Friday, March 14, 2014

St. Patrick for little ones

I'm still trying to figure out our holiday traditions as a little family of five. Last year, I was put in charge of my then preschooler's St. Patrick's Day party. While it never phased me growing up, the odd pairing of pagan mascots (leprechauns, Easter bunnies, Christmas trees...) with the Christian sources of these holidays (St. Patrick, Jesus' resurrection, Jesus's incarnation) is something I'm grappling with as a mom eager to introduce her three sons to the gospel.  I don't want to suck all the fun out of the holidays, but I don't want to perpetuate the strictly shallow version of these celebrations that should have a rich, spiritual significance. I also don't want our family celebrations to center around gluttony and greed and superstition. Ok. That was my moment on the soapbox. Let's talk books.

For now, I've got two recommendations for introducing little ones (and yourself) to Saint Patrick, the first missionary to Ireland.

Patrick: Patron Saint of Ireland by Tomie dePaola

I purchased Tomie dePaola's illustrated paperback Patrick: Patron Saint of Ireland last year to read to the students in Stephen's class during the party. The book contains the story of Patrick's boyhood capture from his home in Northern Britain and his years as a slave in Ireland, his conversion, escape and eventual return to bring the gospel to his former captors. I'm not a history buff like the hubby, but these events seemed true to what I've heard and read about the real Patrick. I did have to paraphrase some passages for the preschool audience, and I adjusted the vocabulary a bit too (Irish raiders became pirates). The end of the book also contains a section with some popular legends (and more fantastical) legends about Patrick, including him driving all the snakes out of the country. I appreciated that while these legends are included, the author makes it clear that it's up to you as a reader to determine whether they are true. DePaola is the master storyteller and illustrator of a ton of children's books, including the Strega Nona series that was popular when I was a kid. Perhaps the only downside, from my point of view, is that the devout Catholic illustrator makes Patrick look rather monkish and some pages show him wearing a bishop's mitre. I would have preferred a more natural depiction of Patrick so my sons could connect with him more. However, this minor criticism is not enough to keep me from heartily recommending this book as a great way to show children that St. Patrick's day is not about leprechauns and luck. If you're in Hopkinsville, our library has two copies of this book on shelf as of this morning.

Saint Patrick: Pioneer Missionary to Ireland by Michael J. McHugh

A few years ago, my husband and I listened to the unabridged audio version of Michael J. McHugh's biography, Saint Patrick: Pioneer Missionary to Ireland, which is geared toward children in grade school and jr. high. To be honest, it was my first real introduction to Ireland's patron saint, and before listening to the book, I never knew that Patrick was not actually Irish himself. I loved the author's emphasis on Patrick's prayers, visions and faith in God. McHugh also included many inspiring miracles in his telling of the story of this humble missionary and church planter. Again, though I can't vouch for the scholarship of this book, I feel that the book's emphasis is to honor an important figure in church history. I recommend this book to parents of older children-- perhaps as part of a Christian home school curriculum. Again, Hoptown friends, this one's on shelf in the AV department of our local library.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Reflections on Lent

I've never celebrated Lent before, growing up in a Christian tradition that didn't think much of many traditions. But this year, when my iPhone YouVersion Bible app prompted me to sign up for one of their many free plans, I decided to start reading N.T. Wright's Lent for Everyone (Year A), a devotional that takes readers through Matthew's gospel and includes reflections from the renowned scholar. 

My current church does hold an annual corporate fast in January, but doesn't follow Lenten traditions either. However, I've been exploring the idea of having a time of reflection, confession and fasting leading up to Easter for my own spiritual growth. I recommend N.T. Wright's devotionals (there are three years' worth) to structure one's morning quiet time during Lent. Here's a little excerpt from Monday's reading which covered Jesus' sermon on the Mount and the Lord's Prayer (emphasis mine):

At the very heart of Jesus' vision of the kingdom — of heaven's kingdom coming on earth — we have a picture of one person, secretly in their own room, praying.
Prayer is a mystery. I've often heard people saying, with a sneer, 'It doesn't go beyond the ceiling, you know.' But the point of prayer, at least the way Jesus saw it, is that it doesn't have to. Your father, he says, is there in the secret place with you. He sees and knows your deepest thoughts and hopes and fears. He hears the words you say. He hears, too, the things you can't put into words but want to lay before him anyway. Prayer, in fact, isn't a mystery in the sense of 'a puzzle we can't understand'. Prayer is a symptom, a sign, of the mystery: the fact that heaven and earth actually mingle together. There are times when they interlock; there are places where they overlap. To pray, in this sense, is to claim a time and place — it can be anywhere, any time — as one of those times, one of those places.

