Review: Paul and His Friends

Last year, a delightfully illustrated children’s book was released, introducing young readers to the leaders of the early church. Paul and His Friends: A Child’s First Book about the Apostles, written by Rebekah McLeod Hutto and illustrated by Jacob Popčak, is a feast for the eyes and a much-needed addition to Sunday school bookshelves.

With Paul as their traveling guide and narrator, children meet Paul’s network of friends and learn about their contributions to the life of the early church: the hospitality of Ananias, the leadership of Lydia, the faith of Timothy, and more.

The imagination of Jacob Popčak brings each of Paul’s friends to life as an animal, chosen specifically to illustrate certain characteristics of each friend. (Priscilla and Aquila are wise elephants. Timothy is a shy gazelle.) The illustrations truly make Paul and His Friends stellar. From a camel to a badger, a hyena to a rhino (or a unicorn?), the early church leaders are shown to be as diverse as they surely were across the regions to which Paul travels.

The story itself is really two-in-one, which creates an awkward trip for the reader at the juncture of the two. The book’s first theme — Paul’s introduction of his friends in the early church — yields to a second theme — Jesus’ lessons on friendship — without clear transition of the narrative perspective as Paul’s first-person voice goes missing for four pages. (Is it Paul who’s reflecting on Jesus’ ministry? Is it the book/author who’s inserting this lesson about Jesus?) I suppose it’s an odd observation to say that Jesus is misplaced in a story about the church … but in this particular book, the interrupted narrative does indeed read as though Jesus is an obligatory afterthought.

That said, Paul and His Friends could be an excellent basis for a three-lesson series on friendship, whether in Sunday school or children’s sermons, using those odd breaks in the narrative to distinguish the three lessons:

  1. Learning the names of the early church leaders as introduced by Paul, and remembering that it takes many people (friends) to work together to lead the Church;
  2. Discussing the actions that comprise friendship, including the ways we respond when one friend hurts or disappoints another;
  3. Highlighting the diverse gifts that we all bring to friendship, using the book’s epilogue about animal characters to celebrate each child’s unique personality and participation in community.

Paul and His Friends is a visual delight and a useful educational tool, which will be an asset to many bookshelves in homes and churches!

Horses Speak of God

I’ve seen horses change lives. I’ve seen books change lives. A book about horses that reminds us to “sit centered and deeply” in God is sure to foster miracles.

In Horses Speak of God: How Horses Can Teach Us to Listen and Be Transformed, author Laurie M. Brock (and her horse Nina) demonstrate the importance of nurturing faith with our whole selves — in mind and body and spirit, in work and play and relationships. Like horseback riding, our lives and our faith require ongoing reflection, a willingness to listen, and the humility to stay engaged. When we neglect these spiritual disciplines, horses (among other friends) remind us:

“Relax your grip.”

“Work with me.”

“Try again.”

It could be a horse making its opinion known to a rider. It could be God nudging any one of us. The message could tell us something about our posture in the saddle … or about our fears in life. The experience might be a pleasant canter … or a hard fall.

In all, through all, is life. In all and through all is holiness.

Whether you ride or walk, love horses or prefer a nice indoor plant, Horses Speak of God is a beautiful book that will gently invite your self-reflection and encourage your spirit to (re)attune itself to God’s leading.

Go easy.

Trust the discomfort of unlearning and relearning.

Give up a little bit of control.

And let the intuition of horses teach you the good news of God’s mysteries.

(For more from Laurie Brock, follow her fabulous blog.)

Book Giveaway: Bible Sisters

Looking for a new daily devotional?

Seeking an introduction to lesser-known women of the Bible?

Hoping to resource a Bible study group in your church?

bible-sistersThe newly-released Bible Sisters: A Year of Devotions with the Women of the Bible by Gennifer Benjamin Brooks (Abingdon Press 2017) might be an excellent book for you, and I invite you to enter this week’s book giveaway to win your own free copy. Simply drop me an email with the subject “Bible Sisters” before 5:00pm eastern on Sunday, May 21, at which time all submitted names will be placed in a hat for a random drawing to win Bible Sisters.

I received Bible Sisters from its publisher for the purpose of reviewing and giving away the book, so let me turn to the review itself:

It’s important for our bookshelves to make substantial room for and give voice to women of the Bible, and I celebrate Bible Sisters for adding its attention to their stories — especially to the less familiar & unnamed women of scripture. Hopefully Bible Sisters will inspire you to dig deeper into your Bible and to research other retellings & histories & commentaries on these women, not only for your encouragement in faith but for your understanding of ancient & present-day experiences of women.

Gennifer Benjamin Brooks gives a fresh hearing to some scripture passages that have historically been injurious to women: Bathsheba is not blamed for her own rape, for example, nor is the violence against her romanticized. First Corinthians 14’s admonition that women should be quiet in church is rightly called out for its inspiration of sexist doctrines against women’s leadership, and Brooks shifts the question instead to ask what value silence in worship might have for all of us. And I’m glad for the attention given to Anna the Prophet, the Daughters of Zelophehad, Hannah, and so many others.

If some of the devotions are fresh & refreshing, however, others make me wince. The entries about Lot’s Daughters show no effort to question the mischaracterization of homosexuality as Sodom & Gomorrah’s sin (rather than the sin of violence against strangers and the poor). The moralistic assessment of single motherhood as the result of women settling for “a secondary role” in their relationships with men (based on the story of Esau’s son Eliphaz’s second wife Timna, who receives two nearly identical entries in what must surely be an editorial oversight) is a tired stereotype, speaking as a single parent. And Brooks’ overarching theological bent in favor of personal responsibility can seem to overlook injustice and abuse beyond individual control.

As a whole, the more I read Bible Sisters, the more I remember why I dislike 365-day devotionals: For the sake of printing a book of manageable size and marketable content, inevitably each day’s scripture reading cannot be fully examined for its rich complexities … each day’s reflection must likewise simplify & generalize its perspective on modern life for the sake of a daily nugget for readers … and each day’s prayer is compelled to function as a tidy “The End” bow on it all. Inevitably I find 365-day devotionals unsatisfying, and I regret that Bible Sisters doesn’t break this mold.

Still I affirm that Bible Sisters: A Year of Devotions with the Women of the Bible can be a useful starting place, and its well-organized indices are a great resource:

  • for preachers brainstorming a summer sermon series on women of the Bible: skim the index of names and start with the women you know least;
  • for small groups seeking a new approach to Bible study: have group members take turns presenting the full Bible story and corresponding devotional about biblical women they don’t know well;
  • for personal encouragement, especially if you’re struggling to claim confidence in & hold fast to your identity in Christ or if you’re striving to clarify God’s call within you in contrast to life’s chaos & complications — themes that are strong throughout Bible Sisters.

Women of the Bible are pillars of our faith stories and essential to our understanding of the salvation narrative. If you’ve not yet found an accessible book for diving into their stories, let Bible Sisters get you started — even better, enter for a chance to win a free copy! Send me an email with the subject line “Bible Sisters” before Sunday, May 21 at 5:00pm eastern.

(None of the email addresses received as a result of folks entering the book giveaway will be shared, and you won’t receive unsolicited emails from me after the giveaway has ended.)