Convocation: What it is and why we do it

IMG_5011Convocation just means the time when we convene to start school.  You can see where it fits into my weekly checklist above.  Unlike lots of other families, it doesn’t work for us to do all of our read-alouds, poetry, memory work, singing, artist and composer study, etc etc all at one time.  There is just too much of it.  I’ve found that it works better for us (for my voice and for the quality of our discussion) to break things up throughout the day. So rather than having one catch-all spot, we have Convocation, Table Time, The Reading, and Bedtime Reading/Worship–at the beginning, middle, and end of our days, respectively. This week, I’ll try to give you a brief look at what Convocation includes for us and why, and how it only takes 15 minutes (usually).

First, we pray for our day.  This is brief, maybe 1-2 minutes, asking God to bless our day, give us teachable hearts and good attitudes, make us diligent, and to show us His truth and beauty as we study. If we have any particular concerns going on, we can pray about those too.

Why start with prayer? Prayer reminds us of why we are doing this hard work of education, and helps put our focus on the larger picture of God’s work and how exciting it is that we get to learn about it in all aspects of our day. But most of all, it reminds us (particularly me) that we aren’t in this alone and that we need God’s help and grace.

The next piece rotates by day and can be very quick or take around 5 minutes:

  • Monday – say the Lord’s Prayer (actually we tack this on to the end of our prayer that day)
  • Tuesday – recite the Apostle’s Creed
  • Wednesday – each kid is given a Bible verse to look up (to get faster at finding passages in the Bible and to get practice reading Scripture out loud well)
  • Thursday – recite the books of the Bible
  • Friday – Catechism review

Why do we memorize this stuff? The Lord’s Prayer, Apostle’s Creed, books of the Bible, and catechism are part of historical church practice–we learn them because we are part of the church and God’s work around the world and across the centuries, not just our own little community and place in time. In addition to being time-tested statements of belief, these are beautifully written pieces that use strong vocabulary and excellent structure–all good reasons to have them in our minds!

Then we review our catechism question and answer and do a brief Biblestudy from Starr Meade’s Training Hearts, Teaching Minds.  The book has a short study for each day of the week related to the Scripture proofs for each question and answer from the Westminster Shorter Catechism.  We just switched back to that book after I realized the kids were too old to keep going through the Children’s Catechism and needed something more.  This takes maybe 5-7 minutes or so.

Why tie Biblestudy to catechism? We don’t always, but I like how this study ties what we believe to why we believe it.  It’s a great springboard for discussions.  And I do allow discussion if it comes up–we aren’t tied to a minute-by-minute schedule and I think it’s important to dig deeply and wrestle with ideas. After all, the purpose of education is not just to check boxes!

After that we recite our review passage of Scripture.  We memorize by chapter for the most part, so I just stack in five things from our memory work and put them on my clipboard for the week. This takes maybe 2-3 minutes.

Why do we memorize scripture by passage? I’ve read a lot about the value of memorizing longer passages instead of (or in addition to) single verses, especially for giving us a sense of how verses fit into the whole flow of scripture. Then there’s literary merit, which is not the primary concern but certainly is a factor!  Again, if we purpose to give our children a taste for truth and beauty, we have to make beautiful language part of their experience.

Finally, we sing a Psalm or hymn.  We have 10 per week–five for morning and five for before bed. This takes a couple of minutes.

Why do we learn hymns and Psalms? Our church sings a mix of traditional music and modern worship songs, and frankly I think the hymns are–for the most part–of more enduring value musically and lyrically.  I don’t have anything against worship tunes in general, but I think there is value to learning more complex pieces so we do more of that at home. And obviously Psalms are scripture and singing is a great way to memorize.

So that’s Convocation.  On paper it sounds like a lot, but in actual practice it does take an average of 15-20 minutes, give or take a discussion or breakfast disaster or two.

I hope that helps–let me know if you have any other questions. I gather ideas from all over the place, so very few of these things are my originals.  I just regroup things into ways it will work for my family, so please don’t feel like I’m saying this is how anyone else should do things!


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Cultivating a Devotional Life

women of the wordWomen of the Word: How to Study the Bible with Both Our Hearts and Our Minds is a helpful reference for studying the Bible deeply in a group or on your own. Although I was initially leery because I feared the title implied that women should do Biblestudy Lite, it turns out that the author agrees with me that women need theology and deep study and the book title refers to the fact that women do need that depth even if it isn’t what they are used to getting.

