Summer Vacation

Summer vacation

It’s a fact: given that we have small children, busy families, and, well, life in general — we’ve found that we’re seasonal bloggers. And the season of summer is the season of OFF. Off the interwebs, off the weekly round of activities (violin, gymnastics, soccer: I’m looking at you), off of schedules and due dates and packed-to-the-minute calendars. Instead, we’re hanging out at the lake, visiting family, fleeing the fog (sorry, San Francisco: I love you but not in July), eating epic barbecue prepared for hours by my husband, and generally slowing down.

This space will be quiet for the summer, although all of our book recommendations are available under the Book List tab — click on any book and it will take you straight through to our review of it. We’ll still be reading aplenty, raising our kids, attending church, and generally thinking about what it means to introduce these smaller people to our great God and his story through books, music, and life together. Just doing those things more slowly, across longer days, and over large plates of barbecue (hopefully).

Hope all you fellow northern-hemisphere folks have a lovely summer. Keep in touch, and we’ll see you when the days get shorter and the fog rolls out.

Summer in the city, SF edition

Summer in the city, SF edition

The Lent Shelf

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The last few years, as I’ve continued to settle into liturgical traditions, I’ve tried to make Lent a meaningful and memorable time. There are so many ways that we can make this season of preparation come alive for children and adults alike, and it’s been fun to figure out what is most helpful to my family. I’ve written before about engaging the senses during Lent, and the ideas in that post continue to be a helpful framework for me.

This year, though, I added something new: Montessori inspired Lenten baskets. The idea with these is that after being introduced to them, my kids can work with them on their own. They know they can do so whenever they want, but I also occasionally set aside time during Lent for all of us to individually spend some time thinking about Jesus. I didn’t have a space to use exclusively for this purpose, so I just set them on some of our already-filled bookshelves. And it’s working just fine!

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Some of the materials were things I already had, but I did buy a few couple of new items and baskets from Goodwill for storage. Here’s what I currently have set up, going from left to right and top to bottom in the photo above:

  • DIY felt cross puzzle from the Godly Play story The Mystery of Easter
  • Artwork depicting scenes from the life of Jesus via Ann Voskamp’s Trail to the Tree
  • Holding cross and (electric) candle
  • Small basket of items to remind us of stories in the Bible: fruit, salt shaker, bread, chalice, dove, sparrow, and Good Shepherd card
  • Cross and Christ figures from Worship Woodworks
  • DIY version of the Godly Play story of the Good Shepherd, made of felt and Holztiger figures
  • Small purple baby quilt to spread out for work space
  • Lacing crosses and small skeins of colorful yarn (I added this after I took the photo above, but you can see it in the photo directly below)

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Also new this year to my home are some wonderful resources from the Etsy shop Jesse Tree Treasures. I’m especially looking forward to using their Holy Week Easter Ornaments with my kids starting on Palm Sunday. The artwork is beautiful, and the ornaments themselves are sturdy and seem like they will last well. I love that the cross has two sides: one for Good Friday and one for Resurrection Day.

Even though this will be our first year displaying these ornaments (you put up one per day starting on Palm Sunday and there’s a short devotional for each), I’m certain it will become one of our favorite Lenten traditions. Holy Week is an incredibly special time, and I think these ornaments will help my kids deepen their understanding of its importance. If you’re new to Lent, Holy Week ornaments might be a perfect first tradition for your family – but they’re great for Lenten veterans, too!

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Holy Week Cross

The Jesse Tree Treasures folks have lots of other sets available in their shop, but the only other one I have is the Jesus Tree. It’s a similar idea to the Jesse Tree, but instead of following the story of redemption from creation to Christ’s birth, it goes through the life of Jesus from birth to resurrection one story at a time throughout Lent. The set comes with a total of 64 wooden discs (it includes a few extra holidays and 10 discs from Ascension to Pentecost), and they’re color coded according to their chronology. I love that the set comes with a list of where every story is found in each of the the Gospels; it has already proven to be a handy reference for me on more than one occasion.

Because of the number of discs in the set, figuring out a way to display them all proved to be a bit of a challenge for me. What I ended up doing with them this year is only using the ones that match up with the Lenten family devotional our church hands out. When we sit down for devotional time, we take out the discs from the stories we’ve read thus far and put them in order before moving on to the new story of the day. It’s not exactly the way the discs were designed to be used (we’re not even close to using all of them), but it’s a been a helpful way for my kids and me to remember what we’ve been reading from week to week. And I can imagine lots of uses for them outside of Lent, too!

