Episode #31 - Updates and Changes

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Dear Storyformed friends,

In the podcast today, I share some reflections about my adventure to England with my family this summer. My husband graduated with his doctorate in theology from Durham University so we thought it was the perfect excuse to take the whole family. We loved seeing the sights and spending time with friends - old and new.

I have something to share with you.  As some of you may know, Storyformed is a ministry initiative of Whole Heart Ministries led by Clay and Sally Clarkson. As the Clarksons and I have been thinking about ways to make the ministry more streamlined and effective, we have decided to no longer run Storyformed as a separate podcast and blog. Our best content and resources will be integrated into the Wholeheart.org site. With Sally ministering overseas for a year and their reduced staff, they’re simplifying and downsizing where possible to focus on key ministries as they move into a new season of ministry. We believe that by consolidating things into the Whole Heart website, the ministry as a whole will experience an upgrade in our online presence, and we will be able to better manage and share our messages and ministries to Christian parents. Storyformed.com will still be ‘open for browsing’ this summer, but the change will be effective this Fall. Look for more news from the ministry about positive changes coming to Storyformed.com and other ministry initiatives in the weeks ahead!

Sally has also asked me to be sort of the lead “Inspirer” on LifewithSally.com for the Living Books section. I will continue to post podcasts about books, authors, and content like what you’ve come to love from our Storyformed podcasts on this section of Life With Sally. This will allow for greater opportunities for collaboration with Sally and other members of her team, and it will afford us better promotion and systems for delivering our content. Life with Sally is a paid subscription membership site.

Before I jump into telling you more about the membership site, I want you to know that I have enjoyed this podcast and writing on Storyformed immensely. It has been such an incredible opportunity  - I’ve loved sharing my life, stories, and of course book recommendations with you. Thank you for joining us for the past year. Thank you for encouraging us along the way - I appreciate all of your comments on Itunes, Facebook, and Instagram. It means more than you know.

Although this is bittersweet, you can still join me in the Living Books space on the membership site - Sally and many other contributors invest much of their time into the membership site to give back to moms wisdom and truth they’ve learned in their walks with God.

If you subscribe, you’ll have access to:

  • Bible Study with Sally—Reflections and devotional thoughts from Sally's personal studies of books and topics of Scripture.
  • Legacy Talks by Sally—Encouragement in six areas of life curated from two decades of Sally's ministry and messages.

  • Topic Series with Sally—Special series by Sally drawn from her books and other resources for living as a lifegiving mother.

  • Access to Sally—Exclusive access to Sally in a seasonal live-streamed webcast with special topics and guests (quarterly).

  • Book Talk—Discussions about great children's books and family reading with Holly Packiam, Sally, and Sarah Clarkson.

  • Arts Talk—Discussions about music and the visual arts with violinist Terri Moon, Kristen Kill, Joy Clarkson, and others.

  • Lifegiving—Thoughts from Sally about building a lifegiving home, creating a lifegiving table, and being a lifegiving family.

  • Private Forum—A forum only for Life with Sally members to ask questions, discuss topics, and find community . 

  • I hope you’ll go to lifewithsally.com to find out more. Please join me in the space there.

Also, I’d love to connect with you on my personal Instagram account - hollypackiam. I post about my life and family of course, but I’ll also post what the kids and I are reading as well.

Thank you again for joining me in this FINAL Storyformed podcast. I hope you all have a wonderful and (hopefully somewhat restful) remainder of the summer! And of course, as always, READ ON!!

XOXO

Holly Packiam

The Staying Power of Stories - Part 3

 

Hi Storyformed Friends! It is my pleasure to introduce to you, Jason Pederson, a Storyformed guest contributor. If you missed the first two parts of this series, check them out! Jason believes good stories change lives. Though he has only recently begun work on his first children’s novel, he has been storytelling for 10 years through his residential design business where his home designs help fund adoptions (www.jpdesignhomes.com). Jason is married to his best friend, Jennifer, and together they adopted their now two-year-old son, Jackson, who is eagerly anticipating the arrival of their newest addition; due this Christmas. They live in a Colorado cottage filled with good books and a funny little dog named Belle.


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Have you ever been carried away by a story? One moment you are nestled into your favorite reading corner, and the next you are standing on white shores with sun and sea breeze on your face. The simple act of turning a page could lead you onto a dangerous battlefield, into a mysterious encounter, or away on an adventure. Every story invites us to participate in an unfolding drama. Good writing beckons, but great writing immerses. It is far more compelling to experience a story alongside its characters than to watch them act out the plot like actors on a stage. Don’t get me wrong, theater has the same power to transport the viewer into the story. It’s all in the telling. A story that is said well is seen well.

Every story exists to invite the reader to look at something the author finds compelling. It could be something about the world, ourselves, others, or really any idea that has intrigued the author. To begin a story is to be asked the question “will you look with me?” As we read, we are given sight. Most often this sight is limited to the author’s own field of vision, but on the rare occurrence a story can give us a glimpse into something more. Like C.S. Lewis, many of us would liken this sensation to the word longing. Lewis named this longing with the German word sehnsucht. He called it “the inconsolable longing in the heart for we know not what.” I have found that the stories that have stayed with me the longest are the ones that keep me in that place of longing – even after their telling.

In my previous two posts, I described two streams – Wonder and Gratitude – that I have found to be present near the roots of every story that evokes longing in me. The power in both of these streams lies in how their experience translates into the tangible reality of my everyday life. If the wonder or gratitude that I experience while reading stays in the story after I close the cover, then I begin to question their validity. On the other hand, if wonder and gratitude are revitalized in my life as a result of a story, then I know the experience of my mind became embodied in my heart, and was therefore more valuable.

When wonder and gratitude are awakened through story, they help to ready my heart to receive the nourishment of the final two streams; humility and grace. I mention these at the same time because they are often linked not only in the story itself, but in my emotional response to the story. Humility comes when a story shows that there is strength in dependence. Grace comes in the moment when a character’s deepest weakness is met by an unexpected turn of joy. If dependence is never acknowledged, grace has nowhere to land. Deep need anticipates abundant grace.

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Great stories use a character’s weakness to lead them to a strength found outside of themselves. That is why you will find the character of a “guide” present in almost every compelling narrative. At some point within a story, the hero realizes that the problem is insurmountable apart from outside help. This is Gandalf to Bilbo (and Frodo), Bree to Shasta, Dumbledore to Harry, etc. A guide is there to help a hero overcome their problem. As readers, we most often identify with the characters that need help because, well, we’re human and we need help. Robin had his Merry Men, Arthur had his knights, Frodo had the Fellowship, Harry had Ron and Hermione, and list goes on. We love stories that show us the beauty of weakness. Humility leaves the door open to grace, and grace makes a story sing.

When I read the Lord of the Rings, as much as I’d like to identify with Aragorn – the undaunted, mighty and humble, true king of Gondor – I have to admit that Frodo more closely resembles my nature. Courageous and determined as he may be, Frodo ultimately succumbs to the lure of the ring and stands ready to plunge all of Middle Earth into darkness and despair. But, at the exact moment when the depth of his weakness is unveiled, an unexpected joy pierces the darkness in a miraculous turn of events; Gollum bites the ring from his finger and falls to his death with the ring in his grasp. The fate of Middle Earth is literally suspended in the balance of that one moment. Tolkein called this “the good catastrophe,” or euchatastrophe. In his essay On Fairy Stories, he describes this idea further:

“The sudden joyous turn (for there is no true end to any fairy-tale): this joy…is not essentially escapist nor fugitive…It is a sudden and miraculous grace…it denies universal final defeat, giving a fleeting glimpse of Joy, Joy beyond the walls of the world, poignant as grief.”

This unexpected turn of joy is how grace unveils itself as the culmination of an entire series of threads that run the length of the story. In a great story, grace is a subterranean stream that eventually bursts through the surface onto a parched landscape. There is a passage at the end of Lewis’s The Horse and His Boy where Shasta meets the lion Aslan. While Shasta is recounting the sorrows of his journey to an unknown voice in the darkness, the voice suddenly reveals himself as Aslan, the watchful lion present through every trial Shasta faced. Understanding this, Shasta begins to ask for details about certain wounds that his travel companion received. Aslan responds: “Child,” said the Voice, “I am telling you your story, not hers. I tell no one any story but his own.”

