Friday, January 29, 2016

Stirring up Some Sanctifying Grace

The 3rd line in one of my favorite prayers is “Stir up in me the desire to please You.” This petition is the essence of sanctifying graceIn January here at PBT, I’m offering lists of books that connect with the 3 kinds of grace we talk about in the United Methodist Church and elsewhere.

Justifying grace is the kind of grace we commonly refer to as forgiveness or mercy. I gave you list of picture books that can be connected to that theological concept [here]. Prevenient grace was considered and a book list was given [here]. This kind of grace involves God’s ever-present, wooing sort of love that brings us into faithfulness. 

In contrast, sanctifying grace is the on-going encouragement of the Holy to bring us into better living, some might say towards perfection. This idea of becoming more faithful is evident in thought, word, and deed and is often symbolically represented by a journey or pathway. You see, God knows us so well and loves us so much that God doesn’t want us to stay the same.
In children’s literature, it is common to find characters that have growth arcs. There’s a problem the character(s) must face. The problem comes to a head. Next a resolution occurs and lastly growth is acknowledged in the end. Tying these kinds of stories to the idea of sanctification can be surprisingly easy. But don’t use that phrase with children. Instead use words and phrases such as growing, developing, or learning to live a more faithful life that pleases God (or Jesus or the Holy Spirit).

Here at PBT, there is a group of picture books that can easily connect to sanctifying grace. These are hero stories, whether biographies or fiction, these narratives demonstrate a character’s journey to greatness either in one pivotal moment or in a lifetime of learning. The latter is the case for today’s PBT feature. 

Through Jane’s Eyes: Lessons Learned from Dr. Jane Goodall is a biography of Jane Goodall written and illustrated by a class of 4th graders. Usually I don’t pick up these kinds of books because I assume they are of lesser quality than those written by adults, but I’m a big fan of Jane Goodall, whose quiet observations of African chimpanzees radically changed our view of non-human animals. 
I’m so glad I read it! The children distill so many of Jane Goodall’s discoveries, both personal and professional, while presenting parallel steps of her magnificent journey. Wonderfully, the children claim these lessons as their own. 

Here’s an example of the pattern: On the left page you have the lesson learned:
“Through Jane’s eyes we learned to never stop asking questions.”

And on the right page you find a personal aspect of Jane’s life in which she learned that lesson:
“As a child Jane was not only curious, but willing to wait for answers.”

Do you see how Jane’s lessons could be connected to sanctifying grace? Her life’s journey is about waiting, observing, learning, communicating, and changing the world. Children yearn for such meaningful lives. Adults too. I believe that God longs for us all to grow in such ways, perhaps not as dramatically as Jane Goodall, but God never gives up on us.
Picture Book: Through Jane’s Eyes: Lessons Learned 
                          from Dr. Jane Goodall
Author: Fourth Grade Students of Mendon Center 
                         Elementary School in Pittsford, NY
Original Publisher & Date: Scholastic, 2015
Age & Grade Appropriateness: 5 and up, K and up
Formats other than Book: None at present

Here’s a list of other PBT books about heroes and the dates of their blog post. These heroes’ lives can be easily connected to Sanctifying Grace:
Planting the Trees of Kenya (Wangari Maathai) – 
                         April 26, 2014
The Quiltmaker’s Journey (fiction) – May 2, 2014
Miss Rumphius (Alice Rumphius) – June 7, 2014
Me…Jane (another book about Jane Goodall) – 
                        August 14, 2014
Farmer Will Allen – September 9, 2014
Desmond and the Very Mean Word (Desmond Tutu) – 
                         September 19, 2014
With Books & Bricks (Booker T. Washington) – 
                         October 8, 2014
Nelson Mandela – November 28, 2014
Young Martin’s Promise (Martin Luther King, Jr) – 
                          January 19, 2015
Emmanuel’s Dream (Emmanuel Ofosu Yeboah) - 
                          April 17, 2015
Malala Yousafzai (3 books) – June 30, 2015
Alice Waters and the Trip to Delicious – 
                          August 14, 2015

Friday, January 22, 2016

Exploring The Holy Trinity

Here’s a hypothetical: Let’s say your faith community is planning around a  sermon series on the concept of The Holy Trinity. You want your whole faith family to explore this concept together organically, but it’s a tough concept for children. It’s a tough concept for adults! Remember, learning about The Trinity is a life-long journey so offering activities that connect with the sermons will enhance their learning journey if you consider their ages and experiences.

