Friday, December 30, 2011

what makes a good book good?

I've been reflecting lately on what qualifies something as "good literature." I admit it, I'm a bit of a snob when it comes to books. I have been known to hide children's books in closets and under furniture, hoping to avoid the painful experience of re-reading them. I've also been known to get home from the library with a new book, read it to the kids, and then hop on Amazon to buy a copy for our family. Good books ought to be owned, re-read, and treasured!

The kids and I have discovered a few new gems (and a few groaners) this month from our public library, and that's what got me thinking. Here's my proposal for a definition of good literature. I'd love to know what you think!

A good book is one that gets better each time it is read, and invites readers to notice more and more intentional artistry. Sometimes literary art comes through in perfectly delightful rhyme, other times through playful allusions to other great books. Sometimes pictures are literary masterpieces themselves! The story must be well-told and well-crafted so that subsequent readings don't uncover "holes" in the plot or characterization. Above all, a good story must speak to the reader about herself in a way that illuminates her own life experience.

This last sentence is reflected in a book I've just finished reading by Robert Alter, The Art of Biblical Narrative. Alter calls narrative in the Bible "prose fiction," not because he doesn't think it's true, but because he sees it operating in similar ways. Ingeniously, he says, "We learn through fiction because we encounter in it the translucent images the writer has cunningly projected out of an intuitively grasped fund of experience not dissimilar to our own, only shaped, defined, ordered, probed in ways we never manage in the muddled and diffuse transactions of our own lives." (156) In other words, good fiction is good because it tells us about ourselves in a way that we can't see from our own vantage point. A good writer is a deep thinker with insight into how things really are. That's what makes Arnold Lobel one of the most brilliant writers of 'I Can Read' books who has ever lived. Frog and Toad make us laugh because they are like us. (Who really wants will power anyway?)

A bad book, on the other hand, is one that parents loath re-reading to their kids. The rhyme doesn't really work. The pictures lack creativity. The plot has holes or is entirely absent. Life is too short to read bad books. I recommend hiding them (or donating them to your local Goodwill).

Perhaps this is why after all these years I'm still studying the Bible and loving it. The Bible is not the only good book, but I have to say that the more I read it, the better it gets!

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Merry Christmas!

I hope you've had a lovely day celebrating the birth of our Savior!

My talented husband put together a video of our "year to remember." Click here to watch it for yourself. It's about 12 minutes long (be sure to wait for the out takes at the end -- the best part).

I received my grades for the fall semester yesterday . . . putting closure on an intense semester just in time to relax with family.

I'm blessed to know so many wonderful friends around the world. Thanks for reading my blog! It's been a joy to share the journey with you this year.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Advent Tree: Week 4

Here we are at the final week of Advent (leaves are not pictured in order). I have really enjoyed diving into these stories. Most days the readings are a bit too long for Easton (age 3), but Eliana (age 10) is amazed at the way the whole Bible tells one big story!

John the Baptist (river with voice)
Jesus' Sermon (broken chains)
Good Shepherd (sheep and crook)
Door (open door)
True Vine (vine)
Bread of Life (broken loaf of bread)
Light of the World (sunrise)

You have probably figured out by now that the "Day #" does not correspond to the date of December, since advent starts four full weeks before Christmas. Don't worry about the date. Just keep on going until you're finished!

Day 22 - John the Baptist (river with voice) - Read Luke 3:2-6; 15-16; 21-22; Isaiah 42:1

Remember the baby that Zechariah and Elizabeth had? What was his name? His name was John.
What did God say he would become? A prophet who would prepare the people to meet God.
Well, when John grew up, that’s exactly what happened. He began preaching to people and warning them to stop disobeying God and do what pleases him. Many people thought that John must be the one they had all been waiting for – the Messiah, God’s anointed king. But he knew he was not the promised Messiah. He was just helping people get ready for his coming. John baptized people who were sorry for their sins in the Jordan river. Jesus, John’s cousin, had grown up, too, and he came to be baptized by John -- not because he had disobeyed, but to show that he was ready to do God’s work. When he came up from the water an amazing thing happened. The Holy Spirit came down upon him like a dove and God spoke from heaven. God told everyone that he was pleased with Jesus, that Jesus was the long-awaited king (see Psalm 2) , and that Jesus was the servant that Isaiah had promised would come (Isa 42:1)!

