Thursday, March 12, 2015

Book Review: Mercy's Rain by Cindy Sproles

Violent holy men are the cockroaches hiding under the church's collective rug. No one wants to think about them, or talk about them, but every once in a while they scuttle out, usually without warning. The response of the church has been to shoo them back under the rug and hope no one notices. We are horrified and disgusted but no one wants to squash it-- think of the mess. The abuse of vulnerable women by powerful men isn't unique to Christianity, but it's uglier in Christianity, because we're called to so much more. It's the pain of this contradiction-- that something so profoundly soul-killing can happen in a faith that is meant to be soul-liberating-- that makes us want to look away.

Fortunately, authors like Cindy Sproles aren't afraid to take the long look. Her novel, Mercy's Rain, is by turns riveting, disturbing, and hopeful as Mercy Roller, a bitter survivor of horrific abuse from her preacher-father, comes to open herself to love and redemption. She's dogged not only by the things her father did to her but by the things she herself has done in anger. What she thinks will be a temporary refuge with a family of believers becomes much, much more.....a chance at a new life, at healing, and at love.

Mercy's Rain is a compelling book that I ended up reading all in one sitting. The plot, like the river at the center of the story, moves swiftly and rarely falters. The sharp contrast between the darkness of Mercy's birth-family and the love of the family who comes to care for her is well-drawn and effective. The tone is understandably heavy, but there are flashes of joy and even humor that will be a wonderful surprise to the reader. The characters-- including Mercy herself-- are well drawn and believable. Sproles takes great pains to bring human moments even to her villains. The Pastor may be a sadistic monster but there are moments in which he knows it, and even moments in which he struggles to become something else. He is by no means a sympathetic character, but we are not allowed to dismiss him as a mere caricature of evil. He is worse than that. He is the unrestrained and unbridled reflection of the depravity Scripture tells us exists within each of us, and that is more terrifying than any of his brutality.

The complex, bittersweet relationship between Mercy and her mother is a focus of much of the novel, allowing Mercy a way to work out the slow changes that are taking place in her heart. Her persistent work to replace hatred with love-- despite the frustration and failures she finds along the way--- is beautiful to behold. The romantic relationship between her and the “good” pastor, Samuel, is well done.

For the most part, Mercy's Rain succeeds at immersing us in its mountain-side struggle between good and evil. The reader does wonder, at times, why the Pastor's sadism did not sooner meet vengeance, but it is certainly plausible that a rural pastor could hold that level of sway over his congregation, even with the threat of hell-fire at his disposal. And the sort of evil that the Pastor wielded-- that shameful, secret, soul-destroying evil-- was not the kind people were willing to talk about, even to destroy it. The only real faltering, in this reader's opinion, comes at the end of the novel.

So, spoiler alert. Skip this next paragraph if you don't like to hear about plot points in advance.

At least one of the characters-- Maddie-- seems superfluous to the plot at that point of the story, existing only to give Mercy one more tragedy to mourn. Of all the deaths in the story-- and there are many-- I regretted Maddie's the most because it seemed like such a waste of her character. Maddie's injury and untimely end doesn't add anything to Mercy's journey but the reader's empathy is depleted at a crucial point.

The other distraction was that I felt the book would have been better had the two chapters been deleted. In my opinion, the book reached its true conclusion when Mercy decided there was room in her heart to love the baby she'd been given and the man who'd been waiting for her. At that moment in the story, her past was put to rest and her future was ready to begin. It's the book's natural ending. But we're given two more chapters, in which Mercy decides God is moving her away from her new family and her potential husband, only to change her mind in the last paragraph. Perhaps the author felt she needed some final crisis, but as there was not enough time left in the story for proper pacing, both the crisis and its resolution felt hurried. But even with that mis-step, the final moment when Mercy at last sees herself as worth loving, is a triumph that the reader cannot help but cheer.

Spoilers over.

Cindy Sproles has told a first-rate tale with Mercy's Rain. Even though its mountain setting may seem remote in time and space from our modern church culture, the theme is more than relevant. One doesn't need to look far to hear stories of women and men who have suffered under modern-day incarnations of The Pastor, and who've suffered again under the church's refusal to acknowledge the wrong done to them. Novels like this are one way to encourage them to speak out, to give them the sense that they are not alone. Like a hike through the author's beloved Appalachian mountains, this reader's journey through this book is at times arduous but the view at the end is beautiful.