Picture Book Theology (PBT) is a big proponent of organic church programming that has folks in various settings talking about the same ideas. PBT encourages you to explore even complex theological concepts via literature that children (and adults) can connect to and relate to meaningfully. Encouraging children to experience the idea of The Holy Trinity in various contexts and within a variety of activities will lead to better understanding and richer meaning. Isn’t that what we all want in religious education?

The book I’m offering today is such a book. At the surface, One Family is a fun book about counting and collective nouns – those words that stand for a group of persons, places, or things. The numbers 1-10 are explored in order, but 1 is emphasized. Here’s a taste of the text pattern:

One is one. One lamp. One clock. One book to share.
One is two. One pair of shoes. One team of horses. One family.
After the number 10 is explored...
One is one and everyone. One earth. One world. One family.
The Holy Trinity is a collective noun so here a book about numbers and language can be transformed into a profound lesson about The Holy Trinity. 

In your lesson, read the book first, then connect it to the concept of The Holy Trinity. While reading, point out the collective nouns (you might want to call them “group words”) in the text. In later pages, let your children locate those words. After reading, continue with the pattern and play of the text to bring in the concept of The Holy Trinity by saying...
One is three.
Creator, Jesus, Holy Spirit (Use your terminology here.)
One is God.
One is the Holy Trinity. (Repeat.)

To teach these lines, present them visually and use movement in creative ways.  Eventually have them say the phrases with you. Explain that “Trinity” is a group word too. The children will more easily see the link if you make those connections with the text of the book in overt and subtle ways, such as in your voice tone, rhythm, and finger play. Refer back to the page in the book about the number 3. Offer other examples of threesomes that are seen as one (a Neapolitan ice cream cone, 3-leaf clovers, a fleur-de-lis, triangles of all sorts, etc.)

When talking about The Holy Trinity, be sure to get a sense of what the children know already. Build on that knowledge and reassure them. This concept is hard! If this picture book is too juvenile for your tweens and teens, go ahead and check it out because while reading it, you might be creatively inspired to design programs appropriate for those ages.
There are several aspects of this book that I especially love. It emphasizes the power of “one” which in turn emphasizes the power of unity. Such is The Body of Christ and The Trinity! Also, this is a great book for practicing counting with young children. Engage them in some choral counting while you read the book.

I use phrases like “family of faith” or “religious family” a lot here at PBT. This is an important value for me and this book fits nicely with that idea. If you share this value and use similar phrases, mention this in your lesson. 

One last benefit I’ll mention here is the way this book presents diverse families, diverse in membership, color, and culture. It is crucial that children’s books represent children’s realities so that the connections to self can be more easily made.
Picture Book: One Family
Author: George Shannon
Illustrator: Blanca Gomez
Original Publisher & Date: Frances Foster Books, 2015
Age & Grade Appropriateness: 4 and up, Pre and up
Formats other than Book: Tablet

Monday, January 18, 2016

Worship & Picture Books That Would Please MLK

It’s Martin Luther King, Jr. Day here in the states. To honor this man and the strides we have made in Birmingham, my church, First United Methodist, and Saint John’s African Methodist Episcopal Church, worshiped together yesterday. The music and message were so inspiring. I was especially moved when MLK’s I Have a Dream speech was recited by various congregants from both churches.

We have come a long way in downtown Birmingham and in my church where African American children and adults are beloved members and involved in planning and worship. Dr. King once said, “it is appalling that the most segregated hour of Christian America is eleven o’clock on Sunday morning.” If only he could have been present to witness the love and joy in our sanctuary yesterday and in the reception afterwards where we enjoyed one another.

