Thoughts To Make Your Heart Sing

ThoughtsThoughts to Make Your Heart Sing
Sally Lloyd-Jones & Jago
Zonderkidz, 2012

I bought Thoughts to Make Your Heart Sing - a devotional by Sally Lloyd-Jones released in 2012 – for my 6-year old daughter for Christmas. We’re big Sally Lloyd-Jones fans around here, and I figured I would definitely have a review of it up by January at the latest. But I’ve had trouble getting it written: mostly because I just love it so much, I’m having a hard time getting past “I LOVE IT. PLEASE GO BUY IT NOW. THE END.”

But that’s not responsible reviewing, now is it? And if we take anything seriously around here at Aslan’s Library, it’s writing recommendations that help parents understand why we think a book deserves precious space on their shelf and in their child’s life. I’m guessing an all-caps-gush doesn’t cut it. So here’s my best go. I will keep the capital letters and exclamation points to a minimum, I promise.

An honest confession: this is the first “devotional” format book I’ve actually liked and consistently read with my daughter. And I’ve sorted through a number of them. (If there is one out there that I am missing, or that you can’t believe I didn’t love, do let me know in the comments!) There are no corny, moralistic stories; unbelievable kids who end each episode by perfectly displaying some biblical virtue; or patently misapplied Scriptural verses (Jeremiah 29, anyone?). That’s what Thoughts to Make Your Heart Sing isn’t.

What it is is a series of daily meditations, gorgeously illustrated, that invites children to know the goodness and majesty of God, and his love for his broken and beautiful creation. There’s deep theology at work in these short pieces: the already-not-yet character of faith; a thorough and multifaceted explanation of Jesus’ atonement for us; God’s covenant with his people and its fulfillment in Christ. I especially appreciate Ms. Lloyd-Jones’ treatment of sin: nowhere does she gloss over its reality, even in the hearts of our children. She’s frank in giving kids words to understand their own wayward hearts:

What is sin? Sin is trying to get away from God who loves us – it’s wanting to go our own way without him. But the Bible says it’s not like simply wandering off the path and getting lost by mistake. It’s like a horse charging at full speed away from him. We want to get away from God that badly! We are like horses galloping headlong after the things we want.

And yet every meditation on sin (and there are multiple: any good devotional takes note of its persistent reality and addresses it likewise!) includes God’s final word on it: he can lead us back; he kept the covenant on our behalf; in Jesus, God finished the power of sin, although it is still dying a slow and ugly death.

Another repeated emphasis I loved, and wished I had understood as a child, is that even faith itself is a gift. Any parent of an anxious child (and I was one) should bookmark “Believing and Doubting”:

But, someone is saying, what if I can’t believe enough?…Our strong God is the one who rescues us – not our strong faith. Because faith isn’t just you holding on to God. It’s God holding on to you.”

But as rich as these meditations are theologically, they are – more importantly – lively, accessible, and gracious. Each and every one is shot through the the joyful realization of God’s radical grace. For all of its depth, this book is not a theological treatise. It’s an exuberant invitation to to know, love and trust the God who wildly, heedlessly loves us first; to find ourselves amazed and overjoyed at being created, found, redeemed, and included in God’s life.

So there you go. And now, because I can’t resist: I LOVE IT. PLEASE GO BUY IT. THE END.

He Is My Shepherd

Lord Is My Shepherd-001He Is My Shepherd
Helen & David Haidle
Multnomah, 1989

Of all the images of God in the Bible, surely the image of the Shepherd is one that resonates most deeply with children.  Last year, when my daughter and I participated in a family preschool program, we observed a Godly Play presentation each week.  All of the stories were captivating (our teacher was incredibly talented!) but the presentation of the Good Shepherd was one that stuck with us all year long.  In fact, I even purchased some felt and figurines so we could replicate the story at home.

