Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Review: The Amazing Bible Timeline

Before I begin this review I would like to vent and whine and complain a moment. I already wrote this review once, on my laptop. While doing some last minute double checking on the internet, a virus demon literally seized my computer and possessed it. I suddenly had all of these warnings and fake Microsoft pages coming up, using Microsoft icons and broken English, telling me I needed to enter my credit card number to be protected…yada-yada-yada. It even changed my background picture to this huge warning with further poor grammar, telling me all my personal data is invaded with spyware. Our firewall protection won’t run and it is all froze up. I am not a happy camper! Why do people set out to infest our lives with such malicious technology? Argh! I realize that this is completely unrelated to the subject at hand, but, “it’s my [blog] and I can cry if I want to!” It isn't as if I just have loads of free time, you know!

Ok, now that I have that out of my system, let me try (AGAIN!) to do this product justice…

I was very pleased when I opened the long skinny box that came in the mail revealing The Amazing Bible Timeline. A chronological history of mankind from Adam until the present-- it is amazingly compact (37”x45”) for all the information it contains. We own a similar book with a pull out chronology, a good 12 feet in length, that for years I have wanted to mount so we could refer to it. Never could quite find a good place for a 12’x2’ poster…wallpaper boarder, perhaps? Well, The Amazing Bible Timeline fit perfectly on one of those cardboard, tri-fold project display boards. Just needed to trim the edges a bit and staple it and ~voila! ~ Easy to see but also easy to store by folding (or sliding behind our piano :) ).

My first impression was admiration for the clever design, enabling the amount of information to be easily seen and comparatively viewed. Using a circular pattern of spokes, the timeline color-codes the various lineages that went on to become various civilizations. This enormous project began in 1931 and, since 1975, has been carried on by the Agard family.

This is certainly a good tool for studying history in its total context. There have been some concerns pointed out, however, that cause me to take pause in recommending The Amazing Bible Timeline to others. A few weeks after the timeline arrived, I received an email from the Agards (addressed to all of the TOS Crew), that attends to some concerns pointed out by other reviewers. Apparently, the Agard family also offers an LDS version of the timeline for Mormons, and there was also some Mormon info on the non-LDS version that we were given.

Upon closer inspection of my timeline, I did notice the inclusion of an important date for Mormon history around the year 400 AD, using the Book of Mormon references. They also note when Joseph Smith led his followers to Utah. This begs the question: What is information from the Book of Mormon doing on a BIBLE timeline in the first place? I suppose if it was titled The Amazing History Timeline, there may be some justification for it. But the two books are certainly not one and the same. (I have since read, in another reviewer's blog, that she was told the inclusion of such dates was a "nine year old error" that would be removed...).

Furthermore, the email that went out to the Crew was intended to clear up any misunderstandings about this issue, yet it only made things more perplexing for me. The Agards placed a link within their email to answer several, varied concerns that have been raised by reviewers. In addressing the apprehension that The Amazing Bible Timeline may have an “LDS slant”, the Agard family stated the following: “We don't know how it could. The original Timeline on which ours is based does not have an LDS background. We added dates from 1931 to 2000 so unless you think there's some LDS slant to WWII or the first astronauts on the moon there isn't one.” That seems reasonable.

However, prior to that statement, the Agards also proclaimed the following thought, (which is part of the same response to the question mentioned): “1975 (the year they took over production of the timeline) was a time when Christians were committed to building greater unity or cooperation among Christian faiths, very different from today’s time of Bible bashing and rejection of any Christian whose faith does not exactly match our own. The contention among Christians today is appalling to us and we don't support it. (We were asked to provide primary references that there was such a time and attitude. Fair enough.
http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/178836/ecumenism).” [italics mine]

I took a look at that article and found it to be a discussion on the cooperative efforts of various mainstream, historically accepted denominations of the Christian faith. Although there are various differences in methods or within the “gray” areas of belief or application, the basics of doctrine, particularly in reference to who Jesus is, are all in agreement. There is mention of the Lutheran, Episcopalian, Roman Catholic, Reformed and Pentecostal churches. No mention of Mormons within this article. Mormons may consider themselves Christians but Christians have never considered Mormons anything but a cult. This statement is NOT “Bible bashing,” as the Agards have asserted, it is historically and doctrinally true. Mormons are sincere, good people (I grew up in a school that was probably 1/3 Mormon and was friends with many) but they are sincerely wrong and deceived. The Book of Mormon is as false as the Koran; both books, incidentally, have been given to their founding “prophet” via angelic visitations.

I stand with the apostle Paul when he states in Galatians 1:8 “But though we, or an angel from heaven, preach any other gospel unto you than that which we have preached unto you, let him be accursed.” We do no favors by patronizingly accepting our Mormon friends; rather we should speak the truth to them in love.

I realize that this has become much more than a review of The Amazing Bible Timeline and a bit more of a sermon. This is not a personal attack on the Agards in any way. However, their statements of clarification only served to raise a red flag for me as to their view of history. If they consider the concerns about the possible LDS slant as “rejection of any Christian whose faith does not exactly match our own,” it is now an issue that I feel compelled to respond to.

I cannot imagine the man hours, commitment and research that has gone into The Amazing Bible Timeline and I realize there are many varied sources used, and dates are double checked, triple checked and more. It is a huge body of work and I plan on keeping the copy given to me for review. With the internet at my finger tips it would not be hard to check anything I have a question about. I feel it is a great visual aid for putting history in context. However, I could not recommend this tool to you without disclosing what has been revealed about the viewpoints of those that have entrusted themselves to the project.