I love that image of prayer being the connection between earth and heaven. It encouraged me to be bold and pray throughout the day whenever a need came my way. 

Friday, March 7, 2014

Review of "I, Saul"

I, Saul

by Jerry B. Jenkins & James MacDonald
Worthy Publishing 2013

It bugs me when conspiracy theories about the Bible become the inspiration for super-seller novels. Take The DaVinci Code, for example, the 2003 Dan Brown thriller that reinvented Jesus and Mary Magdalene as forbidden lovers and sold in the tens of millions. 

Doesn't truth make better material? The best works of historical fiction are those that endeavor to get the history right. Nimble narrative, yes, but solid scholarship too. The Bible is packed with chronology and historical context. Build with these bricks, and there's room enough in between for the mortar of imagination. 

That's why the five seconds it took for I, Saul to download onto my Kindle felt like an hour. Here was a book with the goods: compelling plot twists, maddening mysteries, exotic locations and yet an unswerving fidelity to the letter and spirit of Scripture. The novel follows Apostle Paul's steps from star religious student to homicidal crusader to slave of Jesus Christ.  

This first in a two-part series is the work of someone highly skilled in the art of the best-selling novel. Jerry B Jenkins was the pen behind the Left Behind series in the 1990s. Although never a devotee of Left Behind myself (think I gave up after the first installment), I trust this proven track record of blending supposition with Scriptural integrity.  

I also liked the fact that Jenkins subjected his storytelling to a real authority on the life of the Apostle Paul. Jenkins vetted each page of I,Saul through megachurch pastor and reputable Bible teacher James MacDonald. MacDonald was consulted on countless areas where accuracy matters: from St. Stephen's stoning to the Street called Straight to Paul's dungeon.   

Ultimately in a novel, meticulous research must serve a story. Jenkins's tale centers on the discovery of Paul's long lost memoirs written in his own hand-- remember the parchments he specially requested in 2 Timothy? -- in modern day Rome. This priceless artifact becomes the prize in a battle between good and evil, the believers who want the message to reach mankind versus the crooked authorities who want the black-market value of Paul's memoirs to reach their pockets.

The race starts far away in Arlington, Texas, where a young seminary professor, Augie Knox, receives panicked text messages from a friend in Rome, whom he knows from leading tour groups to Biblical locations. Get to Italy quick, the messages urge, the situation is life and death. As Knox makes travel arrangements, we learn his background: estranged relationship with his father, retired professor from the same school, his engagement to a Greek heiress, and a gift for Biblical Greek.

Luckily, Knox has action hero wits to go with his scholarly credentials. When he gets to Rome, he rendezvous with his friend who explains that the first page of Paul's 2,000-year-old memoir along a mysterious sealed envelope was left for him by someone who was found shot to death. The culprits are not fully clear, but suspicions are on some corrupt cops in a special department of Rome's police force known as the Art Squad. Soon they are joined by Knox's fiancee, Sofia Trikoupis, whose father is an antiquities dealer and has friends in high places.  

Knox and company's repeated dodges of the the Art Squad are intercut with scenes from first-century Rome, where the Apostle Paul spends the days leading up to his execution in a deep dark dungeon. In martyrdom, Paul is portrayed through the eyes of his physician, Luke.

The sight is unpleasant: "I fought tears as the man (Paul) laid his bald head on my shoulder. How often I'd seen Paul's glee over the years, after a day of arduous travel, contentious meetings, threats, abuse. Paul had a fierce look too, a resolve that shone in his eyes."

Luke agonizes over the task of keeping Paul alive just long enough so that rather than dying out of sight in a cell, his death will be public before the crowd gathered for his execution -- a moment the apostle plans to witness one more time of the One who won his salvation. The doctor's sole comfort is the hour or two at the end of his workday when he can read by torchlight Paul's own account of his life. He simply can't put the pages down. 

