Sunday, December 24, 2006

What You Can Do for Them This Christmas

Simple things. They can mean a lot.

There is so much talk about the meaning of Christmas, and I won't presume to tell you what the definitive answer is. I think it's fairly self-evident by the name; how you react to that is your choice.

There's also a lot of talk about the spirit of Christmas. Well, what does that mean? I think that what you say about the spirit of Christmas is insignificant when compared with what you do.

In other words, walk what you talk.

If you feel that it's about giving, then give. Without expecting anything back; that is the essential nature of a gift. Exchanging gifts can be lovely.... but not if it's merely barter and maintaining expectations and appearances.

If you feel that it's good will and peace towards mankind, wonderful! Do something to help foster it. Make peace with your life, create good will towards men. No, you can't change the whole world. But you can change yours. You can also change a moment of someone else's world by choosing to be kind and compassionate, instead of angry.... or indifferent.

If you feel that Christmas is about faith and hope, then don't let anything tarnish the ebullience of its light. Faith doesn't care what other people will think; hope doesn't see things the way they are. Hope sees things as they could be. Both faith and hope must be shared in order to matter.

If you feel that it's about love, then honor it. Act lovingly. Tell people, unashamedly, that you love them. Most of all, never confine love to special occasions like Christmas; living a life of love is daily work. However, once you get the hang of it, it doesn't seem like work at all.

If you think that it's about sharing, then do. But not just on December 25th or other special occasions. People have needs, material and emotional, every day of the year. It doesn't have to be grand or large; tiny little things, one at a time, can add up to have a tremendous impact.

If you are sure that it's about caring, then spread that care around, every day of the year. Especially don't forget about people who seem to have "fallen by the wayside" in your life. Ask yourself why? Reach out, take the initiative, and don't make caring conditional. Please, don't neglect people in your life who are sick, elderly, disabled, or perhaps dying. As incredible as it seems, people tend to disappear from such peoples lives just when they're needed the most.

If you're not sure what the spirit of Christmas is, or ought to be, then you're not alone. If that's the case, spend some quiet time, even just a few minutes, this December 25th to ask yourself what Christmas inspires in you. Not what it makes you think of, but what it inspires. Look beyond the surface, not only in yourself, but in others.

We live in troubled times, where there is little peace and not enough good will towards mankind. December 25th may quiet it down for a few moments, but that's all. If Christmas inspires any kind of vision of a better world, ask yourself what it would take for us to reach that world?

Mainly, ask yourself what part of what it would take are you willing to give? What you write on a Christmas card lasts perhaps a few weeks, then is thrown away. What you write on the lives and hearts of other people lasts forever.

So, on this Christmas, "write" something worth giving, and worth keeping forever. And may others do the same for you.

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Wednesday, December 20, 2006

What Can They Do for US for Christmas?

This time of year, many people make up lists of things they'd like to give to people in the public eye. Most of them are created with spite, mockery, and a certain measure of malicious glee.

The latter tradition, I don't intend to break. However, I think it's high time that THEY consider what they can give us, or what thing they can do as a gift for us, the worthy people who are generally screwed by life on the other 364 days of the year. Because we deserve it, dammit!

I know, I'm not supposed to be so curmudgeonly at Christmas, but spending the day cleaning up our screened porch for our Christmas party when it's 81 degrees outside with equivalent humidity doesn't put me in the best mood.

George Bush - You knew I was going to start with him. George, you can give us your resignation as the worst president in United States history. Yes, we'll accept it if it's written in crayon.

Congress - Barring the above, a swift impeachment of the dolt. More generally speaking, how about you guys give us something other than your bloody childish, selfish partisanship and consider doing what's right and best for a change?

Britney Spears - I know people who surf porn sites that think you're shameless. Get some underwear, and if you were to move your talentless self (including your latest "exhibition") to some cheap trailer court in Wetumpka, Alabama, we'd promise to ignore you in return. That's fair, isn't it?

The Lawyer that Dick Cheney Shot - Shoot him back! Delayed self-defense, pure & simple.

Donald Trump - Two things: First, we want an explanation for the hair. Enough is enough. Second, about this whole thing with Miss USA & Miss Teen USA making out.... what is the matter with you? Post the photos on the Internet! You could be making some serious money, and I'll only charge 75% for the idea. That's fair, isn't it?