To read the full explanation of the various concerns, click this link:

To take a look at The Amazing Bible Timeline and to possibly purchase one for $29.97, visit their website at
http://bibletimeline.net .

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Abcteach: Customizing Your Homeschooling Curriculum!

Ever come across an item or idea and wonder, “why didn’t I think of that?” Well, that was exactly my thought when I was asked to review Abcteach, a website that stands at the ready when you want to do just about anything you can imagine along the lines of enhancing your homeschool curriculum.

Need to make your own spelling test (with a word scramble and word search for practice before the big day)? No problem, Abcteach can help you make your own, simply by plugging in your word list on a form. Would you like to make name cards to label each child’s school supply bin? There’s a form for that too! Need clip art? Got it! Need a multiplication table to take in the car (because the chart on the wall really isn’t conducive to travel)? Bingo, you can make one in a snap! What about a coloring page for the toddler that is listening to big brother’s history lesson? Presto! Need…?

Well, I think you get the idea! Abcteach seems to have thought of everything and then some. All in one location, with one goal in mind: making your homeschool YOUR homeschool! No need to scour websites or curriculum books or worry about making ugly stick figures to make a point, Abcteach likely has what you are wishing you had. And they keep adding more and giving you more options all the time. Just perusing their site will cause you to think about all the things you could do that maybe you weren’t even planning on…just seeing what they offer spurs on those creative juices!

I must admit that upon trying out a word scramble form, I sort of froze up when the computer-ese looking box popped up, wanting to know my words, how hard I wanted them to be scrambled, whether or not I wanted their directions printed on top of the page or if I wanted to write my own…very stale and black and white but necessary, you know? That sort of thing just kills my idea for a second because I think in the artsy, flow-y, colorful realm (with the little gnomes…). However, it only took me a second to recover and start playing with the boxes to see how it worked. Within about two minutes I had a decent word scramble page ready to be printed. Most of that time was spent just typing in the words! So, I found it to be really user friendly.

Furthermore, if you are computer illiterate like me, they have short videos that will walk you through the process of filling out the information, or cutting and pasting or whatever the necessary steps involved in customizing your own page for you children. They also have great customer service if you just can’t seem to figure things out. I had problems getting the videos to play and when I emailed their tech support it was addressed very quickly-- resolved in a short time!

So, how can you take advantage of all the goodies packed into the Abcteach website? Well, stop by for a visit, of course! Go to
www.abcteach.com and just click around and see all the great things waiting for you to enjoy! From handwriting forms to scrapbooking backgrounds and borders, from book report forms to reading comprehension pages, there is something you need, that they have! There are two ways to enjoy their site: they offer about 6,000 documents for FREE at the site above, free is always a great price! However, if you try out all 6,000 documents and realize you need much more, you can become a member and have access to over 30,000 documents. Individual membership is $40 per year or $70 for two years. If you sign up with a homeschooling group, the price can drop to a little as $25 per year, depending on the number of people. I do need to interject that this site is really a great site for anyone working with kids! If you have friends that teach in more traditional school setting, or perhaps even a teen that babysits a lot, or maybe you are in charge of the children’s Sunday school hour…there are so many ways that Abcteach can be of help in all of these situations.

How many times have you thought, “I wish I had (fill in the blank), to go along with this subject”? Well, now you can have THAT, thanks to Abcteach. Then, you’re next thought, after efficiently printing out your needed document will be, “why didn’t I think of that?”!

Monday, October 19, 2009

Historical Fiction Review: Sarah's Wish Delivers!

The best part of homeschooling, personally, has always been reading good books with my kids. They love it too! There’s something about a great story that is the highlight of our day together and also can be the downfall too…at times I just can’t stop reading and other school subjects may suffer just a bit because of it!

So, the chance to read a great story, as part of reviewing for the TOS Crew, was an eager task for us all. Sarah’s Wish, by Jim Baumgardner, is one of those wonderful stories that tend to edge out other schoolwork; it pulls you in and makes you want to keep reading to see what happens next! Sarah’s Wish is the first of three books chronicling Sarah’s life in the dangerous times of North verses South and the Underground Railroad.

Set in the mid 1800’s when the Underground Railroad was in full (but highly secretive) swing, Sarah’s Wish starts off with a bang-- a runaway wagon that leaves Sarah an orphan-- and keeps sweeping the reader quickly along. There’s a certain secret Sarah promises to keep for her mom and a couple of bad dudes that want to uncover that secret: slave catchers. At just 12 years old, Sarah is frightened yet brave as she carries on her mother’s work and eventually has to learn to trust others that are part of the network of people working to help slaves escape too.

More than anything, Sarah wishes and prays for new parents. Through the comfort of her pastor and the help of local characters like “Granny” and “Doc Baum”, Sarah is well loved, protected and taken care of. Finally, she receives word that a family, whom she has never met, wants to adopt her as their own! This is an answer to prayer but met with mixed feelings as she must leave the town that she loves and the work her mother entrusted to her as well. She journeys to meet with the family but finds that her dreams and their reality may not be as compatible as she hoped…

Author Jim Baumgardner is a wonderfully colorful character himself. Hailing from Kansas, Mr. Baumgardner is a living part of history in the Old Cowtown Museum where he tells stories to visitors each day as the “town barber”. His “Sarah” series began as a quest to make great wholesome stories for his grandkids to read. They have become a special treasure that he is sharing with the rest of us as well! I highly encourage you to visit his website
www.sarahsbooks.net where you can order all of Sarah’s books and enjoy good, clean and educational fun for the entire family—books worth passing on in your home library or proudly giving as gifts! In fact, you can have your books autographed by the author, just look for the box to write in the name you wish for him to address it to...talk about a personal touch! Sarah’s Wish is just $9.99 on the website, with free shipping. Or, get all three Sarah books for $39.95 (retail would be $47.97) and free shipping too!

