Thursday, August 30, 2007

The "organic" nature of learning

One of the topics I really wanted to delve into with the sweet girl during this, our first "formal" homeschool year, was history. That's primarily what I'm using the Sonlight materials for: their "introduction to cultures" for kindergarteners, which does a nice job of introducing history, different cultures, timelines and geography. Because the materials are compiled and distributed by Christians, there's some definite emphasis (at least in part of the term) on Christian history and on missionaries. I liked that too, church history teacher that I am.

I was a little surprised, however, that the instructor's guide indicated that for this first week, we'd be studying a couple of specific "heroes of the faith," Martin Luther and William Tyndale. Initially I thought it seemed a bit odd that we'd be majoring in specific people so soon rather than doing some of the more general introduction to history (which begins next week). As I looked over the materials, I was also a bit doubtful as to whether or not they would engage my little girl's interest since a lot of it looked potentially over her head. Having read and taught church history a lot in recent years, I knew I could supplement some of the book (which frankly needed a little supplementing) and help explain things more simply for her. But I honestly wasn't sure she would "get it."

Boy, was I wrong! As much as she's loved math and reading and art this week, all stuff she's has plenty of practice with already, and even begun to relax a bit with handwriting (more on that later!) history has been, far and away, the subject she seems most enthusiastic about. She's listened well and asked good questions.

Late Monday morning, near the end of our first day of school, we sat on the bench under one of the big sycamores across the road and read the introduction and first chapter about Martin Luther. I prefaced it with some initial comments about history in general, but mostly we jumped in feet-first. At first it felt like a real swim upstream. "What's a monk?" she wanted to know. We dog-paddled for a while, with S. seeming to meander in and out of the material. Was she even really listening? I wondered.

Then her Daddy came home for lunch. "What did you learn this morning?" he asked, after they hugged enthusiastically and she exulted in her first morning of kindergarten. And much to my jaw-dropping surprise, she began to talk excitedly about Martin Luther. "Mommy, what were the three times he almost GOT DEAD?" she asked, and in a daze I talked about Luther's near-death experiences (when he cut himself on a sword, lived through a typhoid epidemic, and was almost struck by lightning) and how God helped him and healed him and called him to serve him.

But Monday evening was best of all. She got to choose the hymn for family devotions and chose "A Mighty Fortress is Our God." And I asked, oh so casually, "do you know who wrote the words to this hymn?" She said no. When I told her Martin Luther, her eyes got round as saucers. She was thrilled. She's insisted on listening to this hymn every night this week.

And yesterday my issue of Christian History magazine came in the mail. This issue is focused on J.S. Bach, and there was a whole article on Bach and Luther, including a picture of a rare edition of one of the first German hymnbooks with Luther's "Mighty Fortress" in it. I watched my daughter pore over this picture, which led to a discussion of organs (she's never seen one or heard one) which led me to dig up an old tape I had of Bach organ music, which we listened to for awhile.

Connections, connections. Natural and wonderful connections. This is part of the "organic" nature of learning (argh! sorry for the pun!) at home that I've always appreciated. Watching my daughter's face alight with interest about topics I didn't even know she was ready for, I think I am coming to appreciate it even more.

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Alan Jacobs on HP and the Deathly Hallows

Yes, yes. Alan Jacobs has weighed in on the final Harry Potter book over at Books and Culture. It's one of the most cogent and beautiful reviews/analyses I've seen yet. Worth waiting for. If you've read and loved Deathly Hallows, or perhaps especially if you've read it and not loved it, please go read this review.

I'm itching to get back to some more HP reflections. Not sure when it will happen, but essays like this inspire my thoughts!

Saturday, August 25, 2007

Kindergarten and Graduate School

Deep breath. I've spent the past hour working on setting up my online course shell as my class, the Episcopal Ethos, will be made accessible for students on Monday. Monday is also the sweet girl's first day of kindergarten here at home.

You can see why I'm taking deep breaths, I think! The school year is really and truly about to start, in a big way. And for the first time ever, I will be teaching both kindergarten and graduate school in the same semester. A unique privilege and perhaps a bit of a challenge. I hope I'm up to it!

