The fad of 2016 meets the fad of 2017! It took me a while to finally get this combo trick, but the patience paid off….
I just finished a new book by Jeff Guinn and published by Simon and Schuster (2017) called The Road to Jonestown: Jim Jones and Peoples Temple. Before reading it, I had been aware of the general story of what happened in Guyana in 1978 and how a crazy cult leader somehow led over 900 people to their deaths in a religious-socialist commune carved out of the jungle.
But that was about all I knew. Guinn’s book takes the reader on a journey that explores the upbringing of Jim Jones and the story of the genesis, growth, and dramatic end of Peoples Temple. It is essentially a lesson in leadership: a warning as to what can happen when someone with strong leadership skills can horribly abuse their position of power to destructive ends. It came as no surprise that the poisonous problems that eventually led to a literal poisonous death for nearly a thousand people lay in one man: Jim Jones.
Just like the cyanide-laced powdered fruit drink (Flavor Aid, not Kool-Aid) that killed the cult, so also Jones himself was a mix of positive charm and destructive abuse. On the one hand, Jones boldly stood for racial equality, raising up the poor, and fighting injustice. Those things, along with his charismatic oratory skills and pseudo-pentecostal “healing” performances are what drew so many people to follow and adore him. But on the other hand, Jones was a dictatorial demagogue who stopped at nothing to ensure that his adoring followers remained wholly committed to what he called “the cause” and ultimately, to himself. As his following grew, so did his ego, his harem of mistresses, his drug abuse, and his physical and sexual abuse towards others (including raping a young teenage girl).
Towards the end, Jones had become so drugged, delusional, and apocalyptic in his thinking that it took very little to ignite his wrath. So when a US congressman (Leo Ryan) visited Jonestown to check on some of his California constituents whose relatives were concerned their loved ones may have been held against their will, Jones was convinced the world was against him. Ryan’s visit started smoothly, but quickly descended into a fiasco when some of the residents wanted to defect and go home with the congressman. Tensions flared, Ryan and some others were murdered while trying to leave the area, and Jones convened a group meeting to end it all before the US government retaliated by (supposedly) torturing all their children. 918 people died that day. Just a few dozen survived due to various circumstances (for example, the Jonestown basketball team was out of town that day playing another team and did not drink the poison). Two men (Stanley Clayton and Odell Rhodes) managed to slip into the jungle during the drinking ceremony and lived to tell valuable eye-witness accounts of the tragedy.
Jones had all the flags of a cult leader who was destined to go down in a ball of flames. What nobody saw, though, was the sheer number of people he was going to take down with him in his ball of flames on November 18, 1978. People have correctly pointed out that this was not a mass suicide, but rather a mass murder. Several hundred of the dead included infants and children who were force-fed the poison drink.
Guinn’s book reads like a thriller. I was immersed in the narrative from beginning to the end. What in the world led to this terrible end? Guinn attempts to answer that question by simply telling the story. I had to stop every few chapters and remind myself that this was a true story. But truth is stranger than fiction. And Jim Jones certainly did some strange things (like planting assistants in the audience to wave bloody chicken gizzards in the air and claim it was “cancer” that had just miraculously left the body). It is so sad, tragic, and sobering. It is a constant reminder how not to lead people. It is a story that shows just how destructive the human ego can become – especially when mixed into a poisonous concoction of lies, drugs, abuse….and a little colored sugar to make it look good on the outside.
Curt Nelson has a video that shows kids eating from a bag of M&M’s, not knowing that there are skittles hidden in the bags. The reactions are fun and it makes for a good intro to a Bible lesson about how we should “taste and see that the Lord is good.”
Check out the video here:
I do a lot of large group events. I’m always on the lookout for games that are fun and easy for huge crowds. When people come together in large groups, there is a lot of potential energy that can be tapped in the form of socialization, laughter, competition, and shared human experiences.
So here are some of the resources I have found to be particularly helpful in leading fun experiences for crowds of people:
This organization creates and sells (at super affordable rates) crowd games that you can run on your computer and then project on the big screen. Browse around at all they have to offer – http://crowdcontrolgames.com/
How about crowd thumb wrestling?! Invented by monochrom and officially called “massive Multiplayer Thumb-Wrestling.” Here is that game led by a game designer on the TED stage….
