Review of The Carols of Christmas: A Celebration of the Surprising Stories Behind Your Favorite Holiday Songs

While I’ve been writing a lot of reviews on various kinds of books, my first love of course is with hymns and church music. And so when the opportunity came up for me to review The Carols of Christmas: A Celebration of the Surprising Stories Behind Your Favorite Holiday Songs I jumped at the chance.

As you probably know by reading my writing on the Classic Hymns portion of this site, I love to dig into the history of hymns. It’s far too common for us to sing certain hymns so much that it begins to become routine. Very often, especially when you look at those beloved hymns that have stood the test of time, you’ll find that understanding the background of the hymn very often helps you appreciate the hymns so much more and helps you get so much more out of singing it. And all this is especially true of Christmas hymns and songs.

As happens whenever you look into the background of history of anyone or anything, you’ll probably find some of the histories behind the hymns fascinating and uplifting, and others on the more mundane side. But I think all can help you develop a deeper knowledge and appreciation for them.

This book dives deep into the background of 21 hymns and songs:

O Come, O Come, Emmanuel
O, Christmas Tree
The Holly and Ivy
I Saw Three Ships
O Little Town of Bethlehem
Good Christian Men, Rejoice
O Come, All Ye Faithful
While Shepherds Watched
O Holy Night
Ding dong! Merrily on High
Angels from the Realms of Glory
Hark, The Herald Angels Sing
Away in a Manger
I Wonder as I Wander
Good King Wenceslas
Personent Hodie
Here We Come a-Wassailing
The Twelve Days of Christmas
We Three Kings
What Child Is This
Jingle Bells

I’ll speak to the commentary around two of my favorite hymns, “O Holy Night” and “Hark the Herald Angels Sing”.

O Holy Night, as most of us know, is of French origin. Placide Cappeau was asked to write a poem for a Christmas pageant that was set up to raise money for the local church’s window fund. His lyrics were coupled with leading opera composer Adoplhe Adam’s music, and a hymn was born and first performed Christmas Eve 1847.

The version of the hymn most of us know was the English translation by John Sullivan Dwight. As someone whose tried (and failed) in the past to translate hymns from one language to another, it’s a nearly impossible task to translate word-for-word and end up with a singable version. Dwight did the wise thing and rewrote the hymn, keeping the basic meaning but adding his own edits and style.

What’s fascinating when you look at the original French and the English translation is how much the hymn was a reflection of its times. Phrases such as “the slave is our brother” carried extra meaning on the eve of the French and American Revolutions.

The hymn, in both French and English, went on to take on a life of its own. A popular story, which may or may not be apocryphal, is that on Christmas Eve 1870 during the Franco-Prussian war, one French soldier began to sing this hymn on the front lines in the darkness of the night. The Prussians, instead of firing at him, sang “Von Himmel Hoch” (a hymn written by by Martin Luther). And for that one night, there was peace.

On Christmas Eve 1906, the song became the first piece of music to be broadcast live on the radio, and remains one of the most beloved Christmas hymns today, as fresh today as the day it was written.

The story of “Hark the Herald Angels Sing” is equally fascinating. It provides the original lyrics (including a scan in his own handwriting) of Charles Wesley’s 9-stanza poem, first published in 1739. And it goes through the details of how Wesley’s original text was modified and what this did to the integrity of the hymn. The short answer is, in most cases it made the hymn much more singable, but at perhaps the expense of the deeper meanings of the original poem.

A good example of this is in the very first line. Wesley’s original lyrics were “Hark how all the welkin rings” which was changed to “Hark the herald angels sing”. We love the second version, mainly because we’ve fallen in love with it in our pulpits and I still get goosebumps when I hear Charlie Brown and his friends sing it every year. It’s interesting to know that the original word “welkin” was a real word (Shakespeare used it) that refers to “the sky, the firmament, the heavens”, and a much more apt description of what took place that night. Gant doesn’t suggest there’s anything wrong with the adapted translation, of course, but I appreciated the context of the original lyrics so that each time I sing it I can fully picture that scene in my head instead of the drawing of three angels with their hymnal drawn in the piano sheet music book I had growing up.

Gant also debunks certain false narratives about the hymn. For example, a common misconception is that Felix Mendelssohn disapproved of the lyrics to this hymn being coupled with his music. The truth is, Mendelssohn made this remark about an entirely different set of English lyrics and the coupling of Wesley’s lyrics to his music didn’t happen until years after his death. While we recognize Mendelssohn and Wesley in our hymnals, we never speak of a choirboy named William Hayman Cummings who brought them together.

The book is written in a rather “academic” style and that’s for good reason–the author is Andrew Gant who is a professor at Oxford University. He also happens to be a choirmaster, church musician, writer, and composer. In fact, in conjunction with this book he also published an accompaniment CD (sold separately).

As I read the book, a few things struck me. First, the depth of research is amazing, especially considering that many of these hymns were written hundreds of years ago. Gant does an excellent job of digging into minute details of the background of both hymn lyrics and tunes.

I love the fact that the full music and lyrics of each hymn is included, but also scanned images of original hymnal pages, typeset music for older and alternate variations of some of the hymns, and as I said, even scanned images of other historical artifacts.

If I had one gripe about the book, it’s a minor one. Sometimes the writing felt too academic and textbook-like when I would have preferred something a little more accessible. Granted, this is just personal preference and given that this book is likely going to be literally used as a textbook, it’s not something that I’d change. And I do appreciate that Gant did not sacrifice substance for style. I guess the onus falls on folks like me to take the meat of what Gant wrote and to turn it into a more casual, readable form (and as I expand the Classic Hymns section of the site, I will definitely be using his book as reference).

Review of Thank You Lord for Everything

Well, as you can see in my last post I’m officially a new daddy now which means one thing–I’ll probably be reviewing a lot more children’s books. Even if you’re not a parent, if you have nieces, nephews, grandchildren, or friends with young ones, you might want to read these and if there are good books out there, to give them the gift of knowledge and wisdom in addition to the toys and clothes you’re already giving.

One hard truth I’ve realized as I’ve become a father is that just in my lifetime we’ve gone from a society that embraced Christianity, to one that was ambivalent about it, to one that tolerated it, to one that is increasingly openly hostile to it (especially in places like where I live in the New York City area). We’re seeing history repeat itself again as Christians outside our country are tortured an murdered for their beliefs, and Christians inside our country are denigrated, despised, and stripped of their livelihoods and their reputations if they dare to come out of their “closet”.

And so how do you combat this? The old adage is true–the pen is mightier than the sword. Gutenberg revolutionized the world by publishing the Bible–for the first time in 1500 years people could hold the Word of God in their own hands. And so it is with the children of our society today.

