The Big Picture Family Devotional

Big Picture DevotionalThe Big Picture Family Devotional
David R. Helm, ed.
Crossway, 2014

It’s no secret how I feel about The Big Picture Story Bible. It remains my four-year-old’s favorite bedtime read, and it’s often one of the first gifts I give to new parents. So obviously I was interested when the good folks at Crossway let us know they were publishing a related devotional last summer, and grateful to them for sending me a copy to peruse.

The Big Picture Family Devotional grew out of the work by members of Holy Trinity Church in Chicago, who wanted to develop family devotional material that traced the storyline of the Bible – the “big picture” of salvation history. (Editor and founding pastor of Holy Trinity David Helm notes in the introduction that this was the genesis of the story Bible as well.)

The book itself is organized around “forty-five big picture verses that function as windows through which we gaze at God’s unfolding promise”: in the old tradition of catechesis, the book is divided into forty-five “questions,” each of which is answered by a memory verse. Each question is spread over three days. On each day you ask the question (i.e., “How did Abraham respond to the Lord’s word?”), respond by practicing the memory verse (“Abraham believed the Lord, and he counted it to him as righteousness,” Gen 15:6), and then read a related passage of Scripture and a short devotional paragraph. By the end of the three days, the verse should be memorized AND the question will have been considered in some Scriptural depth — so the question about Abraham includes devotional readings from Romans 4 and Galatians 3. It’s a wonderful structure for children ages 6 to 10, as they begin to encounter Scripture itself, as it provides an overarching structure to organize their experience of the Bible as God’s story for us.

If you’re familiar with The Big Picture Story Bible, you’ll quickly recognize the major themes: God creates a place and a people; God’s people reject him and are sent out from his place; God creates a new people and gives them a new place in his promises to Israel; these people too reject God as King; Jesus arrives as God’s promised king AND place who makes it possible for us to live as God’s people. As an introduction to the grand sweep of Scripture, the devotional is a wonderful teaching tool. Whether you work through it over the course of a year (as the editor suggests) or more quickly, say from Lent through Pentecost, children will see Scripture as a grand, rich, and interconnected story that is the beautiful work of a loving God.

However, I have a confession to make. While I love the structure, I find the overall quality of the written reflections, well, uneven. It’s entirely possible that I am being a theological perfectionist, but some of the reflections and response questions frankly give me serious pause. Question 33, for instance:

Q: Who is the only way to God?

A: Jesus said, “…I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” (John 14:6)

All well and good. This is cornerstone, Christianity-101 stuff. And it makes sense to point out that this is one of Jesus’ harder sayings, that it’s especially challenging in our time and place, and to observe “that is tough for people to swallow.” However, I would just skip the reflection question that follows: “There is a phrase that says ‘You gotta take the good with the bad.’ Do you understand what it means? How does that relate to our big picture verse for this week?”

Wait, WHAT? I don’t think the question is suggesting that Jesus’ words about being the way are the “bad” we have to take with the “good” of the gospel, only that that’s how some people experience it. But already the verse is being framed as controversial, confrontational, and something people have to just swallow if they want to follow Jesus, rather than the very good Christological news that it actually is: of course Jesus is the only way to God, because he is the God-man, the Son of God incarnate. I would much rather my kids understand that verse in light of the old twin poles of atonement: only God can save, and what has not been assumed (broken human nature) cannot be healed. And only Jesus is both God and man, so only Jesus can save. Rather than a barrier to evangelism (or worse, yet, a bludgeon), this verse should make us urgently want to introduce people to Jesus as the only one powerful enough to save their lives!

Theologically picky? Maybe. But I wouldn’t write about theological kidlit if I didn’t think the words we choose to talk about theology with our children really matter, and that it’s important to pay close attention to how the words we choose shade our gospel presentation.