When a story leads you to a place of humility, you’ll find that the “sudden and miraculous grace” that arrives has a place to settle. And when it does, it will begin to tell you your story. Humility lets the light of Grace shine on your story. The joyous turn is meant to lead us into the glory of the greatest euchatastrophe – the Gospel. Tolkien says elsewhere that the best fairy-stories reflect this glory backwards: “In such stories when the sudden turn comes we get a piercing glimpse of joy, and heart’s desire, that for a moment passes outside the frame, rends indeed the very web of story, and lets a gleam come through.” Through these stories we experience a glimpse of the glory that will one day be revealed at Christ’s second coming. Let these powerful narratives help us anticipate this final “miraculous turn” with joy and longing. In humility, we confess together that we are Frodo, weak and in need of deliverance. We must not lose heart, the sudden joy is just ahead; waiting to blanket us, at just the right moment, with a glorious fabric woven through an entire story of faithfulness. May humility unveil us and may Grace cover us and whisper to us our place in the Great Story.

The Staying Power of Stories - Part 2

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Hi Storyformed Friends! It is my pleasure to introduce to you, Jason Pederson, a Storyformed guest contributor. Jason believes good stories change lives. Though he has only recently begun work on his first children’s novel, he has been storytelling for 10 years through his residential design business where his home designs help fund adoptions (www.jpdesignhomes.com). Jason is married to his best friend, Jennifer, and together they adopted their now two-year-old son, Jackson, who is eagerly anticipating the arrival of their newest addition; due this Christmas. They live in a Colorado cottage filled with good books and a funny little dog named Belle.


By Jason Pederson

There are stories that stay with us long after we first encounter them. Words that awoke longings in us as children still hold sway over our adult imaginations. They gather somewhere deep within us to form reservoirs that tend to well up into surprising surges of joy when we least expect it.

What is it that makes a story stick? Are there related threads that weave through the stories that we love most?

Over the years, my wife and I have been compiling a family library that we hope will encourage, challenge, captivate, and launch our children into a full life. Some of the books are well-worn and have traveled all the way from my childhood bookshelf and now find their place in my son’s bookcase. I often find myself wondering why, after all these years, I kept those particular stories? Hundreds of books that once rested in my palms were eventually passed over, given away, or replaced. Is there something inherently more enchanting or resonant in the stories that “made the shelf”?

This article is not meant to be a tour of my personal bookshelf, but an invitation to listen for the refrains that resonate through the beloved stories that are unique to each shelf. At my own invitation, reflection has led me to discover four streams that consistently run through the stories I cherish most. I described my experience with the first stream – wonder – in part one of this article. You can find it here. I observed that after a story has led me to a place of wonder, I return to reality with renewed clarity. After experiencing wonder on a page, my senses are more keenly aware of the beauty and mystery in the present. Wonder that merely impresses our mind with originality or stirs our heart with beautiful prose can still leave us stranded if it lacks resonance with the present. True wonder offers a glimpse of glory and then supplies us with the enduring strength to chase that vision long after we turn the page.

For me, the stream of wonder inevitably feeds into the stream of gratitude. If wonder helps us to see and savor the Good, True, and Beautiful, then gratitude helps us sing about them. Something stirring may leave us in silent wonder, but gratitude will eventually break the silence. Whether it comes in the form of personal reflection or outward declaration, our joy leads to thanksgiving.

GRATITUDE completes joy.

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C.S. Lewis says it best in his Reflections on the Psalms: “I think we delight to praise what we enjoy because the praise does not merely express but completes the enjoyment; it is its appointed consummation…Fully to enjoy is to glorify.” When a story leads us to discover a deeper joy, a truer beauty, or a more enduring good, we respond most naturally with gratitude and praise. When you have walked with Ents through the forests of Middle Earth the local neighborhood hike can come alive with mystery and whimsy. The gratitude I feel for being given that perspective keeps me rooted in the adventure of the moment. Every walk in the woods should be a practice in gratitude.

Gratitude completes joy by giving it a name. There is a scene near the end of the Disney movie Secretariat that contains only two words, but when they are spoken, they summarize the thrust of the story in its essence. Secretariat is the name of an American Thoroughbred racehorse who was contending for the first Triple Crown in 25 years. After rounding the last turn in the final, and longest of the three races, Secretariat, who was known to underperform over long distances, is shown pushing a record-breaking pace. Instead of tiring, he continues the fast pace and opens up a larger and larger margin on the field. He races to a stunning victory 1/16th of a mile ahead of the rest of the field. In the scene, his longtime caretaker observes this majestic feat, and erupts with the words “oh glory!” The scene makes you want to leap off the couch, throw your fists in the air, and shout for joy along with the crowd. Gratitude rightly ascribes the name glory to the joy that comes from witnessing something truly magnificent. When a story leaves us feeling grateful for the experience, it is gratitude itself that helps us to name what we found most moving. In naming our joys we are offered a glimpse into the authenticity of our character.

Gratitude first helps us to name what we most enjoy, but then it gives us a way to measure the strength and value of those joys. With the right application, gratitude can become a kind of gauge that displays the magnitude of our wonder. Like the wind that precedes an approaching storm, gratitude is a great indicator of the breadth and intensity of that which we find inspiring. I think of the passage in C.S. Lewis’s The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe when the Pevensie children first hear the name Aslan. “At the name of Aslan each one of the children felt something jump in its inside.” Apart from Edmund who felt a sensation of mysterious horror, the other three children experience feelings associated with gratitude in varying degrees. What they each feel in that moment reveals the essence of their character and the level of value that they unknowingly assign to Aslan before encountering him. Follow the strength of your gratitude and you will eventually come face to face with your deepest longings.

Gratitude completes our joy, names our longings, and measures our wonder. The strongest thanks and the highest praise are reserved for the truest and deepest joys. My intention in linking gratitude and joy was to show that being grateful for something is really an invitation into enjoying it more fully. Gratitude is not a character-defining duty but a soul-satisfying delight. Stories that invite us to work in the garden of gratitude will yield contentment and satisfaction for years to come.

Episode #30 - Summer Q & A and A Special Announcement

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In this Storyformed episode, Holly Packiam and Jaime Showmaker answer listener questions and make a special announcement. 

Topics include:

  • Cultivating imagination without it leading to violence and aggression;
  • Book recommendations for young boys;
  • Picture books suggestions with themes of courage and bravery;
  • Favorite audio books for kids ages 3-5; and
  • Book recommendations for new readers

Click below to hear the podcast

If you enjoy listening to the podcasts, please leave us a star review and rating HERE

Books From Today's Show - Storyformed Episode #30 - Summer Q & A and A Special Announcement

A Wise Woman Builds Her House--And A Special Announcement

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"All are architects of Fate,
Working in these walls of Time; 
Some with massive deeds and great,
Some with ornaments of rhyme.

Nothing useless is, or low;
Each thing in its place is best;
And what seems but idle show
Strengthens and supports the rest.

For the structure that we raise,
Time is with materials filled;
Our to-days and yesterdays
Are the blocks with which we build.

Truly shape and fashion these;
Leave no yawning gaps between;
Think not, because no man sees,
Such things will remain unseen. 

In the elder days of Art,
Builders wrought with greatest care
Each minute and unseen part;
For the Gods are everywhere.

Let us do our work as well,
Both the unseen and the seen;
Make the house, where Gods may dwell,
Beautiful, entire, and clean.

Else our lives are incomplete,
Standing in these walls of Time,
Broken stairways, where the feet
Stumble as they seek to climb.

Build to-day, then, strong and sure,
With a firm and ample base;
And ascending and secure
Shall to-morrow find its place.

Thus alone can we attain
To those turrets, where the eye
Sees the world as one vast plain,
And one boundless reach of sky."

“The Builders” --Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
 

By Jaime Showmaker

“What kind of cake do you want this year?” I asked my eldest son, recalling with a sense of dread the 3-D Manhattan Skyline cake he had requested several years ago for his 5th birthday.

“Hmmm, let me think about it,” he replied, as he added another brick to the building he was constructing. For the past several weeks, he has been erecting a vast Lego city in our basement. I have watched in wonder as his sprawling city has grown, each building thoughtfully planned and constructed, his attention to detail both awe-inspiring and startling for an 8-year-old. No, a 9-year-old, I reminded myself. He is turning nine.

He has been building his entire life. A dreamer-boy like his mama, his head is filled with worlds of possibility. You can almost see it in his eyes--the vision of towers that reach into the clouds. He knows he was born to build them.

I understand him, this tousle-headed, little architect of mine. Like him, I know I was made to build worlds. I can see them all in my mind’s eye. Like the world of Home--a haven I can picture so clearly. It’s a place where people within my realm of influence are free to live and grow into who God created them to be. A place where creativity, faith, and dreams are nurtured. A place of acceptance and love.

