23 December 2011

Merry Christmas!


...and a Happy New Year.

See you in 2012!

{Thank you all for another good year. I never say much about the "blogoversary" but...Afterthoughts will be 6 years old on December 29th. I am quite fond of all of you...thanks for being such wonderful readers.}


21 December 2011

Once Upon a Christmas Roundup

Alright, so I wasn't planning to post two link collections in one week, but as I was collecting, I noticed a theme: Christmas. And then I thought perhaps it would be better to share them before the big day, rather than after.

So here they are...all of them good reading if you have time.

  • First up, an astronomy piece. Have you ever wondered about the famed Star of Bethlehem? Read Memoria Press' article on the issue surrounding the star and the Magi.
    To understand this story, we must view it in the context of its time. Who were these Magi? Where did they come from? Magi is the plural of Magus, the root of our word magic, and “court astrologers” is probably the best translation, although “wise men” is also a good term, descriptive of the esteem in which they were widely held. The group of Magi in question came “from the East.” They might have been Zoroastrians, Medes, Persians, Arabs, or even Jews. They probably served as court advisors, making forecasts and predictions for their royal patrons based on their study of the stars, about which they were quite knowledgeable. Magi often wandered from court to court, and it was not unusual for them to cover great distances in order to attend the birth or crowning of a king, paying their respects and offering gifts. It is not surprising, therefore, that Matthew would mention them as validation of Jesus’ kingship, or that Herod would regard their arrival as a very serious matter.
  • Has anyone ever tried to tell you that Christmas is some sort of pagan holiday? I actually have two articles on this subject. First, Is Christmas Pagan? from Classical Astronomy. I especially appreciated that the author quoted the passage which I think must be considered when navigating the alleged "Christmas wars" between neo-Puritans and their brothers and sisters in Christ:
    One person regards one day above another, another regards every day alike. Each person must be fully convinced in his own mind. He who observes the day, observes it for the Lord, and he who eats, does so for the Lord, for he gives thanks to God; and he who eats not, for the Lord he does not eat, and gives thanks to God. For not one of us lives for himself, and not one dies for himself; for if we live, we live for the Lord, or if we die, we die for the Lord; therefore whether we live or die, we are the Lord’s. For to this end Christ died and lived again, that He might be Lord both of the dead and of the living. --Romans 14:5-9
    Second, I bring you Christmas, Saturnalia, and other Nonsense by historian Dr. Glenn Sunshine {an acquaintance of my husband's}.
    Correlation does not mean causation: just because Jesus’ birth was celebrated at the same date as pagan festivals does not mean that there is a connection between the two, especially since there is no evidence of such a connection in the sources. The Jewish background to Christianity and the connection with the Crucifixion is a much better explanation for both of the dates when Christmas was celebrated than any supposed connection to paganism.
  • Is your church holding services on Christmas Day? I haven't heard as much debate over this as I remember there being last time Christmas fell on a Sunday. Robin Phillips from The Alfred the Great Society has written extensively on the issue of whether Christmas is church holiday or a "family" holiday, how our answer as Americans is likely due to the influence of the Puritans, and so on. His two posts, Sacred Times and Seasons (Part 1) and Sacred Times and Seasons (Part 2) are extensive and thoughtful and thorough and though I do not agree 100% with every single point he makes, I thought he gave a lot to think about and chew on. Well worth the read if you have time! Here's a snippet to whet your appetite:
    By getting rid of the church year and all Christian holidays, the Puritans and their descendants left a vacuum that would ultimately has been filled by the non-religious ordering of time. Such non-religious ordering has helped to reinforce the idea that there exists a secular world that functions separately from spiritual categories. By rejecting the church year as one legitimate way to tell the story of redemption, the Puritans and their descendants inadvertently underscored the sense of religion being disembodied, detached from the space-time continuum. This would ultimately reinforce a duality in North American culture that emerged under the Puritan’s canopy, including a false dichotomy between the sacred and the secular. Moreover, the vacuum created by the evacuation of the church year would eventually be filled with the type of civil religion described by Amy Sullivan. This can be felt strongest in those American holidays that celebrate civic regeneration, integrating Americans around the liturgies of their common political life.

20 December 2011

On Shopping Second-Hand

Going into debt this Christmas season? If so, you're in very good company. However, comma, considering the state of the economy, this isn't the wisest idea we've ever had, all going into debt at the same time like this.

Debt, in general, is to be avoided if at all possible, right?

Many of us who are trying to avoid debt, then, will decide to spend only what we can afford, which may not be all that much. That is good and well, but what if we think of something that seems so "perfect" for someone that is out of our range in terms price?

Well, I am not the Queen of Frugal by any stretch of the imagination, but I do know that living on a modest single income is one-part science and two-parts art.

So let's talk.

Second-Hand Stores and Sales

I have a friend who dresses her children entirely from garage sales, paying about half a dollar per item. This is a great deal, but I personally have neither the time {nor the inclination, truth be told} to designate much time to shopping. Also, if you are going from sale to sale weekend after weekend, you'd need to count the cost of your gas and figure out if you are really saving much.

Every city is different when it comes to second-hand options. So probably the first thing to do, if you don't know how to shop second-hand, is to find someone in your geographical area who knows the ropes. They will tell you where the best zip codes are for garage sales, which thrift stores are worth visiting {and which never have anything good in them}, and pretty soon you'll know what you should do.

