Letters to and from children

I am frequently very silly with the children in the church programs I run, but I also love to take them very seriously. If a kid makes a reasonable suggestion, I follow it. Thanks to one young man, we now have small recycling bins in each children’s worship room. When they ask a question, I answer it, even when the answer is, “that’s one of the hardest things for even grownups to understand and agree about,” and even when it takes us on wild tangents that I have to work to take us back from. When our Sunday school class makes a group art piece to reflect a Psalm (we’ve done Psalms 1 and 23 so far), I let the kids have pretty free rein so they feel like the product is truly theirs, even if that means there are misspelled words and it looks more messy than aesthetically pleasing.

So this year, when I received two letters from kids, it was my privilege to take both of the writers very seriously–even while I inwardly pinched their cheeks and ruffled their hair because of how adorable their young spelling and printing was (but it really doesn’t do to ever show them that).

Letter One

The first letter was anonymous:

A note in child’s handwriting: Don’t ban Joshua Fought the Battle of Jericho from this church.

Most of the children love to sing “Joshua fought the battle of Jericho” (which, technically is, “Joshua fit the battle of Jericho,” but that would involve too much explaining). They line up and pretend to be the wall of Jericho while the leader sings the song and then they decide whether or not to fall at the end–falling is often dramatic, delayed, or acrobatic.

Most of the leaders do not love this song with a similar passion. With a group of 8 kids, it’s fine, but you get 10-16 and they rile each other up to further heights and no matter how many times you explain the biblical story basis of the song, it just becomes about who can get away with doing a near cartwheel.

So I’m clear with the leaders at the beginning of the year: they are free to say, “We’re not doing that one today,” or even, “We don’t do that song when I’m leading.” I frequently say no, and I’m clear why: “You all are too wound up already today. No stand-up songs.”

They must’ve had a bunch of no’s in a row for that child to write that note. Although I would weep no tears if we never did it again (and certain kids who don’t like it when things get crazy wouldn’t be upset, either), this was my response:

Letter in adult handwriting reading: Dear members of the 2nd-3rd grade Children’s Worship room: Thanks you for letting me know of your concerns regarding “Joshua Fought the Battle of Jericho.” It is a song that kids at Grace have enjoyed for many, many years, and I promise that I will not ban it. However, I do not promise that you will get to do it every week. The song selection is up to each leader, so sometimes you will have a leader who does the song, and sometimes you won’t. That’s how it is in grown-up church, too–the songs are different every week. You must’ve had a few leaders in a row say “no,” bringing about the fear that we banned it. In fact, I am your leader this week, and I promise that we’ll do it! Yours in Christ, Miss Natalie

This felt like a good response because I was

  1. letting the kids know that I saw them and understood what they liked to do,
  2. treating them like they were worthy of an explanation for why the song choice system is set up like it is,
  3. demonstrating that I’m willing to join in the fun and give them something that they love.

And 10 out of 12 kids were overjoyed–you can never please everyone.

Letter Two

The second letter was handed to me by the child on Easter Sunday.

Letter in child’s handwriting: Dear Ms. Natalie, Sorry for being inappropriate at Palm Sunday. Next time I will not do that.

This letter was prompted by the parent due to said child’s behavior at being forced to participate in the parade of children and adults waving palm branches during the service. I’m going to guess it was an epic scowl; I was at the front of the parade, so I had no idea what was happening behind me. (I should note that we had 3 dozen or so kids in the parade that Sunday, a number of whom participated under duress, so I’m not singling out the lone scowler. I also have the child’s parent’s permission to post this.)

I accepted the note, and a couple of weeks later, gave this to the child:

A letter in adult handwriting: Dear [name], Thank you for your note, apologizing for being cranky about joining in with our palm waving on Palm Sunday. Can I tell you that it was a lovely surprise to me that you’d agreed to do it because I know you don’t normally like to do that kind of thing. Also, can I confess something to you? When you gave me your note on Easter, I was hugely cranky about things that
[continuation of note] had happened in the church service and before the service that morning–so I know what it’s like to serve God even while being cranky about it! I even have a prayer that I pray: “Dear God, you’re going to have to give me your patience, because I have none of my own left.” It works! Anyway–I know how you feel. And I am grateful that God accepts you and me and our cranky service and everything else. But I do hope Palms are more fun next time. love, Miss Natalie

I really had been in a mood Easter Sunday. Sometimes when I have heavy responsibilities on a Sunday morning I can still lose myself in worship, but that day I could not. At all.

There’s a children’s song that I have a hate-tolerate relationship with, “God loves a cheerful giver, give it all you’ve got, He loves to hear you laughing when you’re in an awkward spot.” I was not cheerfully giving or serving, and all through the service, I could not laugh. It is entirely possible that I was muttering at points. And aggressively crossing and recrossing my legs.

But still, I served.