And so I’m looking for good books that teach eternal truths, preferably not insulting their intelligence nor beating them over the head with dogma, but letting God’s word speak for itself.

And with that, I’ll turn to today’s book. Thank You, Lord, For Everything from the wife and husband writing and illustration team of PJ Lyons and Tim Warnes.

I have to say, I loved this book in so many ways. It seems that merchandising of characters has become the only way we can shop for children these days. All you can find are Mickey Mouse blankets, Cookie Monster diapers, Snoopy pillows, Bugs Bunny band aids, and so on.

The illustrations in this book by Tim Warnes are the star of the show. The main character of the book isn’t a “star”, he’s just an adorable little bear just going through his daily life of waking up, eating breakfast, playing with friends, and having a picnic. The illustrations are colorful, bright, and as you can see in this example has details that will engage youngsters.

cute christian childrens book

The story by PJ Lyons consists of simple and short rhymes where the little bear realizes that he can give thanks for all the wonderful things in his life.

What I love about this book is that it teaches 1 Thessalonians 5:18 without even having to cite chapter and verse. It shows this cute little bear living it out, understanding the lesson we grown-ups often forget that everything wonderful in our lives is given to us by God and that with a humble heart we should give thanks, not just mouthing the words when saying grace but by experiencing them in our lives.

As a father, something else I really appreciate is an appearance from the little bear’s dad, pouring juice for the little guy at breakfast time and spending time to play with him later in the book. It’s sad that the appearance of a good father role model seems to be so rare these days in portrayals of families in media (more often than not, the dad is either bungling or absent altogether), but I was happy to see it here.

a good dad in a childrens book!

The hardcover book is solid board book with 16 pages and full color throughout. The cover is thicker, padded stock. While the age range says 4-8 years, I think 8 might be a little too old–it’s definitely a book for much younger children from, say, 3-6–from 3-5 you’re probably going to be reading it to him but by age 5-6, he should start being able to read some things for himself.

Sometimes Christian children’s books seem a little like they’re trying too hard to get children’s attention with gimmicks like stickers or attempting to take adult concepts and “dumb them down” for kids. Where I love this book is that it’s simple and tells a wonderful story using natural language and concepts that small kids can understand, with a simple message that will be one of the most powerful for them if they can continue to practice it growing up.

This one is very highly recommended, it’s one of the top children’s books I’ve reviewed to date. and one I’ll definitely be sharing with my little one, hopefully over and over again.

Things I Learned About our Heavenly Father Recently

It’s been a while since I’ve written a blog post that’s not a book review. My apologies to those who enjoyed my earlier writing, it’s just that my life has been a bit busy lately and quite frankly a little boring that there wasn’t much for me to ruminate on.

All that’s changed in the last four weeks. I’ve been up in the wee hours of the morning almost every day for a month because my first child, Madeleine, was born on August 4, 2015 at 12:29 AM. Thank God, the delivery went amazingly smoothly. My wife Lisa’s water broke three weeks before the due date but it just happened that only two days earlier we’d gone to see her OB–who just happened to tell us that baby was ready to come out at any time and that if the water broke overnight we should just keep calm and relax until the morning. If the good Lord hadn’t arranged it that way let’s just say that Tuesday morning would have made Ricky Ricardo’s experience look like a cakewalk.

That first week I started to jot down some thoughts, and each new day of fatherhood brings new experiences. And one of the things I thought about was this.

When the writers of the Bible write about God, one analogy they use over and over is that of God being a Father and us being his children. While God is compared to many things in the Bible, a shepherd, a lion, a rock, an eagle…it’s the image of God being a father that comes up over and over again.

I always wondered why this was, but now that I’m a brand new father, even in the first few weeks I can see it. In my short stint as a father, certain observations about myself as a father have helped me understand my Father above just a little better. And so I thought I’d share a few of those things I learned or re-learned about God with the help of little Maddie.

1) You are precious in His sight. 

I wasn’t sure whether I’d wanted to be in the delivery room when Lisa was giving birth. In retrospect, I’m glad I was. It was at the same time the most disgusting and the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen in my life. First there was nothing. And then out popped a little head. And then the rest of her came out (along with a whole lot of gunk). And the instant I saw this little thing that looked like it was covered in goo, my heart skipped a beat. I fell in love. After putting her on her mommy’s tummy they whisked her away and put her under a light. My pathway was blocked by the doctor and nurse and all the equipment but I wanted more than anything to jump over them and get to her.

As most of you know, babies when they first come out aren’t the prettiest things in the world. This isn’t their fault–after all if you tried to squeeze your way through a three-inch doorway you wouldn’t look that pretty either. And yet from the beginning I just couldn’t stop looking at her.

And even today, now that she’s all tiny and cute and pink, every now and then I feel compelled to just stop whatever I’m doing, walk over to her bassinet, stare at her little face sleeping in peace, and give her a kiss on the cheek. Seeing her invariably it fills my heart with joy.

Isn’t it the same thing with God? I think so often we tend to think of God as either a nameless, faceless entity out there or as the vengeful, powerful being that’s ready to judge and punish us. But that’s not God. God’s heart is that of a loving father. Even if you don’t realize it, He takes the time to look down on you and smile, because he loves you. And it’s not because of anything you did or didn’t do. He loves you simply because you’re his child.

We tend to forget this. We surround ourselves with self-imposed rules and regulations and conditions and checklists, and if we fall short one of them suddenly we feel that God is no longer going to love us. But that’s not the way it works.

And the thing I realized? Just as there’s nothing that can make me stop loving this little girl, there’s nothing that will separate you from the love of God.

2) He feels pain when you feel pain. 

After we spent some time together in the delivery room they took Maddie away in her little cart to the hospital nursery. Lisa had to stay behind so I followed the nurse to the nursery and was told I could watch her from behind the big glass window.

I saw another nurse take Maddie to the far end of the big room from where I was standing. As the nurse has no doubt done a million times, she took a cloth and started wiping baby down. Once she started to wipe Maddie’s little feet, I saw both of Maddie’s two tiny arms raise up and the tiny fingers on her hands spread apart and trembling in the air (in subsequent weeks I’ve found this is one of her signature moves any time she starts freaking out about something, I’ve dubbed it her “jazz hands”).

And even though she was just minutes old I could already recognize the sound of her distinctive wailing, even though the glass.

I stood at that glass and stared and stared at little Maddie for what seemed like an eternity. Even though rationally I knew that these were medical professionals and all the things they were doing like bathing her and pricking her little heel to draw blood were necessary to take the very best care of her, still very bone in my body wanted to break through that glass and go “rescue” her. I knew that in her brand new little brain she’d never experienced pain or discomfort before so regardless of how routine these things were, to her it was literally the worst pain she’d felt in her whole life. And so even though I knew she wasn’t in danger, observing her and knowing that she didn’t know that made my heart ache for her.