In our area, we have a twice-per-year gigantic city-wide consignment sale. I have spoken with people who have similar events in their area, such as clothing swaps which were so big that they were held at the local fair grounds! If you have an event like this, learn to use it with forethought. In other words: bring a list. This past year, I bought everything I needed for all of my children for winter at our consignment sale. Because I also consigned, I bought all of their winter clothes (including jackets for those who needed them) for about $40 after profits.

Taking a list of everything you need will help a whole lot. In addition to this, try and think about Christmas, even if the sale is in September. Our local sale had piles of toys and games, and I included on my list what I thought certain children would like for Christmas, just in case. I only found a couple items that fit the bill, but that still meant I spent less on new items at Christmas.

CraigsList

Learning to shop on CraigsList has really been my life saver, though. If you have one in your area, learn to use it! Each search you do on CraigsList generates an RSS feed, which you can then subscribe to using your feed reader, or probably your fancy phone if you have one. This will help you find what you are looking for without spending hours online digging through categories to shop. Recently, we wanted to give a bicycle to one of our daughters for Christmas, because hers had broken beyond repair. I did a search, subscribed to the feed and then...waited. It took three weeks to find what we were looking for in size, shape, color, and price. But we found it! And often these things are very gently used. Things do not have to seem second-hand when they are purchased this way.

This is how we bought our other daughter's bike last year {with a helmet thrown in for free!}. This is how we bought our son's Kindle {also for Christmas, so if you see him, keep it a secret}. It's how we bought my dad a new Christmas tree. It is how I'm currently shopping for an XXL doghouse to serve as shelter for our goats.

This is how we bought our goats. I generated an RSS feed for every single county we were willing to drive to, and then we watched and prayed. It took four months, but we finally have them home.

When it comes to electronics--Kindles, iPods, and so on--CraigsList is going to be a much better bet than most of your other options. They will never make it to the floor at a thrift store--the workers will snap it up first. This is why CraigsList is your friend!

What About You?

Share with us your best tips on shopping second-hand.

19 December 2011

Miscellaneous Musings on Monday

Today is the last Monday of Advent...the final Monday until Christmas. {Are you ready for His coming yet?} I received a crèche set this weekend, and I am so excited to have begun a tradition I always wanted. Mary and Joseph are out on our piano, along with an small assortment of barnyard animals. They are there alone, waiting along with us for His coming. On Christmas morning, the Babe and the shepherds will appear, and the magi will begin making their way across our library shelves in preparation for their arrival to the piano on Epiphany.

I don't know if my children are into this, but I'm having a blast.

In other news...
  • Do you live on a farm? Do your children participate in farm chores of some kind? If so, you may soon find yourself up against the US Department of Labor. I am not kidding. Apparently, the mere existence of farm chores {which are among my children's favorites to perform--they argue over who gets to collect eggs or feed animals} makes children vulnerable to abuse. It's true, you know. They might go and do something crazy, like become responsible. The American Thinker has a nice opinion piece up on this issue. {HT: Dad}
  • Do you let fevers run their course? This has been perhaps one of my more controversial decisions as a mother, in terms of how many other people have freaked out when they learned that I do not, under normal circumstances, treat fevers. Now, I certainly offer the hands and arms of sympathy. But I don't try and bring the fevers down. Apparently, fevers actually aid the body's immune response. I knew this on a basic level--if the body's natural response to infection was to fight it with a fever, who was I to intervene when the child wasn't in danger of anything other than discomfort? But that was as far as I got. Science, apparently, is getting farther.
  • Here's a few for you allergy families out there. The Mommypotamus has posted The Ultimate Guide to GAPS Holiday Recipes. It's everything you need for treats for the next few weeks. I'm going to try some of these! Also, there are the Grain-Free Roll-out Cookies. Or what about these Peppermint Patties?
  • Christopher Hitchens has died. I'm sure you all already knew this. I linked this on Twitter, but in case you missed it, I think Doug Wilson takes the prize for reflection-writing, and if you click over, please take the time to read all three pages: Christopher Hitchens Has Died, Doug Wilson Reflects.
  • You'll be saying goodbye to some things this year {or in coming years}. Or, at least, some people think so: 9 Things to Say Goodbye To, Including Privacy and Free Speech. {HT: Cindy}
  • I think I love just about everything Angelina writes. This time, check out True Lies, where she discusses the {false} notion that fiction is "a lie."
  • Are you concerned about the Stop Online Piracy Act? Not sure? Here is a quick introduction to the issues surrounding the act.
  • And to give you a laugh today...Dr. Reynolds tells us which muppet combinations best explain the GOP presidential candidates {he also threw in Obama for added fun}. My favorite is his analysis of Newt Gingrich: "the mind of Dr. Bunsen married to the personal discipline of Animal." He he.
Leave your fun or interesting links the comments!

15 December 2011

Introducing Charlotte and Abigail

Kern Canyon Road
Yesterday, we went on a wild adventure to Weldon, California. It was not at all planned. In fact, we left in such a hurry that phonics binders and clipboards and math papers were scattered all about...and the dishes weren't even done! But it didn't matter. We had been waiting for this day for many months.

the start of a very long drive
We rushed over to pick up Si, who was ready and waiting for us with an eat-in-the-vehicle fast food meal. He hopped in, and off we sped. It was a race, in a way. We were leaving at 12-noon, someone could possibly beat us to our goal at 2:00 pm, and we didn't want to be driving the canyon road at night.

it's the places without guard rails
that freak me out
Some people drive over rivers and through woods, but we drove through hills and mountains, on dirt roads studded with rocks. I think we put five years on my poor truck.