Oh I can definitely relate to my letter writer. I’m not always cheerful about what I do for the Lord. But when I serve prayerfully–even when the prayer itself is a childish footstomp of a request/demand–and with a heart that is open, God will help me see something that will take me outside of my crankiness and will even open to door to joy.

That Easter Sunday it was so many moments: heartfelt narration, a girl playing Jesus in one scene, an anxious kid nailing his lines, the disciples doing Fortnite dances when they saw the risen Jesus in the upper room, the host of angels, and the generalized chaos that are my liturgical skits with their room for readers, nonreaders, children, adults, people with developmental disabilities, people who show up for rehearsal and people who don’t, people who are on time for church and people who are late.

Indeed, I am grateful that God not only accepted but transformed my cranky service on Easter Sunday–and I hope my letter writer gives palm waving another shot and lets God transform it, if not into something joyful and fun, then at least to something not horrible and torturous.

The Kindergarten Cast Learns Plenty in the Storytelling

Photo of three people rehearsing a play. A man stands behind a woman, she has her arms spread wide and she is smiling. Another man is dancing with a blanket as if it is his partner.
Jonathan Levine, Colleen Thompson, and Dave Benson in the rehearsal space.
Photo by Richard Mulligan.

The people putting on The University Wits‘ (TUW) presentation of All I Really Need To Know I Learned In Kindergarten, by Robert Fulghum, might be many years past kindergarten, but there are enough firsts among them to keep things feeling almost as electric as that first year of school.

This production is Richard Mulligan’s directorial debut in Grand Rapids community theatre, Colleen Thompson’s first appearance on a stage in downtown Grand Rapids, Jonathan Levine’s first role in scripted theatre in Grand Rapids, David Wood’s first time in a University Wits production, Dave Benson’s first time singing and dancing on stage, and CJ Namenye Wood’s first time dancing on stage with her husband (David Wood).

Mulligan was sitting in the audience of TUW’s presentation of Jeffrey last year when he saw that they were looking for directors and that Kindergarten was on their schedule–a play he’d twice directed as head of the drama ministry at Genesis United Methodist Church. He’d been drawn to the play in the mid-2000s after seeing the Kindergarten Creed (a poem that appears in the play) in one of his son’s classrooms:

“It’s about how people should treat each other, how to treat the world, how to be a good person. The basis of the poem makes sense.”

The cast is finding a lot to relate to in the play on that basic, how to be a good person, level. When asked about their favorite pieces, Levine and David Wood both mentioned “Pigeons” (although Wood isn’t in that piece), which is about a grandfather watching his granddaughter chasing pigeons at the zoo. He wonders what she’d do if she caught them, and concludes that possessing the pigeons isn’t the point of it for her, just as possessing her isn’t the point of their relationship. Levine said, “Having two daughters that are very much their own persons and don’t belong to anyone, who are going to do what they want to do, I appreciate ‘Pigeons.'” David Wood finds spiritual meaning in the piece:

To love something and to possess it is not the same thing. This is true in human relationships and between us and God–we’re not just puppets. When you love something, it isn’t that you set it free, but you allow it to love you back on its own terms.

Like David Wood, Thompson’s favorite piece is also one she’s not in, “The Bench.” In particular, there’s one line that really speaks to her, about things going exactly as they’re supposed to go. Thompson said that, in her life, during times of change she often gets that feeling of rightness with what she called “waves of enlightenment” that encourage the change she’s making. She recently made the big life change of moving to a small apartment downtown, and is enjoying ticking off “appear at Dog Story Theater” from her bucket list.

For Namenye Wood it isn’t that she has a favorite piece, because “there are none I don’t relate to. There’s something in every vignette,” but when pressed, she, too named one she wasn’t in, “Problems and Inconveniences”:

There are problems, and there are inconveniences, and learning to know the difference between them is meaningful and necessary. Learn about the things that really matter and then recognize what is fleeting and let that go, because our energy is fleeting and we should put it into things that are meaningful and purposeful.

Benson likes his favorite piece, “Charles Boyer,” not because he had an immediate connection to it, but because he’s working with it as an actor in a different way: “Richard is having me talk more personally and picture my wife and make it personal to me and be more emotional than I’ve done in a play before.”

This aspect of bringing in the personal highlights something interesting about Kindergarten for the actors: it’s not a play with a beginning, middle, and end, and they are not each playing one character who only speaks to other characters while ignoring the audience. Kindergarten consists of about two dozen individual stories that the actors tell to the audience. Namenye Wood explains it this way:

We’re narrating, talking to the audience, sharing with them. We’re not characters, we’re who we are, telling stories–someone else’s stories, but we’re ourselves.

There are times when there are multiple actors on stage, acting out and telling a story, but their focus is on the audience. Thompson said that it reminds her of the Moth Radio Hour and other NPR storytelling shows.