That Home is a physical place too. A place of beauty, filled with light and art and music. There is a table, with good food and plenty of chairs. There are comfy sofas, with pillows and blankets for snuggling. The walls are filled with bookshelves and the air is filled with conversation, born out of relationships and ideas. (And, apparently, there is a Lego city in the basement.) I’ve seen this particular world in my mind since I was 11 years old, and over the past twenty years I have labored to build it.

But I see other worlds too...people and places that do not yet exist. Others, like my son, build with bricks and concrete and steel. I build with bedtime stories and movie nights and pumpkin muffins--but I also build with words, which is why stories have always been so important to me. Words swirl unceasingly in my head—words belonging to people born of my imagination, asking for their tales to be told. More often than not, I have little time to even listen to these words, let alone preserve them with my pen. But I know these, too, are worlds that I, alone, can build.

In fact, lately it seems that rather than building all of these worlds that I envision, I have, instead, been struggling to simply maintain the little that I have already built. Or, (in my worst moments) I have even found myself chiseling away at the foundations, destroying with my own hands what had once been such a beautiful vision in my mind.

I’m not sure whether it is the reality of my son turning nine, or me settling into my forties that has made me recognize how quickly the time is passing and the brevity of the time that is remaining. But the time of his living in that world of Home that I want to build for him is already halfway over. The short story of my life as a mother with children under my wing is nearly at its midpoint, as is the story of my very own life (as I breathe a quick prayer for God’s grace and many years).

I have precious little time to build that which will last.

It is this truth that I have pondered prayerfully over the past several months, and it is this truth that I keep in my mind as I announce to you, my dear book-loving friends, that I will be stepping away from Storyformed as a regular contributor for the next season. This is not a decision that came easily for me. I have wrestled with it for months, knowing that this ministry is so important, and the work here matters immensely. It has been the greatest privilege to be able to share with you all of the worlds I have discovered and loved through stories over the past fourteen months. But I know that, in this coming season, I want to be intentional about stewarding my time in such a way that I am building only what God had called me alone to build, regardless of how wonderfully good other things may be. Most importantly, that includes the Home that I described, where I am most urgently teaching my precious sons how to use their own giftings to do their part in constructing the Kingdom here on earth. It still includes lots of stories, of course, but less podcasting and more dinnertime discussions. Less reading for the questions asked on the Facebook page and more reading for the questions in my six-year-old’s precious heart. I hope it still includes writing, though perhaps it will be fewer reviews of stories already published and more whispers of stories yet untold. (Though that vision may still be a castle in the clouds for some time to come. We shall see!)

I want you to know how grateful I am to be a part of the Storyformed community and Whole Heart Ministries. It has been such a blessing to be able to share some of my words and my heart with you. And I do hope to pop in on the blog or the podcast every once in a while!  I believe so strongly in the work that we are doing here and, as I am stewarding my time with eternity in mind, I know that the labors on this blog and the podcast are those that are, indeed, lasting. I am grateful to Holly, Sally, Clay, and the rest of the Storyformed team for allowing me the privilege and the blessing of building alongside them.

Thank you all so much for inviting me into your homes and your lives every other week over the past year. It has been a privilege and an honor to share this chapter of my story with you all. But I see worlds in my mind--the world of my Home with stories yet to be lived and other worlds with stories yet to be told. And I, alone, can build them. And so, with this goodbye, I lay a stone.

God’s blessings to you all, my friends.

I would love to stay in touch with you! Please find me on Instagram at jaime_showmaker. I will keep it updated with posts on what we're reading (both me and the kids!) and all of the beauty that we are encountering in our little lives here in the foothills of NC. 

The Staying Power of Stories - Part 1

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Hi Storyformed Friends! It is my pleasure to introduce to you, Jason Pederson, a Storyformed guest contributor. Jason believes good stories change lives. Though he has only recently begun work on his first children’s novel, he has been storytelling for 10 years through his residential design business where his home designs help fund adoptions (www.jpdesignhomes.com). Jason is married to his best friend, Jennifer, and together they adopted their now two-year-old son, Jackson, who is eagerly anticipating the arrival of their newest addition; due this Christmas. They live in a Colorado cottage filled with good books and a funny little dog named Belle.

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By Jason Pederson

Most of my childhood is spread across four states. I can still recall unpacking the
familiar boxes of fear and anxiety that the moving trucks always seemed to deliver
alongside my Legos, trading cards, and tennis shoes. Worry shaded my perspective like
the brim on one of my ball caps. New skies meant new friends and the only friendships
I had known were uprooted before they had time to mature. The ebb and flow of my
uncertain surroundings kept me wading in the shallows where I searched for sure
footing and calm waters. For me, that stability came in the form of stories.

Whether it was constancy, permanence, or companionship I was after, books satisfied
that longing in me. An unfamiliar house with its new carpet smell became the well-worn
sandstone corridors of Redwall Abbey. A neighborhood full of strangers grew into
Mirkwood Forrest with its dense boughs and heavy mists. And anyone of my new
friends could turn out to be the most important companion in the fight to take back
Narnia from the hand of the White Witch. The anxiety produced fertile ground ripe for
adventure. My imagination and confidence flourished in the soil of these stories.

As I now look over my shoulder, many years later, at the path formed by thousands of
pages, I can’t help but notice that very few have stayed rooted to the spot where I first
encountered them. The vast majority have been carried away by indifference. In reality,
the path looks more like stones scattered across a river; each requiring a leap more
daring than the last. As I continue to read, I find the river to be wider than I expected,
leaving me feeling as if I am forever suspended mid-river. What may be unnerving for
some has given me a deep appreciation for each new story that proves strong enough
to carry my momentum forward.

What is it that produces this kind of “staying power” in a story? Where does it's
strength and endurance come from? Why do some stories propel us forward while
others leave us stranded?

My 2-year-old son loves books. I find myself reading him stories far beyond his
comprehension and admittedly, his attention span, in an effort to bring him closer to the
ones with power and substance. Even just dipping our toes into one of these stories
brings back the same delightful impressions that captivated me years ago when my
young eyes first passed over the words.

I know you’ve felt it too. Story knits us all together in that way. The particular stories
themselves may differ, but the captivating threads that pull on your heart, have the
same effect on mine. I have followed the roots of the stories that have stayed with me over the years and found that they lead me again and again to the same four streams.
Each stream nourishes my life in a different way, but together they satisfy completely
the longings of my heart.

WONDER is the stream I first encounter as I am being caught up in a story. Wonder
shows up when my imagination is given a glimpse of something that resonates
with what my heart knows to be Good, True, and Beautiful. I use these terms
because, as a Christian, the landscape of my imagination is defined by God, whose
words and character beckon my heart to embrace life as He designed it to be
experienced. Regrettably, there are times when my heart is captivated by empty
promises and half-truths. But it is into that perspective that Wonder calls the loudest and
draws my gaze upward to rest upon the truest Word.

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Thomas Chalmers, a nineteenth-century Scottish minister, wrote about the “expulsive
power of a new affection, saying: the only way to break the hold of an object on the soul
is to show it an object even more beautiful.”
This is Wonder in its essence; to enliven
our eyes and hearts to see and savor the most beautiful.

Words strung together in a beautiful way can be original and even evoke a sense of
awe. But originality and inspiration are not strong enough to withstand the currents in
this life. The roots of resonance need to be present in a way that connects the story to
the core of what it means to be human. The best stories use wonder to help us
remember this whimsical mystery we all find ourselves wrapped up in. The point is that
life is meant to be lived and Wonder is an invitation into that adventure not an
escape from it.

G.K. Chesterton sums this up well in his book Orthodoxy where he says,

“Fairy tales say that apples were golden only to refresh the forgotten moment when we found that they were green. They make rivers run with wine only to make us remember, for one wild
moment, that they run with water.”

Wonder has this incredible way of sweetening our senses by helping us see the amazing realities right in front of us in their fullest color.

I tear up every time I read J.R.R. Tolkien’s words from The Return of the King when the
wizard Gandalf consoles the young despairing hobbit, Pippin: “End? No, the journey
doesn’t end here. Death is just another path, one that we all must take. The grey rain-
curtain of this world rolls back, and all turns to silver glass, and then you see it…White
shores, and beyond, a far green country under a swift sunrise.” These words make me
ache for glimpses of that green country every day. I’ll let you in on a secret; if you look
closely in the places where that rain-curtain seems darkest, you’ll find the fabric to be thinning a bit at the seams. In fact, the life of Jesus is one gaping tear through that heavy curtain.