Today’s books are offered in memory of Dr. King who I believe would have enjoyed reading them to his children.
The first book is a celebration of the ingenuity, determination and faith of pilot James Banning & mechanic Thomas Allen, the first African Americans to fly across the US. Despite the hardships of the Great Depression and the limits of segregation, these 2 men repaired a rundown plane. Friends, family, and people they met along the journey from Los Angeles to Harlem signed their names on the wings in exchange for food, supplies, and fuel. This story is a testament to what community, bravery, and perseverance can achieve.

The illustrations here are dazzling! You feel like you are riding beside them and you see some highlights of American geographical beauty. Children will especially love to hear that when it got really hot, the men rode in just their underwear! Be careful not to assume only African American children would enjoy this story, and please don’t set it aside because it is not February, Black History Month. You’ll find a Note from the Author who is amazed that he didn’t know more of this story since he is a student and teacher of history. He explains that the book is fiction but based on historical record.

The theological connections here are obvious. Both men say “Hallelujah!” when touching down safely and when lifting off the dirt of particularly racist locales. This flight could easily be connected to Biblical stories such as the journeys of the Israelites in the Wilderness, Jesus & his disciples, or Paul and other missionaries.

Picture Book: The Hallelujah Flight
Author: Phil Bildner
Illustrator: John Holyfield
Original Publisher & Date: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 2010
Age & Grade Appropriateness: 5 and up, K and up
Formats other than Book: Tablet
The other book I offer today has significantly more text, reads at a much higher level, and would be perfect for a private school or homeschool that is studying Christian perseverance or American heroes.
I confess I had not heard of Howard Thurman until I was in my 40s despite the influence he had on so many Christian theologians and ministers, including Dr. King who he mentored. 

Here we read Howard Thurmon’s life as having a continual thirst for knowledge, intellectual achievement, and opportunity. Despite living in segregated Daytona, Florida where there was one school for African Americans and it went only through 7th grade, Howard did become highly educated. His intelligence and passion for learning encouraged those who met him to facilitate his education. He became an influential theologian, minister, advocate for civil rights, and Dean of the Chapel at both Howard University and Boston College.

The most pivotal moment in this story occurs when Howard’s dreams are almost derailed by an unexpected expense at a railroad station while he was traveling out of town to attend a private high school. An African American bystander in overalls gives Howard the coins he needs to continue his journey.

Like the PBT book above, this book is a testament to the value of a spiritual journey and the support of community. In the story you’ll find phrases from Howard’s mother and grandmother that offer much in the way of theological discussion. They are:
God will take care.
Make a way, dear Lord, make a way.
God had made a way.

Picture Book: Howard Thurman’s Great Hope
Author: Kai Jackson Issa
Illustrator: Arthur L. Dawson
Original Publisher & Date: Lee and Low Books, 2008
Age & Grade Appropriateness: 7 and up, 2 and up

Formats other than Book: None at present

Friday, January 15, 2016

Refugees: An Uncomfortable, Relevant Issue

Lately, the dire struggles of refugees have been ever present in media and in corporate prayers. Children and teens are interested in these migrations because they are compelling stories that directly relate to the status of children & youth in general. Moreover, immigrant children are in many classrooms and churches so avoiding this difficult, controversial subject doesn’t make sense. 
Picture books offer an opportunity to present uncomfortable issues to children and teens in a non-threatening story context. With sensitivity to your audience’s maturity and perspective, you can intelligently encourage faith development that is meaningful and current. Besides, the scriptures are clear that this issue is important.

I recently heard an interview on my favorite podcast, On Being. Krista Tippet’s guest Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, a retired leader of British Judaism said, “…the one command reiterated more than any other in the Mosaic box (36 times) is 'love the stranger, for you were once a stranger in the land of Egypt.'” Then he offered a contemporary version incorporating the Great Commandment. “Love the stranger because to him you’re a stranger.”

Here’s another scriptural argument for treating refugees with loving intention: Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for therefore some have entertained angels unawares. (Hebrews 13:2)

In Matthew 25, Jesus explains that when we welcome strangers, we welcome Jesus. It seems clear to me that we are being asked to welcome and help, though I realize, such gestures and positions can be very complicated and risky.