It’s been over 10 years since Mulligan last directed this play, and he’s found different takeaways than he did the last time. The piece, “Christmas/Valentine’s Day,” which centers around how a wife deals with her aging husband’s repeated forgetting, is more poignant because, in those intervening years, his mother developed dementia and then Alzheimer’s. And these days he sees one of the pieces as nothing less than a rallying cry:

What resonates with me now is the story and song, “Reflect the Light.” One of our cast members is knocking the song out of the park, but more than that, it’s an important message for our times. If you think of light as being knowledge and truth and compassion and all the good–if you have a mirror, you can reflect that light into dark crevices of the world, dark places in people’s minds and hearts. It comes from the true story of a philosopher and theologian after World War II who was asked about the meaning of life. People laughed at the question, but he answered sincerely that the meaning of his life was to be a mirror and reflect light into dark places.

This makes it sound like the show is nonstop heartwarming. It definitely has pull-out-the-tissues moments, but there are plenty of laugh-out-loud moments, too; Levine describes it as “touching-funny.” There’s a man who ties balloons to a lawn chair and manages to take off, another who mishears “hallowed be your name” as “Howard be your name” in the Lord’s Prayer, and there’s an entire song made up of different iterations of the phrase, “uh oh.”

Photo of a woman with brown curly hair wearing a red coat and a fedora, dancing by herself.
CJ Namenye Wood in the rehearsal space. Photo by Richard Mulligan.

The University Wits’ presentation of Robert Fulghum’s All I Really Need To Know I Learned In Kindergarten is playing at Dog Story Theater at 7:30pm on April 19, 20, 25, 26, and 27, with matinee performances on April 27 and 28. Go to dogstorytheater.com for ticket information.

Plausibility is the name of the game

A bouquet of tulips and the book The Giant Slayer on a black table.

One of the major difficulties in writing an imaginatively expanded version of the story of David from the Bible (and trying to still keep it biblical) is the utter lack of precision in the source materials when it came to time. When did all this stuff happen?

Not having the exact dates is fine for general Bible study or children’s worship purposes; we don’t need to know what year David was anointed to teach about how God isn’t impressed by the things our culture is impressed by, but by what he sees in our hearts. But when you’re trying to immerse people in a particular time and place, TIME is a crucial part of the equation. A teenager might be vague about when they’ll be home from hanging out with friends, but I wasn’t even going to try writing a story that was vague about how old David was at any point in the story. How can you immerse yourself in someone’s life if you have no idea, for 300 pages, how old they are?

So that meant making choices based on very little concrete information.

The Bible is clear on few things:

  1. David and his band of followers (600 strong) “lived among the Philistines” for one year and four months–this is how long he was a mercenary/pretended to be a mercenary at the end of his time on the run from Saul.
  2. David was 30 when he became king of Judah.
  3. He became king of all Israel and reigned from Jerusalem 7 years after that.
  4. He ruled for a total of 40 years (7 from Hebron, 33 from Jerusalem).
  5. He was 70 when he died.

Because there was no standardized calendar, all timekeeping was relative: this event was 3 years after this other event, that happened in the 5th year of So-and-so’s reign. So biblical historians do a lot of approximating from events that are both mentioned in the Bible and have additional evidence that allow us to give it a date.

But even this is an imprecise science. See the list below of dates that various experts have assigned to David’s life and rule:

Ancient History Encyclopedia c.1035 – 970 BCE
Encyclopedia.com ruled 1010 – ca.970 BCE
Jewish Virtual Library ruled 1010 – 970 BCE
Chabad.org lived 2854 – 2924 (907 – 837 BCE)
Wikipedia “Historians of the Ancient Near East agree that David probably existed around 1000 BCE, but that there is little that can be said about him as a historical figure.”
My Jewish Learning ruled c. 1009/1001 – 969 B.C.E.
NIV Study Bible lived 1040 – 970 BCE

Some sources are only willing to give dates to when he reigned in Israel; others will give other dates, admitting that they are approximate. The NIV Study Bible goes so far as to give a date for David’s anointing, although there are no textual hints or clues as to his age, only that he’s the youngest of his siblings and that he was in the hills with the sheep. This one clue has led some children’s picture book authors to imply that David was as young as 10 when he was anointed, because kids that young would be given responsibility over a flock. Others argue that David was probably already of military service age when he became a musician for Saul and was anointed by Samuel, otherwise why would Saul have been so threatened as to want to murder him?

Frankly, both are plausible. As is my timeline.

  • I went with the majority and had his death date at 970 BCE, which makes him born in 1040 BCE.
  • I like the idea that he was anointed young but not too young, at 13. He may have gone through a cultural rite of passage to manhood, but his life is not significantly different.
  • He goes into Saul’s service at 14, but gets sent back home when Israel goes to war because he’s not yet at fighting age (which burns after awhile).
  • He kills Goliath at 16.
  • The Giant Slayer ends with him at age 20, when he’s finally figured out why he was anointed seven years earlier, and starts his 10 years on the run from the murderous King Saul.

Each one of those is a choice that I have to make plausible. Not to mention other crazy things like making it plausible that Saul has to be introduced to David right after he’s killed Goliath, despite the fact that David has been his musician for some time. And that David remained in Saul’s service after Saul had tried to kill him with a spear.