You can purchase Mercy's Rain at the following links:
Family Christian

Or find out more about Cindy and her other books at her website

Monday, October 20, 2014

Busy Bee Skip Counting Worksheet

My daughter and I are learning skip counting in kindergarten and I wanted a cute-- and free-- visual aid to help us review. I used some adorable digital scrapbook paper from Kim Hill at A Cherry On Top. This page is from the free sample pack Buggy Afternoon.

To get buzzy counting with your little bee, you can download your own copy here.

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Why We Left Liberty Online Academy

Though you wouldn't know it from the dead silence on the blog, we've started a new adventure this fall-- schooling our girls at home. My husband and I made the decision this summer to enroll them in Liberty University Online Academy, an online private Christian school.

We chose this school for several reasons:
  • Full-service support: In the LUOA model, the school is responsible for lesson plans, grading, transcripts, record keeping, standardized testing, and accountability. Each child has their own teacher as well as an academic advisor. That kind of professional oversight and support was important to us.
  • A true online-model:  The learning experience designed by LUOA was intended to be a true online model. They use an online interface-- CANVAS-- and use multiple methods of interacting with the material, including external websites and learning games. This was important to us because other "online" academies-- such as ABEKA-- are little more than streaming video of a teacher talking for six hours a day. We wanted a format that made good use of the many possibilities of an online model. LUOA seemed to present that.
  •  Accreditation and statistical success: LUOA is accredited by several reputable accrediting bodies, including AdvanceEd and Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Council on Accreditation and School improvement. They have scored better than the national average on their standardized tests, and their graduates have been accepted by a number of state, private, and Christian universities. 
  • An affordable alternative to private Christian school: My husband and I have had a great experience with the private Christian school our daughter had previously attended.  However, a brick and mortar Christian school becomes more cost prohibitive as the number of children enrolled increases. As we have three daughters, we have decided to experiment with online school to see if it provides a cost-friendly alternative. We felt LUOA's tuition-- while more expensive than some online options-- was a reasonable middle ground.
  • Flexibility: We liked the idea of being able to send our girls to a Christian school that was not tied to particular geographical location. An online Christian school offers the girls educational consistency no matter where we may live over the course of their education.
So far, so good.

My biggest concern, as we enrolled the girls, was that I had not been able to see the curriculum. We were not allowed to see any significant amount of the material prior to their first day of class. We chose to enroll them despite those concerns due to the statistical success of the program and due to Liberty University's reputation as a quality online college. We had no reason to think that their Academy would be of inferior quality.

Unfortunately, the curriculum was a disappointment, most specifically in the case of my third grader.
  • The formatting was unprofessional. The material was prone to typos and other easily-fixed errors. 
  • The material for each subject was poorly written, vague, and even inaccurate at times. 
  • The test material was also frequently vague and error-prone, sometimes asking my daughter for information that was nowhere in the lesson material. 
  • The lessons-- especially in math-- lacked a solid structure. During our first two weeks of school, my daughter did surprisingly few math problems and there was no systematic review of second-grade concepts. This is problematic in a subject like math, where retention and review are important.
  •  The lessons-- again, particularly in math--  relied heavily on free materials, such as YouTube videos or website games,  for the main teaching component. Some of those materials were very poor quality. 
    • This was particularly disappointing, as we did not expect a tuition-based curriculum to use free materials for a significant portion  of the lesson. I would consider it appropriate to use free materials as supplementary or enrichment items. If LUOA was intended to be an open-source school, then I would also have no problem if they used free resources as core material. But it is different when parents are paying tuition.
Both my daughter and I felt that we were fighting the material rather than learning from it. Most of the time I would teach her, in my own words, the concept that the lesson was trying to teach. After two weeks of this frustration, I decided to do some research.

What our research revealed is that LUOA had discard their previous curriculum and created their own. Until late spring/early summer, they had used Alpha Omega's online curriculum. This fall was the launch of their new curriculum. That meant that all of the data-- the standardized test scores and college entry results-- were based on a totally different curriculum than the one we had been given. It also meant that LUOA's accreditation was based on a different curriculum. 

We chose to withdraw our daughters and enroll them in Alpha Omega's online academy. This is a statistically proven, accredited curriculum. Alpha Omega's online school offers many of the same benefits as Liberty Academy. My third grader will use an exclusively online curriculum and my K5 daughter will use a print-based curriculum that is still under the umbrella of the Academy. This includes teacher-led classes, parent accountability and support, grading, and record keeping.

