Monday, October 28, 2013

A lightweight New Testament sparks heavy questions

Stephen and his peers received this easy reader paperback version of the Gospels and Acts after "graduating" from one class to the next at our church, Restoration House Family Worship Center. We've read 2-4 stories from the book every night for the last couple of weeks.

Oddly, I couldn't find the exact title on Amazon, though another Read and Share Early Reader Bible Stories by Gwen Ellis appears to be a slightly longer version of the one we have. Published by Tommy Nelson, our version contains 45 illustrated two-page stories centering on Jesus, John the Baptist, the disciples and Paul. While many popular children's Bibles, including the Big Picture Story Bible by David Helm and The Jesus Story Book Bible by Sally Lloyd-James, point to Jesus through the entire scriptures, I liked having a slim volume devoted to a plain telling of the life of Jesus. (I do highly recommend the Big Picture Story Bible. Both boys have enjoyed it. I also have some close friends who love the Jesus Storybook Bible.)

My 5-year-old, Stephen, is extremely inquisitive. This, unfortunately, means that he likes to ask questions about every other sentence whenever we read. For this reason, I really liked the brevity and simplicity of the Read and Share. Ellis doesn't embellish or insert opinions or interpretation into the stories, which I found could at times make the Jesus Storybook Bible a little cumbersome to read aloud.  This leaves room for me to add in my own asides and for Stephen to ask questions without losing continuity. A few longer stories- such as Jesus' parable of the prodigal son- were broken up into multiple parts. Each story ends with a brief explanation or question. Stephen always understood and answered the questions immediately, which is a big deal in my mind because he doesn't always exhibit such focus.

The illustrations, as you can see from my photos, are cartoon-like, but nicely expressive. I'm amused by the Sesame Street noses. The selection of stories, which cover Jesus' birth, John the Baptist's ministry, Jesus' life, death and resurrection and a little of the nascent church, is pretty good too. If I were running the show, I would have cut the story about the fish with the coin in its mouth and included Mary's magnificat -- something that is absent from every children's bible we own-- I dunno, do authors think it too Catholicky to include? I might also include the Mary who poured out the costly ointment rather than Jesus riding into town on the borrowed donkey. Those are just my personal preferences though.

While we're thinking wishfully, would someone write a similar volume to continue on with the rest of Acts and the Epistles? I want to teach my children about Priscilla and Aquila, about those naughty Corinthians and how Peter grew from the overconfident disciple to a mature church father.

But, bottom line? I like this little book, and Stephen has as well. As someone who chronically starts without finishing, I found this a great tool to see something through to the end. It has provoked Stephen to wonder why Jesus didn't want to Peter to retaliate and why God didn't give the angry mob a big spanking. These questions have opened the door to his heart to listen as I introduce him to the sacrificial love of his Savior, and any book that does that is worth a hearty recommendation.

Link Likes 10/28/13

So, dear readers, if there are any out there, my goal is to post weekly compilations of worthwhile links. Here's our first (extremely brief) list:

Things Emily enjoyed online last week:

Do the very thing you ask of them A good reminder that our kids are always watching us.

Will the real complementarian please stand up? Some thoughts on marriage.

Things Joe enjoyed online last week:

Obama's Religion Is Out Of Spotlight But Christian Spirituality Serves During Tough Times

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Bookish toys for babies

It's never too early to cultivate a love of reading in our little ones, right? Here's a few of the soft books and book inspired toys we have at our house. Most of these have been passed on from Stephen to Rockam and now to Oliver.

Fredrick Plush Toy - I found this dreamy little mouse (the title character of Leo Lionni's fable about the importance of imagination) in a bookstore in Taipei a decade ago before I was even thinking about having children. I did a search online and couldn't find him. Oliver likes to grab the stalk of the poppy and fling him around, but I suspect he might not be the sturdiest toy for babies, as the felt facial features might come off if chewed vigorously enough.

Leka Cirkus Play Book (IKEA)- I like this little cloth book because the size is tinier than most. The color scheme is simple and each page features some kind of surprise, like a mirror or a bunny to pull out of a hat.