Stupid Celebrities Who Go Into Rehab - Get over the idea that it's some kind of an excuse and that it makes whatever you did/said any better. Go somewhere more appropriate & experience some actual consequences for your actions; then, if you do really need some rehab, go. For some examples: Mel Gibson, anti-Semitism isn't nice. Being drunk does not turn you into a bigot, it just makes you shoot off your mouth about it. So, what you can give us is some postcards from your "rehab" with the Mossad. Nicole Ritchie - Grow up. Show some maturity to those girls who unfortunately think of you as a role model. Tell the girls that it IS all your fault. Turn in your driver's license, plead guilty, and go to jail. The rest of us can't get away with that crap, why should you?

Terrell Owens - A vow of silence would do nicely, thank you. We'd love that as a present.

The Republican Party - Yes, you largely got your butt kicked. While there are a great many things you could do to make our Christmas, how about you & your rich buddies all chip in and cover that immense deficit you built up? Thanks.

The Democratic Party - We'd like to see this plan you guys have been talking about. Seriously. Write it down & mail us all a copy. That way we'll know when you're screwing it up. Make sure that the cover is nice, and patriotic, too. How about a photo of Miss USA with Miss Teen USA in flagrante delicto? Now there's a coffee table book to go with Al's.

The Bush Twins - We worry about you. Honest. You two don't even seem to have jobs. So, do something nice for all Americans: Enlist. Be all that you can be, whatever that is.

Bill Gates - Bill, a lot of people are getting new computers for Christmas. I'm sure they'd appreciate a copy of Windows Vista that's actually been tested & is secure. It's Christmas, why should they suffer with another defect-ridden cluster-copulation like XP?

Jay Leno - Know what would really be keen? If you let Conan O'Brien take over the show now. I remember when The Tonight Show was funny. We'd love to see that again, wouldn't we, gang?

Ann Coulter - I have to hand it to you, you're one of the most steadfastly ignorant & defiantly hateful people in the world today. I think we'd deeply appreciate and cherish a video of you waving good-bye from the steps of a severely cloistered nunnery. Oh, you hate Catholics, too? What a surprise.

Barry Bonds - Just two things in writing, please: One, a signed confession that you cheated. Two, a letter to Cooperstown requesting that you never be considered eligible. Then maybe we'd have some respect for you. But, probably not.

Madonna - Look, do whatever you feel strongly about doing. However, do us all a favor and don't let the press know about it. They can't be trusted to handle it, and neither can the people buying all the tabloids.

Kanye West - You know, I was going to suggest that you check with your management team and moderate your comments before coming out and saying things so tumescently, but you know? I kinda like it the way you're doing it now. Pray, continue.

Well, that's enough for now.... but it was fun enough that I might do some more sometime. Who knows, I may even do a turnaround post and be really, really nice. That'd be fair, wouldn't it?

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Saturday, December 09, 2006

Her Big Break in Show Business

This is just TOO good!

Welcome to the wonderful world of live performance, where things don't always go right. As they say, the show must go on, but sometimes the answer to the problem isn't easy. This has to do with the production referred to in my last post, the Singing Christmas Tree.

Now, every year, the show features two children playing Jesus: One playing the baby, and the other playing the small toddler that He was when the Magi visited (Biblically correct; remember, they left when they saw the star marking His birth). Each year, the couples with babies are corralled (yes, these people are breeding. Try to sleep tonight knowing that), and signed up on a rotating basis to bring their baby in to do the Jesus, Mary & Joseph thing (not a scene, they come out in association with a song & do their thing silently).

Sooner or later, I guess, it had to happen. Last Wednesday night.... no baby. The parents & the baby didn't show up, we couldn't reach them, and there'd never been any call to have a "backup Jesus". "OK, we'll send one Savior, and a spare in case that one gets damaged." Yeah, He got damaged, all right. But I'm getting way ahead of myself.

This was the first time it had happened in all thirty-three years of the program. Well, what to do? One of the kids hanging around had a baby doll, so the costumer frantically tried to wrap blankets & such around it to make it look plausible. "Sally, you have to find something thicker! That looks like a 'preemie'!" Well, what choice did we have?

Meanwhile, one of our children wranglers was, no kidding, tiptoeing around looking into the audience to see if she could spot anyone who'd brought a baby. Imagine that; a complete stranger comes up to you & asks if they can "borrow your baby". Even if she found one, how could she get to them and ask without causing a distracting commotion?

Here is where Divine Providence set in. She went out one section, into the lobby, and was headed towards another when she ran into:

A young woman headed to the restroom to change her four-week-old baby.

What are the odds?