As parents, we know there is no perfect school-- be it brick and mortar or digits and databytes. There isn't a one-size-fits-everyone education. However, we have chosen to share our experience with Liberty so that parents who are considering this option may be fully informed. The time and money parents invest into their child's education is valuable.

Note: This review speaks only to Liberty University Online Academy. I have no experience with Liberty University itself or Liberty University Online. I have several friends who have gone through the university-- both on campus and online-- with a very good experience. Quality concerns with the Academy do not indicate that the University's programs are inferior.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

If You're Looking For Me (Five Things I'd Say If I Were Single)

Maybe it's post-Valentine buzz but I hear my unmarried friends talking a lot about their singleness right now. Whether male or female, they all agree that it's hard. Often lonely. They can feel overlooked or over-advised by church couples. They feel judged. It's left me wondering what, if anything, do I have to say? What does a married mama of three have to say about singleness? 
Well, writers like what-if questions. And if things were different, if I was a single woman in today's church, what would I want my future husband to know as he looked for me?

  • Don't look for me if you aren't ready for me.
    • Marriage is for men, not boys. Don't try to win my heart if you aren't able to provide a secure life for me and our future children. I don't need a high-end lifestyle to be happy but I do need to know that you'll provide for our household needs (not wants, our needs) no matter what. Even if it means a stable but unglamorous job. If you've spent most of your twenties at home with your parents spending money on expensive tech-toys then you may not be ready for the slow, daily sacrifice that marriage requires of a husband. Don't look for me until you can shoulder that weight.
  • Look for me with honor
    • Remember that if I am not your future wife then I may be someone else's. Even if I were never to marry anyone, I would still be your sister in the Lord. Treat my body and my heart with respect and don't defraud me by making promises-- romantically or physically-- that are not yours to make outside of marriage. Don't treat me as if I am yours until I truly am, and don't make me be the one to draw the boundaries. The burden of restraint before marriage falls most heavily on you but it comes with a great reward of freedom after marriage....not just physical freedom but freedom from the guilt, shame, and mistrust that playing at marriage brings couples.
  • Look for me with courage
    • Okay, so I can only imagine how hard it is to talk to me, especially if I seem different from you. I may not look like what you imagined. I may not dress like what you expected. I can only imagine how hard it is to make yourself vulnerable and reveal who you are when you know that I could reject you. But remember, Christ blazed that trail for you. He made himself weak and revealed Himself knowing that there would be those who rejected him. It was hard and it cost him everything but He won His bride. Remember, I'm scared too. I am vulnerable in my waiting just as you are in your searching. So be brave. Step outside your comfort zone and step outside your perfect-wife checklist and ask me for coffee.
  • I won't complete you because you are already complete in Christ.
    • That's true for both of us. If you are looking for me-- or if I am looking for you-- because I think that a relationship is what I need to be happy and complete, then we are setting ourselves up for bitter failure. We both need Christ to be happy and complete, and if we are both secure in that identity, then we can pursue a relationship as a way to reflect His love not as another way to feed our idolatry.
  • I want you to run into me as you are chasing God.
    • While the pursuit of a wife is a good thing, I don't want you to find me because you've devoted your entire life to the search. I want you to be consumed by God's passion first. I want you to be running hard after His calling on your life, consumed by His glory and His joy. Chase Him first. Then when you run into me, you'll know where to lead us.

I didn't think about all of those things when I was single or even when I was courting my husband. Yes, we were intentional and we sought the Lord but I also thought marriage would do things for me that it has not. That it could not. Maybe that's what a semi-old married lady can say to my single brothers and sisters-- that even after you find the one whom your heart desires, realize that what you need most as Christian isn't a mate. It is Christ. Start your desire in Him-- in the only place that any of us can find fulfillment-- and you will find always-increasing, ever-growing satisfaction. Whether or not it comes with a ring.

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Midwinter Graces

Midwinter does things to my sense of hope.

The grass in my yard is dead, the earth by the sidewalk turned to cold sludge-- something the ground spits at my boots out of sheer malice. The oak tree across the road is nothing but branch-bones. Even the noon sunlight is tentative and half-hearted.

