Saturday, July 19, 2014

The Giver: A Book Review

A few weeks back, one of my friends handed me a book and said, “I think you’ll like this.” It was a short, 179-page book by Lois Lowry called The Giver.

As usual, my friend was also on top of the news that this book is being converted into a movie, to be released this August.

So I started reading – and didn’t want to stop. Lowry writes in a clear, simple style that middle-school students would enjoy but that also pulls adults into the story of Jonas, a soon-to-be TWELVE, whose ASSIGNMENT is something he never imagined.

Jonas lives in a futuristic, utopian society – at least, it seems perfect on the surface. Everyone follows a strict order of rules, is rigidly polite, and takes prescribed medication that prevents pain and emotion. "Releases" are celebrated in the House of the Old, and for the premature, but no one really knows what they involve.

At twelve, each child is assigned his life-long occupation since no one, other than a group of Elders, is responsible for making choices. Jonas, who is generally good at everything, can’t guess what his assignment might be.

When he learns that he has been selected as the next Receiver, he is nervous and afraid, for there is only one Receiver who holds all the memories of pain and pleasure in life – so that nothing disrupts the predictable order and harmony of the community.

But as Jonas receives both painful and pleasurable memories from the Giver, he discovers the truth and realizes he can never go back to his old way of life.

Discussion Points
The story is simple and short, but the message behind the story is powerful. What is the meaning and value of life?

Can anyone truly live if completely shielded from pain? Both the Giver and Jonas realize the answer is no, because memories bring both pain and happiness. If you prevent pain, you can never experience joy and love.

You can also never experience family. The happiest memory Jonas receives is a family, including grandparents, at Christmas. But in Jonas’ community, there are no grandparents. Children are assigned parents based on a selection process. Once children grow up, parents live by themselves and eventually enter the House of the Old. There are no true family ties.

An even more horrific practice that Jonas discovers is the true nature of release – euthanasia – practiced on both the very old and sometimes, the very young. He forcefully feels that life must have meaning and in the end, decides that saving one individual is worth risking everything.

Final Thoughts
Life is something to prize and cherish. This is a message, I believe, that’s lacking in American society today. After all, what is abortion but euthanasia for what some view as an “inconvenience”?  

Lowry’s message is a timely one, although without the gospel message, nevertheless an incomplete one. It will be interesting to see how Hollywood translates the book. I can only wonder if viewers will be able to draw the parallel between Jonas’ society and the flippant view of life that our culture often takes.

C. S. Lewis once said, “To love is to be vulnerable.” To be vulnerable involves possible pain, loneliness and fear. But as Lowry’s story reminds us, life without love is meaningless.

Thursday, June 12, 2014

The Fault in Our Stars: A Review

After hearing many of my eighth and ninth grade students rave over John Green's The Fault in Our Stars last semester, I bought it on Amazon and added it to my reading list.

What was so irresistible about this book that made it impossible for teen (mostly girl) readers to put it down?

As you may know, this book is a love story between terminal cancer patients who try to make the most of their “little infinity” together. That alone makes it a captivating story that immediately grabs at your heartstrings.

What I liked
Hands down, John Green tells a great story. He provides so many details to build each character’s individuality that you feel you know Augustus and Hazel Grace and are personally involved in their lives. You care about them and what happens to them – and that is why you will need a tissue box before you finish the book.

I also liked that he shared not only the struggles of these teens, but also showed the involvement of their parents, especially Hazel’s. Fighting cancer was a family affair, and even when Hazel was annoyed with her parents, she recognized that their sacrifices were because of their love for her. In fact, she understood this so deeply that she felt guilty for making them put their lives “on hold” for her. The relationship developed among father, mother, and daughter was something I respected – especially because you generally don’t see this in popular teen fiction.

Not so much
The author has a raw, irreverent writing style and often used language to convey his characters’ thoughts and feelings. This, in my opinion, is laziness. Find another word – or simply show how the character feels – instead of encouraging teenage readers to dumb down their own vocabulary.

Because of its subject, this book took advantage of raising and discussing some big questions. Fiction can be a powerful tool to influence young minds, and I strongly disagreed with the author’s perspective. Here are some “for instances”:

Where did we come from, and what happens after death?
  • Hazel’s answer: “There was a time before organisms experienced consciousness, and there will be a time after. And if the inevitability of human oblivion worries you, I would encourage you to ignore it.”
  • Augustus’ answer on an afterlife isn’t much more comforting, although he thinks he believes in something: “Yes, absolutely. Not like a heaven where you ride unicorns, play harps, and live in a mansion made of clouds. But yes. I believe in Something with a capital S.”
Is there a purpose to life?
  • Augustus: “We’re all just side effects, right?”
  • Hazel, quoting her favorite author, offers the suggestion that humanity is nothing more than “barnacles on the container ship of consciousness”
  • Augustus also answers this question in a letter discovered after his death: “We are likely to hurt the universe as we are to help it, and we’re not likely to do either.”
Final thoughts

Am I overanalyzing this? I don’t think so, although I do think most teens liked the story for the story itself and didn’t consider what message the author was conveying.
Did I see the movie? No, and I probably won’t. I prefer not to watch love scenes between minors. For a full and excellent analysis on the movie, though, please visit pluggedin.com.

