May 27, 2006

The Lull

Here I am posing with some of Barbara's art work at our school book and art fair.

This week has been a quiet one for us here in Saipan.

It was my last week of “regular” classes and I was scrambling to get everything in. In addition I devoted about two hours everyday to having the students take their SAT-10 achievement tests (not to be confused with S.A.T.s). On Wednesday, we had our annual book and art fair at the school.

Last night we dropped by the wedding reception of my friend Dan, the Hollywood actor, writer and director, who implausibly moved to Saipan three years ago. He married his girlfriend, Ji Hua in a simple ceremony yesterday afternoon at the mayor’s office and then invited friends to celebrate with them at Hamilton’s, one of the oldest restaurants on Saipan—our island’s own version of “Cheers.” The place feels as if it’s been put together piecemeal over the years by combining several residential structures. In one building is the restaurant “proper.” Another building houses another small dining area and a tiny bar. In between the two building is a patio-like area with more tables. Even the location seems accidental. It’s not on a main street, there are no large signs, no vast parking lot. This legendary and popular places is buried in a residential area. You drive around behind some homes, down what seems like someone’s driveway, until you arrive at what looks like someone’s house. Except it’s Hamilton’s.

Dan and I became friends through his involvement with Journeys, the TV drama I helped create and direct a couple of years ago (and which now languishes in a rough cut somewhere, still unseen due to lack of funds). In many ways we couldn’t be more different. He is of Jewish heritage, but a Buddhist by choice, born in New York, found early success in Hollywood, even earning a People’s Choice Award for his role in the 80’s mini-series The Blue and the Gray. Stardom just barely passed him by, and in recent years the roles have been fewer and further between. He was teaching acting in Los Angeles when the opportunity to come to Saipan appeared. Dan is funny, compassionate, and passionate about what he does. Ji Hua seems to be the perfect match for Dan. While he is the consummate artist, perhaps a bit flighty and temperamental at times, she is solid, grounded, and no nonsense. She is kind and gentle, but you sense that this is a very strong, independent woman. I wish them all the best and I’m glad we could share in their joy.

I wish I had pictures but as a new blogger, I’ve not yet learned the value of having a camera with me at all times. A friend, Niles, is supposed to e-mail me some of his pictures but I have a feeling he forgot. But, if he remembers, I’ll add a photo from the party to this entry.

We’re winding down to the end of the year, and the next two weeks will be very busy. Here’s a preview of what’s coming: Sunday is preschool graduation. Monday will be a busy day at the school (there are no classes because of Memorial Day, but this is the perfect opportunity to get some grading done). I’ll be meeting with my new directorial team for REAL Christian Theater and our manager for lunch, and taking out two of my former students who are graduating from high school for dinner as a graduation gift. On Tuesday is kindergarten graduation, Wednesday is rehearsal for my 8th graders’ graduation, Thursday is 8th grade graduation, and Friday is the last day of school. Saturday night is our staff party, next Sunday is the 25th wedding anniversary celebration of Manny and Kathleen, two members of our church. Monday we’re taking the 8th graders to Pacific Islands Club, a hotel near our school with a water park to spend the night. Tuesday we’ll be at the water park all day. Wednesday, we’re aiming to have our final meeting with our Marriage Encounter group, and Thursday I’ll be taking another group of my former students out for dinner as a graduation gift. Friday, June 9 is the first day in the next two weeks where we don’t have anything planned (yet). And on Wednesday, June 14 I leave for the States!

Here's Babs and Kimo napping. I've finally broken down and allowed Kimo into the last sacred place left-our bed. I still don't like it, and I insist that she stay on Barbara's side of the bed, and to my relief Kimo generally doesn't like to stay on the bed very much. Usually she's not on the bed for more than 20 minutes at most at a time. Full disclosure: This picture is actually posed. I saw them sleeping, and thought awwww, isn't that sweet? But by the time I got the camera and got in posistion to take the photo all my preparations had awakened them and I had to get them to "re-enact" it. But it represents a "true picture" even if this one is "faked." Below is another picture after the "fake nap" one.

Be sure to check out my latest musings on The DaVinci Code in FAITH JOURNEYS!

May 21, 2006

"Paradise Found"

Sunday,May 14, 2006

Barbara and I on the boat in paradise, the rock islands of Palau.

Sunday morning dawned bright and, yes, early once again. Though the “work” of the tour was finished, we had an 8 o clock appointment with Paluan Senator Sam Whipps who had generously volunteered to take us out to the Rock Islands free of charge. One does not keep the Senator waiting.

So we were up by 7 and eating breakfast in PPR’s gorgeous open air restaurant overlooking the beach.

By shortly after 8 we were on the Senator’s boat speeding out into the one wonders of the natural world—the Rock Islands of Palau. You’ve seen them on Survivor but trust me the show doesn’t do them justice. Over 300 limestone islands, many undercut by the ocean over time so that they resemble giant green mushrooms, make up Palau, and they are unlike anything in the world. I’ll let the pictures speak for themselves. My words won’t do them justice.

A typical rock island

This tour that Senator Whipps gave us was unbelievable. We could have paid $300 a piece and it would have been worth every penny (not that we had any such money. We’d already gone through our meager budget and now everything was being paid for out Bab’s and I’s own pocket). The Senator knows the Rock Islands intimately and he seemed to have designed a special tour for us that reveal new wonders at every turn.

Our first stopped made me fear that we were in for a repeat of our last tour to Palau where our hosts had left us marooned on island (albeit a beautiful one) for five hours while they went fishing. We stopped off a rock island, and the Senator sent some of the teachers from the SDA School in Palau in to do little net fishing. The Senator would toss in the net, and we had to jump in right after it to scare the schools of fish into the net which the teachers would then drag back to the boat. We never got our jumps in fast enough and we didn’t catch a lot. But we caught enough. Later we would find that the fishing stop was an important part of a later prize adventure. Even there, floating at anchor while they fished there were hints of wonders to come. Looking into the crystalline water we saw what we thought was dark patches of silvery seaweed, until we realized these patches moved and were great schools of fish.