D. is actually out right now buying us a desk. This is a purchase we've agonized was one of those things we really felt we couldn't do without as we try to organize our space for fall, but it's also something we can't afford. We looked at some used furniture but couldn't find just the thing we needed to fit the back corner of the living room, which is where the desk (and the computer) will be going, thus freeing up my dining room table once more for school projects by day and for dinners (if we so choose) by night. We finally found a desk that's being discontinued at Staples. And I really like it. Most office furniture you buy on the cheap *looks* cheap -- like plastic sort of coating over plywood -- but this is real varnished wood. It's a wider grain than I might have chosen, but I'd rather have a real, rougher looking wood than a fake sort of smooth plastic. The size is right; it has some good storage overhead, and it will fit in the corner. And it only costs $80 -- I say that with gritted teeth and the awareness that $80 to us right now feels more like $800. But it has to be done, and this seems to be the most painless way to do it.

So I'll be spending the rest of the weekend, when not in church or hosting our youth fellowship group, either cooking; revising, posting and re-arranging documents for my online course; readying the sweet girl's school supplies in her new purple pencil box; or cleaning out the living room corner for the new desk.

Here comes Monday!

Friday, August 24, 2007

Why Expelliarmus? (Still Thinking About Deathly Hallows)

Ever since we heard the prophecy at the end of Order of the Phoenix, one of the main things I've worried about is how Harry was going to defeat Voldemort without resorting to evil's methods. We've known, of course, that Dumbledore believed that the only way Harry could win was through the power of love, and that turned out to be blessedly true. But I still wondered how it would happen. How would JK Rowling show us a decisive victory over Voldemort (and make certain we knew he was dead) without depicting Harry as a kind of murderer?

I think she succeeded brilliantly in showing us deep qualities of mercy in Harry. And one of the master-strokes is the way Harry uses the "Expelliarmus" spell at the very end, instead of the "Avada Kedavra."

Let's lay aside (for now, though I'd like to come back to it sometime) the troubling facts that at different points in the narrative, Harry casts the other two curses that have been classified as unforgivables by the ministry. But he never casts an AK, the curse that killed his parents and that should have killed him twice.

One of the things I didn't expect, and which was a fascinating part of Deathly Hallows, was that by the time Harry met Voldemort for the final confrontation, he would be in a place of calmness and strength and power. I think I always imagined the final confrontation as a desperate moment with Harry somewhat cornered, yet protected and helped by love outside (as well as inside) himself. He was certainly helped all through DH, and would never have gotten as far as he did without the help of countless others.

When the final confrontation boils down to just the two of them, however, it's clear Harry has the upper hand. Voldemort has lost all his horcruxes, which we know has left him in a weakened state. He's lost Nagini and most of his other supporters, including Bellatrix. And as Harry unwinds the narrative, for him and for us, we begin to realize that Harry is pretty sure that he also has the upper hand in terms of weapons. He's wielding what looks like a lesser wand, but because the greater wand recognizes Harry as its new master, his spell should be able to defeat Voldemort's.

I hadn't imagined the complexity that Rowling could bring to bear on the whole "Deathly Hallows" subplot, and especially on the wand exchanges. That was brilliant, with that seemingly insignificant little moment on the tower when Draco disarms Dumbledore in Half-Blood Prince being so key. (The only other seemingly "throwaway" moment that might have seemed even more brilliant was the way in which Dumbledore used the golden snitch Harry almost swallowed in his very first Quidditch match six years before.)

So by the time of the final confrontation, Harry is in a place of power: he's the master of the Elder Wand, he has Voldemort cornered, he has done everything he was supposed to do to ensure the other's vulnerability. And what is beautiful is that, standing in that place of power, Harry chooses not to wield it with utter forcefulness, not to vengefully cast at Voldemort what Voldemort cast at him and his parents. He restrains his power. Instead of seeking to kill, he seeks to disarm, a word positively fraught with biblical connotations.

There is even a strange sort of beauty (or if that's not quite the right word, perhaps nobility is better) about the way he casts it. It's not accompanied by a cry of rage or glee. Voldemort "shrieks" his final curse. But although Harry also yells, his yell is depicted in almost prayerful tones: "he too yelled his best hopes to the heavens" (and how marvelous that he is in the Great Hall at the time, with the clear light of sunrise dawning).

Lest we miss the point, JKR gave us that wonderful exchange in the early chapters where the death eaters figure out the true Harry's identity (in the midst of the decoy Harrys) because Harry uses "expelliarmus." It's an unusual move, one that doesn't seem to make a lot of logical sense, but one that's very Harry. He used it in graveyard in Goblet of Fire, he taught it to the DA students in Phoenix. It's becoming his "signature move," and Rowling makes it utterly clear, in the way Harry explains why he chose to use it rather than send the imperiused Shan Stunpike plummeting to his death, that it's a move of mercy and recognized as such by his worst enemies.

