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.

‘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?

Reading Paul with Children

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

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

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

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

in some he’s in jail,

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

in others he’s got company.

Paul sits with Timothy. They are having tea.

Usually, the messages are uplifting.

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

Sometimes, Raschka chooses one that scolds.

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

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

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

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

Permission Slips for the Resistance

My Opa (Dutch for grandfather) worked in an underground/resistance group in German-occupied Netherlands during World War II. I’ve known this all my life, but I am still learning new stories and seeing new evidence as my uncles dig through their papers and unearth some gems.

At this year’s family reunion, my Uncle Henk pulled out some war-era papers that left me awed. He laid out this dark history on a peeling picnic table on a warm and sunny day. I am now even more grateful that Opa undermined the occupying Nazis any way he could–and that he survived. Here is the story in brief, told by my uncle:

The leader was our family doctor, Oostenbrink. This work was already beginning when our family arrived in Velp in September of 1941 and Rev. Klaas Hart joined in soon after arriving. As a result at some time he also became a wanted person and had to find a safe place to live. In July of 1944 the Germans entered Oostenbrink’s and our home to search for evidence of illegal activity, which resulted in the dismantling of the resistance group and that, in turn, led to our flight by horse and wagon to the safer home of the Holtrusts in Ermelo in September of 1944. His work was utterly dangerous and a number of his group’s co-workers were arrested and either executed or sent to a concentration camp where they died.

And here is the story of a resistance worker, told in a series of permissions, notes, and newspapers.

May 30, 1942 letter to Rev. Klaas Hart, telling him to be careful because of his anti-occupation preaching.
A letter from a fellow Dutchman in the Press and Propaganda department of the National Socialist Movement in the Netherlands, telling Rev. Hart that there were ministers who were preaching dangerous sermons and they should be careful. My uncles characterized this is a funny letter, because Opa was the minister in question and this was a very roundabout way of warning him. May 30, 1942. Dutch.

Permission for K. Hart to keep his bicycle. August 27, 1942, Velp. Dutch.
Permission to keep his bicycle–technically “exempt from the obligation to surrender bicycle.” August 27, 1942, Velp. Dutch.

Permission to travel from Velp in Gelderland to Groningen between August 21-24, 1943. German.
Permission to travel from Velp in Gelderland to Groningen between August 21-24, 1943. German. The uncles remember that he said this was to provide pastoral care for his previous congregation.

Note from the mayor informing them that the Germans want their house, so they have to move. December 4, 1943
Note from the mayor informing them that the Germans want their house, so they have to move. “In connection with the claim of your home, I inform you that as soon as your home has been vacated, you must notify the Ommerschofschelaan office as soon as possible. You will be notified when the house is taken over by the German opposition from you. An inventory list of the goods left behind will then be drawn up. The keys will then have to be handed over to the German authorities.” December 4, 1943. Dutch.

Permission to take Henrik Hart (the oldest child, 9 years old) and Peter Hart (my father, 8 months old) somewhere because they were sick. October 8, 1944
Sickness transport. Permission to take Henrik Hart (the oldest child, 9 years old) and Peter Hart (my father, 20 months old) somewhere because they were sick. The thing is, nobody remembered them ever being this ill, so the assumption is that this was a ruse to move someone/something else. October 8, 1944. Dutch.

Handwritten note from Red Cross for this mysterious illness of Hendrik and Peter Hart. October, 1944. Dutch.
Handwritten note from Red Cross for this mysterious illness of Hendrik and Peter Hart. October, 1944. Dutch.

Permission from the Red Cross to go out after air raids to help anyone who needed help. October 21, 1944. German.
Permission from the Red Cross to go out after air raids to help anyone who needed help. October 21, 1944. This is after they moved to Ermelo, in the province of Gelderland. German.

Appointment from the Red Cross to "provide spiritual assistance to evacuees in these areas." October 21, 1944. Dutch.
Appointment from the Red Cross to “provide spiritual assistance to evacuees in these areas.” Because of this, he was able to wear a Red Cross armband while he went around doing his underground work. October 21, 1944. Dutch.

A note in code from a courier in his resistance group. Dutch.
A note in code from a courier in his resistance group. Dutch.

Permission from the Interior Military Forces of the Netherlands to travel between Ermelo and Velp on April 21, 1945.
Permission from the Interior Military Forces of the Netherlands to travel between Ermelo and Velp on April 21, 1945. (The Netherlands was liberated on May 5.) Dutch.