There are other sentences, and in once case even entire reflections, in The Big Picture Family Devotional that, to be perfectly honest, I will probably edit or flat out skip/re-write when going through it with my children. For example: instead of reading to them (from question 11, about Abraham’s response to God’s call) that “Abraham’s faith pleased God. God will be very pleased with you too if you trust that his words are true,” I will say something like “Because he had faith, God named Abraham righteous. And remember: when God names things, he makes them into what he has named! His words are powerful! If you have faith and trust that he is good, in Jesus, he will call you righteous too – give you his very Spirit and bring you into communion with him.” Faith isn’t about making God happy with us (“pleasing” God), it’s about accepting his gift of a new, righteous identity in Christ. It’s nothing we do; it’s accepting something being done to us. Daily my children have teachers, coaches, and friends to please. God’s pleasure is of another sort altogether, and we need to remember that when we tell our kids how to “please” God. Words matter, and in such essentials I don’t want to muddy my children’s understanding with language about making God happy with them.

So: given these kinds of reservations, why am I reviewing and recommending this book? Well, because despite my hesitations about some of the reflections, I absolutely love the structure and organization of this book. It’s unparalleled in the scope of what it’s trying to do: take children through the big picture of Scripture, help them to see its interconnected themes, memorize in a way that puts the grand narrative of God’s story at their fingertips, and to see this whole, giant, ancient compilation as a living word that breathes life and hope. I’m more than willing to ad lib, edit, and rephrase some devotional sentences in exchange for such a gift.

In California

Once upon a time, Sarah and I both lived in the same place. For the first year of this blog we were both in Minnesota, and oh, those were good times. She hosted our book club at her house, we enjoyed Easter dinner celebrations together, and we were always present for each other’s children’s birthday parties. Nearly four years ago, though, life took her to the California coast. She gets back to Minnesota on a fairly regular basis but (shame on me!) until this past weekend I’d never been to visit her in her new hometown.

Last week, though, I flew with my 8-month old and another dear friend for three blissful days of basking in the sun and friendship. I kept exclaiming (even on the crowded city bus, when I’m pretty sure Sarah thought I was being sarcastic – I was not), “This is so fun!” And it was. Here’s some proof:

DSC_0865 DSC_0719 DSC_0723 DSC_0784 DSC_0712 DSC_0780

Pretty sure I’m going back as soon as I possibly can.

Podcast!

Read Aloud RevivalToday we’re over at the Read Aloud Revival podcast chatting with Sarah Mackenzie about reading with toddlers! Hop on over to hear what we sound like in real life, and if you’re not already familiar with that podcast you’re in for a real treat. Sarah has interviewed some great folks (Jim Weiss, Melissa Wiley, Sarah Clarkson…) about reading aloud with kids and I’ve loved listening to each episode.

If you’ve found us via the podcast, welcome! Our links at the top of the page are the best way to get to know us, so feel free to poke around a bit. We have over 100 reviews of theological kidlit in the archives as well as lots of “food for thought” posts. We mostly write about the dual importance of truth and beauty in books about God for children, but our second favorite topic is celebrating the church year at home. (Speaking of which, Lent starts soon and we have some great resources for that season here if you scroll down.) We’d love to have you join the ongoing conversation here, so please make yourselves at home.

On the podcast we didn’t talk much about reading distinctly theological books with toddlers, but if you’re curious about our favorites here’s a list to get you started.

One more thing! During the podcast I neglected to mention one of my favorite read aloud strategies for toddlers: tantrum intervention. We read aloud when everyone’s happy, of course, but I’ve also found that when I have a young child melting down, one of the best ways to encourage calming down is to simply pick up a book and start reading. If you ask if they want to read a book they’ll scream “Noooo!” but if you just do it… Magic.  :)

RAR 19

Saint Francis

saint francisSt Francis
Brian Wildsmith
Eerdmans, 1995

It’s still Epiphany for two more weeks, and amidst this busy season of imperceptibly lengthening days, resuming schoolwork and activities, and planning for the coming year, I like to pull out books that remind us all of the light that has dawned and that we bear into our mundane, messy, daily lives. My daughter’s second grade class is reading biographies right now, and I shamelessly used her weekly homework assignment as an excuse to pass her a library copy of St. Francis, because he was one of the great light-bearers of our Christian family.

