Thankful Thursday – Summer 2016 Reading

Denial wouldn’t work if I tried. It’s no use. Technically, summer may last through September 21st, but fall has arrived. This was our first year ever that 1st Day of School pictures have a distinctly gray–not blue–background. The alarm sounds too early and too cold each morning and, once again, too much homework has crowded out leisurely days of reading.

One bright spot of fall? I have a thing: I work while others work, which to me means I can read (or write or–shudder–clean), but I can’t watch TV. Which means I am reading, perhaps even more day-by-day than I did during the summer.

So here’s what I did consume June through August 2016…

The Testament of MaryThe Testament of Mary by Colm Tóibín
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Drawing loosely from and applying generous creativity to the biblical narratives of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection, Toibin gives us Mary’s perspective on what happened to her son. While the writing is beautifully done, this is not a book for those easily offended by creative liberty. I, however, appreciated an extremely human portrayal of this oft-deified woman – wife, mother, friend. Luke 2 lightly comments that “Mary pondered all these things in her heart” – but as a woman in a patriarchal society, we don’t hear from Mary directly in Scripture.

Toibin doesn’t give us Scripture, but he gives us a literary look into the mind and heart of one of its central figures. What would that pivotal time in history have been like for those associated with Jesus? What would the crowd shouting “Crucify him!” have looked like, have smelled like, to Mary? What experience would Mary have had of crucifixion prior to Jesus’ own death? And once he died, then what?

The ExpatriatesThe Expatriates by Janice Y.K. Lee
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Great book! Three American women living as expats in Hong Kong find their lives intersecting in terrible, beautiful, and meaningful ways. Lee writes eloquently about how where we’re from and where we live help to shape our identities, and rains hope on those who move forward through tragedy.

The Book of SpeculationThe Book of Speculation by Erika Swyler
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Nothing like a deadline to incite a reading binge, I found out a few chapters in that the book would be due at the library, with no possibility for renewal, in three days. So I finished it fast.

If you have significant issue with tarot cards or the supernatural, this book isn’t for you. It is for those who like an unusual mystery involving always-unusual circus performers. Similar to Water for Elephants or The Night Circus, minus the same significant love story.

Luckiest Girl AliveLuckiest Girl Alive by Jessica Knoll
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Not my typical reading fare, I almost gave up on this early. Ani, the narrator, is not anyone with whom I would ever spend time – she wouldn’t give me a second glance anyway. But then I wondered: how does one end up this jaded and this driven? Ani obviously had a story to tell, so I kept reading what became an all-too-true to today’s headlines story (I’ll omit which headlines to maintain the mystery).

It’s not a perfect book and could have used another editorial pass. I thought the ending was satisfying, but confusing–did she find justice and peace? Or is she an unreliable narrator (reference the first day of school Honors English class conversation regarding whether Holden Caulfield is a reliable narrator in The Catcher in the Rye) and we’ve been fed a messy stank of lies…?

BTW, this book doesn’t hold a candle to Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl, to which it is compared on its cover.

What Is Not Yours Is Not YoursWhat Is Not Yours Is Not Yours by Helen Oyeyemi
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Did not finish. I read more than half the stories, which is the only reason I feel I can comment.

The first story, “Books & Roses,” was so so so great. I read it three times. I woke up in the night puzzling over the mystery; I fell asleep at night retelling it to myself as my own personal twisted bedtime story.

This compilation of stories, fairy tales and retellings, all turn at the twist of a key. True to fairy tale genre, they are dark, more Grimm’s than Disney for sure.

Oyeyemi is a talented writer, smart and deft. Her style reminded me of Kazuo Ishiguro’s in Never Let Me Go, another fantastic book that left me despairingly sick. When I realized that I was avoiding my nightly reading ritual because I was truly avoiding Oyeyemi’s stories, I decided to let her go. For now.

The Sky Is EverywhereThe Sky Is Everywhere by Jandy Nelson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Lennie’s beloved sister, Bailey, has died unexpectedly of heart issues while rehearsing to perform as Juliet in a college production. High school can be hard enough without having to deal with grief. And love, although thankfully love is more comfortably prevalent among teenagers than grief.

I love this book. Nelson is a poet and makes Lennie one as well, although Nelson’s poetry also runs through her prose in beautiful imagery and turns of phrase. The characters and story are true to life, the reality of messy family, messy grief, messy love, messy friendship.