Our next stop was Jellyfish Lake, a standard stop on any Rock Island tour. The marine lake, entrapped in a rock island is accessible by a somewhat arduous hike up the rock island and down the other side to the lake. The lake is deep, and a dark midnight blue in contrast of with the aquamarine and turquoise of the water around the island. We put masks and snorkels and start swimming out away from where the jungle shades the lake and out to where the sun shines brightly on the lake’s surface. Jellyfish Lake, by the way, is filled with millions of jellyfish that, over the millennia in their protected environment, have lost their ability to sting. The kids snorkel out and return. I ask if they’ve seen any jellyfish. “I saw one” cried the Diva, very excited. Having been here before, I know they have not swum out far enough. Finally, I take to the water and the lead way to where Bono Girl and Friday (who have also been here before) are snorkeling with the Gentleman. I keep swimming until I see what I remember. I’m surrounded by jellyfish on every side, millions of them floating and pulsating all round me like pale pink aquatic flowers. I have to swim carefully to avoid killing dozens of them with my kicks. I reach out to touch them, and they are soft, like, well, jelly. Despite having been here before I am awed and amazed all over again by their gentle, quiet beauty.

I'm not sure, but I believe this is at the Rose Garden. I wish I had an underwater camera. At least half the beauty of Palau is found there.

After Jellyfish Lake we next proceed to the Rose Garden, a patch of coral amongst the Rock Islands where numberless tropical fish gather. (The fact that the Senator is throwing bread and rice into the water helps too). We jump in with mask and snorkel and the fish food rains over us. The fish swarm around us, brilliantly hued, yellow and black stripes, silvery rainbow colored fish, orange and white, red—every color imaginable and some I can’t describe, all swimming all around. So close you’re sure you’re going to bump into them, but unlike the jellyfish, they never touch us even when they are inches from our masks, swarming around our bodies. Deeper down, larger fish in less brilliant colors, at least half my size in lazy, royal ellipses, too proud to join in the feeding frenzy near the surface. I’m in awe. Absolutely awestruck.

Next Senator takes us to t Giant Clam City. I don’t see much of this because I’m having mask issues, but before my mask would fill with water, I did catch a few watery glimpses of the massive clams, clams the size of recliners, on the ocean floor their mouths open. “You can touch them. Just don’t stick your hand in their mouths otherwise you’ll never get it back” says one teacher. “Don’t touch them at all,” another teacher warns. I’m going with not touching them at all.

“Now we’re going to go see some sharks,” the Senator declares. He’s joking right? We look at each other and laugh nervously. “Now when you get there, you must be very still or the sharks will not come.” We WANT them to come? Apparently he isn’t joking. “We don’t want to scare them.” We don’t? We arrive at a rock island with a sandy white beach. There are a lot of tourists on the beach lunching, and others swimming in the shallows. We swim off the boat and wade to near the shore. The water can’t be more than waist deep. “Now put on your masks and snorkels and look under water,” the Senator instructs. Remember those fish we got with the net? He tosses them into the water a few yards in front of us. Immediately fish swarm in to feast. For a few moments, that’s all we see and then—THERE—a large—very large, gray shape darts out of the recesses of the ocean, darts into the mass of feeding fish, gulping down something. It’s unmistakable, the muscular, sleek gray body, the pointed fins—it’s a shark and BAM there’s another one! A pair of them powering through the water within just yards. . .FEET away. And I’m not scared. Instead I’m thrilled, amazed, wowed. I want to see more. This blows away any Sea World shark encounter—we’re in the water WITH them. Several times more, we see a pair of sharks (probably the same pair), each at least as long as I am (and a whole lot bigger around) swim in to snack. “Oh well, that wasn’t so great,” the Senator sighs. “We really needed to come earlier, not when it’s lunch time and there are not so many people around. They’re scaring them away.” That it could get better than this is unfathomnable to me.

The view from the boat of us "shark watching"

No, it's not Bob Marley. It's just me. Lunchtime in the Rock Islands.
And there’s still more. After a nice bento lunch on one of the rock islands (the same one we got left at two years ago) we’re back out on the water, this time we go to Ngemlis Island and the famed Ngemlis Wall, one of the best wall dives in the world. And the snorkeling isn’t too shabby either. Here the a shelf of coral coming off the island drops off in a sheer wall that drops hundreds of feet down. The wall is festooned with brilliant corals, hard and soft, and people by thousands of varieties of tropical fish. Snorkeling along this wall is like being in some sort of enchanted wonderland. You know that movie Finding Nemo? It’s exactly like that. . .except it’s not a cartoon. They even have those weird little fish (remember the ones that spelled out words in the cartoon—well they don’t do THAT part) that dart about in schools at hyper speed.

Me in the boat at Ngemlis Wall and. . .

. . .Me the snorkeling the wall. Note the darker color of the water indicating the greater depth, as the wall plunges deep into the ocean.

For about twenty minutes I followed a sea turtle as it meandered along the wall. Finally Friday who was snorkeling close by dived down to it, close enough to touch. It turned and swam up toward me, passing within a little more than an arms length of me. We snorkeled along the wall for what seemed like hours and I never, ever got bored (though my fingers did begin to get numb from being in the water so long and my back fried like bacon). No words do it justice. Maria said she almost cried from the beauty of it, and I understood.

That was our last stop, after that the Senator returned us to the dock at PPR and we ended our rock island adventure satisfied.

Back from the rock islands, the team is sunburnt and tired, but happy. Thanks Senator Whipps!

Me, the "island guy" back at PPR after a day in the rock islands.

We finished out the day with some more souvenir shopping at Ben Franklin and then went to the home of Vince (my running buddy who teaches grades ½ at our school in Saipan). Her family is one of the leading families of Palau and very wealthy. They prepared a feast for us at their beautiful mountaintop home and we ate well. In appreciation we gave a brief performance of some of our sketches for their entertainment.