Sometimes when we go through the darkest periods of our lives we feel isolated and alone. We cry out and it feels like no one is listening. Just remember someone is. He might be on the other side of the glass. But as the hymn says his heart is touched with your grief. Maybe it’s just for a period of time that you need to go through the things you’re going through. But invariably if he lets you go through it it’s something that is going to make you stronger in the end. Just know that he’s watching every second and waiting for the moment to get you out of it and take you into his arms again. Hang on.

3) He’s a jealous God

I went back to the glass window of the nursery later that day. I saw a young man standing at the glass just as I was a few hours earlier. Now by this time I was an old veteran and knew how to look for my baby–I could see her empty cart close to the window with her name on it and next to it the nurse was doing some testing on her. Like I said, I could recognize the sound of her crying and the unmistakable sight of both her arms sticking out with her signature “jazz hands”.

I glanced over at this guy and I saw him looking at her too. He had the same lost-in-the-clouds look I had a few hours ago and was just standing there and staring into the glass. In my best broken Chinese, I found out that his wife had just given birth. I asked him which baby was his and he pointed—to MY baby.

He asked me which one was my baby. I smiled and said to him I think the one we were both looking at was mine. But he got a grimace on his face and shook his head. He was pretty adamant that it was his baby, and then proceeded to continue looking dreamily at her. I realized that between this guy’s broken English and what he’d just gone through he probably just misunderstood the instructions of the nurse on how to look for his baby, so he picked the first Asian baby he could find (in fact, I could see pretty quickly that his baby was all the way in the back where my baby had been a few hours earlier). So I chuckled to myself and figured I’d let it slide.

But inside I was admittedly annoyed–here’s this dude who’s making all these googley-eyes at MY baby while his own poor little girl was all alone in the back (okay, let’s just say I still had my share of irrational new daddy emotions too). In the back of my mind, I wondered what would have happened in the old days before hospitals got so good at tagging babies with identification the moment they were born. What if this guy, despite all the tags, insisted on taking my baby as his own? All I know is that it wouldn’t have been pretty.

When I used to read Bible passages of God being a jealous God, I never quite understood what that meant. After all, the Bible says that love is not jealous, right?

Of course, it all makes sense when you read scripture not as a logic puzzle to be solved but just using common sense. When the Bible says that God is a jealous God, it’s not saying he’s like insecure or whiny like a jealous boyfriend seeing his girlfriend talking with another guy. I think what it’s saying is that he has such a deep love for you as a father that, like me in front that nursery, will will not stand idly by against anything that might take you away from His love.

Though I walk in the midst of trouble, you preserve my life; you stretch out your hand against the wrath of my enemies, and your right hand delivers me. 

And so just as I would have decked the dude if we were to try to take daughter away, so will God defend you against the enemy.

4) He hears our cries and they really do touch his heart

When I first started writing this post we were still within the first 20 days of Maddie’s arrival home. For the most part she was a model newborn. She’d sleep 18-20 hours a day, we’d wake her every 4 hours to take her bottle, she’d maybe spend a few minutes cooing and smiling at us, and then she’d go right back to sleep. After 2-3 weeks, her mom and I would smile at each other. “Hey, this isn’t too bad. Maybe all the things we heard about fussy babies just happens to other parents. Maybe our little girl is the one out of 108 billion babies who’s going to be a calm, quiet, fuss-free baby”.

The other night was the rude awakening. Literally. All of a sudden, Maddie just started wailing inconsolably, a blood-curdling scream that reached into the bowels of my soul. Her mom and I scrambled to try to figure out what was going on. Was she fed? Yes. Was she clean? Yes. Was she burped? Yes. Was she running a fever? No.

When I’m on a plane or a train and someone else’s baby cries I admit I get really annoyed. I put on the noise cancelling headphones and crank the volume on my iPhone up. But Maddie’s cries touched my heart. As incessant and piercing as her wailing is, it doesn’t really bother me. Every fiber in my being just wants to figure out what’s wrong and to try to fix it for her. Because I know the reason she’s crying isn’t personal–it’s just that she desperately needs something.

A lie we tell ourselves is that it’s not the case with God. Modern day armchair psychologists will talk about how prayer “works” because it’s a psychological way for humans to find a release for their emotions, just the same way that counseling or aromatherapy or meditation will.

But those of us who know God know that prayer is much more than that. There is someone listening at the other end.

When you take the time to talk to him, He listens to every word out of your mouth, and every tear is precious to him. And even if you can’t come up with the right words and you end up just, well, crying, he is touched by every tear.

I think many Christians tend to have a flawed concept of prayer. They think that it’s something you should “force” yourself to do and “develop a habit” of doing it, like eating your vegetables or brushing your teeth.

When you think about it, what is a “good prayer”. Is it prayer that we force ourselves to do consistently the same time every day? Is it a prolonged prayer that lasts at least 15 minutes to half an hour? Is it a prayer where we recite beautiful words? Or is focusing on the outward appearance of prayer instead of what’s in the heart missing the point?

Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not denigrating those who pray every day or who pray for long periods of time every day. Every blessing I enjoy today in my life I can trace back to those hours I heard my mother on her knees in prayer in her room with the door closed.

But what I am challenging is that prayer should be “habit” or “routine” or that a meaningful prayer life can be built by focusing on the trappings of what a supposedly “good prayer” is.

I look at my little girl. If she’s hungry, she’ll let me know it in no uncertain terms. If she’s dirty, her cry changes a little. If she’s gassy she’ll make a face. If she’s hot she’ll wriggle uncomfortably. Bottom line, when she communicates with me it’s not “out of habit”, it’s because there’s a deep need within her that she has to communicate. Granted, her communication with me is imperfect. But I try my best to understand because I know she communicates out of the bottom of her tiny little heart.

While I don’t like to think about it, one day she’s going to grow up and leave home. And I wonder what it’ll be like. Will she set an alert on the calendar (or whatever they have 20 years from now) at the exact same time every week because it’s her “duty” or “it’s a good habit” to call her dad? And then when we get on the phone (or whatever we’ll have 20 years from now), will she run through a checklist of things to say to me and then precisely 20 minutes later when her alarm clock goes off hang up the phone?

Boy, I hope not. I hope we’ll have the kind of relationship where she knows she can talk to me about anything. Where we can share what’s been going on with our lives. Where we can laugh together and cry together. Where she can tell me from the bottom of her heart what’s wrong and I can do everything I can to try to make it better, listen to her, pray for her, and pray with her. And I hope if I’m not there for her that she can have the same kinds of conversations with her God.