I think I managed to give solid character-seated reasons for each of those, but only my readers can be the judge of that 🙂

Speaking of which, if all that intrigues you, you can find information about where to order The Giant Slayer here.

The Giant Slayer is available for purchase

A 3-d rendering of the book cover of The Giant Slayer.

It is official: I have perseverance.

This has not always been true. I used to get my mother to finish all my sewing projects. As someone for whom many things came easily, I’d routinely abandon things once they became difficult, because that meant I was “bad at it”–classic fixed mindset. My basement storage room was clogged with half-finished craft projects until one January when I made it my discipline to finish them or get rid of them. The balance on the scale of Great Ideas vs. Ideas That Have Seen the Light of Day leans so far on the Great Ideas side that it’s laughable.

Even The Giant Slayer–I started writing this with so much hope and excitement. In 2011 or 2012. Before that, I’d been writing romance and learning a lot, but no agent or publishing deal. And then, in my read-the-Bible-all-the-way-through project, I reached the story of David in 1 Samuel. It was thrilling. I was a big reader of middle grade and young adult fiction (Harry Potter, Percy Jackson, Benedict Society), and I kept seeing echoes of those stories in David’s story. I wished that my then-12-year-old son could see the Bible as exciting as I was seeing it–David was the original Harry Potter, Luke Skywalker, Percy Jackson! But the Bible is written in formal language without the level of detail that kids connect to.

So I thought I might take my love of middle grade fiction, my love of the Bible, my love of research, and my skill in telling Bible stories to kids and re-tell the story of David, adding in some of those feels-like details, some of the dialogue, some of the things that would make it feel like a fully fleshed-out story for contemporary kids.

I thought it might take me 6 months. Ha! The more I wrote, the more details I craved, the more precision I needed. It took two years to write, and then another two years of submitting to agents and publishers and dealing with rejection before choosing myself and deciding to independently publish it. In mid-2015 I was ready to go. I had ISBNs, the manuscript was edited, I had my Facebook author page and I was executing my marketing plan, I had contacted book cover and interior designers, I had a publisher name and logo.

And then my husband of 21 years was arrested for a sex crime.

I’ve written generically about my marriage imploding and things being difficult, but what happened was not generic; it was huge and shocking. It meant a complete reordering of our lives and our expectations. Even that feels like an understatement. The Giant Slayer was the thing that always got pushed to the back burner while I dealt with all the financial, legal, medical, educational, emotional, psychological, and physical needs I was negotiating for myself, my children, our extended family, our friends, and our church.

Now and then, I’d take a baby step toward picking up this book project, but it’s hard for a single mother who is no longer married to a web developer to do tech stuff on her own. But I kept trying and I kept praying for perseverance. Somehow, I decided that 2019 would be my year. In 2018 I made a few tough decisions and decided to pay for the things I could–including that gorgeous cover by Jessica Bell. I spent a crazy amount of time asking my friend Mr. Google many questions about what I wanted to do. I yelled at my computer, and sometimes I cried. But I kept going.

Three and a half years after I was on the verge of publishing, I have published. I am so proud of it. I think I have managed to present David and Saul without nostalgia, as if they do not know how their stories turn out (which is my pet peeve in so many biblical presentations).

Whether you read Mary Loebig Giles’s wonderful back cover blurb (following), download the first two chapters, and order the book or not, I thank you for reading this far. I’ve talked about this project for so many years with so many people: thank you to all of you for listening. May you keep persevering at something you think of as a too-big hurdle: may you slay your metaphorical giant, just as I have.

Born to serve, destined to lead…

Twelve-year-old David, a skilled musician and bold risk-taker, tends his flocks in a rural backwater of ancient Samaria, eager to prove himself and join his brothers on the battlefield. A youngest son who would never have a household of his own, no one is more shocked than David when a powerful prophet summons him for a cryptic blessing, hinting that he–and not his brothers–is destined for greatness. So begins David’s epic adventure. As the nation readies for war against an age-old enemy, David secretly trains as a soldier. He soon comes face to face with a terrifying foe and ultimately finds himself in the center of a life or death struggle that will alter the course of history for Israel–and the world.

A hero’s journey and young adult coming-of-age novel, The Giant Slayer imaginatively retells the Biblical story of David’s meteoric rise from shepherd boy to fearless warrior and future king.

Amazon (print and ebook)

Apple Books

Barnes & Noble

Kobo (Canada)

‘S wonderful, ‘S marvelous

A section of prairie grasses and big sky at Corkscrew Swamp in the Everglades.

Last week I did something wonderful and marvelous: at the tail-end of a polar vortex and in the middle of an ice storm, I went to Florida. It was the first time in my adult life that I’d gone somewhere warm during the winter–a glorious cliche–and I made the most of it.