Eric Carle toys by Kids Preferred - The Very Hungry Caterpillar is a great book and this toy follows suit. Because of it's long shape, the littlest babies can sit in an infant seat and chew on one end while the other rests in their lap. Other toys often end up on the floor right away, but this one's shape seems to make it easier for the immobile to manage. It includes a squeaker in the middle strawberry and different plastic crunchy sounds in the feet, antennae and body segments. The Frog hides a "Ribbit! Ribbit! Ribbit!" sound box in the depths of its belly, causing Stephen to christen this toy as "Agg-Ack Agg-Ack." However, most kids won't be able to apply the pressure needed to activate the sound, unless they sit on the toy. This might be a good thing, as the noise is a little annoying for adult ears.

For some odd reason, Blogger insists on making this photo of our Roger Priddy cloth books upside down, but I think you get the idea. These are great tactile books for older babies. Our copies have endured many car rides, though I will say that the plastic crinkle paper in the cover of Fuzzy Bee and friends melted on our summer road trip to North Carolina a few years ago. It still makes crunchy sounds and, like a shrink dink, fills only about a third of the page. The insides of the books contain simple rhyming verse and manipulative creature features.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Emily wins a door prize

Over the weekend, I attended a women's event at my church, Restoration House Family Worship Center, and won a giveaway that I was fairly excited to get: The New Testament wrapped up in a sanctified Cosmo style magazine called  "Becoming."  I've never been one to read fashion magazines, and I grew up being loyal to just one version of the bible. But even Paul said he tried to be all things to all men so that he might save some. I see the NCV Becoming: The Complete New Testament (Biblezines) as doing that for the 20-30 something woman who might be open to the gospel but isn't interested in scholarly commentary and has a short attention span.

The version of this Bible I received is first edition, published in 2004. This means the content and style of the magazine is somewhat dated. Considering that most of the items in my closet are about a decade behind the times, this didn't bother me too much! Thomas Nelson has since published a few newer editions and a Wisdom Books Biblezine too.

What I liked
I'm kind of a sucker for those personality type quizzes, and this magazine is replete with them. What kind of gemstone are you? (A pearl) Do you have a tender heart? (Apparently not so much) How well do you relate to men? (According to the quiz, very well, which is good since I live with four of them) As with most magazine quizzes, they were kind of cheesy and not terribly illuminating, but entertaining nonetheless.

Becoming also divides the New Testament up into monthly portions, with a calendar and a monthly "Book Review" that is more of a promotional blurb for a Christian book than a true review. The calendar is sprinkled through with suggested enrichment activities such as doing something nice for your hairstylist or scheduling a mammogram or praying for a "person of influence" like Jamie Lee Curtis on her birthday. I like the idea of it... but if I were in charge, I might have filled that calendar up with different suggestions: Go for a walk in the woods and marvel at God's creation. Pray for a missionary family you know. Schedule your yearly OB-GYN appointment? After all, the target audience might be a little young for mammograms.

The New Century Version is geared toward easy reading in modern language. It divides longer sentences into multiple shorter ones in an effort to keep things simple, perhaps for lower reading levels. Each book begins with a page introducing the context of the book and a basic summary of key themes. I thought this was done well and gave the New Testament a sense of continuity that would really benefit many people who might struggle to read the entire Bible from cover to cover.

The fluff
As a magazine, Becoming makes ample use of side bars, info boxes and mini features--many of which tie into the theme of the corresponding scriptures. The beauty tips, in my mind, were the least useful. I really don't want to be thinking about how to make my lips look plumper or my eye lashes fuller when I'm getting into the Word, even if said tips conclude with an exhortation to be careful about what those luscious lips say or alluring eyes see. Those who do care about such things would find the beauty advice overly simplistic, or perhaps distracting from the spiritual principles this magazine aims to deliver.

There are also a bunch of "All About Men" features. I found some of them off-putting. Info boxes about the evils of porn are juxtaposed with my favorite verses in Philippians chapter three, ensuring that I wouldn't be lingering on that page. It's not that those issues aren't relevant for a lot of women, it's just that it didn't really aid me in meditating on scriptures.