Day 23 - Jesus' Sermon at Capernaum (broken chains) - Read Isaiah 61:1-2 and Luke 4:14-21

After Jesus was baptized, he began teaching people everywhere about the kingdom of God. The first sermon we know about was in a Jewish synagogue. Do you remember when we talked about the scroll of Isaiah (and even looked at it on the internet?)? Picture this: when Jesus went up front to get ready to teach from the Bible, someone handed him that scroll – the scroll of Isaiah – the one that promised that he would come! Jesus rolled the scroll until he came to the part where Isaiah talked about the servant who would come to bring Israel back to God. Jesus read it to everyone, and then he announced that the promise had come true!
What did Isaiah say the servant would do? He would give good news to the poor, freedom for prisoners, sight to the blind, and freedom for the oppressed. Jesus had come to make all of God’s promises come true!

Day 24 - Good Shepherd (sheep and crook) - Read Ezekiel 34:1-6; 11-16; John 10:11-16

Isaiah and Jeremiah were not the only prophets in Israel. Ezekiel was another prophet who spoke to the Israelites during the time when they were taken away into Babylon (the time of Daniel). He warned the leaders that they were like bad shepherds who only thought of themselves and didn’t take care of the sheep. He promised that someday he would come to shepherd the people himself. The Jewish leaders must have been pretty surprised when Jesus announced to them that he was the good shepherd! That meant that they were the bad shepherds and that God planned to remove them as leaders over his people.
Jesus was the king like David.
Jesus was the servant promised by Isaiah.
Jesus was the good shepherd. Does this mean he is God himself? It would seem so! He is the kind of shepherd who takes care of each of us, making sure we are strong, healthy and safe.

Day 25 - Door (open door) - Read John 10:7-10; 14:6; Ps 118:19-24

What did Jesus call himself in our lesson yesterday? The good shepherd.
Jesus also called himself the “gate” or “door” through which the sheep may enter and be safe. He is the only door that we can enter to become part of the family of God. He is the only way to get close to God because he is the only one who can teach us to live in a way that pleases God. Remember when Jesus was baptized and God called down from heaven and said he was pleased with Jesus as his son? If we want to learn how to please God, the only way to do it is to learn to live like Jesus. People today talk about there being many different paths to a healthy spiritual life. The Bible says there is only one path, and it’s Jesus. Tomorrow we’ll learn about what it is like to do things his way.

Day 26 - True Vine (vine) - Read John 15: 1-4; Isaiah 5:7

When the prophet Isaiah talked about the big problems that Israel had obeying God, he used many different word pictures to help them understand. One time he said that they were like a vineyard – a field full of grape vines – which only produced sour grapes. God said he would need to destroy the vineyard and start over again. Jesus came to fulfill this promise, too. He said that he was the true vine, and that everyone who stayed connected to him would bear good grapes. And that’s really true! When we try to do good things on our own strength, without depending on Jesus, the things we do don’t turn out well. Our actions become selfish and our attitudes turn sour. We need to keep on trusting Jesus in everything we do. That will make us the kind of vineyard God wants to keep!

Day 27 - Bread of Life (broken loaf of bread) - Read John 6:48-51

Jesus used another word picture to tell his followers about who he was and what he came to do. He told them that he was the “bread of life.” He knew that his body would be broken, just like the bread they ate. And somehow his brokenness would bring life to everyone who trusted in him. When Israel was in the wilderness God gave his people manna to provide for their hunger. Now he was giving the life of his son to provide food for their spiritual needs. It sounded just as strange to them as it does to us. Eat Jesus? Jesus meant that they needed to take what he was giving them – his very self – and let him transform them from the inside out. They no longer needed to look anywhere else to find what they needed. It was all found in Jesus. And it’s the same today. Jesus is all we need to stay spiritually alive and close to God.

Day 28 - Light of the World (sunrise) - Read Isaiah 60:1-3; John 8:12 OR John 11:17-25; 33-44

Isaiah had told the people of Israel that one day a light would dawn and shine on everyone. All the darkness and sadness and confusion would be gone. Instead his light would brighten everything. Remember the star that shone brightly when Jesus was born? It was a hint of who Jesus really was. When Jesus was grown he announced that he was that light, and he proved it by giving sight to the blind and raising Lazarus from the dead.
Jesus is the true, anointed king! He rules over the whole world as the Messiah.
Jesus is the special servant! He came to bring us back to God.
Jesus is the snake crusher! He conquered death and sin. Death came into the world when the snake led Adam and Eve to disobey God. But now, in Jesus, we can live forever! His light shines in our hearts and shows us the way to live.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

running behind on Advent devotions?