Harry shows mercy to Voldemort here, even in the act of ensuring his destruction. He throws the milder, disarming spell versus Voldemort's enraged killing curse (note we've got red versus green again!). Why is Harry ready to show mercy?

I think there are many reasons. Here are just a few:

• Harry has seen what Voldemort "will become." I think this refers to the awful bit of Voldemort's lost soul (is it the piece that was blasted out of Harry?) which is beyond help in the waystation/waiting room/train station between the worlds after death. This is one reason he tries, although unsuccessfully, to remind Voldemort that only real remorse can possibly re-knit his unravelled soul. (Sidenote: Shades of C.S. Lewis' "Weight of Glory" essay here, where Lewis reminds us that everyone we see has an eternal destiny, and that should affect our own actions.)

• Harry has been able to enter into some measure of real empathy with Voldemort. As awful and evil as Voldemort is, he and Harry shared common experiences and deep connections. Let’s not forget that as he was walking toward death, Harry remembered that Hogwarts was home to him, to Voldemort, and to Snape, "all the abandoned boys." Considering the depth of his hatred, once upon a time, for Snape as well as Voldemort, being able to see some of the painful childhood feelings he shared with his enemies was very important for the growth of Harry’s own soul.

• Harry has been trained in righteousness. I think this is the most important point of all. All through his years at Hogwarts, although he did not know it fully (and although we as readers did not know and understand it fully either) Harry’s trials have helped to prepare him for exactly this moment. Albus Dumbledore, his primary mentor, helped train him for what Albus knew would probably very well be a certain death. Albus couldn't prevent that, and I think for a long time (before the "gleam of triumph" and the "flaw in the plan") he thought the best he could do for Harry was to train him for a holy death, a brave and courageous death that might win release for others. That's why he gave Harry so many chances to face evil and temptations and hardships, even as early on as the events in Harry’s first year at Hogwarts in Philosopher’s Stone. Perhaps even as early on as leaving him on the steps at the Dursleys. And we see Harry's progression in mercy all through the series, including what I still think is one of the deepeest emotional/spiritual turning points of the series: when thirteen year old Harry spares the life of Peter Pettigrew, the man who betrayed his parents.

There are many things here I'd like to explore more fully later. For now, I'm just quietly celebrating that when it mattered most, Harry showed mercy. It was not a curse of Harry's that killed Voldemort, but the rebounding of Voldemort's own rage and hatred. Harry aimed to disarm.

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Time to Read (Late August)

I'm way overdue to post a "reading round-up" -- in fact, I'm not sure I've posted one since June, and I've read a fair amount this summer! I'd like to at least attempt a list of my recent and current readings, along with some jottings about what I've particularly liked during this season.

But from time to time, I'm also going to post something under the heading "Time to Read." These will be specific posts about what I'm reading with the sweet girl. I've often incorporated some thoughts on that into my reading round-up, but as we head into the new school year...our first official school year here at home together...I want to be more intentional about listing what we're reading and keeping track of the books we've enjoyed together.

Yes, I'm homeschooling my daughter. I can't believe that I'm actually able to do this. I've wanted for so long to make it happen, and for God to allow our family the space in our schedules to try it...well, He is just very good. The sweet girl is completely excited about our new ventures. She was playing with her Playmobil Bunny School the other day and informed me that Buck and Heidi (her two little rabbits) would be "kindergartened at home" by Mr. Hopper, their teacher. I love that she's enthusiastic about having me home and having me for a teacher, and that she's already turned kindergarten into a verb!

We officially begin Monday, though this week (our first full week at home since I left the office on the 10th) I've been easing us into bits and pieces of our new schedule. I'm also trying to clean and organize as much as I can, though given that I've had no time to do much of either for the past year and a half, progress has been slow. But we will not be afraid to take time. (You're going to hear that a lot in the coming thing I'm already enjoying and looking forward to enjoying even more is being able to pace our learning ventures at a sane and natural pace.)

What are we reading right now, as we head into the school year?

In the mornings, we're beginning our second read-through of The Big Picture Story Bible by Helm and Shoonmaker. Friends loaned us this and we like it a lot: it's very different from most children's story Bibles in that it focuses on overall recurring themes in the Scriptures, like covenant and exile and the promise of the coming of "God's forever king." Pictures are so-so, but the text is very well-done and S. keeps asking for more of it.

For read-aloud time, we've been enjoying Laura Ingalls Wilder's Little House in the Big Woods, and Holling Clancy Holling's Paddle-to-the-Sea (we picked this up after our trip to Lake Erie, since S. wanted to learn more about the Great Lakes).

