Category: Book Reviews

Animate: A New Kind of Bible Study

I work with small groups on a regular basis, and I always have my radar up for new and interesting Bible studies. When evaluating small group curriculum, I’m looking for a few factors:

  1. Simple, straightforward prep for leaders. Leaders often feel more comfortable leading a small group if they have material they can pick up, preview, and easily run with.  A well-prepared leader is a key factor for a positive group experience.
  2. Low level of “homework”. Most small group participants will not do homework for the study (even if they say upfront they want to). Small group curriculum that comes with a set of short videos for small groups to watch together is a great alternative to requiring preparation outside of the group.
  3. Options for those who want to dig deeper. While most participants will not do homework, a couple of the rockstar members will want go above and beyond.  These participants will gravitate towards studies that provide something to mull over during the week.
  4. Challenging. The best small group experience happens when people are challenged and have the freedom to explore theological and practical ideas in the context of a safe, grace-filled learning community. Too many guardrails of what’s okay or not okay to say kills a discussion and leaves participants wondering if the weekly meeting is worth their time.

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Recently I’ve gotten the opportunity to take a look at the Animate series from Sparkhouse, and it has all the marks of a great study. Helpful facilitators guide. Short DVD experience. Journal for the participant. More questions than answers.

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Advent Resources 2016

Here in Madison we are suffering (cough, cough) from an unbelievably mild fall.

Autumn in Madison is normally filled with sweatshirts and snow pants.

Just the other day we were wearing t-shirts without a jacket.

I don’t mean to complain or anything, but y’all, I have some super cute fall clothes that I haven’t really been able to enjoy yet.

Today, I walked into Target today and what did I see?

Yep, you guessed it.

Christmas trees and a huge banner wishing me a Merry Christmas. For the love! I can’t even think about Christmas. Not with this weather. Which reminds me– there was one Christmas that we were living in Nairobi, Kenya– and it was SO WARM. I couldn’t get into the Christmas spirit. Yes, yes, it shouldn’t matter how cold or hot it is while celebrating our sweet Jesus’ birth, but I can’t sing Christmas carols while sweating.  Christmas is not really Christmas without feeling like your phalanges are going to freeze off as you carry sleepy kids out to the car covered with freshly-scraped, but yet still slightly frosted windows and the heater on full blast.

All that being said. I am starting to prepare for Advent, which is not. too. far. away. We like to do something as a family, and I’m always looking for creative ways to observe Advent.

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Over the next couple weeks, I’ll be reviewing some new (or new to me) books. They are, in no particular order:

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1. The Most Wonderful Time of the Year: A Countdown to Christmas by Ace Collins

For the month of December, Collins provides a daily Scripture or inspirational reading, paired with the story of a famous Christmas song or movie, and a DIY gift idea or holiday recipe.

What I like: I’m not much of a historian, so I felt like I learned a lot regarding the history of various Christmas movies and songs after reading this book.

It was also fun that he included some DIY gift ideas. I love the idea of doing a makers Christmas, and some of his ideas sounded uncomplicated to make, and also useful. Beeswax candles. Recipe books. Photo coasters. Super fun.

What I didn’t like: In the same vein, because I’m not a historian, I tend to crave Advent book books or other resources that lean more theologically heavy. This book did include Scripture and some inspirational writing, but generally, this book is going to be great for those who are interested in looking to the past to provide meaning for the here and now.

BUT, I know some of you might really enjoy this book. If you love history and Christmas, enter to win the Magic of Christmas Prize Pack. Create new traditions this holiday season with your family and friends with the goodies included in the giveaway. One grand prize winner will receive:

Enter today by clicking the icon below, but hurry! The giveaway ends on November 21. The winner will be announced November 22 on the Litfuse blog.

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**I received The Most Wonderful Time of the Year from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.**
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2. All Is Bright: A Devotional Journey to Color Your Way to Christmas

It’s no secret that I’ve been swept up into the adult coloring book phenomena. I’m loving pairing devotional with coloring– it connects my brain to my heart and just helps me to slow down and reflect instead of sprinting off to the next thing.
And this one is no different.
All is Bright is not only a coloring book, but an Advent coloring book and devotional. In addition to the devotionals and coloring pages for grown-ups, it also includes family devotionals and coloring pages for kids. Each family devotional includes a piece of Scripture, a couple discussion questions, and a down-to-earth prayer. Topics include generosity, making space for Jesus, love, and worship. And while the adult section has a devotion for each day in December, the family portion includes only 12 days.
And to be honest, this latter part is what really attracted me to this book. Here’s what the author says about her hopes for this space:
My hope is that as you spend some time with the children in your world coloring and talking, you’ll be able to help them escape our culture’s consumer approach to Christmas and instead spark a sense of gratitude for Christ’s first coming and anticipation for when he comes again.