One terrific feature is that each book comes with a code from the publisher that allows you to download the audio book for FREE! You can then burn it onto your own CD to listen to in the car or download it onto an MP3 player. Also, if you sign up for Mr. Baumgardner’s email list, you will get a fun and informative newsletter with interesting historical facts about life in Sarah’s time period, herbal remedies (that “Granny” recommends), words of wisdom, contests for the kids and more!

If your family loves to read as much as we do, don’t miss this opportunity to give your kids wholesome and adventurous books that teach history while they entertain. It is a great investment in worthwhile reading!
This just in!!! Mr. Baumgardner is offering a special price for those of you visiting his website thanks to a TOS Crew Blog (yes, this is one!). If you will contact him via his link, and ask for the TOS Crew special order form, he will email it to you and you can save even more! Don't you feel special?!!!

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Guardian Angel Publishing has Heavenly Books!

The folks at Guardian Angel Publishing must have overheard Charlotte Mason commenting on the difference between “fluff” and good literature. They have nicely stepped around the fluff and handed over some gems that will teach their readers about character, educating their mind and as well as their soul. It was a pleasure to read the books that they sent for review!

Andy and Spirit Go to the Fair, by Mary Jean Kelso, is a sweet story with a uniquely special main character. Well, make that two. Andy is a young man who is physically challenged and must get around through the use of a wheelchair. However, put him on the back of the other star, Spirit the horse, and you have a powerful combination of freedom and equality. Spirit is different too, as you’ll see in the vibrant pictures illustrated by K.C. Snider. Spirit is an albino horse that attracts some attention due to his unusual eyes. The beautiful moral of the book is captured by Andy, when he leans down and whispers to Spirit, “Don’t worry, Spirit. You can’t help it if your eyes are pink. There’s something wrong with everybody. Just not all of it shows.” What a wonderful reminder to our children, whether they have some challenges or not!

At the end of Andy and Spirit Go to the Fair, you can read some interesting information on wild horses, as well as find out how you can adopt horses too! Furthermore, the reader is introduced to “4-H” in Andy’s story and can learn more about getting involved with the 4-H Club. (Prices vary depending on format: eBook: $5, eBook CD is $9.95 plus shipping, print book $10.95 plus shipping and coming soon is the book on DVD for $9.95 plus shipping).

Teaching your kids about nouns and adjectives has never been so fun and easy, in my opinion, as in the presentation of Hamster Holidays, Noun and Adjective Adventures, by Cynthia Reeg. This amusing poem about various hamster holidays (you know, the usual: Sing a Song Day, Puddle Jumping Day etc.), highlights the use of nouns in blue and adjectives in red. Illustrator Kit Grady has some delightfully silly pictures of these hamsters dressed up and making messes! After twelve months of holidays, the book continues the lesson with a chance for the reader to identify nouns and adjectives in another goofy, short story. Following that, there are various exercises like matching nouns and proper nouns, and adjective word-finds.

Hamster Holidays, Noun and Adjective Adventures, will really help your child identify these two basic grammar words. If you get the eBook, which I would recommend, you can print out the exercises repeatedly as your child works the puzzles and games to improve his or her prior score. (Prices: eBook: $5, eBook CD is $9.95 plus shipping, print book $10.95 plus shipping).

Bright, cartooned illustrations really caught my eye in the story Maybe We Are Flamingos, by Safari Sue Thurman. Tropical colors used by artist Kevin Collier help to tell the story of two flamingo chicks that realize they look different from the rest of the flamingo family. They are not pink! They wonder what they could be and where they really belong until their mother explains that it takes about a year to turn pink and that the change in color will occur through their diet. The flamingo chicks then go on to joke about what they might look like if they were to eat just broccoli, peppermints or other crazy things (with drawings to match!). Maybe We Are Flamingos also has a new iPhone App. that is part of a new way to explore reading from Guardian Angel Publishing ($2.99). Your kids can hear quality stories anywhere with stories that will go along with the App. Cool! (Book prices: eBook: $5, eBook CD is $9.95 plus shipping, print book $10.95 plus shipping).

The next story was just a kick to read! And, you know what? It takes many strong bones to perform a nice kick! The Sum of Our Parts: No Bones about It… by Bill Kirk is a kicky little poem (pun intended) that helps kids learn all of the proper bone names from toes to skull. Along with the poem are amazing factoids with “Did you know” questions and statements. Kids will find out how tall the tallest man was and how many bones we are born with (verses how many we end up with once some of them fuse together), among many other interesting facts.

Illustrator Eugene Ruble has put together realistic bone drawings along with some funny cartoons to help the reader make sense of all the information. The end of the book includes complete skeletal drawings with and without names so that kids can try to name the parts themselves. A neat little addition is a mystery drawing of a bone on each page that the reader can try to identify. The Sum of Our Parts: No Bones about It… is a clever way for kids to enjoy science and learn anatomy! (Prices: eBook: $5, eBook CD is $9.95 plus shipping, print book $10.95 plus shipping).

Finally, much as my kids do when they eat, I have saved my favorite book for last. Rainbow Sheep by Kim Chatel was just very imaginative, sweet, well written and beautifully pictured. I say pictured because, rather than illustrating this book, Ms. Chatel creatively uses colored wool to create pictures to complement her story. They are soft and endearing; very unique!

