New Skill: Making Music to My Ears

When I was a senior in college, I took "Group Piano for Beginners." (Along with my twice-per-week volleyball class, and taking "Old Testament", it was probably my easiest quarter at Furman University). I was anticipating being semi-proficient in piano by the end of the 8-week term.

I practiced almost every day, probably not as much as I should have, but I did practice. Nonetheless, I could not convince my hands to do two different things at the same time.

When we had class, the teacher would call on students to show their skills. Only a couple of weeks into class, she realized that she could only call on me for the simplest examples. Needless to say, my hopeful outlook for piano proficiency was crushed.

Piano: Strike 1.

The next year, I wanted to try to learn the harmonica. I asked for (and received) a couple of them as gifts, plus some instruction books. I practiced a total of about 20 minutes. Honestly, I thought it would be like a recorder, or a kazoo.

Harmonica: Strike 2.

Third Time's the Charm? 

As you may remember, my goal in 2014 is to learn new skills by committing 20 hours over 2 months. I have had a great time re-learning Spanish (see below for more on this), and for March and April, I will try to learn to play another instrument: the ukulele.

Thanks to a helpful salesman at the Guitar Center in Greenville, SC, I got a good deal on a decent (not the worst, not the top-line) ukulele, plus a case, instruction book, etc. I'm ready to get started!

Why Learn an Instrument?

There are many reasons to learn an instrument. (Of course, the most dramatic effects come when you train on an instrument as a child, but better late than never!). Here are a few benefits of music training: 

But I'm not doing it for these reasons. I'm just doing it for the sheer pleasure of it. Not the pleasure of music, since I don't listen to music very much (90% of the time when I'm alone in my car, the radio is off).

I'm talking about the pleasure of dedicating myself to a goal, and accomplishing something. I want to give it an honest go this time, not just a half-hearted effort I gave with piano, and a 1%-hearted effort I gave to the harmonica.

How good will I become in just 8 weeks (and 20 hours of training)? Not great, I'm sure. But I have to remember that it's about the process, not the goal.

And I'm inspired by the Portsmouth Sinfonia, and group of untrained but eager musicians.

If a group like this reforms (they stopped performing after 9 years because they got too good), maybe they could use my ukulele skills!


As you may remember, our family started learning Spanish (or for me, "re-learning") this year. It has been fun for our entire family, especially as we incorporate occassional words, phrases, and sentences in our everyday life.

Because of the pace at which I've been going (30 minutes a day, 5 days per week) and that I began in December, I'm already 70% done with the material for Year 1. I will keep going with my Spanish training for the rest of 2014, but at a slower pace.

In both these new skills -- Spanish and music -- please wish me "Buena suerte!"

How about you? Are you learning any new skills this year?

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Is There a Good Devotional Book for a 5th Grader?

A few months ago, I got a question from a friend, who is a small group leader (in church) to a group of boys:
"Do you of a good devotional or book for a 5th grade boy? His parents say he is a rule follower who has recently committed himself to Christ, but they want something that will point his eyes up to who God is -- what He has done for us, and how He works through us, rather than something that focuses on our behavior." 

I told him that I don't know of any good books that a boy this age could read on his own, and come to this understanding himself. At this age, the child is still in a phase where the parents must teach, lead, explain, and point to Jesus.

Another thing is that I'm not a huge fan of most devotionals and children's storybook Bibles. I find most of them (especially youth devotions) to be weak in theology, and they tend to focus on works, instead of on abiding in Christ and trusting in the gospel.

I do know of some great resources (for example, the Jesus Storybook Bible and curriculum from The Gospel Project), but not anything that a 10 year old could read, and say, "Oh. Now I get it!"

Even my favorite Bible storybook (especially for young boys), The Action Bible, doesn't so much point to the sufficiency of Christ, as it captivates young minds with lots of action in God's word. Other good resources that can help a child grow in his or her faith (though not specifically point him to the gospel) are:

If there is one parenting resource I would recommend above all others, it is Big Truths for Young Hearts. But again, it is something that the parents must read and explain to their kids, in about 10-minute segments. I've written about this book before:

But the biggest piece of advice I have for all parents who are concerned about this issue is, "Don't stress out." Like me, many Christian parents think, "I want better teaching for my children than I had as a child. So, I have to get this perfect."

