Plow up the hard ground

An image of a hand plow scraping over hard ground.

“Plow up the hard ground of your hearts!
    Do not waste your good seed among thorns.
O people … surrender your pride and power.”

Jeremiah 4:2-3 NLT

This has been my prayer for many years. It’s a tough one because it leads to discomfort. It means that I’ll eventually have to admit that I’m wrong, that I do not always choose to do or say the right thing, that I need to forgive people who have wronged me, that I do not know everything, that I am not the center of the world. I will have to change. And I’m sad a lot because the state of the world affects me. And it’s a tough one because the world seems to reward people who’ve let their hearts grow hard against anyone unlike them.

We live in an age of trolls–people who attack those they disagree with in horribly personal ways, threatening them with violence or telling them they deserve violence. Friends have shared a little bit of the trolling they’ve received and it’s upsetting and scary. We are governed by a Troll in Chief who relishes name calling and threats of violence–and millions of people cheer him on, including people who profess the same faith I do. Whole TV channels are devoted to people yelling at each other from their own little boxes, reiterating the same self-satisfied points, the same outrage over things nobody should be outraged about.

And these days a hardened heart feels so dangerous. Is so dangerous. Racism comes from a heart hardened against people with a different skin color and has been codified into a system that is bound and determined to keep its power and is threatened by truth and facts.

However, because of coronavirus, we are all feeling more vulnerable. Most of us are taking everyday actions designed to keep others safe–masks keep people safer from those with asymptomatic COVID-19, we’ve been staying home and not seeing our friends and loved ones, especially if they have any kind of health condition. People all over the world do a 7:00pm noisy cheer for their medical teams. Show many of us a story about exhausted medical workers or anyone who does anything remotely kind for someone else and we get a little teary. Or a lot teary.

And then three unarmed African Americans were killed (Ahmaud Aubery, Breonna Taylor, George Floyd) in short order, and two of those killings were filmed, and two were by police, and it scraped against our already-vulnerable hearts and became unbearable–unbearable for those who experience racism, unbearable for those who understand how deep the tentacles of systemic racism reach, and even unbearable for people with a vested interest in the myth that they are not racist but how dare black people make uppity demands for freedom from danger in their own country. Nobody can turn away from what is happening; we can disagree about what they see, but we can’t turn away.

Which makes this a unique opportunity.

Our hearts feel thoroughly plowed up. Even for those who would deny it, their actions reveal how raw they are feeling.

The more we pay attention to the peaceful protesters, to those who have long been working towards a society with real justice for all, and to those who bring the energy and passion of youth to that work, and ignore the siren call of being more outraged by violence to buildings than we are by violence to persons, the better the chance that we’ll take advantage of those plowed-up hearts and really listen, and really talk about the deeper issues of systemic racism.

The more white Christians pay attention to biblical calls to live with truth, mercy, justice, and take care of the orphans, widows, and strangers within our gates, and the more we remember that it is the most basic action of Christian faith to admit that we are wrong and to ask forgiveness, the better the chance that we’ll really listen and really talk.

Frederick Douglass said,

“Those who profess to favor freedom and yet depreciate agitation, are people who want crops without ploughing the ground…. The struggle may be a moral one, or it may be a physical one, or it may be both. But it must be a struggle.” 

Our cultural ground and our hearts are all plowed up. But that’s only step one in producing good fruit. There’s a lot more work to be done.

Oh I hope and I pray that we take advantage of it. I hope and I pray that white America really listens and gives up its pride and power and that there’s real change. I don’t know that I’m exactly hopeful, but I’ve seen more white people talking about systemic racism in ways they haven’t before. Maybe this time it will make a difference.

So how can I pray the Psalms?

Praying “The Lord is my Shepherd and I am his little lamb.”

In church the grownups have been hearing messages about praying the Psalms, because the people who wrote them talk about all the feelings we can feel–happiness, anger, sadness, frustration, relief, confusion. But how we can pray the Psalms?

When I pray the Psalms, I like to choose short parts that are just 1-3 verses long, so that’s what we’re going to do here. You can choose to do all the ways I talk about in your head, but if you want to follow along, you should gather these things:

  • three pieces of paper
  • something to write/draw with (can do one color or many colors)
  • cup of water

Also, you should sit in a place that can get wet–and be sure to keep your computer/tablet/phone in a place that can’t get wet.