My take-away
I really like what the folks at Thomas Nelson were trying to do with this and other Biblezines. I could easily see these in doctor's office waiting rooms or as a good gift to give an un-churched friend who's about to go on a road trip. It's a great tool for the gospel and to allow new believers to explore a wide variety of topics while also learning to cultivate a love for the Bible. For a Christian who is on to a more meat than milk diet, Becoming might not be the best reading material to wile away the hours. I'll probably do the rest of the quizzes and then give my copy away to someone who might be blessed by the innovative format.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Review of Loyalty: The Reach of the Noble Heart

by Bob Sorge
Published by Oasis House, Kansas City, MO

I first opened my mind to this book for two words on the cover, neither of which was the title. I will always respond excitedly to the name Bob Sorge. My introduction to Sorge's work was his 2001 best-seller Secrets of the Secret Place,  quite simply the best resource I have ever found about cultivating personal time with God. Highly applicable and spiritually boosting. I have probably recommended Secrets more than any other faith-focused book. 

So I came upon this more recent work, Loyalty: the Reach of the Noble Heart (2004) with great expectations. Again, it wasn't the title that compelled me. How much could be made of a subject that Scripture, so I thought, pays scant attention to? Tell me honestly, fellow Bible scholars, how many verses on loyalty leap to mind? Go ahead, take your time. 

If the title provoked any emotion in me, it was guardedness. The only Bible study I knew anywhere in the vicinity of loyalty was John Bevere's Honor's Reward.  And that is a book which pounds the message of "submitting to God's sovereign arrangement" pretty hard. I wondered whether this going to be another 300 pages of uppercuts with "just take it so that one day you get to be the authority" printed on the gloves. (Sorry John, that last comment was more indicative of my immaturity than yours.)

Sorge quickly proved this fear false.  From the first page, he makes his case for loyalty as a central component of God's relationship with us on the back of  2 Chronicles 16:9: 

For the eyes of the Lord run to and fro throughout the whole earth, to show Himself strong on behalf of those whose heart is loyal to Him.

Loyalty, Sorge argues, is godliness itself.  It is not a ploy of men to control the masses, at least not in its original form. Loyalty began in the Trinity as affectionate allegiance between the Father, Son and the Spirit. In other words, not only did the Godhead to commit to one another in will but in emotion and mind as well. 

Affectionate allegiance: this is an important definition because it cuts loyalty out from the herd of relationship words that tend to run together in our use: love, commitment, faithfulness, devotion, submission, surrender, etc. I might mean mental and emotional investment in a relationship when I telling my brother I am loyal to him, but he might misconstrue my meaning as a surrender of my will to his. You can see the misunderstandings soon to follow that failed communication.

After mooring his thesis to both orthodoxy and clarity, Sorge then plunges into the sea of loyalty and disloyalty, with examples all throughout the Bible. 

God is always searching, and the object of His search is for a loyal man or woman. Once He finds a Noah, He can send a flood. Once He finds a Joseph, He can give Pharaoh a divine dream. Once He has an Elijah, He can turn a nation around. When He has a Jesus of Nazareth, He can save the world.

Sorge pulls fresh insights from these high profile personalities explaining how the key to their selection for great exploits was their loyalty or affectionate allegiance to God. But no one's story, besides Jesus', is more probed than that of King David, the man in whom God saw a mirror of His own heart. 

David's story becomes the center of gravity for Loyalty. Rightly so, for David could demonstrate loyalty even toward people trying to kill him (Saul) and become extremely close to those who could have been his rivals (Jonathan). Sorge proclaims David the gold standard of loyalty and goes so far as to use the term "God's Davids" to refer to any leaders deserving of loyalty. He even  studies David's psalms for evidence of criteria for choosing leaders.  

But the book doesn't photoshop David's warts out. I appreciate Sorge's honest treatment of the king. He is portrayed as someone who learned loyalty in stages, failed a few tests and even stumbled others in their learning. This makes David feel closer, as if he would nod sympathetically were he to have a conversation with you about your struggle to be loyal. 

Also accessible are the satellite characters that orbit around David: Amasai, Ahithophel, Joab and Absalom. Sorge takes the time to examine each one, even when the character occupies just a handful of verses to paint a picture of loyalty that one can frame one's own life in.