Permission to travel on all the roads in Velp. May 3, 1945. Dutch.
Permission to travel on all the roads in Velp. May 3, 1945. Dutch.

A very early edition of Trouw, the newspaper of the resistance.
A very early edition of Trouw, the newspaper of the resistance. Trouw means faithful.

A Google translation: “Our country sits, let’s just confess it, at the moment heavy in the stuffy hero. The whole life of every day bears witness to it. Also many articles in this issue of our magazine talk about it. We are overwhelmed, we are heavily enslaved and we can not resist it. Such is the conclusion of many. And others think and share their opinions in the misery of this during the striking hand of God. However, it is not good to stand by. Nothing is more dangerous than Lydelykhied. Lydelyke people, they are just the kind that the [Germans] can use.” (In Africaans, Lyde means suffering and lyke means corpses, but beyond that, Google translate cannot go.) 

A later edition of Trouw, the underground newspaper. December 1944.
A later edition of Trouw, the underground newspaper. December 1944.

A different resistance/underground newspaper: Je Maintiendrai.
A different resistance/underground newspaper: Je Maintiendrai.

Seeing these tiny permission slips really brought home how restricted any movement was during occupation: being on the road, owning a bicycle, and trying to help people were all grounds for arrest. They needed permission for every little thing, and often double permission: once from a Dutch authority, once from the Germans. Their home could be taken. From other family stories, we know their food and livestock were confiscated by the German soldiers, and they were left with fish heads and oats to turn into a barely edible gruel that final winter of the war.

With all of these permissions, he would have travelled as himself: Rev. Klaas Hart. At least one of the permissions said it only counted if the person also had their ID on them. However, he also traveled under a different identification card, that my father has (my only image of it is on a CD and my computer has no CD drive). When they moved from Velp to a relative’s house in Ermelo, it meant a two-day walk for the family of 7, including a newborn. They had to beg a farmer for a place to sleep–everyone slept on fresh hay in the barn except for my Oma and the baby, who were welcomed into the house.

Yes, this was dangerous work. My Opa used his status as a minister to enable his wartime activities. He left the Netherlands for Canada after the war because there was no work for him, and no prospects for his six sons and one daughter.

I am the daughter of an immigrant, and granddaughter of a resistance worker. I descended from people who had to flee for their lives. The pull of the family legacy of working for justice and against injustice is strong and I answer it as best I can by writing letters and emails and calling my elected representatives, writing blog posts for myself and for the Grand Rapids Association of Pastors, and attending prayer vigils. It doesn’t feel like much when compared to what my family went through in the 1940s, but it’s something. #Resist

Pithy post about pith that involves no pithing

An image of a frog looking directly at the viewer--I imagine that the frog looks a little nervous.
Photo by Jack Hamilton on Unsplash

A friend of mine used to share an orange every day with a co-worker, and they did not each eat half of the flesh. No, my friend ate the flesh and the co-worker ate the pith–the white spongy stuff between the flesh and the rind. This started a conversation about the word “pith.”

My friend remembered it from his high school biology class, when they had to kill the frog they were about to dissect. Let me repeat, there was a time when American high school students had to kill the frog they were about to dissect. Now, I’ve enjoyed all the dissections I’ve done, in both high school and college, but I don’t know that I could’ve done that. Anyway, they were told to pith their frogs: to push a spike through the back of the amphibian neck and down the spinal column. I’d never heard that use of the word, but, indeed: pith is an archaic noun for spinal marrow, and a verb for severing or piercing said spinal column to kill or immobilize an animal.

So as a noun, pith is the spongy tissue inside the rind of citrus plants and spinal marrow. But that’s not all.

It also refers to the spongy cellular tissue inside the stems of vascular plants: the stuff that draws up and stores water and nutrients from the soil.

It is also used in the writing world. It can refer to the essence, the most important point of an argument, as well as a concise way of of writing, “a pithy saying.”

As a verb, it’s a term for removing pith from citrus fruits and for severing the spinal column to kill an animal.

And let us not forget the pith helmet. I saw an elderly man paying for his groceries last week who was wearing a pith helmet, and it made me happy. They are made of the pith of the sola plant.

What on earth do all these uses have in common?
Cores; things that bring life/liveliness.