When we finally arrived in Weldon, we found that not only could we not use online maps to find the location we were looking for, none of the locals knew where it was, either. With our cell phone dying, we called the seller one more time, and she offered to meet us at the Post Office.

unmarked dirt roads:
scene of our wild goose chase
At that point, we followed her over unmarked roads that really weren't roads at all--they were simply places worn down by people driving over them. The terrain was definitely perfect for goats--all the weeds they could ever desire to eat, as far as the eye could see.
Charlotte

We examined her herd and quickly picked out two six-month-old female kids. I immediately fell in love with Charlotte, whom they had nicknamed Tiny because she was so incredibly small. She was compact like a Pygmy goat ought to be {Kinders are half Pygmy}, and so sweet that I could imagine her being a compliant milker.

We picked Abigail because she looked the strongest with her glossy coat and perfect legs. I hope she doesn't turn out to be too large, but the smaller brown kids looked too thin and skittish. When the seller's son lifted her up to place her in the back of our Suburban, I wondered if I had made a bad choice. While Charlotte sweetly allowed them to carry her to the truck, Abigail screamed at the top of her lungs, butting him with her horns and kicking him with her hooves. She is definitely going to be the feisty one of the two, but considering that she is named after Abigail Adams {who was known to be feisty herself}, I suppose this is fitting. I just hope she lets me milk her when the time comes!

Abigail
Thankfully, we have months to work on taming.

The drive home involved getting lost on more rocky roads, and it's a tale I'll spare you. I just hope my truck is okay.

Right now, the kids are at Friend M.'s ranch at school waiting for Si to finish the fence. He was already working on his plans, but when we found these girls, we were glad to have a friend who would hold them so that we didn't have to pass them by for lack of fencing. We hope to bring them home next week...which should give me a chance to take more pictures, too.

13 December 2011

In Praise of the Jesse Tree

And it came to pass, that, while they communed together and reasoned, Jesus himself drew near, and went with them. But their eyes were holden that they should not know him. And he said unto them, "What manner of communications are these that ye have one to another, as ye walk, and are sad?"

And the one of them, whose name was Cleopas, answering said unto him, "Art thou only a stranger in Jerusalem, and hast not known the things which are come to pass there in these days?"

And he said unto them, "What things?"

And they said unto him, "Concerning Jesus of Nazareth, which was a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people: And how the chief priests and our rulers delivered him to be condemned to death, and have crucified him. But we trusted that it had been he which should have redeemed Israel: and beside all this, to day is the third day since these things were done. Yea, and certain women also of our company made us astonished, which were early at the sepulchre; And when they found not his body, they came, saying, that they had also seen a vision of angels, which said that he was alive. And certain of them which were with us went to the sepulchre, and found it even so as the women had said: but him they saw not."

Then he said unto them, "O fools, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken: Ought not Christ to have suffered these things, and to enter into his glory?"

And beginning at Moses and all the prophets, he expounded unto them in all the scriptures the things concerning himself.

-Luke 24:15-27
This is our second year using a Jesse Tree. Part of the appeal was to have something to do in the morning while my husband was at work, being that Advent {with the candles and such} has always been his domain. I had heard good things about the Jesse Tree tradition, but I really wasn't even sure what I was doing when we started. We figured it out as we went along.

And, oh, what a blessing it has been.

When else do I walk my children through the entire Gospel in a short 24 days?

With each story, with each turn of the page, we are reminded of God's faithfulness to His covenant, from Adam and Eve, to Jesse and his son David, and on to Christ...and beyond. When God promised Adam and Even that He would crush the serpent's head, when He sent redeemer after redeemer to His people to preserve them and make way for the One who would Redeem in full, when He provided a ram for Abraham and promised Him that He wouldn't be the father of a mere ethnic nation, but of all the nations that Jesus commanded His people to make disciples of--we stand in awe of each reminder that God began a good work in the beginning, and He really will bring it to fulfillment.

We've been using The Jesse Tree by Geraldine McCaughrean. It sticks pretty closely to Scripture, so I'm happy. Yes, there is a grumpy old man throughout, but isn't that one of the themes of the many Christmas tales out there? Grumpy-old-man-finds-joy? There is something to that theme, I'm sure.

We made our own ornaments, and we're hanging a new one up each day, on the tree Grandma gave us years ago when we were fewer in number.

It's a simple tradition, and I love it. I am so grateful to whomever decided that a Jesse Tree was more than a decoration carved on a wall or stained in some glass in a church somewhere, but that we could imitate it in our own homes.

What about you? Do you Jesse Tree?

12 December 2011

Miscellaneous Musings on Monday

I am pleased to announce that the annual Vencel family year-in-review Christmas letter went out on Sunday afternoon. In fact, it is not only a year-in-review; it also doubles {in a pinch} as an alphabet book. I had no idea how cheerful this would make people, but apparently Dr. Seuss junkies still have a place in this world.

Did you know that Dr. Seuss is Martin Cothran's favorite modern philosopher? But I digress.

Ahem.

