Sunday, January 11, 2009

Belated Post: My Christmas Party Hiatus, Plus Some

I started this post in January as the beginning of appeasement for my past neglect. Just goes to show you how effective appeasement is... I didn't quite finish it, so I didn't post any of it. But when I did finally post it, it put it in line as if I had posted it the day I started it, so here it is with some completing notes on the bottom:

In the beginning of November, I was called as the Activities Chairperson in our ward at church. The immediate result of this was that I was suddenly put in charge of making sure our ward had a fabulous Christmas party in less than 1 month (the date was already scheduled). I've never planned an activity in my life larger than a bridal shower. I've helped with lots of things, but this was a big jump. And I wasn't allowed to skimp, either--last year we had almost had no party, and it was thrown together in the last couple of days when someone realized nothing had yet been planned. It also needed to be a full dinner because the ward progressive dinner that was traditionally in December was canceled to make the month less crowded.

So I was thrown into a long month of always feeling like there was something I was not doing as I tried desperately to find people to help me pull this off (Our ward is the only one I or anyone I have spoken to has ever known that does not have a standing Activities Committee for the Chairperson to call on. The idea is that everyone in the ward is a potential member of the activities committee, so I can call on anyone I want to to do anything I want. This is great in theory, but really difficult in practice when you are inexperienced and not sure of yourself.) I ended up with really great people to help me, though, and it was wonderful to be able to turn whole chunks of responsibility (i.e. decorations, set-up, dinner, a craft activity) over to someone else and stop worrying about it. I hardly had to think about it after the initial discussion to let them know the general parameters for the jobs. The job I kept for myself was planning, organizing, rehearsing, etc., the program. I had help with this, too (and I am so grateful for ward members who saw what I was trying to do and stepped up to help without being specifically asked, because I wasn't really good at defining what I needed help on for this, so I had a hard time asking people), but I took most of the responsibility on myself.

So the initial reason for this explication is to excuse myself for not posting anything for the last 2 months. OK, this really only excuses the first of those months, but I will get to the second in a little bit.

The other reason for posting about the Ward Party is to rejoice in the awesome experience of being inspired and led by the Spirit.

Interesting background--last year sometime in October or November I was called on the phone by someone in our ward (I'm not even sure, who), and asked if I would be willing to help with the ward Christmas Party. Just a couple of days prior to that, I had been thinking about how much I loved our Ward Christmas Parties when I was young, which, as far as I could remember (I'm sure it wasn't the only theme we ever had, but it was what I remember doing several years at least), was a visit to Bethlehem. This involves decorating the cultural hall (gym) at church like a middle-eastern village with booths where people display trades or crafts, or (mostly) food and everyone that comes dresses up in their best New Testament inspired garb and wanders around with fake money buying food and things until the Holy Couple comes wandering through and draws everyone's attention to a live-action nativity that happens somewhere where everyone can see. This is the gist of the event, though there are multitudinous variations. I'd been daydreaming and hoping that this could happen for a Ward Christmas party again, so when I was called and asked if I would help, I said yes, and immediately compiled a stack of information and recommendations and instructions on how to do it from the bazillion websites and blogs extolling the Spiritual and Recreational virtues of this particular activity. (I couldn't re-create the experience just now with a web search, but when I searched for ward Christmas Party ideas over a year ago, about 70% of sites I found said in essence: "my ward just had the most amazing activity I've never heard of before that is the only spiritual Christmas party I ever attended and it is the most unique one I've never even heard of before: A visit to Bethlehem!" It was really funny since I had been familiar with the idea for at least 20 years.) Anyway, I had this pile of information (along with a token list of 2 or 3 other suggestions, just in case the Committee Chair didn't want to go that direction), and waited patiently to be informed of our first meeting when I could get this all off my chest. I was going to say "to make a long story short," but that's not really accurate because it is actually just a short story: I was never called (It turns out, I heard later, neither was anyone else who had been initially contacted and agreed to help with the party--hence the no party being planned).

