Mike Mulligan and God

While I was always labeled a good reader by my elementary school teachers, I did not choose to read for pleasure until I entered Maggie Marsh’s sixth grade classroom. That was the year I was assigned to the “Top” reading group and required to read 50 books if I wanted to earn an “A.”

The task brought great dilemma into my life. I had never been one to choose the company of books over my friends. Yet I prided myself with earning good grades and that meant seeing As and Bs at report card time.

The task intimidated me at first, but I learned that my classmates were adept at recommending good reading. Before I knew it I was hurrying through my Saturday chores to curl up and read in a chair, located in the corner of my bedroom. I still played with my friends, of course, but I discovered how much I loved the feel of books in my hands, the smell of the paper, and the tension created by great characters, amazing writing and watching life’s greatest dramas played out in my own imagination.

My love of writing grew and I eventually chose American literature to be my major emphasis of study in college. Among all my professors, those who studied and taught children’s literature were among my favorites. Years later, when my own children were small, I filled their shelves with books. While most of them are presently stored in the attic, to be reopened by grandchildren someday, I have embarked on a project to help my daughter Megan collect books for her elementary school classroom. And I was filled with joy this week to watch her read to her third graders. I imagined this growing collection of books going home in backpacks and being read at bedtime by children and their parents.

I have a great excuse to purchase children’s books once again and it was Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel, first published in 1939 and written by author Virginia Lee Burton, that caught my attention this week as I perused a shelf of children’s literature in a used book store.

Remember the story? Mike Mulligan and his steam shovel, tenderly named Mary Ann, face a crisis: technology, in the form of new gasoline, electric and diesel shovels, threatens to put them out of business.

But unlike other owners who chose to sell their steam engines, Mike is loyal to Mary Ann. Based on his years of experience working with her, he has confidence in their ability to get the job done.

When he reads in his local newspaper that the town of Popperville is about to build a new town hall, he not only bids on the job but makes a bold promise to the town’s selectmen: he and Mary Ann will dig the cellar in one day! If they fail, the town will owe him nothing.

It is the conversation Mike Mulligan shares with a young child­ — arriving at sun up to watch the digging begin — that touches me right where I live, some 69 years later in a very different America.

“Do you think you will finish by sundown?” the child asks Mike Mulligan.

“Sure,” says Mike, “if you stay and watch us. We always work faster and better when someone is watching us.”

Americans do not like to be watched. Managed. Supervised. Or critiqued. We are independent and treasure our freedoms. We like to do our own thing. Have our own schedules; create our own rules. We resist Big Brother, big business, and big government. We are defiant when caught breaking the rules because a whole lot of us feel we should be accountable only to ourselves.

The question begging to be asked, in this case, is how do independence-loving Americans have a relationship with God who is omnipresent —- there for all time and in all places?

What is it like living with the belief that the spirit of God surrounds us wherever we go? Are we self-conscious? Guilt ridden? Defiant? Are we invigorated? Motivated? Empowered?

If truth be told, people of faith experience all these feelings as we move through our days. God reminds us in the Bible that He is watching on a daily basis. That He works through people and events. That if we trust His advice, He will encourage us to make the right decisions through very personal experiences.

God’s personal nature can also be soothing, for His continual presence reminds us that He has a never-ending interest in us. He seeks us out. He places in our lives people to love and pray for us.

Mike Mulligan and Mary Anne dug a little faster and a little better as the crowd gathered that day.

“Hurry, Mike Mulligan! Hurry! Hurry!” shouted the little boy in a voice that rose above the crowd.

As the sun set and the dust cleared, people counted four corners and four neat cellar walls.

“Hurray!” they shouted.

God is cheering us on today because He knows the digging is difficult. But He draws near to encourage a relationship with Him and to foster our best efforts.

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