The author, Jen Wilkin, provides a great framework for studying the Bible, including ideas that would be helpful even if you’ve been doing this for years. I started using several of her methods in my own study time this year and have found them illuminating.

I got an ESV Single Column Journaling Bible for Christmas and have been using it to combine my daily journal, prayers, and Bible study to great effect. It’s amazing how combining those three things has helped to clarify my thinking, remind me of the truth, and direct my prayer life. I’ve seen lots of references online about using a journaling Bible to paint or make other visual responses to Scripture, but since I’m a words person I’m filling mine with writing and underlining. I can already tell after one month that this is a habit I could keep going for the long-term.

In addition to using the ideas from Women of the Word, I’m also reading through The Songs of Jesus: A Year of Daily Devotions in the Psalms. I love the book’s emphasis on praying scripture back to God. Each section is broken down by day (although I’ve read more than one on certain days), with a short piece of teaching that puts the selection in context and spurs deeper reflection, and then an example of how to begin putting the section into your own prayers.  Because the selections are short, you could easily begin now and do an extra day here or there, or just start whenever you start and forget about the dated entries.

If you’re looking for a great resource on devotional life, I still refer back to my notes from Tim Keller’s excellent book Prayer often.

For an example of how to put the ideas found in Women in the Word into practice, you might be interested in downloading Jen Wilkin’s study on Hebrews. I got it, but haven’t begun using it yet.

What devotional resources have you found lately?


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A Few Books on Faith

sufferingI have a hard time identifying with the term suffering, because the word seems loaded with comparison. Even when we do feel like we are suffering, it can be hard to talk about it or admit it to others because it seems a little lame compared to the far worse things others deal with.

That’s why I loved Elisabeth Elliot’s book A Path Through Suffering.  She doesn’t mess with platitudes about being glad that at least you aren’t as bad off as so-and-so.  Rather, she defines suffering as “having what you don’t want or wanting what you don’t have.”  Even mild trouble ought to be handled the same way as debilitating and tragic loss, because “if we don’t learn to refer the little thing to God, how shall we learn to refer the big ones?”

The book is simply chock full of convicting, encouraging words on dealing with the discomforts of life in a godly way. There is so much wisdom on how to navigate day-to-day living.  I took copious notes and am using them as I work on my goals for next year.

I may choose A Path Through Suffering as one of my top books of this year.  Highly, highly recommended.

disciplineIn Discipline: The Glad Surrender, Elisabeth Elliot offers an interesting perspective on several disciplines of life.  While she touches on some that probably come to mind, the book tackles these subjects from a different perspective than you usually find.  Rather than prescribing a set of rules, Elliot gets into heart attitudes on topics like controlling your thoughts, being disciplined with your time, and not letting your feelings run away with you.  I found all of the topics extremely helpful and thought-provoking, and would also recommend this volume.  I’m finding it helpful in setting priorities for next year, but it would be a rich resource any time.

savorFor my Bible study in November I worked through Savor & Establish, a study on Philippians with a focus on thankfulness. I thought it was perfect for the month, especially as I feel like I have more than the usual things to be grateful for this season. I’m not sure how long this will be available, but for the time being you can get a copy of the study free when you subscribe to MacKenzie Monroe’s website. It’s well worth it!

worldTheologian R.C. Sproul has a series of short books dealing with critical questions of faith, all of which are free on Kindle. I read How Should I Live in This World?, which is an application of biblical frameworks to popular ethical quandaries.  Sproul succinctly describes how to apply principles from the Bible to these questions, without being blinded by our culture or time period.

The book is very short for the topic it covers.  If you’re interested in really deep exegesis and detailed philosophical application, this might not be the book for you.  But if you just want a quick hit I think it’s a fairly solid choice.

LoveComesNear_8.5x11-Cover-232x300I am so glad I purchased Jenni Keller’s latest book Love Comes Near: An Advent Bible Study. I’ve gotten a lot out of her previous studies, and although this one is structured differently I am really, really enjoying it.

Unlike Keller’s previous work, Love Comes Near doesn’t cover one book of the Bible.  Instead, Keller selected Advent-related passages for each day.  I’m appreciating the reminder to keep my focus on Advent.