It was the Pharisees in the Bible who focused only on outward appearances thinking that maintaining those somehow were bringing them salvation when all it was doing was condemning them. Don’t learn from them. Don’t waste your time with meaningless repetition or mouthing the same repetitive chants every prayer. Have a conversation with your God from the depths of your heart and your soul. It doesn’t matter where you are, you can be on the subway or at a traffic light or in the middle of a workday at your office, or lying in bed, He can hear you. It doesn’t matter if you pray for 15 seconds or 1 hour, both prayers will touch His heart equally as long as they come from your heart.

5) He rejoices when you rejoice. 

People often make fun of parents of newborns because they’ll swear their baby is smiling at them when most of the time the baby is just releasing gas. But there have been a handful of occasions when I’m looking into Maddie’s face and even at 17 days old she’ll genuinely smile, most of the time when she’s sleeping but occasionally when she’s wide awake. Her little eyes will get all scrunched up and the corners of her mouth will burst into a toothless grin.

It’s these moments that the parent of a newborn lives for. It’s like the world stops. At first I would rush to grab a camera and capture the moment. But now I just try to enjoy whatever moment she’s enjoying together with her. Seeing her smile fills my own heart with an utter sense of joy.

How do you touch the heart of God? By rejoicing in him.

I always find it a little sad in my church when we sing hymns like “Sunshine in My Soul” and “Joy to the World” and the congregation sings them with all the energy of a funeral dirge.

Rejoicing and the Truth should not be mutually exclusive. When you hear the gospel, you should laugh. You should clap your hands. You should shout Hallelujah, not because it’s a magical word that you use to summon God to help you when you need something, but because from the depths of your soul you just want to praise the Lord.

The next time you read one of the Psalms where David is rejoicing in the Lord instead of reading it to yourself, shout it out loud. The next time you read Philippians 4:4, instead of analyzing the context in which Paul is saying it or studying the Greek word behind the words Paul is using, try something novel. Just rejoice. And God will smile right back at you.

6) He watches over you. 

I admit I feel a little like an NSA agent every time I look at Maddie in the baby monitor. I’ve got one of those monitors that uses near-infared light to let me look in on her when she’s sleeping in her crib during the night. I’m actually writing this at 2:43 AM viewing Maddie as we speak.

Tonight she had a hard time sleeping. I fed her, I burped her, I swaddled her, I gave her a good night kiss on the cheek, and then I turned off the lights. Then I went into the next room and switched on the baby monitor. After a few minutes she started kicking and fussing. So I walked into the room, picked her up, did five more minutes of burping and put her back to bed. After a few minutes, more kicking and fussing. Then I gave her a pacifier and watched desperately in the next room as she sucked on it with both her two eyes wide open. And then “achoo”, she sneezed and the thing came flying out her her mouth.

While part of me wanted to run back in the room and immediately replace the pacifier, I forced myself not to, as I wanted to see if she could put herself to sleep. So I just stayed in my chair, eyes affixed to the monitor. There are some wiggling, some kicking, and a little whining, but after what seemed like an eternity it stopped. She was finally asleep.

I sometimes think that some of the loneliest people in the world are probably little babies whose little brains tell them they should be awake between 2 and 4 AM. It’s not that they can pass the time on their smartphones nor pick up a book nor even ponder deep questions or reminisce about old times. The extent of what they’re probably able to think are…

“Boy, it is sure interesting to breathe air instead of amniotic fluid”

“Hey, remember that time three days ago I drank three bottles of formula in one sitting? Boy, those were the days.”

And so I wonder what goes on in Maddie’s little head when I see her staring into the darkness. I imagine she may feel very much alone.

But of course she’s not alone. I’ve been watching her the whole time. As we approach her feeding time, I’m ready at the first moment I see her exhibiting signs of hunger to run to the kitchen to assemble her bottle, grab a few containers of her formula, shake the formula and pour the exact amount I want her to drink into the bottle, get her bib ready, and then go into the room to get her. Of course, while I’m doing all this she doesn’t know that all this is going on.

And so I think it is with God. He knows exactly what we need, and all we need is prepared for us. As I mentioned above there are times when we feel alone, and wonder why He isn’t there. But he is. He’s been awake the whole time watching. Sometimes he answers prayer right away, but sometimes he doesn’t. In both cases he does it for a reason and in both cases you can bet he’s scrambling to get you exactly what you need. Because He loves you.

7) A father tells you what to do not to lord it over you but because he loves you.

In society today there’s a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of God. The very phrase “God-complex” describes people who look at themselves as too self-important, too powerful, and too domineering as if that describes God himself. Especially in our increasingly secular society, God is denigrated as a taskmaster, as a tyrant, as someone that puts unreasonable demands upon those who worship him. And ironically, as much as secular society pushes this false notion of God, sadly it’s too often Christians themselves who are the root cause of why people see God this way, Christians who have made God in their image instead of the opposite.

There are times, even at only a few weeks old, when I want Maddie to do things that she doesn’t want to do. When I put her on my lap to burp her, there are times she gets this “I can think of a hundred things I’d rather be doing right now than having this guy slap me on the back” look. Or I’ll swaddle her at bedtime and then turn around and like Harry Houdini she’d be completely free.

Of course I don’t do these things to lord it over her. I do these things because I love her. I know that if I don’t burp her she’s going to be uncomfortable. I know if I don’t swaddle her she’ll be wiggling so much that she won’t be able to get any rest.

I remember when I’d complain about my dad telling me to do certain things, he’d invariably say to me what I’m sure a lot of your parents said to you. “If I was Steven (insert random last name here)’s father, I couldn’t care less about what they did.” I guess I’m finally beginning to understand where he was coming from.

We ask God for all kinds of things every day. What we don’t realize is that God has already given the instructions we need to follow for us to get every single thing that we’re asking for. He didn’t give us commandments because he’s an oppressive God who’s like a petulant kid burning ants with a magnifying glass. He did so because he knows if we simply follow what he told us to do in the first place, we’re going to enjoy the kind of peace and joy and fulfillment that we ask him for every day. When John said that this is love for God, that we follow his commandments, that verse has renewed meaning for me because the opposite is true as well. It was out of love that God gave us his commandments in the first place.

8) He knows your needs before you know them yourself. 

Maddie doesn’t know that her mother and father have already prepared more things for her than a doomsday prepper getting ready for Y2K. She’s got hundreds of diapers, bibs, burping cloths, a changing table, a bassinet, onesies, fall clothes, winter clothes, formula, bottles, a bottle sanitizer, toys, thermometers, and more stuff already prepared for her. Just the other week after hours and hours of sweat and a sore back daddy put together her crib.