Jesus told great stories, but he lived an even better one. He was a master at using
wonder to wake people up to the realities of the kingdom of heaven. One of my favorite
examples is from Luke chapter 5 when Jesus first calls Peter, James, and John. After
they had been fishing all night with nothing to show for it, Jesus tells them to cast their
nets again the next morning. They end up pulling in the biggest catch they had ever
seen. The wonder that Jesus awoke in them was not in the wealth of the catch but in
the wealth of the Master. They left a worldly treasure on the shore to follow the greatest
Heavenly Treasure. What I love most about this example is that wonder bookends the
story. The same question is on the minds of the disciples at the beginning and end of
the story: Who is this man and where will he lead us? The only difference between the
two is that the second is carried on a breeze from the White Shores beyond. The
disciples caught a glimpse and couldn’t look away.

Wonder resonates, wonder enlivens, wonder invites, and wonder reveals.

Listen as wonder whispers through the words you love. Allow the ache to burrow deep into your
heart. Dwell in the stories that reveal thin slivers in the rain-curtain. Let the sight lead
your longings to the only place they can be satisfied: the love of God bookended in
mystery and laced through with wonder.

What are your favorite books with staying power?

God Of Our Fathers- A Tribute for Father's Day

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This weekend it’s Father’s Day in the States and, in honor of the day, I thought I would share with you an essay I penned a few years ago--a tribute to my husband’s grandfather. Happy Father’s Day to all of our Storyformed Dads!

By Jaime Showmaker

Southeastern Missouri.  That’s where we took our boys, all packed up, bright and early last weekend to bury my husband’s grandfather.  He had been the last of our grandparents still living--the first “Harry” of three.

Years ago he made his living as a farmer, tilling the soil that had been in his family for generations. Local school children knew him as the “Indian Man” for his love of sharing the Native American artifacts that he found in the dirt. The dirt he worked by the sweat of his brow. The dirt that my sons’ grandfather had helped to plow and where my husband had played as a boy. The dirt that had made him a living, but also made him a life.

He was a creator of puzzles and (I suspect) the originator of those engineering genes that are so dominant in my husband and my firstborn. I’m not yet sure if my youngest got his genes, but he did get his name--“Harry”--changed slightly and put in the middle, but it was still given to honor him. His joy was contagious; he always had a laughing face and smiling eyes, or (rather) eye. He lost one as a young man in an accident. Personally I could never tell which one was real. Everything about the man seemed alive to me.

As we gathered at the church with family and friends to celebrate his life, we shared memories of Grandpa Harry with faint smiles, hugs, and condolences. The pastor spoke of his long life and the legacy that he left, and we shed tears of loss and longing. We looked through photographs and played with puzzles and had a hard time believing that the man who celebrated the act of counting down the days to his 80th birthday had died three days before he turned 92.

The next day, as the boys dug in the wet, black dirt of the farm, full of decaying corn and sweat and memories, I grieved that they would never remember their great-grandfather, the farmer. We walked the field, passed down for generations from father to son, and I lamented the fact that my husband’s sons–our children–would never know this land. Growing up three generations and half a country away, the family “homeland” could never be their home. I thought of the generations of farmers who had walked the ground beneath me, each season planting in faith and believing in what they could not yet see. I wished that my boys could reap from the land what their fathers had sown so faithfully. But we already knew the farm was to be sold. There would be no more sons to inherit it.

I looked past the shed and the grain elevator, up into the grey sky and wondered what Grandpa Harry thought as he sat beneath that sky, at night under the stars, unencumbered by city lights–vast and glorious and seemingly infinite? With nothing for miles around, how many stars could he see?  Maybe as many as another Patriarch saw, thousands of years ago?

“[God] took [Abram] outside and said, “Look up at the heavens and count the stars, if indeed you can count them.’ Then He said to him, ‘So shall your offspring be.” Genesis 15:5

As I kicked an old corn cob on the ground, I remembered the story.  Although Abraham and his descendants were given a Land, God’s promise to him was much bigger than that.  God intended for Abraham to leave a much greater inheritance than a physical place. He was to be the spiritual father of a number too great to count.  His legacy was not land, but faith. And one of the stars that Abraham saw that night--one of his spiritual descendents--was Grandpa Harry.

I smiled at the boys pulling at the tall grass and wildflowers and watched my youngest fist dirt with his chubby hands.  I recalled how we had given him his great-grandfather’s name because of the profound influence he had on my husband’s spiritual life.  Like Abraham, Grandpa Harry’s legacy was faith. His life was lived, not for the farm, but for the Creator of the farm.  More than the “Indian Man” or the “Puzzle Man,” he was known to all who knew and loved him as a follower of Jesus Christ.  He overflowed with an infectious joy because he was full of the joy of the Lord, a Lord he lived for and encouraged my husband to follow.  I watched as my husband held the hand of our eldest and walked out of the old grey shed, and I caught my breath with a realization:

My husband–-he was a living, breathing inheritance.

I bent down for the last time and ran my fingers through the dirt.  What Grandpa Harry had left my children was infinitely more valuable than any acreage could ever be.  He lived a life devoted to a Savior and preached a Gospel that changed the life of my husband…and now my husband was pouring that same truth into the hearts of our children…a spiritual legacy.

“And so from this one man, and he as good as dead, came descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and as countless as the sand on the seashore.” Hebrews 11:12

As we drove away, I thanked God for Grandpa Harry and I prayed that, because of his faithfulness–and my husband’s–that my children would be faithful followers of Jesus Christ too…and their grandchildren after that.  And I added (daringly), that through the lives of my husband and children, Grandpa Harry’s spiritual descendants would be so numerous that, like Abraham’s, they could not easily be counted.

That, indeed, would be the old farmer’s greatest harvest.

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5 Picture Books to Celebrate Diversity

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By Holly Packiam

“Mom, am I white? Am I black? What color am I?” These are questions my youngest recently asked me. It’s easy to give simple answers, but what is she really asking? I wonder if she wants to know how to place herself in her community or if our color even matters. We are a bi-racial family living in a predominantly white community. My husband is ethnically Singhalese/Tamil from Malaysia, and I have roots in Northern and Western Europe.

If my kids hear nothing else surrounding this issue, I want them to know that our difference-- whether evident by color or not-- is good because God created us with different ethnicities. Diversity is His design and His delight. God isn’t color-blind. In fact, John’s vision in the Book of Revelation of people from every tribe and tongue praising God shows us that one day our resurrected bodies will continue to reflect that diversity in a way that glorifies God.

“After this I looked, and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb.” -- Revelation 7:9

We’ve been reading books to our kids since they were small, but I recognize that they have mostly been those written from the perspective or experience of a white person. Those written in modern times are usually quite relatable to them, but I ponder what it communicates to my kids when they rarely read a book with a protagonist of color. I desire for my kids to see diversity not ignored but celebrated! I’ve been on a hunt to find good books with characters from diverse backgrounds. Some of these stories are set in other countries, but many feature the lives of Americans of non-European ethnicity. Join me in reading some of these delightful stories to your kids!

 

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Auntie Yang’s Great Soybean Picnic by Ginnie Lo

This sweet and uplifting story highlights the journey of Chinese immigrants who move to America and make their home in the Midwest. A Chinese-American girl finds her favorite food growing in Illinois - soybeans -  through her Auntie Yang. They start an annual soybean picnic that eventually becomes a yearly community event. I love how this book highlights a cross-cultural, intergenerational family and the story is written and illustrated by two sisters who are Chinese immigrants. You gain a sense of warmth and connection within their family as they seek to stay connected to their Chinese culture. As a bonus, you’ll also learn about soybeans and have the opportunity to see pictures of the real family in the back of the book.

 

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The Patchwork Quilt by Valerie Flournoy

A beautiful story featuring the closeness of a African-American grandma and granddaughter who worked together to complete a quilt made from the family’s scraps of old clothing. Each piece helps the family remember their stories and history and how they came together to create a beautiful work of art. It’s heartwarming to watch how Tanya, the granddaughter, recognizes that it’s difficult for her grandma to sew and cut, and steps in to help the project come to completion. I sensed the warmth of the family primarily through the lovely illustrations. It’s also a Coretta Scott King winner.

 

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Come On, Rain by Karen Hesse

The School Library Journal said, “Newbery Medalist Karen Hesse recreates the body and soul-renewing experience of a summer downpour after a sweltering city heat wave. Lyrically written and lovingly illustrated." I couldn’t agree more! This well-written, poetic story-- filled with metaphors, similies, and alliteration--  is about a young girl waiting for rain in an urban area. Rain finally comes and the young girl, Tess, and her friends celebrate by going outside to play in their swimsuits.

