor with the beginning of dementia, was the agreed-upon choice. We also agreed if this evening turned out to be anything, it would be a miracle from God. We kept plunging ahead despite our doubts, fears, and pride. I, especially, did not want it to be an embarrassing fiasco. Somehow, through all the challenges, I knew God was going to do the impossible and show us all, including Joe, something glorious about His kingdom.
The dress rehearsal wasn’t bad. The little girls began to look at themselves as performers on a stage. Their parents and grandparents would be watching them. They began to seriously try to stay in time with the music and each other. Rhythm and flow were happening. I could sense the change the girls were feeling about themselves. There were giggles of excitement, and Auna was glowing since Robby arrived to help. His compliments encouraged the girls to do their best.
On the night of the performance, everyone was to arrive an hour early. Joe still hadn’t practiced with the girls. I just hoped and prayed he would show up. The printed programs specifically outlined where he should read before and between the songs. Robby was prepared to do the reading if Joe didn’t arrive in time, but I felt so deeply that the opportunity was meant for Joe. He desperately needed to know God could and would still use him. So, we prayed and waited a few minutes longer.
That’s when things began to fall apart. One of the girls had picked out a donated skirt that was almost falling off. When she raised her arms to sign, her bare belly showed. I gasped. This was totally unacceptable! Auna remembered a skirt she had at home that might be a substitute. But the young girl had already fallen in love with the little hip-hugging skirt and stubbornly refused to change. My ‘mother heart’ and voice insisted she become more appropriately dressed. She changed, but she was still pouting when another girl said she felt sick and promptly lost her supper in the room where we had gathered to pray over the girls before they performed.
“Lord, please help us! They have come so far!” I pleaded.
Then all the girls began to lift their voices, “Lord, please help us! Please!”
“Yes, Lord, we need your help!” my voice again called upon His mercy and faithfulness.
The girls again cried out, “And please help Heather not be sick during the program!”
And we all said, “Amen!”
We entered the sanctuary with a still pouting girl and a green one, carrying a paper barf bag to her assigned seat in the front.
The church began to fill with people…more people than I had ever seen in the little church…people who had never come to our church or any church. It was time to touch hearts with the real message and meaning of the coming of the Messiah. At the last minute, Joe showed up. He thought he was just coming to the practice and found it was the night of the program. His clothes were wrinkled and stained, but there was no time to go home and change.
The pastor greeted the crowd and offered a prayer for the evening, and Auna opened the program with her glowing smile. There was electricity in the air. The presence of the Spirit of God was there reaching out to all of us. The pastor’s daughter led a few customary Christmas hymns, allowing us a few more minutes to settle our butterflies.
Then Joe stood. His voice was clear and resonating as he began to read,
“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God. The same was in the beginning with God…”
The seated girls rose at precisely the same time and marched in a straight line to their places. Miss ‘pouty’ had secretly worked out slight hand signals to the girls so they kept in perfect time. They signed sincerely, flowing together, almost like a dance. I was in awe of the transformation I was witnessing. There was a hearty round of applause as the girls gracefully retreated to their seats.
Joe read a few more verses. The girls again rose in unison and took their places for the second song. The guitar and Robby’s gifted singing were punctuated by the body and arm gestures of the little performers. Perfect timing. A louder round of applause. They again uniformly returned to their seats.
Joe’s voice rang with passion, “And the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us,…” Instead of Luke’s account of the baby in a manger, the first chapter of John reveals the coming of the Messiah as the One who was before time, His coming to His own, their rejection of Him, and His offering of the gift of eternal life to all who would believe. The songs were the worship of this King of Kings.
After the scripture reading and all the signing by the younger girls, Auna and three older, more experienced signers rapturously performed “Mary, Did You Know?” by Mark Lowry. The crowd was alive. The evening was a great success.
The humbled pastor walked speechless to the front of the enthralled audience to dismiss in prayer. Who would believe anything this magnificent could come from those rowdy, unruly, little girls and a poor, do-nothing Joe, whose reading was most compelling? God had shown up and was glorified in the lowliness of our humanity – just the way He likes to visit His people.
The God-honoring evening was complete. The captivated parents and proud relatives rose and filed out quietly and reverently with their happy little stars who would always remember that night. And so would we.
And…by next Christmas, the glowing Auna and the good-natured Robby would be planning their wedding. Another answered prayer.
This event happened in December 2009 and the story has been told many times.