So I was sitting on this bottled excitement and packet of information for a year, when, out of the blue, I was called as Activities Chair with the initial sole responsibility of making a fabulous Christmas Party. It was amazing how quickly after the initial excitement and amazement that here this perfect opportunity to do exactly what I wanted had fallen in my lap that I felt the distinct impression that this would not be the right activity this year. It was a little heartbreaking at first. But since it was my only idea, I had to resort to fervent prayer and pleading for some inspiration. It was really sweet to me what we ended up with. I felt that it was very important to make it an activity that members would feel comfortable and excited to bring friends and neighbors not of our faith to. I wanted the entire activity to be very Christ-centered. I called it "Sharing the Spirit of Christmas," which is, of course, Christ.

The biggest challenge I could see was getting the ward members excited and committed to coming. We have the unfortunate circumstance that our ward party is scheduled on a fixed and nearly unchangeable day every year that also just happens to conflict every year with a fixed annual city event and an annual theatrical event. I am the last person to say or believe that coming to ward activities has any bearing on your eternal salvation. I honestly believe that if a ward activity in no way fulfills any of your needs, you are just as well off not attending. What this means is that the activities chairperson is especially obligated not to make sure people come, but to make sure that the activity is valuable to the ward members individually so that they will want to come. Besides, I really wanted to be able to go to those other activities, too, so I couldn't blame anyone for choosing them over our party.

That being said, I knew that we needed to provide an opportunity for members of our ward to focus on what Christmas is really all about, and have a ready-built situation for them to share it with their friends. As much as the other activities may be fun or worthwhile, they would not be so well designed to invite people to come unto Christ, which is the whole core of our eternal salvation. So I wanted people to come, because I knew it could be so good for them--if only I could do it the way the Lord wanted me to so His Spirit would be sure to be there.

Then I was struck by a brilliant idea (read "inspired")--design the program to involve all of the youth and primary children. If the kids are going, the parents will come, and what more exciting and natural thing to invite friends and neighbors to than something you or your your child is performing in? With this as my goal, I set about to design a program that would fill all of these criteria:
  • Powerfully establish Christ as the central Spirit and meaning of Christmas, as well as all human existence.
  • Meaningfully involve 60-80 kids between the ages of 3 and 18.
  • Last no longer than 20 minutes
  • Come together with no more than 3 weeks notice and one or two rehearsals for all involved.
  • Be able to accommodate extra performers who are unable to attend the sole rehearsal but still want to participate.

Now try typing that in a google search and see if it pops up with something anyone else has put together already. Nope. I had to come up with something new. And this is where the Spirit comes in yet again--because there is no way that I could do that by myself. I will try to figure out how to post a copy of the script to this blog, but for now I will just give you the highlights and the process--

As soon as I could, I let the primary, young men's, and young women's presidents know my intentions, but I couldn't really give them any specifics because I didn't actually have any. As I pondered and prayed, the program started taking shape in my mind--a reader's theater of scriptures with connecting commentary depicting prophecies of, and events surrounding Christ's birth. Reader's Theater (which I'm familiar with primarily from my college courses on elementary education) is essentially a narrator-driven play, where none of the actors say anything (or very, very limited lines), but simply provide living illustration for the story as read by the narrator(s). This would cut memorization and rehearsal to a bare minimum (the narrators get to read the script from the paper, and the actors basically just have to listen to hear what they are supposed to be doing), thus making it possible for extreme armatures (I'm including myself as director in this) to pull off in very limited time with limited rehearsals. Another benefit is that because you don't have people waiting to deliver lines based on eachother's cues, it can go very, very quickly.

I assigned the primary (3-11 year olds) the roles of sheep (3-6 year olds), shepherds (7-11 yr. boys) and angels (7-11 yr. girls). We were able to have one practice on a Saturday morning before the Friday party where we ran through their brief parts 2-3 times and they made parts of their costumes. We had about 2/3 of those who were wanting to participate actually come, which I hoped would be enough to help those coming into it cold on the night of the party to be able to follow along and generally get in the right places.