We are, too. We did Zechariah and Elizabeth this evening, which means we're three days behind. The good news is that with this Advent Tree there are seven more stories that come after the birth of Jesus. So if you get behind you can just keep on going until you're through (and if you get a whole week behind, you can read about Jesus' birth on Christmas Day). What better way to spend the week after Christmas than reflecting as a family on Jesus' life and ministry! One of the dangers of ending the story with his birth is that it becomes a "cute" story about a baby, rather than the powerful, world-transforming event that it was. I'm looking forward to talking with our kids about the ways that Jesus fulfilled God's promises found in the Old Testament -- not just in his birth, but with his life, too.

HE is the snake crusher!
HE is the king reigning on David's throne!
HE is the servant who suffered for our sins!
HE is the one who gives us new hearts and writes God's law on it!

(Shhh . . . don't tell your kids yet. I wouldn't want to spoil their moment of discovery!).

Perhaps this month's busy schedule robbed you of the opportunity to do something like this for Advent. No worries! Now you have a whole year to get ready.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Advent Tree: Week 3

Here are my leaf designs for the 3rd week of Advent. I've switched the images for Days 20 and 21 because I realized I had them out of order. This is a very exciting week of Advent! Enjoy!

Daniel (lion)
Nehemiah (wall)
Zechariah & Elizabeth (praying hands)
Birth of Jesus (manger)
Shepherds (crook)
Temple Dedication (two doves)
Magi (star)

Day 15 - Daniel (lion) - Read Daniel 6

Sadly, the people of Israel did not listen to the prophets who told them what God was saying. They did not obey. They got worse and worse. Finally God had to take them out of the special land he had made. It was clear that they would not be able to fill it with people who honored God! So most of them, especially the smartest ones and the richest ones, were taken far away to a land called Babylon. The king of Babylon picked some of these Israelites to work for him in the palace. Daniel was one of them. Even though Daniel was far from home and far from the temple where God was worshipped, he carefully obeyed God and prayed to him every day.
What did Daniel do that showed he didn’t forget about God, even though he was far from home? He prayed every day and he obeyed God’s rules.
How did God take care of Daniel? He protected him when the king put him in the lions’ pit.

Day 16 - Nehemiah (wall) - Read Nehemiah 2:11-18 and 4:6

After 70 long years away from home, God made it possible for the people of Israel to go back to their special land. Some of them went back right away and tried to start a new life. But it was not easy. Some of their enemies had moved in and made life difficult. Their houses were in ruins, and so was the temple. The walls that used to be strong around the cities to keep them safe were broken down, so their enemies could attack them any time they wanted. One of the men who returned to the land was named Nehemiah. He was a good organizer. He got the people together so they could work together to rebuild the walls around the city. With his good leadership, it didn’t take long. But still there was great sadness, because the temple was in sorry shape, and God’s glory was gone. They needed Isaiah’s promise to come true. They needed God’s special servant to come and bring them back to him! They needed Jeremiah’s promise to come true. They needed new hearts to obey!

Day 17 - Zechariah & Elizabeth (praying hands) - Read Luke 1:5-17, 57-58, 66

God’s people lived in the land of Israel for a long time after the walls were rebuilt. Some of them wondered if God would ever send his special servant to rescue them from their sin as God promised through Isaiah, if the snake’s head would ever be finally crushed as God promised Adam and Eve, if they would ever be given new hearts like God promised through Jeremiah. No doubt some of them gave up hoping. But some of them hung on to God’s promises and obeyed him even though his answers seemed to take a long, long time to come. Zechariah and Elizabeth were two of the people who never stopped hoping. Just like Abram and Sarai, they had no children and they were getting very old. But they kept obeying God and praying for a baby.
Where was Zechariah when he heard he was going to become a father? In the temple.
Why was Zechariah in the temple? He was a priest.
What did the angel tell Zechariah his son would do? He would bring Israel back to God (just like Isaiah said the servant would do!). Could this be the servant? We’ll see!

Day 18 - Birth of Jesus (manger) - Read Luke 1:26-38; 2:4-7

While Elizabeth was pregnant and waiting for her baby to be born, God sent an angel to another young woman and told her that she, too, would become a mom. Her name was Mary. The angel told Mary that her baby was going to be a KING who would rule forever! The angel reminded her that God always keeps his promises.
Both Elizabeth and Mary had their babies. Their names were John and Jesus. John was a prophet who would get people ready for the time when God himself would visit them. That visit would be like a sunrise, shining new light on the whole land (see Luke 1:76-79). But who was Jesus? The angel said he would be a king like David. Each day from now until Christmas we’ll learn a little bit more about this miracle baby, the answer to God’s great promises to Israel.

