Trial and Triumph: Stories from Church History

Trial and Triumph Trial and Triumph: Stories from Church History
Richard Hannula
Canon Press, 1999

I love church history. As a young adult, learning that this faith I professed in the late 20th century was something received and that had a living past, that we weren’t just making it up, was incredibly helpful as I wrestled into a more grown-up belief. And ever since, reading church history has been like an exercise in genealogy for me: I love getting a better understanding of the family history, including the crazy, woolly, and sometimes downright broken parts. It’s enormously humbling and enormously encouraging at the same time, seeing God’s Spirit and his people work this whole being-the-church thing out through history.

Richard Hannula’s Trial and Triumph: Stories from Church History is a wonderful and nuanced introduction to this story for children. Originally conceived as a series of sketches for his own children, to teach them about our Christian forbears:

“The Psalmist calls us to praise the Lord and ‘tell of his works with songs of joy.’ God’s greatest works are not the creation of the mountains and seas but His acts of saving love, which transform sinners into children of God. These stories were not written to exalt great Christian men and women. They were written to exalt the Lord who made them great.”

And that is precisely the function of these stories, ranging from the earliest church fathers to the middle of the 20th century: to show how God has never abandoned his church, but has instead worked in the hearts and lives of redeemed sinners to be his presence in the world. There are martyrs, kings, bishops, popes, abbots, missionaries, men, women, and one (of course) Oxford don. Hannula treats each with honesty, fairness, and genuine historical faithfulness: each subject speaks in his or her own words (no corny made up dialogue!), and complicated figures like Charlemagne and Constantine aren’t whitewashed. But neither are they neglected because they were complicated: both men played pivotal roles in church history, for good and ill, and I appreciated the care with which Hannula presents them.

One of this book’s greatest strengths is in its breadth: how many books for children contain, between their covers, Athanasius and Hudson Taylor, Elizabeth of Hungary and David Brainerd, King Alfred and Francis of Assisi? While Hannula’s theology is decidedly Reformed — Gregory the Great is called out for his teachings on purgatory and the veneration of saints — his biographical accounts are generous and faithful to the history of the “one holy, catholic, and apostolic church.”

My oldest is seven, and we are going to begin reading through it together this summer; this book would also be a wonderful addition to a Sunday School classroom for read-alouds, or as a gift for a middle-school child who is interested in learning more broadly about the history of her faith. I commend it to you joyfully!


He Was One of Us

He Was One of UsHe Was One of Us
Rien Poortvliet & Hans Bouma
Doubleday, 1978

I have a friend – and I hope you are blessed with one of these too – whom I will follow blindly into any book. If she tells me to read something, I will, no matter how far it falls off my radar screen. Over and over, her choices have delighted, challenged, or taught me. I used to be in a book group with her, and read what she told me to for several years, so believe me: she has totally earned her book-choosing street-cred. (And is probably reading this blog right now: Hi, Sarah!)

So of course, when she emailed and asked if I had seen Rien Poortvliet’s He Was One of Us (I hadn’t), there was nothing to do but request it from interlibrary loan. Right away. And of course, she was right.

Sadly out of print, this is nonetheless a volume absolutely worth hunting for. He Was One of Us is a large, gorgeous collection of drawings by Dutch artist Rien Poortvliet depicting the life of Jesus and the reactions he evoked in those around him. Each painting is accompanied by short, evocative text by Hans Bouma that pulls the viewer straight into the world of the drawing. Much of the focus is on those around Jesus, arresting them mid-reaction to his words and deeds. Supplicant hands reach out; features twist in anger and rejection; self-satisfied, comfortable arms are crossed, shutting Jesus out. Paging through this volume, I felt not so much an observer as a participant in the gospel scenes – each page invites us to react, heart and mind, to the events playing out before us.

And honestly – sitting on the sunny porch of the Walt Disney museum in the Presidio, with tourists filing past – I teared up while paging through the book. The drawings radiate real, incarnate human life, almost like a collected family album.  Anna and Simeon gaze at the baby with a look that anyone who has held a newborn will recognize. Spread across two pages, a baby Jesus nurses; toddler Jesus plays and snuggles his father; a young man grins, proudly, holding the tools of his father’s trade. The disciples, standing with Jesus, are captured in a moment, almost as college friends enjoying the afternoon are caught by a camera unaware. The text above is poignant, as they smile out at us: “Do they know what awaits them? They’ll despair, be mocked, hated, threatened, persecuted. Their quiet life is a thing of the past. Either you belong to Jesus or you don’t.”