Genevieve is tending her sheep a hillside one rainy day. Wanting some sunshine instead, this young shepherdess climbs to the top of the hill and tickles the clouds to get them to move. Successfully done (always works for me!), a rainbow comes out but it is weak and gloomy. The optimistic Genevieve points out all the wonderful reasons the rainbow has to be happy and in the end the rainbow brightens and laughs so hard it overflows with happy tears. Well, all that rainbow stuff just gets all over everything…even the sheep!

After the Rainbow Sheep story, the reader is introduced to a short history of felting and is presented with instructions for a project to try with felt: making felted soap. (Ok, I must admit, this sounds kind of gross…fuzz in my soap? However, it looks really colorful and creative! So I probably should try it and blog about it another time!). No doubt, kids would love it…definitely a good Christmas gift project! (Prices: eBook: $5, eBook CD is $9.95 plus shipping, print book $10.95 plus shipping, DVD book $9.95 plus shipping).

Guardian Angel Publishing has many more educational and inspiring books like these waiting to be explored by your child. Their targeted age group is 0-12 years so there is a nice range of things for most kids. Take a look at their website and see for yourself:
www.guardianangelpublishing.com will take you there. Check out their FREE eBooks just for stopping by!

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Hope for Slow Readers and Other Learning Difficulties!

Doing reviews is a lot of fun, getting to try new things and experimenting with the unfamiliar often brings surprises to me (with the results) or with my kids (how fun or interesting something was), but this time it brought a bit of disappointment. With Bonnie Terry Learning’s Five Minutes to Better Reading Skills, it was disappointment in the fact that I just now found the program!

You see, my son is mildly autistic and reads fairly well but rather stilted, often skipping words or substituting something close to the actual word. We homeschooled for years, doing various therapies to help with his different challenges; some things we tried were just downright torturous. This is NOT the case with the Five Minutes to Better Reading Skills program. In about five minutes, there is a lot happening for my son to help him become a better reader and it is just about as painless a program as I have seen.

I will be honest with my testing methods, however. I have not gotten to test this out as long as I really would have liked. For one, I no longer homeschool this particular child and so finding a regular time to do the exercises was hard. We are involved in a lot of extracurricular activities so it wasn’t that I couldn’t find five minutes, it just seemed that the five minutes were found sporadically, in different time slots and so were often inconsistent. So, we sort of started and stopped until I decided to just take a few minutes before he caught the bus first thing in the morning. Though that is not my best time of day…he was the one having to think fast and he actually enjoyed it!

The drills used in Five Minutes to Better Reading Skills, are based on different sounds: vowel sounds, vowel combos, consonants etc. Using a student book and teacher book, which are basically identical, the child is timed to read as many drill words as possible within one minute. The teacher follows along in their own book, keeping a sheet protector over the word list and making a note on the page if the child misses a word. The teacher’s page is also marked with the number of words in various lines so that it is easy to tally the student’s words per minute.

When the minute is over, simply subtract the number of words mispronounced or skipped from the total word count and that gives the actual word per minute score. The student (or parent depending on the age and needs of the child) then colors in a graph showing how many words they accomplished on a particular drill, and another graph showing the mistakes made.

For my son, who is 16, we took a baseline score and then made a goal that in order to move on to the next drill, he would need to increase his score by 20 words per minute. Day one his score was 58, day two he improved to 67. Day three he accomplished 80 per minute but managed to skip a whole row of words and therefore had too many errors to move on (no more than four allowed). Day four he read 85 words per minute (and yes, this score is after I deducted his errors) but again he skipped a row of words. Finally, day five he shot up to 93 words and zero errors! Yes! He was excited and I was impressed! That is almost double the score with very little effort. The process then began all over again with the next set of drill words.

Each day, after the drill, we would spend the rest of our “five minutes” reading from a book that was at his reading level, with some challenge to it. He has been working on a Nancy Drew mystery. Each day his reading gains confidence and inflection, though he still has some trouble with skipping words at this point.

As I stated earlier, I wish I had discovered this program before now! I love efficiency and author Bonny Terry has done come up with a great, streamlined approach that gets the job done. Helping kids learn better is what Ms. Terry has always done, writing her own curriculum in school until others begged her to publish her methods to help them succeed in their classrooms too. Bonnie Terry Learning carries more than just Five Minutes to Better Reading Skills, she has published books to help with spelling, studying, math, writing and comprehension as well. Check out her website at
www.bonnieterrylearning.com to see descriptions of all the great products. Ms. Terry also has helpful articles and short videos that you can view online to give you hope in many areas in which kids struggle, such as dyslexia and ADD. With so many valuable tools at reasonable prices (Five Minutes to Better Reading Skills runs $60) you can tackle learning difficulties with confidence and give your child some worthwhile tools to face their challenges!

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Nature Friend Magazine: I'm Lovin' It

My kids aren’t always so enthused about their “guinea pig” status when it comes to reviewing curriculum. Some items are naturally more appealing than others. Nature Friend magazine is NOT one of those product reviews that I had to remind my kids to try out. Each issue has been eagerly read by all of my kids.

We used to subscribe to Nature Friend, and like many things that become “out of sight, out of mind,” I sort of forgot about renewing again. Well, after these last two complimentary issues for review, it is clear I need to renew my subscription (and I intend to!).

There are so many great features to Nature Friend, I am not sure where to start. I guess what really pops out, while casually leafing through, would be the photography. It is just stunning. From gorgeous close-up pictures of many different creatures, to sweeping scenic expanses, the magazine glorifies God in the beauty of His creation.

Furthermore, there are excellent articles that help readers learn about amazingly clever animals. Some, like the Weaverbird that instinctively weave complex grass nests, have instincts that make you marvel. Still others, such as a walking stick, are just awesome to look at and contemplate (did you know that some of these “twigsects” can get up to a foot long? Yikes!).