In other news...
  • Did you have freckles as a child? Two of my children are freckled {like their father before them}. They also have strawberry hair--especially one of them. We meet people who ooh and ahh over their appearance because it is {apparently} a rare combination. Usually the people making the drama were themselves strawberry-blonde and freckled when they were children. The interesting thing is that they consistently bemoan their freckles...out loud to my children. <rant> And so I must ask: Why, people? Why would you do this? If you hated everybody pointing it out to you, why do yourselves insist on doing this to my children? People baffle me. Since 50% of my children are freckled, they don't know it is rare. </rant>
  • Have you read One Thousand Gifts? I can't do it because Voskamp's writing style gives me hives in large doses {sorry--I am not saying I'm right on this, just stating the facts}, but I do love the quotes I read from it around the Internet. Kansas Mom has two great posts up that I keep meaning to link to: first, her review, and second {my fave}, her discussion post.
  • St. Nicolas Day was last week. I thoroughly appreciated Dr. Reynolds' post on Nicolas of Myra. You might, too.
  • What Bible translation do you use? In our house, I believe we have KJV, NKJV, NASB, NIV, ESV, NCV, and, naturally, The Message {a paraphrase, I know}. My personal favorite is the KJV, and apparently this is contagious because Son E. has announced that he wants his own copy. Why do I like it? Really, it comes down to literary quality. The KJV is superior literature when compared to every other version, plain and simple. It was written in a time that valued the beauty and art of Scripture more than our own time. All of this is why I appreciated Challies' post The Beauty in Words.
  • Wish you could make your own wood nativity set? Now you can.
  • Must learning be boring? If you remember, I posted a link a few weeks ago to Cindy's assertion that learning need not be "fun." Now, she has written a response to herself in which she asserts that learning need not be dry, dull, and boring.
  • CiRCE is having a sale! If you haven't yet purchased your copy of the 2011 CDs, they are on sale 50% off {at the time I posted this}. I paid full price, and I consider it worth every dime, so paying half is like...stealing. Go buy a set. You'll be glad you did.
  • Want to make some of your gifts this year? The Passionate Homemaking blog has a very extensive list to get you started. You can also check out Amy's roundup of Christmas handicrafts.
  • Once upon a time, I put my oldest daughter's hair in curlers. I just thought it'd be pretty to have some curl in her hair for Christmas or Easter or whatever holiday it was. I don't own a curling iron {my own hair is curly}, so I thought curlers were in order. They were those pink, spongy ones. Well, she woke in the middle of the night screaming about her head. It was awful. Her hair has been straight as straw ever since. I'm thinking about trying these rag curls for Christmas, though. Maybe my younger daughter will be more amenable to me tying things to her head.
That's all for today...unless you want to share a link!

09 December 2011

A Mother's Rule of Life {Post 4}

The third chapter of A Mother's Rule of Life concerns prayer. By prayer, though, Pierlot really means all of one's personal spiritual life--prayer, yes, but also time for study and meditation, and even the Sacraments are included under this heading.
The spirit of the first P [Prayer], then, is to look into our own lives, see where God has led us so far, and learn what we ought to do to make ourselves more available to his direct and personal intervention in our lives.
 Also:
[I]n the first P, we must consciously include time for God in our schedules.
Why should we plan it? I suppose the first question is why wouldn't we plan it, when we are planning everything else? Why shouldn't God get a place at that table? But moreover Pierlot reminds us:
As mothers, we...can quite innocently get caught up in the distractions of daily life and not even notice that our relationship with God is slipping. We suddenly realize we haven't really prayed for a while. Even with the best intentions, this can happen regularly if we haven't consciously set aside time...
There are two basic guidelines given for the Rule: reasonable and practical. If it can't be done, or can't be maintained, it's just not a good idea.

Here are some of Pierlot's spiritual priorities:

  • Formal prayers
  • Rosary
  • Time with Scripture, quiet reflection, and spiritual reading
  • Confession
  • Eucharist
  • Spiritual direction {Pierlot has an actual Spiritual Director, so this is a formal appointment she would keep, for those of you who are unfamiliar with the concept}
  • Adoration
  • Mother's Sabbath {one day every two weeks set aside to keep her spiritually refreshed}
I found myself wondering what this list would look like for me, if I really sat down and thought about it. I am still wondering, because I still haven't sat down and thought about it. Maybe I'll have a short one by the time I'm done writing this post.

Ahem.

Last year, if you recall, I resolved to add commentary reading into the mix. I've done that {though I haven't completed either of the two little commentaries I've begun}, and it really has been enriching. This year, I've been contemplating adding in formal, written prayers. This would include memorizing prayers from Scripture, but I was thinking primarily of something I would purchase--a book of Puritan prayers {Valley of Vision perhaps} or maybe a Lutheran Book of Prayer. My mind, during prayer, is increasingly difficult to reign in. It wanders, and suddenly I'm not praying anymore. I think that reading prayers--and learning to mean them with my heart--would be a better discipline than trying to chase down my brain all the time.

My list, then, would include {but not be limited to}:

  • Scripture reading
  • Commentary reading
  • Scripture memorization
  • Formal prayer
I read a lot of books and aritcles that would dovetail nicely with this list, and yet I mentally categorize them more as an intellectual pursuit, so I'm keeping that sort of reading off of this list. I also didn't include church-type activities because I'm mainly approaching this book as a means of examining my weekdays to see if there are places I can improve them. We have regular small group meetings in the evenings, for example, and obviously we go to church on Sunday, and so on, but none of that is going on my list of what I do or wish to do between 7:30am and 5:30pm daily.

If that makes sense.

I get the impression that Pierlot's Rule covered every hour of every day, and I just don't work that way, nor do I think it is necessary for me.

If I can take away one thing from this chapter that I think would benefit myself and my family the most, it is this practice:
I also was intrigued by the notion of making my whole day a prayer, and so, after each of the time slots I had chosen for prayer, I would try consciously to offer the next chunk of time to God. This helped me maintain recollection...This conscious awareness of God was the most important thing to me, and so I actually wrote down my prayer schedule on paper and charts so I could just "obey" what was written and free my mind and heart to speak with God throughout my day.