We’ve reviewed no less than three books based on Saint Francis’ Canticle of Brother Sun, so no surprise that Haley and I are attracted to his theology of radical gratitude and his intense experience of God’s rich presence in his creation. But the fact remains: the man is a medieval saint, and with that comes some territory that most Protestants shy away from — miracle stories, stigmata, and the like. This is the first picture biography of St Francis that I’ve come across that tells those episodes (the taming of the wolf of Gubbio and the reception of the stigmata) in a matter-of-fact way, of a piece with the life of a man who so identified with Christ that he is no longer at war with creation and is able to receive the scars that come as a result.

In fact, the real joy of this book is in the simplicity of its telling, accompanied by Wildsmith’s lavish, light-soaked illustrations. (Those of you who have read Exodus and Joseph know what I mean.) The sentences are short, declarative, straightforward. But the light and joy that shines through is unmistakeable. It’s the most appropriate possible telling for a man who chose simplicity, spoke and lived without elegance, and whose life still shines with holy glory.

In Praise of Audio Books

At my house, we are very big fans of children’s audio books. It started, I think, when my daughter was not even two. I took a stack of her favorite board books to my family’s house for Christmas and had each of my siblings and parents record themselves reading one. Her eyes would light up whenever she heard a beloved relative reading a beloved book – it was audio perfection!

Later, when she was closer to 2 1/2, I bought Blueberries for Sal on a whim at Audible. We had read the book many times by that point, so the words were already very familiar to her and she was able to listen and follow along.  After that success we started exploring the collection of book+cd packs at our library. In the beginning I would simply look for picture books that we had already read aloud at home (like those by Kevin Henkes, read by Laura Hamilton), because I found at her age that if the stories were familiar she could listen to them independently. As she got more and more hooked on audio books we branched out and found new favorites, such as All Pigs Are Beautiful and Dogger.

Fast forward a few years and audio books remain an important part of our family culture. They’re great for road trips, rest time, dinner prep, and sick days. And plain old regular days, too! Sometimes I get my daughter the audio version after we’ve particularly loved a chapter book read aloud so she can enjoy it again on her own, but other times she listens to a book without any intro.

I try to add to our owned collection from time to time (they make great gifts!) but we also make use of our library’s offerings. There are some great resources in this post  if you’re interested in figuring out how to find good deals.

Here are some of our favorites:

I’ve gotten more into audio listening in recent years, too.  Here are some books and podcasts that I enjoy:
I’d love to hear what your family’s favorite podcasts and audio books are, so if you have some I haven’t listed above please comment and share them!

Be Blest

Be BlestBe Blest
Mary Beth Owens
Simon & Schuster, 1999

There are several times during the year that naturally lend themselves to reflection on the past and wondering about the future: the start of a new school year, the beginning of Advent and a new church year, the turning of seasons, January 1st. As you may have gathered, a big part of moving through the church year for my family has to do with the books we read, and the same is true of the seasonal year. We have books that are read all year round, of course, but others only get pulled out at certain times. Today’s book is unique in that it’s a thoroughly seasonal book, yet it’s appropriate for sharing at any time, no matter what month or season we’re in.

I picked up Be Blest at that used book sale I mentioned back in October. I’d never heard of it before, but the illustrations were so striking that I was immediately drawn to it. Each of the twelve spreads features a short seasonal poem on the left surrounded by a circular illustration done in a matching seasonal theme. The righthand side of each spread is a full page illustration with a caption listing one of the months of the year. So, for instance, January’s spread shows various winter animals in a snowy landscape, while August’s depicts blackberries and foraging bears.

