Lent with Children

You guys. It has been ages. We promised to be back last fall, but then I started work and Haley’s homeschool year started, and well — with one thing and another, you know. And actually, I’ve been writing a ton, but most of it has been Sunday morning worship curriculum for our church’s children. Which is really fun, and rewarding, but not exactly blog material.

I won’t make any promises about when we’ll post next or a regular schedule, or anything like that. But know that the vision that prompted us to start Aslan’s Library is as close to our hearts as it ever has been. We’re still paging through stacks of books with our children, making long request lists, and texting each other about our finds. Should life provide a little more breathing space, we both have tons we want to share.

In the meantime, one fun part of my new job is that I get to spend a lot of time reflecting on the church year and how to mark it with children. The lovely Laura Turner recently invited me to reflect a little more publicly, on our church’s blog, and I wanted to share it with you.

So without further ado: Lent with Children. I hope yours has been rich so far.

Patrick: Patron Saint of Ireland

PatrickPatrick: Patron Saint of Ireland
Tomie de Paola
Holiday House, 1992

We were driving out of the city on Saturday, and had to pick up my husband on the way. He texted me to get him at the corner of Octavia and Page, then sent a series of texts with revised pickup points because he kept running into the St Patrick’s Day Parade which was apparently impossible to maneuver around. On our way back into town at the end of the day, passing a car full of noisy green-bedecked revelers, he said, ruefully, “Be careful: the streets of San Francisco are full of drunk twenty-somethings right now.”

After feeling enormously old for a few seconds (I am no longer close to being considered a twenty-something, and was mostly annoyed at the people blocking traffic between me and my pajamas), I thought about how disconnected most celebrations of St Patrick’s Day are from the actual life of the saint. In fact, I kind of doubt most people at that parade even knew why we celebrate St Patrick’s Day, except as an excuse to drink revoltingly green beer in public. Which is why I have taken it on myself to make sure my kids know about this marvelous man and why we bother to set aside a day in his remembrance.

In fact, as I pulled out Patrick: Patron Saint of Ireland at snack time today, both of my kids protested “Mom! You’ve read this to us before!” (They were hoping for the next chapter of On the Banks of Plum Creek. Sorry, guys. Mom’s theological agenda prevails.) But, in our family at least, there’s something magical about Tomie dePaola’s illustrations: they never cease to captivate. And everyone settled in for the read.

I love this book. I love the illustrations, and I love the story. Patrick is kidnapped as a young man, enslaved in Ireland, and spends his cold and desolate days as a shepherd in prayer. He escapes with God’s help (and the help of some loud dogs), and then returns to Ireland – to bring the gospel to his oppressors – in obedience to God’s call. It’s a beautiful story, told simply and with heart, and it firmly, patiently reminds us that all of our cultural celebration of Ireland on March 17 has to go back to the man who loved God so dearly that he gave his whole life to that island and its people.

And a bonus (for us Protestants, at least): dePaola has separated the historically chronicled events of Patrick’s life from the legends that grew up around him later, and presents those clearly AS legends. Which are interesting, and illuminating, and helpful in understanding why people would love Patrick so much…but which are, for all that, simply legends. I’m grateful for the separation, and for this book. Happy Saint Patrick’s Day to you all!

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).

Advent Resources for Grownups

IMG_3227Every year, around Thanksgiving, Haley and I lament the fact that we don’t already have reviews written for ALL THE BOOKS, because sorting through and sharing the wealth of Advent and Christmas picture books is a daunting task that we should tackle in, say, July. (But really: who wants to read Christmas books in July? Probably the same people who have the self-discipline to make all those homemade decorations in the summer so that they can pull them out and pin/Instagram them the day after Thanksgiving. If you are one of those people, know that you simultaneously amaze and perplex me.)

It’s a good problem to have, though, because it just means there are so many good books for children to share this time of year. And we certainly will have some new reviews up in the coming days and weeks.

