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.

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.