In spite of the fact that she didn't know us, and this was the very first time she'd ever been in the building and was a complete stranger (and we, of course, are fairly strange in ourselves), she listened to our plight. Bless her heart, she actually agreed to let us borrow her baby. So, backstage they got whisked, and just in time, too. The audience had no hint that anything was different than usual, but backstage, we were laughing and having a good old time at the improbable string of events. The song over, she puts her baby back in her own clothes, and heads back to the audience to watch the rest of the program like, oh, normal people do. The director not being there at the time, I thanked her profusely on behalf of the cast & said we hoped she'd visit us again soon. She was a very, very nice young woman, and we were lucky to have met her.

The pastor did catch her, though, and got some pictures for posterity with her. I'm sure she never conceived (well, except that one time) that her child would be making her stage debut at a mere one month's age.

That might have been the end of it, but when the pastor came out to give his very nicely brief conclusion, he asked to borrow the baby one more time, and gave her a special introduction, for which she got a standing ovation. He told the audience the whole story. Why would he do a thing like that, when it might make us seem kind of silly?

Because.... it was just TOO good!

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Monday, December 04, 2006

Gathering Round, and IN, the Christmas Tree

I'll bet my Christmas tree is bigger than yours.

It isn't mine, per se, but I feel as attached to it as anything in the world. You have a seven-foot tree? HAH! I laugh at your pitiful shrubbery! This sucker is thirty-five feet tall. No, I'm not cheating with an outside tree versus an inside tree (besides, there aren't any native Christmas-tree-like evergreens that grow anywhere near here. I don't blame them). This tree IS indoors. OK, it's not actually in my house, but still....

It has a steel superstructure, plywood platforms a mere foot in depth, two sets of stairs that only a crazy person would climb, I forget how many tiers, perhaps a hundred square yards of greenery, and more lights & electricity running through it than my old stomping grounds in Middletown, Rhode Island (I told you before, we stomp whenever we darn well feel like it. I stomp here, too, but it's not nearly as satisfying). Let's not forget about three dozen microphones, and that it holds about 110 people. Empty, it weighs 6,000 pounds. With all those people on it, I'm not sure, as it would involve asking a lot of women how much they weigh. The Eye Wit has enough wit to know better than that, but surely, we're talking around another 15,000 pounds, easily. So, this is a tree that overall weighs in at eleven tons (or more, if you have the guts to ask the women. Good luck with that).

What kind of Christmas tree is THAT?? Those of you who've seen one of these beasties have likely already caught on. If not, man, you don't pay much attention, do you?

So, have you ever heard of a "Living Christmas Tree" or a "Singing Christmas Tree"? That's what I'm describing. They look something like this:
This is a picture of our actual tree at FirstSarasota Church (not recent enough, blast it, it was switched to mini-lights years ago). That's the 26-piece orchestra at the bottom, and another tier has been added at the bottom to accommodate the singers you see standing. In between, you can make out the upper level of the stage area; that's where I make my contribution. One of the things that makes the FirstSarasota presentation different than most is that in the roughly one hour & forty-five minute program, we have what amounts to a thirty-five to forty minute one-act play running through it (usually broken up into about eight scenes). Instead of the classic Christmas pageant thing, a fine gentleman by the name of Skip Martin writes & directs an original script every year. It focuses, usually, on one person's life and their struggle to come to know what Christmas is really about, what it's not, and why it's so important that God sent His Son. This year, it's about a turn-of-the-twentieth century woman who's so wrapped up in the activities and festivities around Christmas, that she's completely lost touch with why, supposedly, she does all those things. Too busy during the holidays, no time to think & reflect. It hits home with a lot of people. I play a minister who helps her understand what she's missing; by the end, she's decided that her perspective needs altering, and that all the parties & such were fine.... but not if one is doing them for the wrong reasons. And she does something about it.

"Would that life was that simple" you may say. In a lot of ways it is; the things that are most fundamentally important are choices, choices that we have to reaffirm daily to hold onto. One example is the unfortunate number of people that have no concept of how my spouse & I have been married over twenty-four years, especially considering that there have been some terribly difficult circumstances to deal with (read: me). It's because we keep choosing to love one another on a daily basis. the same goes for getting carried away with what the commercial world has made of Christmas. Go ahead, get caught up in the rush, go into debt, and exhaust yourself if you want to.... and not enjoy a single moment of the season. Or, draw some lines, and don't feel like you owe everyone an explanation. I realize that is isn't easy, especially to keep it that way.