Here I offer 3 books about refugees and 3 very difficult migrations. There will likely be more picture books published about this issue so don’t consider this an exhaustive list but rather a small sampling.

I recommend prayerful discernment when choosing the appropriate book and the position you put forth. Note the appropriate age recommendations. Be sensitive when delivering the material and supplemental activities you design. I'm glad to help you with that for a small fee. Just contact me via a comment. Help your children and youth connect to these issues by exploring what they have in common with the characters. Be sure to end with a hopeful tone and a sense that your church, either globally or locally, is trying to be Christ for these people because they are Christ to you. 

The first PBT offering is a new book that involves a young daughter and her father traveling through Mexico into the US. There is danger and boredom here. The images are quite realistic and the child is quite young. The two rabbits are symbolic of freedom at the end, but no resolution to the family's need for freedom, work, and safety are given. This story is about the journey and the longing. There are some remarks about refugees in the back.
Picture Book: Two White Rabbits
Author: Jairo Buitrago
Illustrator: Rafael Yockteng
Original Publisher & Date: Groundwood Books, 2015
Age & Grade Appropriateness: 6 and up, 1st and up
Formats other than Book: None at present

Next I offer a Coretta Scott King Honor book. Here young boys are alone and fleeing their war-torn homes in Sudan. As they travel, their numbers grow, eventually reaching a refugee camp where they meet Tom, an American. Going to school in that camp is highlighted. Because of war in Ethiopia, they must leave the camp and cross a river. This is frightening, but they are all reunited with friends and Tom. After many years, they are told they will travel to America. There is an inspirational element to this book, including references to prayers, which makes it all the more appealing for a faith-based context. An Afterward offers background information and details for the Lost Boys Foundation.
Picture Book: Brothers in Hope: The Story of the Lost Boys of Sudan
Author: Mary Williams
Illustrator: R. Gregory Christie
Original Publisher & Date: Lee & Low Books, 2005
Age & Grade Appropriateness: 7 and up, 2nd and up
Formats other than Book: None at present

This last book has been around for a while. Traditionally it is a book with the Thanksgiving holidays in mind, but it can be read any time of year. It is likely this family is from Cuba since they travel to America by boat. Their motor breaks though and they must sail for a long time. They are robbed by fellow seafarers and given food by a military contingent. Eventually they reach the shores of America and are welcomed in, another reason why these are likely Cuban refugees who, unlike those from other countries, are allowed to immigrate if they reach US soil. The Thanksgiving meal at the close is particularly meaningful to the refugees who have now found a new home. 
Picture Book: How Many Days to America?
Author: Eve Bunting
Illustrator: Beth Peck
Original Publisher & Date: Clarion Books, 1988
Age & Grade Appropriateness: 4 and up, Pre and up
Formats other than Book: Tablet

Monday, January 11, 2016

Newbery Award Winner is a PBT Featured Picture Book!

This morning it was announced that Last Stop on Market Street, by Matt de la Pena, won the John Newbery Medal. It's unusual for a picture book to win this award. It often goes to a children's chapter book.

This is a powerful story about a grandmother opening her grandson's eyes to the urban poverty in his city. It is also about the call to be in service to others who are hungry. This is the first time the Newbery Award has been given to an Hispanic author. 

I first heard about this book on NPR so you might want to listen to that piece as well as today's article about the win. This treasure was featured here on PBT on 2/11/15. Check it out! 

Prevenient: An Uncommon Word for a Common Kind of Grace

On June 19, 2015 I featured several books that I found in a Kohl’s department store. In that post I explained that Kohl’s has in their stores and on-line a small line of excellent hardback picture books which they offer cheaply ($5 at present) as charitable donations to local health and education initiatives, truly worthy causes. Here’s a link if you want to know more: 

The two book sets that I have seen at Kohl’s are near the front and highlight a particular author. At their most recent display, I picked up 3 books from author/illustrator Nancy Tillman and a wall calendar of her beautiful book illustrations. Below I tell you a little about those books, one of which I’ve already featured here at PBT. Furthermore, one of these books is the perfect tool to explain “prevenient grace” which I mentioned in my January 4, 2016 post. 