There are so many lessons that I have still to learn on this one. I admit I never quite understood the Bible verse where Jesus said, “If your child asks for bread, will you give him a stone?” and “If he asks for a fish will you give him a snake?”. The question I’ve asked myself when I hear this verse is, then why can’t I ask God to let me win the lottery, or to win over the girl I liked, or to make me more popular?

I think the answer has to do with sufficiency. If we ask for what we consider “good things” but as James said we ask with wrong motives, of course we won’t receive them. On the other hand, I’m learning a lot from my little baby. All she’s focused on right now is survival. She cries out when she’s hungry. She cries out when she needs changing. She cries out when she feels uncomfortable. And as her daddy, because I know her motives are pure, just because she doesn’t know any different at this point, I come running to meet her needs.

Regardless of how many time we read the Bible verse about the sparrows and the lilies of the field, a lot of us, myself included, forget this. I live in a little 2-bedroom apartment and sometimes I admittedly look at other people’s giant houses and wish I could live in one of those. But then I remind myself that God’s grace is sufficient. Maybe one day I’ll move to a big house but for now, I live in place that’s comfortable, warm in the winter, cool in the summer, and full of love and joy. And that’s more than I need for now.

9) A father is okay with handling the messy stuff in your life.

 I admit, the one thing I didn’t think I could handle as a new parent was the diaper changes. I heard from parents that something in you changes so that you really don’t mind it, but I didn’t believe it. The prospect of handling someone else’s poop and pee just grossed me out.

And yet, it happened. The first poop was that menconium stuff that just fascinated me–how could this tiny little thing produce all that black tar? A few poops later was the one every parent faces of the little thing tinkling like a fountain mid-diaper change, again something I found strangely amusing. Also amusing was that time mid-diaper change where I saw the little poop in action coming out like a Tootsie Roll machine. Again strangely amusing. If it were some other baby I’d probably be mortified and disgusted, but because it was our little baby every poop is like a little celebration.

Okay, I haven’t hit solid food poop yet, so I know full well this is short-lived. But while I’m in my little state of denial, I’ll make my point.

Because God loves you and me, he’s okay handling the messy stuff in our life. I think sometimes we fool ourselves into thinking we’ve done something too shameful or awful to be forgiven by God. And this concept is exacerbated when we surround ourselves with checklists and rules. Not to say that checklists and rules are not important, but when the checklists and rules become the sole object of our worship rather than things we naturally do because we first experience God’s love and mercy and grace, we need to re-evaluate the way we worship.

Okay, this point was a little bit of a stretch, but I just wanted to tell the Tootsie Roll story. And no, I won’t include a photo with this one (even though I have one).

10) He will be with you. Every Step Of The Way.

Maddie is now a little over a month old. There’s one thing I’m sure of as a daddy. I want to be there for her every minute of every day of her life as long as I’m able to. I can’t explain it. She hasn’t done anything to deserve my loyalty to her. In fact, more often than not she screams in my face, doesn’t have the patience to wait even two minutes for me to get her bottle ready before crying, refuses to go to sleep at night, and has turned my life completely upside down. And yet I look into her face and my heart melts each time.

And so it is with God. You are his beloved child, and his love is there not because of anything you did to deserve it, but just because he’s your Father. Don’t let anyone or anything ever let you forget it. And the next time you pray, instead of bowing to a nameless, faceless deity, try talking to Him as your dad. I think he’ll probably appreciate it.

It’s been a while since I concluded a blog post with a hymn, but this one seems apt for the occasion.

I trust in God wherever I may be, Upon the land, or on the rolling sea,
For come what may, from day to day, My heavenly Father watches over me.

I trust in God, I know He cares for me; On mountain bleak or on the stormy sea;
Tho’ billows roll, He keeps my soul; My heavenly Father watches over me.

He makes the rose an object of His care, He guides the eagle thro’ the pathless air,
And surely He remembers me;   My heavenly Father watches over me.


I trust in God, for, in the lion’s den, On battlefield, or in the prison pen,
Thro’ praise or blame, thro’ flood or flame, My heavenly Father watches over me.


The valley may be dark, the shadows deep, But O, the Shepherd guards His lonely sheep;
And thro’ the gloom He’ll lead me home, My heavenly Father watches over me.


Review of Seven Women and the Secret of their Greatness

The first book I reviewed on this blog was Eric Metaxas’s Seven Men and the Secret of Their Greatness. It’s only fitting that I review the new companion book called Seven Women: And the Secret of Their Greatness.

As with the 7 Men book I’d categorize this book as a modern-day sequel to Hebrews 11. It recounts modern day heroes of faith and gives us condensed biographies of their lives that, while short, still feel remarkably comprehensive.

The women highlighted here include Joan of Arc, Suzanna Wesley, Hannah More, Maria Skobtsova, Corrie ten Boom, Mother Teresa, and Rosa Parks.

As I found with the 7 Men book, once I started reading the accounts it was hard to put them down. For one thing, given my 21st century attention span I knew that I wouldn’t be spending weeks or months getting through it. But more importantly, Metaxas’s writing is more conversational and flows more naturally than your typical heavy biographic tome. If you’ve ever heard his podcast/radio show (which I highly recommend), you’ll recognized that he writes with the same natural flow was he speaks with.

The story of Joan of Arc is a good example of one where I’d heard the name before but never really knew much about her, even to the point of wondering if she was a real historical figure. Although admittedly I was better than my wife who heard me mention her name and asked “was that the wife of Noah of Ark?” But I think both of us are probably better than those who confuse her with Knot’s Landing’s Joan Van Ark.

Metaxas goes through the entire history of Joan of Arc from her childhood to her life of prayer to her visions to her eventually leading a armies for France against England and to her ultimate demise in a story that’s been repeated many times before and since–a lone figure standing up for what she believed in ultimately condemned by the mob of those unable and unwilling to even try to understand her.

What I really love about the way Metaxas tells it is that he doesn’t interject the account with commentary or interpretation or revisionism. He just tells her story uninterrupted and lets you draw your own conclusions.

Even though it happened 500 years later, his recounting of Rosa Parks’ story is just as compelling. Revisionist historians talk about civil rights figures such as Rosa Parks and Jackie Robinson as the heroes they are, but what’s mentioned less and less as the years go by is how much a role Jesus Christ played in their lives. In fact, both became heroes not just because they stood up alone against a culture that tried to intimidate and bully them, but because they did it with Christ-like humility, faithfulness, and gentleness.