However: in the past two years or so, I’ve fallen into the same trap during Advent and Lent. I’ve gotten so focused on doing the season “well” with my children that I’ve barely inhabited the seasons myself, or let the days of preparation teach me. In the process, I’ve found that I become pretty untethered from what each season is all about — with the sorry result that my words about “getting ready” feel dry and disconnected. And my kids aren’t dumb. They can tell when Mom is trying to get them to eat something she won’t touch herself, rather sharing the source of her own nourishment.

So this year, I’m trying to spend part of each day (generally the early morning) sitting quietly with Scripture, reading poems and selections that someone else has chosen, and generally listening to see if and how God will speak. I’ve set aside, for now, the goal of a productive quiet time, of chasing after what I think I need to learn. So much of the Advent story is about having our own projects upended and waiting to see how God is going to fulfill his promises. Waiting to see how, and when, God will arrive.

Toward that end, then — to help us all in the waiting, and watching, and setting aside our agendas for God — here are a few Advent resources for grownups. I hope you’ll find something here to help you wait upon the Lord, and sharpen the bright hunger of hope.IMG_3225

7--portinari-triptych-detail_advent_thumbnailThe Advent Project, created by the Biola University Center for Christianity, Culture & the Arts
Our small group is using this online resource together this year, and (like the previous spring’s Lent project) it is a wonderful opportunity to reflect meditatively, through word, art, and music, on Scripture that helps us understand this season. Short daily meditations for Advent through Epiphany are accompanied by musical selections and visual art. And I promise you: this isn’t flat or sentimental work. Introducing the project, Biola president Barry Corey writes, “It [Advent] is merriment and melancholy together, beauty so sublime that, like the best art, it simultaneously comforts and rocks us to the core.” You can visit the site daily, or subscribe to it via email.

Light Upon LightLight Upon Light: A Literary Guide to Prayer for Advent, Christmas & Epiphany, Sarah Arthur
This is the book I’m sitting with in my early mornings. It’s a simple but ingenious idea: for each week of Advent, Christmastide, and Epiphany, daily Scripture readings and prayers are paired with complementary poems and excerpts from fiction. Authors like Dickens, Herbert, Donne and Eliot sit comfortably alongside newer voices, familiar and unfamiliar. It’s been an interesting and challenging book, one that has forced me out of my typical reading style (attempting to wring every bit of understanding out of every sentence) and into a more reflective, meditative approach. Which, as it happens, is perfect for Advent.

Sounding the SeasonsSounding the Seasons: Seventy Sonnets for the Christian YearMalcolm Guite
Haley gave me this book a year ago, and it’s a lovely resource (or gift) for someone beginning to explore the church year, or who may not want an Advent devotional per se but still wants to approach the season mindfully. Or maybe you’d like to keep it on hand for bedside reading or preschool pick-up waiting?

Seeking God’s Face: PrayiSeeking God's Faceng with the Bible Through the Yeared. Philip Reinder

In a talk he gave at our church, Jamie Smith recommended this as a year-round daily devotional, and I ordered it right then and there. I’ve used it for about a year and a half now, and actually set it aside this Advent in favor of Light Upon Light, but it’s a wonderful book — and what better time than the beginning of the Christian year to start something new? For each day, there are Scripture readings as well as seasonally-appropriate prayers and suggested focus for free prayer. I love this book, and if I could, I’d stick it in all of your stockings.

Pray as You GoPray As You Go
Disclaimer: I haven’t used Pray As You Go myself, but I came across it awhile back while clicking through some of our church’s recommended Advent resources. I was particularly interested because it reminded me of Headspace, an app that some friends use and love. But, by my lights, Pray As You Go is much better: it offers a daily Scripture reading, music, and guided prayer in a short audio format. If you’re someone who has a daily commute, wishes for a personal spiritual director on call (why can’t I have my own church and curate on the property?) or is simply an auditory learner, this is a great site. In the tradition of Ignatian spirituality, they also offer a daily imaginative exercise and personal examen, both of which I have a very little experience with and would like to do more.

It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like… Advent!