I promised you a list of great picture books on PBT that highlight each of the 3 types of grace that my church delineates. I offered a list for justifying grace on January 4, 2016. The list of books which offer potential for conversations about prevenient grace ends this post. Later this month, I'll offer a list about sanctifying grace.

This beautiful book, featured in a detailed post here on January 31, 2015, is one of three books by this author featuring humans interacting with exotic animals in unusual and playful ways. The text in all three emphasizes a loving, knowing relationship that will likely have you initially thinking of a parent/child relationship. I suggest that for each of these books, a God/child of God relationship can be considered as well. Either view offers connections to portions of Psalm 139, my favorite psalm. From vs. 1, you have “You have searched me and known me.” And in vs. 7, there is “Where can I go from Your spirit?”

Picture Book: I’d Know You Anywhere, My Love
Author & Illustrator: Nancy Tillman
Original Publisher & Date: Feiwel & Friends, 2013
Age & Grade Appropriateness: 4 and up, Pre and up
Formats other than Book: Tablet, Audio

This Nancy Tillman book celebrates our unique gifts and the ways in which even our small acts “blossom and multiply” making our world more complete. Such affirmations for children, teens, and adults are surely welcome in a world that too often offers us messages of hopelessness or even worse, worthlessness. Tap into how this book connects with concepts of God’s call and our vocation and giftedness.

Picture Book: You’re Here for a Reason
Author & Illustrator: Nancy Tillman
Original Publisher & Date: Feiwel & Friends, 2015
Age & Grade Appropriateness: 4 and up, Pre and up
Formats other than Book: Tablet

Here Tillman offers a beautiful exploration of a pure sort of parental love, a love that has unfathomable dimensions of time, distance, presence and desire for deeper relationship, a love that is holy and godly and wonderfully prevenient (anticipatory and constant) and is not defined by behavioral terms. This is prevenient grace. In simple terms, it is a wooing, courting, providing sort of love that creates a generous world (& therefore favorable circumstances), hopes for deeper relationship, but does not expect, limit, or confine. It is ever-present grace. Here’s a portion of this book’s text:

I wanted you more
than you will ever know
so I sent love to follow
wherever you go.          (And later)

So climb any mountain…
climb up to the sky!
My love will find you.
My love can fly!

Picture Book: Wherever You Are My Love Will Find You
Author & Illustrator: Nancy Tillman
Original Publisher & Date: Feiwel & Friends, 2010
Age & Grade Appropriateness: 4 and up, Pre and up
Formats other than Book: Tablet

“Prevenient” is a complicated, uncommon term but it is a simple and common feeling to those of us who have experienced parental love and grace (it is both) from either side of a parent/child relationship. Children understand the purity of this love even though they can’t explain it. When they are missing such love and grace, it is what they most desire. Parents feel it at the miracle of birth and the ordinary tasks of devotion to their children.

I propose that adults and children are well-served when they can be reminded that this kind of pure, longing sort of love and grace come straight from God and is ever-present and eternal. That’s worth a conversation and a list of books about prevenient grace and their PBT post dates!

Owl Moon - June 15, 2014
The Stray Dog – Oct. 14, 2014
I Love You Stinky Face - Sept. 3, 2014
A Little Bit of Love May 12, 2014
Who Put the Cookies in the Cookie Jar? May 12, 2014
The Curious Garden – Aug. 13, 2014
Yo! Yes? – Sept. 11, 2014
Fortunately - Sept. 1, 2014
The Doorbell Rang - April 29, 2014
The Green Truck Garden Giveaway - July 9, 2014

Thursday, January 7, 2016

Welcoming Strangers and Spoilsports

There are picture books that I wish everyone would read. This is one of them. Here you can find a sermon every few pages and illustrations that capture the heart of who we are as fragile, hurtful, but hopeful human beings. If you let the juvenile nature of this book keep you from offering it to teens or adults, you’ll be missing out on an opportunity to slip into some meaningful conversations about difficult relationships and building meaningful community.

