A Staged Testimony: God uses a proud actor to announce the humble birth

I am not a Picasso, a brutal misogynist who inflicted terror on nearly every female around him. Neither am I a Hemingway, a drunken lout given to baring his chest and knuckles at the drop of a hat. I adore Van Gogh, but I would not off my ear for anyone.

I am an artist, but I don't think of myself as a social misfit or a study in pathology. I believe that art requires balance and design, commitment and zeal, the diligence of our closest attention, but not insanity or bizarre antics. I do not take the stage unprepared. I believe I know Willy Loman, even though he never existed anywhere except on paper. I have done Hamlet's soliloquies with such fierce regard for the young prince that even today I could wring passion from "To be or not to be."

I adore grand opera, Brahms's Requiem, and anything by Verdi. I wouldn't think of spending a Christmas without Handel. I once thought Andrew Wyeth too ordinary, but he haunted me until I couldn't resist him and now my home is filled with his paintings.

I am unabashedly elitist. I despise kitsch, and almost everything that is sold in Christian bookstores—save the Bible, most of C. S. Lewis, and a few CDs no one else buys. Most of evangelical Christendom's antics—from Schuller's California Magic Kingdom to the nearest suburb's faddish megachurch—-I find unseemly.

I'm sorry. I'm not nice. I don't like smiley faces or annoying people who say, "Have a nice day." In my fifty years, I have become conditioned to believe that whatever America thinks cool will soon be seen as silly.

I chose the church I attend because of its architecture. Its unobtrusiveness in the wooded landscape that surrounds it seemed a tasteful reminder of the quiet importance of deep spirituality. The preaching is thoughtful, the earnestness understated. Most of all, I appreciate the fact that the people I've come to know there are not showy or pretentious. When you enter Deer Valley Church, people don't hang on you as if church were a discount shoe market. You're not a mark at Deer Valley. I like that.

This year they asked me to narrate their Christmas program. They gave me the script, and I read it. I found it slightly zealous but acceptable, unassuming. It was a retelling of the old story, and it demanded a big voice, they said. 1 have been in theater for most of my life. I teach theater at the university.

I appreciated the manner in which they asked. They told me they knew I was busy—and I am. They told me they felt the whole evening would be a triumph if they had someone with my presence to read the part. I couldn't say no.

I was raised in a religious home, and as much 1 love art and the theater, I've always felt that my religious upbringing was something to be honored. I've always thought of God as the only first-rate artist. There's so much that's miraculous about us—the way three tiny bones in our ears can process sound waves, for instance. And around us his perfect hand has painted the greatest masterpiece—the ecology of nature, its balance and precision.

I have never denied my need for God. I have, like many, forgotten him for portions of my life; but he has not forgotten me. So I told the people from Deer that I would read the script for their Christmas program. I may have preferred T S. Eliot, but the performance, I knew, would not be an embarrassment.

There is a kind of magic to theater that some will never know. Its attraction is not simply the applause. One stands before an audience shrouded in darkness, awaiting the story. And when the drama is delivered, when it's done with the passion required to communicate the text truly, the result is something very much alive.

And that's what I felt that night when I began. Perhaps it was my own mystery—this man who visited the church often but sought little other than worship when there. Perhaps it was the script— which was, when I started to read, more effective than I'd thought it would be. Perhaps, simply, it was Christmas—no other season of the year quite so conducive to joy and miracle. But we started almost blissfully in touch.

As I delivered my opening narration, the place was stone silent. They read every turn of my head, every flashing smile, every narrowed eye. When it's all perfect, what happens in theater is love, an act so intimate and selfless that sometimes I see a guarded-ness arise in an audience, as if they fear that they're risking too much by falling so completely into the design of the dream I'm offering. At that moment, they need to be surprised again into reality to assure themselves that they are still where they thought they were, and that I am worth their trust. It's a dance, a wonderful dance, and in the opening minutes of the Christmas program at Deer Valley Church—for whatever reasons—what happened between us was quickened by love and devotion.

I walked to the back of the pulpit area and took a seat. Beside me, three adolescent girls from the choir were seated on the floor, while some younger children sang their hearts out in front. One of the girls had a string in her hand, a long, looping string that she gathered between her fingers in an intricate weave. The others watched and laughed, kept jabbering even though the children were singing.