Of course I fight back-- I put soup in the crockpot and wear fuzzy socks. I dig out extra blankets and light nutmeg candles. I play music that puts dancing in my feet while I wash the dishes, but at the corner of the kitchen window, bruise-black winter night creeps up pane by pane. Something in my soul rolls over to hibernate, to burrow deep and forget things like wonder and joy and beauty that seem more fitted to spring.

Maybe I'm not the only one. Maybe you're tired too.
What I want to say to both of us is don't go numb. Don't sleep it off. Watch the sky darken and wait. Winter, with its slush and mud and cold fingers and dampened hearts, is really a promise. You, and I, and creation itself are living out this dead time, knowing that beneath the ugly ground are green and growing things. When He calls the earth to awaken, the sun on our windows will shine strong. Rain will soften and warm even the dirt in my yard. The azaleas by the bedroom window will bloom.

It works the same way when it's midwinter in your soul.
Sometimes you look at your heart and see a dirty field, icy and hard from whatever freeze has entered your life. Or you see a hateful muck of sin that clings thick and soils everything. Even His light seems to fall slant on your soul, thin against swift-falling darkness. You chase grace by whatever means you can. You gather to worship Him. You warm yourself over His Word like hands over fire. You pray for thaw. You may even sing, sending up praise like a tiny sparrow headlong into winter wind, but the cold spell stretches on and the ache won't quit. Like wind howling around house corners, a bleak and insistent voice tells you to just stop seeking Him. Curl up and forget. Make do.

You are His. He won't leave you frozen and mired.
Yes, in sovereign love He sends His own into winter, but He plants His fruit even in the seeming dead times. Some seeds need the cold before they can germinate. Some works of grace come alive only after barrenness has driven us to yet another end of ourselves. To an even fuller understanding that He is our new beginning. He is our spring. When he calls our souls to be green and growing again, we will be amazed at what He has planted, what He was working in us all the time.

Our hearts will soften. Our souls will warm. We will lift up our heads in joy and bloom.

Saturday, November 2, 2013

A Garden Fairytale

We first saw the movie Epic this summer and the girls instantly had their Halloween costumes. My oldest fell in love with the flower queen's gown, my fierce middle girl wanted to be a leaf warrior, and tiny girl didn't so much care as long as she got candy. 

I said yes.
And then wondered what I'd agreed to. Armor....petaled ballgowns....oh my.

But after the glue gun blisters healed and the last stitch was sewn, I had to admit I really loved their ideas for this year. I think they are my favorite costumes so far.

Queen Tara and her lovely gown

The skirt is a ballgown-length circle skirt and train made of a thrifted sheet and a roll of white satin. 

The satin I found at a garage sale over a year ago and couldn't think of a use for it until now. I cut semi-circular panels for the petals and glued them in place (since it was the day before Halloween and I had no time for hand sewing). 

The shirt is a little-girl version of Queen Tara's top, essentially a green knit tshirt with more satin petals. She can wear it through the rest of the winter as a pajama top. The skirt will go into the dress up box. 

My middle girl wanted to be a Leaf Woman, which is a warrior of this sort: 

The leaf warrior costume was an adventure for me because I had never made  armor before. I did a faux-leather corset breastplate for my fierce girl last Halloween but that was it. The first thing I made was a duct tape dress form of my girl's top half so I could more easily model the armor. It made the whole process a lot easier and I'll be keeping the form for future projects.

After I had a paper pattern, I cut it into foam plates, I painted them with two different greens to get the exact color I wanted. The embellishment is a gold Sharpie. To mold the curves for the arm and leg pieces, I held the foam over a burner until it was pliable then molded it around the dress form. Once it cooled, it kept its shape. Who knew?

  The tunic and leggings are green panne velvet and will be great for pajamas this fall (though they may end up as play clothes because she doesn't want to take them off). It was hard to get a picture of her because she could barely stand still....too many villains to battle.

The movie features a talking snail and slug-- Mub and Grub. 

They're cute but not what I wanted for Piper. Since the movie is filled with other garden and flower people, I decided that she'd be a rainbow snail girl. 

 Her shirt and leggings are brown panne velvet. The snail shell is brown corduroy and the spiral dots are made from rainbow batik (which I've been dying to use)

The shell is also a fully functional backpack so we can use it for other things later. She does love her "pack packs" as she calls them.


 Last year she was too young to really understand much about trick or treating but this year she's ready to go. Is there some sort of fairy charm to keep your baby from growing up? Probably not.