Owens’ work is beautiful, which makes this a book to move through slowly, noticing artistic details and thinking about the poems that whisper praises to the Creator. Each one starts with a word or phrase that is repeated for three months in a row. Be Blest is for winter, Sing Praise is for spring, Rejoice is for summer, and Give Thanks is for autumn. To whet your appetite, here’s the complete verse for January:

Be Blest / when wind and ice / shake seeds / from lifeless plants / and tattered weeds.

On barren branches / leaf buds bear  / the promise of  / another year.

The author’s note tells how the book’s inspiration was Saint Francis’ “Canticle of Brother Sun.” She also notes that she drew from other traditions and, indeed, I am sure that many outside of the Christian faith would find much to like about this book. However, just because there’s not Trinitarian theology clearly coming through on each page doesn’t mean that we Trinitiarians should steer clear of this lovely book. While you won’t find a complete Nicene Creed here there’s nothing in the text that I find contradictory to it. It is, truly, a wonderful book, and I hope that you’ll check it out – especially those of you who share a fondness for the turning of seasons and are attuned to how God’s faithfulness can be seen in nature.

Christmas Day in the Morning

Christmas Day

Christmas Day in the Morning
Pearl S. Buck & Mark Buehner
HarperCollins Children’s, 2002

I’ve seen Christmas Day in the Morning in the past couple of Chinaberry holiday catalogues, and marked it to track down and check out. Then a few weeks ago, I was browsing in Books Inc for some Christmas presents and saw it displayed alongside a few of my other favorites, Christmas in Noisy Village The Story of Holly and Ivy. I love Mark Buehner’s artwork (for some non-theological favorites, check out Fanny’s Dream and Snowmen at Night), and a quick glance through this lovely hardback landed it quickly in my pile. What I wasn’t expecting was to review it here.

Originally published in 1955, Christmas Day in the Morning is the tale of a boy’s discovery that his father loves him, and the desire that is immediately awakened by that discovery to give a gift of love of his own. Rob lives on a farm with his hardworking parents, and pitches in dutifully with the chores like early-morning milking. But one day, he overhears his father’s regret that he has to wake Rob so early for the work and “something in him woke: his father loved him!” It’s that sudden realization so many of us have in early adolescence: as we begin to emerge from childhood’s (necessary) self-centeredness, it dawns on us that our parents aren’t just a fixture of the universe. Their years of care come from choice, and dedication, and fidelity — from love.

What’s so beautiful about this story is Rob’s response. It’s the biblical response of the Beloved to the Lover: an immediate desire to sacrifice, to show an awareness of the gift that has been given and to reciprocate. illuminuated by Mark Buehner’s tender and feeling illustrations, this story absolutely deserves a spot under the Christmas tree or to be read aloud on Christmas Eve. After all, it echoes (in a simple, creaturely tale) the True Story of Christmas: the Son who so loves that Father that he responds by pouring himself out, straight into his own creation, and the Father’s echoing delight.

I’ve already read this story with my children, and am planning on reading it again with them and their cousins once more before Christmas. If you’re looking for a new Christmas tradition, or simply a good book to share as a family, this is one that I can heartily recommend.

Great Joy

Great JoyGreat Joy
Kate DiCamillo & Bagram Ibatoulline
Candlewick, 2007

If you’re at all familiar with the world of children’s literature, you probably know some of Kate DiCamillo’s books. The Mercy Watson series is a favorite around here, both in book and audiobook formats, and I’m eager for the day when my daughter is ready to be introduced to The Tale of Despereaux. DiCamillo is a truly gifted storyteller, one who has been recognized by the Newbery folks on a number of occasions. (She’s also a local to the Twin Cities. I might daydream about running into her at my favorite independent children’s bookstore…)

Lucky for us, a handful of years ago DiCamillo joined the club of children’s authors who write Christmas books. And even luckier for us, it’s a really good one! To start with, Bagram Ibatoulline’s illustrations are perfect. Evocative, warm, and wintery, they make for a quintessential Christmas book. And as all great illustrations do, they help the reader enter into the story and make the author’s words live.

