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Something Low-Key for Christmas: A program in trouble gets a sugar boost

We’re janitors—my husband and I and our kids. There are times when I get tired of having to do it. But we need the money. And we do it together, our family.

I’ll admit that our being janitors makes me a bit hesitant to throw my lot in with those who’d love to stage Aida in our sanctuary, if you know what I mean. Extravaganzas—and Lattimore Park is good at extravaganzas—make janitors work overtime.

So I, for one, was glad to see Pastor Tom looking like a victim of worship fatigue that night two months ago, the edge of his turtleneck worn and frayed from rubbing against a significantly aged five-o’clock shadow. Our meeting was, he claimed, one of four he could have attended that night. He chose the Advent planning committee, he said, because he knew that dozens of people in his church would be judging what Lattimore Park did to celebrate the season over against the competition—the churches down the block with eleventy-seven staff. “How about something low-key this year?” he said. “Is anybody else in this church as tired as I am?”

“What do you mean, ‘low-key’?” Marcie Zwangle asked. She’s our committee’s Martha Stewart. Besides that, it just seems like everything her husband touches turns to gold.

Pastor Tom took one look at the leaden skies of her eyes and passed. “Don’t listen to me,” he said. “It’s been a long week.”

I’ve come to believe that Marcie really believes her darling children are the work of her own hands, at least that’s the way she dresses them. Confident, poised, pipe-curled, they sometimes seem more mannikin than live as they sit in perfect rectitude beside their perfect mom. The truth is, I’d like to have what she spends on her daughters’ hair.

“Bill and I were thinking—”

It was typical of Marcie to begin that way, as if every last creative thought emerged from her husband’s and her own shared imagination.

“Bill and I were thinking that maybe it’s time to celebrate a little here,” she said. “We were thinking about a live nativity.”

“It’s been done,” said Mark Fields, our resident cynic.

“Being done,” Pastor Tom told us. “I could show you the brochure from DayLight—full color, live donkeys, smelly sheep—the whole thing. The publicity machine is already rolling.” He shrugged his shoulders. “I was thinking something less pomp and more circumstance, you know what I mean?”

Marcie didn’t get it, but then you can’t buy brains.

He struggled for the right word. “Less show and more, what? More ‘for us,’ I guess I mean. Like I said, something low-key.”

Mark nodded, as did I. Bea Traynor smiled, Lanny Wilmer grunted his assent, and Phadrae Simmons, whose kids are going through a horrible divorce, looked almost relieved.

“Next year,” I said, deliberately aiming at Marcie. “Let’s get a running start at something big next year,” I told them. “But I’m for Pastor Tom’s notion—this year let’s just do something low-key for Christmas—something just for us and not for the madding crowd.” Quoting Thomas Hardy.

Marcie lost the planning committee battle. We won. And what we mounted was small-scale stuff, just a little shepherd-and-angel thing featuring the tiniest of the kids roaring away on a few little songs and the rest of us singing the whole world’s favorite carols. A true, take-it-easy-on-the-janitors production.

It’s over now—just an hour ago. If everything had come off as planned, people would have smiled and left the sanctuary, proud of their kids and grandkids but not stunned by the spectacle. There were likely far better shows in town tonight.

But here, in our church, those kids sang as enthusiastically as they have for as long as I can remember—here and there one or two of the preschoolers struck dumb by the spotlights and the sprawling crowd out there in the darkened sanctuary. Little Lanie Cynetz, eyes dark as night, was the show-stopper this year, jerking her hand down as if she were ringing the Christmas bells at Notre Dame Cathedral, then smiling to beat the band once she realized everyone was laughing at her.

Even the older kids sang, which doesn’t always happen, although it was only the first stanza of “O Little Town,” the rest of us joining in as they arranged themselves for the Christmas story scenes—Phaedra Simmons’s granddaughter, Lyndsay, taking the lead role even though she’s a relative newcomer to Lattimore Park, her grandma trying prayerfully to keep something together in the poor kid’s life. Lyndsay is very quiet and very thin. But she looked beautiful up there, and confident too. Marcie’s oldest, Shandra, played Elizabeth. Marcie makes sure Shandra always looks beautiful.

Anyway, Mark Fields was the narrator, as usual. He hasn’t been in front of a microphone for years, but because he sells ads for a radio station people still think of him as “the narrator.” He did his usual credible job.

It was, as we said from the beginning, low-key.

Until Mary’s song.