Mess, beautiful mess, is the point. Lennie says, “As I make my way back to the table, something becomes clear: Life’s a freaking mess. In fact, I’m going to tell Sarah we need to start a new philosophical movement: messessentialism instead of existentialism: For those who revel in the essential mess that is life. Because Gram’s right, there’s not one truth ever, just a whole bunch of stories, all going on at once, in our heads, in our hearts, all getting in the way of each other. It’s all a beautiful calamitous mess. It’s like the day Mr. James took us into the woods and cried triumphantly, ‘That’s it! That’s it!’ to the dizzying cacophony of soloing instruments trying to make music together. That is it.” (p245)

Harry Potter and the Cursed Child - Parts One and Two (Harry Potter, #8)Harry Potter and the Cursed Child – Parts One and Two by J.K. Rowling
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

How fun to be back in Potterland! Harry & Ginny’s kids and Ron & Hermione’s kids are all off to Hogwarts while Harry and Hermione work for the Ministry of Magic. Life has never been easy for Harry et al, and Harry’s son Albus seems set on making sure it remains difficult.

As a play script, this book leaves more than usual to the imagination. However, those who have traveled with Harry from the cupboard under stairs at Privet Drive to Hogwarts to the final battle already have their imaginations fired up. It’s fast and fun and satisfying in all the right ways.

Life After LifeLife After Life by Kate Atkinson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Ironic that I had a conversation with a reader-friend and said, “So many books have been released recently about WWII. I understand the beauty-in-horror bit, but I find myself gravitating towards books that don’t involve the atrocities of war.” Meanwhile, I was already reading Life After Life and it immediately took a hard turn into WWII.

And yet… This book is again and again about life more than death. One choice leads to another, which leads to a completely different version of life. I decided to let the confusion of which decision and which version, the jumping forward and back through time, wash over me and it worked – I experienced life and more life in all its beauty and brokenness. The author claims that this book is about what it means to be British but, speaking as one who is not British, I’d say it’s more about what it means to be human.

The Tiger RisingThe Tiger Rising by Kate DiCamillo
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Second time through this short, stunning book, both times as a read-aloud with Tween. The first time through, my boy was in 2nd grade, and this was the first book that touched him so deeply he wept until he couldn’t read the words on the page. This book taught him the power of literature to move us through its perspective on truth and beauty. At the time he wailed, “Why? Why are we reading this sad, sad book?” But it didn’t diminish his desire to read – even the sad books. If anything, it taught him to lovingly anticipate the heart-and-mind adventures that await him in Storyland.

Which tells you little about the book itself. Broken boy discovers broken tiger in a cage in the Florida woods. Broken boy meets broken girl and introduces her to Tiger. Together they find the courage to face their individual hurts and find healing which flows to others. A beautiful coming-of-age story by one of our favorite authors.

Give

Do you know what gift(s) God has given you to build up His Church? If not, I highly recommend taking this quick test. (There’s also a test for youth if that’s you or someone you love).

Similar to family chores, we all have a role to play in God’s family and through our God-given gifts God directs us to particular works of service.

A few initial thoughts:
*God gives gifts to His children.
*God’s best gift is faith in His Son, Jesus Christ.
*God intends us to use the gifts He gives us.
*Using our gifts will give glory to God and build up His Church.

It should be easy, and thankfully sometimes it is.

Prepping for this post, I had a great conversation with Tween. I asked, “What great gifts have you given and received?”

He mentioned a video game we bought him that encouraged creativity and community. And he mentioned two gifts he’d given: his well-loved but in great shape tricycle to a young friend, and “God” to his friends.

Mama’s heart skips a beat: Tween recognizes that he introduced some of his best friends to His Best Friend, Jesus.

I asked what gifts he thought God had given him to serve the church, and at first he didn’t think he had a gift, that God had skipped him or not yet come to his name on the divine list.

But as we talked, he began to realize that he has Faith, that he “knows things about God” that might not come as easily to other people (Teen took the “youth” version of the spiritual gifts test and has the gift of faith, too). And he cares deeply that his friends know Jesus. So faith and evangelism, maybe. He’s still young.