All of these stories follow a similar pattern of women in the face of insurmountable odds finding the strength in God and in themselves to persevere and conquer. It’s a great book to share with the young tween or teen girl in your life to remind them that yes, there are amazing female role models in this world that they can follow as alternatives to the Kardashians, Cyruses, or Grandes that the world expect them to follow.

Review of NIV Zondervan Study Bible

The last time I purchased a Study Bible was my ragged NIV Study Bible from 1985. How the times have changed since the days of digital printing.

At 2880 pages, NIV Zondervan Study Bible is easily the most comprehensive Study Bible on the market today. They’ve made the pages thin, the typeface small, and the typeface of the study notes even smaller but still it weighs in at almost 5 pounds. Here are some of the things I love about it:

1) New typeface. After years of publishing Bibles in standard Times New Roman, the new typeface appears to be in the Garamond family, which I find much more friendly and readable.

2) Full color. Unlike Study Bibles of yore which relegated the color printing to the maps at the end, every page of this Bible uses 4-color printing, meaning you’ll have things like green-colored chapter numbers and headlines, light green background for the Study Notes section on the bottom of each page, full-color illustrations and tables. They don’t use color for the sake of color but only as it augments the reading experience. And yes, the maps that we all took imaginary journeys on during those slower-moving sermons are still there

3) Illustrations. Speaking of illustrations, they too are phenomenal. There are full color photographs of relics and artifacts that really make the Bible text come to life (Isaiah 47 which talks about the fall of Babylon shows an artifact from the British Museum from Assyria depicting the event; next to 1 Thessalonians 4:5 shows the remains a first-century bath that was next door to a brothel, and so on).

4) Each book of the Bible has an extensive introduction that speaks to the books’ authorship, date, audience, historical setting and purpose, literary features, theological significance, and a concise outline of the book. The commentary to introduce each book for the most part seems balanced and fair.

5) The back of the Bible includes a number of articles on various spiritual topics from various authors. Again, for the most part these articles appeared comprehensive and well-researched in discussing not only the topic but also approaches to studying the topic.

6) The book is solidly constructed, not a small engineering feat for such a large volume. It’s not the type of Bible you’ll be lugging around to church every week, but that’s not what it was designed for; for me, it’s a great reference to have for when I need it. And I was pleasantly surprised to see that every copy has an individualized card at the end that lets you enter a code to download the digital version, which does solve the portability challenge.

7) With goes without saying that the maps, concordances, charts, timelines, illustrations, and photographs are excellent, on par with what youd’ find in most standalone volumes.

If there is one gripe I have about this book it’s in the commentary. Where the commentary sticks to historical facts and background I love it. But flipping to a couple of the verses that different Christian denominations typically disagree on, I find that in most cases only one perspective and interpretation is espoused. Given that this is a Bible, a casual reader might conflate the commentary with the Word itself.

While I don’t blame the editors for taking this approach–by definition the entire notion of commentary in a Study Bible is for it to be one person or one group’s interpretation (i.e. opinion) and including every opinion would have doubled the size of the volume–I would have much preferred a much more balanced approach, especially for some of the verses that have to do with doctrines with which different denominations may differ. One example of this is Acts 2:38. The commentary unequivocally states that this verse does not mean that the actual act of baptism saves and implies that it is merely an outward act. It also seemed to imply that the apostles baptizing “in the name of Jesus” was merely shorthand for the more proper Trinitarian formula. Again, while good people can differ on precise interpretation, I would have liked to see a more balanced and measured approach, something I’d seen in earlier versions of the NIV Study Bible but which unfortunately I see less and less of recently.

Still, if you’re a serious student of the Bible, this is a volume I highly recommend having in your library provided that you use it as a reference and starting point for your own studies and not a replacement for them.

Review of the Berenstain Bears Storybook Bible for Little Ones

Most of us who were born after 1962 knew the Berenstain Bears well, even if we never quite mastered how to spell or pronounce their names. Stan and Jan Berenstain created the bear family that year and the bears took off when none other than Theodor Geisel, Dr. Seuss himself, included the Bears in his Random House Beginner Books series. Close to 260 million copies later the Bears are still a part of our culture.

Stan Berenstain passed away in 2005 and then Jan passed in 2012. But unlike cartoonists like Charles Schulz and Dr. Seuss, whose creations essentially stopped when they passed on, and unlike cartoonists like Walt Disney and Jim Henson, whose characters are living on with arguably much different personalities than before, the Berenstain Bears continue pretty much the same as they always did. This is largely thanks to Mike Berenstain, the son of Stan and Jan who continues to write an illustrate the books that his parents had started when he was 11 years old.

Over the years, some have criticized the Bears as being too saccharine or namby-pamby. But in a world today that’s so filled with terror, and angst, and hatred, and cynicism, maybe a little sweetness couldn’t hurt. Not to say I’m going to go out and collect all fifty gazillion versions of the books including “The Berenstain Bears and their XK-E”, but on the other hand I wouldn’t mind inviting the Bears in for the occasional bedtime reading.

In a rather bold move, in 2008 Mike Berenstain started to introduce book featuring the Berenstain Bears with overtly religious messages, published by Zondervan. While the Bears books always instilled good values and taught moral lessons without being overly sanctimonious, this move seemed to fly in the face of the trends of the world; I remember last Christmas I saw a restored version of “The Little Drummer Boy” for the first time since I was a kid and was amazed at how overt the Christian message was and realized that this should could never be shown on network TV again. And I was saddened to see how those who acquired the rights to VeggieTales somehow felt it necessary to make Bob and Larry into a secular cartoon show.

What’s nice about the Zondervan series of books is that it bridges the same gap that believers need to bridge. As in the “secular” Berenstain Bears books, when we’re out in society we need to reflect our Christian values in our daily lives (living in the world but not of the world), but that don’t necessarily mean thumping a Bible everywhere and trying to baptize everyone everywhere we go.  On the other hand, as Christians we do need to spend time in devotions with God and in His Word, and that’s where I see the “Living Lights” series of books going. As much as the world thinks it needs to paint things into a “secular” or a “religious” box, the truth is, like with the Berenstain Bears, we can be both, shining a light in the former and being a light in the latter.

The Berenstain Bears Storybook Bible for Little Ones (Berenstain Bears/Living Lights) is a bit more advanced than the previous book I reviewed; this one contains very simple prose that you can read to your child or have him or her read to you. As with the  last book, this one isn’t a “Bible” so much as a collection of seven stories from the Bible (Creation, Noah’s Ark, David and Goliath, Daniel in the Lion’s Den, the Birth of Jesus, the Good Samaritan, Jesus in Jerusalem, the Resurrection).

The illustrations are typical for a Berenstein Bears book–they feature the Bears playing the parts of the different Bible characters and there’s a lot of detail for you to point out with your child. The book is hardcover, about 5 x 7 x 1, and had nice thick card stock pages for durability.

