“Earth’s crammed with heaven…”

A few nights ago, my seven year old walked out (about 45 minutes after she was supposed to be asleep) and asked me, “Hey Mom, who’s Elizabeth Barrett Browning?”

I blow lots of things about parenting. I am not an expert. I actually internally winced the other evening when an acquaintance who is expecting her first turned to me and said, “I’ll be asking you for advice!” (My very best pregnancy advice: eat lots of donuts. Because you are MAKING A PERSON, and if that’s not a blank slate for apple fritters, then the universe does not make sense to me.) But here was a softball. When your daughter stays up past her bedtime in order to listen to Jim Weiss’ Treasury of Wisdom, and then rouses herself enough to come ask about Elizabeth Barrett Browning, do not send her back to bed. A little free advice: it’s why you read this blog, right?

Anyway: of course I wanted to know why she was asking.

“Oh,” she replied. “In the beginning of the story about Michelangelo and Raphael, there’s a quote by Elizabeth Barrett Browning. She said” (child screws up her face and thinks), “that ‘earth’s crammed with heaven, and every common bush afire with God; only he who sees takes off his shoes.’ Is that from a poem? Was she a poet?”

Well, yes, sweetheart, she was. And so of course we had to look her up, and the poem this passage was from, and copy it onto the laundry room door. And then it was back to bed, with Jim Weiss taking her the rest of the way to sleep. (Non-theological plug: if you haven’t already discovered his CDs, please stop reading and go buy a few. Thanks. He’s the most fantastic storyteller, and 100% responsible for this post, as well as the 4-year-old’s current obsession with King Arthur. Plus about 55% of the imaginative play at our house.)

Since then, I’ve been gazing at that passage every day. And thinking: what if I really believed that?

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I mean really: I walk past hundreds of bushes every day. I never take off my shoes. (I live in San Francisco: this is a risky proposition.) But I’ve also been doing some reading in modern physics lately, and if quantum physics is going to make any sense at all to this creature of the humanities, I have to believe that God is acting constantly in every single imperceptible motion of the tiniest particles of existence. Every briefest perception of light, every whisker on my cat’s face is afire with God, let alone bushes and stars. The world around us is more wonderful and fraught than is safe to believe.

To be perfectly honest, at this point in my life I’m unable to move through my days in the constant awareness of this truth. I’m not sure I would make it through the grocery aisles or swim lessons trying to keep the radical awareness of God’s pervasive action in the forefront of my thoughts. It takes a greater saint, I think: my finite, broken self gets tired contemplating it.  But I want to. I think about the material repetition of my days — waking up, making breakfast, cleaning up & making beds, getting everyone dressed and out the door, making lunches and snacks and dinners, getting everyone to bed — and the thought that God is afire, at work, illuminating and sanctifying those moments, electrifies me. What would my daily life, my daily interactions with my kids and husband, look like if I really believed that every earthly, mundane moment was crammed with heaven? I think I would relax. I just might give thanks more. I would certainly be less anxious. Because if every moment is crammed with heaven, there’s more there than I can control — and my efforts honestly aren’t so crucial. I can’t imagine better news.

Owning the Library

When my oldest was a toddler, we never went to the library.  Frankly, I didn’t really see the point: we own tons of board books and picture books that she was very happy to read over and over.  When she turned 2, though, I started getting it.  As much as I wanted to buy every single book we wanted to read, we just couldn’t afford it.  So we started exploring the library’s offerings and reading through all sorts of booklists that I’ve stumbled upon over the years.

Now that she is nearly 5, the tide has definitively turned and now we read more books from the library than ones we own.  Even though I love (LOVE!) owning books and will always be an advocate of doing so, I am oh so grateful for the library.  It expands our reading lives in such a rich way… and also provides a fun outing on ridiculously cold winter days.

However.  One of the big problems with library books is that after a few weeks, you have to take the books back.  If you’re a believer in the goodness and power of re-reading (as I am), this presents a problem because if you’re going to re-read a book you or your child has to remember to check it out again at some point in the future.  But when there are so many books yet to be discovered, sometimes it’s hard to reach for the known, beloved books instead of the shiny new one on the shelf, you know?