I grew up in an age when it was an honor and a privilege to have the stage; but to be up in front, part of the choir, meant nothing to these kids. They kept whispering and giggling, as if what we were doing that night wasn't at all important.

I pushed my foot over to the closest of them, kicked her behind just slightly, then gave her an ogrelike look when she turned toward me. She did not stick out her tongue, but the face she gave me made it very clear that I was out of order. Her lip went down in a sneer that said, "Who do you think you are?"

For the rest of the night, through all of my recitations, 1 never achieved the union I'd had with the audience in that first scene; and the reason was simple. I knew there were three girls behind me who just didn't care. It would be interesting to see a video of my performance. My intonation became strained, my pacing was gone—the shepherds, the glorious assembly of angels, the story of the stable, the young mother's love, all of it came haltingly after my silent confrontation with the giggling girls. I knew they didn't care, and, in my mind, that killed my performance.

I don't know that I can explain my anger totally. Perhaps those who never worked at art will not understand. Those three girls wrested my attention so completely away from what I was saying that, in the process, they became my sole audience. I delivered lines in a voice meant for them, even though they were behind me and probably never for a moment stopped chatting and playing with that loop of string. And the longer it went on—through the whole course of musical interludes, through the recitation of the children, the five long narratives I offered—-the more angry I became at their insolence, the more bitter I felt.

When it was over, I was relieved but seething. The lights came on following an a capella rendition of "Silent Night." But my irritation grew over me like a disease I felt in every pore, and when I left the front of the church I wanted only to get out.

A number of people thanked me for what they considered a great performance. I nodded and smiled politely. And then an old woman came up—a retired missionary, a small and unassuming old lady with shaky hands and eyes bright as stars, a woman who must have read Luke 2 a hundred thousand times and spent her entire life telling it, over and over again, to children in the Far East. She took my hand gloriously, pulled me down toward her face and gave me what the Scriptures call a holy kiss. "Your reading—," she said, "it was wonderful." 1 cannot describe the grace of her smile. "It was as if I had never heard that story before," she said. "You made it new." That stopped me cold. I had made the old nativity brand-new to a retired missionary.

I have performed on stages throughout America. I have done countless seasons of summer stock, dozens and dozens of performances in repertory. I've done Shakespeare, Tennessee Williams, directed O'Neill and Moliere; but in all the theater I've ever done, I never before had considered myself a messenger, a conduit. But that night, with the touch of a holy kiss on my cheek, I had a new sense that I'd been used as if I were an hourly emplo'yee of the business of the gospel. Even in my weakness, I'd been a strength—if only to one old woman, who I would have assumed less in need of the gospel of love than most everyone in that small church on Deer Valley Road.

When I left the church, I discovered that the God of nature had created a masterpiece. Lake-effect snow fell like a blessed assurance of Christmas. There's a quietness to new snow that bravely muffles every last sound of the city. The cones of light falling from street lamps seem netted in snow. The pines are festooned, dressed for celebration in white robes. Footfalls puff on the sidewalk. In the Midwest, Christmas is only Christmas when it's clothed in a mantle of purity.

I drove myself home, alone, this odd experience still shimmering in the night's white darkness. In my mind, I had failed. I hadn't been the master I pride myself on being. I was only a servant. I wasn't an artist; I was little more than material—imperfect at that, burdened with an ego bursting with petty grievance. I was used that night.

And that's when it hit me, this epiphany of Christmas. He came for those who need him, not because they are poor or slovenly or unable to care for themselves. He came for all those who need him, even some like me, the elitists, self-satisfied with the arrogance that insists they really need nothing at all. He came for me because I too—in my annoyance and pride—am very much among the needy.

A hundred times or more I've cried on stage. It is a technique that, with practice, one accomplishes quite easily. But alone, in my car, the holy kiss still there on my cheek, I found myself suddenly in company with the Lord who came to earth—not for Christmas, not just for spoiled children, but for all of us, even me. He made me a blessing, even in my pride. He washed the sin of my human arrogance in his blood and through me made the story new— both to an old woman and a proud old actor.

At that moment I felt something totally unprac-ticed pinch my eyes and choke my breath. I wasn't acting. The Lord of heaven and earth was acting upon me.

Come, Lord Jesus.

James Calvin Schaap (jschaap@dordt.edu) is a writer and professor of English at Dordt College, Sioux Center, Iowa.

Reformed Worship 45 © September 1997, Calvin Institute of Christian Worship. Used by permission.