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When I think about all the ways that we naturally make Advent a special time, I’m motivated to do the same for Lent. I want my kids to grow up knowing in their bones that Easter is the high point of the year – and more than that, that it was the high point of history. There are so many ways to bring the themes of Lent into focus in our hearts and minds and homes, so please comment if you have ideas to share!

The Big Picture Family Devotional

Big Picture DevotionalThe Big Picture Family Devotional
David R. Helm, ed.
Crossway, 2014

It’s no secret how I feel about The Big Picture Story Bible. It remains my four-year-old’s favorite bedtime read, and it’s often one of the first gifts I give to new parents. So obviously I was interested when the good folks at Crossway let us know they were publishing a related devotional last summer, and grateful to them for sending me a copy to peruse.

The Big Picture Family Devotional grew out of the work by members of Holy Trinity Church in Chicago, who wanted to develop family devotional material that traced the storyline of the Bible – the “big picture” of salvation history. (Editor and founding pastor of Holy Trinity David Helm notes in the introduction that this was the genesis of the story Bible as well.)

The book itself is organized around “forty-five big picture verses that function as windows through which we gaze at God’s unfolding promise”: in the old tradition of catechesis, the book is divided into forty-five “questions,” each of which is answered by a memory verse. Each question is spread over three days. On each day you ask the question (i.e., “How did Abraham respond to the Lord’s word?”), respond by practicing the memory verse (“Abraham believed the Lord, and he counted it to him as righteousness,” Gen 15:6), and then read a related passage of Scripture and a short devotional paragraph. By the end of the three days, the verse should be memorized AND the question will have been considered in some Scriptural depth — so the question about Abraham includes devotional readings from Romans 4 and Galatians 3. It’s a wonderful structure for children ages 6 to 10, as they begin to encounter Scripture itself, as it provides an overarching structure to organize their experience of the Bible as God’s story for us.

If you’re familiar with The Big Picture Story Bible, you’ll quickly recognize the major themes: God creates a place and a people; God’s people reject him and are sent out from his place; God creates a new people and gives them a new place in his promises to Israel; these people too reject God as King; Jesus arrives as God’s promised king AND place who makes it possible for us to live as God’s people. As an introduction to the grand sweep of Scripture, the devotional is a wonderful teaching tool. Whether you work through it over the course of a year (as the editor suggests) or more quickly, say from Lent through Pentecost, children will see Scripture as a grand, rich, and interconnected story that is the beautiful work of a loving God.

However, I have a confession to make. While I love the structure, I find the overall quality of the written reflections, well, uneven. It’s entirely possible that I am being a theological perfectionist, but some of the reflections and response questions frankly give me serious pause. Question 33, for instance:

Q: Who is the only way to God?

A: Jesus said, “…I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” (John 14:6)

All well and good. This is cornerstone, Christianity-101 stuff. And it makes sense to point out that this is one of Jesus’ harder sayings, that it’s especially challenging in our time and place, and to observe “that is tough for people to swallow.” However, I would just skip the reflection question that follows: “There is a phrase that says ‘You gotta take the good with the bad.’ Do you understand what it means? How does that relate to our big picture verse for this week?”

Wait, WHAT? I don’t think the question is suggesting that Jesus’ words about being the way are the “bad” we have to take with the “good” of the gospel, only that that’s how some people experience it. But already the verse is being framed as controversial, confrontational, and something people have to just swallow if they want to follow Jesus, rather than the very good Christological news that it actually is: of course Jesus is the only way to God, because he is the God-man, the Son of God incarnate. I would much rather my kids understand that verse in light of the old twin poles of atonement: only God can save, and what has not been assumed (broken human nature) cannot be healed. And only Jesus is both God and man, so only Jesus can save. Rather than a barrier to evangelism (or worse, yet, a bludgeon), this verse should make us urgently want to introduce people to Jesus as the only one powerful enough to save their lives!

Theologically picky? Maybe. But I wouldn’t write about theological kidlit if I didn’t think the words we choose to talk about theology with our children really matter, and that it’s important to pay close attention to how the words we choose shade our gospel presentation.

There are other sentences, and in once case even entire reflections, in The Big Picture Family Devotional that, to be perfectly honest, I will probably edit or flat out skip/re-write when going through it with my children. For example: instead of reading to them (from question 11, about Abraham’s response to God’s call) that “Abraham’s faith pleased God. God will be very pleased with you too if you trust that his words are true,” I will say something like “Because he had faith, God named Abraham righteous. And remember: when God names things, he makes them into what he has named! His words are powerful! If you have faith and trust that he is good, in Jesus, he will call you righteous too – give you his very Spirit and bring you into communion with him.” Faith isn’t about making God happy with us (“pleasing” God), it’s about accepting his gift of a new, righteous identity in Christ. It’s nothing we do; it’s accepting something being done to us. Daily my children have teachers, coaches, and friends to please. God’s pleasure is of another sort altogether, and we need to remember that when we tell our kids how to “please” God. Words matter, and in such essentials I don’t want to muddy my children’s understanding with language about making God happy with them.