I share this same hope, and have found that it’s through a constant re-orienting that we can focus on Jesus in the midst of consumer crazy. I’m not going to lie and say it’s easy. It’s very much NOT. But resources like this are a good tool in helping us on this journey.

**I received All is Bright from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.”

How to Connect with God: Praying Through Art

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I’ve always thought of myself as a total head person. Feelings are fine and all, but experiencing God through my mind and my thoughts is where it’s at for me. Learning something new about God sends my heart singing. Understanding a passage of Scripture in a deeper way leads me to worship.

Despite this tendency, I’ve been exploring how to connect with God in other ways. One of these ways is praying through art.

It can be challenging for me to just sit and pray. My mind wanders and then my heart disengages, I begin to wonder if I’m praying the right things or with the right motive. While my heart is praying, my mind is critiquing.

Is what you just asked God theologically sound?
What are you assuming about God right now?
Is what you just said actually harmful to your understanding of God and/or others?
Aren’t you being a bit judgmental?
Are you treating God like the Creator of the heavens and earth, or like genie in a bottle?

I’ve found a few ways to keep my tendency to overthink things at bay.

  1. I use liturgical prayers, helping me to focus in on my heart’s attitude towards God instead of debating word choice.
  2. I journal my prayers, allowing my mind to slow down and focus.
  3. I color or use prayer prompts to keep my mind half busy, allowing my heart to engage in a different way.

One book I’ve been using recently is Gratitude: A Prayer and Praise Coloring Journal. It’s a beautiful collection of prayer prompts that guides my heart towards love, thinking of others, and gratitude. Every now and then, I’ll gather my colored pencils, turn on some music, and pray through one of the prompts. Here are a couple of my favorites so far:

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“Engage in gratefulness by meditating on Psalm 138:1 while writing it repeatedly in the space below.”

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“Journal about how this Scripture verse gives you hope, or draw illustrations to express what these words mean to you.”

 

What do you do to help you connect wholeheartedly with God?

 

Pursuing a Creative Life in the Midst of Motherhood

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I could hear the whirl of the sewing machine all the way upstairs. My mom had been busy in the basement all day, ironing, measuring, cutting, measuring again.

I loved going to the craft store with my momma. I’d follow her to the back of the store, very pleased with the attention of the white-haired women with their blue aprons and kind smiles. While mom was searching for fabric and thread, I’d sit upon a green vinyl stool and thumb through the newest clothing catalog, looking for the next outfit I hoped my mom would make for me.

On that particular weekend, I was extra eager to see the result of my mom’s creation. She was turning a black and white checkered material into a pants and jacket outfit that, unbeknownst to me, would become one of my favorites.

I would wear it to our family Christmas party, eating piles of chocolate covered peanuts, using the pants as a napkin for my chocolatey hands. I would also wear it while I nervously read a historical essay about girls and education to a room full of women in the DAR, getting compliments afterward on both the essay and my outfit. I was proud of both, and I think my momma was too.

But for now, I would sit at the top of the stairs and watch my momma create, surrounded by piles of patterns and fabric, eager to see her finished product.

It wasn’t long after that life got busy and my mom stopped sewing as much. My little brother was born, we moved to a new city, and she got a new job. The sewing machine started accumulating dust as the demands of everyday life grew.

I think many of us can relate. Life gets busy and we have a hard time making time for our creative outlets. Cooking dinner, bathing kids, cleaning house, writing reports, planning for presentations, and yard work always seem more urgent than getting out our paints or writing a blog post. And when we do have downtime after the kids are in bed or while the kids at their friends’ houses, we wonder if it’s even worth it to turn on the computer or drag out our guitar. I should probably check off a few of the tasks on my to-do list.

In Life Creative: Inspiration for Today’s Renaissance Mom, authors Wendy Speake and Kelli Stuart can relate. Life is busy. We feel responsible for everyone else and have a hard time giving ourselves permission to head to the back room to get lost in a pile of fabric. But instead of packing away those creative talents, what if we felt the freedom to engage, even in the midst of crazy, love-filled, energy-draining motherhood?

