Tuesday, November 12, 2013

When People are Big and God is Small

When People are Big and God is Small, Ed Welch
  • Do you care more about what people think of you than how God views your sin?
  • Are your actions motivated by what others will think?
  • Does fear of shame or embarrassment guide what you say and do?
  • Do you desire the good opinion of others?
  • Do you avoid telling people the gospel because of what they will think of you?
Well perhaps you (like me!) tend to fear man more than you fear God. In this excellent book, Ed Welch shows that our self-esteem issues, competition, peer-pressure and dependence on others are all the same thing – a fear of man, where other people are the driving force behind our thoughts and actions.

Welch explores three themes in this book:
  1. We must determine how and why we fear others – it is a fear of shame or rejection or because we feel threatened. All of these are real drivers which explain our fear of man, but until we realise which factors guide us, we cannot respond to them properly.
  2. We must realise that God is bigger than people. The person who truly fears God will fear nothing else. We must grow in our knowledge and love of God.
  3. We must love people more, but need people less. Therefore people’s opinions and reactions to me will no longer guide me, for I live in the fear of the Lord. Yet in truly loving God I am free to and serve people more.
Through this process, Welch interacts with current counselling methods and critiques them. He particularly focuses on the risk of talking to people about their felt needs, such as their need to be loved and their need for healthy self-esteem. In the end it is all driven by a fear of man – to be loved, to be liked, to feel my needs met. Instead he says:
“The most basic question of human existence becomes “How can I bring glory to God?” – not “How will God meet my psychological longings?” These create very different tugs on our hearts: one constantly pulls us outward toward God, the others pulls us inward toward ourselves.” (p158)
When I reviewed Compared to Her earlier this year, I noted how helpful it was in identifying the issues of comparison among people (mainly women), yet in the comments I did agree that I wanted more detail on how to live in a more godly way with the temptations that comparison brings. I feel this book has given me more tools to do that, it is longer and more comprehensive.

I personally found this book quite challenging. I read it with certain issues of my own fear of man in mind and so when I purposely did some of the exercises at the end of the chapters, I found them helpful in making me work through things in detail where I fail in this area and how I could move forward.

As I can’t imagine anyone out there not struggling with these issues in some way, it is recommended reading for everyone!

Monday, November 11, 2013

Nearing Home

Nearing Home, Billy Graham

Many years ago, I greatly enjoyed reading Billy Graham’s autobiography, Just As I Am. Written in 1997, he makes the statement “I know that my life will soon be over. I thank God for it, and for all he has given me in this life” (p729).

So, it has come as somewhat of a surprise to Graham, who was convinced he would die sooner worn out from service of God, that he still lives. Aged 93 (when published in 2011), he says:
I never thought I would live to be this old.

All my life I was taught how to die as a Christian, but no one ever taught me how to live in the years before I die. I wish they had because I am an old man now, and believe me, it’s not easy. (vii)
Thankfully for the rest of us, he has not sat around pondering such thoughts on his own, but gathered them all together in this excellent book dealing with growing older and how to tackle our ‘senior years’.

Solidly based in the gospel, Graham takes every opportunity throughout this book to clearly explain what Christ has done and how we trust in his grace through faith.

As he walks us through thinking about retirement, planning for the future practically (wills, etc), how to proactively be involved with grandchildren, how to make sure our foundation is Christ is secure and how we look forward to heaven, he gives practical advice and biblical encouragement along the way.

Here are some of his thoughts along the way:
Just because we are retired does not mean our work is done. Retirement provides us the opportunity to spend more time doing God’s work, serving others in the name of the Lord. (p41)

See your retirement as a gift from God. Retirement isn’t something that just happens if you live long enough, and it isn’t even a reward for your years of hard work; it is a gift from God. Once you understand this, you will approach your retirement differently.’ (p44)

The things we value during the prime of life will follow us into the twilight years. If we wisely value faith in the Lord Jesus Christ, it will strengthen us as we age. (p53)

God’s will is for you to become spiritually mature, growing stronger in your relationship to Christ and your service for Him. But this takes both time and effort. Conversion is the work of an instant; spiritual maturity is the work of a lifetime. (p149)

The final chapter reminds us what we look forward to as we near home: heaven. Heaven is glorious, perfect, joyous, active and certain: “you have reason to look forward to the glories of Heaven, for you will be perfected, you will be joyful, you will once again be active, and right now you can be certain that you are nearing home. (p180)

A great book for those approaching retirement or facing old age, and for any of us who want to understand it better.