In the plant world it distributes and stores what is needed for that plant to live (citrus pith apparently contains many nutrients). An alternative name for the pith in vascular plants: the medulla. Which makes me think of the pithing my friend had to do to the poor frog–the medulla oblongata being located at the base of the skull, right where he was directed to stick the spike.

In the animal world (in its archaic use) it was probably believed to be the core of the spine that transmitted important stuff (nutrients? information?) to and from the brain. I have since learned that we no longer talk of spinal marrow at all; that the soft tissue inside our bones is mainly found in the hip bones, breast bone, and skull.

In the writing world it is the core, the center of an argument, or a way of making the argument lively and memorable.

So that’s the little rabbit hole I went down after a brief conversation this weekend. Aren’t words fun? Do you know any other words with a variety of entertaining meanings?

Dissecting “The Whale”

Cartoon image of a whale on a beat-up couch.
Playbill cover illustration of the Actor’s Theatre production of The Whale, by Kevin “Kevvo” Gierman.

No whales will be harmed in this post, and there will be no photos of the insides of actual whales. I’m talking about about the Samuel D. Hunter play, The Whale, that I saw at Actor’s Theatre last night–“dissecting” the story by analyzing it like a writer, as we do in an online book club I’m part of.

The performance I saw last night gave me that rare experience of being in an audience that is completely silent: no coughing, no rustling of playbills or crinkling of candy wrappers, no shifting in their seats. Silent isn’t even the right word. It was a heavy stillness, a quiet that we couldn’t release ourselves from. The only other time I’d experienced that was when I watched a Holocaust survivor tell his story to middle schoolers.

The Whale is about Charlie, a 600-pound man who is about to die and reaches out to Ellie, the angry daughter he hasn’t seen in 17 years. Charlie’s friend and nurse, Liz, tries in vain to keep him alive. Mormon missionary Elder Thomas keeps showing up to talk about God, and Charlie’s ex-wife Mary comes in as an avenging truth-teller. It is funny, until about half-way through, and then it’s compelling and devastating, can’t-turn-away theater.

Hunter does something incredibly well that writers are told to do, but is tough to commit to: every character is the center and star of their own story. Yes, the play revolves around Charlie’s decision to eat himself to death in his crappy apartment, but each character is enacting his or her own drama within this. Their actions are so well motivated by their own pasts. It’s impressive storytelling.


SPOILER ALERT: I’m going to detail each character’s story below, so if you want to see this play and have it be a surprise, then you should stop reading right now. Also, this post is crazy long. I’m mostly writing it for my own learning, but you may share in that if you like.


Charlie

The center of the play does not want to be the center of his own life. His most common line is, “I’m sorry.” He’s constantly apologizing for being who he is. The entire play takes place in his lousy apartment: walls are mildewed, food garbage spills out of the kitchen, covering the table, and onto the floor. His couch is a gold plush couch that looks like it came from the curb. Charlie is in his last week of life due to congestive heart failure, but he refuses all attempts to get him to go to the hospital, or to even call a doctor. He works as an online writing teacher, but because of his surroundings, we assume he has little money (but just enough money that he doesn’t qualify for county services).

As the play goes on, we see him interact with Liz, his nurse-friend, and Elder Thomas, the Mormon missionary who comes to the door when Charlie is in a medical crisis. We see him recording lessons to his students. We see him with his cruel, foul-mouthed daughter who keeps a hate blog and calls him “disgusting” to his face. And he is kind to everyone. He’s clearly not doing well, but he doesn’t reject connection with people. I held out some small amount of hope that this was the kind of story where human connection draws somebody out of their destructive behavior, but no.

He tells his story to Elder Thomas, and it is sad. He had been married with a child, but then met Alan, one of his students. They became lovers, his marriage ended, and he and Alan become partners. Alan had been Mormon, but was rejected by the church and his family. At one point, Alan’s father invites him to church one last time and he goes. Whatever happens there so devastates him that he gives up on life, refusing to eat or drink or sleep. He is dead within months. Charlie wants Elder Thomas to find out what happened to Alan at that church.

