How to Stop, Look, and Read Some Frederick Buechner

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I can’t believe I had made it this long in life without reading a Frederick Buechner book from cover to cover, especially because I’ve savored excerpts from his works for years. I’m so thankful Zondervan sent me his two latest releases to review – A Crazy, Holy Grace: The Healing Power of Pain and Memory and The Remarkable Ordinary: How to Stop, Look, and Listen to Life,. His writing is authentic, thoughtful, provoking, and wise. I found myself underlining and going back to re-read passages. Some of his thoughts may not have been new to me, but his use of words caused me to stop, pause, and reflect.

In A Crazy, Holy Grace: The Healing Power of Pain and Memory, Buechner looks at the age-old question: when pain is real, why is God silent? Buechner has truly been a “steward” of his pain, a remarkable idea he brings forth in this book. Since the loss of his father at a young age, Buechner has learned hands-on what it means to steward painful things that happen during the course of our lives, rather than trying to forget painful events or feeling trapped by them. He writes that God does not sow the pain, he does not make the pain happen, but he looks to us to harvest treasure from the pain. If we bury the pain and don’t face it, our life shrinks. He writes that miracles can happen when we are willing to open the door into our pain, and share out of the depths of our lives. I couldn’t agree more. When I have been willing to be vulnerable with others, and share the truths I have learned from the depths of my deepest pain, people have come forward to say, “me, too.” That is the miracle – to know that you’re not alone.

In The Remarkable Ordinary: How to Stop, Look, and Listen to Life, Buechner teaches invaluable lessons on the importance of examining your life. This book feels particularly poignant in this season of my life as a stay-at-home mom. My days feel long and sometimes predictable and mundane, and often ordinary. Buechner invites readers to look beneath the surface, to stop, to pay attention. There is sacredness to be discovered, even in the midst of the mundane and ordinary. What a perspective changer! I love how he helped me see my life through the lens of an artist, who frames and captures a moment in time on canvas. This is an important read for all to “become more sensitive, more aware, more alive to our own humanness, to the humanness of each other. Look with Rembrandt’s eye, listen with Bach’s ear, look with X-ray eyes that see beneath the surface to whatever lies beneath the surface.” This would also be a great read for a small group to read together in the New Year, to set the tone for a new way of living and experiencing life together. I highly recommend!

 

 

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Bible Girl Is At It Again

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Once upon a time (or more like 6 years ago), I was known as Bible Girl in my office. Unfortunately the title did not come with a cape or special powers, but my boss liked to call me that as I managed the Bible publishing for the NRSV Bibles. He also liked to joke with me that I was having Bible study all day as I edited study notes for various study Bibles. Truly… it was kind of like a Bible study all day. I joked back that if he saw me with my head on my desk that he shouldn’t be concerned and that he should just know that I was praying. Although I love my title as Mommy and being COO of our household, I do miss those days of being Bible Girl.

So, when I was asked to review a study Bible for kids, I jumped on the opportunity. I was so thrilled to receive an advance copy from Zondervan for The NIV Kids’ Visual Study Bible! I really think this Bible will fill a gap – especially for inquisitive tweens or for youth leaders or parents who need a resource to further explain key events in the Bible in an age-appropriate format.

The introduction to each book of the Bible delivers a quick and helpful summary and review. The layout is beautifully designed (although the Bible text is a bit small) – the single column Bible text is paired alongside a column of study notes, pictures, graphics and maps. The headlines for the study notes are attention-getting to help get your tween to dig back into scripture. I really think tweens will enjoy reading the LifeLines (a timeline of key Biblical figures with a chronological listing of key events in their life paired to their age when the events occurred as well as a Biblical reference). I also thought the comparison charts were very intriguing (i.e. comparing the number of parables in each Gospel) and the timelines were very informative and helpful (i.e. summary of what happened during each day of the week during Passion Week or what happened each hour on Good Friday).

There are maps and archaeological photos interspersed throughout to help further explain events in the text. Some photos or illustrations feel like filler and are a bit distracting and unnecessary. This is the tough balance to pull off in a Bible for kids – keeping them engaged and drawn back to scripture, rather than distracting them away from the text.

I also think this Bible would be best used in a Bible study, youth group, family devotions, or in a Sunday School setting. Unless your tween is driven to dive into study on their own, they may get lost with the amount of content here… and the content is rich and worth reading and it would be a shame to be overlooked! It would be great if Zondervan could produce an online reading plan or methods on how to get the most out of this Bible to set this Bible up for success for parents and youth leaders.

The 2014 Reading Recap

I’m a little late on posting a “Best-of” list for 2014, but better late than never they say. I make it my duty in our house to read “what’s new on the best-seller list” or “what book will be turned into a movie.” Carl, on the other hand, will only read books by dead authors as those books have stood the test of time. He may be right, but again, I’m doing my duty to keep this household balanced. Here’s a recap on the pages I turned during the past year.