Even vengeful Absalom is shown to be "a man of like passions as we." Who couldn't relate to being mishandled by an authority figure as David botched his discipline of Absalom? Which one of us could fault Absalom for holding onto the offense after not getting an apology or being invited to reconcile? Could we too be so possessed by a grudge that we would lash out in rebellion against an authority? Many of us would have to say, "Been there. Done that."

Sorge's loyalty focus was so illuminating, it shed new light on all-too-familiar characters. I was so inspired by his study of Abraham and Lot and then Naomi and Ruth that I used these stories to preach a sermon on loyalty. The sermon connected well with the congregation.

True to the endtimes enthusiasm that marks most teaching from the International House of Prayer (Sorge has been associated with the movement for decades), the last few chapters are reserved for loyalty's role in hastening the close of the current age:

Mark my words, loyalty is a character quality that will receive increasing emphasis in the last days. Its emphasis will be an absolute necessity because of the profusion of disloyalty that will spatter the end time landscape.

He makes some good points about how the prophet Malachi foresaw the return of the hearts of fathers to their sons and vice-versa and how this showed that the return of the spirit of Elijah brings about a generation of loyalty. But I felt this comes across as a bit of a forced attempt to pull in Revelation and eschatology into a subject where it just doesn't belong.

And what of my misgivings about loyalty being another guise for pro-authoritarian teaching? Turns out I was too quick to judge. Sorge is very balanced in his counsel on when and how to exercise loyalty to a leader as is demonstrated in this passage:

Be cautious around a leader who requires loyalty. Wise leaders will watch for and honor loyalty but they cannot require or demand it. Anyone who requires loyalty doesn't really understand it and is using the requirement as a smokescreen to hide their insecurities.

…If you don't feel loyal toward the one who is over you in the Lord, that does not necessarily mean there is something wrong with you. It may mean that loyalty will take time to develop. The Lord will not require you to feel loyalty to every leader in your life; but he certainly will require you to show commitment to your leaders.

In other words, loyalty is ultimately given from the heart. Because it is affectionate allegiance, it is result of relationship rather than a substitute for it.

I should explain that I could never have reaped so much benefit from reading this book on my couch. My study was greatly enriched by reading and sharing it with a group of men. There is just nothing like a meeting of diverse minds to spark critical thinking about material. At times the discussion questions at the end of each chapter launched us into hour-long chats as we reacted to the ideas and compared them to our experiences. 

Whether reading with others or solo, I recommend taking your time with Loyalty. Chances are you will never come across another book on the subject. So let the ideas soak in as much as possible. 

Monday, October 14, 2013

Biographies to inspire and edify young ones

I'm always on the lookout for books to help cultivate character and confidence in my five-year-old son, Stephen. He loves nature and has a way with words. (Yesterday he coined the phrase "Oke doke Artichoke-y!") But most of all, his imagination and inventive abilities are out of this world. I just know that God has something special planned for him.

In searching for a birthday present for another friend, I stumbled upon Irene Howat's series of "Ten Boys Who..." and "Ten Girls Who..." put out by London-based Christian Focus Publications. After reading the sparse but overall positive reviews on Amazon, I settled on "Ten Girls Who Changed the World" for my friend's daughter, and "Ten Boys Who Used their Talents" for Stephen. Because the cover says the reading level is for ages 7-12, I figured that I'd read it first and determine whether to save it for when Stephen is a little older.

Well, I've perused a few of the 11-page biographies from "Ten Girls," including Joni Eackerson Tada, Corrie Ten Boom and Gladys Aylward. I thought they were both interesting and readable, perhaps because Howat didn't try to cram every detail of these heroine's lives into the stories. Or, perhaps because their dramatic lives are naturally suited to story form. Unfortunately, after reading "Ten Boys Who Used their Talents" from cover to cover, and wasn't as impressed as I so wanted to be. The book introduced me to several Christian men with whom I wasn't familiar, including Paul Brand (medical missionary who pioneered leprosy treatments), Ghillean Prance (environmental activist in the Amazon), Wilfred Grenfell (another medical missionary) and James Clerk Maxwell (electromagnetism expert). It also includes bios of more famous men: C.S. Lewis, C.T. Studd, Johann Sebastian Bach, Samuel Morse, George Washington Carver and John Bunyan. I love the concept behind this book. Howat attempts to connect each boy's talents and giftings to a life serving God. While many of the men included were missionaries, she also touched upon some other themes, such as environmentalism and equality, that lend depth to the message of serving God.