 

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Marvelous Cornelius: Hurricane Katrina and the Spirit of New Orleans by Phil Bildner

This heartwarming story is about the life of an African-American man who felt it was part of his calling to clean up the streets of New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Reading like a contemporary folk tale, Cornelius Washington illustrates resilience and determination as he does a seemingly insignificant job. Not only does get the job done, but he seems bent on dancing through it and lifting the spirits of those around him. You could have a myriad of discussion with your kids after reading this book. We could ask questions like: What does it look like to steward our time well? What could it look like to rise up in a time of catastrophe?

 

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God’s Very Good Idea: A True Story of God’s Delightfully Different Family by Trillia Newbell

"This is God's very good idea: lots of different people enjoying loving him and loving each other." We are all different, and God intended it this way. Newbell writes a story about the value of each person regardless of race, interests, or speech. “God carried on creating people. All of them were made in his image. And all of them were different too. Some were men, and some were women. Some liked reading, and some liked riding bikes. Some had darker skin, and some had lighter skin. Some had curly hair, and some had straight hair."  Newbell not only depicts diversity in the body of Christ, but she also shows how all people fall prey to sin in this broken world. We all need Jesus to redeem us, and we await the day when He will make all things new.

What are your favorite culturally diverse books? Tell us in the comments below!!


 

Episode #29 - Using Stories to Enhance Summer Experiences

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Do you want to travel more with your kids, but realize this may not be a likely reality in your near future? Or maybe you are traveling soon and want to enhance your experience through reading books about the place or culture. Today on the podcast, Holly Packiam and Jaime Showmaker share about their summer plans and give book recommendations to aid you in transporting you and your kids to other countries, the beach, woodlands and many other places and locations. 

Topics include:

  • The value in taking advantage of more space in summer to read
  • Ways to travel to nearby or faraway places through books
  • How to create summer booklists with your kids
  • Book recommendations 

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Books From Today's Show - Storyformed Episode #29 - Using Stories to Enhance Summer Experiences

Mirror Mirror

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By Jaime Showmaker

“That’s not really how I look and sound,” he frowned.

My oldest son pressed the “play” button once again, viewing the homemade video that he and his brothers had recently made. I watched as he studied himself with wonder, fascinated at the face staring back at him from the screen, unsure if he liked the voice that was coming out of the mouth that looked like his.

“Actually, it is,” I said. “That’s exactly how you look and sound.”

He cocked his head and smiled. “Really?” he asked. “I’m surprised! I guess I thought I look and sound different because I only know myself from inside myself. I needed my video to see me right!”

He giggled as he ran off to find his brothers, content with his newfound identity.

I smiled and returned to my book. It had been several months since I began it and I was still less than a quarter through the massive tome, but some friends were reading Kristin Lavransdatter, and I wanted to finish reading it with them. The candle flickered on the table beside me as I returned to 14th Century Norway, struggling to remember the unfamiliar names, but intrigued by the Medieval setting and the story of young Kristin.

I recalled a discussion about the book I had with those friends some months earlier. One friend had remarked how she hated Kristin, appalled by her depravity and foolishness. Others, who were much further along in the story than I was, heartily agreed. I had kept silent. At the time, I was only a few chapters in and Kristin was then just a delightful child. I braced myself for the fall from grace I knew was coming by their admonitions of her behavior.

As I read on, though, I found myself unsettled.  I realized that I hated Kristin too, yes. But I was unnerved by the discovery of how much I actually understood her. I was startled to find that her thoughts were my thoughts, her feelings the same as my own.  

“She thought about her own heart, which fully understood what was right and wrong, and yet she had always yearned for what was not righteous.”

The words resonated deep within me. Our sins were different, of course, but the stubborn willfulness to continue in them and to justify our actions were identical. And I was aghast.

“Surely not,” I thought to myself, as I wept over the pain and anguish she caused her loved ones. My heart broke for those she had dishonored and betrayed, but also for Kristin too--for her obstinate and foolish insistence on her own way, in spite of the consequences. “It cannot be,” I whispered.

That’s not really how I look and sound.

Stories have a way of helping us see what we cannot see. They inspire us. They delight us. But they also reveal us. Through story, we are able to step outside of ourselves and see motives and actions from the perspective of another. And as we view the thoughts, behaviors, and hearts of the characters from a different angle, we sometimes realize that we are looking not into a movie, but a mirror. And, like Snow White’s wicked stepmother, we don’t always like the truth that the mirror reveals.

I put the book down, shaken to the core. I could not deny what I had seen in those pages. In the tragic character of Kristin Lavransdatter, I saw my own selfishness. My own foolishness. My own hard-heartedness. And it broke me.

In contemplating the darkness and far-reaching consequences of Kristin’s sinful actions and attitude, I was forced to face my own. Though they were different, like Kristin’s, my sins caused pain and anguish for those most dear to me and for myself. Just like Kristin, I had “played and romped with [my] sin, measuring it out as if in a child’s game.” Through the lens of Kristin's story, I could finally see the full demands of sin's price in my life: peace, integrity, communion with God, and (in my case) precious, precious friendship--all paid in exchange for my foolish and recalcitrant behaviors. The pain left in the void of those losses was one of the deepest I have ever experienced. Because of Kristin’s example, I was able to recognize what I did not have the capacity to see in myself: sin, though it may begin small, ripples outward in ever-increasing waves, a wake that upsets the peace and stillness of the soul and life, until everything it touches is shaken; upset.

As the wick of the candle burned down, the flame cast a glaring light on the page and I forced myself to continue reading. Though it was difficult to endure, I knew I had to finish the story, to know what destiny held for Kristin and those she loved.

Stories are mirrors. They hold up the truth so that we are able to see plainly what we cannot easily see from inside of ourselves. And sometimes the hard truth is that we are not as fair as we thought that we were. But, if we read them well, with discernment, stories can also be crystal balls. In the fate of the characters so like ourselves, we are able to see the possible consequences of our actions; and in the outcome of the story, we can anticipate the possible endings--both good and bad--in the chapters of our own lives.

Like all good stories, fortunately, Kristin’s tale echos the beauty of the one, True story. Though her sin entangles her and its consequences are far-reaching and tragic, all is not lost. Ultimately there is redemption. As promised, there is beauty from the ashes.

With tears streaming down my cheeks, I closed the book and blew the candle out. For a moment, I sat in the darkness, feeling its full weight. But then I thought again of Kristin.

“Each time the fruit of sin had ripened to sorrow, that was when her earthbound and willful soul managed to capture a trace of the heavenly light.”

It was faint, but in my heart I felt the flicker.

Hope.

In the end, Kristin’s repentance and faith brought salvation, for herself and others. And so, in the darkness, I prayed for that to be true through my own life too. Though I may not always see myself as I truly am, or even understand why I make the choices that I do, I still believe fully that there is One who does. Just as I had already seen and known the truth that was in my own precious child--the truth that he could not see from inside himself--I have a Father who already sees and knows me completely...and loves me anyway. And though, like my son, I may be momentarily disoriented, struggling to reconcile the reality of what I have seen in myself with what I have always believed, I know with unwavering certainty that the day is coming when He will once and for all redeem and restore all things to Himself--including me and my ever-wandering heart.

“For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.” I Corinthians 13:12




 

Episode #28 - Cultivating Your Child's Imagination

Do you sometimes wish your child had more of an imagination? Do you wonder what steps to take to help cultivate an imagination in your kids? Today on the podcast, Holly Packiam and Jaime Showmaker talk about why imagination matters in life and faith, drawing from the stories of inventors, authors, and even their own experiences with their kids. 

Topics include:

  • How imagination inspires creativity
  • How imagination leads to a life with God
  • Ways to cultivate imagination in our kids' lives
  • How to create space for imagination in our children
  • Book recommendations 

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Books From Today's Show - Storyformed Episode #28 - Cultivating Your Child's Imagination

My Favorite Literary Mothers- A Book List

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By Jaime Showmaker

 

It's Mother's Day in the United States this weekend, and in celebration and honor of our beloved mothers, I thought that I would take the opportunity to share a list of books that include some of my very favorite mothers in literature. Enjoy!

 

Little Women- Louisa May Alcott

You can hardly have a list of beloved literary mothers and begin with anyone other than Marmee. Mrs. March is almost the quintessential ideal mother. She is wise, kind, loving, and compassionate to her four growing daughters. She regularly models hospitality and selflessness, sharing with the needy and tending to the sick, in spite of limited financial resources and an often absent husband.  At a time when many women were still regarded as somewhat second-class citizens, Marmee encouraged her daughters to pursue their passions and creativity.  Her gentle, quiet, practical, and strong devotion to her family shines through in every moment. 