08 December 2011

Review: PianoPhonics

It will be one year next month that we commenced using PianoPhonics. There are a number of reasons why I chose this curriculum, and I intend to juxtapose those reasons with the results I'm seeing. This seems to me the best way to communicate whether PianoPhonics is meeting my requirements, and will also allow those of you who have inquired {you know who you are!} to see whether it will fit your own situation.

It could be, after all, that you are looking for something a little different than what I was looking for.

As a disclaimer, I am only using this with our oldest. He was eight-and-a-half when we started. I have told my other children {who have requested lessons} that they must be eight in order to begin. This isn't anything suggested by the curriculum, but it is my decision. The book progresses quickly, and I think little ones would have trouble moving along as things get more complicated. I have difficulty "making" a child younger than eight practice daily, and yet I know that daily practice is imperative. I also have trouble envisioning a child younger than eight practicing correctly, and I have no wish to babysit practice times. But poor practice does not develop the player; it is a complete waste of time and detrimental over the long term.

Here is what I was searching for when I finally found PianoPhonics:

  • We didn't want to pay for lessons when all I needed to do was learn to teach. I took piano lessons for years, and I briefly majored in music in college {piano was my secondary instrument; voice was my primary}. I am not an amazing pianist by any stretch of the imagination, but I can read music and play, and I think I know enough about it that I have something worth passing on to my children. We do not really have the money for music lessons, especially when I consider eventually paying for lessons for all of the children. I would rather save our funds to pay for things we cannot teach ourselves, rather than things we should be able to figure out. What I like about PianoPhonics is that the website includes hints for "self-teaching"--it is these hints {combined with other information in the book itself} which have slowly made me into a piano teacher.
  • We wanted him to learn to play "real" music, not silly children's songs. My poor parents had to listen to me play uninteresting versions of Mary Had a Little Lamb and Twinkle Twinkle, Little Star over and over for at least seven years before I played anything worth listening to. Some of this is unavoidable when you start a child at the age of three, as my parents did {and I'm grateful for that, by the way--I do think there is a place for starting young children, depending on the goals you have for your children}. But some of this is because most basic piano books are silly. Mystie's family also uses PianoPhonics, and when I asked her about it, she said that Alfred's, for instance, was more "fun" than "real." In a lot of ways, this situation is akin to the Charlotte-Mason-versus-Almost-Everybody-Else debate in the world of reading. Some folks want children to have fun while reading, and they drag out the Easy Readers and related twaddle over years and years. In the Charlotte Mason philosophy, yes, we learn the basics--one must, after all. But the goal is to get the child to real books containing living ideas. In the same way, the point of teaching a child music is not for them to play simple, fun pieces. The goal is for them to slowly master the liberal art we call Music. I could go on, but for the sake of this review, let's just say that PianoPhonics {in my opinion} is more liberating in that it frees the child up to begin to play--and think--as a musician ought.
  • We wanted him to learn to read music. This is a huge bonus--my son is already reading real music. Each new piece adds a concept or two. First, we add proper notes to a staff. Then perhaps we add a sharp or a flat {not at the same time}. We vary the notes so they have different beats. We learn about first and second endings. And so on. Each piece builds a little upon the old. It is a lot like teaching reading in this regard.
  • We wanted him to learn to play properly from the very beginning. The emphasis upon proper fingering is something I was really excited about. As a child, I developed bad habits that later teachers had to un-teach. I am unsure whether this was the fault of the books I was using, or the teachers themselves, but either way I know from experience that learning to do it correctly--and practicing it perfectly--is like anything else: much easier over the long term. Again, I tie this to the Charlotte Mason approach to learning--let's take writing. Instead of allowing them to write sloppily for years on end, we teach them to write perfectly only that of which they are capable. When they are tiny, that means a single stroke. But rather than attempting to unlearn poor habits {which some of us never can do}, they build good upon good and attain to virtue in writing.
PianoPhonics not only fits our family and our goals, but it also fits our pocketbook. I hope Mr. Freer completes the second book soon, because we'll need it in a few more months! The website says that the second book will end where Bach's Two-Part Inventions begin, and that is something I look forward to! So far, I have no reason to think that any of my children will be professional musicians, but I do hope to enrich our family with music--something easily accomplished, I believe, with this curriculum.

07 December 2011

Rerun: Dickens' A Christmas Carol

I've decided to run this post every year, for we read A Christmas Carol every year. It's tradition! This post first appeared in December of 2009. You can read the original here. I remembered this post when I was reading A Christmas Carol aloud to my children yesterday...

*****

The children and I {E., Neighbor M., A. and Q.} finished up reading Dickens' Christmas classic, A Christmas Carol, again this year. It is always remarkable to me that children love this story. Because I perceive it as a ghost story, I expected the children to be fearful, but instead they accept it as a unique way that Scrooge "learned his lesson" and they rejoice to find Scrooge a changed man in the morning.

I know there are many portrayals of this work. I remember seeing a lively melodramatic stage version when I was a child. There are also cartoon versions and movie versions and so on and so forth. But reading the actual work is a thing apart. There are so many little lessons ready to change the reader's heart, if the reader allows. I think, for instance, of this conversation early in the story:
"Nephew!" returned the uncle, sternly, "keep Christmas in your own way, and let me keep it in mine."

"Keep it!" repeated Scrooge's nephew. "But you don't keep it."

"Let me leave it alone, then," said Scrooge. "Much good may it do you! Much good it has ever done you!"

"There are many things from which I might have derived good, by which I have not profited, I dare say," returned the nephew. "Christmas among the rest."
Scrooge's nephew knows a secret our modern world does not: there is a type of profit which is not financial.