There’s a sense of reality and wholeness we can get from seeing the disparate moments of someone’s life captured in images and arranged in a narrative. (Why else do we put together slideshows at graduations, weddings, and funerals?) The great gift of He Was One of Us is that it invites us to contemplate Jesus’ life and humanity through these vivid, provocative portraits. Slight enough of text that the smallest lap child can join in, rich and evocative enough to be used devotionally by adults, and gorgeous enough to live on a coffee table and draw in unsuspecting visitors, this is a book to be treasured.

Dangerous Journey

Dangerous JourneyDangerous Journey

arranged by Oliver Hunkin, illus. Alan Parry
Eerdmans, 1985

It’s almost upon us, friends. Advent begins in less than two weeks, and here at Aslan’s Library we’ve been thinking about books and resources your family might want to use during the upcoming season of waiting and preparation. And let’s face it, most of us are thinking about what we might want to present our children with during our Christmas celebrations, too.

For each of those purposes, let me heartily recommend Dangerous Journey, a version of John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress that has been illustrated and abridged for children. Some of you may remember it from your own childhoods: my father-in-law used to read it to my husband and his siblings at bedtime. It has stood the test of time, and is simply wonderful for reading aloud as a family or for older, more advanced readers to explore on their own.

The text itself is Bunyan’s, selected and abridged into short episodes. It retains, then, all of Bunyan’s wit, earnestness, and the careful crafting of phrase that have made the original book such a landmark in English literature. It is the allegory (or “dream,” as Bunyan described it) of the pilgrim Christian and his journey to the Celestial City, and all of the perils that attend him along the way.

For those of you who have never read Pilgrim’s Progress, it is first and foremost an adventure story. Christian’s passage to blessedness leads through the Slough of Despond, the Doubting Castle, Vanity Fair, the Palace Beautiful, and the Valley of the Shadow of Death. There is mortal combat, great beasts, unreliable guides, giants, escapes from captivity, unlooked-for friends, and narrow escapes. And my favorite allegorical character ever, Mr. Worldly-Wiseman. It’s a wonderful presentation of the Christian life as one of danger, excitement, watchfulness, and providential care. And the scene in which Christian passes through the River of Death – over which there is no bridge – is so immensely moving and theologically rich. This is one book that will bear many re-readings in your family.

The text is accompanied by wonderfully witty illustrations. Bunyan himself was a nonconformist who served in the Parliamentary army during the English Civil War; my inner history nerd took great glee in the portrayal of Christian and Hopeful in austere Puritan dress, while the unsavory characters are all corrupt and decaying Cavaliers. In addition the illustrations manage to convey the mood and spirit of each episode: Vanity Fair is bustling and distracting, and the Palace Beautiful exudes peace and repose. The images of the fight with Apollyon and the Valley of the Shadow of Death may be too scary for small or sensitive children.

This is a large-format, sturdy picture book that would make a handsome Advent gift for your family: just as we journey through the darkening days towards the light that dawns at Christmas, we can journey along with Christian towards the Celestial City. Or, if you have an older child, this would make wonderful devotional reading.

Did you read Dangerous Journey as a child? Have you read Pilgrim’s Progress? Any other abridged or illustrated versions that you would recommend?

Mother Teresa

Mother Teresa
Margeret K. McElderry Books, 2005

For those of us who grew up in the closing years of the twentieth century, Mother Teresa is something of an icon. She stands for everything that is saintly, good, and – well, all too often, unattainable. “What do you expect,” I remember friends in high school saying. “I’m not Mother Teresa!” She’s one of those rare public Christians that nearly everyone can agree on: she is a Good Guy, a sort of secular saint.

Except that there is nothing remotely secular about her.

