st. luke’s church

Christmas lessons from a wise man

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As published in The Providence Sunday Journal, December 16, 2018. Above, Charlie Brown and Linus appear in a scene from “A Charlie Brown Christmas.” [AP, File/1965 United Feature Syndicate Inc.]

I knew teaching Sunday school the week before Christmas was going to be a challenge.  With Santa’s arrival looming, it was unlikely the second graders in my class at St. Luke’s Church in East Greenwich would stay still. So I threw out the lesson book and cued up “A Charlie Brown Christmas” on the video player. I didn’t think my diversion from the syllabus was sacrilege; after all, at the heart of the animated classic is a recitation of the Nativity story.

But that memorable scene almost didn’t make it to the screen.

Based on the acclaimed “Peanuts” comic strip by Charles M. Schulz, “A Charlie Brown Christmas” offered charming social commentary and a hip jazz soundtrack when it first aired in 1965. The made-for-TV special opens with the forever-beleaguered title character out of sorts again, this time due to the commercialism that pervades the Yuletide season. Even directing a neighborhood Christmas play can’t shake Charlie Brown from his doldrums.

Finally, exasperated during a rehearsal, he cries out, “Isn’t there anyone who knows what Christmas is all about?” At which point, his friend Linus walks to center stage and, alone in a spotlight, recites the story of Jesus’s birth from the Gospel of Luke: “… For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord …”

The show’s producer, Lee Mendelson, and director, Bill Melendez, both advised against including the New Testament reading. Melendez told Schulz, “We can’t do this; it’s too religious.” But the “Peanuts” creator, a practicing Christian, was adamant. “Bill, if we don’t do it, who will?” he said. The scene was retained, and it is impossible to imagine the story without it.

It wouldn’t be the last time Schulz’s work courted controversy. Three years later, amid exploding racial tensions in cities across the United States, the cartoonist added Franklin, an African-American character, to the “Peanuts” gang. It was the first time a minority character appeared in a mainstream comic strip. When editors complained about certain strips featuring Franklin, Larry Rutman, the president of the company that syndicated “Peanuts,” requested changes. Years later, Schulz recounted his response: “Well, Larry, let’s put it this way: Either you print it just the way I draw it or I quit. How’s that?” The strips ran, unmodified.

Beyond Linus’s biblical reading, there were other concerns with “A Charlie Brown Christmas.” Mendelson worried that the pacing was too slow and bemoaned the absence of a laugh track, which Schulz had vetoed. Melendez was embarrassed by the simple animation. Network executives said the music and voices were wrong and, in true Charlie Brown fashion, anticipated absolute failure.

But Schulz and the American public proved them wrong. More than 15 million households tuned in, which was nearly half of all people watching TV that Sunday evening. The special elicited glowing reviews, including Lawrence Laurent’s quip in The Washington Post that “Good old Charlie Brown, a natural born loser … finally turned up a winner.”

Years later, the response from my second-grade church school class was equally triumphant. In subsequent Advent seasons, watching “A Charlie Brown Christmas” became an annual event for all of the Sunday school classes at St. Luke’s, as well as for some adult “kids.” Everyone would be still when, in the final scene, Linus relinquishes his ever-present blue security blanket to wrap the trunk of Charlie Brown’s sparse, needle-shedding Christmas tree. “I never thought it was such a bad little tree,” he says. “Maybe it just needs a little love.”

Whether one is Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, atheist, agnostic, or anything else, Linus’s words in that final scene speak to a yearning that is fundamental to us all.

As the credits for “A Charlie Brown Christmas” rolled, the kids at St. Luke’s always clapped. I’d like to think that Charles Schulz, once a Sunday school teacher himself, would have been pleased.

 

What I Forgot On A Weekend To Remember

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We needed a wheelchair if my mother was going to make it to the show. My daughter Juliana was performing in the East Greenwich High School production of Fiddler On The Roof, cast as Golde. My mom knew the role better than any of us and said, with a grandmother’s certainty, that Julie was perfect for the part.