Ever since then I’ve been on the lookout for a good children’s book that explores the imagery of God as Shepherd, and today I’m happy to add He Is My Shepherd to Aslan’s Library.  This book goes through Psalm 23 and offers insight and a short prayer for each beautiful, meaning-laden line.  Here is the portion on the valley of the shadow of death:

A dark valley is a scary place to be.  Sheep do not want to walk through shadowy pathways and deep ravines, but they learn to overcome fear when the shepherd is by their side.  They huddle close to him as he leads them through the valley.

Lord, you know everything that scares me.  You even know the things I’m afraid might happen to me.  I’m glad you’re with me no matter what happens.

The goodness and tenderness of God shines through the words and images of this book.  It’s a perfect choice for just about any scenario I can think of: a child in need of comfort, a child struggling with fear, a child who struggles with pursuing their own ways instead of Christ’s ways, a child who doesn’t want to go to sleep.  The message of this book, and of Psalm 23, reaches deep into the human heart.  Wherever we are, whatever we are facing, there is a Shepherd who is ready to give us the care and guidance that we need.

He Is My Shepherd is older than many of the books we’ve reviewed, and I’ll admit that its illustrations may not be as remarkable as those in, say, Love Is or He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands.  Nonetheless, the warmth of the shepherd towards his sheep comes through quite clearly.  I found myself endeared to the sheep who are in such clear need of their master’s care.  At the end of the book we read that “they have learned that he is completely trustworthy,” and I daresay that as you turn the last page you’ll be refreshed in your own trust in our Lord, the Great Shepherd of the Sheep.

Sights and Sounds of Easter

Easter 2013

As much as I usually enjoy observing Lent with my family, this year we’ve barely done anything to set aside the season as special.  Part of the issue is that both of my children’s birthdays are during Holy Week this year, which has left me feeling a little unmotivated towards all things Lenten.  How do you do Lent when you know that Holy Week will be filled with cakes and gifts?

Despite this, I am planning for some grand Easter celebrating!  A friend recently told me she’s noticed that liturgically-minded Christians seem to do better at planning for Advent and Lent than they do for Christmas and Easter, and I think she’s probably right.  (At least, I think we often talk more about Advent and Lent.  This might be simply because they are new observances to many of us.)  So as I think about Easter this year, I’ve been trying to come up with ways to maintain a spirit of celebration past 11am on Easter morning.  Sure, it would be impossible to keep up a party-like atmosphere in your home all day every day for the full 50 days of Easter, but I still think there’s a lot we can do to enrich our Resurrection feasting.

Last year I wrote a post about engaging the senses during Lent, and I use that same idea to organize my thoughts on Easter celebration.  I want my children to grow up knowing in their bones what it feels like to rejoice at Jesus’ resurrection.  I want the sights, sounds, and tastes in our home to be a signal that Easter truly is our greatest festival.  We Christians are Easter people, after all.  The empty tomb is the core of our faith, so let us use every creative fiber of our being as we plan for the great celebration!  Please chime in with your own ideas in the comments so we can all learn from one another.

{Disclaimer: Of course I’m not doing every single one of these things.  I’ll feel good if we hit one from each category!}

Things to See

  • Create an Easter garden with some pots, soil, stones, and stick crosses.
  • Hang up a “He Is Risen!” banner or a gold/white cross banner.
  • Print out and display this BCP quote: “Dying you destroyed our death, Rising you restored our life, Lord Jesus come in glory.”
  • As a table centerpiece, set out flowers, a cross, and a sign (even just handwriting on construction paper) saying “He is risen!”
  • Light candles all over your home.  I’m itching to try my hand at making soy candles, which I hope to do sometime during Eastertide.
  • Make or buy ribbon streamers your kids can use in worship at home or church.
  • Beautifully, naturally dyed eggs can be a discussion starter about new life.

Things to Hear

  • Set out a basket of bells that your children can ring.
  • Put on the Hallelujah Chorus first thing on Easter morning and again frequently throughout Eastertide.
  • Create a celebratory Easter playlist to play for all 50 days.
  • Teach your kids the traditional proclamation, “The Lord is risen!” and its reply, “He is risen indeed!”
  • Read the end of a Gospel and then Acts together for family devotions.
  • Memorize an Easter-themed hymn or worshipful portion of Scripture together.
  • Choose books to read aloud that have redemptive themes or tell the lives of faithful believers.  And don’t forget my favorite Easter book!