Then it was back to the hotel to pack up. And at 11:30 we checked out of PPR (except for my wife and CK Girl who wouldn’t leave Palau until Weds. Lucky them) and went to the airport. We were exhausted, but exhilarated. It had been our best theater tour ever and a memory we would treasure always.

The REAL Christian Theater team with new friendsat the airport Sunday night getting ready to return to Saipan.

"Smiling, Crying, and Celebrity"

Sabbath, May 13,2006

“There are some things you shouldn’t get too good at,” Bono of U2 croons in the song “Original of the Species,” “like smiling, crying, and celebrity.” If there was any pitfall to an otherwise beautiful day this, would have been it.

Another very early morning for us. The main SDA church in Koror began with the church service at 9:00 A.M. sharp, followed by Sabbath School. Since we WERE the church program, we HAD to be on time. So the morning was hectic. I was still working on the final draft of my sermon. Everyone had to be packed up because we wouldn’t be returning to the Norton House that day. We were spending the rest of the tour at the palatial Palau Pacific Resort, which came as part of our airfare package. A remarkably generous student missionary named Shane had offered to drive all of our bags to the hotel before church so we wouldn’t have to mess with them. Of course that meant we had to get the bags packed. The worship team and special music participants HAD to get to the church before nine so they could rehearse. The music people left first with Harry’s dad (who just moved to Palau and kindly helped drive us about throughout the weekend). The rest of us were NOT on time. We arrived around 9:15 A.M. just as the praise and worship was ending.

For special music, Holly and CK Girl sang Amy Grant’s “Carry You” (our “theme song” for the weekend) while the Rock and Peterson (a former REAL Christian Theater club member from last season who has sense moved back to his native Palau) accompanied them on piano and guitar respectively. In another miracle, they pulled the song off even though they were still hashing out the chords even as it was time to go up and sing. They were good enough that my wife turned to me and asked if they were singing along to the CD.

Me preaching Sabbath morning. Note the translator putting my words into Palauan.

My sermon went well. I didn’t feel it was one of my best and preaching with a translator always takes away your sense of momentum. The topic of the sermon which tied in with the theme of Per Chance to Dream, the play we would perform that evening was about laying down our burdens, about the need to stop trying to “impress” God with our own goodness, about the need to stop rushing around and “be still and know that He is God.”

After church was a nice healthy Sabbath School Bible study. Palau has dispensed with the redundant “Sabbath School program” (which is basically ANOTHER church service) and goes straight to the Bible study (or the “lesson study” for those of you that know the Adventist jargon) so there’s plenty of time for real in depth discussion and study. Man, I wish Saipan would get with the program. If Palau, the most conservative SDA community I’ve ever been in, can change it up, surely we can.

By a little after eleven, church and SS were done and it was on to potluck lunch. Amazing! The food was plentiful (unlike back in Saipan, where those who go through line last aren’t left with much. Our church really is a mess, huh).

By one o clock, o joy of joys, we were on our way out to Palau Pacific Resort (PPR) for some much needed rest. By 2 we were checked into our beautifully appointed rooms. I allowed the team to swim for an hour but everyone had to be in bed by 3 for a mandatory one hour nap. Maria was in charge of making sure that happened because I went right to sleep. Not sure how many slept, but no matter. Everyone had the energy they needed later that evening. I shared a room with Harry. Babs and I debated whether she should come down and stay with us, or stay in her “official” room with Maria. In the end we decided to sleep separately, figuring Harry might find it a bit uncomfortable to share his room with a married couple.

A view of Palau Pacific Resort (PPR) approaching the hotel's private dock from the sea.

PPR Grounds

Front entrance to PPR

By 4:30 we were on our way back to the church to set up for Per Chance to Dream. During the set-up Satan launched his full-scale assault. The lights were being rigged. The stage was being built (big thanks again to youth pastor Isaac James for giving us virtually all the furniture in his house to use as set props, including his own bed). The sound system was being set up. Friday was doing last minute spot rehearsals with the team. Everything seemed to be fine. I went upstairs to work with Isaac on our program booklet which we were downloading from my e-mail and copying on the churches ancient copier. Forty minutes or so later when I came back downstairs the team was on the verge of collapse. Cowgirl was sitting in a corner in full make-up and costume, glowering. (I’d never ever seen Cowgirl frown much less glower). The Gentleman usually unflappable, sat with his head in his hands as if in tears. Everywhere I looked the team was in a state of agitation and irritation. “Mr, we need to pray or something because people are really having attitudes” CK Girl announced to me and I knew she was right.

So we gathered everyone in a tight circle, arms around each other, heads bowed and we fought back. Every one prayed as they felt the desire, and it was so beautiful. The memory of our team, momentarily splintered but now one in prayer by the Spirit, is something I will never forget. Listening to these kids’ honest, heartfelt, unpretentious prayers, hearing their faith, knowing how they all struggled—how they were plagued the less the pure motives, temptation, sin and doubt in their lives—essentially the same as us adults, and yet here they were holding on to Jesus, asking Him to be in them and work through them. I know for those readers who are not believers, this will be hard to relate to—religion so often seems such an evil thing—but it was just so beautiful. To me this is what means to be a Christian—to acknowledge we are human, that sometimes we can’t make it on our own, but that there is Someone who loves us, who can help us in our time of need.

When the prayer circle broke, the mood of despair and agitation was completely gone. Babs arrived with food and drink, and the kids chowed down as the social hall filled. And filled. And filled. And filled. We were at capacity and beyond, standing room only, the largest evening audience we’d ever had in Palau, when the house lights went down and the stage lights lit up. REAL Christian Theater had hit critical mass.

