Growing up, our family opted out of television ownership. We devoured the printed word...books, newspapers, comic books, cereal boxes...milk cartons. During the Christmas season, my mother read us The Best Christmas Pageant Ever by Barbara Robinson. It was made into a movie by the same name, but as is usually the case, the book is better. It is best enjoyed out loud. I read it to my kids each December. It's a speedy read. Curled on the sofa in their reading blankets, the kids fuss at me when I close the book, "Read more, Mom! Just one more chapter!"
The Herdmans are six kids...Gladys, Ralph, Imogene, Claude, Leroy, and Ollie...left to their own devices. They pillage and burn to pass the time. They learn that the local church gives out donuts and juice during Sunday school so they go. This leads to their participation in the annual Christmas pageant. The Herdmans' shepherd staffs thump and bruise the choir. The Herdman kings lay a Christmas ham at Baby Jesus' feet. It turns out to be the most authentic Christmas pageant the town has ever had.
Our sleepy town is putting on a play for VBS next month. A Herdmanlike family got wind of it. A few weeks ago, they pushed and shoved their way into our choir room. They keep coming back. Gladys bangs on the piano while the other children read through their parts. Ralph lays under the piano. No amount of encouragement can lodge him from his claim. Claude and Leroy roll around between the chairs and wrestle. Ollie steers Imogene around the gym on a skateboard...faster and faster... until whooping and screaming, Imogene crashes into the cement wall. The front of the skateboard splinters. Mrs. Slocum, Mrs. Clark and Mrs. McCarthy look wrung out and run over by the end of the hour.
There is another layer to the Herdmans beneath the dirty, boisterous, and devilish layer. Leroy lays under the piano and peers out with a defiant and haunted face. He looks as if he expects to be scolded and ridiculed. Ollie, a sixth grader, struggles to read words like figure and center. He apologizes and ducks his head in embarrassment. Ralph tries to join in a game of ping-pong but the group deliberately squeezes together and makes it obvious that he is not welcome. Ralph's shoulders slump...hurt fills his eyes...he wanders alone to the other end of the gym to shoot baskets. Imogene is loud and awkward. She is also bright and interested. She wants to know more about the Bible stories that are shared. When Mrs. McCarthy asks review questions at the end of the lesson, Imogene has the answers. She has questions of her own to make sure she understands the finer points. Teaching to that enthusiasm makes a whole room full of Herdmans worth it!
As adults, life has sanded away some of our sharp edges. Our faces do not reflect the raw emotions that come through unguarded in the Herdmans'. Underneath though, are we not sometimes defiant...sometimes embarrassed...sometimes hurt? We duck for cover under a veneer of manners and protocol. We speak with a diplomat's tongue and smile a winner's smile but from time to time our insides look like Ralph's outsides. Our hurt does not go unnoticed for from heaven the Lord looks down and sees all mankind. His eyes are on those who fear him. He comforts us so that we in turn can go out and share His comfort with the Herdmans.*
* words from Psalm 33 and Matthew 5:4