These bedtime reading sessions essentially create a story within a story. The reader gets glimpses of phases of Paul's life that the New Testament only alludes to or leaves room for: his boyhood in the Roman city of Tarsus learning the tent making trade from his father, his family's move to Jerusalem to further his rabbinical training, a broken engagement, emerging as a star in both Pharisaic circles and among the temple authorities, his disgust at the claims and devotion of Jesus' followers, and his collision course with the very One whom he persecuted.

Readers may object to parts of this portrayal. For example, Paul formerly Saul has a make out session with his sweetheart, the daughter of his mentor Gamaliel.  He also delivers oration with a silver tongue, out-debating even the masters of the rabbinical school. This, critics can argue, contradicts New Testament descriptions of Paul as unimpressive in person or slow in speech.   

But I applaud the author for smashing the stained glass images of Paul.  Forget the phone booth transformation-- from to sinner to saint, from enemy to ally, from persecutor to church planter-- in one blink of the eye. Jenkins plumbs the thought life of the apostle to a depth that the inner war between his personality, a tangle of emotions and his growing understanding of the truth come into view. The process of Saul to Paul makes sense in light of Jenkins' interpretation: Paul's deepest conviction even as a curious child was closeness with the Creator.   

"I was struck that God knew the men in the Scriptures. Perhaps if I learned all there was to know, followed every rule, honored God in everything I did, He would notice me. Know me. How I longed to walk with God as my ancestors had!"

I wish all the characters in I, Saul were as well developed. Augie, the co-protagonist, is more of an Indiana Jones character, fun to watch but not a fedora you can look under. Not only does he save the damsel and the day, but also the damned. While he and Roger run for their lives, Augie pauses every so often to preach the gospel to him. These are well-intentioned additions to the narrative that feel a little out of place. 

What seems to be an attempt at character development, Augie's awkward relationship with his cold fish father and constantly cheery mother, never suspends disbelief. It's an element that has potential but falls short. 

But this might be nitpicky considering all that Jenkins accomplishes with this book. He builds suspense for explanations of why parchments are getting people killed, he weaves a tapestry from many threads of Scripture and he satisfies numerous niche audiences: Bible scholars will appreciate the theological tensions. Sunday school teachers will love the expansions of New Testament stories. Evangelists will love the conversions. Tourists will appreciate the descriptions of ancient and modern Italy.

It is a book that, like The DaVinci Code, makes thousands of years of history seem like a single drama fast approaching a thrilling conclusion. However, where Dan Brown's book leaves you feeling, "I better look out for all those sinister, religious people out there to get me," I, Saul leaves you with a conviction far nobler and more helpful, "Jesus, you really are worth my life." Yes, the sequel on my wish list.

Thursday, March 6, 2014

Robot Reading Round Up

My older boys love all things robot.  They've watched Pixar's Wall-E and DreamWork's Robots dozens of times. They can spend (ahem) hours (ahem) manipulating digital robot creations with the free app "Robot Lab" from Toca Boca. They create tangible robots out of Legos, cardboard boxes and themselves. Joe and I have tried to channel their interests into literary and educational books. Here's some of our favorites:

Doug Unplugged by Dan Yaccarino is a playful story of a young robot who begins his day dutifully downloading his daily ration of information until a cooing pigeon on the windowsill beckons him to go on an impromptu field trip. Once unplugged, Doug explores a bustling city, eagerly absorbing sights like the panoramic view from the top of a skyscraper, sounds like a screaming siren, and sensations, like squishy wet cement under his feet. He also helps a new friend and learns a life lesson about love. My three-year-old, Rockam, likes to point out the robots interspersed with human city folk in the stylized urban scenes. I enjoy the bright, retro illustrations. Also, the pacing of the book, with just one sentence per picture, makes it easy to read and holds both boys' interest to the sweet conclusion. The story's message is also one I don't mind sharing: learning should not be limited to the classroom or computer; approach the world with curiosity and gain life's greatest lessons.