Friday, November 8, 2013

Raising Girls

Raising Girls, Steve Biddulph

Having read Raising Boys many years ago as well as other Biddulph books (The Secret of Happy Children, etc), I was pleased to see he has a book for girls out now.

For those of us trying to navigate raising girls, it’s a good resource. He identifies that girls today have lost 4 years of childhood peace and development that we once had, so our 18 is their 14 and our 14 is their 10.  Which means that for parents, we need to be addressing issues with our growing girls much earlier than we ourselves ever needed such information.  I know many parents find this a challenge. Of course, it is the same for boys; I am constantly surprised at the conversations I already having with my 10 year old son!

Biddulph divided this book into 3 sections. Part 1 is the stages of girlhood. I was pleased to discover we have already passed 2 of those stages so I only skim-read them, and concentrated on the 5-10 years and 10-14 years chapters.

There was one main thing I came away with from each:
  1. 5-10 year old girls need to be taught how to be a friend and what makes a good friend. It’s a very helpful thing to be pro-active about and something they need to learn to help them for the rest of their lives.
  2. 10-14 year olds – help them find what excites them, their ‘spark’. I found this a helpful idea to be aware of and earlier than I probably would have thought of it.
Part 2 deals with the five main risk areas for girls, which you could probably guess:
  • Our sexualised culture
  • Mean girls
  • Body image, weight and food
  • Alcohol and other drugs
  • The online world
None of these issues are new to any of us, they just present different parenting challenges for each age group. This whole section was helpful at identifying the issues.

The final part looks at girls and their parents, which has a chapter for both mums and dads. Both of these are helpful reminders of things we can do that are helpful and things to try avoid.

Overall, it’s a helpful book, it gives to some good ideas and walks parents through the challenges we and our girls face.

However, it has reminded me again of why secular parenting books are so limited. There is no overarching philosophy, no mind-set that drives it. It is just a collation of good, sensible ideas. It is not until we look to the gospel and find that we and our daughters must find our identity in Christ alone and that our value comes from how God sees us that we can be free from the messages of the world. That we are called to live in a way that honours him and so we raise our children to do the same. Without this perspective we have no grace, no hope and no true identity.

So by all means read this book and get some good tips and ideas. But remember the bigger picture of the truths you are raising your daughter to know. 

Monday, November 4, 2013

Surprised by Oxford

Surprised By Oxford, Carolyn Weber

I loved this open, honest and sometimes raw autobiographical account of one woman’s gradual coming to faith over her first year of doctoral studies at Oxford.

Written by a literature scholar, it is full of poetry and abounds with literary references, so will delight those who love the written word. Yet, because the subject matter is so important and life-changing, it raises the writing to a whole new level.

Structured around the calendar year of study, Weber openly walks us through her questions, doubts, uncertainties and challenges as she considered who God is, what he has done and how faith and reason can co-exist and complement one another.

I found there was something here for new converts, searchers, old converts, and those who grew up in the faith. It is of particular help for both those who are highly educated and yet wonder if there is more to this life; and also for those who walk alongside them to understand that faith can come gradually, with the asking of many questions and voicing of many doubts.

It is clear that God placed her in Oxford to learn of Him that year. She had intelligent, educated friends and lecturers who were Christians. A fellow student clearly presented the gospel to her and helped her think more deeply about her ingrained beliefs and challenged those that did not stand up under scrutiny.