Things to Taste

  • If you attend an Easter Vigil and have fasted during Lent, bring some small pieces of chocolate to slip to your children right as the Resurrection is announced. (Many thanks to Molly R. for this idea and the following one.)
  • Similarly, have some champagne, fancy cheese, and crackers on hand when you get home from the Vigil – you’ll be too excited to sleep anyway!
  • Serve sparkling juice every morning for Easter week.
  • Enjoy hot cross buns for breakfast at least once during the 50 days.
  • Have a potluck feast with friends sometime during Eastertide.
  • Use the fancy china!  Even at breakfast!
  • If you’ve given up sweets during Lent, be sure to make everyone’s favorite dessert in the weeks following Easter.  We haven’t fasted this year, but I am going to make some chocolate dipped homemade marshmallows during Easter, which is something I’ve long wanted to do.
  • Candy is great fun, but remember that there are ways to celebrate besides overloading on sugar.  Here’s a great list of things to put in Easter eggs in addition to candy.

Living in Light of the Cross

  • Invite neighbors who live alone to share a meal with you.
  • Consider buying only fair trade chocolate to place in Easter baskets.  Natural Candy Store has the chocolate eggs I’m going to order and a variety of other kinds as well.
  • Encourage the spiritual growth of each person in your family in fresh ways: send your spouse on a retreat, give your child a new devotional, or buy a new CD (try Resurrection Letters Volume II, To Be Like Jesus, or one of the Seeds albums).
  • Find a local ministry to support with time, money, or prayer.
  • Write letters of gratitude to the people who introduced you to Jesus or who have spiritually mentored you or your children.

To Be Like Jesus

To Be Like Jesus

One of my Easter traditions is placing a new Christian CD in my children’s Easter basket.  Last year I took a gamble and bought To Be Like Jesus, which was a gamble simply because I’d never listened to it – I’d never even heard anyone talk about it, as far as I can recall.  It’s been listened to a lot this past year and in the process has become one of our family’s very favorite albums.  In fact, when Sarah and I decided that we were going to expand our blogging horizons to include music reviews, I knew right away that it was one of the first ones I would write about.

The music of To Be Like Jesus is upbeat and catchy (in a good way!) and my daughter loves that the songs are sung by children as well as grown-ups.  The really outstanding feature of this album, though, is its lyrics.  The fruit of the Spirit is the overall theme of the CD and after the title song there’s a track devoted to each of the fruits, plus two others sandwiched in the middle.  The folks at Sovereign Grace have done an outstanding job of not turning the work of the Spirit into moralistic rules we must try very hard to obey.  Rather, in each of the songs there is acknowledgement that the fruit of the Spirit “grow in those who trust in you,” that we love God because he first loved us, that sin makes us want to go our own ways, and that intimacy with Christ is what will make us more like him.  This is no try-hard, be-a-good-person Christianity; it’s the real, grace-filled, true gospel deal.

I love to turn on To Be Like Jesus and see my almost 1-year-old start bopping around and hear my almost 4-year-old sing the fantastic lyrics… but to be honest, the reason I love this CD so much is for another reason entirely.  See, when we get up in the morning and it I can tell it’s going to be “one of those days” or when we’ve been cross with one another all afternoon, playing this album helps us turn it around.  Quite honestly, my soul sighs with relief about two lines into the first track as I remember what it is, exactly, that I’m trying to do with my life in the hard moment in which I find myself.  Just as much as my children, I need the reminder to look to Christ as my example and to rely on the Spirit as I pursue godliness, and this CD really has been very helpful to our whole family as we seek to know Jesus and find our life in him.  Of course, it also helps that the music makes you want to dance around the living room – it’s so joyful!