But the best part of the study is Keller’s inclusion of a shorter version of each day’s study geared towards kids.  I love this!  It’s a perfect way to get my three big kids more practice looking up Bible passages, plus good kid-level discussion questions, and a passage to copy out each day (sneaky copywork/handwriting practice!!!).  I wish I could find more studies like this for us to do throughout the year.

What books or studies on faith have you enjoyed lately?


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Establish Your Heart (a Biblestudy on James)

Establish-Your-Heart-Cover-for-web-228x300Having really enjoyed Jenni Keller’s study on Colossians, I eagerly bought her second book, Establish Your Heart: A Six-week Study of James.  Although the format was a little different and I preferred the Colossians study overall, I still got a lot out of the James study, and would recommend it.

You can get the study two ways: via Amazon or directly from Keller’s website.  I got my copy from her website as a download and printed it out, but in hindsight I would have just gotten it on Amazon because for $2 extra you get a paperback version that doesn’t require your colored ink and is presumably bound versus being a stack of computer paper held together by a binder clip.

Either way, the study is an economical investment that will encourage you to think deeply about the book of James and really study this Scripture.  Like Keller’s previous study, this one doesn’t force feed you any answers–you really do your own study, but feel supported along the way.  I really like that about Keller’s approach.

The study could easily be done with a group or on your own.  If you’re looking for a tool to help you dig more deeply in your Bible study, I’d recommend Establish Your Heart or Complete in Christ, Keller’s study on Colossians (you can read my review of the Colossians study here).


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Be Happy, Christian Style

Happy-ChristianIn his wide ranging book The Happy Christian, David Murray offers his spin on the psychology research surrounding happiness.  If you’ve read much in this genre before you’ll recognize the books and studies he cites, and you may have made many of the same applications to your life if you’re a Christian, but Murray’s book is still helpful and worthwhile, especially if you have no intention of reading anything else about happiness.

Many of Murray’s points were good reminders of things I had already read in other sources, but I found several of his points particularly strong:

  • In his exposition of the Psalms Murray describes the biblical model for realistic happiness.  Rather than shoving your feelings and the reality of your circumstances under the rug, the Psalms show that it’s better to accept reality in context, looking to the past for examples of God’s faithfulness in order to generate the solid hope that allows for happiness and contentment.
  • I also liked Murray’s application of Paul’s exhortation to think on whatever things are true in light of our cultural tendency toward criticism and negativity.
  • The section on prejudice and the Church’s call to be radically inclusive was particularly well thought-out and relevant in light of current events.  

While I personally have found some secular books on happiness to be better overall resources thanThe Happy Christian, Murray’s application of happiness research to the Christian life has value and I’d recommend it.


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Rest: Living in Sabbath Simplicity

restIf you are caught in an endless cycle of activity and really have no idea where to start on the concept of Sabbath or rest, Rest: Living in Sabbath Simplicity might be a good gentle introduction when more substantive and deep books might overwhelm you.  While not my favorite on the topic, the book contains some good points and reminders.

Kent recommends easing into the countercultural idea of taking rest, and she writes about a variety of ways you can do that.  The book avoids prescriptions so you won’t feel judged or bludgeoned into anything.  That said, in so doing it also avoids being particularly challenging or in-depth.  It’s a short book, and yet I kept feeling like I was re-reading a loop of the same points–I might have suggested tightening up the structure to avoid that problem.

Although I disagreed with Kent on a few points, I do think this is a worthwhile book, especially if you really are just beginning to think about the concepts.  After that, I’d recommend moving on to meatier books, with Dan Allender’s take being my favorite so far.

Does your family rest on Sunday or another day of the week?  Have you built any other rhythms of rest into your life?


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Complete in Christ

studyI recently completed Complete in Christ: Illuminating the Pure Truth of Jesus, Jenni Keller’s excellent Biblestudy on Colossians, and would highly recommend it for personal study or to work on in a group.

Unlike many studies, in which hopefully you connect with the author’s personal anecdotes and applications or you don’t, Keller structured this study as an in-depth look at what the Scripture says, inviting readers to dig deeply into the text and then make their own applications.  She provides just enough background and insight to enrich the study and give a framework without asking leading questions that let you get away without really studying.