Okay, let’s get praying.

Ways to pray any Psalm

The Lord is my shepherd, and I am his little lamb.

Psalm 23:1, Jesus Storybook Bible

There are five ways we can pray any Psalm. While we go through them with the beginning of Psalm 23, draw or write on the first page. I drew a shepherd, a lamb, blah.

  1. Repeat the verses at least 4 times. Slowly. And just enjoy them in God’s presence.
  2. Ask God to show you something about the passage. How are you my shepherd? How am I like a little lamb? Show me. Help me understand.
  3. Thank God for what the verses talk about. Thank you for taking care of me. Thank you for knowing me and what I need.
  4. Ask God to do more or give more of what the verses talk about for yourself. God, I’m feeling sad. Please carry me on your shoulders like I’m a little lamb and help me feel better.
  5. Ask God to do more or give more of what the verses talk about for others. God, please take care of [my friend/loved one]. Let her know how much you love her. I hope he feels how much you love him.

Praying a sad Psalm

The verse we used was a very sweet one. Is it different to pray verses about sadness?

Save me, O God,
    for the floodwaters are up to my neck.
Deeper and deeper I sink into the mire;
    I can’t find a foothold.
I am in deep water,
    and the floods overwhelm me.
I am exhausted from crying for help.

Psalm 6:1-3, NLT

You can still use any of the 5 ways, but it can be harder when the Psalm talks about big emotions that we may or may not be feeling at the time. Take your second piece of paper and write or draw things that the verses make you think of, or draw or write about the people you’re praying about.

6. When you feel this way: God, I feel this way. I am feeling like things are really, really, really hard right now. I’m having a hard time dealing with it. This is what’s going on: ______________________________. Help me.

7. When you do not feel this way: God, please be with people who feel this way, with people who are very sad or very frustrated. This is what’s going on with my loved one: _______________________________. Help them.

Praying Psalm 6:1-3

Praying a violent Psalm

Some Psalms can feel awkward when we go to pray them.

Break off their fangs, O God!
    Smash the jaws of these lions, O Lord!
May they disappear like water into thirsty ground.
    Make their weapons useless in their hands /
when they draw the bow, let their arrows fall short.
May they be like snails that dissolve into slime.

Psalm 58:6-8, NLT & NIV

The Psalmist asks God to do this to their enemies, to evil people. Draw or write on your third piece of paper while we learn how to pray these kinds of Psalms.

I have to admit that I used to have a hard time reading these kinds of verses, and praying them felt wrong because I try to avoid saying or thinking mean things. It’s also true that my life is not in physical danger–no armies are coming after me, I don’t have people plotting against me. So these Psalms feel weird.

But there are kids who live in places where their government is a danger to them, where groups of criminals are dangerous to them. Some kids even have families that hurt them. That helps us know how to pray these kinds of verses. Learn about kids who are, right now, in danger; have your grownup help you so you can pray more specifically.

6. When you feel this way: God, I am feeling scared and angry. Protect me from these people who are trying to hurt me. I need you.

7. When you do not feel this way: God, please be with the kids and grownups who are in danger. It is hard to know that kids like me are in danger. Please keep them safe.

8. In your imagination, swap the idea of enemies-as-people for enemies-as-diseases. God, cancer and COVID-19 [or whatever disease a loved one might be suffering from] is like enemies in their body. Break off the fangs of their disease. May the virus in their body disappear like water soaking into the ground. Make it useless in their body. Heal them.

Praying Psalm 58:6-8

Wreck This Journal

Now that we’ve created these three pages, we’re going to be inspired by the book, Wreck This Journal, and deal with these pages in ways that remind us of spiritual ideas.

Bring the Light

Jesus is called the Light of the World in the Bible. Take the violent Psalm page and bring some light to it by poking it full of holes with your writing instrument.

The Lord’s Supper

We eat bread and drink juice to remind us that Jesus loved us enough to die for us. Treat the sad Psalm page like bread and eat it. Okay, just chew on it and spit it out.

Living Water

The Bible talks about Jesus giving us living water that satisfies more than our physical thirst. Take the little lamb page, make it into a cup, pour some water in it, and try to drink out of it. Don’t spill on your electronics!