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We’re well into the first week of Advent now, and the sights and sounds of this wonderful season have penetrated our house.  Here are some of the ways we’re marking Advent this year:

It’s tricky to figure out how to differentiate between Advent and Christmas because our culture generally skips directly to celebration without much preparation at all.  This year, though, I’m trying to take a few new steps in that direction.  We’re waiting to put up our tree until the third week of Advent (which is “joy” week) and the gingerbread house kit hiding in my closet will stay there until sometime during the 12 Days of Christmas.  I’ve not yet taken up the discipline of a full Advent fast, but I am trying to postpone many of our favorite celebratory activities and treats until after December 25.  My hope is that the 12 Days will seem more like a sustained celebration – and then we’ll get together with friends for a small Twelfth Night or Epiphany party to wrap it all up!

How are you entering into the preparatory season of Advent this year?

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Let Us Keep the Feast

Let Us Keep the FeastLet Us Keep the Feast
Jessica Snell, editor
Doulos Resources, 2014

Our favorite topic to write about here at Aslan’s Library, right after theological kidlit and reading with children, is celebrating the church year.  So I’m incredibly excited to share a new resource for you: Let Us Keep the Feast: Living the Church Year at Home.  If you have any interest at all in learning about the celebrations of the church calendar and if you want to create a deeper sense of seasonal liturgy in your home, this is the book for you!

Let Us Keep the Feast, published by Doulos Resources, was actually written in four installments that were made available last year.  This newest edition contains each of those shorter books and has information about each season of the year from Advent (the first season of the Christian calendar) to Christ the King (the last Sunday in the Christian year).  The sections are well researched and written by a variety of people, but each contains similar components.  An introduction gives background about the season, both historic and theological.  Old, new, and global traditions for the season and any special days within the season are discussed.  Traditions involving food, children, crafting, and community engagement are all shared – and thankfully, the suggestions manage to be thorough without feeling burdensome.  Lastly, the resources section lists ideas for Scripture readings, songs, prayers, and other readings that correlate with the season.

I own the kindle versions of a couple of the season-specific Let Us Keep the Feast editions and if you’re short on cash or just not sure if this book is up your alley that format is a good option.  However, I think this book is one that probably presents itself better in print, so if you’re not a die hard kindle user then I’d encourage purchasing the paper copy.  Best of all, if you do buy the print copy you can actually get the kindle version for free – a nice win-win solution to my own ongoing debate about ebook vs old fashioned paper.

Advent is a time when, after a long season of Ordinary Time, many of us gear up for a long stretch of intentionally incorporating the church year into our family life.  I have a number of books that I reference in my quest to bring the Christian seasons to life in my home, but this is my new favorite.  Run out to get your own copy today and you’ll be ready for an end-of-year Christ the King celebration in a few weeks just before launching into Advent!

More book sale loot, from the other end of the continent

This must be the season for used-book sales, because last week I spent the better part of a day at the Friends of the SF Public Library Big Book Sale, out at Fort Mason. Picking through thousands of books with coffee in hand and the bay splashing against the pier? Yes, please! Oh, and nothing priced over $3? I’m there.

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My favorite part of sales like this is happening across the books that you’re never going to see in a bricks-and-mortar store. I love Rumer Godden’s children’s books (especially The Story of Holly & Ivy, which we read every year at Christmas), so how could I pass up this handsome edition of In This House of BredeThe Icon and the Axe is a history of Russia that was recommended to me by a professor of Russian history at a Wheaton theology conference a few years back – I find Russia utterly fascinating – and I’ve had my eye half open for it every time I walk into Books Inc. A copy for $1? Beautiful.  And ever since Alan Jacobs assigned Black Lamb and Grey Falcon in my modern English-lit course, I have admired Rebecca West immensely. So of course I was delighted to find an anthology that includes her biography of Augustine; and the history/political philosophy geek in me may have squealed a little upon grabbing a handsome copy of The New Meaning of Treason.

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And of course there are loads of books that I mark as “want-to-read” when they come out, or I read a review, but gradually slip out of my awareness until I see them for $3 on a used book table. What are used book sales for if not restoring some of my forgotten good intentions?