Since I work four jobs, one of which takes place on Sunday mornings, I rarely have an entire day off, and I have to plan in advance for any weekends off. I hadn’t missed a Sunday since Labor Day weekend, and I was capital-t Tired. More than that, I was teetering on the edge of Burned Out. Even so, it was hard to commit to taking five whole days away. But I needed it.

Proof of how badly I needed it: I swore at my gentlest child when he objected to how I was driving when we were late to the airport. I’d never sworn at anyone like that before, and I never will again. It upset me to the very core of my being and dramatically showed me how I need to build in more time for rest and spiritual renewal so I can better manage stressors.

Once he granted me forgiveness (and thought it was funny how upset I was), I could bask in the sunshine and settle into all the new things I got to see and learn in Naples.

Like how prehistoric pelicans look. They are so pterodactylish.

A pelican with ruffled wing feathers, standing on a pier (photo by Richard Mulligan).

Ever cooler: a group of pelicans is called a squadron.

The local squadron at rest (photo by Richard).

That’s exactly what they looked like! I didn’t manage to get a photo of it, but I watched them fly low over the beach in a tight V, their big bodies, huge wingspans, and long beaks making them more imposing than other birds that fly in the same formation. And there’s just something about that folded-up neck when they fly that makes them look more aggressive. A squadron. Perfect.

Speaking of cool birds: the anhinga swims underwater to find food, poking its head up now and then to breathe. My boyfriend, his niece, and I spent several minutes at the Corkscrew Swamp watching one in a pond thick with water lettuce, squealing every time we spotted it coming up for air. Okay, maybe it was just me making the high-pitched noises, but I am not ashamed of how enthusiastic I get about things like this.

A tiny black head and neck of an anhinga poking through a thick matt of swamp lettuce.

But the anhinga has no protective oils on its feathers so it needs to dry off after it dives. Happily, this drying off is done by lengthy posing for photos.

An anhinga on a branch with its wings spread out, drying itself off.

I know, I know. The bird is a wild animal and not puposefully posing for photos, but it sure seemed that way: of all the places to sit and ways to face, it chose to face people and their cameras in a tree less than 10 feet from the boardwalk.

Of course, this being Florida, right near the bird was an alligator. According to the sign, this was a smiling alligator, but we saw no evidence of said grin.

The back of an alligator is just visible to the left of the tree where the anhinga dries itself.

Besides learning new things and seeing all kinds of wildlife (black rat snake, water moccasin, otters, limpkin, pileated woodpecker, egrets, little blue heron, racoons, lizards), we took time for whimsy. We watched two little lizards, a brown one and a green anole, and made up stories about why the green one was dancing around so much while the brown one stayed so still; we were unprepared for when the brown one pounced, but luckily the anole was, and skittered away safe and sound.

Not the green anole we told stories about.

And look at these lovely ladies in the swamp. They reminded me of debutantes in their cinched-waist dresses, so I call it the Cypress Swamp Cotillion. The tree in the foreground on the left wins poofiest skirt. At least two of those trees near the center don’t like each other at all and are gossiping about each other to the other trees. And the one in the right foreground is holding herself so straight and tall despite her low level of pouf, going for dignity instead of fashionableness, but winding up by herself. So much drama.

Cypress Swamp Cotillion

Nature and learning and whimsy restore my soul, but so does doing nothing. I made sure I got that in, too.

And image of a man and a woman's crossed bare feet on the beach at sunset.

I highly recommend the Audubon Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary if you are in the Everglades. It’s a three-or-so mile walk, all on a boardwalk, with ample opportunities for rest, and some great viewing platforms.

I also highly recommend not waiting until you are hovering on burn-out to take a serious rest. For heaven’s sake, I’ve written about the need for people in ministry to take rest seriously, both in terms of Sabbath and vacations, but I stopped being intentional about it. Which was a mistake.

So in January I joined a gym. I February I went to Florida. What cliche thing should I do in March?

Jesus was the Son of God, but he still had a mother

An old photo of me, shaking my finger, scolding someone off camera.

I was reading the story of Jesus turning water into wine, his first miracle, in preparation for teaching it to the kids in Sunday school, when I saw something I’d never noticed before. I’ll give it to you first in Biblespeak; then I’ll make it more colloquial.

Biblespeak

There was a wedding celebration in the village of Cana in Galilee. Jesus’ mother was there, and Jesus and his disciples were also invited to the celebration. The wine supply ran out during the festivities, so Jesus’ mother told him, “They have no more wine.”

“Dear woman, that’s not our problem,” Jesus replied. “My time has not yet come.”

But his mother told the servants, “Do whatever he tells you.”

Standing nearby were six stone water jars, used for Jewish ceremonial washing. Each could hold twenty to thirty gallons. Jesus told the servants, “Fill the jars with water.”

John 2:1-7 NLT

Colloquial

There was a wedding celebration in the village of Cana in Galilee. Jesus’ mother was there, and Jesus and his disciples were also invited to the celebration. The wine supply ran out during the festivities, so Jesus’ mother sidled up to him and said, totally passive-aggressively, “They have no more wine.”