Day 19 - Shepherds (crook) - Read Luke 2:8-20

Just after Mary’s baby was born, something happened outside Bethlehem that was a big surprise! An angel came and spoke to the shepherds who were spending the night with their sheep. Were they going to have a baby, too, Just like Elizabeth and Mary? Yes, in a way. The birth of Jesus was big news for them. Jesus was not just an ordinary baby. The angel told the shepherds that Jesus was the one they had been waiting for – the Messiah! The word “Messiah” means “anointed one.” Remember how Samuel anointed the head of David when he was chosen to become king? The angel said that Jesus was anointed, too. He would be their king! The angel also said something even more shocking. He said that Jesus was the “Lord.” Could this baby somehow be God? The shepherds were so excited they went around telling everybody the news. And it was good news.

Day 20 - Temple Dedication (two doves) - Read Luke 2:22-32; 36-40

Joseph and Mary obeyed the laws that God had given to Moses. When Jesus was still a baby, they took him to the temple to present him to God. They offered two doves as a sacrifice. When they got to the temple, they met two special people – a man named Simeon and a woman named Anna. Simeon and Anna were the kind of people who obeyed God and kept on believing that he would do what he promised, even when it took a really long time. When they saw Jesus, they knew right away that God’s promises were finally coming true! Simeon knew that Jesus was the light for the whole world promised by Isaiah. Anna started telling everyone about him.
Why did Mary and Joseph take Jesus to the temple? Because God’s law told parents to dedicate their children in the temple.
What was so special about Simeon and Anna? They kept on believing his promises even when it took a long time for them to come true. They recognized Jesus right away as God’s way of bringing salvation and light to everybody!

Day 21 - Magi (star) - Read Matthew 2:1-12; Isaiah 60:1-3, 6

The shepherds and Simeon and Anna weren’t the only ones who found out the big news. God put a special star in the sky, and some people noticed from far, far away. They knew the special star meant that a new king had been born and they traveled a long way to meet him. Remember Isaiah? Many years earlier God told Isaiah that people from other nations would come to the land of Israel because they saw the light dawning. They would bring gifts and worship the Lord. God’s promises to Isaiah were finally coming true!
Why did the magi come to the land of Israel? They saw a special star in the sky and knew that a king had been born.
Why do you think this news made king Herod angry? He was king over the Jews, and he didn’t want another king to take his place!

show your kids the Great Isaiah Scroll online!

If you're a bit behind on Advent (like we are), you could show your kids the Great Isaiah Scroll that was discovered in the Judean desert several decades ago. It's fully searchable and readable (if you know Hebrew), and your kids can literally "scroll" their way through it! You can see the seams where the leather was sewn together and talk about the sacred messages that Isaiah entrusted to future generations . . . which have survived until today. I used the digital scroll this week to see if my text of the Hebrew Bible matched the one found at Qumran for Isaiah 63:19. The scroll was written well before Jesus was born . . . such an amazing find!

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Advent Tree: Week 2

Our first week of Advent has gone really well. The kids enjoy participating. Easton (age 3) announced during the Joseph story, "Wow. This is a Big Story!" I think he's getting the idea!

For week 2, we'll be learning about:
Moses (Ten Commandments)
Ruth (Bundle of Grain)
Samuel (Horn of Anointing Oil)
David (Crown)
Solomon (Temple)
Isaiah (Scroll)
Jeremiah (New Heart)

It should be a great week, moving from the giving of God's instructions on Mount Sinai, through the establishment of the kingship, to the writing of his law on our hearts in Jeremiah. In case you'd like to try it at your house, here are the lessons:

Day 8 - Moses (Ten Commandments) - Read Exodus 19:1-8 and 20:1-17
Even though God’s people had multiplied until there were a great many people, they had a problem. After Joseph died, they had become slaves in Egypt.  But God heard their cries and sent them someone to lead them out into freedom. His name was Moses. Moses’ job was to bring the people out of Egypt, through the wilderness, and into the special land where God had sent Abraham so many years ago. If they obeyed him, they would be able to fill up the whole land and take care of it. In order to obey him, they needed to learn what God expected of them. While they were in the desert God called Moses up a tall mountain so he could give Moses special instructions for his people to show them how to live. Moses obeyed and brought God’s instructions back to the people who were waiting at the bottom of the mountain. God told his people that they were his “treasured possession,” and that he had chosen them out of all the nations to represent him. To do that well, they would need to know how to live rightly. Some of the instructions for living that God gave Israel are called the “Ten Commandments.”