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 Fiction
The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion (A refreshing and funny romantic comedy about a socially challenged genetics professor on an unusual quest to find love.)
Follow the River by James Alexander Thom (An incredible story of resilience and survival of a woman who escaped after being taken by Shawnee Indians. Based on a true story.)
Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter (A great beach read. It may just make you want to move to Italy.)
Tell the Wolves I’m Home by Carol Rifka Brunt (Wonderful character development in this story about fourteen-year-old June Elbus, and the relationship she had with her uncle, the renowned painter Finn Weiss.)
The Fault in Our Stars by John Green (Some Y/A fiction is good for the brain sometimes. Honest portrayal of two teenagers battling cancer and falling in love.)
The Giver by Lois Lowry (This book was a page turner for me and would provide an interesting discussion for a book group. It’s the story of a teenage boy who lives in a futuristic perfect society where everything is under control. There is no war or fear or pain. There are no choices.)

 

Faith/Spirituality
• How God Became King by N.T. Wright (Wright explains how the gospels have been misunderstood while revealing the surprising, unexpected, and shocking news of the gospels.)
Simply Jesus by N.T. Wright (Wright shows how we have successfully managed to hide behind other questions and to avoid the huge, world-shaking challenge of Jesus’s central claim and achievement.)
Short Stories by Jesus by Amy-Jill Levine (Levine is a Jewish New Testament scholar who explores Jesus’ most popular parables, exposing their misinterpretations and making them lively and relevant for modern readers by providing the context and understanding of the 1st Century Jew).
Mom Seeks God by Julia Roller (Julia’s authenticity, humor, and honesty as a new Mom drew me in right away. I love that she didn’t try to gulp down all of the spiritual disciplines in one bite, but she broke them down into dissolvable nuggets that could be easily digested.)

Biography/Autobiography/Memoir:
Sparkly Green Earrings by Melanie Shankle (This is a heartwarming and hilarious look at motherhood from someone who is still trying to figure it all out.)
The Antelope in the Living Room by Melanie Shankle (Melanie shares the holy and the hilarity of that magical and mysterious union called marriage.)
Bittersweet by Shauna Niequist (Shauna explores the bits of wisdom and growth we earn the hard way, through change, loss, and transition.)
Wild by Cheryl Strayed (This is Cheryl Strayed’s story of hiking more than a thousand miles of the Pacific Crest Trail from the Mojave Desert through California and Oregon to Washington State with no experience or training.)
My Best Friend’s Funeral by Roger Thompson (A memoir of friendship, doubt, surfing, and the complex relationships between fathers and sons.)
Holidays on Ice by David Sedaris (Hilarious account of David’s experience being a Macy’s elf in Santaland in NYC.)

Cooking (+ Memoir):
Dinner: A Love Story by Jenny Rosenstrach (Honest reflections on cooking for a young family with tried and true and simple recipes.)
Bread and Wine by Shauna Niequist (This book is a collection of recipes and essays about family relationships, friendships, and the meals that bring us together.)

Please share any favorite reads from the past year so I can add them to my 2015 reading list!

What I’ve Been Reading. Or, Short Chapters Make for Happy Mommy

My husband likes to say that I read for a living. (I think he might just be a little jealous.) Yet, this description isn’t completely false. When I’m not reading a book so I can write a small group guide, or reading a friend’s manuscript or advanced reader’s copy, I’ve been reading books that are like warm water on your feet. Or, ice cold water on a hot day. Or a piece of dark chocolate melting in your mouth. Books that are feeding my soul but not straining my brain. Because at the end of the day of maneuvering the emotions and demands of a 3-year-old, that’s about all this mommy can handle.

I’d like to introduce you to a few that I’ve recently finished. And, get this, the first book has no words. Brilliant.

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Noah: A Wordless Picture Book, by Mark Ludy
I was immediately drawn in to this book by the beautiful images displayed on each page. (And, yes, I was also drawn in by the title which resembles another someone special in my life.) I love how the artist depicted the loving and supportive relationship between Noah and his wife. I also thought it was interesting to see the timeline of constructing the ark against the backdrop of Noah’s son being born and growing into a man. Most importantly, this book made me want to go back to the Bible and spend time re-reading the story of Noah in Genesis 6-9. Although the book may be too advanced for toddlers, my 3-year-old son is captivated by it and wants me to “read” the book to him over and over again in my own words. Each time, we find something new to explore and share.

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When I’m done reading Curious George to my little guy and the dishes are done, I’ve been plopping on the couch with one of the following books. Each memoir has super short chapters that are not necessarily connected to each other – more like short essays on life as a mom, wife, and friend. This has been just my style after a long day.

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The Antelope in the Living Room: The Real Story of Two People Sharing One Life, by Melanie Shankle
This was my first introduction to Melanie Shankle. I loved her humor, perspective, and ability to make fun of herself and the situations that married life threw at her. Each short chapter walks you through her life from singleness to dating to engagement, and finally marriage. The title references the compromising that is central to every marriage, for better or for worse. She is very relatable and can even cross generation and gender lines in her style and message. I brought this book on a family vacation and would often leave it on the table. Occasionally I’d find my 75-year-old father-in-law reading the book and chuckling to himself. I also loved that in unexpected moments in the book, she’d turn the corner and bring depth to her story by sharing how God was molding and refining her in the process. “Not one thing we have done changes that we are his. He created us and loves us with a love more fierce and loyal than any we will ever know.” – Melanie Shankle

 

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Sparkly Green Earrings: Catching the Light at Every Turn, by Melanie Shankle
This is a great read for the pooped-out-mom who doesn’t have huge bandwidth for heavy reading. It’s poignant, relatable, and makes you feel like you have a friend on this journey of motherhood. She shares the good, the bad, and the hilarious from the moment she found out she was pregnant, to her initial days as a Mom, to managing expectations in an over-achieving preschool. Each chapter is short and easy to pick up during a nap time or right before falling asleep when you crash into your pillow to start your day as a mom all over again. I do feel like Melanie skimmed over some of the harder moments in her journey as a mom (i.e. her miscarriage and her decision to only have one child). I wish she would have opened up a bit more about those aspects and gone into greater depth, as I believe her audience could really benefit from her perspective.

 

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Bread and Wine: A Love Letter to Life Around the Table with Recipes, by Shauna Niequist
I had the privilege of hearing Shauna speak about this message before diving into the book. During her talk as well as in her book she shares how the message of Bread and Wine evolved from being not only about entertaining and sharing her favorite recipes, but a journey of shedding light on her shame with body issues or having a not-so-perfect house. I soaked up her honesty and wit and often would linger on a thought from her book as I struggled with my own perfectionist tendencies. Bread and Wine is about inviting people to the table and not worrying about what you’re serving or whether your house needs an intervention from Hoarders before you let people in your front door. It’s about community and living life together and the importance of sharing a meal. I have devoured almost all of the recipes and have had so much fun connecting with friends across the miles, who are also reading this book, on the latest recipes they’ve tried from Bread and Wine. She even includes a book group discussion guide, menu plans, and sample menus for entertaining. (And if you must know, here are my favorite recipes: Flourless Chocolate Brownies, White Chicken Chili, Annette’s Enchiladas, and Esquites.) I keep this book alongside my recipe book collection.

 

Happy Reading!! Let me know what you’re reading too!

The Noticer

Picture 3I must admit that I had high expectations for The Noticer, by Andy Andrews. Maybe it’s because it was hyped up by the publisher, or because it was written by the New York Times best-selling author of The Traveler’s Gift. One of the endorsers even said, “This is the best book I have ever read in my life.” I was ready for this book to be a page-turner. It wasn’t.

At first, I was immediately drawn in by the initial story when a hopeless young man named Andy, who was living under an ocean pier, encountered an older man named Jones. Jones mysteriously knew everything about Andy’s life, and began to offer him some perspective. Slowly you see hope breathed back into Andy’s life again.

The book, which blends fiction and allegory, moves along chapter to chapter with Jones “noticing” others who feel like there’s no purpose for living. Jones continues to offer each person “perspective” on their situation and always seems to walk into someone’s life when his advice is needed most.

The book’s redundancy began to frustrate me, as well as some of the close connections to other best-selling books. Was Jones supposed to be like “Papa” from The Shack? Jones also gave advice to a married couple that seemed to be verbatim from The Five Love Languages. And, how many times did I have to read how Jones introduced himself as “Jones…not Mr. Jones, just Jones”? I couldn’t help but roll my eyes at times.

Even though I wouldn’t give this book an enthusiastic thumbs up, I did find an inspiring take-away for a new definition of wisdom: “The ability to see into the future the consequences of your choices in the present.”

His Name is Jesus

61shkfmbp5l_ss500_“Christ lived the life we could not live and took the punishment we could not take to offer the hope we cannot resist.” – Max Lucado

It’s only fitting that on the eve of Easter that I would be watching Ben Hur, dying Easter eggs, and reading His Name is Jesus, a compilation of Max Lucado’s writing on the life of Jesus. This book is a beautiful gift book that pairs Lucado’s writings on the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus with inspiring scenes from nature…. my favorite scene was from Yosemite, of course. It had been a while since I had read Lucado’s books – so it brought me back to my college days when I absorbed books like “When God Whispers Your Name” and “In the Eye of the Storm.” This book also features excerpts from Lucado’s other works, including “Six Hours One Friday” “He Still Moves Stones” and “He Chose the Nails.” It’s beautifully designed, and would be a great gift for a grandparent or the “hard to buy for” in-law.