Ellie doesn’t hold still long enough to hear anything of her father’s past. She’s angry. So angry. When she was younger, she was able to admit to feeling sadness, but now all her emotions have ossified into rage. She lashes out at literally everyone, whether in the story or not. This isn’t some charmingly mouthy teenager: she drugs her father–a man who is clearly having breathing troubles–with crushed-up Ambien (that she’d stolen from her mother) in his sandwich just so he’d be quiet. She finds out Elder Thomas’s real name and posts photos of him smoking pot, making sure his family finds out. But Charlie thinks she’s amazing and wonderful, mostly based on her essay from 8th grade about Moby Dick that is honest and had vibrant writing. His ex-wife Mary calls him out, saying something like, “There you go with the positivity thing. It’s so annoying,” and detailing the cruelty she sees in their daughter. But he never admits to it, even insisting that she was only trying to help Elder Thomas by making sure he went back home.

And then we find out that he has plenty of money–over $100,000 in the bank. All for Ellie. He could have bought himself health insurance and avoided the situation we find him in. Which meant that he had decided to die. Just as his boyfriend Alan decided to erase himself, Charlie decided to blow himself up. With the excuse that he was providing for his daughter. Besides “sorry,” one of his other repeated words is “devastating,” and that’s just what his story is.

Liz

Charlie is so cruel to Liz, even while we see him being kind and apologetic: Liz is Alan’s sister. She assumes Charlie has no money and that’s how he got himself into this trouble. She argues with every single character who comes into contact with Charlie, telling them to leave, or challenging their desire to be with him, because she wants to be the one to save him. Eventually, she admits this in an argument with Elder Thomas, “You’re not going to be the one who saves him. I’m going to save him.”

It’s hard to watch her constantly trying to get him to go to the doctor; she brings him monitors and wheelchairs to help him manage his stress and be more mobile, because we know long before she does that Charlie has no intention of being saved. And when his ex-wife tells her how much money Charlie has…so heavy.

Liz has one of the most heartbreaking lines in the play: “Don’t you put me through this again.” She had to watch her brother die by degrees, and is so hurt that he’s been doing the same thing, but by the opposite method. In every interaction with him, she’s acting as the center of her own drama of trying to keep him alive; her status as his only friend is a key part of her self-image.

Elder Thomas

At first, he’s in the story as a foil to Liz, and as a bit of comic relief. But he keeps showing up, clearly wanting to help Charlie. That his chosen method is to talk about how amazing the Mormon church is when both Charlie and Liz have been crushed by it, is misguided, but earnest. Oh so very earnest. But then he gets into Ellie’s clutches, and she worms his story out of him: he isn’t on an official mission to Idaho, and Thomas isn’t his last name. His official mission had been the year before, to Oregon, but when he figured out that his mission partner didn’t care whether they helped anyone or connected with anyone in any way, he exploded one night, and beat the kid up. After that, he’d run away and wound up there in Idaho, determined to help at least one person.

“Elder Thomas” is as positive-thinking as Charlie, always looking for the best in the stories in the Book of Mormon, and the history of the church. And he’s always nonplussed when nobody else shares that positive outlook. But he keeps at it, because he’s the center of his story.

Ellie

She arrives in every scene as a tornado, not caring about any consequences. She assumes she knows everything there is to know, whether about a person, or a situation, and doesn’t waver from it, even when given evidence to the contrary. Even the fact that she keeps coming to see her father doesn’t redeem her because he offered her all his money to do so, and told her how much it was–she mentions the money a lot. Her words are hurtful, her attitude is dismissive, and she manipulates everyone to suit herself. Yes, her father left when she was 2, and her mother is an alcoholic who never talked about her father and never let her see Charlie, so she’s understandably hurt and angry, but her armor is so thick, there isn’t a glimmer of a hairline crack until the very last minute of the play. She is so much the star of her own story that she barely admits that any other person has any value at all.

Mary

We don’t see much of Mary, but we see how Ellie’s absence from Charlie’s life after their divorce is pretty much her doing: at first, she was probably hurt and angry from being with someone who was living a lie and also possibly a wash of disgust and shame because of the homosexuality issue. She’d fought hard for full custody and gotten it. But then she kept Ellie from her father (despite the fact that not only was Charlie paying child support, but also supporting her financially, since she was an unemployed alcoholic) because she didn’t want him to think she was a bad mother, because Ellie was such a shit.

It was so sad to watch her interactions with Charlie, because he was so gentle with her; it was clear that he was the only person in her life who had ever been gentle with her, and she’d been without that for 15 years. No matter how much she needed that kindness (at one point she puts her head on his chest to listen to his breathing, and she turns it into an embrace, the expression on her face a mix of longing and grief), she lashed out at him, too, destroying his relationship with Liz by telling her the truth about the money. Mary piled shame upon shame on herself and interacted with everyone from within that spiral.