 

Little Men-Louisa May Alcott

With a mother like Marmee, it is no wonder that Jo March Bhaer also shines as one of the most memorable mothers in literature. In the sequel to Little Women, Jo is mother to not only her own boys, but an entire school full of boys at Plumfield, the academy she runs with her Professor husband. Jo is a perfect, spunky "boy mom," though wisdom can be gleaned from these pages for mothers of either gender. She takes delight in the individuality of each child and nourishes their humanity with compassion, belief, and ingenuity. 

 

Mother Carey's Chickens-Kate Douglas Wiggin

I have written about Mother Carey's influence on me in an earlier Storyformed article, and each time I read this book, I glean more and more insight into the joys and pains of motherhood. Mother Carey is caring for her four children under very difficult circumstances, and her wisdom, compassion, creativity, and understanding are inspirational to me as a mother. Her insight into the nature and needs of children is illuminating.  But it is her selflessness and her sacrifice that challenges me and makes me want to be a better mother myself. 

 
 

Cheaper By The Dozen- Frank Gilbreth, Jr. & Ernestine Gilbreth Carey

Mrs Gilbreth is a highly unusual mother. In addition to having twelve children, she is raising those children with an eccentric efficiency-expert husband, and the vitality in their home reflects their originality. Although they often test their efficiency theories in the management of the home and children, her passionate love for each of her children and their individual well-being is evident in all that she does. I wrote a full review of the book here. 

 

Little House on the Prairie- Laura Ingles Wilder

Most people are familiar with Laura's perspective in these tales of 19th Century pioneer life, but it was the mother, Caroline Ingles, who shined for me when I read these books as an adult a few years ago. In spite of the severity of the circumstances in which the Ingles family lives, Ma Ingles demonstrates unflinching bravery, resourcefulness, and wisdom, as well as devoted love for her family.

 

The Wingfeather Saga- Andrew Peterson

It was Nia Igiby's quiet strength that first inspired me as a mother, but as the series progressed and I learned more of her story, my admiration for her grew until she became one of my all-time favorite mothers in literature. Her fierce devotion to her children and their individual callings and roles in the world is demonstrated in her sacrificial love and noble bravery.  Her willingness to live a counter-cultural life in order to fulfill her children's purposes is encouraging to me as a mom who frequently feels as if I am swimming upstream for the sake of my own children's good.  But it is the dignity with which she watches her children step into those roles that strengthens me, as each day I watch my boys grow more and more into the men that they will one day become. 

 

Harry Potter Series- J.K. Rowling

The Harry Potter series contains one of my all-time favorite mothers in literature: Molly Weasley. Molly is mom to her own large brood of wizards and witches, to whom she is loyal, devoted, and sacrificially loving. But it is the loving kindness that she demonstrates to orphaned Harry that puts her near the top of the list of lit moms for me. Plus, she's a spitfire in her own right, which I absolutely love!

 

 

Understood Betsy- Dorothy Canfield Fisher

Although Aunt Abigail Putney isn't biologically "Mother" to Betsy, her assumption of that role in Betsy's life is transformative. Her no-nonsense expectation and belief that Betsy will rise to the occasion is inspiring, as is the wisdom in how she manages to allow Betsy to see her own abilities for herself. It is also a beautiful example that "motherhood" can be demonstrated to anyone, not just biological children. 

 
 

The Runaway Bunny- Margaret Wise Brown

Even the sweetest little board books can have some of the most memorable mothers. In Runaway Bunny, Mother Bunny remakes herself over and over to meet the needs of her precious little baby bunny. I love her and her willingness to adapt to the ever-changing needs of her baby. It is a simple picture of how, although our roles as mothers may always be in flux, love for our children is steadfast.  

 

Pride and Prejudice- Jane Austen

As a bonus, I had to include a mother that I loathe, yet who still instructs me. Mrs Bennett is one of the mothers that we love to hate. She is self-absorbed, inconsiderate, rude, and foolish, and yet, she teaches--if only to demonstrate the kind of mother we do not want to emulate! 

Episode #27 - Why do Goodness, Truth, and Beauty Matter? (A conversation with Adam Pelser)

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Do you ever hear people rattle off the words, 'goodness, truth, and beauty', and wonder what they are talking about? We mention this triad of words from time to time on the Storyformed podcast, but don't often take the time to discuss what we really mean when we say them. So, today I had the opportunity to interview philosophy professor Adam Pelser about this topic!

Adam received his Ph.d from Baylor University where he studied under Bob Roberts, a renown Christian philosopher. Adam is a currently a philosophy professor at the Air Force Academy where he teaches Ethics, Philosophy of Religion, Philosophy of Love, and even a course on C.S. Lewis and Philosophy. He writes on emotions and virtue formation and he is currently writing a book on Emotional Evidence for God where he explains how we can see God with the "eyes of our heart." You can connect with Adam on Facebook and Twitter (@AdamCPelser) and at his website - adampelser.com.  

Topics Include:

  • The value of understanding goodness, truth, and beauty as Christian virtues
  • How goodness, truth, and beauty show up in everyday life
  • How goodness, truth and beauty reveal themselves in stories
  • Book recommendations

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Books From Today's Show - Storyformed Episode #27 - 

Lifegiving Parent Podcast Series: Holly and Glenn Packiam

By Holly Packiam

Hello Storyformed friends! My husband and I had so much fun being on the At Home with Sally podcast with our dear friends, Clay and Sally Clarkson. They have been such an encouragement to us over the years, and their new parenting book, The Lifegiving Parent,  is everything we’d want other parents to glean from!

Glenn was privileged to endorse the book: ‘Wisdom is crammed in these pages-- the wisdom of the Scriptures exposited and the wisdom of God embodied in over three decades of parenting. You won’t find formulas, guarantees, or glossy depictions of family life in this book. Instead, there are well-worn and well-loved pathways into the life-giving work of the Holy Spirit…for parents and for children.’ 

We hope you'll listen to us talk with the Clarksons in this Lifegiving Podcast Series. Click HERE to listen to this podcast! 

Why I Now Read Fiction

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By Glenn Packiam

I have always been a reader, but I haven't really been much of a fiction reader. At the risk of revealing my snobbery, I must confess that I used to think of fiction as a waste of time. I read for information. I want to learn! Who has time for silly stories?

Over the last few years, I've realized what a fool I've been for ignoring great stories. Here are just a few of the things I'm reminded of when I read good fiction:

The power of storytelling is not just in the story but in the telling. Not all fiction is created equal. Many stories rely on gimmicks and tricks, with more plot twists than a bubble gum blockbuster. No doubt, these stories are entertaining, but they will never be great. They acheive an emotional response by manipulating the reader not be truly letting him enter the story.

Take Hemingway's The Old Man and the Sea, which I only recently read. There's not much of a plot per se. An old man goes too far out to catch a fish too big and struggles with sharks and fatigue as he tries to make it home. But that's not it. The way Hemingway tells us the story makes us feel the cracking rope burn against our hands, taste the salty breeze on our parched lips, and rise up with the deterimination to conquer age and nature and all the criticisms of society.

Solzhenitsyn's One Day In The Life of Ivan Denisovich is, as you would guess a story of one day. Yet, that one day captures so beautifully all the agony and disappointment and hope of living in a Siberian concentration camp-- ordered by the country he had once fought for.

The lesson is simple: how we say something is every bit as important as what we are trying to say. How we do something matters as much as what it is we are trying to accomplish. This foolish pragmatism of having to learn something efficiently or communicate something directly robs us of the joy of life. And God's way of teaching us is usually not as direct as we'd like. Sometimes it takes 40 years of wandering to test our hearts and make us humble.

Every scene matters.  Telling a story well means treating every scene with equal delicacy. Tolstoy in Anna Karenina transports us to elegant parties in Moscow and peasant farms in the countryside with equal deftness. Each scene is described in detail, making them believable and "feel-able".

Good fiction doesn't tell you that the journey matters as much the destination; it shows you why by making you present in every step. Good fiction makes us slow down. Ah, to live that way!

The best characters are people you know.  (Or vice versa) In the movie, Shadowlands, the C.S. Lewis character says that we "read to know that we are not alone." Some people object to reading saying that they choose to live in the "real world" instead or to write their "own stories." But good fiction creates characters that remind you of someone you know and helps you to see them more deeply and more truly.