We need to remember that discipleship is a long-term process. It's not one book or one conversation, but a string of conversations and activity that will help our children trust in Jesus. As I wrote in Don't Be a Seasonal Christian Parent, the tools we use to disciple our children are not nearly as important of just doing something, and continually teaching and training them in the Lord (Ephesians 6:4).

Of course, I may be missing some good resources. Would you please let me know if you know of any books or devotionals that a 5th grade boy could read on his own, to point him to Jesus?

Thanks for your help!

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[Book Review] Preparing for Adolescence

Since late last year, my daughter and I have been working through the book Preparing for Adolescence, and it's accompanying workbook, by Dr. James Dobson. The best part of this process has not been the material itself, though it does have its positive points. What I especially have appreciated is how it has helped my daughter and I to grow closer together.

Each week (give or take) she reads a specific section of the book (I have already read the whole thing). Then, we discuss and work through a few activities in her workbook. These regular, pre-bedtime discussions have deepened and strengthened our relationship. For that, I am thankful.

That's not to say that I agree with (or even discussed with her) all of the material. But most of the teaching has been solid and helpful. Here is a summary of what I like and don't like about this book.

Prepare to Be Equipped   

First, I'm glad that most of these discussions on puberty, relationships, and sex have been pro-active conversations. Even the section about peer pressure is less applicable (for now) to Hannah than to other girls her age, since she is homeschooled. But we talked about needing to think through situations before she is in them. As with this parenting series about sexuality, I find that most of the material is above her age. But I'd rather err on the side of being the first to talk with her, rather than us playing catch up.

As explained in the following video, a snippet of a sermon from Grace Church, we parents need to be the first to discuss sexuality with our children:

The discussion on love in Chapter 4 is mostly good (see below for an exception), as Dobson explains the difference between genuine love and short-lived infatuation. We also found the chapter on emotions to be informative and helpful.

The book concludes with a transcript from an open discussion with a few teenagers (Chapter 6). I wish I had material like this when I was a pre-teen and teenager. This chapter will help an adolescent understand that he or she is not alone in any of their struggles.

Prepare to Be Disappointed

While I liked the book as a whole, there were some parts that I strongly disagreed with. For example, while I think that the overall discussion on love was good, I don't understand why Dr. Dobson talked so much about teenage marriage. Maybe it's a bigger issue than I realized or have encountered in my context. Do you think that this is a big issue today?

Another topic that I disagreed with (and I skipped this section with my daughter) was about the issue of masturbation. According to Dr. Dobson, masturbation is OK because God doesn't want us to feel guilty. While I think there has been bad teaching in the church on this topic (especially the wrong application of Genesis 38:8-10), this reasoning of "Don't feel guilty" can be dangerous. For example, can I say, "God doesn't want me to feel guilty about using drugs, so it's OK for me to use them?"

Probably the biggest recurring issue I have with this book is the lack of emphasis to trust in Jesus for our struggles. Yes, this encouragement is given once or twice, but I think it needs to be more of a primary focus for teenagers, and for everyone.

For example, in Chapter 1 ("The Secret of Self-Esteem"), Dobson encourages the reader to develop a skill as a way to overcome low self-esteem. While skills can build confidence, the problem is that this leads us to make skills our idol and hope. We need our hope to be in Jesus, not in doing things well.

This idea resurfaces in Chapter 5 ("A Notion Called Emotion"). Again, Dobson encourages the reader to find skills and interests that he or she can enjoy. That's fine, but before that is done, I would encourage a young person to know that his or her identity is in Jesus.

Recommended, With Reservations

As I already said, the best part of this resource is just having material to go through. This book has been a great tool to connect on a deeper level with my child. What we do as parents -- the methods we use -- is not nearly as important as just doing something to lead. We need to continually reach out to engage. Whatever good you are doing as a Christian parent, don't stop.

That being said, I recommend this book, with reservations. While it has its shortcomings, I need to remember that it is my role as a parent to adjust tools like this to the individuality of each of my children. I plan to use Preparing for Adolescence (and buy another copy of the workbook) for my son Elijah in a couple of years, and then my son Sender years after that.

And the next step for my daughter? I have already ordered Passport2Purity. My wife and I will listen to that series, and then come up with a plan to incorporate this resource in the discipleship of our children.