Should you read the book? If you have a teen or work with teens, I would say most definitely yes, because then, you can engage them about the book – what is likable and what conflicts with the biblical worldview.
If anyone needs a copy, I have one I would be willing to part with.

Sunday, May 11, 2014

Thank you for being amazing

Last week, I realized the power of a thank you. It was teacher appreciation week, and in the midst of some student drama, one of my seventh graders gave me a note that said, “Thank you for being… an amazing teacher!”

It melted my heart and made me want to cry. AT LEAST ONE OF THEM SEES I CARE AND AM NOT JUST A DICTATOR TELLING THEM NOT TO TALK OUT OF TURN IN CLASS.

Today is Mother’s Day, and I am so very thankful for the mom God has given me! Regardless of how close you are with your mom, if you are still blessed to have her with you, find a way to tell her thank you.

It doesn’t have to be fancy, and it doesn’t have to be flowers (which I actually can’t give my mom because she’s allergic).

A simple thank you can go deeper than you may ever know.

So, Mom, thank you for everything! You are my mentor, friend, counselor, teacher, shoulder-to-cry on, walking partner, assistant grader, bulletin-boards-for-school savior, and so much more!

Thank you for being amazing.

Saturday, May 10, 2014

Turning the Tassel

The end of a thing is better than its beginning (Ecclesiastes 7:8a).” I think every senior preparing to graduate understands what Solomon meant when he penned those words.

Then again, every teacher has a healthy sense of appreciation as well.

Year-in-review

Looking back over my first year teaching is something of a blur for me. At times, I felt as though I were crawling along in survival-only mode, but now, the year is almost behind me. At other times, it raced by with activities and accomplishments. For better or worse, I jumped in and gave teaching everything I could.

Whether we scrape our hands and knees across the finish line or effortlessly breeze past it, we finish. We have to finish.

But how we finish is up to us.

This Sunday, my church choir will be singing a song called “Finish Well,” and the words of the chorus summarize what I mean better than I could.

“Finish well, every day that we are given,
Finish well, for the glory of His Name.
Finish strong until the Savior finally calls us home.
Give it everything we have.
Finish well.”
Finish well

But what does that mean? Some people think finishing well means straight A’s. Others might think it means first place. Although both are worthy achievements, I think finishing strong means something more.

I wish I could tell you my first year teaching was storybook perfect, but it has quite frankly been anything but – complete with mistakes I’ve learned from (hopefully) and mixed together with drama I could definitely have done without.

Regardless, finishing strong means we did our best. Beyond that, it means we did our best with an attitude that pleased God.

And whether or not that's the case is a question each one of us has to answer for ourselves.

Tassel-turning moments

Although we only move the tassel for one, two, or maybe three literal graduations, life is full of tassel-turning moments. Whether we’re students or teachers, surgeons or stay-at-home moms, chemists or cashiers, we all face choices and challenges – where we must decide to press on even when we don’t feel like getting out of bed.

We don’t march to "Pomp and Circumstance" when we rise to the occasion. We don’t receive a gold-trimmed diploma. (In fact, no one may ever recognize our efforts or appreciate them.)

But those defining moments are God’s way of strengthening our character, graduating us to a new level of spiritual maturity, and teaching us that when we do our best to glorify Him, our work is never in vain.

Monday, March 17, 2014

I want to be a writer... Where do I start?

A few weeks ago before youth group, one of my former AWANA clubbers came up to me with a big smile on her face.

“I read your book when it first came out, and I want to be a writer too,” she said. “I have all these ideas, and I don’t know where to start. What can you tell me?”

Wow. What can I tell her? Writing is such an adventure and a non-stop learning journey – and I am a very long way from my destination. However, I’d be glad to share a couple basics I’ve learned that I hope will help my friend – and any other aspiring writers.

Write what you know.

I learned this concept in my college creative writing class. For a Civil War history buff, historical fiction might be a good fit, but not Amish mysteries. For someone who enjoys teaching and Bible study, perhaps devotionals would be a good place to start.

However, I would encourage any writer not to limit himself by only what he knows. We can always research and expand upon what we know. We writers must never stop learning.

Jump at opportunities to improve your craft.

This could be as simple as taking a creative writing class or participating in a writer’s group. It could be as big an investment as attending a writer’s conference.

This was my second year attending the Florida Christian Writer’s Conference (FCWC), and I can’t say enough how helpful, informative, and inspiring a writer’s conference can be.

Here’s my list of why I love writer’s conferences…
… I’m surrounded by people who are as crazy (or crazier) about my craft than I am.
… I have a chance to meet with editors and agents and present my work in person (instead of hoping my query wiggles its way to the top of some editor’s slush pile).
… I can attend workshops, critique groups, develop friendships, and network with other authors.