The production itself was not necessarily our technical best. The play abruptly began without the usual musical lead-in (“Love Alone” by Caedmon’s Call, which begins with the lines that totally represent Lizzy the main character, played by Bono Girl: “No one would love me if they knew all the things I hide”). We had problems with the music sequences throughout the play. In our hurry to begin we’d never properly tested the sound system and for some reason the vocals were mixed out of all of the songs except for “Exit” by U2 at the end. But despite our the various glitches, this performance was probably emotionally and spiritually the most powerful we’d ever done. By the time we reached the end, when Lizzy is struggling to free herself from the menacing self-created barriers she can no longer control, the tears of the actors on the outside were real, so immersed were they in their roles. For the final scene, I slipped out, threw on a white robe and let down my hair that had been more or less neatly tied back all weekend and stepped into the role of my Savior. The interaction between Bono Girl and me during that final scene was as authentic as it had ever been. Playing Jesus is hard. . .but I’ve always trusted that God will somehow represent Himself through my clumsy efforts.

After the show something, perhaps less godly unfolded. And perhaps this is the real pitfall in any of the performing arts that are used in a Christian context. It’s so easy for the focus to go from Creator to the created. It wasn’t really bad—the kids were innocently thrilled and didn’t seemed to let it go to their heads for the most part, but I saw how a problem could develop. In essence the kids were mobbed. For one brief shining moment they were Rock Stars. Literally. People were actually asking for their autographs. Adoring fans flocked around the actors, taking picture after picture with them, the camera flashes going off like so much paparazzi. I watched as half a dozen or more girls followed Harry around, then grouped around him for autographs. I wish I’d had my camera handy because the picture was priceless. We let the kids revel in their fifteen minutes of fame for about 45 minutes or so, then met once again to put the glory back where it belonged. Once again, we huddled in a tight circle, arms around each other, the Man kneeling in the middle. Once again, team members prayed as they felt moved, and even more than before we all felt a sense of God’s presence. Again I was touched by the kids’ heartfelt prayers of real gratitude and praise. They KNEW God had worked miracles for them that night, they KNEW that He had been with them, and they told him so. There were tears this time, tears of joy from many of us, as we basked in the unity we felt and in the Presence of our Friend.

After that special moment, we packed up our gear and headed back out to PPR. Our tour of Palau was finished.

On the way home we stopped to get more hamburgers and fries. Ben Ermis—the best burgers in the world. All cooked out of a little roadside trailer—made fresh. And you can only find them in Palau.


Friday, May 12, 2006

Today was all about the Exodus—“the movement of Jah people.” Our team was on the move all day long and so was God.

Friday morning the view outside the Norton windows was still idyllic but the beginning of day was far more rushed. Our first performance was at 8:30 A.M. Fortunately, it was at PMA and it got moved to 9. Actually it ended up being closer to 9:30. Apparently we had been double-booked and when we arrived resplendent in our sand colored team t-shirts and toting our suitcase full of props, a judge was addressing the high school. They’d been having career day and for their final day, a prominent judge had been invited. Well, one does not tell a judge to stop talking. So we waited. She seemed to be an impressive woman, quite accomplished, and she had some good things to say. But she continued, at length. . . and so we waited.

Here we are seated on the floor at the back of the chapel at PMA waiting to perform.

The team performing the sketch on the topic of temptation entitled "Iron Will"

When our turn finally came we had to cut parts of our show because we had to drive the half hour to Koror to perform at the SDA Elementary School there before their school let out for the day at 11:30. So basically, all we could was offer a brief teaser and invite everyone to come out to Koror in the evening for our Friday night performances. I believe that was enough. The wave of fame for REAL was already building by that time. Most of the high-schoolers had already seen us rehearsing on Thursday. They’d seen those “hot” actors from Saipan, and while their motives may have been less than holy, many were definitely planning to come to anything REAL was doing.

After our PMA show there wasn’t much time for mingling with the crowd. We crowded into the brutally hot "magic school bus" as we'd nicknamed our van, and raced over the rutted roads to Koror. I’ll never forget the welcome that greeted us as we walked in slow motion (okay, in my head anyway) into the main sanctuary. A couple hundred kids burst into loud and enthusiastic applause. What struck me was not the response of the “fans” but that the response was allowed. The last two times we’d been in Palau we were faced with a host of restrictions and repressions, chief among them that the children MUST NOT clap in the sanctuary. Last time we were there, we were also instructed that the children must not laugh too overly much or enjoy themselves excessively. But different guardians of the orthodoxy were on watch this year, and I found Palau to actually looser and more “liberal” than Saipan has been lately. Personally, I haven’t reached a conclusion on the clapping in the sanctuary issue—granted it’s not a sports arena and shouldn’t be treated as such. But truth be told I never really liked performing in the sanctuary at all, especially in a church as ornate and “churchy” as this one with it’s marble floors, stained glass windows, and stuffed leather platform chairs. I guess it’s where they always have chapel, and I think it’s the only place where all the kids in the school can fit. Certainly the social hall—the suggestion I had this year—would never have fit them all. Still I don’t want to trample on anything holy, so I’ve always had some trepidation. Nonetheless, if we are going to perform there the children should be able to clap and they should be able to laugh and be happy.

Sometimes I think we’re not sure whether we worship the God that knocked Uzzah dead for steadying the Ark or the One who allowed David to take bread from the holy place. Is the curtain that separates us from God torn down and if so what does that mean?

After an energetic performance at Koror SDA Elementary School we finally took a breather and decamped to the Rock Island Café for lunch. Rock Island Café is THE restaurant on Palau. You have to go the Rock Island Café at least once. It’s small inside, the décor is blue paint and dark heavy wood, but the menu is huge and so are the portion sizes. After the dainty servings found in most Saipan restaurants, the massive chargers they brought out for us at Rock Island made me feel like we were in SuperSize America again. Serving 16 people lunch took awhile and by the team we’d all eaten, we were late for our afternoon rehearsal with the barriers.

We returned to the church around 1:30 P.M. and I was getting genuinely worried. For one thing, the group was beginning to wear down. We’d gotten to bed later than we should have Thursday night and risen early Friday morning. We’d performing and traveling all morning and the grueling pace was beginning to take its toll. Furthermore we had a lot of material that was virtually unrehearsed for Friday night and Girl Friday had requested a second Per Chance to Dream Rehearsal for the afternoon as well. We were in a position that was unacceptable for a good theatre group, and perfect for God to show us His ability to accomplish the impossible on our behalf. So we gathered for a brief but plaintive request to God: HELP!!! was the essence of our prayer. And right away He started answering.