Want to learn more? Here are some other helpful resources to equip you as parents to discuss sexuality with your children:

No Regrets in Parenting and Marriage

Last fall, Tim Challies and his wife wrote a series of articles called "18 Things I Will Not Regret Doing With My _______." There were three articles, that filled in that blank with:
  • Kids 
  • Wife 
  • Husband

I read them when he wrote them (if you read blogs on theology and the church, you should subscribe to his blog), and I recently re-read them. Those posts will challenge, inspire, and encourage you.

Here are the top ways that I agree with him on what I won't regret doing with my kids:
#1 Praying with them for them. Like Challies, I struggle with this, but it's something I know I need to do, and I never regret when I do it.
#5 Taking them out for breakfast. A suggestion from a long-time mentor, I've done this with each of my kids monthly (sometimes it's lunch or dinner) since my oldest was 8 months old.
#9 Doing special things. Though I am often hesitant to break out of my routine, I have never regretted doing something out of the ordinary with my kids.
#17 Pointing to the gospel. The most important thing I can do for them. I do this best in pro-active Bible instruction and conversations, and re-actively in corrective discipline.
#18 Telling them "I love you".  They can't hear this enough from me.

And here are the top things that I won't regret doing with my wife:
#1 Praying with her. Again, a big struggle for me, but I never regret doing it.
#3 Serving with her. She is my perfect complement in ministry.
#14 Delighting in her. I am constantly amazed that God has blessed me with such a great wife.
#17 Getting away with her. Another suggestion from the same long-time mentor I mentioned above, we've been able to do this every year of our marriage, except a couple.
#18 Saying "I love you". And I mean it every time.

I can't answer what my wife doesn't regret. But here are the things that I'm glad my wife has done for me
#4 Freeing me to serve. As much as we love to serve together, there are some things that we need to do separately (like my blogging). She gives me space to do this.
#5 Kissing me goodnight. We go to bed at the same time, and like to read until we drift off. But before that, she never neglects to give me a goodnight kiss.
#8 Laughing. I love how much fun we have together, especially re-telling funny moments in our life together.
#13 Following my lead. Not that she just "gives in" and let's me do whatever (ahem . . . I once wanted to sell my car and just use a bike to get around). But when I come up with "crazy" ideas (me: "We need to go to Disney World." Joanna: "Can we afford it?" me: "No. But I'll find a way."), she is willing to trust me.
#15 Greeting me. This goes for when I come home from work, or when she greets me after she wakes up (I'm usually awake for an hour or more before she gets up).

What about you? Is there anything you will never regret doing with your spouse or children? Let me know in the comments.

10 Verses for My 10 Year Old Son

Last December, Elijah (my older son) turned 10. One of the gifts I gave him was this list of 10 Bible verses that can guide him and help him be properly oriented to life, based on where I think he is now spiritually.

Romans 5:8 
But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us. 

II Corinthians 5:17 
Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come. 

Psalm 119:11 
I have stored up your word in my heart, that I might not sin against you. 

Proverbs 16:18
Pride goes before destruction, And a haughty spirit before stumbling. 

Philippians 2:3
Do nothing from selfishness or empty conceit, but with humility of mind regard one another as more important than yourselves.

I Thessalonians 5:17 
Pray without ceasing. 

Proverbs 4:23 
Above all else, guard your heart, for everything you do flows from it. 

Colossians 3:17 
Whatever you do in word or deed, do all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks through Him to God the Father. 

Colossians 3:23 
Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for human masters. 

II Chronicles 18:13 
"As the LORD lives, what my God says, that I will speak."

Perhaps these words can be an encouragement to you, and perhaps you can pass on some important verses to your children.

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**image courtesy of ba1969 via

How Would You Define a Perfect Parent?

If I asked you to give a definition of a perfect parent, what would you say? You might give such characteristics as:
  • Makes sure your family has dinner together at least 5 times a week. 
  • Has children in church every week. 
  • Provides children with necessities, such as clothing and food. 
  • Loves Jesus more than anything.
  • Gives children opportunities and experiences through extracurricular activities. 
  • Protects children from dangers. 
  • Defining (or eliminating) specific roles in the family.
  • Helps children with schoolwork.
  • etc. 