“Mom.” Jesus dragged out the word in a sing-song. “Dad said I don’t have to.”

But his mother ignored his whining and told the servants, “Do whatever he tells you.”

Jesus might be the Son of God, but he still had to deal with his mother. He told the servants, “Fill the jars with water.”

Maybe I exaggerated a little–but not much.

Unpacking the little family drama

How passive-aggressive was Mary?! She presented a problem to Jesus. She didn’t ask him to solve it. She didn’t even ask him to solve it miraculously. But she assumed he could and he assumed that she was asking for a miracle.

How did she know he could solve that problem in that way? Had he been turning things into other things at home? I mean, that’s a whole different level than saying, “It’s cold in here,” when what you want is, “Please close the window.” I don’t have too many passive-aggressive people in my life, but it seems like Mary’s game is up there with the best.

And then Jesus’s attitude? No matter how you interpret the tone of Jesus’s response to his mother, he’s essentially saying, “Don’t bother me.” Parents, how many times have your kids said this to you, either out loud or with their body language, when you ask them to do something they don’t want to do? I’m guessing that you’re like me and this is a familiar family dynamic.

I like to imagine Jesus a little whiny here, but staying respectful, because his brand-new disciples are close by and he can’t push back too hard without looking bad. And, you know, he’s God, so he’s not going to blast the dear woman for being a little annoying. The NIV gives us a little saltier of a Jesus than the NLT: “Woman, why do you involve me?”

Jesus even tries to invoke his heavenly Father with, “My time has not yet come.”

But Mary is such a mother.

She totally ignores him. Whether he is a little whiny or he’s irritable or he’s as calm and dignified as we’re supposed to imagine he is, she discounts his refusal and bypasses any further conversation about the matter and tells the servants to do what he tells them to do.

Just like many mothers do when their child doesn’t have a good reason for refusing to do the thing. No arguing, no negotiating. Jesus gets to talk to the hand while Mary goes around him and gives order to the servants.

I love seeing such utterly human and familiar moments in Bible stories. When the people are in situations I recognize, then I feel at home in the Bible. Then, despite every other context being different, I can find myself in the family drama, in the all-too-human interactions.

Jesus is our brother and our friend–maybe even to the point of being able to complain about overbearing mothers together. Well, if I’m being perfectly honest, I do not have an overbearing mother, but I might be one, so technically the person I relate to in this story is Mary.

You don’t have to do anything

An image of a woman floating on her back in a calm, peaceful sea. Her arms are outstretched.

And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.”

Matthew 3:17 NIV

Two weeks in a row I got to tell the story of Jesus being baptized by John to two different groups of kids at church, and the same thing struck me each time: the line, “with him I am well pleased.”

You know what Jesus had done at this point in his ministry?

Nothing.

Okay, once, after traveling with his family to Jerusalem to celebrate the Feast of Passover he stayed behind and talked with the teachers in the Temple court and amazed them with his understanding. But that’s it.

All it took for God to be well pleased with Jesus, was for Jesus to be. After all, Jesus was God’s son, God’s beloved child. And because we’ve been adopted into God’s family through Jesus, we have that same status.

God decided in advance to adopt us into his own family by bringing us to himself through Jesus Christ. This is what he wanted to do, and it gave him great pleasure.

Ephesians 1:5 NLT

So all we need to do for God to look at us and say, “You are my child, whom I love. With you I am very pleased,” is nothing.

God will not love you any more if you fast every week, if you sit on five committees or serve in three ministries at your church. God will not be any more pleased with you if you give up alcohol and sugar or if you spend three hours a day in prayer and Bible study. Those may make a big difference for you and for your church family, but none of them will make God love you any more than he already does–which is enough to send his only son to die for you.

As a do-er, I need this reminder.

It also made me think of the opening lines of “Wild Geese” by Mary Oliver, which has been much on social media lately:

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.

My friend Ed Czyewski has a book entirely devoted to this subject, Flee, Be Silent, Pray, that is coming out next month (pre-order here). I’ve written before about the deep impact Ed has had on my spiritual life with this focus on being God’s beloved (Beloved), and now that I re-read the quote below that I highlighted a few years ago when he indie published Flee, it makes me laugh, because I literally typed it just now as if it were fresh to me.

“Whether you need a booming voice from heaven to shake you free from your anxious thoughts or you need a gentle whisper to call you back to your first love, God is speaking to you right now in this place…This message is for you if you can take it on faith, even right now: ‘You are my child, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.'”

This is why faith is the task of a lifetime: we need to hear the same stories, the same verses, the same ideas over and over and over, not only because we forget them over and over and over, but also because life changes us and we need them differently at different points.

Maybe you need this reminder now for different reasons than I needed it, so I’ll type it for a third time:

God says, “You are my child, whom I love. With you I am well pleased.”

Reading Paul with Children

An image of Paul thinking about what to write to the people of Corinth.