***

If you’ve stuck with me this long, thanks! This was brilliant storytelling, and I’m not even talking about the repeated symbolism of the whale, and all the God stuff that was debated, and the theme of whether people are disgusting or beautiful. If you ever get a chance to see the play, do it!


You may also like: Three storytelling take-aways from Selma

Let the Children Come…and Lead Worship

Last year, I had a lengthy email back and forth with a friend at my church: she was pro youth service; I was anti youth service. I advocated for the kids to be more involved in worship leading in general and not just in one special service–especially in our church, with its demographic dip in teenagers (barely more than a handful of them).

But her arguments were convincing. After our exchange, I watched the teens; I saw that they did have an identity as Grace kids, and had an ease with each other despite the fact that we don’t have a youth group. Kids and young people became regular singers and musicians in the praise team. I opened a children’s worship room for upper-elementary kids that had them leading liturgy with each other.

I went from wrinkling my nose at the idea of a youth service to saying an enthusiastic YES, BUT.

Yes, but the kids have to plan the service.

The worship planning team changed their meeting time to accommodate three of our teenagers, opened their resource books, and guided the young people through the planning process. The kids chose all the songs, all the spoken parts except for the sermon and the call to worship (which I chose so it would be exactly what the 4th-5th graders had been doing for the last two months in their worship, to make their part familiar to them). They put together a song for the offertory.

That Sunday, the director of worship arts sat while four of them led the congregational singing.

Four teenagers leading worship, plus some adult musicians backing them up.

The 3-year-old-through-first-grade choir sung with great enthusiasm and charm.

Seven kids, ages 3-6 sing in a choir.

The three upper-elementary/middle schoolers read their parts confidently. All the kids of congregation took part in our preparing activity of choosing something from the nature bin and putting it on the communion table to celebrate God’s creativity. Shells, rocks, feathers, nuts, animal bones, and nests are displayed on a table set for communion.

One boy who doesn’t go up to children’s worship got to work with the deacons to collect the offering. And a bunch of us did ribbon waving at the final song.

It was glorious. Everything about it felt right and joyful. I’m so proud of all of them.

Frankly, I’m also proud of my church. We didn’t just create a service to congratulate ourselves for involving kids where we told them which parts to play: we trusted them to lead us. We showed them that they aren’t just the future of the church, they are the church now.

I have never been so happy to lose an argument, and I can’t wait for next youth-led service in April.

 

What to do with culture-bound examples

A painting of an ancient Egyptian drawing his bow while riding a chariot drawn by a horse.

When I’m presented with an analogy or example in the Bible that is culture-bound, I have three approaches:

  1. Dig deeply into that culture so I can unearth everything it would’ve meant to the people at that time.
  2. Think of contemporary versions of the analogy or example.
  3. Try to tease out the ways people are the same, then and now.

I did each of those things while working with the kids at church a few Sundays ago.

Dig deeply into the culture

The Sunday school kids heard the story of the judge Deborah; specifically, Deborah giving Barak the what-for (in Judges 4) when he didn’t hop to it when God called him to battle, which set up Jael (a woman!) to kill the enemy general Sisera. We talked about views of gender in that culture, but in the passage there was also a mention of iron chariots, or chariots fitted with iron. Normally, this reference would pass right by, but because of the research I did for my David and Saul stories, I knew that it was meaningful: the Israelites at this time could not make iron, and since iron was the hardest metal available, much harder and able to hold an edge better than anything the Israelites had, the Israelites were at a technological disadvantage in every battle. The other side always had better weapons and better gear, tougher and sharper and longer lasting.

But Israel had the Lord, who could throw armies into confusion so the better weaponry made no difference.

It wasn’t until King David’s time that they conquered the Philistine towns with a monopoly on iron production and they could finally pull even, technologically, with their remaining enemies.

I love knowing and being able to pass on details like that, and some of the kids seemed interested by that nugget. I even got an, “Oh, yeah,” when I said that Israel had the Lord 🙂

Come up with our own analogies

Then the 4th-grade-and-up Children’s Worship room read this in our liturgy  from Psalm 130:5-7:

With all my heart I wait for the Lord to help me.
I put my hope in his word.
I wait for the Lord to help me.
I want his help more than night watchmen want the morning to come.
I’ll say it again, I want his help more than night watchmen want the morning to come.
Israel, put your hope in the Lord,
because the Lord’s love never fails.
He sets his people completely free.