All we do is for Jesus,’ Teresa said to the Missionaries of Charity. ‘We are first of all religious. We are not social workers, teachers, nurses, or doctors. We are religious sisters. We serve Jesus in the poor, we nurse Him, feed Him, clothe Him, visit Him, and comfort Him in the poor, the abandoned, the sick, the orphans, and the dying. All we do – our prayer, our work, our suffering – is for Jesus. Our life has no other reason or motivation.’ “

Mother Teresa, an illustrated biography by noted author-illustrator Demi, makes the central focus of her ministry plain. Mother Teresa’s call, her obedience, the miracles she witnessed, and the astounding work God did through her are all recounted in detail; yet Demi allows the diminutive nun herself to speak throughout – and Mother Teresa could never speak of her work without speaking about who it was for: Jesus.

Although this is a picture book, it is really closer to a middle-grade reading level: there are lots of dates, facts, and details about Mother Teresa’s work, life in India, and the Missionaries of Charity. I was fairly familiar with her life story, having read Malcolm Muggeridge’s Something Beautiful For God. Nevertheless, I found this book particularly affecting and inspiring. The enormity and beauty of her work are on display alongside her humility and simplicity. Each page includes a quotation from Mother Teresa, a prayer she has composed, or a passage of Scripture. The illustrations are tender yet reverent: my favorite is one of Mother Teresa praying, face in hands, as Jesus looks quietly on her back.

(I found this picture especially poignant, given what we know now about Mother Teresa’s ongoing faithfulness through a lifelong dark night of the soul.)

Protestant readers, be aware: Mother Teresa was a faithful daughter of the Roman Catholic church, and the Missionaries of Charity are a Catholic order. The end of the book contains a detailed account of her process towards sainthood, and yes, there’s a picture of Pope John Paul II smiling from the back cover with his apostolic blessing for the book. Don’t let that deter you. You’d miss a wonderful opportunity to introduce kids to an ecumenical experience, in which we see God powerfully at work across confessions and man-made divisions.

The Bronze Bow

The Bronze Bow
Elizabeth George Speare
Houghton Mifflin, 1961

I don’t know how I missed The Bronze Bow when I was a young reader. I loved Elizabeth George Speare’s debut novel, Calico Captive and the Newbery-winning The Witch of Blackbird Pond.  But somehow The Bronze Bow (also a Newbery medalist) never made it home from the library. And I’m actually kind of glad, because it was such a joy to discover it this summer!

Set in first-century Galilee, the novel tells the story of Daniel bar Jamin, a young blacksmith who has fled to the hills to join a band of robbers and who has dedicated his life to ousting the Romans from Israel. Sworn to vengeance upon the occupiers who killed his father, Daniel nevertheless befriends Joel bar Hezron, the scholarly son of a famous rabbi, and his beautiful sister, Malthace. Together the three pledge themselves to working for the Victory of God, and take for themselves David’s symbol of the bronze bow – from his famous song of praise for deliverance from Saul:

God is my strong refuge,
and has made my way safe.
He made my feet like hinds’ feet,
and set me secure on the heights.
He trains my hands for war,
so that my arms can bend a bow of bronze.
(2 Sam 22:33-35/Psalm 18:33-34)

Yet even as Daniel plans for war and dreams of violent revenge, he and his friends find themselves drawn again and again to hear the teachings of a wandering rabbi in nearby Capernaum. This Jesus of Nazareth draws crowds wherever he goes and seems to possess the power of God – and yet his preaching is so strange! He promises that the Kingdom is at hand, but slips away when the crowds would crown him king; his followers are convinced that he is the one who will deliver Israel, but he refuses to mount armed resistance against the Romans. The novel unfolds as Daniel seeks his revenge while grappling with the challenge Jesus presents.

I had trouble putting this book down: it has adventure, drama, gripping emotional tension, true friendship, and true love. Plus it has Jesus!

Jesus hovers like a shadow at the edges of the story for the first half of the book; as he looms larger and larger in Daniel’s consciousness, he comes more clearly into focus in the narrative. All of the characters are thoroughly, convincingly realized, and Jesus is no exception – which must be tricky for a novelist. I mean, the guy is God and man; the logos of creation, the second Adam, and a tired, humble carpenter. Most creative writing teachers would advise against this combination of traits.