Tween decided that a great way to develop the gift of faith, to be sure he knows the Truth of God and not just his own ideas about Him, will be to keep the Bible and a headlamp next to his bed so he can read the Bible when he can’t sleep. This kid has never slept well and I can’t think of a better thing for him to do when he’s not sleeping.

Other times, evidence of the fallen world we live in, using our gifts isn’t as easy.

I’ve seen the movie “Frozen” three times, once in the theater when it first came out and twice since. It ranks up there with “The Lion King” as one of my favorite Disney movies.

New Year's Eve "Frozen Fractiles" on our windshield

New Year’s Eve “Frozen Fractals” on our windshield

The main story line centers on the relationship between sisters. But I see a story of giftedness and love, one with definite implications for God’s people.

Elsa has a gift. Fear and criticism have caused her to hide not only her gift but herself, have cut her off even from those who should be and long to be closest to her [hide the girl, the gift, and the love]. When an accidental use of her gift outs her she walks away, again, this time determined to let her gift flow free [hide the girl and the love, let the gift out]. But the gift sans love has drastic far-reaching consequences. Elsa’s gift can only be used rightly, and Elsa herself will only be free, when the girl, gift, and love intertwine.

The impossibly catchy, played-to-death song “Let It Go” says what we might like to say to our critics:

Let it go, let it go
Can’t hold it back anymore
Let it go, let it go
Turn away and slam the door!

I don’t care
What they’re going to say…
It’s time to see what I can do
To test the limits and break through
No right, no wrong, no rules for me I’m free!

In other words, I no longer care what you think! I will be myself, use my gifts, see what I can do, rules-free, to hell with your fear and criticism.

But Elsa’s plan backfires, as do our attempts to hide ourselves and our gifts because of fear and criticism.

Fear and criticism can rock us straight out of comfort and onto the ground, beat up and bruised. The temptation to dust ourselves off and walk away, to hide, to stop using our gifts, can be enormous. Likewise with the temptation to stop caring, to think we’re free sans community.

But it’s not true, folks. God designed us to use our gifts, the very gifts He grace-fully bestows upon us, to build up His church and bless the world. Only when we use our gifts with love, in community, to His glory will we truly be free.

So what do we do with fear and criticism? Honestly, I’m not sure I have a good answer, just some thoughts:

*We need to listen, ego aside, to the reasons behind the fear and criticism. Maybe we have used our gifts inappropriately, or untimely, or without love.

*We need to develop our gifts to God’s glory. Maybe we have used them prematurely.

*We need to pray and pray some more. Did we use our gifts prayerfully, under the Spirit’s guidance? Can we together prayerfully resolve the conflict caused by fear and criticism?

*We need to seek refuge in God alone. God will direct us to the proper use of our gifts in His time and place. Maybe God is using fear and criticism to redirect us to another ministry.

*We need to seek the Spirit of peace and unity and resist our own fears and criticisms. Why should we fear someone using their God-given gift? Why would we criticize their giftedness? Sometimes we need to bite our tongues, to step on our egos and let God do His work without our meddling.

*Finally, we need to ask the Lord for courage to be the best US He has created us to be, and to use our gifts despite fear (our own and others) and criticism, because from time to time we will face both.

Justin McRoberts sang at our church yesterday and shared with us an original song, Courage to Believe. The chorus says:

Lord, give me eyes to see
Lord, give me strength to believe
You give me all I need
So give me courage to believe.

Lord, give us courage to believe that you have given us all we need to believe and to serve You!

Alright, already, on to Ephesians 4 which has some great stuff to say about gifts. I pray that God will release you to serve Him in love and grace.

Connect
Describe a significant gift you have given or received. What made that gift special?

Study
Read Ephesians 4:7-13.
Read Ephesians 1:20-23. What light can this earlier passage from the same letter shed on Eph. 4:7-8?
How would you explain to someone the significance of Christ’s ascension into heaven (vv. 8-10)?
For what purpose did Christ give the gifts mentioned in this passage (vv. 11-13)? In other words, what is Christ’s desire for His people and His Church?

Live
God gives gifts to people and He gives people as gifts to the Church. Describe some people you appreciate as gifts from God.
Paul lists other spiritual gifts in Romans 12:6-8 and 1 Corinthians 12:8-10, 28-30. How do these gifts add to the list in Ephesians 4? Where do you see your gift(s) listed?
What “works of service” do you particularly enjoy? Which works of service would you like to try?
How have you been equipped for service? How have you equipped others?
What is Jesus saying to you through this passage and how will you respond?