So: given these kinds of reservations, why am I reviewing and recommending this book? Well, because despite my hesitations about some of the reflections, I absolutely love the structure and organization of this book. It’s unparalleled in the scope of what it’s trying to do: take children through the big picture of Scripture, help them to see its interconnected themes, memorize in a way that puts the grand narrative of God’s story at their fingertips, and to see this whole, giant, ancient compilation as a living word that breathes life and hope. I’m more than willing to ad lib, edit, and rephrase some devotional sentences in exchange for such a gift.

Book Sale Loot

Once a year there’s a huge used book sale at the Minnesota state fairgrounds, which is conveniently located 5 minutes from my house.  It’s something I look forward to every year, but at the same time I have to admit that sifting through thousands of books like that is quite the experience.  The children’s books are spread out on tabletops and in boxes and are only organized into two large sections: picture books and chapter books.  By the end of my shopping time I can barely see straight as a result of squinting at book spines for hours on end.  In other words, it’s a little nutty.  But so very worth it!

Here’s a shot of my favorite chapter books I brought home this weekend:

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Not bad for a few bucks!  One of the benefits of familiarizing yourself with great booklists is that when you find yourself searching through fifty tables of children’s books you know what titles and authors to scoop up without a second thought.  Linnets and Valerians by Elizabeth Goudge?  Why yes, thank you very much.  The Shoes series by Noel Streatfeild?  Definitely.  It also comes in handy when appointing oneself as personal assistant to the shoppers next to you.  I especially think it’s fun to suggest books to kids who have a stack of not-so-great ones in their arms.  Perhaps that’s a bit nosy on my part, but it’s awfully hard to let a 9-year-old pass by From the Mixed Up of Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler having no idea what a treasure it is.

I also scored a bunch of picture books, more so than other years actually, but most of them have already been scattered around the house so I don’t have a picture of those for you.  There were quite a few promising theological kidlit books this year, so those may appear here in future posts.  (My one regret from the sale this year was not buying the picture book on creation that told of Adam naming all of the animals God had created… including unicorns.  Seriously.)

One of the picture books I snatched up right away at the sale was Miss Suzy’s Easter Surprise.  I was especially delighted with that one because just a couple of weeks ago we spotted the first Miss Suzy book at one of our neighborhood’s Little Free Libraries.  Joy!

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Buying new books is incredibly important because it supports authors and sends a message to publishers about the kinds of books consumers value.  But buying used books allows us to buy so many more books than we could otherwise afford, so we do both.  How about you?  If you have any great tips on where to consistently find amazing used books I’d love to hear them!

31 Days (or at least more than one)

If you’re a blogger or an avoid blog reader you probably know that every year in October, many bloggers try to write a post every single day. Many even choose a theme to guide their writing. Lest you get too excited, let me quickly say: Sarah and I will not be blogging daily this month. Sorry! But (given our recent habit of posting nothing at all for long stretches of time) wouldn’t it be fun if you heard from us a little more often this month?  I think so. There’s been so many bookish things going on in both of our lives that are just begging to be shared! Here’s a sneak peak of what’s to come:

Report from the homeschooling front
Daily doses of storytelling in one of our homes
Reading more slowly with book club
Podcasts for kids… and grown-ups
Memorizing theology as poetry
Musings from Charlotte Mason
Photos of my haul from a huge used book sale (yay!)

And, of course, Sarah and I will also be talking about children’s theological literature from a variety of angles and recommending some new books. We’re looking forward to re-connecting with you all in this place, so please stop by again soon!

St George and the Dragon

St George and the DragonSt George and the Dragon
Michael Lotti & Jennifer Soriano
CreateSpace, 2014

Recently another parent at our church asked me if I knew of any really good middle-grade Christian novels. I gave my standard answer: well, The Bronze Bow is wonderful, if not explicitly “Christian,” and, well…I was on the lookout for more.