About a year ago I set out to at least partially solve this problem.  I wanted a way to remind us of our favorite books, a way to inspire us to check them out repeatedly, and a way to allow my kids to be part of that process.  Because my daughter wasn’t reading yet, I knew I had to do something other than simply print out a list of titles.  So instead, I spent a couple of naptimes finding book cover images to copy and paste into a word document.  Printed on cardstock at the closest copy shop and placed in plastic page protectors and voila:

Library Catalog

Our very own personalized, visual library catalog that makes us feel like library books are truly ours!  My daughter can browse through it anytime; it’s my job to place online holds on the books she requests so they’re ready for us to pick up in a few days.  (She places post-it notes on top of the ones she wants.)  We add new books to our list of favorites all the time, so every few months I create a new page to add to our binder.  This system has worked marvelously for us and now in every backpack-full of library books we nearly always have a handful of old favorites.  The more we re-read our favorites the more treasured they become and the more we want to keep checking them out, so I’m calling this project a definite success.

Library Catalog 2

The Theological Easter Basket

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As I mentioned on Sunday, this is Holy Week and properly a time for quieting down, lingering, waiting with Jesus. The temptation is there to rush through to Easter – especially for those of us hosting friends or family on Sunday, since we do have to plan ahead – but if we let ourselves, this week can be received as such a gift. It’s a chance, briefly, to taste eternal time; to let all the many things that occupy us pale a bit as we let ourselves be swept into these most momentous days of God’s story.

However. Those of us with kids still have lunches to pack, clothes to wash, baskets to fill, not to mention some planning to do as we prepare to usher our children through the transition of Jesus’ final days, his death, and his rising to life.

I can’t pack tomorrow’s lunch for you. (Sorry: I’m a pretty good lunch packer, but it is one of my LEAST FAVORITE chores.) And I can’t help with your laundry, either. (Sorry again: I love getting things clean, but I do so dislike the whole process of putting it all away.) But ideas for a theologically-rich Easter basket? That I can do.

Each year, I try to fill my children’s baskets with things I hope will encourage them to love Jesus more and want to know him better. To let them know that his love for them is the most important thing in their lives. (Also some Peeps, but that’s because I’m a traditionalist even when it involves disgusting over-sugared marshmallows.) In other words: I try to give them theological Easter baskets, Easter baskets that say something about God and why we’re hunting behind the couch for baskets filled with disgusting over-sugared marshmallows anyway.

So from me to you: some ideas for filling the baskets of your own small ones, with love and hope for a blessed week. Tuck one or more of these inside your child’s basket and commit to enjoying it together during the Easter season. Peeps optional.

ADD A FAMILY READ-ALOUD
(especially if you have an older child who wants to stay up just a little later: make some tea and read a little together!)

GIVE A DEVOTIONAL BOOK: & HELP YOUR CHILD USE IT!

INCLUDE A CD

  • Slugs and Bugs Sing the Biblewe haven’t reviewed this yet, but rest assured – we will. Because trust me, you didn’t know that you needed a song about Deuteronomy 14:21 BUT YOU DO.
  • Resurrection Letters: vol. II
  • Amy Grant CollectionBecause it still stands up, and is super accessible for kids. And it gives you an excuse to sing along to El Shaddai one more time.
  • Jim Weiss CDs: these aren’t explicitly theological, but they’re such a treat. If you haven’t discovered Jim Weiss yet, Do It Now. If you have, then you know what I mean.

INVEST IN THE MATERIALS TO TELL THE STORY

(A few Easter stories from Worship Woodworks – you can buy or make the materials, and tell the story throughout the season)

We’ll be quiet here the rest of the week: see you on the other side, when everything is “turned inside out and upside down” (Godly Play)  – or, in some of my favorite words, when we find the answer to our question “is everything sad going to come untrue?” (Tolkien) in the empty tomb.

Getting Ready for the Week

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Happy Palm Sunday, friends!

I hope it’s been a good one for you. We had a lovely service this morning – where we sang this song – and I was reminded yet again that this week is all about Jesus the king, God’s king, the king who is lifted up not to a throne but a cross. Our pastor remarked, “All that’s left for us to do is cry, hosanna! Save us!”

So we’re heading into Holy Week. And I usually use Sundays to plan the rest of this week — which, this week, includes trying to build in some meditative time around preparing for a big Easter dinner, filling baskets, and getting ready to feast. I like to have things mostly done by Wednesday night so I can enter into the Triduum a little less distracted than usual. Sure, some years are more organized than others (this is one of my less organized years!), but it’s what I aim for.

In that spirit, we’ll be offering you some resources to prepare for Easter in the next few days: not to jump the gun, but to help you finalize your feast preparations before quieting down to walk with Jesus through his final hours. To start with, check out this oldie-but-goodie from Haley on the Sights and Sounds of Easter. On my own to-do list this week is to make sure I have Champagne in the fridge Saturday evening – oh, and I need to remember to order eggs from the Natural Candy Store! For the kids. Really.