Our temptation is to turn the people around us into caricatures...to say that Bob is just an accountant, or Susan simply a mom. Or worse, we peg people by one or two traits, ignoring a host of others. Jill is a "neat freak". John is a porn addict. But no one is only those things. Every person is complex. Good fiction makes us see the characters in 3D or HD or both. We see their confidence and the underlying insecurity. We see the noble impulses and their base cravings. We see the imago dei and the carnality of flesh. This is what good characters do: they remind you that every human being is a rich, beautiful mess.

Holding up a mirror is better than breaking a window. The best fiction, though, reminds you of yourself. It makes you come clean about your hidden thoughts or motives. It makes you admit your fears and face your demons. We are not as pure as we imagine. We are not as hopeless as we feel.

The beauty of good fiction is it makes us face ourselves without our being threatened by a confrontation. Think of Nathan the prophet telling David the King that he has sinned against God by sleeping with Bathsheba and murdering an innocent man. It was the power of a story that allowed Nathan to lead David to see his own guilt-- though David didn't know it until Nathan said "You are that man!" Jesus repeatedly used obscure stories that unwittingly made listeners feel a knot in their gut. The pinch of the "Good Samaritan" story wasn't that Jews needed to help the poor; they already did that...and Pharisees were famous for doing so. By making the hero of His story a person that Jews despised-- the Samaritan-- Jesus subversively made them recognize their own prejudice without calling them bigots and hypocrites. (He saved that speech for later!)

A story is subversive. Rather than throwing a brick through a window in anger, a story holds up a mirror and leads to you to the truth. One has to do with confrontation, the other with confession.

Over the last few years, I've seen myself in Tolstoy's Levin (Anna Karenina), Huckleberry Finn, Ryan in Rob Stennett's The Almost True Story of Ryan Fisher, Eustace, Jill, and all four of the Pevensie kids in Narnia. I am like the Hemingway's Old Man who goes out too far and gets more than he can handle; I am like Tobias Wolff's narrator who wrestles with his cultural roots in Old School.

I've still got loads of catching up to do, but with every page I can feel my life getting broader, and slower, and richer, and more honest. And those are all good things.

Episode #26 - Stories from the Farm

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In this episode, Holly Packiam talks with her husband, Glenn Packiam, and their daughter, Sophia Packiam about farm life. Glenn shares his first experience of going to the farm, and Sophia talks about what visiting the farm has meant for her childhood. Holly discusses how reading Wendell Berry helped realize the gift she was given by growing up on a farm and having a poet-farmer for a father. Sophia contributes to the conversation by talking about the various farm stories and books set on farms that she’s read and what she’s gained from them.

Topics Include:

  • How farm life can teach us to see beauty in the ordinary and to have patience and persistence through difficulty;

  • What Sophia would tell young people who find farm stories uninteresting;

  • Why reading farm stories are not about nostalgia or idealizing a certain way of life, but rather about learning a new perspective and gaining new virtues.

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Books From Today's Show - Storyformed Episode #26 - Stories from the Farm

Cultivating Your Child's Gifts

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By Holly Packiam

Have you ever wondered what you were like as a small child? I have many memories of my childhood as I’m sure you do. I remember swinging on swings, playing house with my sister and friends, and wandering around my grandparents Iowa farm. But, sometimes I’m curious if I naturally had a certain bent - specific activities I always returned to.

Last week my first child turned thirteen. When she was little, someone gave me an idea to keep a journal as a way to remember. We wrote down her favorites, cute things she’d say and do, and milestones. And then about twice a year, my husband and I would write letters to her, telling her what we see in her and what we see the Lord doing in her life. As she read aloud certain passages to us, I recognized reoccurring stories and themes in her life. She seemed to take every opportunity to imagine a story and act it out from quotidian scenes from home to momentous occasions such as weddings. From the age of two, my daughter began to call us to gather as she led us in worship or gave a sermon. Now at thirteen, she’s writing books and reading them aloud to us, leading worship for children at church, and performing in musical theater shows. As I look back, is some ways it seems obvious that she would continue to do the things she’s always gravitated to.

And yet, these God-given gifts are to be cultivated. That’s (partly) what parents are for. I was reminded of this by a wonderful recent post from Clay Clarkson, called ‘Imaginations Should be Exercised’. Clay writes how reading a particular biography as a family helped them to recognize the qualities which mark each person uniquely, and how the right people and environment can draw out these gifts.

Marguerite Henry’s delightful story of how Benjamin West’s God-given talent sprouted, blossomed, and grew naturally like a wild flower in the forest is told with historical details and dialects, and with great human insight. What enriches this story is not only the progress of Benjamin’s art and how he felt about it, but also the softening of his strict but loving Papa, the encouragement of his quietly supportive Mamma, and the help of his connected uncle Phineas. There is a tenderness and joy in the telling that will warm your family’s heart with the picture of a very different, but still the same, eighteenth century family’s love for their artistically gifted child.

What captured our imaginations in the reading of this story was the true part about Benjamin’s artistic skills and motivation. They were clearly gifts from God, not the result (in modern lingo) of behavioral or environmental conditioning. He did not come to the world as a tabula rasa, a blank slate; rather, he came as a tabula scriptum, with markings on the slate. The finger of God had already written “artist” in Benjamin’s mind and spirit. And isn’t that, in part, what it means that we bear God’s image? We share markings in our person-ness from the Creator and creative God. “For You formed my inward parts; You wove me in my mother’s womb…I am fearfully and wonderfully made” (Psalm 139:13-14). The story of Benjamin West is a quiet, Quaker testimony to the work of God’s hands in our lives.

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As a mom, it’s easy to get distracted, to be more in tune with my own life than the budding lives of our children. It takes considerable intentionality on my part to pray and to be attentive to her life. It also means being willing to re-evaluate-- multiple times a year-- the activities and ministries she commits to, asking  the Lord what He has for her this season. These are decisions my husband and I discern together with her. There are times when a blossoming plant needs more sunshine, other times when it needs shade; times when it needs watering and times when it needs heat. We can never put parenting in cruise control mode; there is no ‘one-size-fits-all’ plan for our children and the cultivation of their gifts. At least, not for our wild and wonderful four!

Episode #25 - Reading with Teens

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Are you wondering how to navigate reading with teens? Today on the podcast,  Holly Packiam and Jaime Showmaker talk about how to stay connected with teens through books in this changing season of their lives.

Topics include:

  • The kinds of questions teens wrestle with-- from identity to purpose
  • The value in reading together in the teen years
  • Practical ideas for creating space to read together 
  • How to help teens recognize and choose good books
  • Book recommendations for teens

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Books From Today's Show - Storyformed Episode #25 - Reading with Teens

Fantasy Books for Teens

A Wrinkle in Time

OPD: 1962

I read this book by myself and aloud with my family and found new creative fascination and spiritual insight with each read. L’Engle’s classic tale of the stubborn Meg, her abnormally intelligent little brother, and their gangly, gallant friend Calvin is an adventure tale to begin with, as the children travel galaxies in search of Meg’s scientist father who vanished in the midst of an experiment. Guided by the amusing and rather awe-inspiring Mrs. Who, Mrs. Whatsit, and Mrs. Which into the depths of the universe’s beauties, and its darkness, this is a story exploring the power of love to redeem, heal, and resist the power of evil. A book with humor, a tale rich in affirmation of the world’s beauty, this is a classic to be read again and again.

 

At the Back of the North Wind

BY GEORGE MACDONALD

OPD: 1871

“…though I cannot promise to take you home,” said North Wind, as she sank nearer and nearer to the tops of the houses, “I can promise you it will be all right in the end. You will get home somehow.” 
― George MacDonald, At the Back of the North Wind

One of my favorite fantastical children’s stories, Wind is the story of the little boy Diamond, and the night journeys he takes with the lovely and real North Wind. MacDonald, whom Lewis said was his “master,” imbued every story he wrote with his wonder in a God whose goodness will not leave us in the darkness. An exploration, through the adventures of a little boy, of suffering and pain and the promise of heaven, this classic tale is a fairy tale swift with the beauty of the marvelous North Wind woman, and rich with spiritual contemplation. One of my favorites.

 

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Auralia's Colors

BY JEFFREY OVERSTREET

OPD: 2007

Jeffrey Overstreet (who I’m happy to say is a friend o’ mine), has created a fantastic, richly imagined novel about a world in which the glory of color has been dimmed and forgotten. Into this wintered land comes a girl named Auralia, gifted with the ability to find and weave color into a startling gift whose power could change the course of the kingdom.

