gratitude & hoopla: The Night the Llama Peed in Church

gratitude & hoopla

"Nothing taken for granted; everything received with gratitude; everything passed on with grace." G. K. Chesterton

19.12.05

The Night the Llama Peed in Church

Yesterday our church had the usual pre-Christmas trot-out-the-children-in-Biblical-costumes service. I know that sounds all cynical, but of course I loved it. Who couldn't love a pudgy munchkin dressed as Caesar Augustus, trying to look empirious? And the little ones with glittery wings strapped to their backs? I needn't go into detail here, because if you're a church-goer in America you've seen it all before. It was lovely. It was funny. And we all sang a carol ("We Three Kings").

As I look back over 15 years of church-going, only one of these seasonal tableau services really stands out. It was at my first church, Redeemer Lutheran. It was a lovely little church with an "altar" situated on a central dais, and the seating arranged on all sides. This circular dais was itself encircled by a corral-like "rail" where we would kneel reverently each Sunday to receive the body and blood. This was my first church after a mid-life conversion experience.

Well, the pastor sought to establish a new Christmas tradition for which the church might become known in the community. The idea was to bring live animals into the sanctuary, tying them to the altar rail among bundles of hay while appropriately-garbed performers acted out Luke 2. A small orchestra was even cobbled together for the occasion. Balky farm animals, fat guys in vaguely Roman-soldier-ish attire, and tuxedoed musicians surrounded the sacred space that was the altar. We in the congregation, our disbelief cheerfully suspended, each year tucked another Christmas Eve service under our belt, proud of our "realistic" show.

Anyway, as I say, there were sheep, a small pony, and a seriously recalcitrant llama. Year after year we watched this ritualized homage to 1st century squalor, heard the monotonous intoning of Isaiah 9, etc. And yet the single "moment" that dominates our memory of these times, Laurie's and mine, was the year the llama peed on the floor. Yes, the stream was so steady, so extended, so vigorous and yet so non-chalant, and meanwhile all the actors so determined not to notice, even while the less disciplined children and adults in the audience/congregation sniggered with barely-restrained glee . . .

Well, it sticks in my memory. Afterward, some of the elders said, "Never again, no more animals in the sanctuary." But the pastor, since it was all his idea from the first, argued that the urinating llama added verisimilitude. I don't know about that. All I know is, all the other Christmas-eve services I've ever attended have blended together into one single tableau in my mind's eye. There are it seems, in that picture, all the children I have ever known, some with cardboard wings on their backs, some dressed as Roman soldiers reading proclamations from clumsy scrolls, and others as Mary and Joseph, beaming over a cherubic baby-Jesus. The music of the orchestra swells, and then there is a brief dramatic pause before the final flourish, intended as a moment of reverent silence, but this time all we can hear is the loud drizzle of the llama's indefatigable stream.

Thank you, Lord, for so memorably puncturing our seasonal pieties. My prayer this morning is that this Christmas, you do it again.

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