Even if a writer’s conference seems intimidating, make it one of your goals. It will help you take your writing seriously.

Develop “rhinoceros” skin.

As writers, we have to have thick skin. At my first writer’s conference, someone called this “rhinoceros” skin. Not only must we accept criticism, but we must learn to welcome it.

I may have shared this story before, but it’s worth sharing again. One of my professors in college announced at the beginning of the semester that for our writing assignments, she would select the worst submissions, and we would critique them as a class.

All of us grimaced, hoping and praying ours wouldn’t be picked. However, we quickly discovered that if ours were selected, we were nearly guaranteed an A on the assignment after revisions. Score!

Learn to welcome feedback and suggestions. They will only help your writing become stronger.

Have a support system in place.

As much as criticism can help us write better, let’s be honest. It often hurts. Rejection hurts even more.

That’s why having a support system in place is so important.

I like how Ellie Kay described the need for what she called “author partnerships.” During one of her keynote addresses at FCWC this year, she outlined five types of people writers need in their lives:

1.       The encourager – Someone who comes alongside us and believes in us.
2.       The fun friend – Someone who helps us “lighten up” and have fun.  (Yes, we writers sometimes take ourselves far too seriously!)
3.       The adventurer – Someone who pushes us to try new things and to attempt things that scare us.
4.       The artist – Someone who helps us perfect our craft.  
5.       The prophet – Someone who speaks truth into our lives and helps us be accountable.
Do you want to be a writer? Start with what you know, and embrace the adventure ahead! If I can be of any help to you in your writing, please contact me on my author website.

Saturday, February 8, 2014

Fill your life with the right choices


Our world is obsessed with health, fitness, calories, and cutting carbs. Why else would New York City attempt to ban large-size soft drinks and Starbucks venues publish calorie counts on their menu boards?

I am all for being fit and eating healthy, but I think our culture has become so concerned about waistlines that it has overlooked the bigger, root-cause issue: time lines.

What do I mean by that? Well, a timeline is simply an order of events that define history. I’m using the word here on a smaller, more personal scale. How do we spend our time? The answer to that question will define us better than the matter of what we eat.  

In Matthew 15:10-11, Jesus told the multitude that what a person says and not what he eats pollutes (or on the flip side, refines) a person. He said, “Not that which goeth into the mouth defileth a man; but that which cometh out of the mouth, this defileth a man.

The choices that we make – and not just the choice of whether to have pizza or a salad for supper – matter.

Last time, we talked about the importance of redeeming time, and I want to build upon that thought by asking a simple, but challenging, question: With what do we fill our lives?

We have to be honest: Most of the time in a day does not belong to us. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), most adults ages 25-54 spend 7.7 hours sleeping, 8.8 hours working, and 1.0 hours on household chores. Subtract that from 24 hours, and we’re left with 6.5 hours. From there, we have to subtract time to eat (1.1 hours), leaving us with 5.4 hours left. You will also have to calculate in family responsibilities as appropriate.

In those precious hours of “free time” left, our decisions are up to us and consequently, matter most. Do we vedge in front of a TV because we’re so exhausted from our daily regimen? Or, do we fill our time with worthwhile pursuits and acts of service that will energize us and bless those around us?

We all need to take a step back from the business of our days to honestly assess what those remaining hours in our lives look like.

The choices we make unwittingly write our personal time lines. How will you fill yours?

Saturday, January 11, 2014

Don't Kill Time. Redeem It.

We are on day eleven of a new year, and by now, many people have already broken their resolutions or forgotten about them.

Maybe we should be less concerned with making resolutions and more concerned with simply how we live.

One of my favorite quotes on “time” comes from Henry David Thoreau’s book Walden. In the first chapter on “Economy,” he offers an extreme, but hard look at the way in which people live. He proposes that man can be his own “slave-driver” and often spends his time on fruitless activities. And then he says:
“As if you could kill time without injuring eternity.”
I certainly don’t agree with all of Thoreau’s views (especially his Transcendental ones), but he does make some honest conclusions about the way man can waste his time.

At some time or another, I think we are all guilty of “killing time.” We don’t usually say it that way, though. Instead, we say, “I just need to kick-back,” or “I need some TV time.”

I’m guilty too and will confess to being completely hooked on BBC’s Downton Abbey. Although we all need some down time every now and then, the temptation can become to fill all our spare hours with distractions that steal our time instead of help us to redeem it.

Remember, time isn’t something that belongs to us or something we are entitled to. It is a God-given privilege, and as such, we have an obligation to be good stewards of it.

Ephesians 5:15-17 makes clear that God cares about how we spend our time.
“Therefore be careful how you walk, not as unwise men but as wise, making the most of your time, because the days are evil. So then do not be foolish, but understand what the will of the Lord is.” (NASB)
As one of my friends reminded me, every moment of time is a gift. We aren’t promised the next week, day, minute, or second. Are we throwing away our time on things and activities that won’t last? Are our choices injuring or impacting eternity?

A new year has just started. My prayer is that we all live it with eternity in mind.