We’re awash in picture books lately, and the selection wasn’t great at this sale, so I spent most of my kidlit time over at the chapter book tables. Remember the old Apple classics? And those Dell paperbacks with the slightly pulpy illustrations on the covers? Welcome to my childhood, people. It felt very necessary to give my daughter the same edition of Little Women, sappy cover and all, that I read to bits. And my favorite find? A collection of Norse tales compiled by Sigrid Undset. My daughter might not be ready for Kristin Lavransdatter for awhile yet, but we can have fun now immersing ourselves in the imaginative universe that shaped Norse culture (and my own child’s Viking forbears).

Do you have a favorite used book sale? Mention it in the comments, and maybe we can link up to different annual sales across the country for everyone to find! And what’s your strategy? Do you go with a list of titles to seek out, or show up hoping for a dose of serendipity? I’d love to hear about your favorite finds!

Fiction as a Means of Grace

For the last six months or so, I’ve been in a dry spell with novels. I can’t tell you why, but I’ve had trouble picking up and sustaining a good novel. (The exception has been the John Russell series by David Downing: even when I can’t read fiction, I’m always up for a good spy story.) Recently it’s been a season of history and physics, the New Yorker and Food & Wine and the Slurve. We all have seasons in our reading lives, and sometimes the spiritual attention that a good novel requires just isn’t available; at others, we just have more pressing interests and concerns. So I haven’t been terribly alarmed. But yesterday I came across something I wrote several years ago for a class on faith and fiction at Luther Seminary, and had the funny experience of being instructed by my past self:

“There is a discipleship component to [reading fiction] as well. Like the Truth by whom we were all created and in whom the universe lives and moves and has its being, its [fiction’s] means of communication is bodily human life. Watching Ivan Karamazov crouch on his father’s stairs as he listens to him breathing down below , knowing that he is abandoning his father to death the next day, is a treatise itself on original sin; moreover, it is a treatise that involves us, makes us complicit, and sends us away grappling with the dark desires in our own hearts. This is reason enough that the discipline of reading fiction seriously and openheartedly is a practice that ought to be encouraged in church alongside other means of discipleship.”

It was just the encouragement I needed to return to the fiction shelves, not as escape but with serious spiritual intent. Fiction has (if this isn’t too bold a claim) been a means of grace to me, and has required the same sort of engagement on my part as other more traditional means — prayer, fasting, fellowship. I feel more relaxed about taking a break from fiction than I do from the other biblically mandated avenues, but was thankful nonetheless to receive my own encouragement on this one.

Since it’s that delicious season where we find ourselves still in the midst of summer reading as well as planning the upcoming fall, here’s what’s at the top of my fiction list right now. Once I’ve finished Stones from the River and am home for the fall, these will be the books I’m hunting down at Books Inc or ordering from Hearts and Minds:

What Happened to Sophie Wilder, Christopher Beha
Things Invisible to See, Nancy Willard
Station Eleven, Emily St John Mandel
The Bird in the Tree, Elizabeth Goudge
Souls Raised from the Dead, Doris Betts

How about you? Has fiction been a means of grace for you? How so? I’d love to know which books, and what you’re planning on reading in the upcoming months!

On the Road Again…

I grew up listening to Willie Nelson: in my dad’s truck, on family road trips, in the background because my parents dug 70s and 80s country music. When I heard him on an old Prairie Home Companion rerun yesterday, it was with a heavy hit of nostalgia. For some people my age, it’s Family Ties (oh, Alex P. Keaton) or Full House (oh, Uncle Jesse)  that takes them straight back to childhood. For me, it’s The Highwaymen. Thanks, Mom & Dad.

So it’s fitting, of course, that every summer I spend a lot of my time humming “On the Road Again” under my breath as I pack, unpack, do laundry, fold, pack, unpack, do more laundry, repack again, and so on until mid-August. We have the extraordinary blessing of parents who are young and energetic enough to want lots of time with us and our kids (mostly our kids, really) AND who live in perfect places for the fogged-in San Francisco family to seasonally relocate. So far we’ve been in St Louis (family reunion), Florida (my parents), Dallas (a wedding), with our next stop at the lake in Western Minnesota —  with sun, food, and grandparents all the way through.