It’s relatively simple to make a picture book for children out of the stories in the Old Testament–Noah’s ark, David and Goliath, Daniel in the lion’s den, the Good Shepherd of Psalm 23. Likewise, the life of Jesus contains a wealth of simple, visual stories–Zaccheus climbing into the tree, feeding the 5,000, calming the storm, walking on water. But there’s not as much scope for child-level storytelling in the early years of the followers of The Way. Those letters from the apostles get pretty theological, and don’t lend themselves to visual storytelling.

But Chris Raschka has made a wonderful picture book out of all the letters of Paul! Each two-page spread contains a distillation of one letter along with an illustration of Paul writing, as well as some items he might typically have around him as he wrote. In some images he’s eating or drinking, in some he looks pleased and in others down,

An image of Paul reading over a letter and looking downcast.

in some he’s in jail,

An image of Paul writing a letter from jail in Rome.

in others he’s got company.

Paul sits with Timothy. They are having tea.

Usually, the messages are uplifting.

An image of Paul's advice to think about things that are pure, lovely, and good.

Sometimes, Raschka chooses one that scolds.

An image of Paul saying he's glad his last letter upset his readers because sometimes we need to be upset.

But his distillation shows something that I never noticed about Paul: how important friendship was to him. In many of the two-page spreads, Raschka takes room to note who Paul sends greetings from, and who he wants the readers to greet for him: “Greet Priscilla and Aquila. Come see me soon. Only Luke is still with me” (II Timothy). “Luke, the doctor, and Demas say hello” (Colossians). It makes Paul feel so human, and less like a Big Theologian. He was a person who travelled around and relied on his friends in this very young faith. And he was writing to friends, to people he knew and who knew him. The letters feel more intimate.

Which reminded me of listening to a friend read the entire letter to the Ephesians at a Bible study. Paul’s letters are so meaty that we rarely hear them as the early church did: out loud in one sitting. I was surprised at how positive the letter felt, and how cared for I felt after listening. The letter seemed like a long prayer, like Paul was pouring out his hopes and prayers for his friends in Ephesus, and telling them what they needed to hear in order to be encouraged and keep going. Raschka’s book inspires that same feeling.

I highly recommend Paul writes (a letter).An image of the two-page spread of Paul's letter to the Romans.

My help comes from Adonai

An image of the Calder sculpture in downtown Grand Rapids Michigan with a sign held up in front of it that says Hate Has No Home Here in several languages.
Last night, I (and a few hundred other people) went to a candlelight vigil sponsored by Temple Emanuel, Congregation Ahavas Israel, Jewish Federation of Grand Rapids, and Chabad House of Western Michigan in response to the murder of 11 people at Tree of Life in Pittsburgh last week. As with the other outdoor candlelight vigil I went to this past summer, it was too breezy to keep my candle lit. But unlike the last time, I was prepared: I’d downloaded a flashlight app on my phone so I held the candle next to that light. One intrepid boy had brought a battery-powered candle. Some in the crowd passed out tin foil squares to put around the candles to protect them from the breeze, but they interfered with the sound system, creating feedback and causing it to go out for several minutes after the speakers began, so those had to go away. I watched Grand Rapids Police Chief David Rahinsky try to fix the speakers, with no luck. By the fourth speaker, the microphones were working, but I know I missed some good words. On the one hand, it was a beautiful event. Any time people come together to support one another in mourning and try to reach for hope is a good thing. But people are, well, people. There were mutterings about not being able to hear. The Jewish women I stood near had varying opinions about the speakers and what they had to say. I was impressed that each speaker spoke fully out of their religious tradition: the Imam told the story of Cain and Abel using names from the Koran (different from the Torah and Bible names), and the Hindu woman prayed to God as Mother and omm-ed (which echoed around Calder Square). Rabbi Michael Schadick of Temple Emanuel was the first to speak, his first words very simple: “We are here for shalom.” Shalom is one of those words that we can’t unpack with only one English word: peace, harmony, wholeness, completeness, prosperity, wellbeing, and tranquility. He spoke about the man who murdered 11 worshippers at Tree of Life Temple in Pittsburgh:
“He hoped to kill our spirit, but he strengthened it.”
The cantor of Temple Emanuel lead the crowd in a song of Psalm 133 (CJB). Read the words while you listen to the song:

Oh, how good, how pleasant it is for brothers to live together in harmony.

It is like fragrant oil on the head that runs down over the beard, over the beard of Aharon, and flows down on the collar of his robes.

It is like the dew of Hermon that settles on the mountains of Tziyon. For it was there that Adonai ordained the blessing of everlasting life.