The young boy in this book has a tiny elephant for a pet. Life is difficult because no one else has a pet quite like his. But the joy of loving his pet is worth the trouble of “never fitting in.” When they are not allowed to enter Number 17 on Pet Club Day, he meets a friend with a skunk who already knows she would not be welcome either. When they meet more excluded friends with unusual pets, they start a new club. Look at this!

When I see this illustration, I think about my church with pride, the good kind of pride because I believe we are aligning ourselves with God’s values. There are the obvious outsiders that we welcome: those who live on the street, those who “live in sin,” those who live with addiction, etc. But we are also godly when we are determined to be in loving, on-going relationship with those who are strange or spoilsports.

See any strangers (or strange people) or spoilsports in your neighborhood? Your church? Your work? Let’s really talk about how to be more welcoming and loving in their midst and less like Number 17. And remember, in certain crowds we all have the potential to be strangers and spoilsports, longing for welcome and validation, looking for those who will invest in relationship.

Picture Book: Strictly No Elephants
Author: Lisa Mantchev
Illustrator: Taeeun Yoo
Original Publisher & Date: Simon & Schuster, 2015
Age & Grade Appropriateness: 4 and up, Pre and up
Formats other than Book: Tablet

Monday, January 4, 2016

Asking for Grace

I made a mistake! I quit posting at PBT and I'm sorry for it. Today I ask for grace. 

I knew that I wanted to expand and improve this PBT blog and my vocational activities, but I became overwhelmed and confused by that whole notion. I should have kept posting! 

I have new motivation and direction thanks to some great guidance from Javacia Harris Bowser, founder of See Jane Write, a network for empowering women bloggers, writers, and entrepreneurs. Check out her great work at  She has been for me an answer to prayer and I hope a blessing to you all as I make PBT better. Look for new posts every few days!

You might have already noticed the improved look, including bigger photos and font. I'll also begin including more photos of me, my family, my church, and my work. I hope you can easily see my passions and love for this work and my hope that it will help you build the church. Please let me know what you think!

I now have a much better sense of where to go from here. PBT will be getting my primary focus for a while and then I will be creating a whole new website. More on that later. Now about this wonderful picture book…

Todd Parr is well-known for his brightly colored books about simple but important issues such as The Feelings Book and It’s Okay to be Different
Here are three others:

I Made a Mistake is similar in look and content. It offers aspects of the complicated concept of grace to very young children (age 3 and up) in situations that are very understandable.

Picture Book: It's Okay to Make Mistakes
Author & Illustrator: Todd Parr
Original Publisher & Date: Little, Brown Books, 2014
Age & Grade Appropriateness: 3 and up, Pre and up
Formats other than Book: Tablet

Recently the children’s minister at my church asked about books she could use to tackle the abstract, multifaceted, and crucial concept of grace with our children. This book and others came to mind. Below is a list of 14 of the best books on PBT (and date of my post) about what we in the United Methodist church call Justifying Grace, the kind of grace that is forgiveness. In later PBT posts this month, I’ll address the 2 other kinds of grace: Prevenient Grace & Sanctifying grace.  

Consider age appropriateness when choosing which book to use with the children at your church, your own kids/grand kids, a small group of adults, or a client in therapy/spiritual direction. People of all ages can be reminded of the power of this kind of grace for healing relationships through these books.

A Day’s Work - Apr. 15, 2015
Hope Springs - Dec. 30, 2014
The Grudge Keeper - Oct. 17, 2014
What is My Song? - Sept. 27, 2014
Spuds - Sept. 16, 2014
The Sandwich Swap - June 10, 2014
Sorry! (3 books) - Feb. 3, 4 & 5, 2015
You are not my Friend… - Jan. 16, 2015
The Scarves - Oct. 30, 2014
Desmond and the Very Mean Word - Sept. 19, 2014
Lilly’s Purple Plastic Purse - June 23, 2014
When Sophie Gets Angry… - June 3, 2014