Tag Archives: Research

Popcorn Prayers

The king said to me, “What is it you want?” Then I prayed to the God of heaven, and I answered the king, “If it pleases the king…..”
Nehemiah 2:4-5a (NIV)

I was honored a few weeks ago when I was asked to pray for our meal at my high school reunion. In part, I was honored because it has become increasingly common for prayers at public events to be ignored our outright forbidden. I also realize that I and my classmates grew up in a time when public prayer was hotly debated along with questions regarding whether it was appropriate for public school choirs to sing sacred music at events such as commencement.

I can remember during some of these debates about “school prayer” that it was humorously acknowledged that the school building will always be the center of a million prayers during finals week. Of course, there is a difference between a public prayer at a school event and the silent prayer students staring at the test that has just been placed before them.

For those who are not regular readers, I have been blogging through what’s known as the exilic books of God’s Message in recent months. These are the writings of the ancient Hebrews who experienced being taken into captivity by the Assyrian, Babylonian, and Medo-Persian empires. They eventually returned to Jerusalem to rebuild and restore their homeland. Being an exile, in its very essence, means living away from home, and being in exile often means a loss of power, control, and public standing. My local gathering of Jesus’ followers is currently exploring the notion that the people of God are, by nature, exilic and what that means for us in the 21st century.

Nehemiah was a cupbearer for the Persian king, Artaxerxes. In today’s chapter, Nehemiah could not hide his grief while serving in the king and queen’s presence. It was, in those days, deemed inappropriate to show any kind of negative emotion in the presence of the king. On a whim, the king could have his servant executed for such an infraction. So when Artaxerxes notices the depressed look on his cupbearer’s face, Nehemiah’s immediate fear was warranted.

What I found interesting is that the phrase “Then I prayed to the God of heaven” is sandwiched in between the king’s question and Nehemiah’s response. There is no way that Nehemiah said, “Can you hang on a few minutes while I get on my knees and pray for a while?” Nehemiah’s prayer to the God of heaven had to have been what I call a “popcorn prayer.” A popcorn prayer is the silent, sudden, internal exclamation of my spirit to God’s Spirit in an instant. It’s exactly what I did as a student before every Biology test (science was not my thing).

According to a 2017 survey by the Barna, 79 percent of Americans said they had prayed in the previous three months. Barna found prayer to be the most common faith practice among American adults, but it was also the most multi-faceted. In fact, the researcher concluded that “the most common thing about people’s prayers is that they are different.”

Along my spiritual journey, I’ve discovered that my own prayer life is much like Barna’s research. It’s multi-faceted. I do, at times, spend set periods of time in prayer. Sometimes, I audibly talk to God while I’m alone in my car driving. Wendy and I pray together before meals, and often we will pray together when it is just the two of us traveling in the car. I’ve sometimes described my life journey itself as one long, uninterrupted conversation with God. I’m constantly aware of God’s presence, and my “popcorn prayers” are popping constantly in the heat of Life’s microwave oven.

Our culture has shifted in the 35 years since I graduated from high school. I know some who see this as a source of grief, anxiety, fear, and even anger. Sociologists and scholars are calling our current culture the “post-Christain” world. Frankly, I’m not that worried about it. In fact, I think it might just be a good thing. Throughout the Great Story, it’s clear that God’s people flourish, not when they are in power, but when they live in exile. It’s a paradox that Jesus said He came to model and that He told his followers to embrace:

“You’ve observed how godless rulers throw their weight around, how quickly a little power goes to their heads. It’s not going to be that way with you. Whoever wants to be great must become a servant. Whoever wants to be first among you must be your slave. That is what the Son of Man has done: He came to serve, not be served—and then to give away his life in exchange for the many who are held hostage.”

Jesus (Matthew 20:25-28 [MSG])

Paul, one of Jesus’ early followers, put it this way:

That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.

Paul of Tarsus (2nd Letter to the Corinthians 12:10 [NIV])

In the quiet this morning I find my head swimming in thoughts of culture, and power, and exile, and prayer. Nehemiah found himself a servant to the King of a foreign empire. Artaxerxes had the power to execute Nehemiah for having a frown on his face, and yet his precarious position of impotence led him to depend on his faith in the power and purposes of God. Isn’t that the very spiritual reality that Jesus wanted us to embrace?

As I finish this post I’m saying a popcorn prayer for any and all who read it. Hope you have a great day, my friend.

Good Doctor Luke

Mattias Stom's depiction of Mark (distracted and looking at us - he probably already finished his 16 chapter cliff notes version on Jesus' life) and Luke (still hard at work with his research).
Mattihas Stom’s depiction of Mark (distracted and looking at us – he probably already finished his 16 chapter cliff notes version on Jesus’ life) and Luke (still hard at work with his research).

With this in mind, since I myself have carefully investigated everything from the beginning, I too decided to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus….
Luke 1:3 (NIV)

This morning I was up early and spent some time hyperlinking all of the chapters of 1 Chronicles, which we just finished yesterday, into the Chapter-a-Day Index. As I was doing this mundane task I began to think about all of these posts I’ve written day-by-day for over eight years. My brain, still fogged by sleep, had a silly thought: “If I was running for President [talk about a nightmare for all of us], and both the press and public started pouring over my blog to find out more about me, what would they conclude about me based on what I’ve written?”