But I loved this portrayal of Jesus. Daniel finds him frustrating, difficult to comprehend, yet utterly compelling. He can’t explain his attraction to this carpenter; he openly rejects him at one point; but he can’t get him out of his head. Much of the book is concerned with the search for a leader who will deliver Israel – what will this leader look like? How will he be recognized? When will he reveal himself? Jesus’ stubborn refusal to be the leader either the Zealots or the Pharisees demand, paired with his insistent call to “follow me” is something every major character in this novel must grapple with.

Daniel’s own struggle with Jesus’ call leads to a rich, satisfying conclusion – I wished I was reading it alongside some friends, because I wanted to dig into the final pages with someone else. But I’ll spare you the spoiler. Trust me – you want to find out on your own. Instead, I’ll leave you with my favorite passage from the whole book: a conversation between Daniel and his good friend, Simon the Zealot:

Daniel could not leave his friend without some answer. “Are you staying with Jesus, Simon?”
“If he will have me.”
“Is–is he one of us?”
Simon smiled. “A Zealot, you mean?”
“Isn’t that why you came? Have you asked him to join us?
“I had some such idea when I came,” Simon admitted. “But it has not worked out as I expected. No, I have not asked Jesus to join us. All I hope and long for now is that he will ask me to join him.”

This Belongs on Your Bookshelf: A Blank Journal

Here’s a question: how do you read? I remember a professor in college once remarking, off the cuff, that if we weren’t reading with pencils in hand, we weren’t properly reading at all.

Enter the wonderful tradition of the commonplace book!  Like my pre-digital forbearers, I keep a dedicated book in which I (mostly) record passages that strike me and (occasionally) reflect on them in writing. Originally a sort of textual scrapbook, the commonplace book is a compilation of information, quotations, sketches, and whatever else strikes the reader’s fancy. Children used to learn handwriting (and still do, if they are educated in the Charlotte Mason tradition) by doing copywork into them.

Personally, it’s my way of keeping up a conversation with authors, and with myself, over my reading life. Scanning over past books, I see the themes that appear over and over again in my own life. I can track the evolution of my curiosity, with all its forkings and twistings. And most importantly, I get to re-experience the pleasures of books I’ve loved. Keeping a commonplace book helps me keep a sense of continuity across my rather scattered (and sometimes – thanks kids! – distracted) reading life.

So this week, instead of reviewing a particular book, we thought we’d recommend helping your kids start their own commonplace book.  It’s is a great time of year to add a blank journal to your children’s library because you can invite them to fill it as they partake of the deliciousness of summertime pleasure reading.

Encourage them to keep it nearby as they read. They can can copy out passages that move them, or that they find interesting; attempt to copy the illustrations or make up their own; write their own additions or chapters; argue with, critique, or question what they’re reading.

Smaller children who haven’t mastered writing can still journal; my daughter loves to illustrate her ideas about stories, which usually involve placing her whole family (and maybe a monster or two) in them. If she wants to narrate anything, I write it for her – although she also enjoys copying the words she sees in very simple books as a way of practicing her writing.

A few suggestions to help you get started:

  • Choose a high-quality sketchbook or unlined journal that is attractive and will last. They’ll be more likely to treat it well, and want to write in it, if it’s a book that is special and lovely.  No cheap spiral-bound notebooks! A few of my favorites are the Moleskine large sketchbook and the Paperthinks Recycled Leather journal sold at Kate’s Paperie.  Haley tells me that she likes PaperBlanks, which can be found online or at Barnes & Noble.  Of course, any well-made sketchbook (like this one, or this) from an art supply store will serve nicely if you don’t want or need lined pages.
  • Likewise, provide your child with good writing and sketching implements: a Micron pen and artist-caliber colored pencils, perhaps. (For smaller ones, start with just the pencils.) Again, if they have the opportunity to use special materials, they will likely take more care.
  • Try it yourself! Our kids model what we do, and if it’s normal to see a blank book sitting alongside Mom or Dad’s novel… well, it’ll feel more commonplace (do forgive the pun). Read passages you’ve savored over the dinner table, or use something you’ve jotted down to start a family discussion. Kids too small to take part? Even 3 or 4 year olds can sit and listen to conversations about books for short periods during dinner. Our dear daughter very graciously sat through a discussion of Hell, universalism, and Dante last weekend. (Dessert was promised when Mommy and Daddy were done talking…)
  • If you’re reading books with younger children, work on the journal together. Offer to write down their narration. Look together for maps or images they can paste into the book. Keep each child’s journal easy to find and close at hand – and take them along on vacations and picnics.
  • With older kids, be interested! Share your own journaling from a book you’re both reading, or ask them their thoughts about something you’ve read. Be genuinely curious, but don’t pry. Let teenagers, especially, explore and copy and think with freedom – and with the full assurance of your interest and availability.