__________________________________________________

I hope you had fun and that you feel inspired to pray any Psalm!

The video of this lesson is below 🙂

The Lord Is My COVID-19 Nurse

Female Medical Worker Wearing Protective Face Mask and Gear Against Dark Background.

Tomorrow is Good Shepherd Sunday, which got me thinking about the 23rd Psalm. There’s nothing particularly holy about the job of shepherding–it’s just that a gifted poet had been a shepherd and so could write about the ways the job reminded them of the Lord. And all the original listeners were also familiar with the job of shepherd, so they would have understood everything David was trying to say without a lot of explanation.

On the other hand, most of us these days don’t know a lot about shepherding. We need to learn about what the job entailed in order to understand all that David is saying.

For example, “your rod and your staff / they comfort me,” never made any sense to me (what’s comforting about a big stick?) until I read Nogah Hareuveni’s Tree and Shrub in Our Biblical Heritage (1984), and Desert and Shepherd in Our Biblical Heritage (1991). Shepherds in Israel would make a rod out of an olive tree spur that still had a knot of trunk at one end. When they were walking in the middle of the flock (they lead the flock from the middle more often than they lead from the front) they’d toss the rod in front of the flock so the sheep in front would know which way to go, and that heavy knot would help the rod carry far. So the rod, as the symbol of the shepherd, tells the anxious sheep at the front which way to go. I can see how that could be a comfort to the sheep: “I can’t see our shepherd, but he is still leading and guiding me. Phew.”

But I had to learn that. It didn’t come as part of my cultural knowledge.

One of my favorite things to do with children is rewrite Psalms so they directly reflect the things that are happening in their lives, so the metaphors and analogies are drawn from their experiences.

What to do with culture-bound examples
Back-to-school Psalms

So why not do that for Psalm 23? Below are two attempts to do just that.

The Lord is my COVID-19 nurse;
   I have all that I need.
He lets me rest in my hospital bed;
   he leads me through my breathing exercises.
   He renews my strength.
She guides me as my oxygen levels change,
   bringing honor to her name.
Even when I have to be intubated
   And my organs begin to fail,
I will not be afraid,
   For you are close beside me.
Your PPE and your kind, tired eyes
   protect and comfort me.
You prepare all my medications for me
   in the presence of the virus.
You honor me by flipping me onto my stomach.
   My canela overflows with oxygen.
Surely your goodness and competence will sustain me
   all the days of my life,
   and I will live in the house of the Lord 
   forever.
The Lord is my preschool teacher;
   I have all that I need.
He lets me rest on my sleep mat;
   he leads me out to the playground.
   He renews my curiosity.
She guides me to make good choices,
   bringing honor to her name.
Even when I walk
   through the 5th graders hallway,
I will not be afraid,
   for you are close beside me.
Your staff pass and Time Timer
   protect and comfort me.
You prepare a snack for me
   in the presence of the mean kids.
You honor me by putting my drawing up on the wall.
   My cup overflows with blessings.
Surely your goodness and unfailing patience will teach me
   all the days of my life,
and I will make good choices and share
   forever.

Now it’s your turn. What’s a job where you see God at work? Where you can see characteristics of God in what a person in that job does? Write your own Psalm 23 in the comments 🙂

For when I’m mired in murky emotional soup

It has been an odd week. Well, every week is odd these days, as we’re doing things and changing our lives in ways we probably hadn’t imagined. But I distinctly remember thinking on Tuesday morning,

This is starting to feel routine. The things that were an ordeal, a big deal a couple of weeks ago now feel ordinary.

That felt good. It felt sustainable.

A few weeks before that, I’d had a rough emotional week as I realized that I’d been operating in what I called sprint-energy, and that I’d have to transition to marathon-energy in order to not exhaust myself into illness (whether mental or physical). I did that, and then, for a moment, it felt like it bore fruit in life feeling routine.

But as the week went on I noticed that I was sleeping horribly, waking up 2 – 4 times a night. I hadn’t gone for a walk or chosen to exercise at home in days. There was a book I was looking forward to reading, but I’d glance at it and then go back to watching endless British shows or cooking competitions on YouTube. All of these are signs I know well; they say that depression is creeping back in.

It was as if a new normal was developing, but I was rebelling against that new normal at the same time. As if everything inside me was saying,

No. I don’t like this. I refuse to let it feel normal, to let you feel normal.