We are all made in the image of a creative God, and He invites each of us to use the gifts He has given us. Wendy and Kelli shared the stories of how creative women like author Angie Smith, jewelry designer Lisa Leonard, and blogger Myquillyn Smith wrote and created and designed even in the midst of the craziness of motherhood. We don’t have to put our gifts and passions on hold, but we can unapologetically make space to pursue these interests.

It’s easier said than done, but Wendy and Kelli give a bunch of great ideas on how to make that happen, as well as discussing the potential pitfalls, attitude challenges, and difficult seasons of life that creative mommas walk through.

What I most loved about this book was the authors desire to encourage and empower women to keep pursing their interests in the midst of having children.

Many women will put their entire pre-child self on hold, focusing all their attention on their home, their husband, and their children. And while there is an appropriate amount of focus-shifting that comes with marriage and children (for both men and women!), it’s important for women not to lose themselves in the transition. This isn’t an either/or decision, but a both/and.

Pursuing creative interests is not just good for a woman’s soul, but it’s also great for kids to see their mom engage in something that doesn’t revolve around them. I loved seeing my mom spend the whole afternoon behind her sewing machine. I didn’t feel neglected or that I wasn’t important. Instead, I recognized how my mom found energy and pleasure when creating.

If you are a momma who struggles with making time for your creative pursuits or feels bad about letting your kids play by themselves while you bake and decorate fall sugar cookies, this book is for you. And while moms who work outside the home are included in this book, I would only recommend this book to women who stay-at-home full-time (or work from home amidst stay-at-home mothering). There’s a heavy emphasis on homemaking and child-rearing that could make a work-outside-the-home mom feel out of place or uncomfortable.
Join Wendy, Kelli, and other moms in celebrating the beauty of being a creative mom by entering to win the Called to Be Creative Giveaway (details below) and by attending their author chat party on October 27!

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One grand prize winner will receive:

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Enter today by clicking the icon below. But hurry, the giveaway ends on 10/27. The winner will be announced at the Life Creative Facebook party. RSVP for a chance to connect with Wendy, Kelli, and other creative moms, as well as for a chance to win other prizes!

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RSVP today and spread the word—tell your friends about the giveaway via social media and increase your chances of winning. Hope to see you on the 27th!

 

Thanks to Litfuse for the review copy of Life Creative! 

Reading Together: How Communities of Readers Can Transform the World

reading-togetherBooks are one of the most powerful tools in the world.

Books change the world by offering a new perspective.

Books inspire people to step out and take risks.

Books allow people to walk a mile in someone else’s shoes, increasing a reader’s capacity for empathy.

Books explain, they instruct, they motivate.

Books offer another way forward, and get people talking.

Most of my favorite books inspire me towards action. And they are always ones I want to talk about with someone else. (more…)

The Sin of Certainty {a book review}

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The Sin of Certainty: Why God Desires Our Trust More Than Our “Correct” Beliefs is one of the best books I’ve read this summer. Enns communicates a message many evangelicals need to hear.

We must be willing to move beyond certainty in our faith, because certainty isn’t really the point of faith at all.

For many of us, certainty is the center of our faith. We’ve been taught that the goal of our religious lives is to “know God”, by which we mean (whether consciously or unconsciously) believing the right doctrines and holding the right views.

Our pursuit to know God is evaluated by whether or not we end up with the right answer. Or at least that’s how we evaluate others.

But what if faith isn’t about right answers and right doctrines? What if faith is ultimately about trusting God? 

Pete begins his book with the story of his “faith” crashing down, intriguingly while watching a Disney movie on a plane 30,000 feet in the air. One might think a Bible professor’s faith would need to be unravelled by something more grandiose than a Disney movie, right?  Not so much.

From my own experience and reading about similar experiences of others, the crash, the wall, the dark night of the soul (whatever you want to call it) often comes in unexpected ways. Sometimes it’s when reading a book. Other times watching a movie. Perhaps it happens in a conversation or in a class. Maybe we’re watching TV. Or we receive some shocking news.

Here’s the thing about our faith- it’s not something we can necessarily control.

Throughout his book, Pete interweaves his story with what he’s learned about letting go of certainty so that he can fully trust. Letting go of certainty doesn’t mean dismissing thinking or logic, or ceasing to pursue answers. Letting go of certainty means trusting God with our lives. It means keeping an open hand with our beliefs, embracing the mysteries, and leaning in even when our brains might not be able to make sense.