To sum up: this is most definitely one CD that is worth buying and I highly recommend it for Easter listening.  The mp3 album at Amazon is the cheapest way to purchase it at present, but if you prefer to have an actual CD the prices at the Sovereign Grace store are better.

Books for a New Baby

For the next installment in our series of booklists, we thought we’d address books for one of my very favorite kinds of people: new babies!

The books listed below are the ones I reach for first when I want to read theologically with my 10-month-old son, and they’re also the same ones I buy over and over to give expectant parents and their babies.  They are each well crafted, beautifully illustrated, theologically accurate, and developmentally appropriate for the youngest of readers.  Next time you’re shopping for someone under the age of 2, be sure to check them out!

toppicksforbabygreen-001

Perfect Books for a Baby Shower, Infant Baptism, or 1st Birthday

Board Books

Picture Books

Lastly, I would be remiss not to mention Honey for a Child’s Heart.  If you’re buying gifts for a family who hasn’t yet discovered this treasure trove, by all means introduce them to it!  Gladys Hunt is one of the best guides to the world of children’s literature, and she has much to offer parents who are new to that delightful world as well as those who are well acquainted with it.

Adam and Eve

Adam and Eve
Gwendolyn Reed and Helen Siegl
Lothrop, Lee and Shephard, 1968

One of the pleasures of an afternoon library visit without my kids is the liberty to really peruse the shelves. Closely. Like sitting down in the aisle, and pulling volumes off one by one. Flipping through them, seeing what catches my eye, the way I did when I was a kid.

On my last visit, while looking for something else, I chanced across an older volume, simply titled Adam and Eve, with a fantastic woodcut print on the front. I had to pull it out: I love woodcuts. Something about woodcut prints puts me in mind of medieval altarpieces: the simple, almost primitive figures and lines are so charged with feeling and meaning. If you ever lose me in an art museum, just check the medieval rooms first, with all the stern Christ-babies and stiff Pietas; failing that, see if there’s a special woodcut exhibition happening. I’ll be in one of those rooms.

Anyhow, at first I was just going to glance through the illustrations and put it back. But as I read, I was charmed despite myself and decided I wanted to share it with all of you for inclusion in Aslan’s Library.

Why share it? Three things in particular, and they may be because this is an older book (published in 1968). In the first place, I thoroughly enjoyed being immersed in Eden, with Adam and the animals. The Genesis story is one we’ve all heard a thousand times, close enough to know it by heart. Most of the time I hear it without seeing or sensing it at all. In fact, all of the creation books I’ve recommended in the past have grabbed me because they help me break through my familiarity and actually experience the story. Adam and Eve is no different. “Purple figs, golden apricots and peaches clustered under the green leaves” of the trees in Eden. A hawk circles; a flamingo balances; and “gazelles turned their great soft eyes toward Adam.”  It’s a fresh, attentive telling of paradise — Gwendolyn Reed is unabashed in using language that gives delight.

Secondly, the woodcuts. If woodcuts aren’t your thing — they’re kind of the antithesis of much children’s illustration today — give them a shot. They have a way of making a familiar story distant and strange, yet they are vibrant and full of life. Like I said: I can’t get enough of them. Helen Siegl’s are thoroughly compelling.

Lastly, the subtle expression of the story’s climax. This is one of the simplest but most nuanced retellings of Genesis 3 I’ve come across. There’s no attempt to explain it or place it in context; as in Scripture, the story is just told. Eve is overcome by the desire to be godlike. Adam joins her. They get their wish, and it ruins them: “Never could they walk in the shade of the great trees where Adam had talked with God. Always on their lips was the taste of the forbidden fruit. As well as joy they knew sorrow. In their lives they knew both good and evil.”

This isn’t a perfect book (I wasn’t nuts, for instance, about God blowing a soul into Adam, like he’s a water balloon) and it’s out of print, but it is absolutely worth tracking down. At last check, used copies were fairly inexpensive on Amazon, and major libraries ought to have copies available. You can also email the good folks at Hearts and Minds Books; they’re good at digging things up! If you do find it, let me know what you think. Especially about the woodcuts!