St George and the Dragon isn’t precisely a middle-grade novel, or even precisely a novel for that matter: it’s one possible telling of a saint’s life, and has more theological and historical heft than much middle-grade fare. What it is, precisely, is an absolutely lovely book that I can’t wait to read aloud to my daughter and that I’m so pleased to share with you, our readers.**

By way of introduction, Michael Lotti writes, “This is a story of St. George. I say a story and not the story, for no one knows much about St George…I have taken what is guessed at and added many of my own guesses to create a story about a great Christian man.” We’re not wholly in the realm of Christian history, not really in a novel — rather, it’s that delightful space that has existed for centuries in the church: holy legend.  It’s a form that has flourished in some corners of the church more than others, and one rich in its power to enlarge our theological imaginations.

And what a legend it is. In this telling, George is born Marcellus, a Roman tribune who hails from a noble estate in modern-day Turkey. He is rapidly advancing through the Roman army, engaged to be married to a beautiful and wealthy girl, and proud of his empire and the virtues it embodies. That is, until he discovers that a dragon has taken up residence in the region of his father’s estate, and he must choose between sacrificing to it and a different, more difficult refusal.

I had always half-imagined St George as the Christian knight, prancing in on his white horse to kill an evil dragon and probably leaving some swooning ladies in his wake. Not the most terribly interesting story. But this telling includes high drama, Roman history, a conversion, friendship and grief, told compellingly and with theological sophistication. In the dragon, Marcellus (who takes George as his baptismal name) encounters the true face of what he has worshiped and served — the Empire — and finds himself alternately seduced and repelled. Unable to make sense of or resist the dragon’s pull on his old loyalties, he stumbles across a group of Christians worshipping on his father’s estate. Although initially shocked by their alien ways (men and women worshiping together! Slaves and freedmen embracing as brothers! Worship at a funeral and hope in death!) Marcellus finds them, and the hope they promise, strangely compelling. St George and the Dragon is nothing less than the story of a soul’s death to life in Christ, the putting off the old man in a violently liberating way.

The experience of the early Christians, and the radical upending of human empires and institutions (slavery, ancestor-worship, even marriage and friendship) that the gospel entails: it’s all here, in a story that will capture children’s imaginations as well as their parents’. This book would make a lovely family read-aloud, and offer excellent fodder for longer conversations with older children and teens. I heartily commend St George and the Dragon to you and hope you enjoy it as much as I have.

**Full disclosure: Michael Lotti is a former teaching colleague of mine, but that only adds to my pleasure. What’s better than passing along a superb book? Why, when said book is written by someone you like and respect!

It’s a Boy!

Hooray! Today Haley and her newest little baby boy are heading home from the hospital! 

Please join me in welcoming him to the world, and in prayers for their family as they bring kiddo #3 into the fold. (Also, Haley, you have to keep us posted on your nursing reading!)

Happy Easter! (With some links)

Happy Eastertide! I hope you all had a wonderful celebration last Sunday, and that you continue to celebrate the risen Christ well and heartily. If we can fast for 40 days, we can party for 50, no? Or at least continue to remind one another of the truth: we were dead, and now we are alive, already sharing by the Spirit in the life of the resurrected Jesus! He lives, and by his loving Spirit, so do we. I think that’s worth celebrating until Pentecost, don’t you?

We’ll be back next week with another review, and more to come in the upcoming weeks (including Haley’s amazing system for making the public library your own — keep an eye out!) In the meantime, here are a few links to some good writing (and singing) I’ve been clicking on recently:

Happy reading, happy spring, and see you next week!

 

The Garden of the Good Shepherd

Garden of the Good Shepherd The Garden of the Good Shepherd: A Sticker Calendar to Count the 50 Days of Easter
Peter Mazar & Tomie dePaola
Liturgy Training Publications, 2000

I don’t honestly remember when I stumbled across The Garden of the Good Shepherd sticker calendar. It may have been one of those rare moments of Amazon kismet, when they actually recommended something I might want to read. (Does anyone else confuse their magical recommendation machine with their reading/buying/browsing choices? Also, whatever algorithm they use, it’s not very sophisticated when it comes to determining one’s choices in theological kidlit. But that’s another rant.)

Anyhow. Whenever I did stumble across it, I ordered it immediately, and I have been hiding it in my sewing room ever since. And I am so excited to recommend it to you for your family’s Easter celebration.

What precisely is it? And do I promise it’s not cheesy?

Yes. I promise. It’s a lovely large format (17″ x 22″ opened) sticker background depicting a meadow, a fountain with a running stream, the sea in the background, and a city on a hill. Inside are 50 stickers and a week-by-week guide for using them. The printed guide instructs you which sticker to place each day, an appropriate Scripture to read together, and a short meditation on the symbol and its meaning.