“This book is about thinking differently about faith, a faith that is not so much defined by what we believe but in whom we trust. In fact, in this book I argue that we have misunderstood faith a what word rather than a who word- as primarily beliefs about rather than primarily as trust in.”

Because Pete is an intellectual, he gets the tension that this all might bring to some of us. And it’s because he’s an intellectual that many of us who identify as such should give him a hearing. 

Interestingly, Pete’s hope for this book isn’t just for those who are going through a faith crisis or is submerged to their eyeballs in doubt, but he’s trying to start a bigger conversation about how faith is viewed and communicated in the evangelical church.

“When we think of ‘strong faith’ as something that should be free of uncertainty or crises, I believe we have gotten wrong an important part of who God is and how the Christian life really works. This is about how we might address that problem.”

Finally, Pete ends the book with wisdom about what to do when a tidal wave of doubt comes crashing upon you. If you’re in the midst of some tall waves, I highly recommend skipping to chapter 7 first.

I think the only point I’d disagree with Pete on is the title- the sin of certainty. While I get the idea behind it, I actually think that those who are siting in certainty are not wrong or sinning. I think their faith has some distance to go. From my limited understanding of faith formation, it seems as if certainty is a necessary first step in faith. The sin isn’t in being there. If there’s any sin involved, I think it would be in one’s unwillingness to take the next step when God extends the invitation.

I recommend picking up this book, grabbing some friends, and starting a conversation. Pete’s writing style is down-to-earth, incredible readable, and funny. His gift for teaching shines through the pages. You won’t be disappointed.

In my reading routine, after I finish a particularly good book, I scour the notes section in the back. I’ve found the footnotes of my favorite chapters of a book provide great recommendations for my reading list. If you need a hint on my favorite chapter, I’ll tell you that I’ve added Thoughts in Solitude, The Inner Voice of Love, Stages of Faith, and a re-read of The Bible Tells Me So. 🙂

To read more about Pete, you can visit his blog: http://www.peteenns.com.

And to read more about my relationship with doubt, check out the following days in my 31 Days of Soul Shaping series:

Day 19: Doubt: The Big, Bad Wolf of Faith?

Day 20: The Beginning of My Doubt

Day 21: The Turning Point

Day 22: Questions Aren’t Just for Kids

 

Thanks to Pete and his team for providing a free copy in exchange for my honest thoughts!

 

Wonderland {a coloring book review}

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A couple months ago we introduced the kids to Alice In Wonderland (2010). I’m not sure I had ever watched it, and I must admit, parts of it were a bit creepy. The kids mostly liked it, but their attention waned at the end.

So, just a couple weeks ago we decided to give ‘ol Alice another try and this time we watched the Disney animated version and the kids LOVED it. Since then, they have started to plan our 2016 Family Halloween Costume (slight obsession in the making??).

So it seemed very fitting when this guy showed up at my door:

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Given that we love to color together AND we love Alice in Wonderland, Wonderland has been a total win for us!

The coloring book doubles as a little story, which I think is a fun idea. You read a little, color a lot, read a little, color a lot.

The pages are beautiful, the drawings are interesting to color, and I haven’t been able to pick a favorite page because I love them all. Seriously.

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If you want to take a peek inside, you can check out this youtube video.

For all of my coloring book enthusiast friends who are also book nerds, I’d highly recommend it!

 

Thanks to Blogging for Books for this review copy in exchange for my honest review!

Coloring as Spiritual Formation

Coloring as Spiritual Formation

I’ve always loved to color. Being the introvert that I am, coloring had always been a safe way to introvert while being in the midst of a lot of people at school or while playing at a friend’s house. Markers, crayons, colored pencils? It didn’t matter.

Somewhere around junior high I put my crayons on the shelf.  And while they came back out for a brief time when I was in college (I found a really fantastic biology coloring book!), it wasn’t until the past couple years that I’ve started to re-connect with my love for coloring.

And it’s also during this time that I’ve found how helpful it is for me in connecting with God.

I’ve been using these two coloring books in the evenings to slow down, relax, and make mental space to connect with God. 

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Glimmer Girls: A Dolphin Wish {children’s book review}

 

Aly is in arm’s reach of turning 7, and her love for fiction is as strong as ever. While she loves playing outside, hanging with her friends, and playing with her siblings, the day would not be complete without her snuggling under her covers as the sun goes down to either read or listen to a good story.

