I sat cross-legged on the floor, clipboard in hand, making some notes while Dave asked the next young hopeful to step forward and read from the script we were planning to perform for the children’s Christmas program.
I could almost see the butterflies bouncing around in nine-year old Kristina’s stomach as she stepped up to the mike. She had a small speech defect, lots of trouble with learning, and didn’t quite fit in at school. I cheered inside when I saw her show up to audition for one of the speaking roles. Church should be the one place that a kid like Kristina can shine, I thought.
But I wasn’t the one making the casting decisions. I’d helped to shape the script, and was there as crowd control, but Dave was running this show. Dave barely glanced at the stage while Kristina read. “Thanks, Kris,” he said. “We’ll let you know. Who’s next?”
I couldn’t shake the feeling that his mind was already made up. Dave was fairly new to the church, and his dynamic personality and background in theater made him a perfect candidate to head up the church’s drama productions. I admired his skills and his excitement about integrating his background with his faith in a fresh, creative way. We’d had a lot of fun brainstorming ideas leading up to this production. But suddenly, a cold chill crept over me.
He was looking right past Kristina at Brittany, one of the pastor’s daughters. “Hey, Brittany. How are you doing today, kiddo?” Pampered, petted – she was everyone’s favorite. Dave’s whole demeanor changed when she took the stage.
Sure enough, when the auditions ended, Dave huddled the production team and began to share his choices for the lead roles. It seemed like there was a plum-speaking role for each one of the children of the leadership of the church, but the Kristinas of the congregation got shunted aside to sing in the chorus.
I pulled Dave to a quiet corner. “What about Kristina?”
He shrugged. “What about her?”
“Why couldn’t she have been given a speaking part?”
He looked at me like I had three holes in my head. “I don’t think she’s ready,” he began. “Did you listen to her read? She couldn’t. She just can’t handle it.”
“But she can memorize verses so well. You should hear her in her Sunday morning class,” I interrupted. “With a little coaching, I’m sure she’d be able to handle one of the speaking parts.”
“We want excellence in all we do. This church’s productions should be better than the world’s. I’ve got to cast kids that I know can come to all the rehearsals, carry the responsibility and won’t freak out on the day we do the program.” My eyes must have flashed a warning glare, because Dave took a deep breath and spoke firmly. “Look, the sanctuary is going to be filled with friends, neighbors, relatives…I want to make sure all of those who don’t know Christ can hear His message. I don’t want the messenger to get in the way.”
The whole exchange had the feeling of a junior high school lunchroom where the popular kids had the power to make or break just about everyone else. (Well, OK…not Ellen Friedman, who didn’t much care what anyone thought of her.)
I could articulate all the reasons why Dave might have been right at some level about the key casting choices. Most of those “church kids” knew the ropes and were used to the glare of attention and living life on stage. Our church was a big, corporate-minded place, and glossy, professional presentation was one of our core values. We dubbed it “excellence”, but looking at Kristina across the room that day, I discovered that it was anything but excellent.
I couldn’t shake the notion that we’d gotten it all wrong. Dave’s words echoed over and over inside of me: “I don’t want the messenger to get in the way.”
Those words shattered my heart and scrambled my worldview, all in one fell swoop. We messengers do get in the way, and we muddle up things with amazing regularity. We stumble and trip and twist words and forget important facts.
And it doesn’t scare God off from placing us center stage in the lives of others to speak His words. As a matter of fact, He delights in choosing unlikely messengers because their wild, unpredictable broken lives frame His beauty in a way that slick performance never can. Paul said as much to his friends in Corinth: Take a good look, friends, at who you were when you got called into this life. I don’t see many of "the brightest and the best" among you, not many influential, not many from high-society families. Isn’t it obvious that God deliberately chose men and women that the culture overlooks and exploits and abuses, chose these "nobodies" to expose the hollow pretensions of the "somebodies"? (1 Corinthians 1:26-28, The Message).
In the end, Kristina did just that for me. I’d mentally gotten onto the performance treadmill, jogging lockstep behind Dave, and it took a nine-year old to yank me off. A few days later, I quietly bowed out of the production. I needed to spend some time listening to the convictions that had erupted during my conversation with Dave.
Kristina sang in the chorus, second row from the back. The night of the performance, I gave her a standing ovation.