A recent weekday afternoon found me stuck in a minor traffic jam. Cars were backed up in both directions attempting to turn into the already-full parking lot of a church preschool. Parents and grandparents on foot were rushing into the school as if their pants were on fire. The scene felt oddly familiar, and it dawned on me: the annual Christmas Program was about to commence.
I’ve been at such events many times before, many years ago, and could picture all that was unfolding. In the auditorium, adults would be filling every available seat while late arrivals stood around the perimeter. Mobile phones would sprout upward for shooting video. A swell of holiday music would fill the room. Stage curtains would part, revealing a riser crammed with children blinking into spotlights. Little girls would be lined up in green velvet dresses. Little boys would tug at collars adorned with red bowties.
This was a Christian preschool, so the program likely included a reenactment of the Nativity story. Whether narrated or with the children speaking lines, the tale of Jesus’ birth is as familiar as watching a favorite TV rerun. Everyone knows the script.
Unless they choose to follow a different script.
A friend told of a memorable Nativity pageant held at his church one Christmas Eve. The cast was comprised of young elementary-aged kids. Everything was going according to plan. Mary and Joseph entered stage right, walked to a closed door and knocked. Right on cue, the Innkeeper swung open the door. Joseph spoke: “Is there room in the inn?” The script called for the Innkeeper to respond, “No. There’s no room in the inn. He would then shut the door as Mary and Joseph moved on.
On this night however, the Innkeeper froze. He opened the door and stared at the audience as if stage-struck. He looked blankly at Joseph and Mary. No words issued from the Innkeeper’s mouth. Joseph repeated his query, louder this time, as the audience chuckled. The Innkeeper examined the Holy couple again, then stammered, “There are no rooms. But I’ll fix up the hide-a-bed for you if you give me a minute.”
After the laughter subsided, a flustered Joseph abruptly pushed the Innkeeper back inside the doorway and dragged Mary off-stage. From that point the show went on as prescribed.
Afterward, the Innkeeper was interviewed by the minister and several bemused parents. What happened? He only had one simple line in the entire production, and he’d blown it. But had he? The Innkeeper explained, “I know what I was supposed to say. But then I saw Joseph and Mary standing there with nowhere to go, and I felt bad for them. I did what I thought was the right thing.”
I love that Innkeeper. He went off-script. He knew full well what was expected of him but given the circumstances he improvised. He chose to listen to what his conscience dictated, not what the script required.
We need more Innkeepers like that: people who know the rules but who obey the inner voice pushing us to go above and beyond what is expected and do the right thing as real-life events dictate. Rather than closing a door, offering a hide-a-bed. Instead of angry rebuttal, listening in peace. In place of succumbing to fear, resonating with hope.
Some might call that inner voice our sacred imagination. Others will claim it’s the voice of an angel – much like what was heard by Mary and Joseph and the shepherds. However we characterize that flash of insight compelling us to reach beyond scripted expectations and do the right thing, we can call it holy.