This is built upon when the first ghost, the Ghost of Christmas Past, reveals the delightful Christmas celebrations of the Fezziwig family (Scrooge having been apprenticed to Mr. Fezziwig in his youth):
"A small matter," said the Ghost, "to make these silly folks so full of gratitude."

"Small!" echoed Scrooge.

The Spirit signed to him to listen to the two apprentices, who were pouring out their hearts in praise of Fezziwig: and when he had done so, said:

"Why! Is it not? He has spent but a few pounds of your mortal money: three or four perhaps. Is that so much that he deserves this praise?"

"It isn't that," said Scrooge, heated by the remark, and speaking unconsciously like his former, not his latter, self. "It isn't that, Spirit. He has the power to render us happy or unhappy; to make our service light or burdensome; a pleasure or a toil. Say that his power lies in words and looks; in things so slight and insignificant that it is impossible to add and count 'em up: what then? The happiness he gives is quites as great as if it cost a fortune."
Do you see? The theme is continued: there are intangible delights in this world which cannot be quantified. And yet there is more here. One could think for a week on this passage. Why, herein lies the power of the mother, of the husband, of the corporate boss, of the business owner. Those in authority have the power, lying in a million small details, to render happiness to those beneath them.

That is a powerful thought. Surely our service to Christ demands consideration of this fact.

We again see the profit of the intangible, when the Ghost of Christmas present reveals to us the nature of the celebration of Christmas in the home of the impoverished Cratchit family:
There was nothing of high mark in this. They were not a handsome family; they were not well dressed; their shoes were far from being water-proof; their clothes were scanty; and Peter might have known, and very likely did, the inside of a pawnbroker's. But they were happy, grateful, pleased with one another, and contented with the time...
Underlying all of this is the ironic state of the soul of Scrooge. There is a constant acknowledgment that brute logic would have us believe that riches make a happy Christmas. Scrooge should be the happiest of all, and yet he is the one whose heart is completely untouched by Christmas.

Of course, Dickens is here only affirming the words of Christ:
Truly, I say to you, only with difficulty will a rich person enter the kingdom of heaven.

Matthew 19:23
Keeping Christmas, as Dickens said so long ago, is nothing less than the joy of a rich soul (not a rich pocketbook) overflowing.

06 December 2011

Books I'm Giving

Every year, I like to do a post about gifts I'm giving. It's just plain fun, after all, to dream about books gifts like this. Here is a quick list of some of the books I'm giving, and why:

  • The Jesus Storybook Bible. It's for one of my nieces.
  • The Big Picture Story Bible. This is for my other niece. They are sisters, so essentially their family is getting our family's two favorite children's Bibles. I wanted to give these before they get too old for them.
  • Autumn Story. We have two of the Brambly Hedge books already, and this will add another. Our four-almost-five-year-old will be thrilled. {How is it she is almost five?}
  • NC Wyeth's Pilgrims. This is for O-Age-Three. We are Wyeth fans, so this looked promising. Every review I've ever read of it commends it not only for its artwork, but also for its "well-researched text." Son O. is undaunted by supposed "reading level" as long as I read aloud to him, so I think he'll like it well enough. We'll just label this one "Baby's First History Book."
  • Stories for Children. This little collection by Oscar Wilde has been on my list for years now, and I finally found a copy I liked. A.-Age-Six will like the pretty bird on the front. She is simple like that.
  • Champions of Mathematics. I picked this tiny volume up for E-Age-Nine as a little extra gift. I've heard good things about Tiner, so this is our test-run. I thought he'd enjoy becoming familiar with Pythagoras, Fibonacci, and the like.
  • Defending Constantine. This is for a relative that enjoys reading controversial history. It was either Constantine or the Crusades.
  • My Grandmother is Praying for Me. Recommended by Cindy, it seemed like the perfect fit for Siah's mom.
There are other books, of course, but I can't share them because those recipients read my blog sometimes.

My list this year is simple, but fitting I think. Are you giving any books this year? What are your top titles?

05 December 2011

Miscellaneous Musings on Monday

What a disappointing morning! Last night when I went to bed, I thought I had reserved three baby kinder goats for purchase...and just in time for Christmas! But, alas, they were not full bred, which means they will be too big to meet our zoning restrictions by the time they are grown. So sad!

In other {way more important} news...

  • Have any of you gone back over your New Year's resolutions? I've been thinking through mine a little. One in particular was to keep a list of books read {which I've been doing in a widget at the bottom of this blog}. I am horrible about starting books and then reading them so slowly that I do not finish even in a year's time. But keeping this list has helped a little. Yesterday, in some spare scraps of time, I found myself trying to finish up Raising them Right {which I've been "reading" for almost two years} and The Twilight of American Culture, just so I could check them off of my list.
  • Is beauty lost forever in this practical world of Kindles? It's a question worth asking. Kindles--even though I see the reasons for having one so well that I bought one for my son--are not beautiful in the way that my collection of antique books is beautiful. Or my more contemporary leatherbound collection, for that matter. Kindle is the epitome of practical: cheap books that don't even take up room on the shelf. Well, fine, but is beauty therefore dead? I am thrilled to say that beauty is still so alive and well that someone delightful is making books...by hand. Go and read all about it.
  • Could serving raw carrots and apples help you avoid orthodontic bills? I don't know if I'd go that far, but I did find it interesting that eating soft foods seems to be implicated in jaw underdevelopment. This doesn't mean I'll stop serving cheese, mind you. It's simply interesting.
  • Persecution in the United States? Well, now, don't be so shocked. A young man from our church is  a member of one of four Christian groups who have been put on notice by Vanderbilt University...because they have standards...for their leaders.
  • I read dead people, too. I'm just saying.
  • Let's talk education for a moment. I found this comparison between the two top-ranking countries {Korea and Finland} to be fascinating. {HT: CiRCE} So, Korea gets the highest score...and comes out on top for suicide, too. They way overachieve in suicide.{Stick with me even though I have apparently thrown proper grammar out the window today.} This is one of the things that baffles me when, for example, Obama constantly points to China as a model for education. Well, yes, if you are trying to build a world of automatons who are good at taking orders, then I suppose that educational system works. But China is not exactly known for cultivating wisdom and virtue. There is, in other words, more to the character of a nation than its children's test scores or knowledge of math facts.
  • Who belongs to the world's unreached people groups? Interestingly enough, the rich. Didn't predict that one, did you?
Alright. I'm out. If you have any interesting links to share, leave them in the comments!

