Just the Way You Are

Just the Way You AreJust the Way You Are

Max Lucado and Sergio Martinez
Crossway, 1999

Good news!  I’ve found another book by Max Lucado (in addition to You Are Special) that I think is well worth reading, especially during the present season of Lent.

Just the Way You Are is the tale of five orphans who find out that the king wants to adopt them.  The older brothers and sisters think that it’s their job to make themselves worthy of the king’s love, so they busy themselves with self-improvement strategies while they wait for him to show up.  The younger sister doesn’t seem to have any of the natural talent that her siblings do, and she’s left to wait on her own.  When the king arrives… Well, I won’t spoil the ending for you, but I will say that this quote by Tim Keller captures the heart of the book:

The gospel does not say, “the good are in and the bad are out,” nor “the open-minded are in and the judgmental are out.”  The gospel says the humble are in and the proud are out.  The gospel says the people who know they’re not better, not more open-minded, not more moral than anyone else, are in, and the people who think they’re on the right side of the divide are most in danger.

I’d call this book a Lenten story in the sense that it’s about recognizing that we don’t come to God with anything to offer him.  His acceptance of us as sons and daughters is a magnificent gift and all we can do is gratefully and humbly receive it.  He is happy to welcome us into his everlasting family as long as we’re not “too busy” thinking up ways to impress him.  All we can truly offer in response to his offer of adoption is our adoration, a lifetime of devotion flowing from a humble heart.

Just the Way You Are doesn’t fully portray the message of the gospel because it doesn’t introduce the topic of sin and the need for repentance, but I still think it’s worth reading with our children.  The illustrations by Sergio Martinez are great, and it’s a well written and story with a theme worth keeping at the forefront of our minds.

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.



Brian Wildsmith
Eerdmans, 1998

I think the story of the Exodus is, hands down, one of the most exciting in the Bible. Unfortunately, it’s also one of the most familiar – so much so, that we often lose sight of the drama when we come back to it. But there’s a reason it is the archetype that is invoked over and over again in Scripture to tell us about the kind of God we worship. From Moses in the bulrushes, to Sinai, to the people of Israel laying Moses in his grave, it is God’s massive, dramatic, salvific action for his people. Of course the events of Holy Week coincide with Passover. Of course Jesus is identified as the lamb of God. Of course he teaches like Moses on the mountaintop. If we want to understand who God is in Jesus – and to appreciate the drama of the Incarnation – we have to allow ourselves to get swept up in the excitement of the Exodus.

Thank heaven for Brian Wildsmith’s gorgeous retelling. The story is simply told, from the discovery of Moses in the rush basket all the way to Joshua’s assumption of leadership. Rather than simply focusing (as so many children’s books do) on the “exciting parts” — the plagues, crossing the Red Sea — Wildsmith wisely follows the Scriptural narrative. The killing of the Egyptian guard, the waters of Meribah, the golden calf, manna and quail and pillars of fire and smoke: they’re all there. The happy result is that we feel the weight of the entire drama as it plays out over Moses’ lifetime.

And the illustrations. Oh, the illustrations. This is a book you can pore over. It is beautiful. The pictures are detailed and sweeping all at once, so that you can stare at the hieroglyphs in Pharoah’s palace and be stunned by the massive wave of Hebrews crossing the Red Sea. If you’re familiar with Brian Wildsmith’s work, you know what I mean. If not, you owe it to yourself to check it out. He has also managed to create my favorite-ever depiction of God in the burning bush and on Sinai. How does one draw the God who has no image, you might ask? Turn to page 8 and find out.

This is the sort of book that is lovely to give as a gift. The jacket and printing are handsome, and would look just right in an Easter basket. That said, I plan on reading it with my daughter during Holy Week, and talking about the connections between Passover and Easter. Though there is no explicit mention of Jesus -obviously – this is nevertheless an excellent Lenten book. The God of the Exodus is Jesus’ God (my daughter pointed to the pillar of smoke and said, “Jesus is hiding in there!”), and this book offers a beautiful way to explore the resonances between God’s action in the Sinai desert and his action in Jerusalem 2000 years ago.

Peter’s First Easter

Peter’s First Easter
Walter Wangerin, Jr. & Timothy Ladwig
Zondervan, 2000

One of the reasons I’m glad that Easter is around the corner is that I finally get to tell you about Peter’s First Easter! It’s long been one of my favorites and, in fact, it was one of a handful of books that inspired us to launch this blog.  I’m delighted to be sharing it with you today.