Day 9 - Ruth (Bundle of Grain) - Read Ruth 2:11-20 and 4:9-17
Yesterday we learned about Moses, and how God gave Moses special instructions to give to the people to tell them how to live in a way that would please God. Then God brought the people of Israel into the land he promised them. They were supposed to fill up the land of Canaan, but they had a very hard time obeying him. By the time of Ruth, things had gotten very bad indeed. Almost no one lived the way God wanted them to. And then along came Ruth. Ruth was not an Israelite. She was from Moab, one of Israel’s enemies. But Ruth was a hard worker, and loyal to her mother-in-law, Naomi. God chose her to become the great-grandmother of King David! In this way, God used her to build up the family of Israel.

Why do you think the Bible tells us the story of Ruth?  To show us that anyone can be part of the family of God, no matter where they are from, as long as they trust Him.

Day 10 - Samuel (Horn of Anointing Oil) - Read 1 Samuel 16:1-13
When Ruth’s grandson Jesse was alive, the people of Israel asked God for a king to rule over them. He gave them Saul, a tall and handsome man who was rather shy. But Saul was not a good king. He did what he thought he should do, rather than trusting that God’s way was the best way. So God choose a new king. He used his prophet, Samuel to anoint the new king. Samuel had lived in the tent where people went to worship God almost his whole life. He served God there and learned to listen to his voice. Samuel was the kind of person who did what God asked him to do, even when it didn’t make sense.
Who did Samuel think should be the next king? Eliab, Jesse’s oldest son.
Who did God choose to be the next king? David, Jesse’s youngest son.
Will David obey God? Will he be the one to crush the snake? We’ll have to wait and see!
Day 11 - David (Crown) - Read 2 Samuel 7:8-16
After David became the king, God sent another prophet (named Nathan) to give him a special message. He told David that he was going to give rest to the people of Israel, and let them live peacefully in the land he had given them. And he told David that some day one of his children would build a temple for God, a special place belonging to God where people could come and worship him. David fought many battles against Israel’s enemies. Even before he was the king he fought Goliath, remember? But just like everybody else, David had trouble obeying God all the time. Once he did something very terrible – he stole another man’s wife to be his own wife. That made God very, very sad. It made David sad, too, when he realized what he had done. He told God how terribly sorry he was and asked God to forgive him. But God can even take our worst mistakes and do good things with them. David’s new wife had a baby named Solomon, and tomorrow we’ll get to learn about him.
Will Solomon be the one to build a special house for God? We’ll find out tomorrow!

Day 12 - Solomon (Temple) - Read 1 Kings 8:27-30, 41-43, and 54-61
When David’s son, Solomon, became king it was his special job to build a new temple. The Israelites would come there to worship God and offer sacrifices for their sins! Solomon built a glorious temple, and when all the preparations were finished, God’s glory filled the temple with a thick cloud. God was dwelling with his people again, just like in the garden! Solomon prayed to God, and he spoke to the people, reminding them how important it was for them to listen to God and do what he says. If they obeyed, then Israel could finally start to become what God had planned for them to be – a light to all nations, blessing all the people on the earth by showing them who God is.
What was Solomon’s special job as king? To build the temple.
Do you think the people of God will obey him now that they have a special place to come worship? We’ll see!

Day 13 - Isaiah (Scroll) - Read Isaiah 49:6 and 8-23 (paraphrase if needed)
After Solomon there were many other kings in Israel. Sadly, most of them did not trust God and do things his way. There were people who did listen to him, though. God spoke to them and they gave his messages to the people. They were called prophets. One of them was named Isaiah. Isaiah was a brave prophet. He told God’s people that they had disobeyed God. He told them that God would punish them. But he also had good news for them. Isaiah told the Israelites that God was planning something BIG. He was planning to send a special servant who would obey God and bring the people back to him. That servant would have a very hard time and suffer a lot, but because of him, God would forgive the people and bring light to the whole world!
Who did Isaiah say would come and bring people back to God? God’s special servant
How does Isaiah’s message remind you of God’s promise to Abraham or the job he gave Adam and Eve? Isaiah said that God would bring people from many nations to worship him, and that Israel would have many children. Finally they can fill up the earth with worshippers!

Day 14 - Jeremiah (New Heart) Read Jeremiah 4:22 and 31:31-34
God sent another prophet to give his message to Israel. This prophet’s name was Jeremiah. Jeremiah had a very hard job. He had lots of bad news to give Israel about their sin and the punishment that was coming. But he also made a special promise! Jeremiah told the Israelites that God was going to give them a new heart so that they could finally obey him!
How do you think God will give them a new heart? When will he do it?