I was able to announce to the young men my intentions to include them in priesthood meeting (it is an extremely interesting experience to be the sole female voice singing an opening song along with a chapelful of men while you are waiting to make an announcement.) a couple of weeks ahead of time, but was unable to invite the young women to participate until the Sunday before the party. I was able to secure that Wednesday's mutual activity time for a rehearsal with all of the young men and young women. There were only about 4 or 5 active youth who were unable to attend either mutual that night or the Christmas Party on Friday, and since it was just one of their regular activities, they all very willingly came and participated. It was so exciting to see it all actually happen.
I just so happens that the Young Men significantly outnumber the Young Women in our ward, which turned out to be ideal for the program as I had it laid out before I even started trying to fill roles--when depicting scriptures, the individual roles are almost entirely male. Casting was worked out entirely between me and the Young mens' and young women's presidents, and then I approached the individuals about whether they would be able and willing to fill them. The roles we had were:

  • Males: Narrator (scriptures), Isaiah, Nephi 1, King Benjamin, Samuel the Lamanite, Nephi 2, Joseph, Wise men (3), Harod
  • Females: Narrator (commentary), Mary, Angel
The rest of the young men and half of the young women were Nephites in Zarahemla that heard Samuel prophesy and then saw the signs of Christ's birth. The other half of the young women were angels, filling out the lack of senior primary girls in that role.

(Let me just comment here that I do not actually believe that all angels are female. In fact, I am certain that at least as many in the heavenly choir that announced to the shepherds were male as female, as well as a personal belief that the one angel in particular who appeared to the shepherds first was male. That being said--you try and find roles in the Christmas story for all the girls, or boys who have their own white dresses to wear.)

I also recruited a baby and a little toddler boy to play Jesus (new born and when the wise men come). I was very glad I asked 2 different families for each of those roles, as we ended up needing the "back-up Jesus" for both of them. I also had a young man and a young woman in charge of lights (in 2 different places).

We used the entire gym for the production. The stage was the central focus for the beginning--where prophets wrote about Christ's birth--then attention was directed to "Zarehemla" in one of the back corners of the gym, where events from the Book of Mormon were depicted. The stage was then re-purposed into Bethlehem and the surrounding area, where we saw the holy family, shepherds, and angels. Finally, wise men came from the other back corner of the gym and met Harod on one side of the stage who directed them to the Holy family in Bethlehem (where Baby Jesus had aged a few years). It ended with the whole cast coming back on stage and singing along with the audience "Joy to the World."

Ready to be amazed?--the entire thing was about 15 minutes long. The only hitch that I observed (and I actually was running around not observing for most of it, so maybe there was more) was when the narrators failed to pause and wait for the Sheep and Shepherds to come on stage before announcing the angels, who came on, reassured and empty stage and proclaimed the birth to no one. Luckily, the narrators were supposed to pause there for the angels to sing the chorus of "Far, Far Away on Judea's Plains" ("Glory to God in the highest, Peace on earth", etc.) The shepherds finally came out, followed by a single-file line of nearly 20 little sheep who shamelessly stole the show for their 2 minutes on stage. They all sang their song, and things were back on track for the rest of it.

I was so tied up and harried for the entire event that I could only pray really hard that the Spirit was there--I had a really hard time feeling the peaceful influence of it myself.

I'm not sure where I was intending to take that line of thought when I wrote it, but I do remember many people telling me how much they like the program. However, I'm sure there are those who would have said that regardless of what it was. But I do remember coming out to the floor to see the Holy Family on the stage (hence being there to see the shepherd miss their cue and the Narrators fail to notice) and being overwhelmed by how beautiful it was.
I do know that I was supported and inspired through the entire process by the Spirit of the Lord, because what came out was far beyond my abilities to organize or invent.