You can also lead your crowd in making the sounds of a thunderstorm. This video shows a choir on stage doing it. But you can just as easily lead an audience of any size in the same exercise:
I have also compiled a blog post category of group games over the years on this blog. There are over twenty entries and growing, so read through all these great crowd game ideas such as “Heads or Tails” and “Bring Me This.” Click here.
Juggling is really old.
Did you know that images of jugglers have been discovered on the walls of an ancient Egyptian tomb that is about 4,000 years old? Near the town of modern-day Minya, Egypt, you can visit the Beni Hasan tombs. In tomb number 15, you can see an unmistakable illustration of multiple women juggling balls or rocks of some sort (some to themselves and some with one another). Researcher Billy Gillen believes the juggling had some sort of religious funerary significance to it – like an offering of performance art made on behalf of the deceased (Juggler’s World, Vol. 38, No. 2). The first image is a darkening of the drawing. The second image is a still shot of a video someone took inside the actual tomb.
Other depictions of juggling throughout history have been discovered as well, like this illustration of a juggler on a tomb wall in China that is nearly 2,000 years old (Dahuting Tomb, Eastern Han Dynasty, 25-220 CE, Zhengzhou, Henan province, China):
You can actually see the newly acquired skill of juggling show up as grey matter in a brain scan!
In 2004, a group of scholars published an article in the journal Nature that described how they found new areas of grey matter on brain scans of people who had recently learned how to juggle. Basically, they did brain scans on a group of people. They then split the group into two parts and taught one part of the group how to juggle over a three-month period. The people who learned how to juggle then showed new grey matter in a particular part of the brain while the non-jugglers showed no new grey matter. Furthermore, the new jugglers intentionally let their new skill fade away for the study. They stopped practicing for three months. A final scan was done at that point and the grey matter had faded into a smaller size of grey matter!
This means that when it comes to our brains, if we don’t use it, we literally lose it (that is, the muscle memory we had built up when originally learning something). It also shows what is called the neuro-plasticity of our brains. Our brains can grow and learn new things throughout our entire lives (and conversely lose things that we stop working on). Contrary to popular belief, you can teach an old dog new tricks.
Here is the reference for the article: Bogdan Draganski, Christian Gaser, Volker Busch, Gerhard Schuierer, Ulrich Bogdahn & Arne May. “Neuroplasticity: Changes in grey matter induced by training.” Nature 427, 311-312 (22 January 2004).
Juggling is a powerful force of art.
Pretty much all art has the power to communicate messages in remarkable ways. I have found that the art of juggling is no exception. This does not mean we should necessarily “exploit” art for the purpose of communication. Often, art stands on its own as great art with no intended message. But if I want to teach children about the solar system, character development, gravity, or about loving one’s neighbor, I have found that juggling will not only hold their attention for the message, but it also helps them visualize a point and even retain it for a long period of time.
Let me give an example: One of my first shows when I was just starting out was a Parent’s Night Out event at a church in Marion, Indiana (Hanfield United Methodist Church). I was a young college student at Taylor University just down the road. I was responsible for entertaining of room of about 30 or 40 kids on Valentine’s Day evening while their parents went out on a date. I performed my show, the kids loved it, the parents came back, and everyone went home happy.
So happy, in fact, that the event organizer invited me back the following year for the same event on Valentine’s Day. I was still young and new at performing, so this was my first repeat customer. I figured it had been an entire year since my last show, so there would be no problem performing the same routine…right?
I was wrong. I started my show that second year and noticed that many of the same kids from the previous year were in the crowd. How did I know? They started feeding me the lines of my stories and jokes before the words came out of my mouth! They had remembered my words A YEAR LATER. I was dumbfounded. What if kids could retain everything they learn in school and church the same way?
I realized two truths while performing that show: Number one, juggling is a powerful tool for teaching as it somehow causes children to remember whatever you’re saying with the show with amazing precision. Number two, I needed to work on some new material!
So I often present some sort of story or message along with my show. It might be a Biblical story for a faith-based group or a topic related to hard work and character development for a school assembly. I also perform shows that are strictly entertainment. Those are fun too, because we all know that sometimes, the best thing to do is just relax and laugh without a particular message or agenda being presented.
Which brings me to my final story: I once was asked to perform for a group of mostly Arab children in the Palestinian city of Bethlehem at one of the schools there. The year was 2000, and I was a study-abroad student that semester at Jerusalem University College. What became known as The Second Intafada flared up while I was there. It was a period of intense fighting between the Israeli army and Palestinian fighters.