We're still reading a plethora of picture books, of course: lots of Shirley Hughes again lately, and a DK book called The Caterpillar that Roared. Plus one very factual (full of photos) book about they hatch, eat, molt, fly, etc. The sweet girl's love of all things small still flourishes!

We've been reviewing some in 100 Easy Lessons and are around half-way through now. We probably shouldn't have taken so much time off this summer. Though S. remembers her letter sounds very well, she's a lot more halting (less confident) in blending those sounds together to form words/decoding words than she was just several weeks ago. I feel badly that I dropped the ball on reading lessons for so long, but it was SUCH a busy, busy summer. We're now practicing every day though, so I'm sure her read-aloud skills will come back with more confidence as we continue.

And speaking of building confidence, she LOVES the Bob Books, the wonderful little books for beginning readers that come in box sets. I'm glad that I persevered in keeping these on request at the library, though it took months (literally) to get them, as they're so popular. I'm beginning to think we will have to cave in and buy them, though I've held off because they're a bit pricey for such little books. Of course, their littleness is part of their charm...that at the fact that they are written so simply, with each book helping the child practice a certain sound or set of sounds. S. loves knowing she has read a whole book on her own! We just finished reading through the final set of four (there are three sets of four for twelve books in all) in the first set for beginning readers.

Good Apples

"Good apple pies are a considerable part of our domestic happiness." (Jane Austen)

I like this quote, though I'm not sure where it's from (a letter or one of the novels?). I've also seen it written two ways, either as "good apples" or "good apple pies." No rings true!

I love apples, and I was very happy to find a new variety in the produce section at the market the other day. I was drawn to them first because of their lovely name, "Ginger Gold." And then because of their color, a shiny, pale apple green. The picture above makes them look more yellow than they are...or at least more yellow than the ones we have. They taste as good as they look too: very crisp and slightly tart. Not as tart as a Granny Smith, but much more flavorful than Golden Delicious (one of the sweet girl's favorites).

I like this apple so much, in fact, that I went looking for more information about it online. Turns out it's a relatively new find: a Virginia apple from the Blue Ridge region. No wonder I was drawn to it! And it's available August through October.

I have decided, by the way, that this is my fall to finally bake an apple pie. For the first time in ages, I am in a season of my life where I can take a little more time to do things...("we will not be afraid to take time" is one of my personal homeschooling sayings) and baking is one of those things that I really enjoy and can invite the sweet girl to do with me. She loves helping in the kitchen (we made peanut butter cookies yesterday) and measuring and stirring and setting the oven temperature and cleaning up all provide great lessons. So...I can't believe I'm admitting this, but I have never made an apple pie from scratch. This is the year!

If you've got any good apple pie recipes, send them my way. I think already know what pastry recipe I plan to use for the crust though.

Monday, August 20, 2007

Calling All Literary Knitters!

I've been thinking for some time that I'd like to learn to knit.

Now I'm sure of it.

I was glancing through some of the fun tid-bits on the AustenBlog the other day, and found this link to a website called Yarn Love. They sell hand-dyed yarn in gorgeous colors. And as you'll see if you click on the above link, almost all of their yarns are named after literary heroines or famous women.

Aren't they gorgeous yarns? I am now wishing wistfully for a skein of the "Elizabeth Benett" yarn, and the talent to know how to make something lovely with it. Perhaps a wonderfully warm scarf I could wrap up in on those cold, winter days when I love nothing more than to curl up with a Jane Austen novel, or sip a cup of warm tea while I watch the 1995 Pride and Prejudice mini-series...again.

Blissful Feet at the Beach

Yes, we really did go to the beach last week. And I can prove it!

I'm not sure when I started taking pictures of feet, especially feet at happy moments. But from time to time, I just do. And my feet, feeling warm sand for the first time in a decade (I kid you not) were completely blissful.

We finally got a mini-vacation...our first family time away of the entire summer. We had two nights and most of three days. And we finally got to Lake Erie, which is something we'd wanted to do for years. The peninsula was gorgeous. I loved the combination of woods and beach...this was my first ever visit to any of the Great Lakes. And it was the sweet girl's first ever visit to the beach.

I don't know why it took us so long. Life in the past decade, here in the post-industrial town that time forgot, has not always been easy. I am feeling a bit nostalgic as I write this because today, August 20th (it's just past midnight right now) marks exactly 10 years since we moved here. 10 years. If you had told me then that we would still be here, I would have laughed in disbelief. This was supposed to be a waystation, a testing ground, a little bit of wilderness, preparation time, a stepping stone, a bridge moment, a season. And it has been all those things. Just in a much more prolonged and profound way than D. and I could ever have guessed when we pulled onto this very street a decade ago and began unpacking boxes.