There was one point, the weekend after Thanksgiving, when I started getting a little sick. Kevin really wanted to go away for a few days for our anniversary (we call it our family's birthday) that was that weekend and I very reluctantly agreed to take a few days off of planning while we took Willow with us to Leavenworth (the Bavarian-themed village, not the prison).
Kevin walking the baby in Leavenworth (he's even carrying my bag!):
On the Sunday beforehand I was able to announce to the Young Men and Young Women at church the anticipated rehearsal on Wednesday and ask people to fill particular roles. Monday I woke up and my voice was gone. We left for Leavenworth, and Kevin allowed me the time during the car ride to make phone calls (which I whispered and croaked through) to make sure people were coming and had or would be able to make costumes. I spent perhaps only an hour or so over the next two days on the phone answering calls and contacting the last couple people about details for the rehearsal. Most of the time we put the phone away and just focused on having fun as a family. We did have a really great time, but my voice was so tired that I spent most of the time smiling dumbly at the shopkeepers and turning to Kevin for a response whenever they asked me a question. I was really desperate as Tuesday passed and I faced the prospect of a Wednesday night rehearsal at which I would be trying to direct 30 or 40 boisterous youth in our one practice in a large gym without audio amplification or a voice. I prayed really hard that God would allow his grace to make up the lack of ability that I had in my circumstance. I did not have the ability to take time to rest and I did not have the ability to delegate the director's role to someone else (I was the only one who had any idea what I was trying to do, and me only just barely).

We got home Wednesday afternoon with just enough time to clear out the car, grab all of the stuff I needed for the rehearsal and run over to the church building. Amazingly, Miraculously, as I entered the building for the rehearsal that night, the voice that I had not had that morning was restored sufficient to make myself heard throughout the entire basketball-court-sized gym. I knew that logically using my voice for projection of that nature in it's weakened condition should worsen the hoarseness severely and prolong the recovery time, but I pressed forward faithfully doing what I needed to do to fill the calling I had been given. The sweetest miracle, the tenderest mercy of that experience was that even though I spent no time slowing down to rest, no time conserving my voice or my energy, by the time of the party on that Friday night, my voice and my body were as fully recovered as if I had spent the entire week home in bed. And all of this I had the energy to cheerfully do while 7 months pregnant. This was not my own ability. And I am so grateful to the Lord for the opportunity to see him, to feel him reach right through me and do His work using my hands but His capacity. And to come out on the other side of it feeling not exhausted, but energized. It was very sweet and powerful to me.

After the Christmas party, I had to throw myself full force into personal and family preparations for Christmas. It was the second week of December and we didn't even have any decorations up, let alone Christmas presents planned.

Prior to this (being called as Activities Chair) I had re-taught myself how to knit (over the summer. Mom taught me the basics when I was young, but I mostly forgot. I started knitting something, then decided I was done because it was big enough that it could have been a barbie scarf. I don't think I ever learned how to cast off, though, and as far as I know, it is still on the needles somewhere floating around my mom's house). In August or September I had the genious idea to knit Christmas stockings for our family. The first one was a real learning experience, so it was for me because I didn't know how it would turn out. I started and re-started it and pulled out large sections and nearly finished, then pulled it out all the way and re-started again far too many times, but the finished product was something I really liked.

The second was for Kevin, and I got a little ambitious. It had a pattern of snowflakes on it, and it was taking a long time to do because of the need to carry the different colors of yarn behind the color being used so it would be in the right spot to make a stitch the right color. This also made the knit very loose, and the stocking kept getting bigger and bigger. It ended up about twice the size of mine, but I told Kevin he liked it, and he told me, yes, he did like it, regardless of what I said, so that is how it is staying. However, with the ward Christmas party and then getting ready for Christmas, I did not finish the stocking in time, let alone one for Willow as well. I actually finished it in Utah after Rhys was born. For Willow's, I refused to do a complicated pattern and also used yarn that was the same brand and type as that I used for mine, so I could more accurately size it. I just breezed through hers and it ended up the same size as mine. I'm now working on Rhys' with a sort of argyle diamond pattern which is an all-over pattern but requires no carrying of yarn, so it is not too slow.

Not only was December a crazy mess of lately-started Christmas, we also had to prepare ourselves to leave the state right after Christmas and be gone for up to 2 1/2 months and come home with a new baby. It was a hectic frazzle, and I do not appologize for not blogging during that time. However, I have no excuse for not blogging during our trip to Utah. I wrote several fantastic posts in my mind, but just never sat down to type them. Perhaps sometime I will re-create some of them.

Good night.