Therein lies one of the best gifts of participating in this large program, with beautiful music (played & sung), soloists, an Ensemble, various combinations of singers, Celtic dancers some years, and the play, and all backed up by a very professional technical staff and wonderful volunteers.... We perform this over the first two weekends in December. Naturally, the heaviest rehearsals come right after Thanksgiving, so the participants are gladly giving up a good chunk of the "Christmas season" to do this. I know I'm worn out & have to rest up for days afterwards by the time we finish (four performances in the last two days). It dominates my Christmas, and keeps me focused on the simplest, truest, and most enjoyable aspects of the season. Sure, I miss a lot of parties, I am chronically a bad shopper, and lots of other things. No regrets whatsoever. It's a time to give, and the giving can help you receive far more than you "put in". That's true of every day, of course, but we traditionally (Christians & non-Christians alike) make a big deal out of "presents" this time of year.

But what are the best presents? The ones that are "just right"? The ones that last the longest? I say no to those and similar questions. When all is said and done, it isn't the physical gifts that you give that matter when it comes time for you to leave this world & see the next. No, what matters is what you've written on other peoples hearts. And that is precisely why the Singing Christmas Tree exists. We want to write something that counts, something that lasts forever. What better way to celebrate Christmas?

The heroes of the whole program are the people in the choir who sing up on that thing. First off, they've rehearsed for months, and memorized a LOT of music. It's very uncomfortable to be up there; you have to climb narrow, steep stairs to get to each tier. What you stand on is a plywood (sturdy stuff) board that really is about a foot from front to back. If you aren't six feet tall, the "standard" height, then you're handed a block of dense Styrofoam that's about twelve by eighteen inches to stand on, on top of the skinny board. It's cramped, you can hardly move, and if you're tall and have a chest that measures more than 40 inches, the steel bar in front of you presses into your chest. Then there's the heat of the lights; miniatures or not, they cast off a lot of heat. They spend about fifty-five minutes per performance up there (indeed, part of the genesis of the play was to cut down the amount of time they're on the Tree). All while smiling and singing very beautifully. They must love other people a lot to suffer through that, eh? Yes, they do. Ask them why, they'll be glad to tell you.

Me, I'm better off on the floor. Not because I'm unable or unwilling to get up on that thing (honestly, I'd rather not....) or don't have a good singing voice; it's just that my special area of expertise is acting. However, as I try to point out to people, this is a project that's the product of a lot of peoples efforts. I'm not more important than anyone else, I'm just more conspicuous. However, I do generally have more of a chance of ruining the show than most others. Eh, that's what I do. God ain't gonna let me let the rest of the people down and let us let the audience down.

So, why do I ramble on so about this? It's not just another "gig", it's a very special part of my life, and a rare opportunity to bring some light into a lot of peoples lives. And I do mean a lot. Our average total audience in any given year is around 11,000. That's a very large audience for just nine or ten performances. That's just for starters....

I've had the enormous privilege of being a part of this wonderfully positive experience more than once. In fact, this is my thirteenth year out of the thirty-three years they've been doing it, which is beyond my ability to describe how happy it makes me. By the end of our run next Sunday, the cumulative audience who've seen me in the Singing Christmas Tree will number somewhere over 140,000. Wow!

So many stories go along with it, but the best part is this: Every year, whether I travel or not, I always get to spend Christmas with family. A very big, wonderful, loving family. It's the best Christmas present I've ever had, and being there to be a part of it? I think it's the best Christmas present I know how to give. Come see it; you really have to be there.

Lucky me; I am.


PS - I have turned off the "comments must be approved before posting" setting, so any comments you'd like to add from now on (even going back to previous posts) should appear shortly after you enter them. I do welcome your comments & feedback, as well as your ablity to trade comments with others who post. I'll deal with any "problem children" who stir up trouble. My only hard & fast rule: I will not permit personal attacks or abuse of any sort. I value the trust & comfort of you, the people to whom I am so grateful for coming here & reading my ramblings.

So, let the conversations begin!

One other thing: I recently switched to the new version of the blog program. I can't post to it using Internet Explorer anymore; if you've tried to add a comment & it didn't work, it may be an IE conflict with Blogger, (a Google operation). If so, try logging into a G-mail account (if you have one) in another window, then adding the post. Alternatively, use Firefox (which is what I do) or Netscape to open this window. Perhaps IE7 can talk to "new Blogger", but I removed IE7 after I found that it interfered with a lot of my computer's functions.

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