By Melissa Forbes
I adore our children who attend Audobon Covenant Church in Orlando, Florida, every single one. My heart is full of gratitude that I get to worship alongside them each week. What a joy it is to belong to a church that treasures its children.
But did my heart feel that way last night? No, it did not.
Nearly everyone, it seemed, was running late for the second night of Living Nativity. A ragtag bunch of us scrambled around looking for tea lights and cookies, while the actors plundered the art room for their costumes. One young shepherd came running into the church, just seconds before Pastor Sarah (Robinson) prayed for us and our guests, to announce she’d just fallen into dog poop.
Yes, dog poop.
I thought, “Well, the smells of Living Nativity will certainly be authentic.”
Most of the shepherds who act in Living Nativity are kids. They share pretty simple one-liners and get to hang out with goats. They gather around the fire.
But just moments into my first stop at the fire with our visitors, I was already worried. Kids were arguing about hand sanitizer. One little goat was not enjoying his leash. A boy fell backward out of his chair. No one seemed sure of their lines, which led to some awkward ad libbing. I moved my guests onto the next scene and made a beeline for Pastor Sarah.
And so it went all night. Shepherds running, shepherds arguing, shepherds giggling, shepherds eating way too many cookies. “Perhaps,” I grumbled, “we should only use adult actors in our Living Nativity.”
And then Jesus stopped me right there. He reminded me, ever so gently yet firmly, exactly how he feels about kids.
In Matthew 19, people were bringing children to Jesus in the hope that he would lay hands on them and pray over them. The disciples shooed them off. But Jesus intervened: “Let the children alone. Don’t prevent them from coming to me. God’s kingdom is made up of people like these” (vv. 13–15, The Message).
And so it went all night. Shepherds running, shepherds arguing, shepherds giggling, shepherds eating way too many cookies.
People like these? People with faces awash in peppermint stickiness? People oblivious to the solemnity of the birth of Jesus?
I knew that his words mattered right in that moment and that I should take them to heart. But my heart stayed grumbly. I so desperately wanted our visitors to experience the wonder of Jesus’s birth, and our little shepherds were just not cooperating with my vision of how things should play out.
And then my irritated heart calmed. Because Jesus cares deeply for the visitors who came to see the nativity—and just as deeply for every person, young or old, who participated in it. Including me—the woman who spends so much of her life ad libbing her lines and arguing over hand sanitizer. The woman who forgets, day in and day out, to run and laugh and eat peppermint and take a moment to sit by the fire.
Our visitors to Living Nativity had a wonderful time. I saw it in their faces and heard it in their grateful thanks. And maybe, seeing a place where all are welcomed, where all participate, where all are loved, reminded them that they are too.
Melissa Forbes was one of the shepherd guides during the “Walk Through Bethlehem” Living Nativity at Audubon Park Covenant Church in Orlando, Florida, this past weekend.