Since none of the kids had ever been night watchmen, I asked them to think of things from their lives that they couldn’t wait to be over. Here are their offerings, incorporated into the Psalm:

With all my heart I wait for the Lord to help me.
I put my hope in his word.
I wait for the Lord to help me.
I want his help more than I want the school day to be done,
even more than I want math class to be done.

I want his help more than I want to get going when my parents are talking foreeeeever.

I want his help more than I want to leave when parents are getting their hair done.

I want his help more than I want to get better when I’m sick.

I want his help more than I want to stop the pain when the comb catches a tangle in my hair.

I want his help more than I’m impatient to eat when people pray for a loooong time before a meal.

Israel, put your hope in the Lord,
because the Lord’s love never fails.
He sets his people completely free.

Tease out similarities

I take every opportunity to show kids (and remind myself) that the people in Bible times were people like us, with frustrations and anxieties and joys and worries. It’s so easy to blow through the familiar poems and stories without thinking of the Israelites as people we can relate to.

Sometimes it can take perseverance on my part, like when my Sunday schoolers insisted that they never whined. I fixed them with a skeptical look and said,

Really? None of you have ever said to your grown-up, “Please can I have that thing. I really want it. Can I have it? I promise I’ll clean up my Legos. I’ll never ask you for anything ever again, please, please, please, please….”

They laughed and had to admit they whined–and instantly had more understanding of how the Israelites wore down Aaron until he made them that golden calf while Moses was up the mountain communing with God.

The perseverance is always worth it, though.

I’ve heard from a couple of people who have also been doing the “write your own Psalms” thing with groups at their church — if you do, please let me know. I’d love to hear about it!

For more like this:

Back-to-School Psalms

Sometimes you have to toss the curriculum

Back-to-School Psalms

An image of a kid with a Bible on his lap, laughing. This image is in honor of the rather bad pun at the end of our second psalm.
This image is in honor of the pun that ends the second psalm.

For our Sunday school kick-off, I lead the kids, age 3 – 2nd grade, in writing their own back-to-school psalms. I told them that God’s story didn’t end with the last book of the Bible–we are part of God’s story today. So we can write psalms about what we’re experiencing, what we’re feeling, and what we know about God–just like David and the other psalmists did.

My pattern for writing psalms with kids is:

This is what’s happening in my life…
This is how I feel about it…
This is what I want help with… (oops, forgot this one with the first group)
This is what I know about God…
This is what I’m going to do…

So here are the two psalms we wrote on September 10, 2017:


Back to School Psalm 1

God, this week we saw the Nina and the Pinta with our friends.
It is our sister’s birthday, and she thinks she’ll be 4 forever.
We did homeschool.

We are feeling happy and glad,
angry and sad,
and relieved.

God, we know that Jesus died on the cross for our sins.
We know that he’s our savior.
We know that he loves us.
In fact, if we say we love others and we don’t,
then we don’t love you,
because you are love.

Because of who you are and what you’ve done,
I’m going to be kind,
I’m going to share,
I’m going to be happy,
I’m going to put others before myself.


Back to School Psalm 2

God, this week some kids went to school for the very first time,
and some kids had their second week of school.
To be more precise, some kids had their 8th day of 1st grade.
We played with dinosaurs,
and we got tattoos.

Some of us are excited to have some days off school,
and others are sad to have days off school.
Some of us are happy about school,
and others are nervous and sad.

We need your help with singing when it’s superfast.
We need your help with school,
and especially with sharing.

We know that you made all natural things, and you provided materials and made people who can make things who made things like this table.
We know that you are here, here, here, here, and everywhere!
We know that you love us.
You love us so much that you know all our prayers–
there are no prayers where you say, “Nah, I don’t want to look at them.”

Because of that, I’m going to give hugs,
I’m going to say “I love you” to people.
I will always say, “DONUT forget that God loves me!”


So when I’m in the weeds of recruiting volunteers and making schedules and hardcore crafting and organizing (as I am right now), it’s important for me to read these psalms, and the previous psalm we wrote together, to connect to the pleasures of doing faith formation with kids. And seriously, DONUT forget that God loves you!