One of Claudia Welty’s favorite children’s books

I have been content to be apart from and a part of one particular church for 40-plus years. Many hundreds of its members have come and gone during that time. Several dozen have had their ashes interred in a garden beside the church which I occasionally water below windows whose casings I have painted from towering extension ladders.

Why an agnostic like me has remained a part of and apart from this church for so long has many explanations. I will never forget the Easter morning 41 years ago after my daughter’s birth when I sat in a packed church quietly enjoying my life-changing fatherhood as my wife rested in the hospital. Nor will I forget my daughter’s postponed baptism when her grandmother died in a plane crash flying north to witness the sacrament.

Nor will I forget the children’s time when our pastor asked the kids what they thought the pilgrims and Wampanoags ate for Thanksgiving and my daughter suggested, “bacon.”

Several hundred Presbyterians chuckled in unison until my stricken daughter sprang up and cried in anguish, “They laughed at me!”

As she ran to her parents she left several hundred guilt-stricken Presbyterians in her wake. We carried her outside the sanctuary where she said in a fury, “When I grow up I’m gonna wreck this church!”

Honestly, I can’t think of a better string of episodes to keep a vigilant religious skeptic like me coming back for more.  

Last Sunday’s worship service was no exception. Our now threadbare congregation of gray and balding heads watched a Christmas spectacle that would surely have astonished the strict Scots who founded Glen Avon Church on Oatmeal Hill. One week earlier our free-thinking youth director promised us an interesting Christmas pageant.

I’ve been a patient observer of many such pageants before, some with children and some with the sturdy men of the church who for 80 years donned biblical garments to portray the Disciples sharing the light of a risen Christ in the hushed, candle-lit darkness of our sanctuary. A

s the disciples aged and began joining the host in the garden their dutiful but weary daughters grew tired of lugging out the cumbersome paraphernalia of the “Feast of Lights.” Our Christmas programs became exclusively youth oriented with a cast of innocents.

Being orderly Presbyterians our programs never unraveled quite like the one described in my wife’s favorite Xmas book, The (worst) BEST Christmas Pageant ever.

Last Sunday we tempted fate. I suspect our free thinker planted some subversive seeds of mischief in our youngest church members as her promised “improvisation” took shape. The improvisation began with the children who were given charge of casting the manger tableau. The elders sitting in the pews were entreated to kindly don whatever costume a child offered them. The first to be cast was Mother Mary. A sky-blue scarf was entrusted to the small hands of gamins whose grandfather, son of a former church organist, plays percussion for our “Revelation” choir.

These gamins have brightened church services since they could stand and discovered their grandfather’s extra sticks which they used to bop along with him as he beat out a tempo. When they offered their grandfather Mary’s sky-blue scarf a look, half of good sport and half of “why did I just play ‘Yellow Submarine’ to bar full of drunken Hell’s Angels” crossed his face as he reluctantly walked to the manger.

All the little children grinned broadly at their ingenious casting. The role of Joseph was given to the statuesque mother who was once a local basketball great. Her even taller father, who shepherds many grandchildren every Sunday, was given donkey ears as he joined the animals in the stable.

Two white-haired grandmothers put on red hens combs as they walked to the manger where they were given orange beaks to complete their barnyard ensemble. After the children had cast another two dozen congregants they noticed their Biblical raiments were running low. They realized that if they wanted to join the fun at the front of the church they’d better start putting on costumes before they were all gone. In short order all ages and manners of pilgrims were milling around the manger.

Casting was almost complete. Only one vital role was yet to be cast – Baby Jesus. To whom would the children offer swaddling cloths?  Of course, they were given to the retired accountant not quite three times as old as the martyred Jesus. He wasn’t really given swaddling cloths otherwise he might not have made his way forward in such good humor. As he approached, the youth director assured him he need not climb into the cradle.

My daughter, who never did wreck the church, has two older boys. One of them played “Away in the Manger” with his grandmother in the chimes choir. His younger brother read a share of the preamble that set the scene with practiced authority.

I, who remained seated, enjoyed it all very much but I don’t think anyone enjoyed the pageant more than the many adults who on that Sunday found themselves transformed into wise men, shepherds and animals of the stable.  

Welty often wakes up cheerfully at