I described myself on Facebook as feeling like my emotional soup was murky and fully of mushy pasta. If you’ve ever left pasta in soup to be heated up the next day, you’ll know how unpleasant this is. The soup started out good and delicious, but the pasta soaked up too much liquid and somehow stole a bunch of the flavor until it’s a bland, pulpy mess.

So I made a full-court press and in the last two days did almost every single thing that I know is good for me to do when I’m feeling that old depression trying to sneak back in (note that I already take medication for this, so I kept on keeping on with that).

  1. Talk about it with others. As I mentioned, I posted about this feeling on Facebook and 28 of my far-flung friends and family responded to encourage me and to talk about how they were feeling. I also talked with my kids about how they were feeling. I didn’t feel alone, and it was good to know we’re all struggling to manage the emotional side-effects of what is happening these days.

  2. Talk with God. Not just in my head, but I filled out a resource I sent around to my congregation in the weekly email on Thursday, and I wrote a Pandemic Psalm. It takes you through the steps of most psalms of lament: telling God what’s happening, how you feel about it, what you want God’s help with, and then reminding yourself what you know about God and God’s character, and declaring what you will do. I took myself through an “and yet” move, and reminded myself that there are things I can do.

  3. Notice beauty around me. The weather in Michigan the last two weeks has been lousy, chilly and rainy/snowy. I am not here for it. But it did contribute to how long my forsythia has been in full bloom.


  4. Take care of the home. My mother gave me great advice: when you’re feeling poor, clean your house and make a pot of soup, that way your environment isn’t dragging you down further and you’ve got sustenance. I’m not feeling particularly poor, but it’s good advice for when you’re feeling down, too. So I put away the laundry, cleaned the dishes,



    cut flowers to distribute throughout the house (see photo at the top), and made granola (because I already bake bread, making granola is my new coronavirus cooking adventure).


  5. Help other people. Doing things for others can knock us out of the ever-tightening spiral thinking that comes with depression. So I brought a load of new-to-them kid books to a family in my church (if your kids are older and you have lots of books, lending them out to families who can’t go to the library is a great thing to do in this season),



    gave a tub of margarine to another man in the church who said he couldn’t find any, ordered take-out from a local restaurant to keep supporting restaurant workers,



    and made a video to remind myself, and others, that Jesus can be found in the gaps, that Jesus is with us in the low times (below the list).

  6. Go for a walk. Anywhere is good, but I love to walk amongst the trees. I can feel my shoulders unclench and lower a good inch after walking in nature. So I headed to the Calvin Nature Preserve, hoping for wildflowers. There was only one Trout Lily bloom that was almost open.



    But more exciting than that: for the first time in the 30 years I’ve been walking there, I saw a pileated woodpecker! Those are the Woody Woodpecker-type birds, and they are huge. (It’s in the middle of the photo below, look for a reddish blur.) I was thrilled.

I didn’t read, but I think I’ll be able to get to that book this weekend. It feels like my full-court press has done its job. The reality of my life hasn’t changed, and I’m still sad about the things I miss, but I’m not mired in murky emotional soup anymore.

What do you do to knock yourself out of a downward spiral?

Do we need a Garden of Gethsemane moment?

Have you ever had to do something that was hard, that you’d rather not do, but you do it because it’s part of a bigger plan for the good of all people?

You, know, like now?

We’re staying home, away from our friends and loved ones, avoiding human contact. Every aspect of our lives has changed: school, work, religious practice, shopping, eating, entertainment, how we express love and care. It’s really hard. But we’re doing it–partly out of fear of getting COVID-19 ourselves, and partly out of the desire to protect the more vulnerable in our community.

As Dr. TaLawnda Bragg said in a Zoom call I was part of:

COVID is something new. We have no defense to it. Despite what you hear, there is no cure, no vaccine. All we can do is supportive care (help you breathe) until your body figures out how to fight it. Our only response is to limit the spread. 

So we change our lives. It’s hard, and it’s sad, and we grieve the things we miss. But it’s our only choice, so we do it for our own good and the good of our community.

There is a person in the Bible who knows exactly how we feel.

Jesus.