My main qualm with this book was the sloppy writing and research. (On page 109, George Washington Carver went to college in "Indiana, Iowa." Hmmm. So which was it? I looked it up; Simpson College is in Indianola, Iowa.) I also found many of the narratives disjointed and lacking transitions. Years pass abruptly without so much as a nice introductory clause like "Many years later." Howat also has an annoying habit of using unnatural sounding dialog to allude to facts that could have been conveyed more succinctly through narrative or in the "Fact File" sections that follow each chapter.

But while these details bother me as a journalist and writing tutor by trade, I will have to reserve final judgment for after I try reading the book to Stephen.

****Update: So, I read Stephen part of the first chapter, about Wilfred Grenfell. He was interested in Grenfell's bug collection, but he was snoring five pages into the story. However, it was already an hour and a half past bedtime. We'll try again tomorrow.****

Saturday, October 12, 2013

Elephant & Piggie: Great books for wiggly readers

When I go to the library with the kids, I typically let them play computer games while I rush around grabbing picture and chapter books that I think might interest them. I'm always happy to get some Mo Willems books because his humor appeals to kids and adults.
Though it's probably too early to tell, I think Rocky is our kinesthetic learner. He usually can't sit still when I read to him. Unlike his big bro Steve, for whom books have always been captivating, Rocky rarely makes it through an entire book without forcing its premature conclusion by slamming the cover shut and declaring, "The End!!"
As you can see from the serene photo above, the Elephant and Piggie series of beginner's readers has been a big hit with Stephen (5) and Rockam (2). It probably helps that I read them with a high-pitched cutesy voice for Piggie and a low, snobbish voice for Gerald the elephant-- but even without special theatrics, these books read like a really catchy tune. After reading the repetitive conversation in "Let's Go For a Drive" to Stephen only one time, he was able to "read" it back to Rockam almost verbatim. And the familiar refrain "Drive! Drive! Drivey-Drive Drive!" is something that Rocky still occasionally shouts out for no particular reason when he's in a good mood.
Another reason to love these books: Mo Willems' illustrations have that muppety quality and melodramatic expressions that make Rockam giggle, even after we've read the book three times in a row. These books are great fun for the bookworm and the reluctant reader alike.

Friday, October 11, 2013

Peggielene Bartels: A modern-day servant king

This week I checked out the kindle version of "King Peggy: An American Secretary, Her Royal Destiny, and the Inspiring Story of How She Changed an African Village."

King Peggy and her co-author Eleanor Herman
I devoured this book via the Kindle app on my phone -- mostly at midnight while nursing baby Ollie-- in about three days. It's an easy read and an engaging tale of an unassuming naturalized American who works tirelessly as a secretary in the Ghanaian Ambassador's office. Peggy has few friends and spends her evenings "not watching the news" as she eats her take out meals on the couch. Because it keeps her from dwelling on past heartbreak and unfulfilled dreams, the long hours and tedium don't bother Peggy. Then one day she gets a phone call that gives her a chance to shake up her monotonous life and redeem her destiny. The voice on the other line is a distant cousin, with news that her mother's brother, the king of the small fishing village of Otuam, has "gone into the village to cure himself" for good and that she has been chosen as the late king's successor.

Peggy's seemingly insurmountable struggle to bring clean water, education and financial stability to her hometown -- all on a shoestring secretary's salary and in the grinning faces of her corrupt elder council-- is a huge feat that inspires and empowers. Her story, reported in the news before this book was published, had in fact empowered churches and individuals to contribute to Peggy's many causes.

I love that the protagonist of this story had such pure motives despite being elevated to the level of royalty. She took on the post not to be somebody, but to do something, even to the ruination of her perfect credit and the complete draining of her bank account. She wanted to make changes that would do the most good for the most people- such as installing new public bore holes to provide the town with fresh water.