There are many features about Nature Friend that the kids look forward to in every issue. One would be the “Scavenger Hunt” in which very subtle drawings appear randomly throughout the magazine waiting to be hunted down by the reader. The “Invisibles” picture is always fun too, having many hidden items in a well-drawn nature scene. There are crossword puzzles and art lessons too! A big hit is the “You Can Draw…” section; it teaches how to draw a certain item (bear, branches, birds etc.) and publishes some of the pictures drawn or painted by other readers from a previous month’s subject. My 14 year old took the time to paint a Black Bear and did a marvelous job. I wanted to take a picture of it to post with this blog but she anxiously sealed it up and sent it off to Nature Friend in hopes of being selected for an upcoming issue.

What strikes me most about Nature Friend is their inclusion of the reader. It is about as interactive as a magazine could be. Encouraging and publishing poetry, photography and articles by their young readers is a big part of what they do. In fact, they publish an entire issue each year from 100% of reader’s submissions! Taking reader demographics to a new level, Nature Friend also tailors the magazine to different ages by alternating a younger emphasis one month with an older, more complex emphasis the next. No one is left out; but even if it is not your child’s “targeted” age group, they will still get a lot from what they look at and read. Beware! It is just as appealing to adults! My mother got a hold of one and gave it a thorough looking over-- and I love to look at it as well.

The overarching feel of the magazine, what they strive to present and project in all of their pages, is God’s glory revealed in creation. It is evident from the front cover to the back that Nature Friend wants to point our awe and our interests upward to the Creator, rather than being solely focused on the creation itself. Thank you, Nature Friend, for this wonderful stand for truth that is not at all subtle!

For your own subscription to this great little magazine…visit their website at www.naturefriendmagazine.com where you can get a one year subscription for $36 or a two year for $68. For an extra $2 per issue, they will include a study guide for further discovery (acrostics, true and false questions, photography tips and more…great for the homeschooler!).

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Evolutionary Silliness

The other evening we were enjoying the movie "Master and Commander", with Russell Crowe. A high-seas epic, beautifully filmed adventure, that I would highly recommend. It is a great, wholesome family flick-- if you can handle a bit of sword fighting carnage.

The doctor on board the ship was a "naturalist". He collected specimen of animals and insects as a hobby. In one scene, he is sharing a book with a young boy that has taken an interest in being a naturalist as well. The two are looking at some of the illustrations in the book; pictures of insects with incredible camouflage such as a walking stick and some sort of bug that looks just like a thorn. The doctor explains that these disguises are to protect the insects from predators. The young boy is in awe and asks, "Did God make them like that?" (or something along those lines). The doctor smiles (a bit patronizingly) and answers, "Yes, God. And, they made themselves like that."

That just struck me as absurdly funny! Though insects are fascinating and industrious, they have no ability to reason or have more than an instinctive thought. They aren't known for advancing scientific theories or having feelings and emotions. "Fight or flight" is the basic way of life for any insect or animal.

Now take me-- your typical human. I can think and reason and emote and all those other things that set me apart from dung beetles and tree sloths, but can I lose 10 pounds? Can I maintain a healthy diet? Can I exercise on even a semi-regular basis? Nope, nope and nope. Can I keep a smile on my face when the house is falling apart around me? Can I even keep said house clean on a regular basis? Can I selflessly serve my husband without thought for my own needs? Big fat nopesies on all of the above. The fact is, apart from the help of the Holy Spirit, I can do nothing worthwhile. The older I get the more helpless I see that I am to do anything good or change anything effectively apart from the grace of God.

I think if, as a "species," we women could
will ourselves to "evolve"... by now we would have conquered the cellulite glitch in our DNA, developed naturally long and lush eyelashes, and learned to survive on raw vegetation without a thought for chocolate. If only.

Once again, it just seems to take a whole lot more faith to believe in the random, minuscule plausibility of evolution than in a Creator that...well...
creates things like bugs that would look exactly like a stick (which He also created... so He basically just reused the same pattern). Its just plain silly to believe a non-reasoning organism could, in a premeditated sort of way, change its appearance over time, passing that need to change on to its offspring (by way of genetics, rather than explanations), and cause its outward appearance to change and even mirror the habitat in which it lives. That's some amazing faith!

I'll stick with the unpopular notion of a loving God that created me in His image. Cellulite and all. (Ok, I am not implying God has cellulite...I am sure it is a tragic result of The Fall-- thanks Eve, darling!). Believe me, if I could have wished cellulite (and bad hair days) away, that would have happened a loooonnng time ago! In the meantime, the only way I can do anything worthwhile in my life is to rely on the strength of God to work in spite of the weakness of my flesh. Without Him I would just be a big, lazy sloth with moss growing on my ugly hair. I'll take a bad hair day and a redeemed soul any day!

Friday, October 2, 2009

College Prep Genius: Scholarship Central...Cha-ching!

Though it is evident my ninth grader has a looong way to go before she is ready to take the SAT, I also have hope that she will be confidently prepared when the time comes, thanks to College Prep Genius from Jean Burk. This is part two of my review of this program. The first being my overall impression of the material, and this second one after I have tested it on my guinea pig/daughter (I’ll refer to her as “D”).

Knowing that putting my daughter through all the paces of the program in about a month may certify me as an insane homeschooling mother, and desiring to neither be locked up nor to have CPS come for a visit, I opted for taking on just the Critical Reading Section. Two reasons: first, D is just now in Algebra 1 so it would not make much sense to test her on what she is just beginning to grasp. Secondly, reading comprehension is not her strength and therefore I wanted to see how the material would help her.