Granted, keeping a physical commonplace book in today’s increasingly digital world is something of a throwback. Why not just cut and paste passages from my Kindle or iPad? Toss it up on Tumblr or Pinterest (which I do, occasionally)? Because I savor having a physical artifact of my thoughts and interests, a solid memorial of my reading life. And I think it’s good for my kids – as readers, thinkers, and human beings – to learn the same. So go buy a blank journal – and here’s hoping it won’t stay blank for long!

Eric Liddell: Something Greater Than Gold

Eric Liddell: Something Greater Than Gold
Janet & Geoff Benge
YWAM Publishing, 1998

I’m not much of a sports fan, but I do know that humility is not one of the most common character traits among today’s star athletes.  The more typical proud swagger and I’m-so-awesome attitude has become so synonymous to me with sports that reading the story of Eric Liddell sort of seemed unreal.  Given the current sports culture (in the US, at least), it’s rather difficult to believe that a humble, soft-spoken, fame-resistant man was at one time Scotland’s most beloved and famous athlete.  But he was!

If you’ve seen Chariots of Fire, as I’m sure many of you have, you’re already familiar with Eric Liddell – but the story of his life after winning Olympic gold is just as important to tell as the story of the most famous years of his life.  Eric Liddell: Something Greater Than Gold recounts his remarkable athletic career, yes, but it does so in a way that I think Eric would be pleased with.  Less than half of the book is spent on his rise to fame as a runner; the first few chapters tell the story of his childhood and at page 75 the focus switches to his life as a missionary in China.  Eric never thought that his career as a runner would be the only focus of his life, and it’s not the only focus of this biography, either.  I’m not going to spoil the story for you, but suffice it to say that the second half of the book contains just as much action as the first half!

I said this when I reviewed the Benges’ book on Corrie Ten Boom, but I’ll say it again: children should read biographies.  Our kids need to grow up hearing the stories of people like Eric Liddell, people whose faith in Christ grounds them and guides them more than the desire for money or fame or world-class talent or any other thing that doesn’t ultimately satisfy.  Biographies allow our sons and daughter to make friends and rub shoulders with people who can be their lifelong heroes.  Whether your children are sports minded or not, consider introducing them to the ordinary/extraordinary man of Eric Liddell.

(For those with sensitive children, please note that this book includes descriptions of war, prison camps, and death.)

Peril and Peace: Chronicles of the Ancient Church

Peril and Peace:Chronicles of the Ancient Church
History Lives, Volume 1

Mindy & Brandon Withrow
Christian Focus Publications, 2005

More than once, Haley and I have had the same experience. We see a book, we love the idea, and we think to ourselves somewhat fearfully, “I really hope this works.” Strangely enough, my own excitement about a book’s potential can actually keep me from reading it – because what if the author just didn’t pull it off? Better not to risk the disappointment.

That skittishness actually kept me from finishing this week’s book, Peril and Peace: Chronicles of the Ancient Church for over a year. Haley gave it to me last May right after my son was born, and it seemed like such a brilliant and necessary piece of theological kidlit – with so much potential to go terribly, horribly wrong. But at long last, I’m happy to report that this is a book well worth reading with middle-grade and early teenage readers. I wish something like this had been around when I was in middle school.

Briefly, this is the first book in Mindy and Brandon Withrow’s History Lives series. There are five volumes total, chronicling church history through the lives of major figures. In addition to the biographical chapters that tell the stories of the church Fathers, volume 1 includes short explanatory essays on the worship of the ancient church, the creeds, and the compilation of the biblical canon. The whole thing is written in breezy, action-packed prose – intended, I suppose, to make the ancient church figures more approachable.

