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.
Ever cooler: a group of pelicans is called a squadron.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Nature and learning and whimsy restore my soul, but so does doing nothing. I made sure I got that in, too.
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?
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.
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
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.
And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.”
Matthew 3:17 NIV
Two weeks in a row I got to tell the story of Jesus being baptized by John to two different groups of kids at church, and the same thing struck me each time: the line, “with him I am well pleased.”
You know what Jesus had done at this point in his ministry?
Okay, once, after traveling with his family to Jerusalem to celebrate the Feast of Passover he stayed behind and talked with the teachers in the Temple court and amazed them with his understanding. But that’s it.
All it took for God to be well pleased with Jesus, was for Jesus to be. After all, Jesus was God’s son, God’s beloved child. And because we’ve been adopted into God’s family through Jesus, we have that same status.
God decided in advance to adopt us into his own family by bringing us to himself through Jesus Christ. This is what he wanted to do, and it gave him great pleasure.
Ephesians 1:5 NLT
So all we need to do for God to look at us and say, “You are my child, whom I love. With you I am very pleased,” is nothing.
God will not love you any more if you fast every week, if you sit on five committees or serve in three ministries at your church. God will not be any more pleased with you if you give up alcohol and sugar or if you spend three hours a day in prayer and Bible study. Those may make a big difference for you and for your church family, but none of them will make God love you any more than he already does–which is enough to send his only son to die for you.
As a do-er, I need this reminder.
It also made me think of the opening lines of “Wild Geese” by Mary Oliver, which has been much on social media lately:
You do not have to be good. You do not have to walk on your knees for a hundred miles through the desert repenting. You only have to let the soft animal of your body love what it loves.
My friend Ed Czyewski has a book entirely devoted to this subject, Flee, Be Silent, Pray, that is coming out next month (pre-order here). I’ve written before about the deep impact Ed has had on my spiritual life with this focus on being God’s beloved (Beloved), and now that I re-read the quote below that I highlighted a few years ago when he indie published Flee, it makes me laugh, because I literally typed it just now as if it were fresh to me.
“Whether you need a booming voice from heaven to shake you free from your anxious thoughts or you need a gentle whisper to call you back to your first love, God is speaking to you right now in this place…This message is for you if you can take it on faith, even right now: ‘You are my child, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.'”
This is why faith is the task of a lifetime: we need to hear the same stories, the same verses, the same ideas over and over and over, not only because we forget them over and over and over, but also because life changes us and we need them differently at different points.
Maybe you need this reminder now for different reasons than I needed it, so I’ll type it for a third time:
God says, “You are my child, whom I love. With you I am well pleased.”
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,
in some he’s in jail,
in others he’s got company.
Usually, the messages are uplifting.
Sometimes, Raschka chooses one that scolds.
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.
Last night, I (and a few hundred other people) went to a candlelight vigil sponsored by Temple Emanuel, Congregation Ahavas Israel, Jewish Federation of Grand Rapids, and Chabad House of Western Michigan in response to the murder of 11 people at Tree of Life in Pittsburgh last week. As with the other outdoor candlelight vigil I went to this past summer, it was too breezy to keep my candle lit. But unlike the last time, I was prepared: I’d downloaded a flashlight app on my phone so I held the candle next to that light. One intrepid boy had brought a battery-powered candle.
Some in the crowd passed out tin foil squares to put around the candles to protect them from the breeze, but they interfered with the sound system, creating feedback and causing it to go out for several minutes after the speakers began, so those had to go away. I watched Grand Rapids Police Chief David Rahinsky try to fix the speakers, with no luck. By the fourth speaker, the microphones were working, but I know I missed some good words.
On the one hand, it was a beautiful event. Any time people come together to support one another in mourning and try to reach for hope is a good thing. But people are, well, people. There were mutterings about not being able to hear. The Jewish women I stood near had varying opinions about the speakers and what they had to say. I was impressed that each speaker spoke fully out of their religious tradition: the Imam told the story of Cain and Abel using names from the Koran (different from the Torah and Bible names), and the Hindu woman prayed to God as Mother and omm-ed (which echoed around Calder Square).
Rabbi Michael Schadick of Temple Emanuel was the first to speak, his first words very simple: “We are here for shalom.” Shalom is one of those words that we can’t unpack with only one English word: peace, harmony, wholeness, completeness, prosperity, wellbeing, and tranquility.
He spoke about the man who murdered 11 worshippers at Tree of Life Temple in Pittsburgh:
“He hoped to kill our spirit, but he strengthened it.”
The cantor of Temple Emanuel lead the crowd in a song of Psalm 133 (CJB). Read the words while you listen to the song:
Oh, how good, how pleasant it isfor brothers to live together in harmony.
It is like fragrant oil on the headthat runs down over the beard,over the beard of Aharon,and flows down on the collar of his robes.
It is like the dew of Hermonthat settles on the mountains of Tziyon.For it was there that Adonai ordainedthe blessing of everlasting life.
Rev. David Baak, executive pastor at Westminster Presbyterian Church was the next to speak, and after him was Rev. Joe Jones, Second Ward City Commissioner. Jones quoted George Washington Carver:
Fear of something is at the root of hate for others, and hate within will eventually destroy the hater.