My mom was less sure of whether she’d be able to attend. Two weeks before the play, a virus had slowed her down – an unwelcome add-on to the macular degeneration and COPD that she normally deals with. But when I called her on the Wednesday before Julie’s Saturday matinee, her voice was strong and her spirits high. She was coming to the play.

So we needed a wheelchair. There was no way my mom could make the trek from the drop-off circle at the high school to the auditorium. And forget about any stairs. My brother Rob mentioned that there was a wheelchair in the coat alcove at St. Luke’s, our church. Sure enough, there was and when I called the office, they said we could borrow it. I told my mom the good news – we were all set for Saturday. Julie was thrilled. Not only were her grandparents from Connecticut coming in for the show; now Nonnie would be there, too.

On Saturday, I went over to St. Luke’s to retrieve the chair. But when I looked in the coat alcove, it wasn’t there. I checked the other coat closet. Nothing. I looked in the office, the entrance foyer, the back of the church, the auditorium – no luck. I needed to pick up my mom in half an hour.

And then an angel appeared: Ken MacDonald was working with the youth group, making pizzas in the dining room as part of a mission trip fundraiser. Turns out he had a wheelchair at home that his father-in-law had used for years. He’d be right back with it. Thank God! Thank Ken! When he returned with the chair, I folded it up and slid it into the trunk of my car.

The show was outstanding and, thanks to the wheelchair, my mom was right there in the front row to take it all in. When Julie sang “Do You Love Me?” in the second act, my mom fished a tissue out of her bag. I felt my eyes sting, too.

After the show, I drove my car around to the high school entrance and ran inside to get my mom. I wheeled her out to the car, helped her get in, jumped in myself, and sped away.

*        *        *

Growing up, my best friend’s phone number was 331-5495…

My son Peter was born at 8:39 p.m. on the first day of spring in 1991…

In 1973, my Kennedy Rec basketball team beat CLCF in the quarterfinals of the 5th Annual Serran Basketball Tournament in Providence by a score of 30-26…

Such minutia fills my brain, available for immediate retrieval: the birth dates of cousins, the song sequences of pop albums, the amount I paid monthly for my student loans ($67.93)….

I remember that Walt Frazier scored 36 points in the Knicks’ 113-99 victory over the Lakers in Game 7 of the 1970 NBA Finals.

And then I hear my brother: “You know the middle names of kids we grew up with, but you can’t remember where you left your gloves or keys.”

*      *     *

Or the wheelchair, for that matter.

I returned to the high school on Saturday night to see the final performance of the play. As I was leaving, I saw a wheelchair at the curb by the road. Funny, I thought – that looks just like the chair I borrowed from Ken. What a coincidence.

The following day, I stopped by my office on Main Street to grab two boxes filled with files. I threw them in my trunk and brought them home. An hour later, my son Evan needed a ride to the train station to head back to Boston. No problem, I said. Just toss your bags in the trunk. At the station, I popped the trunk hood and helped him get the bags out.

As I drove back home down Route 95, I thought of the wheelchair and how I needed to return it to Ken. And then it occurred to me: how did the boxes fit in the trunk with the wheelchair in there? How did Evan’s bags fit? Oh, no – where the hell was the wheelchair?

I thought again of that forlorn wheelchair at the curb outside the high school the night before – the one that looked exactly like the one I had borrowed from Ken. I hit the accelerator.

*        *        *

I have raced down Avenger Drive to get to teacher conferences and talent shows and basketball games…

I have raced down Avenger Drive to tell a friend his in-laws’ house was flooded…

And now the wheelchair had me racing down Avenger Drive again. Would it still be there? No way. John, you’re such an idiot…

But when I barreled over the speed bump, I saw the chair: an orphan on the grass between the road and the parking lot, a good seventy-five yards from where I had left it. I wished the chair could speak so I could learn of its travels in the last twenty-four hours. I imagined teenagers popping wheelies or hurtling down Avenger Drive…

As I folded the wheelchair and humped it back into my trunk, I was thankful – for the love and presence of grandparents, for the sweetness of young voices, for the wheelchair itself, found and lost and found again.

It was a weekend I’ll never forget.

With renewed thanks to Ken and Susan MacDonald.

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