So stay tuned, and may this week be a time of blessing, quiet, and deep love in your homes.

The Lent Box

A month or so back, Haley and I had an email exchange about building seasonal boxes for our kids: that is, having a stash of materials, stories, and books for the feasts and seasons of the church year. (Doubtless this was while she was reading A Homemade Year, since she asked me if I had ever celebrated Candlemas. Answer: no.)

Afterwards, I did what all good friends who are lucky enough to have thoughtful, smart people in their lives do: I copied her idea. I had a week or so to go until Ash Wednesday, so I decided to start with a Lent box. There are lots and lots of ways to do this; my choices were shaped by the ages of my children (7 and 3) and our church’s children’s curriculum, Godly Play – which I also teach. Here’s a step-by-step guide to how I built my box, and a peek at what lives inside:

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Because we do Godly Play at church, I bought copies of Sonja Stewart’s Young Children and Worship and Following Jesus to use at home. Jerome Berryman (the creator of Godly Play) collaborated with her, so many of the stories are the same; however, Stewart’s books include patterns and templates for making the materials at home, as well as a helpful appendix listing all of the materials one could ever need, cross-referenced across the stories. That made it easier for me to get started: I ordered some materials that I can use in multiple stories, as well as a few gorgeous pieces that I wasn’t going to make myself. (This tomb, anyone?)

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Worship Woodworks has lovely wooden figures for each of the Young Children and Worship stories, but there’s no reason to buy every single piece. It’s entirely possible that when we need a Temple for the story of the poor widow, I will build it out of blocks. Or Legos! I love an excuse to play with Legos. The coins tossed into the treasury are going to be some old, worthless Italian lire left over from our honeymoon. And the Passover is going to happen around our dollhouse table, with dollhouse kitchenware, which the dolls so kindly loaned us.

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Each week, I’m introducing a new story. So far we’ve done The Mystery of Easter (a story in which we put together a “puzzle” of the six weeks of Lent, which shows us that Lent culminates in a cross – a cross that is at once mournful purple and celebratory white) and the parable of the two sons from Matthew 21. The materials from each story, once it is introduced, come to live inside our box or alongside it. Coming up are the stories of the greatest commandment, the poor widow’s offering, the last Passover, and during Holy Week, Jesus the King and Jesus Dies and God Makes Jesus Alive.

The other contents of our Lent box are several books, verging toward the meditative: The Saving Name of God the Son (probably the most theologically dense board book in existence) and Writing to God: Kid’s Edition. Oh, and Bible Stories for the Forty Days, which we’re trying our best to keep up with.  To make space for the stories, I deposited the box near our display bookshelf, where I added more books about Jesus, his parables, and miracles.

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My favorite part of the Lent box, though, is the simplest and easiest to replicate. Each child has a prayer journal and some art supplies. My reading 7-year-old uses Writing to God for prompts occasionally; the 3-year-old prefers to scribble when given a chance to “reflect” on a story or a book we’ve read. Yes, his scribbles generally include Lightning McQueen, but it’s more about getting used to the practice of reflection than the outcome right now.

A really simple version of this box could easily include a candle, some matches, a notebook and colored pencils for each child, and a Bible for reading aloud. I tend to get really excited about projects and dive in headfirst, but others might prefer to slowly build a box, year by year.

I’d love to hear if your family does something similar, or materials/books/practices that are a part of your (literal or figurative) annual Lenten box. I’m slowly putting a box together for the Easter season as well: I’ll keep you posted when we get there!

Happy St Patrick’s Day!

Happy St Patrick’s Day!

I have to admit to feeling a twinge of sadness this morning when I dropped my daughter off at school amid of sea of green sweaters, hair ribbons, and jackets. (My girl was dressed all in black, as part of a super sneaky plot to “blend into things and then jump out at people,” but that’s another story.) I’m pretty sure that not one of those cheerful, gap-toothed first graders knew much at all about St Patrick except that he graciously gave us an excuse to wear tacky shamrock jewelry and pinch other people — two gifts, indeed, when you’re seven.

But did you know that St Patrick was kidnapped from his home and enslaved? And that, having won his freedom, he returned to the island where he had been held and preached the gospel to that slave-holding society? As a historical figure, he’s shrouded in lots of mist and legend; but even if a lot of the traditional lore around the saint is just that, that radical act of generosity and forgiveness makes his feast day worth celebrating with real gratitude.