The stories are all simplified versions of the Bible stories and are mostly accurate. I did see some minor instances where some embellishment was made. For example, in the story of Daniel and the Lion’s Den, it says that Daniel pet the lions. In the story of Jesus’s death, for obvious reasons they didn’t get into a lot of details, but the entire crucifixion was summed up in the sentence “But the soldiers did hurt Jesus. Jesus was sad, but reminded them, ‘God loves you.'” Again, it’s a tricky thing to be able to communicate to a young person, but in some ways I felt it a little too simplistic.

That said, all in all this is a solid effort by Mike Bernstain and an excellent way to help introduce your children, especially those who are already familiar with the Bernstain Bears, to the Bible, whether you’re a devout Christian or just someone who would like to instill Christian principles of love, humility, and faithfulness to the next generation.

Review of Say & Pray Bible

On August 4, I became the proud daddy of baby Madeleine. Thank God, while she came about three weeks earlier than expected, mother and baby are doing just fine. I’m still taking in all the emotions and experiences that come with fatherhood, and something tells me there’s a blog post ahead on the subject (that for the first time in a while won’t be a book review). Stay tuned for that :)

I’ve been reviewing a lot of grown-up books, but with the arrival of baby girl I’ll be looking for children’s books to review. In many ways, the need for great Christian children’s books is more critical than ever.

We live in a world where it’s harder than ever for new parents to raise their children in Christ. I have to admit, that’s one of the things that terrifies me most as a new parent. The United States I grew up in was still at its core a Christian nation–even though they weren’t teaching the Bible in schools there was basic agreement of civics and morality that was shared between parents, the schools, and the church. And they happened to coincide with the teachings of Christ. Love thy neighbor. Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. Blessed are the peacemakers.

But somehow in the last 50 years even those things that seem to have been common sense are now somehow controversial. What at one time had been a partnership between parents, schools, and church now is now anything but. Parents distrust schools because they feel certain educators are more interested in pushing a social agenda than teaching their kids. Schools distrust parents because so many of them fail to discipline their kids at home leaving it to the poor teachers to deal with it. The church in far too many cases grows more and more irrelevant because they become too insular and irrelevant to the needs of their congregations at a time when their congregations need them the most. And of course, the child is the one hurt the most in all this.


As a parent, I know I can write off the schools as a place where my little girl is going to learn basic morals or civics. I’m going to keep praying that my church continues to examine itself and becomes the kind of place that my little girl can really experience the love of Christ in. But I realize that the bulk of the responsibility is going to be on me, as it should be, to model for her what Christ’s love is all about and to teach her as much as I can.

It’s because of this that I’m thankful for books like the one I’m reviewing today, the Say and Pray Bible: First Words, Stories, and Prayers by Diane Stortz with illustrations by Sarah Ward.

The book is just the right size for little hands; about 5 x 7 x 1 inches.  The book is beautifully illustrated throughout. It’s perfect for toddlers aged 3-5 who are just learning how to read; on each page there’s a title, a 2-3 sentence “story”, and about 7-10 word bubbles that accompany the colorful illustrations.

To call this book a “Bible” is a bit of a misnomer, but I think the author and publisher probably used the word figuratively. The book does go through 20 child-friendly stories in the Bible (Adam and Eve, Noah’s Ark, etc.). There are no more than 20 words on a page, so this is less a storybook than it is a book for you to read along with your toddler as he or she points out pictures together identifies and learns individual words like the names of animals or Bible characters. The onus is really on you as the parent to know the stories in advance to describe the illustration or in case your inquisitive little one starts asking questions about it.

The pictures are wonderfully drawn and will be appealing to most children. The animals are cute and scenes are all simple yet beautifully colored. The Bible characters are cute without being inaccurate (the picture of the Good Samaritan shows him of a different skin hue than the others; characters like Abraham and Ruth wear simple clothes and sandals; Joseph’s coat of many colors is really, really colorful; and so on).

Each story also has a Bible verse associated with it and a short one-sentence prayer (the “say and pray”). It’s of course not deep theologically, but does start to introduce your toddler to the concept of reading the Bible and prayer. Of course whether our toddlers continue this depends largely on how much we do it ourselves.

The book is a “board book” so each page is made of thick, durable card stock. The cover is even a little plush. The book is solidly constructed and will almost surely become a favorite of your toddler.

What I love most about the book is that it really is age-appropriate–it steers clear of theology and deep exegesis and controversial topics and sticks with something really simple and basic–simple illustrations that will help you tell stories from the Bible.

This is definitely one I’ll be reading with my little one, and hopefully many times. Highly, highly recommended.

Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy (Student Edition)

Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy Student Edition is, as you can guess from the title, the student version of Eric Metaxas’s Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy.

As I’d mentioned in my first book review, I’ve been a fan of Metaxas for years, the first few years without even knowing it. I was in my twenties when I encountered the first oeuvre of his to have a profound impact on me: an early episode of VeggieTales.

Since then I’ve read a couple of his other books. But it’s always been on my list to read this Bonhoeffer book, a book that’s been critically acclaimed, is a best seller, and word is that it’s being made into a movie.

I was a little skeptical when I saw that a student edition of the book was coming out–it’s not uncommon for book publishers to take a successful book and churn out special edition after special edition to squeeze as much profit as they can out of it. But when I saw that Metaxas himself had written it, I had to take a look.

As I expected, this edition is exceptional. It’s no “Reader’s Digest condensed version”, it captures the most important facts and stories in Bonhoeffer’s life from the main book using language and a narrative that is understandable by students without talking down to them. While the publisher isn’t clear about the age range of who should be reading this, personally I’d say anywhere from grade 6 to grade 9; anything after that and they probably could be reading the regular edition.

Something else I appreciate are the call-out boxes–unlike in other books they’re not just pedantic filler but really interesting definitions and facts that are relevant to the text; things like the lyrics of Luther’s “A Mighty Fortress is Our God”, juxtaposed with a passage describing how the faithful in Germany defiantly sang the hymn as bishop Ludwig Muller started to impose Nazi rules into the German church. Another call-out box describes grocery prices in 1923 in the USA compared to Germany after Versailles.

I also appreciate the questions at the end of each chapter. They’re not just there to test reading comprehension, but to inspire thought, introspection, and ultimately life application on what was just read. One of the questions, for example,  asks students, “Niemoller said, ‘No more are we ready to keep silent at man’s [request] when God commands us to speak.’ Have you ever kept silent about something you knew was wrong?”