Our “barriers” were even later to rehearsal than we were, so we decided that while waiting for them we would go ahead and start working on the first of three pantomimes set to music that were to be the centerpiece of our Friday evening show. We’d used the three pantomimes entitled “The Creation”, “The Fall”, and “The Redemption” four years earlier but most of the team hadn’t been with us then, so essentially most of them were learning the moves from scratch. We plunged into the Creation first. We’d talked through the sketch during rehearsal the Monday before we left and they heard the song but this was the first time we’d ever actually blocked it out on stage. I did one more “talk through” and then we decided to play the music and just feel our way through it and see how it went. Miraculously, the very first run-through we had of the sketch was almost flawless. The second take through and we had it. We’d finished the first pantomime in about 15 minutes! Particularly impressive was the Rock, who gave an electrifying interpretation of the Creation. We hadn’t had a chance to see much of the Rock on stage this season, and we were amazed at his command of the stage.

from the actual performance Friday night, The Rock depicts the Creation

"And God saw that it was good." The end of "The Creation". CK Girl plays the Angel of the Lord, the Gentleman plays Adam, Cowgirl plays Eve, and of course the Rock plays Jesus. This sketch was originally created four years ago by our first REAL Christian Theater student director, Jimmy Arriola.

With “The Creation” created, and our barriers finally “on the set” Friday took the lead, and brought the team downstairs to the social hall to continue working on the final scenes of Saturday nights’ full length play. While she worked with them, I took some quiet time to hash out my sermon for Sabbath morning (another worry I had was that I wouldn’t have time to flesh out my sermon during the day and would fall asleep trying to write it in the evening when we got back to the Norton House). As it was, drowsiness quickly overtook me and much of the sermon I wrote on my feet, pacing to stay awake. Even then I could barely stay awake. When I’d scribbled the last of a very rough draft, I collapsed on one of the pews and took a 20 minute power nap.

When I awoke I headed downstairs to check on Friday’s rehearsal. They were wrapping up and the team was spent—many of those not onstage were already dozing.

At that point I knew that we had to take a nap break or these guys weren’t going to have the energy to rehearse properly much less provide a quality performance. So we all went up to the sanctuary and found a pew to stretch out on. A couple of girls—Marine, Bono Girl and the Palauan Princess suddenly woke up and found they had the energy to run over to Ben Franklin. I offered them a deal—you lie down for a little bit and if any of you are still awake in 30 minutes, you’re free to shop. Within 20 minutes all were out cold.

By four o clock we were ready to get back into rehearsal. We had three hours until show time, and several sketches—“In the Dark”, “Daughter”, and “Chopsticks” had not been officially rehearsed at all (though we did use them last season, and with the exception of Marine replacing Cowgirl in Chopsticks opposite Bono Girl, all the actors had filled the roles before). “Guardian Angel” which featured the Rock, the Diva, and CK Girl had never been done with the Rock. (Our sound tech/stage manager had always filled in for him during the regular season) Of course, the remaining two pantomimes weren’t finished either.

We started with the pantomimes. “The Fall” went as quickly as “The Creation” did, a one minute and twenty second depiction of the temptation and fall of Adam and Eve and Satan’s usurpation as Prince of this World set to a mournful Michael W. Smith instrumental piece. It was ready after two “takes.” “The Redemption” took much longer. This is probably my favorite pantomime and perhaps my favorite sketch period that REAL has ever done. The merging of a highly dramatic song (the instrumental opening by Michael W. Smith to the praise and worship album Exodus seems tailor made for this pantomime), a powerful Truth, and a symbolism-packed pantomime creates a performance that moves me every time I see it. And I’m in it! When we did it four years ago, audiences responded strongly—the message of what Jesus did for us came home for them in a real and powerful way.

The sketch is complicated. It features the whole team and includes Jesus, an angel, tormented humanity, demons, and Satan. Having created the sketch, I’m especially proud of some the neat little symbolic moments. How the actors that represent Humanity come out from behind Adam and Eve who are full back to the audience (to represent death) to show how we all bear their legacy of sin. How the demons and their tormented charges together crucify Jesus. How the music wanes to almost complete silence as Jesus dies, and then with one awesome, deep beat that causes Satan and his celebrating imps to turn in shock to see Jesus’ head rising with the music as He returns to life. How as Jesus restores humanity, he first comforts the grieving mother (played by Friday) whose child (played by Holly), is first sick then eventually dies under the influence of the demons, then brings her back to life using the very same “creative” motions he used to breathe life into Adam and Eve in “The Creation.” (That part and the following reunion between mother and daughter is the part that never fails to choke me up). And how in the triumphant end Adam and Eve are turned around to join the Human Family, showing the God’s ultimate triumph to which we’re all looking forward.

From the actual performance, the Crucifixion scene during "The Redemption"

"He is near to those who are broken hearted." Jesus played by the Rock comforts the grieving mother (Friday). Holly is "dead" in foreground.

Putting this one together took some time. At points the rehearsals became a bit strained as Bono Girl, Friday, and the Man, who had been in the sketch when we did originally (as well as the Diva who had never been the sketch but “remembered seeing it”) tried to remember exactly how the sketch had been before and tweak it accordingly.

I learned something important about acting then. When you are acting, you have to trust the director. They kept talking about how this and that didn’t feel right or seemed “uncomfortable” but I kept telling that it LOOKED great. And when I finally took my role in the sketch (as The Abusive Husband opposite the Vice President as my Abused Wife), I found too that things didn’t “feel” right, and that I had to trust Maria who was making the final judgments on the sketch after I’d done the initial directing. At the end of the day, the actor has to trust the judgment of the person who can see the “big picture”—the director.