So...tired as I am, feeling grateful for lots of things. For persevering love in hard places. For knowing the faithful words and kind works of God in a "besieged city." For my sister who drove through a pouring rain to help us unpack boxes that first night, who flew here in the middle of the night/early morning five years later to be here for the birth of the sweet girl, and who has visited us here countless other times. For friends who know how blessed but exhausting life and ministry and work in this town can be, and who sent us a check so we could take that vacation to the beach this past week. For a relatively new friend, Erin (who so faithfully reads this blog, and who has blessed my life with poetry and great conversation in the past almost-two years) whom I was delighted to finally have a chance to meet during our time in Erie.

And oh yes, I'm feeling grateful for rested, blissful feet at the beach.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

BBC Filming Noel Streatfeild's Ballet Shoes

Now here's a lovely little bit of book-lovers' news: BBC One is filming a new adaptation of Noel Streatfeild's Ballet Shoes.

If you've never read Ballet Shoes, go find a copy, curl up and give yourself a couple of're in for a wonderful treat. The novel, published in 1937, is about three adopted girls who become sisters in a very unconventional English family. The girls all train as dancers, though each has a different talent/passion (and only one of them, the youngest, is really "meant" to be a dancer).

I grew up reading our public library's copy of Ballet Shoes to tatters. I loved Pauline, Petrova (especially Petrova!) and Posy Fossil, the sisters of the story, and entering their world was always a wonderful experience. Though I've read several other Streatfeild books, and they're all enjoyable, in my opinion Ballet Shoes is by far the best.

I now own a paperback copy with illustrations by Diane Goode (who also did new cover illustrations for some of the Betsy-Tacy books some years back, and is the writer/illustrator of several picture books the sweet girl loves). About two years ago, I ran across a video of a BBC film adaptation of the book done a number of years ago -- and was not impressed.

So I'm very excited about this one. It's got quite a cast list! Among other things, I think it will be fun to see Emma Watson (Hermione Granger from the Harry Potter films) play Pauline. I can easily picture her in the role.

Sunday, August 12, 2007

Bella at Midnight

In April, I reviewed the wonderful book Bella at Midnight, by Diane Stanley. It's a marvelous fairy-tale with some fantasy echoes scattered through it. I loved it so much (and it brought me such joy to realize someone in our day and age could still tell fairy-tales so beautifully) that almost as soon as I closed the covers, I found myself wanting to share the story with someone.

My own daughter is still too young (though I plan to read it with her in a few years) but my niece Hannah, a voracious reader, seemed just the right age. I decided to give a copy of the book to her for her eleventh birthday. She celebrated her birthday last week, and since she and her family happened to be visiting my parents (her grandparents) in Virginia, I mailed the book there. She got it on Monday.

What I didn't know was that Hannah and her family would be able to squeeze in a two hour visit with us on their way back to Illinois this past Thursday. This was a special blessing because they will soon be on their way to Taiwan, where they will be doing mission work in the next year. The two hours we had with them were all too short, but are hours we'll treasure. I was especially happy that the sweet girl and her youngest cousin (just four years old) played together so well.

But I think one of my favorite moments was when they first arrived. Hannah, looking so grown-up with a new stylish haircut, her beautiful eyes framed as always by her glasses (I always wished I had glasses when I was growing up, as they seem to fit book lovers' faces so well!) came toiling up our long stairs. She hugged me, and then she held up the book I'd sent her for her birthday just a few days before. Then she hugged the book, and announced with wonderful enthusiasm "It's great! I just finished it! I LOVED it!"

For book lovers, the only thing better than loving a book yourself is being able to share it with somebody else who loves it too.

Friday, August 10, 2007

Circles of Prayer

A dear family that lives near us (we'll call them the "A family") has blessed us so much in the past year and a half. When I went back to work half-time in April 2006, I worried about where my little girl could go on the staff meeting morning that her Daddy and I shared. The "A family" offered to take care of her. And they did, one morning a week, faithfully and joyfully, week in and week out. They would never let us pay them for their services, and they welcomed my introverted little daughter into their boisterous and loving family (which includes 5 children, 3 of them near my daughter's age, plus 2 dogs and a cat!).