Best Books for Lent

Between the two of us, Sarah and I have reviewed nearly 80 books since we’ve been blogging.  We’re still discovering new ones all the time, but one of the things we’d also like to do this year is go through the archives and pull together some best-of lists on a series of different topics.  Today is Shrove Tuesday (pancakes for dinner, anyone?), so we thought we’d start with our favorite books for Lent.  Our hope is that the list will help us fully enter into the Lenten season with our families.

In making the selections we were looking for books with four different themes: (1) books placing Jesus’ life and death as the main subject,  (2) books that help children understand the dynamics of sin, judgment, and grace, (3) books that show us the way of humility, and (4) books to guide the daily living-out of our faith.  No matter how you do (or don’t) observe Lent, there’s something for everyone here!

You probably already know that Sarah and I both love Lent, and in previous years we’ve written a lot about this particular season of the church calendar.  After the booklist we’ve provided links to those posts in case you’re in need of fresh ideas for how to set aside the next 6 1/2 weeks in meaningful ways.

Books for Lent

Jesus at the Forefront!

Sin, Judgment, and Grace

Humility

Spiritual Disciplines and Holy Living

Food for Thought about Lent (and Easter)

Noah and the Ark

Noah and the Ark
Pauline Baynes
Holt, 1988

Really? Do we need another Noah’s Ark book? Maybe you don’t. But I’m always looking for books that tell the old stories faithfully – and while I love Peter Spiers’ version, sometimes I don’t really feel up to a wordless book. Pauline Baynes’ version, with its engrossing illustrations and text from the Revised Standard Version, fits those days perfectly.

The most remarkable thing about Noah and the Ark is, of course, the illustrations. You can just sit and pore over them – they’re that engrossing, full of fascinating little details. (Can you find the seasick person on the ark?) The animals are vivid, in motion, wild – and yet willing to be shepherded onto the ark. When they burst out at the end, you can feel the pent-up energy and sheer joy of encountering dry land again. Noah offers a burnt sacrifice, and as his family gives praise to God, it’s unclear which emotion dominates: thanksgiving for deliverance, or the creature’s awed beseeching of the Creator never to undo his work again. When the sign in the heavens comes on the last page, the grace is palpable.

And be warned: this book illustrates the true story. No Noah Problem here. As the waters rise, people cluster on hillocks, pleading with the sky. The animals left behind flee to the treetops in terror. And bodies are floating all around, while the Ark floats impassively nearby. It’s a sober and solemn vision, but it’s the Biblical one. This is a book of true pictures: on the days when I feel up to it, even with the Biblical text, I just might read it as a wordless book.

NB: This book is out of print as well, so the usual advice about buying used, emailing Hearts and Minds, and hitting up the library stands.

Jesus Loves Me

Jesus Loves MeJesus Loves Me
Tim Warnes
Little Simon, 2008

With a nearly 4-year-old and a 9-month old in the house, our family’s literary life consists of simultaneously re-visiting favorite board books and branching out into new territory: chapter books!  Although I thoroughly enjoy introducing my son to the books I shared with my daughter during her babyhood, it’s been harder to regularly set aside time specifically for board book reading.  He’s usually around when I’m reading picture books to my daughter, and it’s been easy to forget that the little guy deserves reading time just for him, too!

We already have lots of favorite board books, but of course there are many that have been recently published and we’re staring to explore those as well.  Back when my daughter was a baby I lamented the fact that there were so few theological board books.  (Ones that were well done, that is…)  Lately, though, I’ve found several really good ones that I’m eager to share!

Jesus Loves Me comes in hardback and board book formats (kindle too, actually) and is best suited to kids up to age 3.  The text is, as you might have guessed, simply the lyrics to the children’s hymn Jesus Loves Me.  Did you know that there are actually 12 verses to that song?!  There are 3 included in this book: the one that nearly everyone knows plus two more.