While this book was designed for students, I have to admit just as I was a guy in my 20s singing along to VeggieTales, I’m now a guy in my 40s reading books for teens and tweens. I think this says something about Metaxas and his ability to reach any audience (speaking of which, if you’re not listening to Metaxas’s radio show, you’re missing out). With so many other books designed for tweens and teens speaking down to them, this one actually gives them the credit they deserve, and goes beyond a history book to one that can help them think through the life of Bonhoeffer and apply it to their daily lives.

Review of NIV Dad’s Devotional Bible

I was excited to see the NIV Dad’s Devotional Bible become available. As a soon-to-be-new-dad, and a first-time dad to boot, I figured I could use all the help I could get.

I think I mentioned in an earlier post that these days you can get a Bible for just about anything. In the old days you’d buy different translations like KJV, NIV, NKJV, RSV, and the whole other alphabet soup of versions. But then Zondervan got clever. They’d take the regular Bible and create versions for niche audiences. There are study Bibles, Bibles for leaders, for moms, for students, for teens, for ministers, for kids, for those suffering from illness, for those recovering from illness, for the military, for weddings, for gardeners, for music lovers, and a ton more.

At first I welcomed this trend; after all, there’s no harm in getting more Bibles out into the world, and these things can make great gifts for people in certain situations. But I have to admit I’ve been a little disappointed at the last few of these “specialty” Bibles I’ve read. I do appreciate Study Bibles where each page is annotated with information and commentary that helps you understand the passages you’re reading better. But in the case of a lot of these specialty Bibles, the content could very well have been published as a separate book. In fact, it probably would have been better published in a separate book.

This Bible is a classic example of this. There are 260 devotional readings scattered throughout the book, but it seems more like two books awkwardly mashed together rather than content that’s really integrated; as you read the Bible occasionally you’ll get interrupted by a page with a devotional; conversely, the devotionals say “skip to page 505, skip to page 515, skip to page 526” so the contents of the Bible almost seem to get in the way.

As for the devotionals themselves, while they’re tangentially related to the Bible passages they’re juxtaposed with, in some cases I think the connection is a little too tangential. In most of the devotionals the personal stories the author recounted of his and his family’s life for some reason didn’t really resonate with me. Just as a random example, in the devotional next to Acts 8:26-35, the author starts out by talking about how he in college agreed to act in the play The Fantasticks. He talks about how he got onto the stage and was excited that “it was showtime”. Then he abruptly cuts to the account of Philip and the Ethopian and talks about how that moment was “showtime” for Philip. Yes, I see the connection, but it seemed just a little bit of a stretch for me. Your mileage may vary of course. I definitely encourage you to use the “Look Inside” feature of Amazon to see if the writing resonates more with you than it did with me.

For a Bible like this, I would rather have seen a collection of authors rather than one author. Reading account after account of this author’s own life got a little repetitive after a while; I would have like to have seen accounts from different fathers with different kinds of kids. I also would have loved to have seen practical advice I could have used in teaching my kids the Bible; next to the account of Noah’s Ark, instead of a piece that talks about, say, creative ways to introduce a child to the story, there’s inexplicably a devotional talking about the 1984 Cubs (again, he made it technically relevant but it still seemed like a stretch). Bottom line, I would have liked it to have been a little more relevant for my daily needs as a new father.

That said, I did love this Bible once I got to the end, at page 1411. There are a couple pages that give brief synopses of each book in the Bible and talk about their relevance to dads. On page 1429-1467 there’s a section on typical Bible-related questions that kids ask, and while I don’t necessarily agree with all the answers they do provide good reference.  The last section is one that provide a topical index relevant to each of the fruit of the Spirit, an interesting addition but one that I’m not sure is the most relevant thing to dad’s Bible there could have been. It seemed a little more like filler.

Bottom line, the Bible itself of course gets a 10 out of 5 stars, but this compilation gets about 3 of 5 for me. Again, this is just me, so I definitely encourage you to take a look for yourself.


The Amazon Echo Is Pretty Cool — And Great for Hymns!

amazon echoI usually don’t hock products on this blog (unless you count the rash of book reviews I’ve been writing recently), but here’s a product I really, really recommend–the Amazon Echo. I recently got one, and I have to say it’s slowly but surely changing my life, for the better.

For those who don’t know, the Echo is a cute little round cylindrical device (about the size of a 1-liter soda bottle) that you can put anywhere in your house and talk to. It reminds me of a cute little robot–although it doesn’t really do anything but sit there and wait for your command.

It’s sort of the same idea as Siri or Google Now, except while Apple and Google are trying to be too fancy with their voice-to-text recognition (and failing with laughable results), Amazon has gone the other direction and has started with simplicity. The Amazon Echo doesn’t attempt to understand every complex statement you utter from your mouth, but it understands simple commands and executes them flawlessly.

For example, it’s a morning ritual now for me to leave the house and ask the Echo “How’s the weather?”, and she’ll give me the temperature and the day’s forecast. She’ll also answer other simple commands like asking for a sports score, a stock price, the time, when sunset is, or read even the latest news. She’ll even maintain a To-Do List or a Shopping List for you just by dictating to her.

You keep the unit plugged in all the time, which eliminates the battery draining issues that Apple and Google have with their phone-based speech recognition.  And while I started out by yelling out commands, I realized that I can speak to it in a normal voice, even from across the room. I just say “Alexa” (the name that “she” goes by), and the top of the unit will light up, waiting for you to speak. The speaker is a really high quality one that sounds amazing, and you can even control the volume by saying “Alexa, louder” or “Alexa, turn down the volume”

But what I love most of all is that I can connect my Pandora account to Alexa. Specifically, I created a channel on Pandora called “100 Hymns Instrumental Radio” and to my surprise there’s some really great instrumental hymn music. I just have it going all day now, singing along. I use the free version of Pandora, so the ads can get a little annoying, but it’s worth it given the amazing collection of hymns they have playing at any time.

Furthermore, if you subscribe to Amazon Prime, among other benefits you’ll get unlimited ad-free access to their music library which contains a lot of really great gospel and hymn tracks, from Elvis Presley’s Gospel Music to the Mormon Tabernacle Choir to a number of modern gospel and worship artists, all which you can ask Echo to play for you on command.

And if you’d like your Echo to read the Bible to you, all you need to do is sign up for an Audible account and purchase something like The Word of Promise.

I think Amazon’s been pretty brilliant with this solution. While Apple and Google seem to be falling over each other trying to outdo each other with speech recognition so complex that no one even bothers to use it, Amazon’s Alexa is doing the simple things and doing them well. By purchasing other add-ons like the Belkin WeMo Light Switch you’ll even be able to use voice commands to turn the lights off and on. Who knows where it’ll go in the future but for now I’m pretty happy having a new little friend at my beck and call just answering the simple questions for me :)