I've been thinking about them a lot lately since I am finishing up this particular season of work outside the home. This morning, they blessed me again. But to share how, I need to go back in time about three years.

When the "A family" moved here almost three years ago to attend seminary, Mrs. A was pregnant with their fifth child. We had barely had time to even meet them -- I'm not sure I knew their names yet, but had glimpsed them walking around town and once at church -- when it was time for their child to be born. Their precious little baby girl came home from the hospital but was soon back in with some serious health problems. She literally battled for her life in those first weeks, and they almost lost her. Although we didn't really know them, our circles of community (seminary, church) touched, and we found ourselves praying for them and for this precious little baby girl regularly. I remember checking in on the hospital's care website to see pictures of her, and just praying, praying that she would be well.

I am delighted to say that she is well! Although she has some ongoing health issues because of those early frightening weeks, little "baby A" has grown up into a boisterous, friendly, beautiful little girl who will turn three this September. She has blessed our lives numerous times over just by being her sunny self. She is truly one of the most light-filled little people I've ever known.

Yesterday I was in major stress mode when we got to church. Our family has had too many late nights and early mornings this week, due to lots of things all happening at once: vacation bible school and my last week at the office being the two major ones. We had a bit of a spat at home as we were about to rush off the day: Daddy tried to rush Mommy, Mommy lost her cool and snapped at Daddy, Sweet Girl reacted to everybody's else's stress and decided to throw Daddy's hat down the stairs and then tearfully wouldn't apologize. We managed to pull ourselves together (more or less) in the car, but we still weren't in the best space when we arrived.

When we got to the church building, D. headed off to get into his costume for the opening skit. S. headed for the registration table. I got her checked in, helped her put on her name tag and her bandanna (the kids have all been dressed this week as "islanders" in our Pirates of Paradise Island VBS), and headed upstairs to my office, almost in panic mode as I thought of the huge final to-do list I'd left myself to tackle. I know part of the difficulty in trying to work through so much this week has been the emotions connected to the fact that I'm leaving what has felt like a fruitful season of work and ministry.

Mrs. A. was at church yesterday morning also. She had just dropped off her two VBS-aged kids downstairs. She came walking toward me, her precious, sunny, curly haired, wide eyed 2 year old in tow. I think as soon as Mrs. A. saw my face, she knew I was not having an easy morning, and when asked how I was, I told her the truth: overtired, overextended, stressed.

"Can I pray for you?" Mrs. A. asked.

"Yes," I said gratefully.

And she did, right there in the hallway. With VBS volunteers and kids in and out of spaces all around us, she just put her hand on my shoulder and began to pray. It was a beautiful, Spirit-led prayer that my heart needed to hear.

All of that in itself would have been enough of a blessing perhaps. But as she started to pray, I opened my eyes again quickly, smiled, and held my hand out to her precious, sunny little girl. She smiled back at me, slipped one hand in mine, and then with her other hand, reached out to take her mother's. All during the prayer, she was perfectly still and quiet, until the very end, when she announced "Ahhh-MEN!" in emphatic tones, making us all laugh. When I marveled that she'd joined us so beautifully in the prayer, her mother told me simply "she loves to pray."

It didn't dawn on me fully till later what a powerful picture of the body of Christ this was. Here was this little child, so much like the children Jesus held on his lap as he talked about how we needed to enter the Kingdom. This precious little child is one I prayed for a lot during a very vulnerable season of her young life. And now, not even yet three, she was praying for me when I was vulnerable and in need.

Circles of prayer. Circles of prayer.

Wednesday, August 08, 2007

They Will Soar on Wings Like...

When the sweet girl was two and a half or three, I made a set of Bible verse cards for her. Because she wasn't talking much yet, I relied heavily on images to help her learn and become familiar with the verses. On one side of the card I put a picture (either clipart or cut from a magazine or catalog) and on the other side I put the Scripture. When we read them together, I would hold them up with the picture side facing her and the verse facing me, and I would read the verse aloud. Once she was beginning to talk in earnest, she would chime in with the word or words (related to the picture) when I paused in the reading of the verse. For instance, one card had a picture of a sun, and I would read "The Lord is my...." and she would say "Light." I think that might have been the first verse card I made, probably because light was a word she could sign as well as say.

After we used them for quite a while, I put all the cards away in a little box, and just recently we got them out again. We've worked on other Scripture verses in the meantime, especially ones set to music, but I've been delighted to see how well she remembers these first cards and how much she still enjoys reviewing them.

The other day she pulled out a card with a picture of a soaring eagle on it. I held it up and read "...those that trust in the LORD will renew their strength; they will soar on wings like...."