My oldest daughter graduated this past spring and she had an SAT practice book that had several practice tests still in tact. Therefore, I picked out the three Critical Reading Sections from one particular test and did a sort of “before” and “after” experiment. I had D try one section on her own, prior to any help or advice. Um…she might not like my publishing the score, but for the sake of the review, I must. It was 25%. Yeah, pitiful.

We then moseyed to the DVD player and popped in the DVD on doing the Critical Reading Section. I had already watched it once, saw the great logic behind the advice, and appreciated the tips in the form of acronyms. Ms. Burk pointed out that the SAT is not an IQ test but a logic test. (This may not be news to some of you but it was novel to me!). There are patterns that all SAT (or PSAT or ACT) tests use and once you understand those patterns you are on the road to improving your score dramatically.

I had D watch the DVD and follow along in the student workbook. After this, I had her take the other two portions of the SAT test, allowing her to view the various acronyms that apply to that section. In reality, a student would need to memorize these acronyms using flashcards, so that they could bring their usefulness into the testing site stored in the gray matter between the ears. Well, it wasn’t realistic at this point to have D commit the acronyms to memory (there are six different ones, most using each letter to start a sentence rather than just a word) so we “cheated” a smidge and left the book open to the acronyms that applied.

When D was finished, I asked her if the hints helped to clarify the right answer for her. She said that it helped some but she did not yet completely understand the hints, either. The subtle differences between some things such as eliminating: additional information, contradictory information, irrelevant information and obscure information left her a bit befuddled. However, I would only blame this on having been so recently exposed to the material/concepts and not having time to assimilate it (coupled with the fact that, as I stated, reading is not her strongest point. She is a math-minded gal). I find the hints in the acronyms are very helpful and, once clarified and memorized by the student, can see that they would give a definite advantage when approaching this part of the test.

So…the result? Was there an improvement in her score? Well, I wouldn’t say she is ready for the real deal but, yes, there was definitely improvement. In one section, she scored 39% (still in the “pitiful” range), the other section she had a whopping 62%, which is vastly better but still needs work!

The verdict: after looking through the material and viewing the DVDs, and doing a test run, there is an enormous amount of help to be gained through College Prep Genius. Ms. Burk breaks down the amount of time needed to be spent in study to prepare for the SAT, doing it her way, and shows how it pays off in the dividends of scholarships. It is realistic. It has been done by others. It will be done by my daughter :).

When my oldest daughter was preparing for the SAT, we enrolled her in quite an expensive class that she attended for six or eight weeks. One of the projects required was making stacks; I mean huge hunks, of vocabulary flashcards. It was grueling! One thing College Prep Genius insists on is that there is NO NEED to memorize vast quantities of vocabulary words (of which you may not see even one of on a test), if you will learn their secrets to decoding the meaning and eliminating wrong answers, you are vocab-ready!

This system will still take a lot of work and effort to pay off. Nevertheless, it is streamlined and very doable, not overwhelming. Ms. Burk has done the research and set up some excellent strategies to give students the edge and confidence they need to score well on the SAT. It is a worthy investment of your time and money, one I am glad to have come across! I can hardly believe it is time to start preparing D for this big test, but it is. Having College Prep Genius leaves me no excuses!

The website for this program,
http://www.collegeprepgenius.com/, is full of helpful articles on scholarships, raising test scores and more. Check out the testimonials of students that did awesome on their tests thanks to College Prep Genius. The entire program, (DVD, workbook and text) are available for a special introductory price of just $79 dollars (regularly $115). Even at the regular price, this is waaayyy cheaper than the class we put our oldest in last year! This is one small investment that could really pay off in big ways in the future. I hope you’ll look into it!

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Reflections on 20 Years of Marital Bliss!

On October 7th, my husband Billy and I will have the distinct pleasure of being married for 20 years! “That’s half of your life,” my math-minded hubby pointed out recently. Wow. I have been letting that sink in lately, mulling over the fact that I, basically, “grew up” as a married woman. Oh, I thought I was all grown up at age 20, as I walked down the aisle, ready to say “I do” to Prince Charming. And, although I was mature in many ways, there are just certain characteristics that internally develop only through time and experience. I just happen to have the privilege of maturing along side a very godly man. I don’t regret it for a minute but time does let us look back at God’s hand of provision, protection and His “mysterious ways” with a certain sense of awe and amazement.

I am astonished at God’s loving care in even bringing me into a relationship with Billy to begin with. I was allowed, yea even encouraged, to date from quite a young age. Though raised in a Christian home, this was not during the serge of homeschooling families that were pulling away from the world. Somehow, the Lord kept me close to Him, walking in the light I had (and my parent’s light as well, I don’t blame them in any way), and leading me to Texas where I met my future husband one day at church.

Though somewhat older than me, his job wasn’t the greatest when we married and I have distinct memories of newly wed predicaments: eating off of the ironing board because we only had two chairs, a waterbed and dresser to our name…eating Hamburger Helper because I didn’t know how to cook…spending $15 on some decorations for the tree, that would have otherwise been empty, and getting a lecture because we didn’t have $15 to spare…not driving my car for months because the tags were expired and having to wait for Billy to get home to use his car to go to the store, only to get pulled over one morning on our way to church because his tags were expired too (the same month as my car!)…eating Hamburger Helper months later because I was still learning to cook on a very limited budget…playing “April Fools” jokes on each other (that’s another story)…going to watch the planes land at the air force bases for “free” entertainment…making a huge bowl of French fries, only French fries, for dinner one evening and finding out I was better off making Hamburger Helper…oh, the memories!