I have to admit, I didn’t love that aspect of the book. While I admire the Withrows’ intention to show 21st-century readers their essential connectedness to the early church (which many of us tragically ignore), I highly doubt that Gregory of Nyssa ever described a Roman imperial prefect urging him to Arianism as a “bully!”

In fact, the church Fathers would likely have a hard time recognizing much of evangelical Christianity today – and as we encounter them, it’s worth preserving a sense of the distance between us. I think it’s valuable to keep in view both legitimate theological differences as well as (sadly) the theological shallowness foreign to the Fathers but so endemic to us. (Honestly: there were city-wide riots in Alexandria over the Arian controversy. When theological controversy erupts now, we just tweet at each other.)

That’s a minor quibble, though.  These stories are a wonderful introduction to the giants of our faith. I read many of the martyr accounts during Holy Week and was incredibly moved by how these men and women literally staked their lives on a story we’ve somehow domesticated with fuzzy chicks and chocolate bunnies.

I didn’t learn much about church history – and certainly nothing before the Reformation – until I was in college. When I finally did, I found the faith I professed to be much richer, more complex, and frankly more interesting than I had ever suspected. The Withnows’ book is historically solid (just check the bibliography at the end!) and clearly animated by a love for the saints who have gone before. I think I won’t be waiting another year to read the next one.

At Jerusalem’s Gate: Poems of Easter

At Jerusalem's GateAt Jerusalem’s Gate: Poems of Easter

Nikki Grimes and David Frampton
Eerdmans, 2005

One of the things I love most about literature is its ability to precisely name things we are otherwise familiar with, and to help us to see them anew. Poetry, in particular, is the art of naming with precision and care. And Nikki Grimes’ volume of Easter poems, At Jerusalem’s Gate does a beautiful job of naming – of precisely articulating – what it must have been like to experience the intense, devastating, ultimately transformative events in Jerusalem two thousand years ago.

The first poem opens, literally, at Jerusalem’s gate as a minor Jewish priest strains to get a glimpse of the wonderworker who is processing into Jerusalem on a donkey. He ponders the accounts and probability of Jesus’ miracles, and concludes, “He is, by all accounts, extraordinary, yet I find him quite ordinary.” Until, that is:

Until he turns and drinks me in.
I gasp, a-tremble,
grasp a palm frond
and wave in a frenzy of praise and adoration,
singing Hosanna!
Hosanna! Hosanna!
as if my very life depends upon it.

It’s a simple account, surely – and yet a living glimpse into what it must have been like to be swept into the adoration and excitement that was Palm Sunday.

The poems proceed through the events of Holy Week, the Passion, the Resurrection and the Ascension. What I particularly appreciate is how each poem calls us to consider these events as they really happened. What must it have been like, after all, to be at Passover and suddenly have Jesus announce that one of his beloved disciples would betray him? And that he would die? And oh, yes, this bread is his body and this wine is his blood? I think we can become immune to the language, over time, and these poems restore some of the original shock and confusion that accompanied the events.

There are two poems, in particular, that I love. The first is called “From a Distance” (not to be confused with the Bette Midler song, for readers of a certain age), and it recounts Peter’s experience witnessing the Crucifixion from afar. “The shadow of the thing/was all I saw,/the crosses, three, a blot/against the sky.” As much as we read about Peter’s betrayal, I never thought about what it must be like to know that your Lord and Friend was being executed and only to see the thing from afar. This is a despairing poem, full of anger and grief, as Peter must have felt his highest hopes and dreams betrayed. For those of us who like to remember that we always live in the Resurrection, it is a good thing to be pulled back into the anguish of Good Friday and Holy Saturday from time to time.

The poem that immediately follows is “The Highwayman,” and it is in the voice of the believing thief on the cross (Luke 25:39-43). He recognizes Jesus in his innocence and royalty (“I’ve robbed and roundly beaten/enough innocents to know/he is one.”) and asks to be remembered when Jesus comes into His kingdom. With his dying breath, Jesus promises that they will be together in Paradise. The last four lines of the poem are words I hope to recite on my own deathbed:

My guilt and fear evaporate.
Content–I never was before!–
I close my eyes to wait
’til we meet at heaven’s door.