I hope you can understand, then, why reviews might be few and far between this summer. I have several chapter books I’m working through with the seven year old, but this takes time. In the meantime, may I share some of what we’re reading and eating? Just for fun, of course? Because I hope that many of you are on vacation, or heading that way, as well!

Reading Aloud with the 7-year-old

The Story of the World; the Middle Ages, Susan Wise Bauer
Favorite Medieval Tales, Mary Pope Osborne
Monks and Mystics: Chronicles of the Medieval Church, Mindy & Brandon Withnow
Famous Men of the Middle Ages, Rob Shearer

We just finished Voyage of the Dawn Treader and are planning to start Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone this weekend. One of those parenting moments I’ve been looking forward to for seven years: hooray!

Reading Aloud with the 4-year-old

The Jamie and Angus Stories, Anne Fine & Penny Dale (thank you, Haley!)
We Are Best Friends, Aliki
Why: The Best Ever Question and Answer Book about Nature, Science, and the World Around You, Catherine Ripley
Richard Scarry’s Best Storybook Ever! Richard Scarry
The Big Alfie Out of Doors Storybook, Shirley Hughes

His best friend moved away at the beginning of the summer, hence the Aliki pick. We’ve also been doing lots of Jamie & Angus, and one Alfie story in particular (“Bonting”) because he too has a beloved stuffed friend: Saggy Baggy, the elephant who accompanies us everywhere. If we lose Saggy Baggy, please pray for us!

With his best friend and the one and only Saggy Baggy

With his best friend and the one and only Saggy Baggy

My Sumer Reading

Potsdam Station, David Downing
(plus the whole series of John Russell thrillers. A British-American journalist with a German girlfriend and German son trying to navigate the various intelligence services at work during the Second World War? Yes, please!)

Taking the Quantum Leap: The New Physics for Non-Scientists, Fred A. Wolf
Because daily reality is much more complicated than I ever imagined, and I want to (at least slightly) grasp why.

Stones from the River, Ursula Helgi
My mother-in-law gave me this book, and I’ve been waiting to start it until I could give it proper, sustained attention. And that attention has been repaid. I haven’t finished yet, but so far it’s a fascinating story about an outsider (a young woman marked by dwarfism) inhabiting a very specific space in time and seeing how history makes everyone an outsider in one way or another — to our families, our countries, our belief systems, or basic civility itself. It’s the sort of book I wish I were reading with a larger book group, because there is so much conversation to be had!

Books and Culture, because I am always behind on issues and always hungry to catch up. The best of their content is reserved for subscribers (and may I encourage you, vigorously, to subscribe?), but two essays I’ve particularly enjoyed are available on their site. Let’s just say my ever-burgeoning “to-read” list keeps growing:

Redefining Religious Fiction, D.G. Myers
The Rood and the Torc,  John Wilson

And the Food:

Between family reunions, time at my parents’ house, and a weekend in Napa with friends, we have eaten well this summer. A few of the best things so far:

Grilled Herb Shrimp
Red Curry Chicken Kebabs with Yogurt Sauce
Pie. All kinds of pie.
Especially this pie:
BBQ Pork Steaks (with LOTS of information for those who aren’t from St Louis)
Israeli Couscous Salad with Cherry Tomatoes

I hope your summer is full of delicious food and wonderful books, whether you’re traveling or happily ensconced in your own backyard. What are you eating and reading during these long and wonderful days?

Of families and pie

We’re traveling this week, and I’m almost done with a really good book that I can’t wait to share with you all, so all matters theological kid-lit will have to wait just a bit longer. (But good news for those of you who have been looking for longer chapter books for your older children! It’s an area of books we’ve long wanted to stretch out into, and now I sort of have to, since I have a voraciously reading 7 1/2-year old. And I just have a few chapters to go…)

Our travels this week took us to a family reunion in southwestern Illinois, where there was (oh glory of glories) a pie-safe AND a pie refrigerator AND we ran out of space for ALL THE PIE in both. I grew up — and still am — pretty geographically distant from most of my extended family, and since I don’t use Facebook I’m not always as closely connected as I’d like. But as soon as folks started arriving with the desserts, I knew: these are my people.