Somehow, we made it through all of those newly wed speed bumps, managing to remain pretty crazy about one another. Here we are 20 years later, maybe just a bit crazy--- period--- but also very much in love. The longer we are married, the more I notice that many other marriages aren’t quite as loving and happy as our own and that just makes me sad, even angry. It is a shame that so many are missing out on what the Lord has for them through the blessing of marriage.

What Billy and I have should be the
norm, especially in a Christian union but it is unfortunately quite rare. Why are so many marriages failing? Why is the divorce rate in the church the same as that in the world?

I can only speak for our marriage, not really being able to relate to the unhappiness around me. Why is everyone willing to settle for so-so, hum-drum and see-ya-later? Why is marriage not prized and valued and fought for with every fiber of our being? It is sacred, it is holy, it is designed by our loving heavenly father to be a blessing. What lies have we believed that makes so many so quick to look for greener pastures?

I can't answer these questions but I often wonder about them. All I know is what has worked for us. So, perhaps a discussion of these things could be helpful to someone else. I pray the Lord would use any of these things as needed to help readjust your focus on Him and His plan.

I will back up and begin at the beginning, (so clever), and talk to those of you that may be single or engaged. I want you to start on the right foot. You can't do things the world's way and expect heavenly results!

Purity matters. Commit to being the wedding present that your spouse gets to open on your honeymoon night. A short study of covenants will reveal that biblical covenants involved sacrifice (usually of animals, eventually the most precious of all being that of Jesus), their blood being the seal of the covenant. When a virgin joins in a union with a man for the first time, what happens? There is blood that seals that covenant of oneness. That is not some fluke of evolution but an amazing plan on the part of God the Father that created the idea of marriage and intercourse. If you have already given that part of yourself away, repent. The Lord forgives all sins when you have accepted the sacrifice of His son. Repent and commit to purity; don’t beat yourself up but don’t justify remaining in fornication either (“well, it’s too late now…”).

Secondly, divorce is not an option. It cannot be. Satan knows that the relationship of husband and wife mirrors that of Christ and His bride, the church. Division in the home allows for that much more division in the church, ruining our witness and causing the world to mock what God has ordained as sacred. I am not going to touch on strange and unusual circumstances of abuse or drug use etc. but I am discussing the normal struggles and potential lack of feelings that will inevitably come in a relationship. Those things that are beyond the “norm” would still need to be handled with wisdom and a strong desire for restoration. Godly counseling is the only kind to get for any sort of marriage crisis, in any case.

Once you commit to marriage for good, “for better or for worse”, don’t just settle for existing under the same roof. Love each other, even if you don’t necessarily feel “in love”. Feelings are fickle. They will wax and wane but they will always return, in deeper ways, when you treat your spouse with tender consideration, serving their needs, and working to make the life you have one of happiness. The joy of the Lord needs to be your strength; it is the only kind of joy that will last, regardless of the circumstance. If your happiness is based on circumstance, it is extremely shallow. Make loving your mate an adventure. Have dates. Even staying at home because you are flat broke, as we once were, is no excuse…light a candle…pick some flowers…enjoy a backrub…snuggle while watching a movie. Just doing things out of the ordinary now and then strengthens the love relationship and says, “I am making an effort because I think you are worth it.” If your spouse doesn’t seem to notice-- do it anyway. “But when you do a charitable deed, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, that your charitable deed may be in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will Himself reward you openly.” Matthew 6:3-4.

Your children need you to stay married, my friend. Some may reason that it is worse for the kids to be a part of a “loveless marriage” than for the parents to divorce so they can be happy (that would be the parents not the kids). I can testify that this is utterly false. My parents had a loveless marriage. I knew I was the glue. That was ok; I also knew that they loved me enough to stay together. Though I didn’t agree with how they had just given up on being able to enjoy a good marriage, (which I think drove me to want the best from my own marriage), but they showed me that marriage was worth the commitment, if at least for my sake. Kids need that security and they need that example. Everything,
everything else in this world says it is all about us, our happiness, and if it doesn’t work the way we think it should it is disposable. If marriage is truly to be a reflection of the relationship of Christ to His church, what message does that send to our children about God’s faithfulness? One that is false, because God is always faithful, but they will adopt it nonetheless.

Finally, we all must accept that, ultimately, it is not about us! We like to make it so, I do too, and things seem much more enjoyable to me when it all goes my way, but that is another great American falsehood. It is not about us. It is about the Lord. It is about our covenant before God that should be taken very seriously. “Until death do us part,” should not be merely mouthed with ceremonial emptiness. You have stood before God and man and made a vow and that must be honored, even defended, at all costs. “For better or for worse,” really needs to mean just that. We all want to highlight the “better” part and forget we ever said “or worse.”

I recently heard something that actually spurred this article into existence. I have been thinking about it a lot. You have heard people say something like, “couples that pray together, stay together.” Sounds like a nice little quip, but is actually a doctrinally skewed statement. First off, it is a way of saying that God is obligated to us in some way (i.e. making us happy so we want to stay together) because we have fulfilled our obligation to pray. This is a “works” mentality at best and the prosperity gospel at worst (or maybe the former is worse than the latter, I can’t say for sure!).

Rather, I Peter 3:7 says that we are to be “heirs together of the grace of life, that our prayers may not be hindered.” This effectively states that we should have a marriage full of love and grace (a.k.a. committed and gracious toward one another) so that our prayers our heard by the Father. That pretty much turns the other notion on its head. Now that is something to ponder!

It just isn’t about us. It is about glorifying God in all we do, particularly this commitment of marriage. That is a high calling, but one made possible by the Holy Spirit living in us and by the love of God abiding with us. We will all stand before Him one day and give an account; that is not something to take lightly. The fear of God is the beginning of wisdom. Apply His wisdom to your marriage and glorify Him by honoring your covenant.