My host was one of the school’s administrators and showed me around a village that had been destroyed by the fighting the night before I came. These children lived and saw war all around them. I humbly stood before them and performed my juggling show. They laughed and had a great time. So did I.
After the show, my host came up to me and said, “Thank you so much, Jesse. This is exactly what these kids needed. When they go outside for recess, they play funeral. They line up in a procession and pretend to carry a coffin and march through the playground. What you did today made them laugh and brought smiles to their faces. Thank you.”
Play funeral?! Wow. And here I am, just a silly juggler from another country doing something that I enjoy doing. I didn’t have all the answers to their troubles and I certainly don’t have all the answers to war. But the little bit that I did by doing a juggling show somehow helped, even if just in a small way. The small things we do (whether juggling or something else) can be more powerful than we ever know.
Do you juggle? If so, what are some surprising things you’ve learned about juggling in your life? If you don’t juggle, what are some surprising things you’ve learned about life from your interests, hobbies, and work?
“Let the little children come to me.” – Jesus of Nazareth
This past Sunday was a snow day in our part of the country. Most churches closed due to weather. When my wife, daughter, and I made our way downstairs to make some breakfast together, my wife suggested that we have a family devotional time. Since our daughter is six, we have the Jesus Storybook Bible, a summarized version of the Bible that tells the major stories on a level that children can easily understand. Sarah, my wife, thought it would be nice to read a chapter from that book and then say a prayer together.
It was looking like an idyllic family devotional time until we told our daughter about the idea. For some reason (maybe because she had just woken up and because of the magical snow outside), she was not in the mood to have a family devotional time together. She started to cop an attitude and resisted the idea of reading a Bible story together and praying together.
My mind and heart raced for a response. I knew that I had two primary ways of responding: be a dictator and insist that our daughter cheer up and join us in this spiritual moment OR give her the freedom to choose whether or not to join us parents in a devotional reading and prayer.
I chose the latter. I decided that I did not want to force or demand participation in something so special as a time of worship. Instead, I chose the option of invitation. I invited her to the table with us, knowing that she could freely opt out without any hard feelings.
So my wife and gathered at the table, held hands, and started praying. Our daughter was in next room, free to do as she pleased.
While Sarah and I were praying, something beautiful happened…..with our eyes closed, we suddenly felt a small hand join in on top of ours. It was our daughter, freely accepting the invitation to join us in worship. My heart melted for a moment and then we continued our prayer and then read some of the devotional book together. From that point forward, our daughter was actively engaged and the attitude was gone.
I tell this story knowing that not every similar case ends that way. But I couldn’t help but notice a general principle at play that I have noticed when working with children and families in worship settings (or humans of all ages for that matter).
Here is the principle: the idea of invitation. I believe it is critical to invite people to worship and engage with Jesus rather than to force, coerce, or bribe people to such things. For those of us who lead worship experiences, that can feel risky. What if nobody wants to come? What if nobody responds? What if they all walk away? The answer is, it doesn’t matter. What matters is stepping out and worshiping God in Spirit and in truth and offering a free invitation to anyone else who wants to join in. God will work in the hearts of those He is calling to join for that particular time. And if some do not join in at that time, that’s fine. God may still be working in their hearts, just on a different pace or with a different big-picture story.
I wonder if many people are resistant to the Church and to God today because at some point in their lives (probably their childhoods) they felt forced or coerced to do something spiritual. The last thing we want to do to children is communicate the message that God is a dictator that makes them do things they don’t want to do.
Remember that Jesus said “Let the little children come to me” (Mark 10:14; emphasis mine). He did not say, “Make the little children come to me.” The irony in that passage is that the disciples were actually holding the children back. The children wanted to play with Jesus. And Jesus simply said “Let them come to me.”
I got this idea from a friend of mine at Camp Orchard Hill, Derek Hodne. I did some searching online and discovered that many other people have taken this game and packaged it into various retail forms, such as Watch Ya Mouth, Speak Out, and Mouthguard Challenge.
The game is simple, and you can do it yourself with a small or large group setting with a little creativity. The supplies needed are the plastic mouth spacers (cheek retractors) that dentists use to hold back lips and cheeks while they work on patients. You can grab a dozen of them on amazon.com for about $12 ($1 per spacer).