01 December 2011

On Religion

I originally wrote this during Advent last year. This version has a completely different ending. During my first writing, I had someone tell me that celebrating Advent was "empty religion" {among some other strangely similar happenings} and so the initial article became my way of struggling through that and finding truth. If you have ever struggled with Advent, you may prefer the first ending, which can be found in the initial post.

This time around I was pondering the danger of not only deciding that Christianity is not a religion, but actually ignoring the dictionary and the history of the word and  touting that the word religion means a relationship with God which is bad, false, heretical, or worse. There are people who really do think that the millions of Christians around the globe who kicked off Advent on Sunday are in sin {or, did I mention, worse?}.

As Richard Weaver famously wrote, Ideas Have Consequences. Defining the word religion apart from thousands of years of human history and tradition will have consequences, and like all consequences we cannot always predict what they will be. Generally speaking, though, a break with history must automatically be assumed unethical. This is something I have learned from the CiRCE Institute over the years: history does not have to defend herself; those who break with her do.

Over the years, I have become a student of Latin, and lesson one is that we cannot redefine Latin terms—it is a dead language, no longer evolving. Latin is convenient that way. Religion is not really an English word; it is a Latin word. It has a literal, objective meaning. What I am arguing for here is nothing less than being honest about our own language, while simultaneously ensuring that we remain connected to our own people—the Church.

___________________________________

There are things that Christian people say that sound like they might be true, and I think these sorts of things are said rather thoughtlessly. One such example is one I've heard a number of times over the years: "God hates religion." There are other variations such as, "Christianity is a relationship not a religion." Or, "God doesn't like religious people."

That second one on the list is probably the trickiest of the three, because it sounds so nice, like now we're really getting somewhere. But really, it's a false dilemma. Since when were religion and relationship at odds, anyhow?

Probably since the time we forgot what religion really was in the first place.

So, let's begin at the beginning.

In 1828, Mr. Webster listed a couple definitions for religion. But first, he offered a history lesson:
RELIGION, n. relij'on. [L. religio, from religo, to bind anew; re and ligo, to bind. This word seems originally to have signified an oath or vow to the gods, or the obligation of such an oath or vow, which was held very sacred by the Romans.]

Okay, so religion as an idea implies binding to the deity and the attendant obligations of such binding. Is Christianity a religion in this limited sense? I think we have to answer this affirmatively. Even if we think of Christianity as a relationship {and it is indeed that}, we know instinctively that all relationships come with certain obligations. We are hard pressed to conceive of a relationship in which there is no obligation.

Marriage is a relationship I have with my husband and because of that relationship, I have certain obligations. Likewise, motherhood is the relationship I have with my children, friendship is the relationship I have with my friends, and both of these come with obligations as well. There are a number of words I might use to name the relationship I have with the Lord—among them are citizen of His kingdom, child in His family, and so on. What is easier to name are the obligations. My relationship with the Lord, like all other relationships, implies duties, and the name we give to duties to a deity is religion.

There is more to Mr. Webster's definition, however, I won't include all of it, as it is quite lengthy. Instead, I'll offer my bullet-point summary.
  • Religion includes theology {a set of beliefs about a deity} as well as piety {acting in accordance with what the deity requires}.
  • Religion is godliness or piety in practice. It is the following of specific commands. In Christianity, this includes both our duties to God as well as to our fellow man.
  • Religion is performance of our duties owed directly to God, done in obedience to Him.
  • Any system of faith and worship.

My guess is that almost all Christians throughout all of Church history would be {1} shocked by the idea that God was “displeased with religion” and {2} confused as to why we'd try and separate our religion {our faith in and worship of God} from our relationship with God. This latter point is important. We were brought into right relationship with God that we might believe in Him and worship Him as He commands.

Origins of the Myth

Most folks who say something like "God hates religion" have a broad, nonspecific understanding of Jesus' interactions with the Pharisees. We know that the Pharisees were zealous for the Jewish law {including the "law" that had been invented by rabbinical tradition and was not part of the canon of Scripture}. They engaged in ritualistic hand washing, they prayed on street corners in order to be seen by men, and they believed that their high level of adherence to the law made them superior to others and commended them to God.

The Pharisees were highly religious, and when Jesus rebukes them, the modern mind, which values vague spirituality over the idea of religion {with all its obligations}, says, "Aha! See! God doesn't like religious people!"

Not. So. Fast.