 

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Lilith

BY GEORGE MACDONALD

OPD: 1895

This is one of George MacDonald’s later books, the story of a young, leisured man who discovers a world within (or beyond?) his own where he is challenged to “die indeed” by a raven who seems to be the first man, Adam. Plunged into a fantastical world of little children living at peace with their beasts in the forest, giants, dueling skeletons, and an evil princess attended by leopards who terrorize the land, the hero must face not only the terrors, but his own capacity to act, choose, and love. A MacDonald fairy tale is a world of spiritual realities made flesh. Not direct allegory, nor yet mere fantasy, Lilith is a journey into the regions of the soul, into grace, sin, suffering, and the fresh-sprung waters that come when we learn to lay down what keeps us from dying in order to live.

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The Book of the Dun Cow

By Walter Wangerin

OPD: 1978

This story took me by surprise. Here is an opening from Wangerin’s site: “At a time when the sun turned around the earth and animals could speak, Chauntecleer the Rooster ruled over a more or less peaceable kingdom.  What the animals did not know was that they were Keepers of the Wyrm, monster of Evil long imprisoned beneath the earth.  And Wyrm, sub terra, was breaking free…” I didn’t expect to be engrossed by a farmyard fable, or moved by the story of a slightly arrogant rooster who must learn to protect his people from evil, but I found this to be a powerful tale of humble, workaday hearts encountering evil and resisting its dominance. Fascinating. Excellent for discussion.

 

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The Cosmic Trilogy

BY C.S. LEWIS

OPD: OUT OF THE SILENT PLANET IN 1938, PERELANDRA IN 1943, AND THAT HIDEOUS STRENGTH IN 1945

Lewis considered this trilogy of space-travel adventures a “fairy tale for adults.” Don’t be put fooled by the space-travel nature of these books, in many ways they have a medieval flavor in keeping with Lewis desire to “re-enchant” the modern imagination with the wonders of, not cold, empty “space,” but the golden dance of the “heavens.” The first book finds a philologist named Ransom (based, according to several sources, on Tolkien) on an unexpected journey to “Malacandra,” (Mars), where he encounters the presiding spirit of that planet and discovers why earth is, in a universe of singing, dancing stars, called “the Silent Planet.” The second book follows him on his second planetary journey to Perelandra (Venus), where he must assist that planet’s Eve in resisting the temptations of the “unman.” The third book takes place right on earth, with Ransom and the planetary powers pitted against the dark machinations of the N.I.C.E. A strange, vivid, convicting story in which Lewis imagines what might happen if the principles of “scientism” were seriously applied to education and society, this book can offer an uncomfortable commentary on our own materialistic age. Great moral drama and fantastical travel all made with Lewis’ vivid imagination and vibrant prose.

 

The Dark is Rising Sequence

BY SUSAN COOPER

OPD: 1965-1977

I include this series because, frankly, I was fascinated by it. Though Cooper writes from a decidedly dualistic view of the world rather than a theistic standpoint, I found this well-written, vividly imagined series to be a captivating portrayal of the struggle of the light against the powers of darkness, of love against the stronghold of hate. Richly woven with Arthurian legend, set in Wales, with characters straight from The Round Table, this series traces the adventures of Will, seventh son of a seventh son, last of the Old Ones, whose doom is to conquer the darkness for ages to come, or if he fails, to watch the world plunged into the powers of hate and death. Haunting, rich in a sense of ancient legend and old Welsh lore, these books captivate and open a prime opportunity for the discussion of worldview, while still affirming the goodness of Light.

 

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The Giver

BY LOIS LOWRY

OPD: 1993

There has been a renewed interest in this book since the recent release of a movie based on its story. I haven’t seen the movie, but I know that the book is a quiet, unsettling exploration of a world in which people have chosen to abdicate choice and personal responsibility in return for a sanitized, colorless, controlled existence that guarantees them freedom from suffering and pain. Except for one person, the Giver, an enigmatic old man chosen to bear the memories of the world before the new system was imposed. When Jonas, a young boy, is chosen to be the next Giver, what he discovers, and tastes, and feels for the first time, threatens to change everything. Caution: this is a book for older readers who can handle discussions of euthanasia, death, and morally complex situations.

 

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The Hobbit

BY J.R.R. TOLKIEN

OPD: 1937

This classic tale of Bilbo, a member of the the little-known race of garden loving, pipe-smoking, gentle-hearted Hobbits has the hominess of an English folktale combined with the high romance and epic drama that would mark Tolkien’s later work in The Lord of the Rings. An old fashioned fairy-tale centering on twelve dwarves intent on recovering their ancient home (and their gold, for dwarves are lovers of gold) from the awful dragon Smaug, this story of Bilbo, the “burglar” who comes along as a member of their party also examines the motives of the heart, the nature of greed, and the strength that comes in unexpected places.

Delightful, vivid, with sylvan elves and bear men and daughty warriors, no adventurous young reader should miss this story.

Further, in the words of the venerable C.S. Lewis:

For it must be understood that this is a children’s book only in the sense that the first of many readings can be undertaken in the nursery. Alice is read gravely by children and with laughter by grown ups; The Hobbit, on the other hand, will be funnier to its youngest readers, and only years later, at a tenth or a twentieth reading, will they begin to realise what deft scholarship and profound reflection have gone to make everything in it so ripe, so friendly, and in its own way so true. Prediction is dangerous: but The Hobbitmay well prove a classic.

-From a review published in the Times Literary Supplement (2 October 1937), 714.

 

The Man Who Was Thursday

BY G.K. CHESTERTON

OPD: 1908

This was the most discussed book of my teenage years. Several friends and I had an ongoing discussion regarding Chesterton’s topsy turvy, vivid, confusing story of a Gabriel Syme, a brave man plumbing the depths of an anarchist society and its dire plots in Victorian London. But all is not as it seems. For in a rollicking tale of pursuit and disguise with anarchist agents named after the days of the week, Syme finds he may not be hunting what he thinks he is after all. Not exactly allegory or fantasy, yet with the fantastical, symbolic elements of both, this dream, or “nightmare” (as Chesterton dubbed it) explores the confusing nature of a world so beautiful at times we cannot believe that evil is real, and so evil at others that we cannot believe that beauty will ever endure. Fascinating stuff.

Listen to me,” cried Syme with extraordinary emphasis. “Shall I tell you the secret of the whole world? It is that we have only known the back of the world. We see everything from behind, and it looks brutal. That is not a tree, but the back of a tree. That is not a cloud, but the back of a cloud. Cannot you see that everything is stooping and hiding a face? If we could only get round in front -” 

 

The Silmarillion

BY J.R.R. TOLKIEN

OPD: 1977

If you really loved The Lord of the Rings, then you have to read The Silmarillion. This is what Tolkien considered the “real” story behind the romance and drama of The Lord of the Rings. Presenting his own mythic version of the world’s creation (the whole book is worth the passage about the “music of the Ainur” when the world is sung into existence), the coming of the elves, the coming of men, and the fall of both, this collection of epic, often tragic tales reflects the ancient, Icelandic, and Old English mythologies that so captivated Tolkien’s imagination. The tale of the brave man Beren, and his beloved Luthien, the tragic history of Turin, the wars between Elves and Dwarves, every one of these stories is rich in ancient color, in the high language and beauty of older times, and a clear understanding of what goodness looks like, and what evil brings.

 

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Tree and Leaf

BY J.R.R. TOLKIEN

OPD: 1964

For any Tolkien lovers, this slim book will be a gem. In this collection of essays and stories, readers will recognize Tolkien’s winsome style in tales like Leaf by Niggle or Farmer Giles of Ham, and also get treated to his famous defense of the fantasy genre in his essay, “On Fairie Stories.” Also included is the poem Mythopoeia, written for C.S. Lewis after a discussion of the truth-bearing power of myth.

Episode #24 - Read for the Heart (Picture Books Edition)

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To learn to read is to light a fire; every syllable that is spelled out is a spark.

~ Victor Hugo

In this episode, Holly Packiam and Jaime Showmaker discuss the picture books chapter in Sarah Clarkson's book, Read for the HeartThe book describes how her parents, Clay and Sally Clarkson, decided that one of the primary gifts they would give their children would be a childhood shaped by great stories. Sarah writes from the perspective of one whose own heart, mind, and soul were formed by books, and in doing so, invites us into what she calls 'the reading life'. We share some of her picture book recommendations in this episode. But this is more than an invitation to get through a reading list; it's an invitation into a reading life.

Topics Include: 

  • The value in reading good books to our children

  • Reasons for choosing Read for the Heart as your #1 resource for children's book recommendations

  • Hallmarks of a classic children's book

  • Picture book recommendations from Read for the Heart

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Books From Today's Show - Storyformed Episode #24 - Read For The Heart (Picture Books Edition)