Strawberry, lemon meringue, apple, banana cream, cherry, rhubarb, pecan, Kentucky Derby, and key lime pies all made an appearance, plus blackberry cobbler, snickerdoodles, Aunt Ruby’s banana cake, M&M cookies, cheesecake and more I can’t even remember: it was a feast. Oh, right, and there were also barbecued pork steaks (cooked on a massive smoker that you need a truck to haul, by my cousin’s husband and my uncle, who have also tried their hand at competition barbecue: I told you these were my people!), coleslaw, potato salad, and beans. You know, if you wanted something other than pie.

The fourth of July is coming up later this week, and I hope it will find you with friends, family and pie. For families (and pie), I am mightily grateful. And during the summer — so often a time of reconnecting with family — may we also remember those who aren’t in families, or have lost a loved one. Summer can be lonely. Let’s try to remember to reach out: maybe invite somebody into our gatherings, or even take them a pie.

Need a recipe? Here’s my mom’s apple pie recipe, with my own modifications on the crust (just because I like the taste of butter in pretty much every situation: although yes, you are right, Mom, Crisco makes for a better texture).

She's right, you know.

She’s right, you know.

My Mom’s Apple Pie, Mostly

makes 1 double-crust pie

Fruit filling
5-6 cups (depending on how deep your pie pan is) firm, tart apples, such as Granny
Smith, Braeburn, Pink Lady, or Haralson. Mom likes Golden Delicious. We part company here.
3/4 – 1 cup sugar, depending on how tart your apples and how sweet you like your pie
2 T flour
1 t cinnamon
1 t vanilla (the vanilla is key, people)
cold butter, for dotting

Preheat oven to 375.
Mix apples with sugar, flour, cinnamon, and vanilla in a large bowl. Pour into prepared pie pan, lined with one pie crust. Dot with cubes of cold butter – about 1-2 T total.

Cover the fruit with the second crust, trim extra, fold the edges under, and crimp. Slice 4-6 vents in the top and sprinkle sugar all over. (Cinnamon, too, if you’re feeling fancy, but plain sugar is best.) Bake at 375 for 45-50 minutes, or until crust is browned and filling is bubbling.

Double crust for a 9-inch pie
2 1/2 cups flour
1 t salt
2 T sugar
8 T (1 stick) cold butter, cut into 1/4-inch pieces, plus
12 T (1 1/2 sticks) cold butter, cut into 1/4-inch pieces
6-8 T ice water

In a food processor, mix flour, salt, and sugar until combined (or mix in a large bowl). Add 8 T butter and pulse until the mixture has the texture of coarse sand (or cut in by hand with a pastry cutter). Scatter the remaining 12 T butter over the flour mixture; pulse until the mixture is pale yellow and has the consistency of coarse crumbs (or cut by hand with a pastry cutter). Turn into a large bowl.

Sprinkle ice water over the dough, 1 T at a time, tossing with a fork to evenly distribute. After 6 t, press down with a rubber spatula until the dough sticks together. If dough won’t hold together, add 1-2 more T (too much water will make the dough tough, so be careful). Pat the dough together and divide into two balls.

Flatten each ball into a disk and wrap in plastic wrap. Refrigerate for 1 hour or put it in the freezer for 15 minutes before rolling.

Turn one disk out on a clean, well-floured surface. Sprinkle the top with a little flour. Starting in the center, roll out in each direction to form a 9 to 10-inch circle, checking to make sure it’s not sticking on the bottom. Using a bench scraper or spatula, gently fold circle in half and lift into pie pan, unfolding to cover the bottom.

Repeat for the top crust, and cover the fruit. Fold edges over, trim excess, tuck it under, and crimp using your fingers or a fork.

One little thing can revive a guy...

One little thing can revive a guy…