Pray
Pray that your worshiping community will experience the unity of the Spirit as we each exercise works of service.

Frost made even ordinary leaves something spectacular

Frost made even ordinary leaves something spectacular

Mickey Matters

I love Disneyland!

holiday castle

Not in an obsessive, appareled and home outfitted, pin collecting and trading sort of way (not that there’s anything wrong with that if that’s you), but still, I love it. Having grown up in SoCal, Disneyland was “in our backyard” and a regular excursion several times a year for family trips, youth group trips, school trips, you name it.

Of course, it wasn’t nearly so expensive then. Dating myself, I even remember the days of E Ticket rides when Disneyland was free and you paid per ride. And then the SoCal discount, which for a while got you in for about $25 admission.

Strange as it may sound, as a regular part of my life, Disney also influenced my theology.

*Disney encourages child-likeness and so does Jesus: “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 18:3). The wonder, delight, imagination and creativity Disney imbues into the smallest details lights up my soul and reminds me of the beauty our Creator God created into our world and our lives.

*This sign at the entrance to Disneyland

Disneyland sign

sounds reminiscent of this description of Jesus from Hebrews 13:8 – “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever.” Disneyland may change (becoming ever more delightful) yet The Magic Kingdom remains “the happiest place on earth.” For those who believe in Jesus, the Kingdom of God has come and we live in the joy-filled presence of the King yesterday, today, and forever.

*It’s not enough to go to Disneyland; you have to enter the Kingdom. Why wait at the gates and never spin the turn-style? Similarly, it’s not enough to go to church; you must enter into a relationship with Jesus. A whole new world becomes available when you enter the gates, when you say “Yes!” to Jesus. When Guy and I were in our 20’s we had a friend in her 40’s who lost the use of her legs to a childhood bout with polio. She loved Disneyland but, confined to a motorized wheelchair, she realistically thought her Disney experience was limited to shops, parades, shows, and Mr. Lincoln, which she thoroughly enjoyed. Content just to be in the park, she was still on the outside of the Disney experience. During one group trip to Disneyland we convinced our friend that Star Tours would be completely safe and doable. We entered through the exit (a small perk) and several of our strapping young men carried her into a seat. She was completely blown away! Having tasted the truth, what else could she try? Matterhorn, Space Mountain, the log ride, we did it all. The joy of the real Disney experience overflowed. It changed her, and it changed the rest of us as well. God’s hand at work didn’t escape our notice as we witnessed, participated in, a conversion unfolding before us. When you go all in, there is so much more to life in the Kingdom.

*And perhaps the most significant aspect of my Disney-influenced theology: hidden Mickeys. One spring, long before we had kids, Guy and I took five Disneyland trips with friends and family in the course of three short months. By trip three we began to get bored (gasp!) and then someone mentioned hidden Mickeys, the three circles that form the “classic” Mickey Mouse shape hidden in plain sight throughout Disney parks and animated films. The hunt for hidden Mickeys transformed our next trip. We looked for, and found, hidden Mickeys. We swapped stories with other hunters. And we observed that as we trained our eyes we saw Disneyland differently; as we train our eyes – and our hearts – to look for God, we see life differently. In Isaiah 6:3 the angels declare, ““Holy, holy, holy is the Lord Almighty; the whole earth is full of his glory.” But we won’t see the Lord’s glory unless we open our eyes to see it. We find what we seek.

And so it has been important for me to share Disneyland with my own kids. We moved away from SoCal when Tween was only a toddler; it has since required significant logistical (and financial) effort to create Disney memories. Five years ago we celebrated my birthday at Disneyland (our first trip to California Adventure); this week we spent two days there, likely our last trip while Teen still lives under our roof.

Disney theology aside, Disneyland can be completely over-stimulating, capable of bringing out your very worst self. Amid the happy faces we saw plenty of families fighting and young children screaming. It is real life on steroids. And so we look for miracles in the mundane, as extraordinary as this mundane may be.

Where did we see miracles?

*We put our cell phones away and shared conversation and experiences. We played together.