Here are some of her words along the journey:
“The morning after I heard the gospel, however, I woke up with what felt like a hangover. Little would I know it was of the spiritual kind that accompanies the inevitable dawn that life is not, perhaps, what we previously thought it was. And we cannot go back to pretending. What a headache to be caught in that liminal space! Literally.” (p100)

[About the bible] I devoured it, just as a best–selling book (which, coincidentally, it has always been). Even the long monotonous lists. Even the really weird stuff, most of so unbelievable as to only be true. I have to say I found it the most compelling piece of creative non-fiction I had ever read. If I sat around for thousands of years, I could never come up with what it proposes, let along how it intricately Genesis unfolds towards Revelation… No wonder this stuff causes war, I though as I read, between nations and within each of us.” (p103)

“Life is messy. Life is beautiful and terrible and messy. So why would we expect a faith in this life that is easy to understand? Why expect a gift wrapped up neatly within the tissues of our brains and tied with a nice bow of material clarity?“ (p178)

“To be one person one moment: lost. Then to be another person the next moment: found. It is the difference, as the saying really does go, between night and day. Outwardly I seemed the same, but inwardly everything had changed. I went to the window and watched the birth of the dawn. Everything, every thing appeared in this better light, this brighter light. (p270-1)

This book was a very special read, I highly recommend it.

Thursday, October 31, 2013

A book warning: Grace

Rarely on this blog do I include books I don’t like or have not enjoyed. I make exceptions however when I think they are dangerous. Grace by Morris Gleitzman could fall into this category.

As my children get older and read extensively, it is becoming harder to keep up with what they are reading. So while I peruse the back covers of most books, there are some that just slip in and out of here via various libraries and friends.  This one came to my attention because my son read it and it raised questions for him and he asked me to read it too.  

Grace is the story of Grace, a girl whose family is in a cult. It is told from her point of view as she watches her father be removed from her family by the elders for questioning the authority of the church. She tries all she can to find him and get him back, but her grandfather and uncle (key leaders in the church) prevent her from doing so. It is tense and anxious and I suspect could be quite fear-inducing for a child, as it raises the question: who do you trust in your family when some are telling lies and controlling you?

If this was a book for adults, I would have no problem with it. I have read many books over the years which explore the darker sides of a perverted religious message. However such a book, which is intended to be satire as well as serious, is quite risky with children.

My concern is that it uses the terms we are familiar with: sin, prayer, church, elders and turns them into an aberration. Of course that is the reality for a person in a cult. Truth is perverted. Grace is removed. Sin abounds. Children are victims.

So if your child reads this book, make sure you talk about it with them: explain the errors, how their church got it wrong and that sadly some people fall into these traps. I wouldn’t forbid them from reading it (although I wouldn’t recommend it for under 10s), just make sure you read it too and then talk about it.

My son and I did so this morning. It was a great conversation, we talked about the history of Christianity over time and how, sadly, people have gotten the message of salvation wrong time and time again.

In the end, I asserted with him numerous times, that:
We are saved by grace alone
Through faith alone
In Jesus alone
By the scriptures alone
It was a good conversation to have on this Reformation Day!

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Continue On

Sometimes you come across something that touches your heart.  This was one for me.  My husband gave me this after I found myself asking similar questions.  Perhaps you might like it too...
A woman once fretted over the willfulness of her life. She feared she was wasting her potential, being a devoted wife and mother. She wondered if the time and energy she invested in her husband and children would make a difference. At times she got discouraged because so much of what she did seemed to go unnoticed and unappreciated. “Is it worth it?” she often wondered. “Is there something better I could do with my time?”

It was during one of those moments of questioning that she heard the still small voice of her heavenly Father speak to her heart.

“You are a wife and mother because this is what I have called you to be. Much of what you do is hidden from the public eye – but I notice. Most of what you give is done without praise – but I am your reward.”

“Your husband cannot be the man I have called him to be without your support. Your influence upon him is greater than you think and more powerful than you will ever know. I bless him through your service and honor him through your love.”

"Your children are precious to Me, even more precious than they are to you. I have entrusted them to your care to raise for Me. What you invest in them is an offering to Me. You may never be in the public spotlight, but your obedience shines as a bright light before Me. Continue on. Remember, you are My servant. Do all to please Me.”