"Birds," she said promptly, looking at the picture. It had been a long time since we'd gone over the verse, after all.

"Well, that's right," I encouraged. "We will soar on wings like birds, a particular kind of bird. This bird is an eagle."

"Eagles," she repeated.

Last night she happened to pull that card out again. Once more I held it up and read "...those that trust in the LORD will renew their strength; they will soar on wings like..."

"Seagulls!" she said promptly.

You know, that image works pretty well too!

Monday, August 06, 2007

Exhausting Week

Well, we've officially started what I've termed our "exhausting week." This is the week of the summer that, if we can just get through, I will begin to feel that I can breathe again!

Several weeks ago, when we made the decision (for our family's health and well-being) that I would step down from my job at the church office, we thought it made sense for my last day to be this coming Friday, the 10th. It did make sense...then. The one big thing we weren't thinking of, however, was that it would mean my last week at the church would run concurrently with our church's VBS program. D., as the Christian Education director, is ultimately in charge of that program and also heavily involved in the hands-on carrying out of components: the dramatic skits at the beginning (it seems that most men really harbor not so secret desires to dress up like pirates) and the Bible reflection times with the various age groups throughout the morning. The sweet girl is attending the VBS, so this is really a family affair, and we're having to leave the house early each morning to get us all where we need to go at church in plenty of time.

I've tried to help "behind the scenes" with the VBS, especially helping to prepare some of the Bible reflections on the theme of treasure. I had hoped I might be able to help with actual teaching, by my time at the office is pretty tied up. Since we haven't yet been able to hire my successor, I'm trying to wrap up all sorts of odds and ends with the administrator job: revise my job description; file mountains of papers (filing has always gotten short shrift because I'm always skimming off the top of urgent things in my twenty hours per week); make tasks lists of the basic things that need to be done each week; find and train volunteers willing to do them, etc. I spent about six hours at the office today instead of the usual four, and I'm beat.

It's all good, but all tiring...and this week too shall pass, to paraphrase one of my wise Mama's favorite sayings. (She loved "this too shall pass" and "may this be the worst day of your life" whenever I complained...which of course I did a lot during adolescence!). I'm not really complaining here, just taking a deep breath. I know we are moving toward more spaciousness and room in our schedules, and I am so looking forward to that. For now, I just need to rely on God's grace to get through a week of way too much to do and way too little time to sleep.

Friday, August 03, 2007

Prayer for Travelers

I've been very out of the news for the past few days. I'm trying to finish up my final weeks at the office and finish them well; our church's VBS (which my husband is coordinating) runs next week; I've had to finish my fall course syllabus; and I'm working on a writing deadline. Those are just a few of the things that have kept me from the news, which I usually have to seek out, since we don't have television.

So I was appalled yesterday when I stumbled onto photographs of the terrible disaster in Minnesota -- the interstate bridge that collapsed in Minneapolis on Wednesday. I've spent a few minutes today reading stories and looking at photos, grieving for those who lost their lives and for their loved ones who will miss them. Today's news is somewhat encouraging in that there have not been as many confirmed casualties as originally feared, but even one casualty in an accident of this kind is devastating, and there have been several confirmed deaths so far. As always in this kind of situation, there are the heartbreaking stories of people still missing, and the poignant stories of people who were traveling late or who took an alternate route or other ordinary things that happened to bring them to that specific location at that specific moment in time.

I think this story hits especially close to home because we live very near to a city that's known, with some affection, as "the city of bridges." We've always heard that Pittsburgh has more bridges than any city in the world except for Venice, and I believe it. Despite a lot of gray weather due to living in a river valley, and far too much rust in the landscape, some of the skyscape is unusually beautiful here because of the many bridges that adorn this area. We travel over bridges frequently since we have to cross rivers to get places.

So this really does hit home. And it made me turn to the prayer for travelers in the Book of Common Prayer:

O God, our heavenly Father, whose glory fills the whole creation, and whose presence we find wherever we go: Preserve those who travel (in particular those who travel over bridges); surround them with your loving care; protect them from every danger; and bring them in safety to their journey's end; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

It's a good prayer, for actual travelers and for all of us who are traveling through, or wayfaring, through this life.

Wednesday, August 01, 2007

The Meaning and Purpose Behind Stories

How Christian are the Harry Potter stories? That's a question that's fueling a lot of post-Deathly Hallows discussion right now, at least among the websites and forums I visit.

