Having been raised Southern Baptist in the 1980’s, I’m not sure that I heard the word Lent before I was a Religion major in college. Since learning of the liturgical calendar, I have been fascinated with this way of faith that gives a structure to the year and an intention to my worship.
This is part of the reason that I jumped at the chance to preview Jennifer Spencer’s work Forty Names of Jesus: A Lenten Devotional for Families. The other reason is that, in the years that I have known Jennifer, I have learned that she is a learner, a teacher, a mother, and a friend who is naturally curious and desires to do life with excellence. A curious teacher writing a Lenten devotional was something I simply could not pass up.
In the preface, Jennifer shares her inspiration for researching and writing this book; she had a need for something to teach her children about Jesus and couldn’t find material to meet that need in the particular manner she desired. That desire to help her children move from knowing stories about Jesus to actually getting to know Him intimately resonated with me as a new mom. As I read, I more and more appreciated her work as a teacher as well. While there are many strengths to this devotional, the following aspects make Forty Names particularly useful to me as a mother and an educator.
First, the devotional is adaptable. Jennifer does a fantastic job helping the reader understand the different tools she intentionally provided. While the actual reading for each day is relatively short, she provides multiple ways to adjust the breadth and depth of the study so that it is age appropriate for each member of a family. With a key verse and concept for each name as well as additional passages of study, I can use this to introduce my toddlers to the names of God but can also use it with my small group of high school freshmen without having to do much prep work on my own.
Second, the devotional is educational. The word devotional tends to have the connotation of fluffy or feel good, and there is a time and place for warm fuzzy devotional books. What is so appealing in this particular devotion is that Jennifer finds a way to warm the heart through engaging the mind. Moving seamlessly from Hebrew to Greek and Old Testament to New, Forty Names digs just a little deeper by providing historical and literary information that helps the reader understand and appreciate each name just a little more than you did before you started.
Third, the devotional is theological. A vital part of teaching children about our faith is helping them see the common themes throughout Scripture that point the reader to Christ. This particular work falls in line with recent works for children such as The Jesus Storybook Bible, which declares the precious truth that “Every story whispers His name.” In terms that even young children can understand, Jennifer teaches about concepts such as redemption, sacrifice, and propitiation, and uses familiar Bible stories to illustrate the meanings.
Fourth, the devotional is readable. It is possible to teach deep theological truths in layman’s terms. With simple definitions and a multitude of cross references that will help the reader increase familiarity with the full counsel of Scripture, there is an attractiveness to this work that draws the reader in and invites you to stick with the book, to come back for the next reading. A good teacher leaves a hook for her students so that they begin to internalize their motivation to keep learning, and the daily entries in this devotional are specifically written to guide the reader to the conclusion that she should just keep reading.
With all that has been written in recent years about the exodus of youth from the church and the biblical illiteracy of professing believers, devotional works like this one show us that learning about Jesus does not have to be either loud and flashy or dry and boring; learning about Jesus can be simple and satisfying. Learning can be fun, and it can be genuine, and it can be done alone or in groups. We can even learn as families. An ideal plan for families with kids spread across developmental stages is to simply start small (one verse and the concept) and then just allow the conversation to continue by using the additional passages and questions as your guide. You may be surprised just how long even the youngest in your family may stick around to talk and learn.
This is a devotional that can be added to your family’s permanent library because Jennifer wrote it in a manner that will allow you to also use it year after year and build upon what you’ve studied in previous readings. I am thankful that it is a resource that I have for years to come. If you are looking for a guide for your family for this upcoming season of Lent, I highly recommend Forty Names of Jesus.