The scene changes each week, as you affix new stickers. There’s a week when we are daily adding stickers to make the pasture of the good shepherd; a week in which the Lord’s Table is set in the field; and my favorite – the week in which we build the city and prepare to enter it for a royal wedding. Each week gives us a glimpse of God’s creation and a way of seeing it through the lens of Jesus’ resurrection and the new life that is already bursting into our world – as well as increasing anticipation for his final renewal of all things.

I love the idea of maintaining the Easter celebration past the first few days.But friends: 50 days is a long time. It overlaps with Memorial Day and the end of the school year, and a million other things that distract me once the chocolate eggs have been consumed. This sticker calendar is as much for me as for my kids: to remind us, daily, that we are living in a world that has been rescued, that God has said “Yes!” to in the most definitive way possible. To remind us, now, that we walk in new life and that the death we see around us is simply not the last or most important thing. Fifty days of celebration is not nearly enough.

A Homemade Year

Homemade YearA Homemade Year
Jerusalem Jackson Greer
Paraclete Press, 2013

My spiritual life has been deeply affected by the Anglican practice of arranging church life around the various liturgical seasons of the year.  Liturgy began to feed my soul in college and has only become more important to me in the (more than) decade since graduation.  Now as a mother, I aim for my family’s home life to reflect what goes on at church.  I want my children to always sense that church feels like home and home feels like an extension of church.  It’s something that hasn’t magically come together all at once, but bit by bit and year by year I try to make steady progress toward that general goal.

You’ll understand, then, that when I caught wind of a new book on celebrating the church year with your family I was immediately interested.  A Homemade Year is a book that will appeal to both newbies and veterans to liturgical celebrations, so wherever you find yourself on that spectrum I happily commend it to you.  I loved that the book doesn’t contain long, intimidating lists of all of the ways you could be marking each special day or season.  (She says candidly in the preface, actually, that she doesn’t recommend doing every craft, recipe, and activity in the book unless you only require three hours of sleep per night.)  Unlike some of the other church year celebration guides that I own, this book is a peek into one woman’s family life and the simple, creative, personal ways that she has made the church year come alive in their home.  It’s less like Pinterest and more like a memoir of sorts, and for someone who can get intimidated by the sheer number of ideas out there, I appreciated that.  It’s a welcome reminder that celebrating the church calendar doesn’t mean we have to put every single great idea into place.  Just one or two recipes or activities is really all you need, and you alone get to choose which ones (from this book or from other sources) are going to mean the most to your family.  Hooray!

Aside from the well known staples of the church year (Christmas, Easter, etc), author Jerusalem Jackson Greer writes about a number of celebrations that I was almost entirely unfamiliar with.  Anyone out there regularly do something for St. Joseph’s Day?  Or Holy Cross Day?  Do you even know when they are?  I certainly didn’t.  But because of A Homemade Year I do have several new days that I’m adding to our family’s celebrations this coming year.  Here’s the passage that sold me on observing Candlemas, the day to remember when the infant Jesus was presented in the temple:

By the time February 2 rolls around, there is very little evidence of Christmas left at my house… Winter is still here, bleak and bare, long outlasting the holiday finery that it arrived in… Candlemas comes to me then, in those moments of wondering and cold toes.  It comes full of light and warmth, it comes with beeswax candles and cups of steaming hot cocoa, signaling like those blinking lights on the snow plows and school buses, reminding me that Christmas was not a dream.  Christ did come, and he is among us still.  

Yes, yes, and yes.  Sign me up for Candlemas!

I have long loved the church year from Advent to Christ the King.  I love the rhythm it brings to my spiritual life, I love the aesthetics it offers to my home, I love systematically reliving the life of Jesus every year.  But even if you’re not similarly devoted to keeping the liturgical calendar alive in your home, I’m going to venture a guess that you’d still appreciate A Homemade Year.  Jerusalem neither grew up in a liturgical church nor worships in one now, and her meditations about each mentioned day/season are down to earth stories from her own life experience.  To me, that’s what makes this book so perfectly unique from the other Christian year celebration books I own.  Sure, there is less talk about theological underpinnings or historic traditions.  But when I read it I’m inspired to pay attention not just to liturgy but also to the unique story being woven together in my own home.  It makes me want to think on a more personal level about the ways my family can meaningfully engage in the passing of the Christian days and seasons together – and ultimately, that’s why it’s found a permanent spot on my bookshelf.

[Paraclete was kind enough to send me a review copy of A Homemade Life at my request.  I’m sorry that, because of our long blogging break, it’s taken me this long to share my thoughts with you all!]