That, and the corned beef.

 I’ll be introducing St Patrick to my kids with Tomie de Paola’s Patrick: the Patron Saint of Ireland, which arrived too late from the library for me to review. I’ll let you know if we’ll be adding it to our library. We’ll also be talking a little about modern day slavery and how our family stands against it – as well as encourages former slaves to find new life – by supporting International Justice Mission. Haley found a wonderful St Patrick figure at this Etsy shop, and I’m looking forward to hearing how she used him in her home. Do you have any books or resources that you’ve used to commemorate this ancient feast day? Let us know below in the comments!

Theology for Three Year Olds and Second Children

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Those of you who have more than two kids are probably going to start laughing in just a few sentences. Those of you who have just one may swear you’ll do a better job with your second child. And if any of you happen to have two kids, one of each gender, say three-and-a-half years apart: well, maybe you’ll nod Amen.

See, I was running for Super Amazing Literary Mom during my daughter’s first four years. (See last week’s post for evidence that I have resigned this title, along with any aspirations in that direction.) I had our reading lists curated; we enjoyed an intentional mix of new books and well-loved titles; I kept seasonal books at the bedside. It turns out that she is a remarkably easygoing child who is happy to let us choose books to share with her. I learned this, you see, as soon as her little brother became old enough to express an opinion.

Oh, and express them he does. He is reading the books he chooses at bedtime, or none at all. He is singing the same three songs before bed every night. He never takes the Johnny Cash out of the CD player. Once he has chosen a book, Lord help the poor parent who attempts to substitute something else and any neighbors with their windows open.

Combine his energy of will with my divided attention. Add in the sad fact that my second child is largely getting the replay of my moves with the first, and, well: let’s just say Super Literary Mom of the Year is going to someone else this year. The poor kid hasn’t read nearly the variety that his sister had at this age. So I’ve decided to do something about it.

This probably continues in the vein of posts I’m writing mostly for myself, but I sat down the other day, pulled up our (extensive! and growing! hooray!) book list, and compiled a list of some of my favorite theological books for three year olds. Some we own and I need to pull out; others are going on the request list at the library. I’m going to have to stack them in front of the Richard Scarry books in the bedside basket, or they’ll never have a chance.

I share it with you (linked to reviews), should you have one of those magical, mercurial people somewhere in your life. It’s such a sweet age for reading together, and I want to get on top of it before it passes. Because it will. Too fast.

Favorite Theological Books for Threes

The Big Picture Story Bible, David Helm
Stories Jesus Told, Nick Butterworth
Read Aloud Bible Stories, vol. 1, Ella Lindvall
Animals of the Bible, Marie-Helene Delval
Bible ABC, Eric Metaxas
At Your Baptism, Carrie Steenwyk
What is the Church? Mandy Groce and Bill Bell
All Things Bright and Beautiful, Ashley Bryan
Glory, Nancy White Carlstrom
I Will Rejoice, Karma Wilson
He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands, Kadir Nelson
Bedtime Rhyme, Walter Wangerin
When Daddy Prays, Nikki Grimes
Why Do You Love Me? Martin Baynton
You Are Special, Max Lucado

Other favorites that I’m forgetting?

Keeping it Real with Disney Fairies

(Hi, dear readers. Thanks for stopping by, although we’ve been spotty of late. Summer has just gotten started around here, and the lure of the outdoors – and children home from school! – has stood between me and my keyboard. I got my first sunburn this week, though, so the sun and I are on the outs, which bodes well for the blog. And now on the subject at hand…)

Maybe none of you have this problem, but I occasionally have to just stop with The Internet. Every few months, I need to shut down my blog reader, Twitter feed, Pinterest, Instagram, and all the rest. (I’ve already fled Facebook, which is another post.) Most of the time I love being able to wade through the ideas, inspiration, images, and other cool stuff people I admire are posting. But every now and then, it all starts to add up into this amorphous Mass of Awesomeness to which my life doesn’t measure up.

Everyone is doing these amazing seasonal projects with their children, while feeding them delicious, healthy, gluten-and-refined-sugar free snacks! Their homes are wonderfully organized! They have photos of all the way they’re implementing Simplicity Parenting! Books are organized, accessible, and attractively displayed! Sigh.

So I turn it off.

I do get it: we pin things that look interesting or that we want to try or dream about. No one’s Pinterest feed reflects their actual life. I’m not going to fuss with Instagram’s filters on an uninteresting photo. And as a blogger, I have to edit: I write about theological kidlit, but really, that’s just a sliver of our family’s reading life. I write about reading with children, hoping to give encouragement to myself and others, not because we do it perfectly at my house. My failures generally aren’t that interesting; hence, not post-worthy.

