For the past five years, Mary Burton has asked me to play the drum while her daughter Barbara plays the piano, as we regale the church with our rendition of The Little Drummer Boy. Written in 1941 by Katherine Kennicott Davis as Carol of the Drum, and popularized over a decade later, the song tells the story of a young boy who came to worship the baby Jesus. As the song progresses, we hear him tell about his unorthodox gift. I’ve included the lyrics, minus the repetition and drumming words:
Come they told me
A new born king to see
Our finest gifts we bring
To lay before the king
So to honor him
When we come
I am a poor boy too
I have no gift to bring
That's fit to give our king
Shall I play for you
The ox and lamb kept time
I played my drum for him
I played my best for him
Then he smiled at me
Me and my drum[i]
Though this is a favorite Christmas song for many, you might not stop to look at the message it gives. This message is, I believe, the central understanding the church needs to have, as it looks to the future.
1. Holy Curiosity. As the boy was surrounded by magi from distant lands, diverse races, and probably other religions, so the Western church finds itself overwhelmed by the world’s diversity that has shown up at our doors. How we interact with them will determine the future of the church. The little drummer boy was no doubt from Bethlehem. He could have tried to shoo away the foreigners who showed up in his town. Could have roused a mob to do the shooing, anyway. But instead, he responded to the outsiders with curiosity instead of defensiveness. Instead of feeling threatened, he decided to welcome and include them. If the Western church is going to survive the next generation or two, we’ve got to do the same. Unfortunately, too many Christians have taken a defensive posture against “outsiders,” instead of showing the kind of holy curiosity that will allow us to grow.
2. Creative Generosity. As the magi laid their lavish presents before the babe in the manger, the little boy stood by sheepishly, feeling that he had nothing to give. Then he realized that, if he was creative in his understanding of generosity, he had something quite valuable to lend to the occasion. What he was lacking in finances, he made up for in enthusiasm, creativity, and willingness to share. He realized that creative generosity isn’t all bout gold, frankincense, myrrh, tithes, or offerings. He understood that he could give his heart, his talent, and his time. And Jesus smiled at that. If the church is going to continue into the future, we’ve got to practice creative generosity. The older generation that used to tithe (give 10% of their income) religiously is either dying out, or is on a fixed income and often unable to support the church as they once did. The younger generation struggles financially like no generation before it, so often they can’t afford to throw money into church coffers. This could bode poorly for the financial future of the institution—unless we practice creative generosity. We’ve got to reimagine our personal and our church budgets, giving imaginatively out of more than just our finances, and re-visioning what it means to give to God our very best.
3. Worship Velocity. (I’ll tell you what I mean by that in a minute.) When the little drummer boy decided to give his best to Jesus, he pulled out his drum and began to bang. We like to sing about the Silent Night, but just imagine how this impromptu worship service split the silence! That little boy gave up all pretense of reverence and woke up the cows, donkeys, chickens, and the baby himself as he beat his drum to the glory of God. He knew something about worship velocity. Velocity is the speed at which something is carried forward. “A little child shall lead them,” says the Bible—and that little child did! He pounded his heart out in worship, moving the magi and the holy family forward with such velocity that they had no choice but to join in the song.
Of course, you know the story of the Little Drummer Boy isn’t in the Bible. That’s a good thing—because your story isn’t in the Bible, either! At its core, the Christmas story invites into the narrative those who don’t belong. The eastern travelers didn’t belong in Bethlehem. The shepherds didn’t belong in polite company any more than a newborn baby belonged in a stable. But God’s plan invites and includes all who will come by faith. So why not add a little drummer boy to the tale? Why not include YOU, for that matter? And as for you, why not include all the “others” that you don’t think necessarily fit into your tale? You’ll be the richer for it, as they bring their unique gifts and personalities and traditions.
This year, maybe you’ll hear The Little Drummer Boy at church or on the radio. I hope when you hear it, you’ll be reminded of what the church needs, if it is going to carry the message of Jesus into the future. We need some holy curiosity, some creative generosity, and we need to move forward with worship velocity. I hope your Christmas traditions won’t simply be ones that “take you back.” I hope they will launch you and your church into a brilliant future.
[i] Songwriters: Henry Onorati / Katherine K. Davis / Harry Simeone
Little Drummer Boy lyrics © Sony/ATV Music Publishing LLC, International Korwin Corp