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!

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!

A Starter Sunday School Library

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I suggested last week that every Sunday School classroom ought to have a well-stocked shelf of quality theological kidlit. Here are my suggestions for a “starter library” in preschool and elementary age classrooms! I haven’t included specific seasonal titles – that’s a later post, once the starter library is up and running! – and if you’re looking for books to add to the church nursery, check out Haley’s post on books for a new baby. Otherwise: any titles I’ve missed? Any that have worked well in your own churches?

For those of you with older children: since my kids are still young, so is our theological reading. I would love to get some suggestions for middle-grade and young adult classrooms. Please chime in, or direct me to your brilliant youth pastor or family ministry coordinator!

And lastly: if having a Sunday School library is far from a reality in your church, do think about raising the idea. If the funds aren’t there, would you or a few other parents be willing to give books (or funds towards books) as a part of your tithe? You may have a well-stocked library at home, or a long reserve list at your local public library — but other kids in in your congregation may not. Can we make a commitment to beautiful, true, compelling literature for the youngest worshipers in the church? I love to imagine what the fruits of that investment might be.

And without further ado: the list!

Books for a Preschool Sunday School Library (ages 2 – 5)
All Things Bright and Beautiful
Stories Jesus Told
Glory
He is My Shepherd
Psalms for Young Children
Read Aloud Bible Stories, vol. 1
What is the Church?
Noah’s Ark

Books for an Elementary Sunday School Library (ages 5 – 9)
Come Worship With Me
The Miracles of Jesus
Morning Has Broken
What is the Church?
Jesus Storybook Bible
Exodus
The Genesis of it All

Books for the Sunday School Shelf

Is there a bookshelf in your child’s Sunday School classroom? If not, maybe there should be. And it matters what’s on it.

Image courtesy 123rf.com

Image courtesy 123rf.com

In many churches, the Sunday School classroom is the primary worship space for children. It’s where those heroic teachers (who are never recognized enough! Go thank your child’s Sunday School teacher ASAP, please!) introduce our children to Jesus, his stories, and his Way. In many churches, the Sunday School classroom is where our children first experience the delight, growth, challenge, and occasional tedium that comes with worshipping as the body of Christ. So just as we pay careful attention to the elements of the grown-up worship space, so ought we attend to the space where our little ones learn to worship.

And one element of that space ought to be a small, well-edited library. Why? This isn’t exactly school, is it? Well, yes, it is. For some children, this is the only space where they will experience the language, motions, and sounds of worship. For others, it is the space where they learn how to be the church; a beginning tutorial in a lifelong call. And while there are lots of pieces to this — the curriculum, the setup of the space, the sounds and rhythms of the time spent together — having a good selection of quality theological books can enrich children’s worship space.

How so? What are some criteria for ministry leaders and parents who want to select the books that will inhabit a worship space? Since space and resources are always limited this side of the Kingdom, here are some ideas to keep in mind when stocking a Sunday School library:

  • In general, books that tell Bible stories well can be a good complement to a Sunday School curriculum. Picture books, especially give children another entrance into the story, another imaginative encounter with something they’ve recently heard. (This is especially important because children vary so widely in learning styles!)
  • Books about the church and its worship are also welcome additions to a Sunday School class. They can remind us all (teachers, children, parent aides) what it is we’re doing here week after week. Books like What is the Church or Come Worship With Me help place children’s worship in the big picture of the congregation and the church universal.
  • A good story Bible or age-appropriate collection of Bible stories is a must – especially in the younger classrooms. While there’s no substitute for reading Scripture itself with children, no 4-year-old is going to page through a copy of the NRSV. When I’ve been in a Sunday School classroom, I’ve been so thankful for Ella Lindvall’s Read Aloud Bible Stories during those chaotic transition times, or for quiet moments between activities. The children love hearing (and helping re-tell) simple versions of the stories they already know.
  • Lastly, what about books that afford moments of real praise together? Books of the psalms, illustrated hymn lyrics, or expostulations of praise invite children and adults to worship together in their very reading. Which is what we’re all there to do in the first place, after all.

Next week, I’ll post a list of suggested titles by classroom age. In the meantime, we’d love to hear if and how your church uses books in its children’s programs. What works? What doesn’t? Any titles you’d like to recommend?

Reading as Discipleship

This fall, I have gotten to start a new adventure: I’m participating in the Newbigin Fellowship through our church in San Francisco. I’ll spare you all the details (and the exciting reading list!), although you can follow the links and poke around to find out more. But as I’ve been reading, I’ve been frantically scribbling notes to myself to share with you on the blog. This will be probably be one of many Newbigin-fueled posts!

Two weeks ago, I had the fantastic privilege of going on retreat with the other Newbigin Fellows up to Lake Tahoe. (Totally unrelated: I always imagine Tahoe and the surrounding mountains when I read The Great Divorce, or the “Further Up and Further In” chapter in The Last Battle.) Our retreat was led by James KA Smith, whose writing I’ve reflected on a little here. I happily regressed into full-nerdy-student mode, sitting in the front row and feverishly taking notes.

On Sunday morning, our Scripture was Colossians 3:12-17. Dr Smith spoke about the metaphor of “putting on” Christ, noting that (no surprise to anyone with kids!) getting dressed is an acquired skill. It takes lots of practice. The virtues that Paul lists in this passage don’t come to us naturally. Just like the “habit” of getting dressed, the “habits” of Christlikeness can only the be result of a “second” nature, acquired, through grace, by practice and imitation.

We imitate Christ first of all, but elsewhere Paul exhorts the Corinthians to “be imitators of me, as I am of Christ.” Most of us learn how to live the Christian life – to “put on Christ” – by watching those more mature in the faith. We see others who are patient, or loving, or humble, and we try to practice what they do. We keep trying, and pray to God’s Spirit to help those habits become ours as well.

Well, no surprise here: this got me thinking about reading with my kids. Specifically, I started thinking about missionary biographies and stories about saints past. I love these kinds of books. And Dr Smith’s Sunday sermon helped me name why. It’s not just because they’re sort of vaguely inspiring. It’s because they offer concrete examples (for my kids and for me!) to imitate. They capture my imagination and make me excited about the possibilities of the Christian life. They often make me feel, keenly, how half-hearted and perfunctory my own discipleship is. As a result, these books are terribly compelling.

So, since that weekend, I’ve been dragging out some of our saints books and biographies that have been buried lately. I’m ready to get busy with my kids, reading to practice discipleship!

If you’re looking for some books to start with, check out some of our reviews here. Or offer your own suggestions: who do you find worthy of imitation? What books have been little schools in virtue for you?