*We each compromised for the sake of the family. Tween doesn’t cherish big thrills while Teen lives for them. Teen put away his teen pride to ride Dumbo. Tween tried Space Mountain, Matterhorn, Indiana Jones. Afraid of heights, I braved Soarin’ Over California. When Tween decided that Space Mountain wasn’t scary, was in fact his favorite ride, Guy rode it more than once even though he doesn’t like it.

*I enjoyed one-on-one time with Tween while the others rode California Screaming, beyond Tween’s comfort zone. We rode the Under the Sea carousel and the Golden Zephyr, both of which he loved. I commented, “See? It’s fun to be a child!” to which he replied, “It is, and I think you enjoy being a child just as much as I do!”

*Of his own accord, Teen decided that he would bow to any little princess who made eye contact with him. He graciously played the role of prince and added to so many little girls’ wonder-filled day at Disney.

*We told stories from previous Disney trips and both created and re-created memories our kids will be able to share with their friends and family.

If you live in SoCal, you can stop reading now as you probably have your own Disney do’s and don’t’s. If you’re planning a Disney trip, this is for you based on what worked and didn’t for us.

*Never, ever, ever buy tickets from a private vendor. With such a big heart of goodness, Guy trusts too willingly. He bought discount tickets from a young woman who claimed her grandmother bought tickets for the grandkids who couldn’t use them. She lied, took his money, and disconnected her phone. The tickets had been used (Disney takes your picture and associates it with the ticket bar code so tickets are completely non-transferable – which would’ve been good to know beforehand) and we had to buy tickets at the gate, a painful punch to the pocketbook.

*Go on a weekday. Friday Disney was at 64% capacity and it felt doable; Saturday it was at 81% capacity and it felt like 100%. Holiday time is extra-special with all the beautiful decorations.

*Comfort rules, especially, wear good walking shoes. We walked 25 miles in two days and that doesn’t count the hours standing in line. Fourteen+ hour days on your feet will take a toll even in the most supportive shoes.

*Where to stay: two ways to go… since you will really only sleep and shower in the hotel, you can go budget. You’ll want to be within easy walking distance, with an included continental breakfast, and affordable parking. Or save your pretty pennies and stay at the Paradise Pier. You’ll have a shorter walk and get into the park an hour before opening. We stayed at PP last time and I wish we’d made the same choice this trip.

*App at it. Seriously, download Disney’s park app. It will tell you wait times at lines which is oh so very helpful in deciding where to spend your time.

*Go with the flow. Pick a park, pick a direction, and go for it. Encourage everyone to try (just about) everything with an open mind and attitude.

*Know when to hold ’em, know when to fold ’em. We walked a fine line, gently nudging Tween beyond what he wanted to do while also respecting his boundaries. He may never go on Indiana Jones again, but especially after the ride broke and we had to be escorted out, it was important to us that he have the full experience before we left the park. California Screaming looks too “traditional coaster” and he knows he doesn’t like roller coasters so we let that one stand. Taking risks and setting limits are both valid options, a good life lesson.

*Lockers cost less than lunch. We stuffed a backpack with bagels and cream cheese, fruit, trail mix, and a water bottle, along with our jackets for after sundown, and stuck them in a locker. As food averages $10-15/person/meal, the locker saved us significantly on lunch.

*Put the cell phones away. Our kids left their phones in the hotel; parents brought cell phones to use as cameras and to keep in contact when we went separate ways. This meant line-waiting actually became family time. We saw our kids faces instead of the tops of their heads.

*Caffeinate the kids. In generally we stay off sodas, but a caffeine jolt can really help get everyone through the day.

*Take advantage of Fast Pass, essentially a reservation to ride, but be strategic: if the wait time for Space Mountain is an hour, you’ll need to wait an hour until you can get another FP.

*Let the wonder captivate you. Disney does a great job creating “moments.” I got a little choked up during the holiday lighting of Small World. Not just me, the kids readily admitted it was cool.

holiday small world

Two days later and we are still recovering from Disney-induced exhaustion, but it was worth it. We closed our Disney adventure with Fantasmic, the show on the Rivers of the World, followed by fireworks. Fantasmic allows us access into Mickey Mouse’s dream where “beauty and love will always reign true.” After defeating his nightmares and dancing with his good guy buddies Mickey exclaims, “Now that’s a dream!” Which is just how I feel – we had quite a Disney dream. Until next time…

Bug bye