I then opened to the Luke’s biography of Jesus to start on this morning’s chapter and read Luke’s introduction to Theophilus, the person to whom Luke addressed his account of Jesus’ life. Having just been thinking about what your writing reveals about the person, I realized how much Dr. Luke [traditional holds that he was a physician] revealed about himself in his introduction.

  • He is methodical, making sure that his “orderly” account was properly introduced. There’s a formality to Luke’s style and structure.
  • He notes that his account is the result of “careful investigation,” and I could imagine the brain of a scientist at work.
  • He had researched everything “from the beginning.” The good doctor was thorough as well as methodical.

As I’ve poured over the “big four” biographies of Jesus countless times, I’ve come to appreciate particular things that are unique to each. The thing that I quickly observed in reading Dr. Luke’s investigative report, and which I have come to greatly appreciate over the years, is that it contains small details and entire episodes in the story of the life of Jesus that aren’t found in the accounts of Matthew, Mark, and John. A physician diagnosing the events he’d witnessed, you can feel Luke’s brain systematically questioning, researching, cataloging, and filing all of the facts so as to lay them out to Theophilus in the most clear and logical manner. These details and episodes provide incredible color and context to the story.

This morning, I am thankful for context and color. I’m thankful for diverse peoples and personalities whom God created to bring that color and context to both His-story and to each of our own stories. I’m thankful for Dr. Luke, whose physician’s brain does not work like mine (I think I’m more like John), and his meticulous investigation which I have enjoyed and from which I have greatly benefitted.

Preparing for a Role: Digging Into the Character

scriptworkAs an actor, I want an audience to willingly suspend their disbelief for a couple of hours and really believe that I am the character I’m portraying. When I step on stage in Ah, Wilderness! I want those who know me to forget that they’re watching Tom Vander Well and get sucked into the life and times of Nat Miller. The better I understand the character of Nat Miller, the more likely I am to succeed, and understanding the character takes work. It means being researcher, detective, historian, psychologist, artist, and writer.

Character work is one of the most enjoyable parts of the acting process for me. Here is a brief description of some of the steps I go through as I’m digging into a character:

  • What does the playwright say about the character? Eugene O’Neill does a nice job of describing his characters. Nat Miller is described: “in his late fifties, a tall, dark, spare man, a little stoop-shouldered, more than a little bald. Nat’s face has large, irregular, undistinguished features, but he has fine, shrewd, humorous gray eyes.” I may not look exactly like O’Neill describes, but I get a sense of Nat from words like “spare,” “stoop shouldered,” “humorous,” and “shrewd.”
  • What do other characters in the play say about my character? In one scene my character is off stage, my wife and the other adults talk about the fact that Nat always talks about being allergic to a certain kind of fish even thought my wife has served it to me for years without me knowing it. So, I like to repeat myself and have certain strong beliefs that might not always be accurate. It hints at a playfulness between Nat and his wife. In another scene, a salesman and bartender speak about my characters ability to make life difficult for them, hinting at Nat’s prominence and clout in the community.
  • What do I learn about my character from his own words and actions? Nat uses “hm” a lot, which is very interesting. We all have vocal idiosyncrasies, and that’s one of his along with repeating phrases: “Couldn’t help it. Just couldn’t help it!” Nat puts on a strong, authoritative role when his children are around, but when it comes to actually having an intimate discussion with his son he’s reduced to babbling.
  • In what time and culture does my character live? How would that make him different than me? What was life like then in that place? 1906 was a more proper time. Proper in the way people dress, talk, and the manners they use around the house. The Millers have a servant and an automobile, hinting at the fact that they are well off in that time. How would that change the way I act and relate to others compared to being lower class at that time? How does that effect my expectations of the children in their lives, words, actions, and how they are viewed by the community?
  • What is my characters age and occupation? What was that like? Nat owns a newspaper. Some internet research about what the newspaper business was like in 1906, specifically in Connecticut yielded some interesting results. Yellow journalism was rampant in that day. Newspapers not only reported the news but helped rise and destroy people and their careers. Most newspapers were backed by political parties and were the vehicle of how a political party got their views out. What party was Nat Miller affiliated with? What were his political connections? How did he use his paper to get ahead or influence his community?
  • What is my characters life story? One of the exciting things about acting is the fact that you get some creative control. I will often take my character journal and spend some time doing free writing in a stream-of-consciousness style. I’ll invent an entire back story. What were Nat’s parents like? When did his family come to America? What was his childhood like? Where did he go to school? How did he meet his wife? What dreams did he have as a child? How did he come to own the newspaper? It can be challenging to take hints and clues you find in the script and fill in gaps. The more completely you flesh out the character, the easier it becomes to step into character when you’re on stage. Your lines and the relationships with other characters on stage take on new depth and layers of meaning.
  • What is my relationship with the other characters on stage? Nat has four children in the show and two who do not appear in the play. What does he think of each of his children? Does he have a favorite? His sister is visiting. What was their relationship like growing up? Again, a character journal and some free writing can yield interesting thoughts and discoveries that may turn into interesting choices for how to play a line or react to another character.

Of course, this is all work that takes place outside of rehearsal. It is the homework of an actor’s preparation. Just like school, the more work you do outside of class the more prepared you are when it comes to the discussion in class and the eventual test. It is no different when it comes to the stage. A little work outside of rehearsal can make a big difference in both the rehearsal and in the eventual performance.

[Ah, Wilderness! is being produced by the Theatre Department of Central College under the direction of Ann Wilkinson. It will be performed on the campus of Central College in Pella, Iowa Feb 27 through March 3, 2013.]