D. and I were discussing this issue this past weekend. I've found myself wanting to stay away from some of the discussions, truth be told, in part because I think we can risk becoming too dogmatic in our defense of Harry as "Christian" literature. Do I believe these stories are steeped in Christian imagery and symbols? Yes. Do I think that Rowling has shaped the story around themes that are deeply and importantly Christian? Yes. Do these books, and especially this final book, personally move me on deep spiritual levels? Oh yes.

Do I think that these elements are so blatantly obvious that anyone who misses them (or sees them and tries to brush right by them out of discomfort or frustration) is just being stupid? That's where I'm drawing a line. I think we need to show a little mercy to the people who refuse to see these things in the Harry Potter stories. The fact that they have a hard time hearing and seeing them may, in fact, be testament to the underlying needs of people in our culture.

These are rich and complex stories. Our current culture is story-starved, I think, at least starved for good stories that really echo the true Story. Ms. Rowling has created stories in which people will hear more than they know, imbibe more than they realize. I'm not sure we should try hitting people over the heads by unpacking the "message" in these books, although I do love discussing and unpacking them among others who are eager to see what's there. I just wonder if we shouldn't let sleeping dragons least sometimes. That may be a more effective way to ensure that more people will read, enjoy and experience some deep formation of the heart through their experiences of these stories!

Some of the most basic things Rowling's stories show (show, not tell) are so basic that it would be easy to miss their import. One of the most important things of all might be the simple fact that there is more to this world than material reality. Spiritual reality, unseen reality, exists. We are people with souls, not just minds and bodies. And people with souls are worth loving. They're worth living for and dying for.

That may seem so basic that a lot of people will just skeptically raise their eyebrows and say "so?" But children are growing up not knowing these realities. If a fascinating and wonderful story with characters they love can help point them toward these realities, I for one want to cheer that on. And there are more explicit Christian truths to be mined in these stories as well. But I'm not going to hand a child Harry Potter (or for that matter C.S. Lewis' The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, which is far closer to straight allegory) and tell them to read it because it's good for them. I know it's good for them, but I'm going to give them the story knowing it will delight them as a story...and knowing that they will find instruction in the midst of the delight.

How conscious Rowling was of the Christian depth of what she had to say I don't know. It's hard to believe that some of the direction wasn't conscious, because it's so deeply engrained. On the other hand, that very depth could also point to an element of unconsciousness. Sometimes the book actually knows more than the writer, or helps lead the writer into places where they didn't at first intend to go. I think Rowling's recent comments about "struggling to believe" were very honest and also inform what was going on here. I think God was at work in Rowling's writing, not only in helping her to craft stories that will delight and instruct many people in our age, but in helping her to wrestle with and work out her own story, her own coming to terms with grief and death and love and choice and what it means to live in a fallen world between the now and not yet.

And a side note to the whole issue of how faith informed the writing. I find it interesting that some people are displaying a frustration with not knowing exactly how well-planned these books were. People seem to vaciliate between yearning to know all the details of Rowling's fictional world (with an assumption that Rowling knows all the details and can reveal them all if she so chooses) and a skepticism that she doesn't really know all the answers, didn't plan things carefully enough, and might even have contradicted herself in talking about the fictional world she's been writing for the past seventeen years. I think whatever contradictions might exist are perfectly understandable, given the length of her writing process and the complexity of the plot. In fact, months ago I remember writing here on this blog about how encouraged I was to hear that Rowling herself was surprised/saddened by writing in unexpected character deaths. Not that I wanted to see beloved characters die, but it struck me as hopeful that the writing process was still so lively for her that she could be surprised in the midst of it, even though she had repeatedly talked about how firm her ultimate direction was and how carefully she'd plotted. It gave me more confidence, not less, that we could trust the final direction and the ways in which she got there. And I don't think we were disappointed.

Sometimes I think one of the best things Rowling has done in the Harry Potter stories was to give our time and culture a Mirror of Erised, a glass into which we can look and find revealed, sometimes to our astonishment, our own heart's desires. Because I we look eagerly for answers about what happened to beloved characters (how did their lives turn out?) and ask questions about the still puzzling patterns in the less-revealed plots and the motivations of characters whose stories were not fully told, are we asking questions about our own lives as well as about the lives in these stories? Does the yearning to delve deeper into meaning, the longing for certainty that the author knew where the story was going, the hope for consistency to answers about this sub-creation, say something real about us? Might it not reveal a hunger to find meaning in our lives, a fully trustworthy Author behind the meaning, and a lovingly intentioned and crafted purpose behind the creation in which our stories play out?