By Awara Fernandez
“The supreme trick of Old Scratch is to have us so busy decorating, preparing food, practicing music and cleaning in preparation for the feast of Christmas that we actually miss the coming of Christ. Hurt feelings, anger, impatience, injured egos—the list of clouds that busyness creates to blind us to the birth can be long, but it is familiar to us all.”
I love these words from Edward Hays (A Pilgrims’ Almanac) because I struggle each Christmas to not get lost in my “to do” list. One year a young boy showed me the way out of business and into the hope and joy of the season.
It was a Sunday morning and I was jogging past the crowded auditorium, pressing on to the next task on my “to-do” list as a pastor’s wife, when the sound of music drew me, inviting me to come in and listen. Pausing briefly in the doorway to our worship center, I watched as our children’s choir crowded up on stage, jostling each other, bumping into place, and then began to sing, “I’m so glad it’s Christmas. All the tinsel and lights, and the presents are nice, but the real gift is You.” Because of some auditory “fluke,” one young voice was drawn through the sound system, rising above the other voices so that he was effectively singing a solo and the rest of the choir was muted. At first, I was puzzled, wondering what had happened to the other voices, and then I was enchanted. It was a young boy named John whose voice had stopped me in my tracks. As he came to the end of the verse, he sang, “Happy Birthday, Jesus. Jesus, I love You,” and then, several things happened at once.
First of all, he quit singing, even though the song was not finished. Secondly, the rest of the children’s voices suddenly rose up and filled the room. And then, John began to spin.
You see, John has autism, and that morning he lost himself in praise, spinning his worship out in total self-forgetfulness as the children sang the verse again, “I’m so glad it’s Christmas.” Unintentionally holding my breath, I was caught by the scene playing out in front of me. As the children ended the song with, “Happy Birthday, Jesus. Jesus, I love You,” John stopped spinning, turned his back on the congregation, and raised his arm in a triumphant “thumb’s up” to his friends, blessing them as he shouted, “Great job!”
I gasped and turned to John’s father, who was quietly standing beside me in the dark. “You taught him that,” I said, because our little church had watched for years as John’s father and mother had patiently and lovingly encouraged his stumbling, awkward, often passionate development. Sometimes, when John was unable to contain himself, one of his parents would take him outside, and I would see them together, walking John out of whatever loop he was lost in that time. John’s instinctive movement to bless, to encourage others, was a reflection of the benediction his parents had spoken over him every unremarkable day of his young life. And, that morning, as John danced with the exuberance of a long-ago King David, he unwrapped the mystery of worship, inviting us to step with him through the door of self-forgetfulness into awe.
I love gifts and I’m all about the “tinsel and lights and the presents are nice” bit, but the gift that John gave, that glimpse of his naked wonder, is more than nice. It’s good. And the memory of a spinning boy lives on in my soul, skipping its way through my overgrown “to-do” list, leading me to exhale, “I’m so glad it’s Christmas. Jesus, I love you!”
(story shared with permission from John’s family)
* ”Happy Birthday, Jesus,” by Carol Cymbala