Remember Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane, the night before he died, saying,

“My soul is crushed with grief to the point of death. Stay here and keep watch with me.” … He prayed that, if it were possible, the awful hour awaiting him might pass him by. “Abba, Father,” he cried out, “everything is possible for you. Please take this cup of suffering away from me. Yet I want your will to be done, not mine.”

Mark 14: 34-36

He prayed that three times. Dying and suffering for us was not something Jesus did lightly or easily. It crushed him with grief. Even after he’d stopped asking that he not have to go through with it, Luke describes him this way:

Then an angel from heaven appeared and strengthened him. He prayed more fervently, and he was in such agony of spirit that his sweat fell to the ground like great drops of blood.

Luke 14:43-44

Grieving. In agony of spirit. Suffering and dying was going to be hard and sad. But Jesus did it anyway because he loved you and me and all the people and his death was the plan to bring us right with God again.

Jesus knows how we’re feeling now. He’s been there, too.

And he shows us how to deal with it:

  • talk to God,
  • ask your friends for support (not that the disciples were much good to him–they kept falling asleep),
  • tell God how you’re feeling,
  • ask God for what you want,
  • have an “and yet” orientation and be prepared to follow God’s way even when it isn’t the most comfortable.

We can do that now.

Lord God, I am sad that I can’t hug my friends, that my kids can’t hang out with their friends in person, that I can’t visit my parents, that my mother’s aunt died without anyone able to visit her for the last few weeks of her life. I cried this morning when I watched my pastor lead communion by himself as we recorded our worship service for tomorrow. I miss my church family, the children most of all. I am frightened for the poor and vulnerable in my community, for those who’ve lost work, for those who live in homes that are not safe places. Oh God I want to leave the house without worrying about what I touch and when I washed my hands and whether I’m going to be able to find toilet paper when I need it. I want this to be over. And yet, I want to keep people safe, and I want to do what I can to help. I want to love people with a love like yours. So I will stay home as much as I can, and I will greet people with jazz hands, and I will explore every other way I can to keep up my connections, and I will do my part to share physical and digital resources. In Jesus’ name, Amen.

When your soul feels crushed to the point of death because of everything sad that’s happening now and the hard things that are being asked of us, let it be your Garden of Gethsemane moment. Jesus had to do something that was going to be very difficult and painful and made him very sad, but he talked to God about it, and then he did what he had to do for the good of all people. Let’s be like Jesus. Our version, in Spring 2020: stay home, stay safe.

Things that feel educational but are just cool videos

Yes, this is how my daughter used to do her homework.

This is my gift to all you beautiful grownups who are now having to homeschool your children when that is not at all what you signed up for. My kids and I benefitted greatly from that daily time away from each other, and they know I’d have been way tougher on them than most teachers they had, so the traditional schooling model worked well for us for a long time. But now nobody has that option–and I love you and feel for you.

Plenty of people with education degrees are putting up suggested schedules, and your kids’ schools most likely sent home workbooks and online coursework. But there will be times when you’ll feel like you should be doing something educational but you’re Just. Too. Tired. Yet you don’t want to just set them free to do whatever yet again.

This list is for you.

These are cool things to look at or listen to online that can count as social studies (learning about other cultures), field trips to museums, language arts, maybe even a little science. I’m trying to focus on things that aren’t being shared everywhere, so hopefully you can find something new to you. They’re good for multiple ages and grades. I hope you find something you and your family can sit back and enjoy. We’re all in this together.

Language Arts

Free Rice: This is a vocabulary game/quiz. For every correct answer sponsors donate 10 grains of rice to the United Nations World Food Programme. It shows stats of how many grains of rice your game has donated, and how many were donated total the day before. You can run it on a computer or as an app (link on the site above). When I played, the vocab words were: build, snack, workout, chef. So this is an elementary-student-level quiz. And it’s charitable!

Storyline Online: Professional actors reading picture books accompanied by professionally edited video of said books. Yes, please! Great variety of stories–silly, serious, touching.

Story Time from Space: Many videos of picture books about space explorers (both real and pretend) and scientists and space itself read by astronauts while they’re floating around the International Space Station.

The Spanish Experiment: Children’s stories read in Spanish with slow audio. Well-known children’s stories translated into Spanish and spoken by a native Spanish speaker. Read along in Spanish or English.