Boy + Bot by Ame Dyckman and, again, illustrated by Dan Yaccarino, is another story about robots and humans interacting and having fun together. But while the protagonist in Doug Unplugged is an automaton, Boy + Bot allows readers to see the story from both a human and robotic perspective. The plot follows a young boy and a bot, who, after a serendipitous meeting in the woods, spend the day frolicking until bot bumps his power switch and promptly turns off. Boy, worried about the well-being of his new friend, carts him home in a little wagon and tucks him into bed, hoping rest will cure his seeming illness. When bot is accidentally switched on in the middle of the night, it's his turn to misunderstand his human friend, who is now soundly sleeping. This is another enjoyable read for both kids and parents, who will have to whip out their best monotone robot voice for all of bot's lines. If you're into deeper meanings like I am, you might be able to tease out some lessons on enjoying simple pleasures and valuing cross-cultural friendships.

Robotics: Discover the Science and Technology of the Future by Kathy Ceceri contains a number of simple (and some not-so-simple) projects to build a foundation in robotics. Joe bought this book for Stephen's fifth birthday intending to create some father-son bonding moments. So far, they've created "Art Bot," "Knock-Over Bot" and a simple solenoid (yeah, I had no idea what that was either.) It's a fun challenge for them to find simple household items to convert into robot parts. As I write, those two are off to RadioShack to buy a small solar panel for their next invention. While a lot what's in this book is advanced for a five-year-old and his 30-something history major father, they've both really enjoyed creating robot projects together. Based on my second-hand observations, I'd recommend this book to older children interested in building robots, or younger children who have a willing accomplice in their parent.

Ralph Masiello's Robot Drawing Book is one of a series of drawing books by Masiello, and was my pick for Stephen's birthday. This little softbound book offers several step-by-step tutorials for drawing creative robots, as well as a visual warehouse of extras and spare parts. Stephen has already drawn his version of most of the robots in this book and Rockam likes to say "I wanna dwaw wobots!" (Which is Rockam-speak for "I'll point to the robot I want and you draw it for me.") I don't think either of my sons are really natural-born artists, but I was pleased with how Masiello's book drew out Stephen's creativity and attention to detail. You can see a few of the bots he drew below :)

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Review of "Clutterfree with Kids"

As a mom of three boys, I read Joshua Becker's Clutterfree with Kids hoping to gain insight into pairing down our household possessions to the essential and limiting the influx of gifts from well-meaning relatives each holiday and birthday. The author is sort of a minimalist guru who runs popular blog, Becker seemed to echo other writings on simplicity with familiar ideas, such as: own less to live more, value relationships over things, be free of debt, live below your means, and treasure the simple things in life.

Clutterfree is arranged into three sections: 1) Change Your Thinking, 2) Discover New Habits and 3) Free Your Life. The first and third sections are predominantly philosophical. The middle section gets more practical with chapters on various areas of life that tend toward clutter: toys, clothes, artwork, sentimental items, collections, screens, photos, gifts, packing, schedules and baby gear. Each of these chapters begins with an anecdote about a mom who learned to de-clutter that particular area before launching into general suggestions for controlling clutter.

After reading the roughly 200 double-spaced pages, I was disappointed that I didn't find any really new or innovative ideas to help me build on my already minimalist-leaning ideology. I also found the writing to be sometimes repetitious and scattered, like a compilation of bullet points converted into a series of short, loosely connected paragraphs. A sprinkling of typos and style issues made the text appear a little cluttered to this former copy editor. But normal people probably won't find these detractors as irksome as I did!

On the plus side, the book’s strength is in motivating readers to reject their own consumerist and materialistic tendencies, creating a minimalist mindset that should, ideally, trickle down to the children they parent. Many of the ideas in this book weren't necessarily kid-specific; however, I agree with Becker's view that if the parents change, the kids will learn through their example. Throughout the book, he reiterates principles for simplifying life by focusing on relationships and the gifts money can't buy, such as contentment, generosity, curiosity and imagination. While all of this certainly resonated with me, I can't say I had any epiphanies. Some of his suggestions did illuminate the fact that Joe and I actually already make a lot of minimalist choices: we don't own a TV, we buy clothing only to replace something that has worn out, we encourage our boys to go outside rain or shine, and we make a habit of giving money, time and hospitality to others.