Jones also spoke about forgiveness being integral to the ability to love, which is true, but the women around me were not ready to hear that. I’ve certainly had seasons when I was not ready to talk forgiveness, when I had to ask God to make me even want to want to forgive. But how do you forgive a man who hates your people enough to murder them in their place of worship? To scream his hatred of Jews while being cared for by Jewish medical professionals? How do you forgive a murderer when you know that there are others out there like him, and because of that, you have to have armed guards at your synagogue? It feels like forgiving the ideology and culture that spawned those beliefs and that hatred.
Imam Morsy Salem of PLACE spoke next. It was such an interesting experience to listen to him unpack the story of Cain and Abel, aka Qābīl and Hābīl, but his message was clear: do not hate each other, do not kill each other.
Rabbi Yosef Weingarten of Chabad House said about prayer that it isn’t merely an opportunity to ask for what you need:
Prayer provides us with the opportunity to align our body and our soul with the…God above. In these moments of unspeakable pain, as we search for answers, we take refuge in our traditions–[in our Jewish tradition, mourning is not just about pain], but hope and conviction.”
He encouraged all of us to add just one small act of kindness in our daily lives to build each other up. In honor of the members and police officers who were injured in the shooting at Tree of Life, Rabbi Weingarten and Chief Rahinsky read Psalm 121 (CJB) as a prayer, the Rabbi in Hebrew and the Chief in English:
If I raise my eyes to the hills,from where will my help come?My help comes from Adonai,the maker of heaven and earth.He will not let your foot slip —your guardian is not asleep.No, the guardian of Isra’elnever slumbers or sleeps.
Adonai is your guardian; at your right handAdonai provides you with shade —the sun can’t strike you during the dayor even the moon at night.
Adonai will guard you against all harm;he will guard your life.Adonai will guard your coming and goingfrom now on and forever.
Following him were Father Robert Sirico of the Acton Institute and Rev. Colleen Squires of All Souls Community Church. Rev. Squires is a regular attender at Grand Rapids Association of Pastor meetings, so I know her a little bit. I was moved by the emotion in her voice as she talked about the hospitality of Congregation Ahavas Israel, which has given All Souls the space to worship for the last 13 years, and how it was both right and weighty to walk into their mutual building for services the day after the shooting.
Then came Teresa Thome of Self-Realization Fellowship (representing the Hindu faith) and Dr. Doug Kinshi of GVSU’s Kaufman Interfaith Center.
Rabbi David Krishev of Congregation Ahavas put it in stark words:
The question, ‘Am I willing to give up my life for my faith,’ is a question we don’t want to hear, and don’t want to answer. It is a question we thought we’d left behind.
He went on to list the people of various faiths who are being killed due to their beliefs. His desire was simple: “We, as people who believe in the power of religious community, want to continue to gather at our places of worship openly…and safely.”
Rabbi Schadick closed the event with a song from the end of the mourner’s Kaddish, lead by a soloist from Temple Emanuel:
He who creates peace in His celestial heights,
may He create peace for us and for all Israel;
and say, Amen.
It was a wonderful event, full of talk of love and respect and standing together against hate. I loved the use of Adonai instead of “the Lord” in the passages read; if felt so intimate. My favorite part was the singing–listening to those ancient words being sung all around me, all known by heart, was powerful. Those words have been said and sung in that form for many thousands of years. Those words and those messages have survived. They’ve survived many attempts to eradicate them and those who speak them, and they’ll survive this one, too.
I’ll add a few more from Psalm 95:7-8 (NLT) as my prayer for my fellow Christians who are consumed with fear and hate:
If only you would listen to his voice today! The Lord says, “Don’t harden your hearts…”
One of my favorite images for God in the Bible is the hen sheltering her chicks under her wings.
Let me live forever in your sanctuary, safe beneath the shelter of your wings!
Psalm 61:4 (NLT)
He alone is my refuge, my place of safety; he is my God, and I trust him…. He will cover you with his feathers. He will shelter you with his wings. His faithful promises are your armor and protection.
Psalm 91:2,4 (NLT)
How precious is your unfailing love, O God! All humanity finds shelter in the shadow of your wings.
Psalm 36:7 (NLT)
These are favorite verses of preachers and writers searching for more stereotypically feminine attributes of God, and one of the reasons I like them so much. They bring up images that are nurturing and cozy.
Sometimes we just need comfort and a little warmth, and those sheltering wings snuggling us close sounds just right. But life is not always cozy. Storms of all kinds descend on us (and sometimes we create them ourselves).
For those times, I like the image of God-as-hen from the video at the beginning. God is sheltering us under his wings, but we are wet and cold and suffering. It is far better to be with God than exposed to our storms on our own, but it isn’t necessarily going to be comfortable.
I am comforted by the assurance that my sadness or my misery in a stormy situation doesn’t mean that God isn’t with me, isn’t sheltering me: I am protected, but things are still kind of lousy.
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.
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.)
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
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
The 3-year-old-through-first-grade choir sung with great enthusiasm and charm.
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.
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.