As Aly’s interest in her faith gradually increases, I’ve been trying to find some interesting, faith-based books that would also nurture her soul. I’m at the beginning stages of this, and so the first series we’re trying out is the Glimmer Girls. This series is by Natalie Grant, and it’s a set of stories about the adventures of 3 sisters- twins, Mia and Maddie, and their little sister Lulu- as they travel around the country with their famous singing momma, their producer dad, and their nanny, Miss Julia.

[The general parallel to the author’s life is not lost on me– Natalie is a famous christian music artist who has 3 daughters- two of them being twins. I think it’s funny that the stories mirror that part of her life, and I can’t help but wonder if these adventure stories started out as bedtime stories for her girls!]

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In this particular story, A Dolphin Wish (book #2), the family is on vacation in San Diego when they hear that the animal handlers at Captain Swashbuckler’s Adventure Park are having trouble keeping the animals in their right habitats. The girls smell a mystery, and they jump in, while getting into mischief along the way.

I read a good portion of it to Aly aloud, and while she was happy to cuddle up and read with me, we were both having trouble getting into the book. The writing is just fine, and the characters seem quite likable, but we both felt like it just couldn’t hold our interest. We decided to circle back around to this series in a couple years, but until then, we continue our quest for some interesting, faith-based books!

Are there any faith-based fiction books that your son or daughter has really enjoyed?? We’d love to hear about them!

Thanks to Booklook Bloggers for the review copy! 

 

The Book to Read When Your House is a Hot Mess

Once upon a time, before I had a cute hubby and a gaggle of kids, I was a really tidy person. Everything in its place and a place for everything? Oh yes indeed.

These days? I just can’t keep up.

I tell myself that a messy house is the necessary byproduct of fun and creativity and love. And I can believe it for a couple days.

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But soon the adorable lovey dovey cards and paper bag puppets and castle cardboard boxes suddenly transform, and where I once saw creative exploration, I now see trash and chaos. My blood pressure starts rising and my brain feels like it’s going to explode.

It’s real weird.

I get a huge burst of energy and immediately begin tidying and cleaning like I’m on 2x speed. When the muttering under my breath begins, Jake and the kids recognize that the end has come. Jake rallies the kids and family clean-up begins.

The other day I was telling Jake that if we had less stuff, I’m SURE we’d have to tidy less. Jake wasn’t so convinced. He told me that we’d probably be tidying less in about 15 years when we no longer have 6 people living under one roof.

Good point.

Nevertheless, I’ve been reading up on the art of tidying. And who else would I go to than Marie Kondo, who wrote a bestselling book on this very topic a couple years ago called The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up. She shocked the world with the preposterous idea that the key to keeping a tidy house is to have. less. stuff. Everything should have a place, and everything you own should bring you joy.

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Recently, Kondo published a follow-up book called Spark Joy: an illustrated master class on the art of organizing and tidying up. In this book, she gets into the details of HOW to declutter and then organize every part of the house, as well as teaching us to recognize what brings us joy.

The key to purging is knowing what to keep and what to get rid of. For the KonMari method, the secret is this: hone your sensitivity to joy. 

Do you have some clothes that you wear, but always feel uncomfortable or self-conscious in them? Get rid of them.

Do you have 6 ice cream scoopers, 3 pizza slicers, and 8 wooden spoons? Keep what you need (one of each?) and get rid of the rest. It will bring you joy to open your drawer and not have to dig through a gazillion utensils to get to the one you need.

Is there a sweatshirt you own that is SO UGLY, but you love wearing it? Keep it! It brings you joy.

After figuring out what items to keep and what to get rid of, Kondo equips readers with detailed methods of storage, organization, and folding.

She gives detailed descriptions and pictures of how to fold everything- regular shirts, shirts with decorations, tights, socks, UNDERWEAR for goodness sake.

She also offers some great advice on all the miscellaneous items that we have no idea what to do with. My personal trouble spots include jewelry, papers, and toys. I can’t seem to get a wrangle on a good organization method for any of them. Here’s what I learned:

Jewelry but no jewelry box? Place in dividers inside of a top drawer.

Papers? Discard everything. If you haven’t looked at the papers in several years, you’re probably not going to ever again.

But toys? Ah ha. She doesn’t offer a solution;  she only calls attention to the fact that toy organization is truly complex.

Spark Joy has given me some great ideas on how to tidy up, and has given me the  encouragment I need to give away some old clothes, throw out a crate full of magazine articles (organized by theme, of course), and think more broadly about what kind of home brings me joy.

The truth is, a home that’s full of the people I love brings me joy. Even if they are a bit messy.