In sum, I can appreciate and promote Becker’s message: Living clutter-free is not about having a beautiful home that is the envy of all your neighbors. In fact, the final chapter is devoted to warning readers against the pitfalls of envy and comparison. Eliminating clutter means breaking free from the bondage of “stuff” and giving yourself the mental and physical space to really focus on relationships with those you love.

Saturday, March 1, 2014

Review of "Slow Family Living"

My life is anything but slow. Between cooking, cleaning, clothing, diapering, wiping, burping, bathing, transporting, disciplining and putting to bed (sometimes multiple times) three children, there's not a lot of time to "take four slow deep breaths" as blogger Bernadette Noll suggests in the third mini-chapter of this book. But I do long for a life that isn't so frenzied and so driven by our be-busy-or-be-worthless culture. I want to live intentionally and to savor the truly important bits of motherhood. The title of this book, "Slow Family Living," seems to borrow vocabulary from the Slow Food Movement-- an effort to cook and eat fresh, locally grown and organic produce and to use techniques that hearken from a slower, simpler time. I thought Noll's book might be the parenting version of slow foods, but its is less about doing family the slow, old-fashioned way and more a collection of 75 activities, questionnaires and exercises to refocus your attentions on your family and to make the members of your family the centerpiece in everything you do in daily life.

The 75 ideas in this book fell into a few categories for me.

Things I liked and can imagine implementing:
#10 Listen with Your Heart Open - Really listening to your kids/spouse without interjecting.
#15 High Point-Low Point - Before bed, review the day and ask them their best and worst moments.
#16 The Blitz: A Family Tidy Up - Set a timer for 15 minutes of whole-family frenzied cleaning of the house.
#17 Spend Nothing Day - Just what it sounds like. 
#27 Do-Over - Train kids (and yourself) to request a "do-over" when you hear yourself say something unkind.
#36 Just Ten Extra Minutes - Plan 10 extra minutes into every activity or transition so that you don't have to hurry around like a madwoman herding cats.
#42 Sigh. Forgive. Let Go. Move On. - Again, pretty self-explanatory.
#55 Out with the Old - Each member of the family gets rid of one thing each day in December leading up to Christmas.

Things we already do:
#22 Go Outside and Play - Everyday above freezing, and sometimes below freezing, our boys are out there.
#34 Keeping a Family Journal - I think my other blog, The Daily Munchie, counts for this.
#63 Dance Party Rock Band - We call ours a "Robot Dance Party" and play Daft Punk. 
#68 DEAR (Drop Everything and Read) Time - I really had no idea this was a thing. And with a clever acronym to boot!
#71 Don't Sweep Until the Rice Dries - Except in my house, it's don't sweep until the macaroni has dried and been stepped on enough times to dislodge it from the floor.

Things I'd like to do in the future, but feel like it borders on wishful thinking:
#23 Camp Out at Home - Pitch a tent in the backyard on a weeknight. 
#50 A Night in the Park - Noll's family meets weekly with three other families at a local park to eat, chat and play the night away. I hope our family could be so blessed some day.

Stuff I just don't really want to do:
#9 Dropping Love Bombs - Kind of the group hug equivalent of dinging your glass at a wedding. Just not my thing.
#65 The Family Lemonade Stand - Or not.
#67 Freaky Friday - I hate that kind of movie, so I can only imagine the discomfort reenacting it with my children would bring.

OK, so I just summarized a quarter of the book for you :) Now a few minor criticisms: I think if you are drawn to a book called "Slow Family Living," you'll find that the concepts in this book will reinforce your parenting philosophy, but won't necessarily lend any earth-shattering new insights. You might also be frustrated if you don't have ready access to things like Noll's hometown of Austin, TX, readily offers, like a corner store within walking distance or plentiful public parks. (But, maybe if one is serious about slow family living, moving to a location that makes it possible is a serious consideration?) I also found some of the suggestions were a little too touchy-feely, pop-psychology for my personal tastes. Noll's writing style was also a tiny bit of a distraction for me, as she ends most chapters with a chirpy cliche like: "That's a win-win-win!" or "And who doesn't need more love?"  But I'd probably like her better in person than in print. Overall I recommend this book to someone looking for ideas to help enjoy family life more. I found that reading Noll's suggestions got me in the frame of mind to keep trying new things with my family to see what can help me connect more fully despite this frenetic age.