Jesus loves me this I know
As he loved so long ago
Taking children on his knee
Saying, “Let them come to me”

Jesus loves me still today
Walking with me on my way
Wanting as a friend to give
Light and love to all who live

I’ve sometimes been tempted to label this song as overly sentimental or flippant, but I’ve decided that those critical inclinations are completely wrong.  After all, what is the basic building block of what a very young child needs to know about God?  He needs to know that He loves him, welcomes him, and is with him each day – which is precisely the message of Jesus Loves Me.

Here is my simple test for artwork in books I’m considering reviewing here on the blog: If I put it on our display bookshelf with the rest of our library books, does it fit in?  Or does it look out of place because it’s done with less excellence?  Happily, Tim Warnes’ artwork in Jesus Loves Me fits in very well next to other books we love for their artistic beauty.  The book follows a bear family of three as they go about daily activities like reading, eating, gardening, fishing, hiking, and going to bed.  The images bring to mind Deuteronomy 6 and the commandment to talk about God with children wherever you go, whatever you do.  The bears are a warm and playful bunch, and I can pretty much guarantee that watching them in this book will make you want to give an extra snuggle to the little people you love.

Jesus Loves Me has made its way onto my list of favorite books to give for baby showers, and I’d encourage you to share it with to the babies and toddlers in your life as well!

Moses: When Harriet Tubman Led Her People to Freedom

MosesMoses: When Harriet Tubman Led Her People to Freedom
Carole Boston Weatherford & Kadir Nelson
Hyperion, 2006

This review is a little late for Martin Luther King Jr. Day (which was yesterday), but that doesn’t mean you should wait another year before tracking this wonderful book down. I happened to stumble upon it in the MLK Jr. display at the San Francisco Central Library, and was so delighted that I sat down and read the whole thing right there. And took it home to share with my kids, as well.

Moses is a re-telling of Harriet Tubman’s first flight to freedom, and her eventual resolve to save as many fellow enslaved African Americans as possible. Her story is profoundly moving, and there are a number of good biographies (picture and otherwise) out there. Two things set this marvelous picture book apart, however.

In the first place, Harriet’s entire journey hangs on the frame of an ongoing conversation with God. Harriet speaks to God, and God speaks right back. He gives her His mandate for her freedom (“I set the North Star in the heavens, and I mean for you to be free”) and helps her minutely along the way. Her superhuman courage and conviction are revealed to be just that:

And Harriet heeds God’s call, goes south again and again, keeps her bands of runaways moving – come storms and rough country – clear to Canada: Canaanland. And when free souls sing her praises, she gives glory where it is due. It wasn’t me. It was the Lord. I always trust Him to lead me, and He always does.

My daughter is in kindergarten this year, and this month she is hearing about Dr Martin Luther King, Jr in school. She’s getting her first introduction to the tragic sin of racism that has festered at our nation’s heart since its inception. I’m so grateful to have happened upon a book that testifies to God’s heart at a real moment in history. In the middle of the evil system of human enslavement, God was resolutely on the side of justice and liberation, and his mighty work was channeled through a powerless slave woman. If this is the history of how God acts, what can we say about his heart today towards the millions who are enslaved and trafficked around the world?

The second thing that instantly won me to this book is the artwork by Kadir Nelson. We’ve reviewed another of his books, and the more time I spend with his work, the more I love it. There is so much soul and life and rich emotion in Harriet’s face, and always a soft light shining upon it – or more accurately, from within it. He may not be Rembrandt, but I can’t help thinking he’s learned a bit about the use of light from the Master. Nowhere in the book – except for her first day in Philadelphia – does Harriet look happy, but in every portrait she looks grimly, fiercely committed, alive, and beautiful.

I love that this book’s story is so deeply theological and Incarnational. God acted, and continues to act in history, and his pattern is uncomfortably plain: pouring himself into what is weak and broken in order to act mightily on its behalf. He did it for all of humanity in Jesus, and in a smaller way he did it for a group of cruelly enslaved human beings in the life of Harriet Tubman. As our children grow, and become increasingly able to understand this truth, I hope that books like this will ask them: how does God want to work in you?