There has to be a better definition than these details. Maybe we can only look ahead and see the results, and then work backwards.

Before my wife and I had children, and when our kids were young, we were blessed to be around families that had older children. We saw behaviors and attitudes in those children that we wanted our own kids to have, so we sought wisdom from those parents. Though we never phrased it this way, we were often looking for a formula for parenting success.

But is there an example of a perfect parent? Of course! Without sounding cliche, can we agree that our heavenly Father is a perfect parent? (OK, that does sound cliche. Sorry.)

Our God is a perfect protector (John 10:27-29), provider (Psalm 23:1), teacher (John 14:26), and more. But let's see how that turned out for Israel, in Hosea 11:1-7:
1 When Israel was a youth I loved him, 
  And out of Egypt I called My son.  
2 The more they called them, 
  The more they went from them; 
  They kept sacrificing to the Baals 
  And burning incense to idols
3 Yet it is I who taught Ephraim to walk
  I took them in My arms
  But they did not know that I healed them.  
4 I led them with cords of a man, with bonds of love
  And I became to them as one who lifts the yoke from their jaws
  And I bent down and fed them.  
5 They will not return to the land of Egypt
  But Assyria - he will be their king  
  Because they refused to return to Me. 
6 The sword will whirl against their cities
  And will demolish their gate bars 
  And consume them because of their counsels.  
7 So My people are bent on turning from Me. 
  Though they call them to the One on high,  
  None at all exalts Him.  

How did Israel respond to God's perfect parenting? They completely rejected Him! For all that the Lord did to show them love, they refused to trust in and exalt Him. Isaiah 1:4 says that Israel abandoned and despised the LORD.

If God, who is a perfect Father, has rebellious children, then I don't need to expect to get perfect results in how I parent.

Even if your children despise and turn away from you (and most of us will not experience this, but many of us will), know that you are not alone. Your heavenly Father experienced the same.

So, however we define "perfect parenting," let's make sure that we don't define it solely by results. Our children are broken sinners, in need of grace. And so are we as parents.  

I'd love to hear your thoughts in the comments: How would you define a perfect parent?

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**image courtesy of Library of Congress via flickr

Don't Raise Good Kids

I know that none of us would say that we have perfect kids. But a lot of us would say that our kids are "pretty good." If this is you, please listen to this caution from Jon Bloom: Don't Raise Good Kids.

First, his personal experience growing up as a "good kid":
"Though I believe my pre-adolescent conversion was real — God is gracious to produce and honor a small seed of real faith — it was hard to swallow that I was that bad. God showing favor on me in redemption made sense because others had shown favor on me. 

But it was hard for me to see that this favor was not the approval of a good kid but the pardoning of a condemned sinner. Really? Me deserve hell?

It took quite a while — I am, in fact, still recovering — to see that in reality I was (am) profoundly depraved. Much of my outward good behavior was fueled by evil, selfish motives. Underneath my good-kid veneer was a glory-stealing, envious, covetous, idolatrous, lecherous person."

He concludes with a directive to parents:
"Make sure you have a firm grip on the true doctrine of total depravity so that you don’t encourage evil goodness in your children. For apart from Jesus, nothing good dwells in them (Romans 7:18)."

Be sure to read the full article.

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**image courtesy of planetka via

10-Year Time Capsules

Here's a neat little project our family. We have created time capsules that we will seal up for about 10 years (we plan to open them around December of 2023). In each "capsule" (we used photograph boxes), we put items that mean a lot to us now. It may be a small sacrifice now, but when we open the boxes in a decade, I think the joy will be that much greater.

In each box, we each wrote a list of goals or things that we want to see happen in the next 10 years. Of course, we have more short-term goals and plans. (I myself am an especially-nerdy planning addict.) It's not that these lists will be rigid, but it's fun to imagine what the future will be like.

We won't bury these boxes, especially considering that we've lived in 3 different homes in less than 10 years, and we'll be moving again this summer. We will just seal them up and store them away.