Happy Halloween!

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Tea Parlor Easter Dresses

I fell in love with some tie-dyed chiffon georgette at the fabric store this year and fully intended to use it in the Easter dresses. I envisioned classy, sophisticated little outfits that were a) not peasant dresses and b) without ruffles. But I was nursing the baby to sleep one right and I realized how fast my girls were growing up. I thought back to my best-loved Easter dresses and realized the ones I remembered most fondly were not sophisticated. They were huge, poofy, and ruffled. They used pastel floral prints. As a girl I felt they were magical.
My daughters had to have dresses like that at least once before they were too old to feel the same magic. And of course I decided all this barely a week before Easter.

I decided not to make an exact replica of my childhood replica but to take elements that I loved and include them in a more modern pattern. I also chose to make each of my three daughters their own special dress but keep their look unified by using the same type of colors, prints, and shapes. I went for tea-room inspired fabrics and color stories-- mint green, pinks and blues, lavender and white. After browsing Etsy for a shape that reminded me of my much-loved Easter dresses, I found this adorable pattern from FooFoo Threads. It is called the Sugarplum Princess and it features two layered skirts and eight very generous ruffles. I liked the smooth front and shirred back, combined with the easy peasant-style sleeves. My oldest, however, wanted a more moderate number of ruffles so she chose the Josephine dress. Which only had two ruffles. (Is this what Peter felt when he heard that it was Wendy's last night in the nursery?)

I found the patterns easy to follow and love the look of the bodice. One word of caution: they fit close. I would recommend sizing up if you have babies with a bit of tummy. My baby girl has a bit of a belly and she fit the size 3 pattern. My three year old was most comfortable in the size 4.

So, enough talking. Pictures are more fun. Unfortunately my battery died right at the start of my oldest daughter's photo shoot so these are just of the little girls. But there's definitely still plenty of ruffles and girliness to go around.

Ta da!

 Baby girl's dress was by far the most elaborate. It was worth all the gathering to watch her bounce around in the dress. She was clearly loving it.

 The focal print was an awesome mix of damask and large roses that looked exactly like it could have come off the dresses I wore as a girl. I didn't think I was a lavender fan until this fabric....I love the way the coral roses and the darker purple flowers contrast the delicate background color.

I was very careful in my choice of complementary prints. I wanted to stay in the purple family but didn't want the dress to be too busy (I know, strange thing to say of a dress like this that seems to have everything but the kitchen sink). I chose a lavender paisley, a purple and white stripe, and a white-on-white embossed floral fabric for the ruffles and belt. Pretty and sweet but muted enough not to compete with the main floral fabric. 


And the best part of the dress is that she can still run, which would have come in handy at the Easter egg hunt.....had it not been rained out. I'm so happy that I at least have one lady who is too little protest her mommy's love of ruffles. (Though after this dress, I was done with gathering. For a day or so.)

 My middle daughter's dress was the last one I made and I finished it at midnight the night before Easter. I knew when I sat down to start sewing that I didn't have time (or sanity) left to pull off a mess of ruffles so I went in a different direction. 

I'd been hoarding a fat quarter bundle of vintage rose themed prints for almost two years. I never found just the right use for them....until this dress. I chose all the blues, pinks, and reds and cut them into twenty eight long strips, which I sewed together to make the skirt. 

(Yes. It needs pressing. I do promise you though that it was ironed for Easter).
I used some lining and blue broadcloth to make a simple underskirt with a barely peekaboo ruffle. I made the bodice out of the same blue and kept it very simple so that the skirt could be the star.

Once again, I love the shape of the back and sleeves, especially with the shirring. 

She could barely keep from spinning long enough for me to take the picture. 
I bribed her by letting her pick some azaleas, which are usually off limits (lest they be stripped to bark within a day).

....but in the end I caved. A special dress must be spun. 

It was an absolute joy to sew these special dresses for my special girls. 
I loved the opportunity to use cotton fabrics and quilting techniques-- stripwork and mixing prints-- in a special occasion dress. This will definitely be something they can wear again to church. 

 I've sewed my girls special things for wedding parties, birthdays, and Christmas portraits but hands down Easter is my favorite occasion. These dresses, with their tea-parlor charm and ruffles and lovely prints, make me happy every time I look at them. Thanks again to Project Run and Play for suggesting this theme. I can't wait to see what everyone has created.