I will leave you with two pieces of advice that our pastor gave to us during our wedding ceremony. They have made a lasting impression on both Billy and I and we have shared them with others many times. Simple but effective, I pray they will be a baby steps in the right direction, if you are struggling.

First, this may seem simple or even obvious but it is a quality often lost to familiarity: always be courteous. You should not be more polite to strangers and acquaintances than you are to each other. Use manners and be considerate. Men: open the door for your wife, treat her with gentleness, lead by serving, and consider her feelings in making decisions. Ladies: respect your husband, encourage his dreams, cook him good meals, do not manipulate with your emotions and try not to assault him with all 25,000 of your “daily word quota” when he walks in the door! Everyone: you can still say “please” and “thank you”, even “excuse me” when you make bodily noises!
Pardon me while I harp on the ladies for a minute…after all, I am female, so this goes as a reminder for me too! Another false quip that I have heard goes something like, “respect is not a right, it must be earned.” That may be true out in the business world but it is a hurtful position to claim in your marriage. You are to respect the position of your husband, the position that God chose for Him to have simply by marrying you…that, indeed, is the only qualification needed. You are commanded to respect your husband, and much like tithing, it should be done cheerfully, not through gritted teeth. I would highly recommend the book "Created to be His Helpmeet", by Debi Pearl (www.nogreaterjoy.org), for a well rounded study on being the wife God intends for you to be (and the natural byproduct of such obedience just happens to be a more fulfilling and blissful marriage! How ‘bout that!).

Sorry about the rabbit trail there…where was I?

Oh yes, marital advice from our ceremony! The other point that really struck us was this: My spouse can never make me mad. I may choose to get mad. However, if I can choose to be angry, I can also choose to be happy or thankful or whatever else that may be more constructive. We have practiced this and we have a great relationship because of it.

Lastly, the old adage that you have probably heard and—hopefully-- practiced is also a great habit: never go to bed angry! This is simply a restatement of Jesus’ instructions not to let the sun go down on our anger and it is the best way to walk in love and forgiveness toward each other, not letting the little things build up.

A good healthy relationship must be very intentional. I have heard it often stated that “marriage is a lot of work” but I honestly have never felt that it was so. If you focus on the Lord and on each other’s needs above your own, if you are not in competition with one another but want to consider the other as better than yourself, if you walk in forgiveness and learn to laugh together, the rest of life just happens around the peacefulness of your relationship. It will be a joy and blessing to your children as well as a wonderful legacy to leave them. Don’t be a statistic! Be salt, be light, be the exception to the rule and the couple that others turn to when they have problems. Honor your covenant and glorify God. Make Satan mad.

At the Intersection of Creation and Evolution: A Dream

The alliterating story below is based on a dream I had several years ago. Please contact me for permission to reproduce.

Darkness devours me.

I am enveloped in emptiness.

Are my eyes open or are they closed? I strain against this shroud of night and still see nothing.

What is this place?

An image illuminates in front of me. A large, leafy tree streaks past and vanishes.

It deserts me to the darkness again.

In a moment, more images appear. A rapid succession of snapshots and thoughts clamor before my eyes and mingle in my mind.

I see seedlings. Several supple shoots have emerged before me and then swiftly stream away.

“The first trees on earth were not seedlings”, my mind observes. “They were not created as small insignificant saplings.”

That thought is rapidly replaced with a vision of a man.

He’s maybe 30; he is muscular and needs to shave.

He fades away.

In his place I see an infant.

A tiny bundle of pink skin upon a soft blanket flickers briefly in my brain.

“Man was created with age,” is the next statement I hear. “Adam did not begin his life as a baby, he began as a grown man.”

The voice seems like my own.

The thoughts do not.

Reeling before me now is a blur of rivers, forests, mountains and even layers of the earth. It is like a movie rushing rapidly before my retina.

The soundtrack of this epic is proclaiming a peculiarly plain concept:

“The earth was created with age. Creation and evolution are not in total opposition. There is a reason that science finds the earth to be quite old: it was made that way.”

Thoughts continue to tumble through my mind; pictures parade before me. I listen in amazement to what seems to be puzzlingly profound and yet rather apparent all at once.

“Adam was created as an adult. Trees and plants were made fully grown.”

I suddenly feel quite certain that, if I were to chop down some of the trees that had been spoken into existence, I would find a range of rings running through their trunks.

“The earth was brought to life with age built into it… just like Adam. He did not begin life as an infant. The earth came into being with what it would need to sustain the life that was created. It was old when it was young. The world was
made with maturity; it was also produced with purpose.”

These thoughts are thrilling. Why had I not seen this before? It seems so simple. Obtusely obvious. Had others not observed this correlation? If they had, why wasn’t it being candidly conveyed?

In the span of thirty seconds I have been ravaged by a radical revelation. I feel the weight of its worth resting on me; it is tantamount to tangible.

I am neither a theologian nor am I a scientist. I don’t claim that the ethics of evolution are completely compatible with the Bible’s account of creation. But certainly Science can come concurrent to creation and affirm our faith with facts.

Of course, the Omnipotent Originator of the Universe is exceedingly elusive to what our mind could ever envision. Above what science could ever extensively elucidate.

Accordingly, creation is confounding too. Each diverse discovery deems it more marvelous to grasp. Many scientists have reluctantly relented to the theory of Intelligent Design.

That’s why, alongside those facts, we also need faith.

Lying inexplicably at the intersection of those two essential elements is an exceptional endowment: the intermittent insight of our dreams.