Here's a list of what it is each of our time capsules:

Hannah, Age 12

Box Contents (this is only a partial list; her box is pretty stuffed! Just like her brain.):
  • Thimble from Folly Beach (she collects thimbles)
  • Art sketchbook
  • List of her hobbies and favorite things
  • Name badge from iTEAMS summer camp
  • Toy football caught at an Allendale-Fairfax football game
  • Stuffed animal and toy doll
  • Miscellaneous artwork

Ten-Year Goals:
  • Be in college [she loves SCAD]
  • Have a driver's license and car
  • Visit Europe 
  • Have a bird or a cat as a pet 
  • Take another ballet class, and/or learn to play piano
  • Have a job 
  • Learn French 

Elijah, Age 10

Box Contents:  
  • Spirit towel from his USC Gamecocks football game
  • Autographed mini-football from an Allendale-Fairfax football game 
  • Magic wand (he loves magic tricks) 
  • LEGO minifigure and LEGO Nanoblock set
  • Other artwork and toys

Ten-Year Goals: 
  • Have a driver's license and a vehicle 
  • Be in college, hopefully to study engineering or architecture 
  • Have a job  
  • Travel to at least 25 states in the US 
  • To sight-see on one other continent besides North America

Sender, Age7

Box Contents:
  • Spirit towel from his USC Gamecocks football game
  • Trophy from playing baseball through Allendale County Recreation 
  • LEGO minifigure, and a Batman action figure
  • A pencil and stickers
  • A tail he cut off from a plastic toy scorpion
  • A letter he wrote to his future self 

Ten-Year Goals:  
  • Get a car [no mention of driver's license, but we'll let that pass]
  • Have a job
  • Have a pet monkey [originally, it was to have a dog]
  • Visit Texas
  • Play baseball in high school  
  • Go to college [a couple of years too early, but we'll let this pass, too]

Joanna and I (Ages Undisclosed)

Box Contents (we combined our capsule):
  • An article about us in The Allendale Sun (written about here)
  • Some other articles about camps and programs we've been involved with in Allendale 
  • Some encouraging notes we've gotten over the past 3 years
  • One of my hats from coaching football at Allendale-Fairfax High School  
  • A business card that I've used for the past couple of years, which highlights our other blog and our Elevate Ministries brand  
  • My Allendale County Schools name badge, from when I used to work part-time for the district   
  • My first smart phone (which I got 2 days before I started working here)
  • [that's all we have for now; we need to work on this, don't we?]

Ten-Year Goals (also combined):
  • Happily married for 24 years!  
  • Kids are passionately following Jesus
  • Kids are successful in school, relationships, and are working  
  • Adopt a child  
  • Joanna to be working outside the home  
  • Pay cash for our next family vehicle (like another minivan)  
  • Have $300,000 saved for retirement (I think we're almost half-way there)

Would you care to join us in this project? I'm sure it will be a wonderful memory-building time for your family.

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Favorite Tweets from January

I hope your year is off to delicious start.

I am energized by having laid out year-long goals (such as by learning Spanish), plus putting to paper some shorter-term milestones.

Enjoy the following food for thought . . . .

From Others:

@Lee Buford Random acts of grace are great, but plan on filling up 2014 with plenty of intentional ones (via )

@AnonBaptistPeople ask why I act so goofy. My answer: I'm entertaining angels.

@PaulTripp Corporate worship is meant to enable you to examine everything in your life through the lens of the gospel of The Lord Jesus Christ. 

@BraveReviews Review by : The In-Between by | The Brave Reviews

@JonAcuff“Giving feedback on a dream isn’t the same thing as attacking a dream.” -

@McMorgan1Grace means I don't have to try to be good enough, smart enough, or successful enough anymore. I can rest easy knowing He's taken care of it

@NMylander93:  "I believe in Christianity as I believe the sun has risen, not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else" -C.S. Lewis 

@BGuralSC:  "I feel like I never felt the pain of unbelief until I started to believe." -Christian Wiman

@MichaelStrahan:  Me too! Haha RT : “: Richard Sherman

From Me:

My goals for this year involved learning new skills. First up, re-learning . Thank you, !

"I want to be the biggest quitter alive. I surrender... I need Jesus. I need his forgiveness."  

And for dessert ...  

Could you go for a year without spending discretionary money on yourself?

My lunch (my wife's homemade enchiladas) >>> my dinner (restaurant enchilada & taco).

Are you really for life, or are you just against ?

My son tricked me into holding his booger-filled tissue.   

Public schools & my job are closed tomorrow. Espinosa homeschool still operating, much to my kids' disappointment.