Great Joy is a sort of parable, as so many of DiCamillo’s books are, about how Christmas is really for everyone. In the Bible, the good news is shared first with the shepherds, the societal outcasts of their day. In Great Joy the news goes to someone in a similar circumstance, all because a little girl named Frances notices his presence in the world and desires to draw him in. In some ways there are some thematic parallels to The Best Christmas Pageant Ever, though DiCamillo’s approach is more quiet, more meditative, less hilarious. Both books are wonderful additions to any Christmas home library, and I’m really enjoying sharing both of them with my kids this year.

Good King Wenceslas

Wenceslas jacket.inddGood King Wenceslas
John M. Neal & Tim Ladwig
Eerdmans, 2005

I’ve come a long way from being someone who used to dislike picture books that use song lyrics are their only text. I can’t even remember, exactly, what I found unappealing about them back then. Whatever it was, I’m glad to have seen the light because there are a number of excellent books in this subgenre. Earlier this week I wrote about one and today I’ve got another one to share: Good King Wenceslas, an old Christmas carol that’s been illustrated by Tim Ladwig.

Ladwig has illustrated quite a few theological picture books, but my favorite of his is Peter’s First Easter, that gem of gems that was one of the initial inspirations for creating Aslan’s Library. Ladwig’s art is always vibrant and warm, but I find his work in this book to be especially endearing. The carol requires a variety of settings to be pictured and I love seeing them all, from the castle to the nature scenes to the peasant’s cottage. The people are just as varied (page, peasant, servant, king) and all do their part to tell the true story of King Wenceslas’ journey through harsh winter weather to give aid to one of his subjects. It’s a great story, one that I’m eager to tell my children at this time of year that can too easily become too much just about receiving and not enough about showing compassion and care.

If you enjoy connecting books with the liturgical calendar as I do, Good King Wenceslas is an obvious choice for December 26, St. Stephen’s Day (which is also Boxing Day to the English among us).

I Saw Three Ships

I Saw Three ShipsI Saw Three Ships
Elizabeth Goudge & Margot Tomes
David R. Godine, 1969

I have recently been introduced to the works of Elizabeth Goudge and suffice it to say that I have quickly become a loyal fan. My book group adored The Bird in the Tree this fall and if you have not yet read that masterful book, let me have the privilege of being the first to tell you to run out and get yourself a copy as soon as you can. Much to my delight, I discovered that Goudge wrote for children as well as adults, and when I saw earlier this month that one of them was Christmas themed I bought it on the spot.

I Saw Three Ships is a mere 60 pages long, but oh my, what a perfect tale to share with an older-elementary aged child at this time of year. (Stocking stuffer, perhaps?) In it we meet Polly, a young girl who lives in England with her two spinster aunts and whose spunk and determination keeps them on their toes. We meet the threesome just before Christmas, and in the opening pages Polly is trying to convince her aunts to leave the doors unlocked on Christmas Eve. She has always heard that if you do so, the three wise men might come in and visit. Being an adventuresome lass, she is eager for that to happen. Her aunts protest, saying that leaving the doors unlocked is simply not safe. And besides, that old tradition is just a legend. Here’s a snippet of conversations from page 10:

“The wise men might come,” said Polly. “Why not? Susan at the sweetshop told me that Christ Himself came to the West Country when He was a little boy.”

“That’s only a legend, dear,” said Dorcas.

“What’s a legend, Aunt?” asked Polly.

“A story whose truth cannot be proved,” said Dorcas.

“You can’t prove God,” said Polly.

As I’ve mulled over I Saw Three Ships during the past few days, I think that passage is at the crux of what Goudge is sharing with us through this story. We may not be able to prove God, it is true. But do you know what happens when we open ourselves up to childlike faith? Our eyes are opened. Opened to reality, opened to seeing people for who they really are, opened to joy. I’m not going to tell you much more about the plot because you’ll enjoy discovering it for yourself. This book is full of warmth and charm (and, yes, a bit of old-fashioned quirk) and wonderful for anyone age 8 and up.