We finally nailed down “The Redemption” at close to six. We had an hour to go and the whole rest of the program was still unrehearsed. We had enough time to divide into groups and go through each remaining sketch ONCE and only once under the supervision of a director. God continued to enhance us with supernatural efficiency and by 6:30 we were ready. We realized that we’d need some props for the old sketches, but again God had us covered. Pastor Isaac James, the youth pastor just happened to have everything we needed in his apartment right next to the church.

We ate a hurried supper prepared by the Invisible Chefs (or the team did—I was too wired to eat) and then tromped upstairs where the church was awaiting our program. The show was excellent from start to finish, and “The Redemption” was especially well received. Afterwards, the team members were mobbed by “fans” and they spent a good 30-45 minutes taking pictures and chatting with their adoring peers. A brief period of celebrity for our kids on the team was developing.

A scene from "The Bus", a short sketch performed Friday night.

CK Girl and the Diva in their signature roles, Jessica and Tammy in "Guardian Angel"

Maria took most of the group back to the Norton House around nine, and the Rock, CK Girl, the Vice President, and Holly stayed by to rehearse the praise and worship service for church the next day (praise and worship in PALAU? Things HAVE changed. We don’t even have that in Saipan!) as well as their special music.

We arrived back at the Norton House by 10:30 P.M. and to our horror instead of finding the rest of the team deep in much-needed sleep, we found everyone wide awake. The PMA drama team was having a sleepover at their teacher’s house and had come over to hang out with us. They were all watching Videographer Larry’s HD digital taping of the Friday evening performance.

By 11:30 all were in bedded down. Another exhausting but miraculous day lay ahead for us.

Meet the Team

As a prelude to my recap of the REAL Christian Theater tour, here is a brief introduction of the team. I've changed the names, of course.

On the plane from Saipan to Guam, Weds. May 10, 2006. from L to R: In front: The Gentleman, Bono Girl, Me, Palauan Princess, Girl Friday. In the back: the Diva, Holly, & Harry. Present but not pictured were the Man, the Vice President, & Marine.

The majority of the team left last Wednesday, May 10. My wife left Tuesday night with CK (Chinese Korean girl). CK girl cannot enter Guam so she had to fly Palau through Manila in the Philippines. Due to connecting flights, they are still in Palau and won't return to Saipan until early Friday morning. Maria, my co-director and two other members flew out on Thursday.

But most of us left Weds. The morning was pretty smooth, until 10:00 A.M. when my 8th graders who were supposed to be selling a hot lunch that day revealed they hadn't prepared any of the food. They had these frozen lasagna trays that had to be cooked for 2.5 hours. Lunch for the K-4 kids was at 11:00 A.M. So I spent the rest of the morning racing around finding ovens for their lasagna and helping them make a peach cobbler for dessert. As it was I wasn't able to leave the school until 12:30 P.M. Our flight left at 2:50 and I didn't get to the airport unitl 1:30. Once there, things slowed down though and the rest of the day passed in a fairly leisurely fashion.

The kids were excited. They'd been looking forward to this tour all season long, and even the coolest of them couldn't hide their genuine kid-like excitement. I know I couldn't.

Each member of the team seemed special that day, each contributed something unique to the fabric of our team. Picture them walking across the tarmac of the Saipan International Airport towards the waiting plane.

There's Harry, the youngest member of the team. He's a sixth grader who reads at the college level, short, skinny, bespectacled, reminds me a lot of myself at his age, though his slight nerdiness is infinitely cooler than my considerable nerdiness was. He is half Palauan, half Chamorro (Chamorros are the indigenous people of Guam) so this trip is sort of a "homecoming" for him though he hasn't been back to Palau since he was a baby. Harry is unique in that nothing ever seems to upset him. I swear I've never seen him mad. The closest I've ever seen him to being upset was on Saturday when he looked a little stressed, and when he asked him about it, he said "girl troubles." And then in classic Harry style he added in his perfectly reasonable and intelligent voice, "I'm sure you're thinking, 'How is that possible? He hasn't even hit puberty yet!'"

Friday (short for Girl Friday). She was my student for five years, has been my co-director for the theater club for three, and has been my teacher assistant for the past two years. She is my Girl Friday--absolutely indispensible. She's a slender, Japanese girl, 17 years old and graduating from high school next week. She's been a part of the drama club since it's inception six years ago. She will move to Hawaii this summer and I may never see her again. I'm sad to see her go and glad to share this Final Tour with her.

The Vice President, on her second school trip this year having gone with us to Korea in March, is next. As usual her long black hair is hanging in her face. She's one of the weaker actors on the team--very self-conscious, and inclined to "act" rather than "be" the role. She also has trouble remembering her lines. But this weekend will see her improve remarkably.

The Gentleman is new to the team this year. He is a tall Korean boy, a high school junior. He is gentle and affable at all times. One wonders what made him want to act as he is generally quite shy and quiet. Our constant struggle is to get him to speak up on stage. He too will improve remarkably over the weekend.

The Diva, a Japanese high school junior, is keeping more to herself and surprisingly seems to be okay with that. A few years ago, she was the original Drama Queen, using hugs as a weapon. (She'd walk into a room and hug certain people, smarmy and full of gooey affection. Those not hugged always got the message). But this year despite all kinds of horrible trauma going on in her family life she seems calmer, more at peace with herself and others.

Holly is in the seventh grade, and drama has helped her to blossom as well. She is brilliant student (whose sharp memory skills she applies to her encyclopedic knowledge of the lyrics to every pop song ever written. She's the only one of my students that knows U2's "With our Without You" She's a perfectionist who a few years ago would "freeze up" into a near catatonic state whenever faced with even the slightest bit of stress. I'm certain that this pale-skinned Chamorro girl with the mane of black hair will provide the requisite crying jag that has been part of our theater tours each and every year. After all, this is her first trip anwywhere without her parents. I will be proved wrong. And when Holly returns, she returns in big, flashy glamazon sunglasses, flirting with the much older Gentleman, and possessing till greater confidence. It's as if she entered full-fledged adolescence over the weekend in Palau.