Scribd is offering unlimited audiobooks and ebooks for 30 days without having to enter a credit card number. This could be lifesaving since libraries are now closed!

Audible Stories: Audible is now offering hundreds of audiobooks for free on their platform. They are available for streaming, not downloading, but the selection is fantastic. There are stories for toddlers through teens, classics, Audible originals, stories read in French, Spanish, Italian, German, and an Asian language I could not recognize. Mostly fiction, but I found a few nonfiction.

Field Trips

MapCrunch: Every day, this site plunks you down in the street view of a new, random place in the world. All you have to do is visit and explore. On Thursday, March 26, it took me to Lago Moro, a lovely lake surrounded by mountains in Italy.

5 minutes of a log over a stream in the mountains of Pennsylvania. It’s amazing the variety of animals that cross this log–bears, foxes, mountain lions, wood ducks (my favorite duck), kingfishers with fish, and more. The guy who owns the wilderness cam has a list of all the animals at the end of the video. And the best part: the only sound is a babbling or occasionally rushing stream.

Cincinnati Zoo Home Safari: Every day, the Cincinnati Zoo posts a 20-or-so-minute video to their Facebook page and then to this page, introducing one of their animals, and including two activities you can do at home. So far, sloths, ocelots, and a baby hippo!

Georgia Aquarium Webcams: There are 8 webcams here of beluga whales, whale sharks, penguins, puffins, piranhas, sea lions, sea otter, jellies (this one is mesmerizing), and more.

International Space Station with Commander Chris Hadfield: I’m choosing him because I’m Canadian and he’s Canadian. You want to find an American astronaut’s videos, have at it 🙂 This is a great collection of videos about life in space. Hadfield is a great explainer–from wringing out a wet washcloth, to crying in space, getting a haircut, clipping nails, what happens to your eyesight, and some tours of the ISS.

Quokka: Quokkas are adorable little marsupials that live mainly on Rottnest Island off the Western Coast of Australia. This is just an adorable video of a quokka eating a leaf–could inspire a whole research project 🙂

Calvin Nature Preserve’s incredibly loud frogs on 3/35/2020

Visual Arts

https://www.facebook.com/schulerbooks/Lunch Doodles with Mo Willems: Fans of Willems’ Pigeon books will love these videos where he doodles and gives studio tours and just talks. Doodle with him or just listen. Charming!

Shadow Tracing: On a bright day (or inside, use a flashlight), place an item on a piece of paper so it casts a shadow, and then trace the shadow. Chunkier items will be easier for younger children. Experiment with toys, vases, food, shells–anything you have around the house! BIG OPTION: Pose one person so they cast a shadow and have everyone else trace the shadow, either on the pavement with sidewalk chalk, on a big piece of paper or cardboard if you have any on hand, or with paint on the grass (the grass will grow and it’ll get cut off eventually).

“Stained glass windows” on fences or sidewalks: If you have painter’s tape, tape off a “window” with a frame and then fill in the “lead” with the tape to make a design. Fill in the “glass” with different colors of sidewalk chalk, peel of the tape, and you have a stained glass window that will wash away in the rain 🙂

This Is Sand: Mesmerizing! Click and drag your cursor to make layered colorful sand art. You aren’t in control of what color gets laid down, but you control the shape of the mountains and mounds. And it sounds like you’re pouring sand into a box, too.

My most recent non-masterpiece.

Kenneth Kraegel: Grace Church’s own author/illustrator will be sharing an illustration step by step on this site on March 30, 31, and April 1 at 11:00am. As with most Facebook Live events, the videos should remain on the Schuler Books Facebook page afterwards.

Science and Math

Demonstrating the Wonder of Chemistry: Discovering God’s Majesty in the Minuscule This is Prof. Larry Louters from Calvin University doing his big show. This was always a massively popular field trip for my kids in 5th grade, and Louters shows off all the cool stuff chemistry does. This is from a January Series, so Louters doesn’t start talking until minute 4; around minute 8 he says some cool stuff about Psalm 19 and being a caretaker of the earth; the actual demonstration starts at minute 13:30. There’s a singer, painting with weird things, bubbles, flames. It’s fantastic.

Quarantime with Science Mom and Math Dad: A daily Quarantime video about science and math concepts, about and hour and a half. Also tons of other videos to explore, including a series on Science Mom vs. Math Dad that looks entertaining.