However. In the interest of keeping it real:

Disney Blog

Yes. That is a Disney Fairies book. (You probably can’t read the text on the back, so I’ll help you out. The heroine’s dilemma is that she loses her fashion sense and wears a lampshade on her head. Really.) Yes, there are about 20 more of them on the same shelf at our local library branch. And yes, my six-year-old loves them. She has just entered that voracious-chapter-reading book stage, and while I’ve been doing my best to hand her the Great Books, she searches out the (Disney!) fairy books at the library. I do not prevent her, and I’ve given up on trying to redirect.

And honestly: I’m totally okay with it. She’s six. Not every book she reads will be fantastic. Some will be twaddle. This is real life, at our house: lots of great books, some pretty terrible ones, and me learning to bite my tongue and relax. Practicing “read at whim!” as a mantra.  (And thanking God that at least it’s not Sweet Valley Twins which – oh shame of shames – I devoured. Thought that day, too, may come.)

Just thought I’d tell you all the truth.

An opportunity to say thank you to Mr. Lewis

In case it’s not obvious from the title of our blog, we owe a great debt to C.S. Lewis. A little over 5 years ago, our book club read An Experiment in Criticism; I’d like to think that the seeds for this blog project were planted then. Much of my philosophy, and Haley’s, around providing books to our children is received as a gift from Lewis.

For instance:

A passage that I recite to myself gently when my daughter makes straight for the serial easy-readers about unicorn fairies at the library: “The best safeguard against bad literature is a full experience of the good; just as a real and affectionate acquaintance with honest people gives a better protection against rogues than a habitual distrust of everyone.” It helps me breathe a little as I slip 2 or 3 really good books into the pile.

And on why we don’t write negative reviews: “These dethronements are a great waste of energy. Their acrimony produces heat at the expense of light. They do not improve anyone’s capacity for good reading. The real way of mending a man’s taste is not to denigrate his present favourites but to teach him how to enjoy something better.”

I’ve also written about how much I love Westminster Abbey, so imagine my delight this morning when, over at Rabbit Room, I discovered that C.S. Lewis will be getting a memorial plaque in Poet’s Corner! There will also be a two-day conference and a service of thanksgiving commemorating the 50th anniversary of his death.

However, as Sarah at Rabbit Room points out, it’s a project that needs support, as the Abbey doesn’t finance such memorials. You can learn about the memorial and donate at the Lewis in Poets’ Corner site.

In An Experiment in Criticism, Lewis observes, “Those of us who have been true readers all our life seldom realise the enormous extension of our being which we owe to authors.” I certainly owe some of that debt to Lewis: my imagination, my attempts at literary parenting, even the end of my childhood fear of heaven (which would require a whole other post to explain!) have all grown out of his work. I can’t pay him back, of course, but I’m planning on honoring him by donating to the memorial. I invite you to participate too!

Empty Space on the Shelves! A Call for Recommendations

Hey there, wonderful Aslan’s Library readers! I just spent a couple of hours combing through my booklists, checking library availability, and preparing a big long list of books to read and (hopefully!) review. But I can’t shake the feeling that I am Missing Something. Maybe I’m just tired of seeing only through my own two eyes, and would like some fresh perspective and new books?

(Do you ever find that you gravitate towards the same kinds of books for your kids, over and over? Our library branch is small enough that I’ve realized I do. I just keep checking the same books out unless I plan ahead and make some requests. In fact, I had a fairly eye-opening experience lately when we got a tote bag full of books from our preschool. Glancing through them, I felt the same mild disinterest I do when scanning an uninspiring shelf at the library. “I would have totally passed these over,” was my thought. “But now I have to read them.” I proceeded do just that, with the almost-three-year-old, and we actually mostly enjoyed them. It turns out that I have an unconscious bias against talking animal books, unless they’re fairy tales. Those are the books I always pass by without a second glance – to our reading poverty, apparently.)

Anyhow, in the event that I’m practicing a theological version of my unconscious anti-talking-animal bias: I’m polling all of you for some recommendations. Are there beloved titles on your shelf that you think belong in Aslan’s Library? Any new releases that you’ve been eyeing, trying to decide whether to purchase?

Oh, and by the way: keep your eyes open for some anniversary goings-on around here in the upcoming weeks. It’s hard to believe, but we’re coming up on three years…