If we are to condemn the Pharisees, we must say what Jesus says about them. For instance, in Matthew 23, we see that:
  • They burdened men with rules, but were unwilling to help carry that burden
  • All of their noticeable religion {details on their garments, for example} were in order to be praised by men
  • They love to sit in the seat of honor {and even seated themselves in the Moses' chair!}
  • They twisted the law, and thus led their followers astray
  • They allowed for technicalities to keep men from having to keep their promises
  • They tithed every last cent, but neglected the "weightier provisions of the law" such as love, justice, mercy, and faithfulness
  • Their religion was entirely external--inside, they were dead men and far from God

John Lord talks about this in his volume Jewish Heroes and Prophets from the Beacon Lights of History series. Around the time of Judas Maccabeus, the Jews realized that their neglect of God's law had resulted in their repeated punishment. Initially, they turned back to God, but over time their religion became a worship of the Law rather than a worship of God Himself. It wasn't that the Law was bad, but rather that they looked to the Law to save, rather than to God to save.

As far back as Isaiah this sort of thing was mentioned:
And the Lord said: "Because this people draw near with their mouth and honor me with their lips, while their hearts are far from me, and their fear of me is a commandment taught by men..."

The issue was not their religion. The issue was their hearts. Do you know how I know? Because of an oft overlooked statement by Jesus. In Matthew 23, He says,
therefore all that they tell you, do and observe, but do not do according to their deeds; for they say things and do not do them.

All Those Other Religious People

We really can't isolate the incidents with the Pharisees and conclude that God has a problem with religion {especially when Mr. Webster tells us that religion is essentially living out the obligations implied by our theological beliefs}. We need to look at other instances of what might rightly be called religion {even according to the Pharisees}, and see what God's word has to say about those instances.

For instance, in Luke 2, we learn that Jesus' parents had him circumcised on the appropriate day. They presented Him at the Temple, as was required by religious law, and they made the sacrifice required of the poor--two turtledoves. In addition to this, they traveled to Jerusalem every year in order to celebrate the Passover. Nowhere does God condemn this. If anything, we might deduce that He approves, as Jesus' parents are {1} obeying His law, and {2} He singled them out as the fit parents for His Messiah.

There is also the odd behavior of John the Baptist. He seems absolutely ascetic as he lives in the wilderness, eats grasshoppers and honey, and wears camel skins for his clothing. He doesn't just keep to himself, rather, he preaches repentance and baptizes in repentance.

Or let's take the first Church. We see in Acts that they are highly religious. When they meet, they take communion, a religious ordinance established by Jesus before His death and resurrection. When someone converts, they are baptized, a religious ordinance commanded by our Lord in the Great Commission.

Come to think of it, maybe we could just stop at the phrase "take the Church." After all, Jesus established a Church, a religious body promoting the true religion.

True Religion, False Religion

This really is the crux of the matter. The Pharisees followed a version of Judaism so twisted that it was far from the heart of the Father. The problem was not that they were religious, but that they followed and promoted a false version of the true religion. When Christ instituted the New Covenant, he didn't destroy religion, but rather refined and revealed true religion.

Why do I say refined? Well, we have the Old Covenant fulfilled in the New Covenant. We have the ancient rite of circumcision replaced by baptism. We have the old annual feast meal of Passover superseded by the regular meal of the Church, communion. We have the old sacrificial system finalized in the ultimate once-for-all-time sacrifice of Christ's blood on the Cross.

This is a religion.

There is really no getting around it, and when we start to shy away from the word religion, we might want to ask ourselves why. Would it have anything to do with the way that the world characterizes religion--as backward, antiquated, narrow, restrictive, or just plain not cool?

It is also a relationship, but that is not the focus of this post.

It might be more apt to say that it is a relationship worthy of nothing less than religious devotion in every sense of the phrase.

Danger: Ignoring Religion’s Objective Meaning

Ultimately, Mr. Webster defined words according to their objective meaning, and at the time of his writing, it was almost universally acknowledged that religion is theology in action. True religion is God's Word in action. So we not only observe the ordinances, but we also do our duties to our fellow man and practice personal holiness--this is pure religion.

To say that God "hates religion" or "dislikes religious people" is a failure to understand the nature of religion. It is absurd to think that God hates His people to follow Him as He has commanded them to do so, or hates that they become bound to Him in the way He designed for them to be bound to Him.

The word “religion” has been used by Christians to describe their faith and practice for two thousand years. If we teach our people a false definition of this word, we isolate them from this rich history, robbing from them their birthright of standing on the shoulders of the giants of the faith who have gone before us. For how can we admire the religion of Athanasius, of Luther, of Edwards, of Spurgeon—or of our own Founding Fathers, who tell us our Constitution is only fit to govern a “religious people”—if we have been taught that religion is “bad.”

We mustn’t allow Satan to steal our words, to redefine our terms. He is not the victor in this great battle, and we do not have to give him a single inch. In the words of Eugene Peterson:
Our capacity for language is the most distinctive thing about us as humans. Words are that by which we articulate who we are. Nothing about us is more significant than the way we use words. If words are used badly, our lives are debased. The way we understand and become ourselves through the use of words has a corollary in how we understand God and his coming among us. The most distinctive feature of the Christian faith is its respect for the word: God’s word first of all and secondarily our words of prayer, confession, and witness. The most-to-be feared attacks on the Christian faith go for the jugular of the word: twisting the word, denying the word, doubting the word. It is impressive how frequently the Psalmists denounced and cried out for help against lying lips and flattering tongues. Far more than they feared murderers, adulterers, usurers, and Egyptians, they feared liars. God made himself known to them by word, and it was by words that they shaped their response to him. When words are ruined, we are damaged at the core of our being.

The subtlest and most common attack in the satanic assault on God’s ways among us is a subversion of the word.