The Man is the Diva's younger brother. He is the consummate entertainer, loves to make people laugh. He has shaved his mohawk at our request (he plays the role of a father in the play we will perform Saturday night and the mohawk just didn't fit) but he's keeping the "rock star" edge to his style through the tie he wears loose around his neck all weekend along. Because he is a trendsetter, soon others on the team are imitating his fashion choices. Over the course of the weekend he will play all kinds of roles including that of a father of teenagers and Satan (who he enjoys playing a little too much).

The Palauan Princess is next to take the long walk on the tarmac to the plane. She's been to Palau more times than she can remember. For her, she is simply going home. Her family are Palauan royalty--her grandmother is the queen of the Paluan island of Peliliu, and in her their has been an completely unselfconscious dignity, grace, and regality about her. At the same time she is tremendously open, honest, and respectful. She is the picture of a girl that has been "raised right."

Bono Girl is there, the leader of the pack as always. She is the ultimate veteran of our troupe, having joined as fifth grader. Now a high school junior, besides me, she is the only member of the team to have stayed with us from the begining until now. Next year, she will replace Friday as the student director for the team. She loves acting, and in addition to her stint with our club, she's acted in a local soap opera. She's a beautiful girl reminiscent of Jennifer Lopez, curves that turn your head, long hair in higlights, the navel ring, those Bono shade, rich golden skin. She's also hard as nails, with a temper and a perfectionistic streak. Bono Girl is one of the very few people I know who genuinely doesn't care what people think. To no one's surprise she is the star of our play, Per Chance to Dream and her face is on posters, larger than life, plastered all over Palau.

Finally, there is Marine, the joyrider who might yet become a genuine member of the team. The day before we left she went from having $0 to $350. It was enough, we let her go on the trip. I expect lots of stress from her, but I will be proved wrong again. She will be wonderful on this trip. She is sweet, knows how to talk, always very earnest when she's asking for permission to do things she knows good and well she's not allowed to do. She is also half Chamorro, half Palauan and there are many family members waiting to see her in Palau. My fear was that she would just use the group as means to get to Palau and then take off to spend time with her family instead of helping the team. But she stays with us--contributes where she can, even learns a four page sketch with Bono Girl in one day and performs it commendably the next day.

So this is the group left with me on Weds. We flew to Guam, ate overpriced Burger King in the airport and then continued on to Palau, arriving at about 8 in the evening. My wife was there to meet us and we went straight to the home where we were staying, got settled in and went to bed preparing for a long day on Thursday.

"White Wine in Water Bottles"

Thursday, May 11, 2006
I pause on the walk back from Palau Mission Academy to the Norton House to pose with the greenery of Palau in the background.

We arrived at the home of Ken and Julie Norton on Wednesday night. (Ken is the pastor of the main SDA church in Palau. Julie is better known to me as Julie Alvarez. We went to elementary and high school together; she was one grade above me. They generously allowed our entire team to stay in their home since they were off-island at the time. I was genuinely shocked by their generosity and trust. Letting 16 strangers stay in your home, 13 of whom are teenagers is no small hospitality! Thanks Ken and Julie! We hope that we have lived up to the trust you placed in us). It was dark when we arrived so we had no inkling of the treat that awakened us on Thursday morning. I got up around 6:30 A.M. The kids were scattered about the house in various stages of sleep and waking. Bono Girl, The Princess, & Marine were in the master bedroom. CK Girl (who’d arrived in Palau with Babs earlier that day), Holly, The Diva, and the Vice Pres were all in the Norton’s kids’ room. The Gentleman was stretched on one of the Nortons’ immensely comfortable couches, The Man on another. Adam was on a futon next to the kitchen counter, Friday on a air matteress on the floor between the living room and kitchen, and Babs and I on an air mattress in the living room behind The Gentleman’s couch. The only remaining bedroom was being used by Larry, a videographer from Texas who was also staying in the house (perhaps to keep an eye on us?). And to think we’d have to find room for three more!

Anyway, I was talking about this magical treat. I got up and made my way to the shuttered blinds, peeked through, and thought for sure this couldn’t be real. It looked a vista from some sweeping epic film, some CG-created backdrop to a romantic and exotic storyline. My words and the picture below fail to do it justice. The misty jungles, the silhouettes of the rock islands out at sea, the glow of the rising sun. It looked like a painting of paradise. I quickly opened all the blinds, and we left them open, basking in the glory of that view the rest of our stay.

The view from the Norton House

A sad side note. This was the home where a little more than two years ago the then pastor of the SDA church in Palau and his entire family (except for his daughter) were murdered by a burglar. I have to admit when we first got there, I thought about it a lot. The killings sent a shock wave through the Micronesian Pacific community and I’d heard all the horrific details of what happened. I found myself wondering if someone had died on the very spot where I lay my air mattress. I wondered if Ken and Julie ever thought about it, if it spooked them a little, as it did me. But with the time these rather macabre musings passed, as the house was filled with the joy and laughter of our team. And I supposed that’s how the pastor and his family would have wanted it. By all accounts they were an especially loving and gentle family, and the story of the pastor’s mother’s visit to Palau after her son’s death and how she extended forgiveness to the murderer, even visiting him in his jail is legend.

Thursday was the latest wake-up call we had for the entire trip. It took awhile to get going, with 14 people needing to shower, and a team of people working with Babs in the Norton’s spacious kitchen to make breakfast. Here's Bono Girl helping with breakfast on Thursday morning.

But by nine o clock the team was sprawled in the living room while I led the team worship. Then we made the short walk to Palau Mission Academy where we had the luxury of a full day of rehearsal.

Walking to rehearsal--picture in front are (L to R) the Diva and the Palauan Princess. Behind them are Bono Girl and Marine. And behind them are The Man, Friday, and the Gentleman.