You give a player the spacer and they put it in their mouth. Then you give them a phrase to try to say and the other players have to decipher the phrase. The spacer makes it near impossible to pronounce words with sounds like “M”, “B”, “P” or other phonetics that bring the lips together. So phrases like, “Mommy buys peanuts at the market” can be both difficult and entertaining at the same time.
When my friend Derek administered the game, it was at a gathering of hundreds of high school students. He called up about eight players onto the stage and split them into two teams of four each. Each team had one player with the cheek retractor and the other three were the phrase guessers. It was fun for the rest of the crowd to watch as Derek held the microphone up to the teams while they played.
Try it with your group (large or small) and have fun!
This is a common question I hear parents asking one another at Christmas time. The question comes from different perspectives and experiences that people have had with the story, tradition, and character of that jolly man, Santa.
We’ve all heard stories of the proverbial thirteen year-old kid (or older) who finds out from their friends that Santa is not real and then cries for days both because there really is no Santa Claus and because they felt lied to all those years.
We also know the stories of the “magic” of Christmas that children feel and the joy of watching them believe in a generous and mysterious character that comes down their chimney and leaves gifts and takes cookies.
Here are three primary responses to the question that I’ve seen/heard. There, of course, is a spectrum in between these three major categories. Perhaps you fall into one of them. I would love to hear where you might be on this scale and why…..
- YES: Of course there’s a Santa Claus (wink)! These are the parents who play the game and are all in. They make sure the narrative of Santa lives on in the imaginative minds of their children. Many of these parents try to prolong the magic of Christmas as far as they can into the childhoods of their kids. To these parents, Santa is a good person who does good and is a good example to everyone in that he generously gives gifts at Christmas time. The presents under the tree are undeniably from Santa Claus. These parents may never reveal to their kids that Santa is imaginary and simply let their children figure things out as they age. The extremist parents of this view still believe in Santa themselves 🙂
- KINDA: We’re not big about Santa Claus, but he’s unavoidable, so we’re not against him either. These are the parents who try to take the middle ground of wanting their kids to enjoy the Santa narrative of Christmas while at the same time not wanting to “lie” to their children. The presents under the tree may or may not be from Santa Claus, and the parents do not go to great lengths to keep the fictionality of Santa from their children. Some parents might try to “redeem” the story of the historical figure Saint Nicholas and tie that into the Biblical meaning of Christmas.
- NO: We don’t ‘do’ Santa Claus. This imaginary character distorts the message of Christmas. These are the parents who have either a theological conviction against the glorification of this ever-evolving fictional character or a moral conviction against what they consider to be lying to their children (or both). ALL the presents under the tree are from actual people (like from Mommy to daughter or Uncle Joe to Sally). The extreme side of this view avoids all depictions of and interactions with Santa Claus in an effort to focus on the Biblical story of Christmas and the person of Jesus Christ.
The interesting thing about these three views (and all the others in between) is that we all share the public sphere together, and the question comes up as to how to approach the topic of Santa in public regardless of one’s personal position. If you are a part of position three, should you proactively “ruin” the story for others when given the chance? If you adhere to position one, should you (like Will Farrell’s Elf character) be actively proselytizing others to believe in Santa Claus?
So how do you respond when someone says, “Do you ‘do’ Santa Claus?” What do you explain to your children and at what ages? What are your reasons for doing so?
If you’re curious as to where Sarah and I fall on this spectrum, you can find some clues to our answer in a previous post I made about Santa Claus here. But I am more interested in all the other different perspectives out there. So feel free to share.
I have written a 13-lesson curriculum called “Big God, Little Kids.” It is a series of lessons built around stories of God doing big things through ordinary kids in the Bible. You are free to use it for any non-profit ministry setting such as Sunday School, Children’s Church, Vacation Bible School, or the like.
I have provided the introduction and a preview lesson right here. If you want the rest of the lessons, those are free too. To get the rest, simply sign up for my once-a-month newsletter and email me that you did so (these instructions are also at the end of the free preview).
Click the link below to access. Enjoy!
I am happy to announce that I will be performing at First Night Virginia in Charlottesville on New Year’s Eve! My shows will be at 3pm and 5:30pm, respectively. Bring the whole family and tell your friends about it too. There are lots of other activities and entertainers for the whole family. See you there!
Here is the link to their website so you can learn all about it: http://www.firstnightva.org/