While waiting for my cue to start the festivities, I ran into the wife of another Church planter in the Roanoke area. As she gave me a friendly greeting, I felt a slight feeling of remorse at having hit her husband upside the head with a candy cane thrown from a Christmas Float at last year's parade. But the feeling passed quickly, and I went back to thinking it had been a good idea...:)
To get to where I needed to be to get things rolling, I had to walk into the crowd, through the lobby, up two flights of stairs, down the hall, and through a classroom to get to the balcony loft where the Christmas Tree was waiting.
Making my way through that crowd was no small task. Halfway through the lobby I felt a tug and a weight on my right side, and turned to discover a little kid who was happily hugging my leg. My first reaction was to do a W.C. Fields' impression: "Go away, kid, ya' bother me..." Instead I gave her a gentle hug in return and then, just as gently, pried her little claws off of my Santa pants. Those baggy red trousers were loose enough already, and one more tug would create a show of hilarity and slapstick of a totally different sort.
When I finally made it to the balcony, the spotlight moment had arrived. "Tree lighting remote control" in one hand, I used my other to put the bullhorn to my fuzzy fake beard. With my best, deep, barrel-throated Santa voice I shouted, "Welcome to the brand new Roanoke Recreation Centerrrr!!"
I expected a thunderous applause, but instead got two crickets playing patty cake.
So I moved quickly into my act. I did a little of the "Have you all been good this year?" stuff, and it didn't get much of a reaction either. So I shifted to the countdown.
"Are you ready? Let's count it down! 3-2-1!"
And amazingly, I hit the button at the right time and at the right angle and the tree lit up like a... well, like a Christmas Tree. That's when finally the place erupted in applause. And what an incredible sound of relief that was to me.
When I walked into the gym where the "photos with Santa" were to be made, again the crowd applauded and cheered. That's when I noticed the Compass Church Team to my right, busily serving hot chocolate and cookies while signing people up for the Parents' Shopping Day Out. No one was applauding their efforts, but I couldn't help thinking how proud I was of them. I knew I didn't have to worry about whether or not they would do a great job with this serving thing - it's in their DNA (and the DNA of our church).
A servant's heart is not optional for spiritual maturity; it's an indicator of spiritual maturity.
The next hour was spent with various and asundry people sitting on my knee for photos, which believe it or not, was actually kind of fun.
There were kids who completely freaked out, kids who were overjoyed and ready to tell me what they wanted for Christmas, and kids who hadn't quite decided if they were too old for this stuff or not. There were teenagers just goofing around, a giggly lady from Germany (Vaht are you going to bdring to me, Zhanta?) and even all of the members of my "Christmas Posse." The Reindeer had apparently decided to forgive me for stepping on her foot earlier in the night. One of my favorite photos taken was with the spunky little old lady who told me, "Honey, I was rescued off of a roof during Katrina, and I want my picture taken with Santa!"
But one of my favorite moments during that segment was when the dudes from the Rec Center, Robert and Eric, brought me a glass of water at the request of my lovely wife, Leona. They handed me the cup and then stood guard, blocking me from view while I lifted my "beard" to take a drink! All those guys needed were shades and their fingers to their ears to finish out the scene. Santa Security. I sure wish I had a picture of that.
After a very, very long time, it was over. The crowds were gone and I could now get out of the Santa suit, which by this time was in need of some serious dry cleaning. The shirt I was wearing underneath the hot suit was definitely in need of a trip to the wash. Fortunately for me, the Rec Center Staff gave me a cool new Roanoke Recreation Center Golf Shirt as a lovely parting gift. I think that they were originally going to give me a T-Shirt, but then someone suggested that "We need to give Santa a golf shirt!" And voila' - I got the upgrade.
The night drew to a close with me and my family getting a ride together in the horse drawn carriage, and having a great conversation with the driver who led us in a stirring rendition of "Jingle Bells" while we rode along. I kid you not.
And then to completely top off the night, the city gave our church a special award. It is the first award we've received as "Compass Church." I didn't see that one coming, so it was a very nice and unexpected moment.
So I was surprised by Santa. I was surprised by the city. I was surprised by myself. And I was surprised by God. And you would have seen the look of surprise on my face, if it hadn't been covered by that nasty beard. It was no surprise that I was happy to get rid of that.
And when my head finally hit the pillow later that evening, there were no visions of dancing sugarplums to be had by me - only deep, peaceful, and (for the first time in a long while) ...surprisingly restful sleep.