Audible Stories, Astrophysics for Young People in a Hurry, by Neil deGrasse Tyson, read by LeVar Burton. From the author to the narrator, this one will be good!!

Social Studies

Think Indigenous — Online Indigenous Education: Facebook page. Different posts every day in different disciplines and K – 8 grades from First Nations educators around Canada.

Radio Garden: Explore radio stations from around the world! Move around the globe, click on any green dot, and you’ll get to hear a radio station from that spot. Most places give you a choice of several stations. This one is from Gouda, in the Netherlands. But you can go to the Shetland Islands, Kampala, Uganda, or Jerusalem. Also counts as a geography lesson since there are no country boundaries on this globe!

Faith Formation

The Bible Project: Loads of animated videos, not just about stories from the Bible, but about ideas, personalities, word studies. Very solid and engaging.

Kids Corner: Produced by Reframe Media, this has a ton of audio content for kids, including Bible stories, Bible activities, printables, devotionals, and an audio series starring a group of talking lizards.

We’ve gone without toilet paper before.

An image of a woman on the toilet with a basket of newspaper strips and a magazine caddy on the floor, her middle fingertip peeks through the middle of a folded piece of newspaper.

I spent all of Friday writing informational, factual, calming, encouraging, and supportive communications about COVID-19. Emails, an article (Changing Our Habits and Getting Creative: Church in the Age of COVID-19), texts, and about 1,000 more emails. It was a great day. I felt like I was part of helping people navigate this new reality by providing more light than heat.

But my Facebook feed was full of photos of empty store shelves where toilet paper usually was–empty shelves at megastore after megastore.

Which reminded me of a story from my family archives.

My dad was born in occupied Holland during World War II. He is the 4th of 7 kids, so he’s got 3 older brothers who remember growing up during wartime. I’ve told some of the stories elsewhere (here and here), but this one is new to this space. It has to do with toilet paper.

In September 1944, just in time for the Hunger Winter, my dad’s family moved out of the city of Velp and to Ermolo, where my Oma’s sister lived. The Holtrops owned a soup factory and had a big house in the country that could kind of fit the three families who wound up living there that winter. The Nazis had long commandeered all the actually edible food from the factory, but left them fish heads and other odds and ends that they ground and turned into gruel to nourish themselves–they ate in two shifts, younger kids first so they couldn’t see the older kids and adults gag their way through meals. After all, the youngest kids didn’t remember a time when food was delicious.

So of course there was no toilet paper. It would have been an unimaginable luxury. But it’s not like people stop going to the bathroom. Here’s what my uncle told me they did:

  • Next to the toilet was a basket with strips of newspaper.
  • When you finished your business you folded one and only one strip of paper.
  • Then you poked a hole in the middle of the folded strip.
  • You pushed your middle fingertip through the hole and used that to wipe your bum–your finger. You’d use your finger.
  • Then you used the newspaper to clean off your finger.
  • If that didn’t do the job you had to refold the paper and wipe again. With your finger.

Lovely.

Why didn’t they just flat-out use a few of those strips and leave the finger out of it? After all, during the same time period my mother’s family in Michigan used the traditional Sears catalogue in their outhouse.

I’m guessing because even the newspaper they had was rare and no, they could not spare a strip. It’s possible that it was often an underground Resistance newspaper, like this one that one of my uncles still has.

I really hope we don’t get to that point in this country. Also, I don’t get a newspaper anymore, so I’d have to use magazines and that sounds like it’d be ouchier. Do I need to stop recycling my magazines now so I have a stack all ready? Then again, if the hoarders keep snapping up all the T.P. maybe I’ll just buy a toilet-top bidet. I will not do what a friend had in the outhouse as a kid and use dry corn cobs!!!

Hoarders of T.P., I know that you’re anxious and you’re trying to control what you can, but you’ve created a problem. When the plush white rolls are back on the shelves, please let others have some. You will be okay. My father’s family all survived their finger-newspaper-toilet-paper ordeal. Well, they survived, but their humor and conversational topics definitely run to the scatalogical.