The study is structured to take about 30 minutes per day, six days per week, for six weeks.  For each day in a given week, you read the same passage and look at it from a different angle.  I found that emphasis on slow, deep study very helpful and got a tremendous amount out of the study. Because I read the same passages again and again, I feel like the verses really sank into my heart in a different way than doing a chapter by chapter approach or even a passage-per-day structure.

The book itself is available on Kindle for $2.99, which is super affordable, especially for what a great study this is.  You can also purchase it as a direct download via the author’s website (where you can also look at sample pages).  I printed out my copy and filled in every available space and the backs of all the pages with my notes and responses.  In hindsight, I might suggest keeping your answers and what you learn in a separate notebook–it would be less messy!  Another thought I had was that the structure of the study would lend itself to memorization.  I started out to memorize Colossians months ago, but sort of petered out after the first chapter.  I think a study like this would be even deeper if, in addition to your daily reading of the passage, you worked on memorizing it throughout your week.

As I said at the beginning of this post, I would highly recommend this study.  I thought it was a great thing for my daily Biblestudy individually, but I think it would also be terrific as a group study.  I met Jenni at a local event (she lives in my area) and she said she had tested the study in a private Facebook group with a group of women from her church.  I thought that was a brilliant way to do a Biblestudy, especially for women who can’t necessarily commit to regular in-person studies due to work or family schedules.  In any case, if you’re looking for a great study, check out Complete in Christ.

What Biblestudies have you found helpful lately?


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Make It Happen

make it happenMake it Happen: Surrender Your Fear. Take the Leap. Live On Purpose is one of the best books I’ve read so far this year.  I read a lot in this genre, but I really, really tracked with Casey’s way of looking at the world and her intense, direct style.  Although my life experiences haven’t tracked exactly with hers, I found myself nodding and saying “Yes!  That!” throughout.  I marked almost every page with sticky tabs–often more than one per page–and am still slowly working through my notes, writing responses and digging into the material.  This is an exceptional book.

It’s not so much that the material itself is new–you can read about living on purpose and overcoming fears that hold you back and setting goals all over the place–rather it’s the delivery in Make it Happen that really resonated with me.  Sometimes books in this genre seem too much of one thing or another to me, but I really connected with this one because, like me, Casey is driven, yet cares deeply about family relationships; she’s a person of real faith, yet still grapples with big questions and is still learning.  For that reason, as I read I either found myself agreeing vigorously or hearing big points I really needed to think through.  This isn’t a “light a scented candle and make a batch of cookies” sort of approach.  It’s more of a call to really dig deep, peel back the layers, and get to the root of your problems and fears and reluctance to live your best life.  It’s also not a name-it-and-claim-it book, but rather a call to pray deeply–surrendering your biases and boxes and preconceived notions–that God would show you what the “it” is that you’re supposed to make happen and how to go about doing that.

As I’ve been writing my responses to the book (there are lots of sections where readers are invited to think through something and write answers) I’ve been interested to see how often I’m coming up with stuff I didn’t even know was “stuff” for me.  Something about the way Casey writes invites deeper reflection and different angles for considering familiar topics.  This isn’t a Biblestudy, but it is a very biblical approach, and Casey’s examples draw from her faith experience.  Make it Happen isn’t something you can read and set aside in one sitting (although I had a hard time putting it down), but a book that almost demands that you wrestle with yourself.  Since my goal is to be changed by what I read I appreciate books that invite that sort of interaction.

I’m not sure what my ultimate conclusions will be after I finish going through my notes, but everyone will get something different out of the book.  No matter where you are in life, Make it Happen is such a great book that I think you couldn’t fail to get something from it, and I highly recommend it.


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Silence-770862In Silence, Japanese novelist Shusaku Endo describes the persecution of Christians in Japan in the 1600s through the eyes of a Portuguese missionary.  Earlier missionaries had brought Catholicism to Japan and made many converts, but when the shoguns couldn’t control the new faith as easily as Buddhism, they outlawed it.

The book gets into lots of interesting themes and tensions surrounding missions – the problem of communicating a universal faith without unnecessarily trampling on the existing culture, the implications of apostasy and martyrdom, and who bears the guilt in situations of torture and coercion.  Throughout the book, I got the impression that Endo–himself a Japanese Catholic–is uneasy with many of these questions.

