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Okay, this little story feels for all the world like urban myth, but some stories just beg to be told whether or not they happened, myth being, at times, superior to plain old reality. In Calgary years ago, a man came up to me, didn’t identify himself, but told me, with some urgency, that he simply had to tell me a story he knew I’d like. He was right.
This is it.
So Clayton was looking forward to the Christmas pageant because sixth grade boys, oldest in the program, would get the speaking parts. If he was lucky, he thought, he might get Joseph.
Didn’t happen. He wasn’t upset or envious, because there was so much joy at Christmas anyway–and the candy afterwards too. All of that. You just have to love Christmas, Clayton told himself, and he did.
When the cast was announced, it turned out Mrs. Sperling chose Clayton to be the Bethlehem innkeeper. She’d printed out the lines that everyone had to speak, and then told them she thought it was going to the finest Christmas pageant Park Lane Church ever had.
Clayton had just three lines, and one was a gimme: “Can I help you?” The other one he knew too, just hadn’t thought about it much: “I’m sorry, but I’ve got no room for you anymore in my motel.” And then the last: “I can put you up in the barn outside.”
That was all of it. But from the get-go he wasn’t thrilled because he had to be the one to tell Mary and Joseph they couldn’t stay overnight, and then just to add to it was that Mary was, you know, going to have a baby yet that very night too. All the way home after practice that night, he groused to himself–why him?
The next week Clayton had no problem with his lines, even when some of the other kids stumbled or had to read ’em off the sheet. He was ready. They went over the whole scene four times at least, maybe more.
That afternoon Clayton’s mom asked him how practice had gone, and he told her everything was just fine. You know how moms are–she sort of kept at him because she could tell he wasn’t thrilled. Something was just wrong. “You look like you lost your best friend, Clayton,” she said. “Is there a problem?”
Shook his head.
“Okay, come on–just tell me what’s going on,” she insisted.
He thought maybe she’d laugh, and he didn’t want that. But he did want to tell her, so he did. “I don’t like my part,” he said. “I don’t like to be who I am.” He threw back his head almost angrily. “I’m the guy that says no.”
She put her arm around his shoulders. “Ach, you’re not a bad guy,” his mother told him. “Poor man didn’t have any rooms, Clayton. Probably if he did, he would have given Joseph and Mary a soft bed and everything, maybe even a sundae before bed.”
He hadn’t thought of that. He looked up at her and kind of smiled. “Still,” he said, as if the hurt hadn’t left totally.
On Christmas Eve, all decked out, Clayton looked like some gent from the Bible–cape and sash and robe and sandals. First there was singing, lots of it; and then, when everything got quiet and the lights were lowered, the old, old story started, Mary and Joseph walking up from the back. Clayton stood right in front of a big cardboard hotel, his hands sort of folded like Mrs. Sperling said to do. Once Mary and Joseph were on the steps in front of him, he let go with that easy first line: “Can I help you?”
“Do you have a room for us?” Grady Williams asked him. “We’ve been traveling a long, long ways and we need a place to sleep.”
The lights were down low, as if it really was night, like Bethlehem. He knew his line, but he didn’t like it, not at all. He looked around, even looked behind him. “I’m really, really sorry,” he said, because he was, “but there’s no room for you anymore in the motel.”
“But this is Mary,” Grady insisted, just like he was supposed to, “and she’s going to have a baby.”
There Clayton stood, the innkeeper, looking into Jasmine’s face that wasn’t Jasmine’s face at all, but the face of a girl on the brink of tears because after all they’d come such a long ways and there was no room for them in the inn, no room at all, and she was going to be having this baby, not just any baby either, he thought. She was going to be having Jesus.
He waited for a moment again, thinking that maybe he could think of something. After all, it was the Savior of the world, people said; it was Jesus who was going to be born, and the wise men and the shepherds and the animals and all of that–a really big deal.
He took a deep breath, wet his lips, bit ’em a little, and said, “I can put you up in the barn outside.” He said it as lovingly as he could, sniffing almost. Mary and Joseph looked at each other. And then he just couldn’t help himself. “Listen,” he told them. “Why don’t you two come in for a cup of coffee?”
Grady didn’t know what to say. He looked around for Mrs. Sperling, but didn’t find her, so there they all stood, and it was pure blessing from above that Clayton didn’t hear the chuckles from the crowd, pure blessing because he likely would have cried had he heard people laughing. But he didn’t hear them because he was, just like Mary, pondering all of this deeply in his heart.
Third row back, his mom giggled and wiped at her eyes with the back of her fingers.
“Why don’t you come in for a cup of coffee?” Clayton had said, and it was, for Park Lane Church, the finest single moment of a wonderful Christmas Eve pageant that everyone talked about that next Christmas day.