There were times before we left when I felt a bit guilty for taking the team to Palau on Wednesday when our first shows weren’t until Friday. Originally we had hoped to perform at some of the other schools on Palau on Thurs. but that ended up not happening. As it was, Maria, and the final two members of the team weren’t coming out until tonight. It seemed to me that we could have saved money and time out of school by all of us coming on Thursday. But now I’m glad we did it. We needed that rehearsal time. There was a lot of material that had gotten pretty rusty, and we needed—and used—the whole day. There’s no way I could have gotten everyone to skip school in Saipan so that we could devote a whole day to rehearsal. But having all of us sleeping and eating together in a strange place made it easy to focus in on rehearsal and devote some solid time to it.

We rehearsed in the chapel at Palau Mission Academy (PMA). It was comfortable place to work with spongy carpet, air conditioning, and padded chairs perfect for laying across a row to study lines. For our first two hour rehearsal block we divided into two groups. Friday worked with Bono Girl and a cluster of other actors on some of the rougher patches of Per Chance to Dream. I worked with the rest of the team on some of our school tour material. We took a short break and then met with our volunteer barriers for the final scenes for Per Chance. We needed six “barriers” who would spend most of the play sitting stock still wearing all black and white mask they would spring in to action for the play’s climactic scene. Sit still for more than an hour? And no lines to learn? How hard can it be? Very hard. Babs played one barrier, the Rock and Marine (both of whom had joined the team after the “regular” parts of the play were cast) played two more. In our Saipan productions we had some of our teachers cover the remaining three, but they could not tour with us, so we took on three brave PMA high school seniors as volunteers. I must say they performed like pros from the beginning. No complaining, no squirming, no quitting—just solid, uncomplaining faithfulness in a thankless and demanding role.

Around 1:15 we took a two hour break for lunch. Some wonderful Palauan ladies whom we never got a chance to meet or thank provided us with boxed lunch and supper through Saturday. Eric Johnson, the PMA principal, would drop the meals off for us but we never met the chefs. Yet another example of generosity in a thankless and demanding role.

Here's the Riverside gang, walking back from the Riverside store, from L to R, Bono Girl, the Paluan Princess, the Man, Marine, and the Gentleman.

During our lunch break, Bono Girl and Marine asked if they could walk down to a store near PMA. I agreed to go with them so the three of us plus the Gentleman, and later Princess and The Man, set off on our great expedition to find The Store. We hiked down through the jungle behind the school, past a massive, stinking chicken farm echoing with the eerie chatter of a million chickens clucking at once, along a rutted orange dirt road, over a small bridge over a stagnant stream, until we at last found The Store. The Store, called The Riverside, was a bit smaller than my living room and despite the open sign on the door was locked. We were about to walk a way when a man hailed us from across the street. He came over, unlocked the store and we were free to shop. There wasn’t much. No green tea, which is what we’d all come for. But they had lemon tea so I bought some of that. They also had little plastic bottles of what looked like drinking water. However on closer examination, I saw that the label read “white wine.” White wine in plastic water bottles. I couldn’t stop laughing over that or the hand-scrawled sign behind the counter that read “Absolutely NO CREDIT. . .Don’t Even Ask.” I really wanted to take pictures for my blog but I felt bad to do it with the owner standing right there. We nursed our drinks outside the store, and the owner had one of his lackeys chop down some coconuts for us to drink as well. After having our fill of coconut water and coconut meat we made our way back to PMA where I took a 20 minute power nap on the floor of the chapel before we began our third and final rehearsal block of the day.

The best thing about Thursday was having enough time. Enough time to really get some solid rehearsal, but enough time that we never felt rushed. Enough time to take power naps and walks to The Riverside.

Rehearsals finished around six. We walked back to the Norton’s house where we had a delicious fish supper fixed by the Invisible Chefs. Then it was off to the airport to pick up the last of our team. Maria, the other adult besides my wife and me, on this trip and Cowgirl (so named because the impossibly cute faux straw cowboy hat she bought that night and wore throughout the rest of the trip) and the Rock (I want to call him variously The Messiah, or the Lord or “J” because he did such a beautiful job of portraying Jesus in several roles over the weekend, but I think that would qualify as blasphemy so we won’t do that. . .)

The rest of the team arrives. Maria and CK Girl hugging in the foreground, the Diva and the Rock hugging behind them, and Cowgirl observing joyously.

Cowgirl is one of the few members who found her way into REAL Christian Theater on her own. She had no previous connection to the group, didn’t know anyone who’d been a member. She’d just seen us perform, decided she wanted to be a part of that, and shown up for auditions last season. She’s turned out to be one of our strongest actors. She’s extremely bright (top of her entire school last year—and that with sports and theatre commitments), classically beautiful (an athletic Filipina with long dark hair and a friendly smile), and remarkably humble. For someone so young—she’s a high school junior--she seems to have an unusually solid connection to her faith, without seeming to need a constant spiritual high. I don’t think I’d ever seen her upset until this weekend and then only briefly.

The Rock joined our team this year. He’s the oldest member of REAL. He graduated from Southern High School last year and is almost an adult, really. He’s tall with a mustache and a neat haircut. He just looks older. He’s softspoken and very respectful. To be honest, we weren’t sure what to expect from him on this tour. He’d missed a lot of rehearsals and as result, virtually every major performance we’d had this year except for the dinner theater. He had a couple of key roles we’d handed to him for the Palau tour including several as Jesus, and we weren’t sure how he’d perform. Suffice it to say he more than stepped up to the plate. He wowed us!

From the airport we went to the shopping destination of choice in Palau, Ben Franklin, an old fashioned department store located just a stones throw from the SDA Elementary School in downtown Koror. (Koror is the “main” island of Palau. Though not the largest, it is where most of the businesses are and where most of the people live). We shopped till we dropped (or at least until 9:30). The big purchase that night was sunglasses. I bought a pair and so did just about everyone else, the girls favoring those oversized glamazon shades with the ornate, bling-y frames. Very rock star.

Me outside Ben Franklin with the Gentleman, the Palauan Princess, Bono Girl, Cowgirl, and Friday.

Then we went home and to bed. The next day would be full, as our show finally got on the road.