Mark gave Lyndsay a perfectly clear cue after telling the story of these two pregnant woman, Mary and Elizabeth, talking about their babies. And then things got quiet. Perfect silence. It was Lyndsay’s turn to sing, and everyone knew it.

But nothing happened. Lyndsay simply stood there as if struck with a kind of stage fright.

For a moment, nothing moved. Even the little kids in the front rows turned silent, somehow sensing that something wasn’t right. The poor girl was actually looking at the audience, but what scared me was the way she was fiddling with her hands, her face jerking back and forth.

Once more, Mark gave her the cue. “Blessed is she who has believed that what the Lord has said to her will be accomplished,” he read, “and Mary, mother of the Lord, sang a song to God Almighty. . . .”

Still nothing. Lyndsay seemed completely out of touch.

Mark started walking toward her. No one moved anywhere.

“I know,” she said suddenly, raising her hands as if to keep him away. “I pray a lot.”

That’s what she said, and of course it made no sense. Even Mark stopped. The whole place was paralyzed. A moment like that can stretch into infinity. Nobody really knows exactly what to do.

And then, “Why me?” Lyndsay said to us in a kind of agony. “Of all the girls in my class, why me?”

And that’s when I knew that something had snapped in that young lady. She may have been playing Mary, mother of Christ, but inside she was standing in her parents’ kitchen, maybe the family room. Inside that anguished soul, she was perfectly herself but far, far away from the Christmas program.

“Is it because of me?” she said angrily.

Honestly, for a moment no one really knew what was happening. At Lattimore Park, we have five social workers, four teachers, I think, one retired pastor, and more compassionate people per capita than you can imagine; but, like I said, for a moment at least, hours seemed to pass.

It was Shandra Zwangle who acted. From somewhere in that gown she wore, she pulled out a candy bar, of all things, ripped off the paper, and gave it to Lyndsay. Right there, Lyndsay took a bite, and then another. Shandra took her in her arms then and said things to her the microphone didn’t pick up. The two of them stayed there together for a minute. Then Shandra backed off, kept her hands on Lyndsay’s arms, and nodded encouragement. She looked over at the keyboardist and nodded again. The music started, and it was Shandra who was singing, still holding Lyndsay. But a few lines in, it was both of them, and then only one—Lyndsay.

Little Lanie Cynetz gave us Christmas joy tonight, but it was Shandra and Lyndsay who showed us the power of the incarnation.

There was more to our low-budget Christmas program, but I don’t think anyone will ever forget that moment between those two girls up in front of hundreds of paralyzed adults.

My husband is diabetic. That’s how it all came clear to me what exactly happened on that stage. I’ve been around him when he loses it. It’s happened dozens of times.

This is what happened—I’m almost sure of it. Shandra had actually prepared for something I don’t think anyone else in church that night even guessed—that Lyndsay, already burdened by her family’s break-up, was also diabetic. Lyndsay’s mother knew, of course, but she wasn’t there. I’ll bet even her grandma didn’t know.

What’s clear is that Shandra did. What’s miraculous is that Shandra, just ten years old, was ready. It’s hard for me to admit, but I guess Marcie’s got a saint on her hands as well as a beauty queen.

And now I can’t get it off my mind. A half-hour ago my kids and I and Bruce, my husband, put the flats away; in the fellowship hall we swept up a thousand crinkly wrappers from the bags of candy the kids got afterward; we tossed out all the old programs we’d grabbed from the hymnal racks, then set out some extra chairs for tomorrow’s Christmas morning service; we moved the crèche up to the front of the stage, then lugged the Advent candles back up, along with the pulpit. We did everything we had to do except make sure the kitchen was in order—that’s my job.

After all of that, I’ve been standing here, alone, Bruce and the kids already home to get the presents ready around the tree. Sometimes what I like best about janitoring is standing alone in a quiet church. Strange. Anyway, from the switches in the back, I turned on a single spot over the manger out in front of the pulpit. There it sits, empty, and I’m rejoicing.

And what I want to say is this, Lord Jesus—thank you for Hershey bars. Thank you for showing me my sin, my envy; thank you for a child who taught me something I thought I knew but didn’t—how to love. And thank you for showing so many of us that while the manger is empty, you, O Master, are very much here and very much alive.

Come into my heart, Lord Jesus. That’s what I have to say.

The kids will be waiting. It’s time for me to go.

Sometimes I think everyone should be so lucky as to be a janitor.

And what I want to say is this, Lord Jesus—thank you for Hershey bars.