Rev. David Baak, executive pastor at Westminster Presbyterian Church was the next to speak, and after him was Rev. Joe Jones, Second Ward City Commissioner. Jones quoted George Washington Carver:
Fear of something is at the root of hate for others, and hate within will eventually destroy the hater.
Jones also spoke about forgiveness being integral to the ability to love, which is true, but the women around me were not ready to hear that. I’ve certainly had seasons when I was not ready to talk forgiveness, when I had to ask God to make me even want to want to forgive. But how do you forgive a man who hates your people enough to murder them in their place of worship? To scream his hatred of Jews while being cared for by Jewish medical professionals? How do you forgive a murderer when you know that there are others out there like him, and because of that, you have to have armed guards at your synagogue? It feels like forgiving the ideology and culture that spawned those beliefs and that hatred. Imam Morsy Salem of PLACE spoke next. It was such an interesting experience to listen to him unpack the story of Cain and Abel, aka Qābīl and Hābīl, but his message was clear: do not hate each other, do not kill each other. Rabbi Yosef Weingarten of Chabad House said about prayer that it isn’t merely an opportunity to ask for what you need:
Prayer provides us with the opportunity to align our body and our soul with the…God above. In these moments of unspeakable pain, as we search for answers, we take refuge in our traditions–[in our Jewish tradition, mourning is not just about pain], but hope and conviction.”
He encouraged all of us to add just one small act of kindness in our daily lives to build each other up. In honor of the members and police officers who were injured in the shooting at Tree of Life, Rabbi Weingarten and Chief Rahinsky read Psalm 121 (CJB) as a prayer, the Rabbi in Hebrew and the Chief in English:

If I raise my eyes to the hills, from where will my help come? My help comes from Adonai, the maker of heaven and earth. He will not let your foot slip — your guardian is not asleep. No, the guardian of Isra’el never slumbers or sleeps.

Adonai is your guardian; at your right hand Adonai provides you with shade — the sun can’t strike you during the day or even the moon at night.

Adonai will guard you against all harm; he will guard your life. Adonai will guard your coming and going from now on and forever.

Following him were Father Robert Sirico of the Acton Institute and Rev. Colleen Squires of All Souls Community Church. Rev. Squires is a regular attender at Grand Rapids Association of Pastor meetings, so I know her a little bit. I was moved by the emotion in her voice as she talked about the hospitality of Congregation Ahavas Israel, which has given All Souls the space to worship for the last 13 years, and how it was both right and weighty to walk into their mutual building for services the day after the shooting. Then came Teresa Thome of Self-Realization Fellowship (representing the Hindu faith) and Dr. Doug Kinshi of GVSU’s Kaufman Interfaith Center. Rabbi David Krishev of Congregation Ahavas put it in stark words:
The question, ‘Am I willing to give up my life for my faith,’ is a question we don’t want to hear, and don’t want to answer. It is a question we thought we’d left behind.
He went on to list the people of various faiths who are being killed due to their beliefs. His desire was simple: “We, as people who believe in the power of religious community, want to continue to gather at our places of worship openly…and safely.” Rabbi Schadick closed the event with a song from the end of the mourner’s Kaddish, lead by a soloist from Temple Emanuel:
He who creates peace in His celestial heights, may He create peace for us and for all Israel; and say, Amen.
It was a wonderful event, full of talk of love and respect and standing together against hate. I loved the use of Adonai instead of “the Lord” in the passages read; if felt so intimate. My favorite part was the singing–listening to those ancient words being sung all around me, all known by heart, was powerful. Those words have been said and sung in that form for many thousands of years. Those words and those messages have survived. They’ve survived many attempts to eradicate them and those who speak them, and they’ll survive this one, too. I’ll add a few more from Psalm 95:7-8 (NLT) as my prayer for my fellow Christians who are consumed with fear and hate:
If only you would listen to his voice today! The Lord says, “Don’t harden your hearts…” 

Sometimes I feel like these wet, shivering chicks

One of my favorite images for God in the Bible is the hen sheltering her chicks under her wings.

Let me live forever in your sanctuary,
    safe beneath the shelter of your wings! 

Psalm 61:4 (NLT)

He alone is my refuge, my place of safety;
    he is my God, and I trust him….
He will cover you with his feathers.
    He will shelter you with his wings.
    His faithful promises are your armor and protection.

Psalm 91:2,4 (NLT)

How precious is your unfailing love, O God!
All humanity finds shelter
    in the shadow of your wings.

Psalm 36:7 (NLT)

These are favorite verses of preachers and writers searching for more stereotypically feminine attributes of God, and one of the reasons I like them so much. They bring up images that are nurturing and cozy.

Sometimes we just need comfort and a little warmth, and those sheltering wings snuggling us close sounds just right. But life is not always cozy. Storms of all kinds descend on us (and sometimes we create them ourselves). 

For those times, I like the image of God-as-hen from the video at the beginning. God is sheltering us under his wings, but we are wet and cold and suffering. It is far better to be with God than exposed to our storms on our own, but it isn’t necessarily going to be comfortable.

I am comforted by the assurance that my sadness or my misery in a stormy situation doesn’t mean that God isn’t with me, isn’t sheltering me: I am protected, but things are still kind of lousy.

Isn’t that just how life feels sometimes?