Perhaps we should be uneasy too.  Early in the book the Portuguese priest judges an apostate as a coward and weakling.  But how many comfortable Christians would stand firm if tortured to apostasize?  How should such a person be viewed, especially in comparison to those who accept martyrdom?  Is this a function of inherent strength or true faith?  Endo concludes that God can use the weakness of the apostates, and even implies that when faced with the ethical dilemma of trading apostasy for releasing other believers from torture, Jesus himself would have apostasized.  I can’t agree with Endo’s conclusion there, as I don’t think it’s borne out in Scripture at all, but the author does do a good job of showing the crisis between standing firm and yet wanting to help suffering people.

Torture is a terrible thing not only for its physical toll but for its psychological ramifications. It perplexed me why Endo didn’t allow his priest characters to confront the authorities with logic–when told that the Japanese Christians were being tortured because the priests were holding out, I feel like the immediate answer would be “No, actually they are being tortured because of your policies.”  But that may not be consistent with the actual historical references.

Another interesting theme is the question of whether Christianity just isn’t compatible with Japan.  One priest concludes that even the Japanese believers weren’t truly Christians, but rather just using Christian jargon on top of their former beliefs.  Here too, Endo seems ambivalent.  Is there really a possibility of a Japanese Christianity?  Again, I disagree with his conclusion, because Christianity is not the purview of one nation or culture or time period.  Certainly it isn’t Portuguese any more than Japanese!  But that said, I thought it was interesting that my church showed a video about one of the missionaries we support in Tokyo, and it gave the statistic that even today only 5% of Japanese people ever hear the Gospel during their lifetimes!  There is a lot of complicated history and sociology wrapped up in that statistic, I’m sure, but it’s pretty staggering.

The book’s title comes from a key struggle facing the narrator priest: why does God seem silent when His children suffer.  At the end of the book Endo concludes that God was not silent, He was speaking through the lives of the believers.  Even this is ambivalent though, since the book doesn’t indicate which of the believers is speaking for God–the martyrs or the apostates.

Although I don’t agree with many of the author’s positions, I did find Silence a thought-provoking and informative book, and would recommend it.


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contentmentIn Contentment: The Secret to a Lasting Calm, author Richard Swenson explores the concept of choosing to be content no matter what the circumstances–what that really means, what it looks like in practice, how it conflicts with modern values, and how to put it into practice.

The book is thoughtful and helpful, with a good blend of vision and application.  Swenson does a great job of breaking down the concept of contentment and giving it biblical, historical, and modern context.

While I can’t say that anything in the book was really new to me, the delivery forced me to examine some of the ways that our culture has impacted my perspective.  It is really difficult to call out your own blindspots, so I always appreciate authors who can point to ways our milieu is in conflict with a biblical view.

One example would be the way we view success.  Modern western sensibility dislikes the concept of contentment because it smacks of mediocrity and underachievement.  But the modern alternative is restless discontent, where nothing is ever enough and we churn around “relentlessly striving after dissatisfactions we can scarcely name.”  Swenson shows that biblical contentment is not about sloth, but about taking a right view of work as something we do to the best of our ability, but balanced by the view that we owe our success and every good thing to God, whose provision is trustworthy.  Yes, we work for our food, but God provides the soil, sun, water, etc.

Another example is in how we tacitly define the good life.  Swenson observes that the modern script defines the good life through media, technology, and money, but greater contentment comes through a community-oriented definition.  When we build a rich lifestyle based on community, relationship, and hospitality, we can be content with much less by our culture’s measurement.

I’ve noticed that, for me anyway, technology and media offer a false sense of community–a sense that I’ve connected with an old friend because I’ve seen her pictures on Facebook, when in reality I haven’t talked to her in 14 years and we have no real idea of what’s going on in each other’s lives.  Facebook is what it is–the Christmas card of connection–but it’s not real community.  One of my goals for this year is to work much harder at real life connections and really owning that my life is happening here in Indiana whether I feel like I fit in or not.  Getting together with people and being determined about getting on people’s schedules takes time and is sometimes uncomfortable (I hate feeling like I’m imposing on busy people who already have friends and don’t really need an extra!) but I’m always happier when I make the effort.  So I think Swenson’s point about defining the good life as community-based rather than consumption-based is valid and worth deep consideration.

I thought Contentment was a worthwhile read, full of good reminders and helpful challenges to my perspective.

How do you define contentment?  Do you think it’s challenging to maintain a counter-cultural definition of living well?


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