Peter’s First Easter is a first-person retelling (by the apostle Peter) of the story of Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection.  Starting at the Last Supper and continuing through the “feed my sheep” passage in John 21, Peter tells us not just the facts about what happened, but how he felt about it  – and how it changed his life.  It’s a book about the power of God’s forgiveness to us through Jesus and how being reconciled to God transforms us and gives us a mission.

The first-person narration is a big part of what makes this book so moving.  Many children’s books about the resurrection tend to lapse into an impersonal recounting of events, which makes it difficult to fully enter into the reality of what’s being communicated.  The fact that Peter is the one doing the narrating is icing on the cake: there is so much about Peter that young children (and all of us, really) can relate to.  He’s impetuous, affectionate, and he loves Jesus and betrays him and loves him again.

Walter Wangerin, as I’ve written before, is a master storyteller and Peter’s First Easter is yet another display of his literary prowess.  Here’s a brief example from the closing scene in the book, right after Jesus thrice asks Peter if he loves him and gives him the lifelong task of feeding his sheep:

Jesus has forgiven me.  Three times I hurt him, and he took the hurt, and he went down to death with it.  When he rose from the dead, the hurt was gone…Forgiveness!  We are both forgiven!

After you read a book like this you’re not going to be satisfied with theological twaddle for much longer.  Wangerin doesn’t detail every single implication of the resurrection (Jesus as the firstborn from the dead, Easter as the beginning of the new creation), but I wouldn’t expect that in a children’s book anyway.  What Wangerin does offer us in this book is an exquisite proclamation of the unbelievable forgiveness that is ours in Christ, and that is a story that I would like to see in every family’s home library.

Sadly, this wonderful book is out of print. Used copies are readily available, but the prices go up and down pretty frequently.  A few years ago they were going for something like $50, a couple of weeks ago there were a bunch listed for under $1, and today when I checked there were a few up for under $10 (and several others for more than that).  Moral of the story: when you find one of these gems for a reasonable price, snatch it up!

The Book of Jonah

The Book of Jonah
Peter Spier
Doubleday, 1985

I love the book of Jonah. I love how richly Christological it is. I love how funny it is. I love Jonah’s grouchy honesty; and I love God’s gracious, hard humor in dealing with him. It’s such an odd book, in so many ways – God is dead set on showing mercy to the Ninevites, drowning in their wickedness; God’s prophet is dead set on letting them justly perish; and it ends with the Gentile sinners repenting while the Hebrew prophet smolders under God’s rebuke. Oh yeah, and there’s a giant fish.

At last, I’ve found a children’s retelling of this story that faithfully captures those elements. Yes, the fish is there, prominently displayed on the cover (with a resigned-looking Jonah ready to be swallowed), but Peter Spier’s lovely Book of Jonah doesn’t pander to children by making it the center of the story. This edition is, quite simply, about the mercy of God and an unwilling messenger. It tells the Biblical story in its fullness, odd though it is.

If you’re familiar with any of Peter Spier’s other work (we love Noah’s Ark and People at our house), you’ll recognize his wonderfully detailed illustrations. There is much here to capture little eyes and draw them in. The text is an adapted translation of the 17th-century Dutch Statenbijbel (Mr. Spier is Dutch), and mirrors the starkness of the original Biblical account. There is no easy resolution, no unseemly happy ending when the fish coughs up Jonah: his anger over Nineveh’s repentance, his withered vine, and his pleas with God to end his life because God has mercy on Nineveh are all there.

The Book of Jonah has been a great starting point for some simple conversations with my four-year-old (as in, “So, Mommy, why did Jonah run away?”); although it’s a picture book, I think it would be appropriate for sharing with kids up through age 10 or so.

This book is going to have a regular place in our Lenten reading rotation, largely because it poses the issue of God’s mercy so starkly. While we are spending 40 days repenting of our own sin, are there ways in which we are like Jonah and don’t wish to extend grace to others? Are we as honest with God as Jonah is? How are Jesus’ three days in the grave like (and unlike!) Jonah’s time in the fish? (We’ll be doing this Jonah project during Holy Week, as well!) It’s such a lovely illustration of how far God’s grace extends, and how hard (when we’re being honest) it can be to accept it, or wish it for others.

**A note: you might find this title just a bit tricky to track down. A few sellers were offering it on Amazon, used and new; I found it on the shelf of my local branch in the San Francisco library. One option is to order it from the folks at Hearts and Minds Books: they can track down just about anything that’s in print. And they’re a fabulous store. You should support them.