And now, because I can’t resist, here is what I learned at the Kent County Health Department today that is helping me not panic:

How is the virus transmitted:

  • Via droplets that an infected person coughs or sneezes out. The virus is only on our hands and hard surfaces because people cover coughs and sneezes with their hands or not at all, and then touch stuff.
  • The contact zone is within 6 feet of an individual with active COVID-19 for more than 10 minutes (walking past someone is not enough to get the virus).
  • If someone is infected but not showing symptoms, or if they have mild symptoms, their chance of transmitting the virus is similarly low—the disease is more likely to be transmitted the worse the symptoms are. Read that again. It is very good news, especially about our children as disease vectors. They’re apparently great at spreading the common cold and the stomach flu, less great at spreading COVID-19, because the disease affects them very mildly.

What you can do as an individual:

  • Wash your hands often.
  • Stay home if you’re sick.
  • Cover your mouth with something other than your hand when you cough and sneeze.
  • No handshakes. No hugging.
  • Limit touches to hard surfaces.
  • Spread out! Limit the amount of time you are less than 6 feet away from members of the public for 10 minutes or more. This is the virus transmission zone.
  • Before you visit someone, ask if anyone is sick, if anyone has a fever or a new cough. If so, go to a virtual visit (phone call or video chat). If not, maintain safe distance and no handshakes/hugs.
  • Disinfect hard surfaces regularly.

Don’t Pin the Xbox on God

An image of the person holding an xbox one controller.
An image of hand holding an Xbox controller

So instead of inviting general prayer items in children’s worship with, “Does anyone have anything they want to talk to God about?,” I’ve been getting more specific, both as a way of teaching the kinds of things we can do in our prayers, and of getting beyond the first things that come to kids’ minds.

  • What do you know about God that you think is awesome?
  • What do you want to ask God about?
  • What are you sorry about doing or not doing or saying or not saying or thinking? (I let them answer in their minds.)
  • What do you want to say THANK YOU to God about?
  • Is there anybody you know who needs help?

Yes, we’ve still spent a lot time praying about kitties, and thanking God for them, and celebrating God’s creativity in making kitties. But we’ve also asked God just how he made things out of nothing. And some kids who are always jokey and rarely chime in with a prayer item have responded to the last question with some heartfelt requests that showed that, no matter how they might talk, they love their younger siblings.

But last Sunday things went off the rails.

Miss Natalie: “What do you know about God that you think is awesome?”

Child: “That God made the whole world and the Xbox.”

Miss Natalie: “I’m with you on the whole world thing, but God is not responsible for the Xbox. People made that. God made people to have creative and intelligent and curious minds so they were able to come up with the Xbox, but I don’t believe the Xbox was divinely inspired in the same way that the Bible was divinely inspired. You can’t pin the Xbox on God.”

And they were OFF.

Five kids between 4th and 6th grade tried to come up with arguments that would prove that God was responsible for one of the things they love most in the world. They tried to come it with God’s all-knowingness–“If God knows everything, then he knew that the Xbox would be invented, therefore God created it.” They tried that argument again, but louder.

I tried to come at them with an analogy: If your teacher tells you to make a clay pot and you make the clay pot, your teacher knew that you were going to make the clay pot, but you’re the one who still made it, not your teacher (or it might have been, “Your parents made you, you make a clay pot, you’re responsible for the pot, not your parents,” frankly it was so loud that I forgot what exactly my clay pot-related analogy was). They responded but the teacher/parents still knew….

When they started challenging me about what we really meant by the word “make,” I knew that the debate had essentially come to an end and they were prolonging it because it was fun. It was fun. I don’t know what the children’s worship room across the hall thought we were doing; I felt a little bad because the leader of that room always creates a calm environment, and here we were having a debate so raucous that kids were getting up and pacing.

I don’t know that I won, but I held my ground. God is not directly responsible for the Xbox. So when it came time to pray, I thanked God for creating people with such creativity, curiosity, and intelligence that they came up with the Xbox, but also thanked God that those same things lead us to debates about what God did and didn’t do, and then I had to thank God that we could laugh during prayers (because we were all laughing).

Did the kids learn anything valuable through that exchange? No idea. But I hope they took away that I will listen to them, and take them seriously, and that we can always laugh about things, and God loves us through it all. They also learned that I can be side-tracked–but they already knew that.

So, my fellow people who minister to and with children, what are some of the debates you’ve gotten into? I can’t be the only one fielding comments like that!

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.