The book also provides a window into African life, which I knew very little about. People in Peggy's part of Ghana are content to wile away the hot hours in conversation, eat a diet of fish and fresh vegetables, and do hard physical labor well into their 70s and 80s. It made me long for a little bit of slow paced simplicity that characterizes her fishing town. Peggy's observations on the Ghanaian and American cultures were insightful-- especially her musing about Americans' obsession with electronic devices rendering us isolated and unable to communicate with each other. (Oh the irony as I read and am reviewing this book on my iPhone) Also eye-opening was the book's portrayal of Ghanaian family culture: close knit, loyal and peace-seeking. However, the extent of the corrupt and chauvinistic culture revealed throughout the story made me glad to be in America after all.

As an Evangelical Christian, I was keenly interested in the book's portrayal of Peggy's blended religion. The locals (and at times Peggy) blend animism with ancestor worship and Christianity in their daily life.  For example, Peggy often prays to God and to Jesus, but she's also in the habit of praying to her beloved late mother, often asking her to put in a good word to Jesus for her. In order to curry favor with the ancestors, Peggy pours libations on her condo's floor with enough regularity that the wood stain begins to seep up and stain her light colored carpet. To be honest, some of her superstitious beliefs and inspiring yet spooky encounters with the spirit world made me squirm a little. But overall, I came away feeling that Peggy is a good role model for anyone who wants to love people like Christ does-- with actions, sacrifice and humility. She is a king who uses her position to be the chief servant of Otuam.

In addition to being uplifting and thought provoking, the book is also laugh out loud hilarious. I was tickled by Peggy's inner monologues, her rehearsed rebuffs to the elders' shenanigans and her imagined dialogues with the painted chickens running around the village. The book is replete with colorful imagery that put me right in the story.

If you're looking for a page-turner about a real person who has done, and is still doing, big things, I highly recommend "King Peggy."

Children's books that promote simplicity in a materialistic world

Recently, I stumbled upon a study conducted by a University of Vermont student who analyzed how 30 award-winning and best-selling children's picture books promote materialism to young readers. It got me thinking about the books that I've been reading to my own children, aged 5 and 2.5. It's true that a good many books focus on "stuff," and how great it is to obtain more stuff. So I wanted to highlight just a couple of books we've read in the last few months that present a different message:

The Biggest House in the World

by Leo Lionni

I'm a big fan of Leo Lionni. My mom read him to me when I was little... and I've bought just about every title for my three boys. Lionni's illustrations are always captivating. The storylines are always simple. And the messages are usually just the sort of lesson I want to teach my kids. In this case, a little snail longs for a bigger, better house until he hears the fable of an older, wiser snail about a snail who spent his all to create an outlandishly huge and beautiful shell. The house was big and beautiful enough to draw the attention of other garden creatures, but the snail was unable to move and eventually the snail was "left behind, and with nothing to eat he slowly faded away. Nothing remained but the house. And that too, little by little, crumbled, until nothing remained at all." After hearing the tragic end, the little snail proclaims he'll keep his own shell light and spend his life exploring the world. I think this message of valuing adventures more than things helps combat materialism by showing how the quest for more stuff keeps us from truly enjoying life.


by John Rocco

I discovered this book at our local library. The dramatic cover drew me in, and it doesn't hurt that it sports a Caldecott Honor medal on the front. The illustrations and text are set up almost comic book style, telling the story of a typical urban family of four in frames. A little child-- I can't quite tell if the kid is a boy or girl-- seeks partners to play a board game, only to find that Dad is busy cooking, Sister is on the phone, and Mom is clacking away at the computer. Suddenly, the lights go out in their apartment building and across the city. The summer heat drives the family to the roof of their building and eventually to the streets, which have become vibrant with candlelit conversations, communion and celebration of the simple pleasures of the city at night. Eventually the lights come back on and everyone returns to their original occupations, but the little child turns out the lights and the family happily comes together to play the board game. This book is valuable because it shows a situation to which most families can relate. Technology and busyness keep us from connecting with the ones we love... and sometimes an imposed "fast" from these distractions is all it takes to regain the joy of spending quality time together. My boys also enjoyed the story and requested it a few nights in a row.