Of course, even as I write this, I can think of other favorites as well – including one in which the tree which has been hewn into the Cross asks its Maker’s forgiveness, and the one in which Mary says her last goodbye to her Son. That one never fails to make me cry.

The poems are accompanied by beautiful woodcut illustrations by David Frampton. The figures evoke Byzantine icons, and illuminate the words of the poetry without distracting.

In our house, Holy Week is special; it always feels as though time goes more slowly and is richer, more sacred. Last year, my daughter and I read the poems that accompanied each day, and I plan to do the same this year. These poems invite children into the wonder, fear, and majesty of the events, and don’t shy away from the difficult questions they raise. Questions like, was Judas destined to betray Jesus? What role did his own will play? Could Jesus have refused his Father’s commission in the Garden? The poems refuse to offer simple answers, and instead invite us into the mystery and human drama by which we are all saved.

A note: last year, I did skip the poem about Jesus’ torture before his death (“Call It What You Will”). The account of Jesus’ suffering – while perfectly biblical – was just too graphic for my then-three-year-old. I think I’ll probably skip it this year too. And be forewarned that the thief on the cross calls damnation down on the religious leaders who condemn Jesus to death. I think those things are perfectly appropriate for older children, but I’m waiting a bit to introduce them to my preschool-aged daughter. Still, although much of the rest of the volume is a little over her head, I still found it worthwhile to read with her and anticipate making it a tradition each Holy Week and Easter.

The Divine Hours

The Divine Hours
Compiled by Phyllis Tickle
Image/Doubleday, 2000-2001

One of my favorite times of day is the close of breakfast, when I open up The Divine Hours and read the morning prayers with my nearly 2-year-old.  While she finishes up her cereal she’s happy to listen to me pray the daily readings out loud.  She is even learning how to join in; if I start reciting “The Lord is…” she knows what comes next: “King!”

The Divine Hours books (there are three main ones) consist of short passages of Scripture and prayers from the Book of Common Prayer arranged in 2-page daily liturgies.  Each set of readings starts with a call to prayer from the Psalms and ends with the weekly collect from the BCP.  In between there are more Psalm selections, a short reading from another part of the Bible, the Lord’s Prayer, and occasionally another historical prayer from Augustine or another source.  In the evening the text of a hymn is also included.

At our house we most consistently use the readings for morning (at the close of breakfast) and noon (at the close of lunch).  Sometimes we use the evening readings as family worship before our daughter’s bedtime, and my husband and I occasionally get into the habit of reading Compline together before we turn off the lights and sleep.  All that to say that even though there are four sets of readings every day, there’s no reason why you can’t just do one or two.  For that matter, there’s no reason that you can’t shorten, lengthen, or add to the readings, either.

If it’s not clear by now, no, The Divine Hours are not children’s books.  So why are we including them in Aslan’s Library?  When Sarah and I talked about what to write about during Lent this year, we decided to include some resources to help families practice some of the traditional Lenten practices: prayer, reflection, confession, and Scripture reading.  I know of no better resource to help families do those four things together than the Divine Hours series, so kidlit or not it made the list!

The sets of readings in these books are short enough for a young child’s attention span and substantive enough for an adult; they’re not targeted to children per se but as the Word of God they are appropriate for ears of all ages.  The youngest children will likely just be soaking it all in, but older children can participate in refrains and the Lord’s Prayer or even take turns reading aloud.  Best of all, these books will help every member of the family learn to come to Scripture in a posture of prayer.  They will help you worship together, pray together, repent together, feed yourselves on the Word together, and humble yourself before the Sovereign God together.

I do have a few quibbles with The Divine Hours.  For one, they use the New Jerusalem Bible and BCP Psalter, which are not my preferred translations.  Secondly, the evening reading typically contains a hymn, but every so often there is a poem in its place that either goes over my head or I find objectionable in some way.  Thirdly, very occasionally (rarely, really) there is a prayer or reading that runs contrary to Protestant theology.  But even considering these things, I truly love these books.  If you’re looking for a way to incorporate prayer into your family’s life in a fresh and meaningful way this Lenten season, I warmly commend them to you!

Below are the links to the three core books in the series.  There are a couple of extra ones in the series (one specifically for Advent/Christmas and one for Lent/Easter, for example), but the material they contain is entirely found in these three volumes: