Book Review – The Barber Who Wanted to Pray

In The Barber Who Wanted to Pray, the story unfolds as we join a family gathered together for family worship.  One of the children asks her father how come he could pray so beautifully.  In answer, the father tells them the true story of how Herr Peter once asked his famous client, Martin Luther, a very similar question.  Luther replies by writing the simple, yet profound classic, A Simple Way to Pray. He emphasizes three things to focus on or pray through: the Lord’s Prayer, the 10 Commandments and the Apostles’ Creed.  In the end, the family clusters together again to practice this new and exciting way of learning to pray.

I love children’s books and love that my children love books.  We were given R.C. Sproul’s book, The Prince’s Poison Cup a few years ago and my children have asked me to read and reread it.  It is a beautiful illustration of how Jesus Christ died willingly, taking God’s punishment for sin on himself and how the “poison” turns to sweet water.

When I received The Barber Who Wanted to Pray, I was expecting the same caliber of storytelling.  Alas, this was not the case.  In The Barber Who Wanted to Pray, I felt like the storyline was too forced and dry.  Much detail is given to the barber’s preparation for Luther’s shave (including a somewhat graphic musing about the possibility of killing Luther by cutting his throat with the razor!).  The opening details of the dad’s family worship routine seem overdone and geared towards providing an illustration of how family worship time could look.  Although I certainly think that such illustrations can be valuable, it felt misplaced in a children’s story.  A true test of a book’s ability to capture a child’s attention is, well, to read it to them.  Unlike The Prince’s Poison Cup, my children had a very hard time sitting through this book.

While the intent of the book (teaching our children how to pray) is very important, the execution of it in this particular book felt rushed and lacking the wonder of many of Sproul’s other children’s books.  The message of the book, especially Luther’s method of praying, is worth learning.  I would recommend those looking for resources on family worship to turn to Luther’s book itself  or to Voddie Bauchum’s book, Family Driven Faith  (a book which has issues of its own, but the chapter on family worship is invaluable.) 2/5 stars

(Thanks to Crossway’s Homeschool Book Review program for providing a review copy of this book.)

Book Review – Give Them Grace

Are you a parent who wants perfect kids?  Adjust your parenting style to any number of the hundreds of books on parenting currently in print and you’ll be the successful parent you’ve always wanted to be with the successful children you’ve always wanted!

Sadly, this is the message of many parenting books that draw the hopeful and discouraged to their pages with each new publication.  In Give Them Grace: Dazzling Your Kids with the Love of Jesus, mother and daughter team Elyse Fitzpatrick and Jessica Thompson want parents to be the best Christian parents they can be, raising Godly children.  So what makes this book any different?  The answer is found in the gospel and grace of Jesus Christ.  The path to successful parenting isn’t found in what parents do or even how children react to what parents do.  Such a method leads only to law and, as the book cover says, the law is “a set of standards that is not only unable to save our children, but also powerless to change them.”  Not only do they take aim at the path to successful parenting, but they offer a rethinking of what it means to be a successful parent.

Much of the book is focused, not on the behavior of the child, but rather the belief system of the parent.  You won’t find very much in the way of the “how-to’s” of child discipline, but rather solid principles intended to have parents examine their own attitudes and understanding of the concept of grace.  Further, this idea of grace is firmly grounded in what believers have been given through Christ’s finished work on the cross in paying God’s penalty for sin and obtaining our right standing before God.  Based on the parents’ understanding of gospel work in their own hearts, the authors then answer the question of successful parenting – that is pointing our children to God by modeling the grace of God in our lives.

There were two chapters that I appreciated the most: one (“The One Good Story) offers wise principles for pointing our children to the grace and love of God in various situations.  For example, the question often comes up (at least it does in my family) of which movies to allow children to watch.  Instead of giving a bulleted list of do’s and don’ts, the authors offer several questions to ask about how that movie (or other entertainment medium) will either point to or prevent them from seeing gospel truths.  In their own words, “Our hope is that if we have taught them how to discern the one good story and judge every other story by it, they’ll be better equipped to answer the wicked Imposter’s lies when they hear them.” (p.120) They also touch on the subject of modesty and, instead of going straight to the obvious question of “is it revealing?” they suggest principles that will get to the heart of the child and not simply outward appearances.

The second chapter I appreciated the most was Chapter 9 (“Weak Parents and Their Strong Savior”) in which the authors gently point out that sometimes, even after all our best efforts and trusting in God, our children may not live as believers.  This chapter dealt with seeming failure as parents.  But even here, the authors point us to the fact that God is honored and glorified in everything.  In what was perhaps the most poignant statement of the chapter, they write “What if he has called us to Jeremiah’s ministry rather than to Daniel’s? Is there room in your parenting paradigm for weakness and failure if weakness and failure glorify God?” (p.149)

Perhaps the one negative aspect of the book is the examples of conversations between parent and child.  The table in Appendix 2 (“Common Problems and the Gospel”) is helpful in keeping our focus on Christ and the gospel in various situations, but the examples of conversations given seem too overblown and forced.  While I certainly want to teach my children the beauty of the gospel and of Christ, it seems more than a little forced to relate losing a baseball game to the suffering of Christ.  There are times when we as parents simply need to be there for our children, encouraging them when they fail/lose and helping them to do better next time.  Does this mean that we are ignoring the gospel and only promoting selfish little bootstrap hoisters?  Absolutely not!  However, the adage “too heavenly minded to be of any earthly good” seems to apply here.

Give Them Grace gives us a much needed reminder as parents that changing our children’s hearts and the outcome of our parenting is not dependent on us.  Oh yes, God uses this tool for this change but ultimately it is God who does the changing.  I was encouraged to continually point my children to the love, beauty and grace of God that is ours because of Jesus.  (4/5 stars)

(Thanks to Crossway’s Homeschool Book Review program for providing a review of this book.)

Book Review – The Organized HomeSchooler

As the principal of the “School of Smooches,” I’m always interested in learning different ways to encourage both my wife and my children in their academic activities.  Even though it’s my wife who does 99.9% of the teaching (and more than earns her title of Director of Family Operations), I try to be on the lookout for ways in which I can help.  When I received Vicki Caruana’s book The Organized Home Schooler from Crossway’s Home School Book Review program, I was very interested in learning how we could be more organized.

In her book, Caruana goes over the importance of organization.  She points out areas where organization could be of benefit such as Thoughts (ch.3), Time (ch.4), Space (ch.5) Supplies and Materials (ch.6),  Paperwork (ch.7) and Family (ch.8).  The chapters dealing with supplies and paperwork contained the most practical information , offering advice on how best to file away your school items.  She offers good suggestions on keeping the organizational system simple (K.I.S.S.) and making sure to involve everyone.  If everyone isn’t on board, the system won’t be as effective.

Sadly, this is the extent of worthwhile nuggets from the book.  The vast majority of the book is spent trying to convince the reader of the importance of an organizational system and comparatively little amount of space actually being organized.  As I read through the book, I felt like saying “Ok, I get it.  You think organization is important.  Now where is the practical advice?”

The worst part of the book, however, was not the browbeating of “you need to be organized” but rather the spiritual implications the author made of NOT being organized and the complete misapplications of Scripture (such as her comments on Proverbs 31) in order to defend her view of organization.  According to this author, an individual who is “anxious, confused, full of despair, fearful, [and] even angry…[is] experiencing the consequences of a disorderly life.” (p.18)  Further, in one of the end-of-chapter Check Lists, Caruana states: “I realize that my children and the success of their homeschool experience depends upon my level of organization.” (p.20)  Caruana ties disorganization together with unbelief and simply not trusting God.  Still further, Caruana gives a list of reasons why someone might not be as organized as they could be in their schedules and in response to these reasons states, “If any of these statements or others like them describe your reaction to the word schedule, I suggest you prayerfully consider your motives for saying them.” (p.48)  Even a person’s choice of “escape” is targeted by Caruana’s misinterpretation of Jesus’ invitation to “come to me and I will give you rest.”  She says, “God asks that we come to Him for rest—not to television or the Internet or even a good book.  This isn’t to say that these things are off-limits, but don’t use them as an escape.  God is our refuge and strength.  When we choose to ‘veg out,’ we leave room for the enemy to corrupt our thinking.  So as you look to rejuvenate, focus on the things above by going to God’s Word.”  (p.108)  Trite comments like these abound throughout the book that the author does not expound on or explain just what this is supposed to look like.  Apparently, the organized homeschooler should only find “rejuvenation” in reading his or her Bible and praying, a concept that I find nowhere in Scripture.

Ultimately, while the book has a few things of value, they are so wrapped up in a warped view of Scripture as to not be worth the time trying to sift them out.  Many homeschool teachers are perhaps so stressed out about having the perfect schooling system, that for them to read this book that ties their spirituality to their lack of organization would certainly do more harm than good.  A much better book on homeschooling would be “Homeschooling for the Rest of Us” by Sonya Haskins.  (1/5 stars)

(Thanks to Crossway’s Homeschool Book Review program for providing a review copy of this book.)

Stop – Hammer time!

Anyone who knows me well enough will know that I have no problems listening to any genre of music.  The Bible does not put limits on what style of music is “acceptable” and what is not.  As Bob Kauflin points out in Worship Matters, “Scripture doesn’t come with an accompanying soundtrack.”  Music as an art form can be and should be enjoyed across many kinds of styles.

Although music is amoral, that certainly doesn’t mean that it cannot affect emotions, attitudes, etc.  In fact, music that DOESN’T affect us in some way isn’t very good music.  The challenge for me comes in trying to teach discernment to my tween-who-thinks-he’s-a-teen.  For awhile now, he’s been into all things “cool” which I suppose is a very subjective category, but apparently includes any kind of music that is fast.  This certainly isn’t a problem in and of itself.  But with the “all things cool” category came the “I’m too cool for you or your kind of music” attitude.  That’s when the music becomes a problem.  I’ve had to take away some privileges like his MP3 player.  But I think we were both getting frustrated because no ground rules had been set up for the music he is allowed to listen to.  This is mainly because I was having a hard time coming up with something that my very non-abstract, linear-thinking son could “get.”  Then I had an idea.

Carlos has started to be interested in working with tools, banging nails, and building things.  Unfortunately, whenever he uses my tools, he has a tendency to leave them outside instead of putting them away.  Monday evening I took him out on a date to Chick-Fil-A, but first we went to Home Depot to buy a hammer.  As we ate, I told him that the hammer was a gift from me.  Then we talked about the proper ways to use and take care of a hammer.  You don’t go around hitting people, windows or cars and you don’t throw the hammer around like a ball.  A hammer is used for building things.  A misuse of his gift might end up with the hammer being taken away.

Then we talked about the gift of music.  I said that God has given us music to enjoy and to use for lots of different things, but mainly to praise Him.  But just like we can misuse the hammer doing things that it shouldn’t be used for, we can also misuse music, even “good” music.  Music can make us proud, unkind, and arrogant if we let it.  We can use it to praise God for the beauty he has created or we can use it to praise ourselves.

We agreed on three ground rules for music that he can listen to (borrowing a little bit from Todd Stocker’s Infinite Playlists);

  • No songs with lyrics that speak unkindly, uses God’s name in vain, or  talks bad about God
  • If I see that any particular music is affecting his attitude or his interactions with others negatively, I’ll remove it from his music collection.  It’s one thing to have a bad day every now and then, but as a dad, I can tell when his attitude starts to go downhill and more often than not, it’s because he is letting his need to be “cool” control him.
  • If he’s not allowed to listen to it, he’s not allowed to talk about it.  This one is a big one for Carlos.  He LOVES to talk about things he perceives as cool and if they are forbidden, he wants to talk about them all the more.   This only adds to the temptation to break the rules.

By the end of our date, I felt like we had made a connection.  Only time will tell how much sank in and I fully expect to have to go over these rules again.  But hopefully Carlos will better understand and be able to make wiser choices about what he allows to affect him, and be able to hear the gospel in songs that we sing while not giving in to the “I’m too cool” attitude.  And of course, I hope I don’t catch him hammering on his siblings.

Book Review – God’s Mighty Acts in Creation

There is an abundance of children’s books that talk about the various aspects of creation.  These books usually go something like this: “On day 1, God created this, on day 5 God created that, etc.  What a wonderful world we live in!”  Illustrations abound picturing the different things created on different days.  More often than not, what is missing is turning a child’s focus from the creation back to the Creator.  When asked to review Starr Meade’s book God’s Mighty Acts in Creation, I thought this would simply be another book along those lines.

However, from the first chapter in the book, I realized that this book was very different from other stereotypical creation books.  Meade does follow the Day 1, Day 2 pattern seen in Genesis 1, but that’s as far as the similarities go.  Each two-page chapter discusses something created on a particular day and how that created thing illustrates an aspect of God’s character.  For example, for Day 1 Meade points us to the holiness of God, illustrated in the creation of light (“God is light and in him is no darkness at all” – 1 John 1:5); or to Jesus, the Light of the World.  We see the mountains pointing us to the eternity and unchangeableness of God.  God’s goodness is seen in the abundant variety of foods that were created.  The vastness of space points us to a God without limit.  Additionally, for each thing created, we are told about a time when God overruled how the created thing usually operates, showing that God is owns every part of creation and can do what he pleases with it.  For example, he showed his power over the sun and moon when he made them stand still for Joshua and the children of Israel.  Meade starts with an aspect of creation and beautifully draws our attention to the One who created it.

While the book is rather small (only 109 pages), it is jam packed with wonderful truths about God as illustrated through creation.  Because each chapter is a short two pages long, it is perfect for family devotions or for middle aged children to read on their own.  Very few children’s books have left me excited to start using it for our family Bible time, but God’s Mighty Acts in Creation certainly does have me looking forward to reading with our children the many ways God’s beauty is seen in creation.

Disclaimer: Thanks to Crossway’s Homeschool Book Review program for providing a review copy of this book.  I was under no obligation to write a positive review.

Book Review – Bringing Up Girls

When it comes to family psychology, there is perhaps no other name more well known among conservative evangelicals than Dr. James Dobson, founder of Focus on the Family.  Ten years after publishing his popular book on parenting boys, Dobson has penned the companion book, Bringing Up Girls.  In it, Dobson offers advice and insight from a clearly conservative viewpoint.  Speaking mainly to fathers, Dobson addresses issues such as femininity, beauty, sex, bullying, education and purity.  Much of the book addresses the physiological and psychological make up of “the fairer sex.”

The chapters that I appreciated the most were, oddly enough, the ones in which Dobson does relatively little talking.  One such chapter is devoted to young women talking about the things they remember – whether good or bad – about the fathers.  Reading about the profound impact of even the smallest things that their fathers had done impressed on me the importance of fathers in the lives of their daughters.   It is to this point that Dobson returns continually throughout the book and with good reason.  He quotes many statistical studies that emphasis the importance of fathers.

Another such chapter that was helpful and very practical was the contribution by Bob Waliszewski, director of Focus on the Family’s Plugged In department in which he offers advice on “protecting your daughter from invasive technology.”  He encourages parents to be involved in and aware of the media activity that their daughters are involved in (including but certainly not limited to the Internet).  He lists “Ten practical steps  every parent should take” in how to “train up your daughter to plot a safe course through today’s entertainment and technological land mines.”  These steps include “teach the WWJD [what would Jesus do?] principle,” “instill media-related biblical principles,” “model it”, “develop a written family media covenant,” and encouraging accountability with a friend.

While most of the book was somewhat informative on the psychological level, I found it to be lacking in practicality.  Additionally, Dobson’s conservatism constantly came across as overblown hype, decrying the decadent culture in which we live.  While our modern culture is most assuredly headed in the wrong direction, it seems that Dobson can’t help but highlight the most discouraging and depressing aspects of it, even while attempting to point out “the good news.”  He often seems to go overboard in denouncing things that aren’t necessarily wrong, but that he simply doesn’t like.

Lastly, it should be pointed out that while Dobson dedicates his last chapter to teaching the gospel and Scriptures, this addition seems almost like an afterthought or just an extra safeguard to help parents.  The emphasis of the power of the gospel in all our lives including parenting is missing, but I’m not sure whether I should have expected more in this area from Dobson.  This book should not be read as coming from the standpoint of Scripture, but rather from the standpoint of moral and social conservativism.

While the book has some merits to it especially for dads, I feel like there are other books that are more worthwhile to read on this subject.

(Thanks to Tyndale House Publishers for providing a review copy of this book.)

Turn in your hymn books to…

All my children love to sing, dance and listen to music.  They also love to “play church.”  I remember doing the very same thing when I was their age.  My sister, brother and I would line up all our stuffed animals in a row, play some music of some sort or just make up our own, then someone would “preach.”  The “preacher was usually me since Michael was too young and Sharon, well, no women preachers and all that.  Occasionally a bear would get converted or a dog might “rededicate his life.”  But the outpouring of the Spirit was rare.  But I digress.

So it is often with fond memories when I watch my kids doing the same thing.  This morning, we were busy get ready for church.  As I walked past the living room, I noticed Jeremiah, Natalie and Ben holding pieces of paper and were singing “Holy! Holy! Holy!” — or what they could remember of it — with great gusto.  Jeremiah, apparently the designated song leader, then said “Now turn to #136.”  As they started singing “My Soul finds rest in God alone”  my heart swelled with love and pride for them.  Here they were singing two great songs praising our God.  Alas, the moment was short-lived.  Next on the kindergarten liturgy:  Jeremiah launched into the final song with just as much gusto – “Pants on the ground, pants on the ground, looking like a fool with your pants on the ground!”  Sigh.  Back to the drawing board.

All together now on the last verse.