(by Roy Lessin)

Monday, October 14, 2013

The Word Spy

Thanks to Nicole’s post last year, we have discovered Ursula Dubosarky’s The Word Spy and it’s follow up: The Return of the Word Spy.

These excellent books for children explain the English language. In The Word Spy, you discover words and language, punctuation, the history of letters and then all types of fun plays on words – anagrams, euphemisms, oxymorons, etc. The Return of the Word Spy brings you more details on language and how it evolved, how we learn to speak, an introduction to basic grammar and finally how writing has evolved with keyboards and texting. 

Now, I know, you are thinking – how boring! How could I possibly get my kids to read that! Well, because it is fun. There are jokes, funny stories and her tone of writing is perfectly aimed at middle-upper primary children. Throughout there are puzzles and riddles to solve and one overarching word puzzle throughout the whole book. It is for competent readers who already enjoy language and word tricks; our 10 year old loved it, and our 8 year old is currently enjoying it.

Highly recommended for those who love words & reading. I would have found it helpful for Year 8 Latin grammar myself and perhaps even some of those New Testament Greek grammar lessons!

Monday, October 7, 2013


NIPS XI, Ruth Starke

Monday’s posts are now becoming reviews of good children’s books, not just ones to read aloud.

My son read this as part of his school class reading and loved it so much he wanted me to read it, which resulted in a very enjoyable few hours. It is no surprise this book has made it into libraries and schools – it’s about an Adelaide Primary School, North Inala, which like many schools we all know, has a multicultural day. However, Lan and many of the ‘ethnic’ kids are sick of it – for who wants to dress up in national dress, bring in the food they eat every day at home and look different in the process?

Lan decides they should play cricket instead, for what better way, he decides, is there to be an Australian? He gathers a team of kids from Asia, the sub-continent, the Middle-East and South America, and terms his team the ‘NIPS’.

With almost no cricketing knowledge or experience, they decide to challenge the nearby private boys’ school to a match. As the plans unfold, the helpful local librarian Grace lines them up with a local cricket coach Spinner (who just happens to have been a test-cricketer) and they prepare for the match.

It is a lovely book. Its observations of Australian culture, how immigrants work to fit in and how local primary schools operate are laugh-out loud funny. There are lessons on friendship & good sportsmanship throughout. A kid who likes cricket will love it, but even those who do not follow the game will be drawn in. 

I suspect kids with English as a second language would struggle, it is full of idioms and ‘Australianisms’, but these can be overcome with explanations.

For those who loved it (as my son, husband and I did), there is also a follow up novel – NIPS Go National, where the team are invited to Melbourne to play other teams with diverse backgrounds from around the country.

Highly recommended reading for upper primary age kids, especially cricket fans.

Monday, September 30, 2013

Rainbow Magic Fairies

Rainbow Magic Fairies, Daisy Meadows

Today I suggest a series suitable to read aloud with your kids that some will disagree with, I know some parents hate these books. I have to admit I don’t love them. But I have come to realise they serve a good purpose.

The Rainbow Magic Fairies (books 1-7) are the fairies who give colour to Fairyland and the world. Evil Jack Frost has flung the fairies into the real world, thus depriving fairyland of any colour. Newly found friends, Kristy and Rachel are entrusted to find and rescue the fairies. The books follow a formulaic solution where each fairy is found and returned to Fairyland while the girls avoid or out-trick the goblins who are sent to stop them. After this initial series, many more follow including the Weather Fairies, the Pet-Keeper Fairies, the Party Fairies, etc. etc.

The reasons why many parents dislike these books are the same reasons many children (often girls, but also some boys) love them:
  • They are incredibly predictable and use a small range of vocabulary. Perfect for new and hesitant early readers.
  • There are hundreds of them. Seriously. We have (graciously given to us when no longer wanted by another family) 56, all of sets of 7. There are at least 200 out now. For children that want to keep reading them again and again, there is no shortage. We always have some out of the library.
  • Each only contains 6-7 chapters so even with a young one who is tired at night, a short chapter each night still finishes the book within a week.
My approach with these books has been to read the first two series – 14 books. Then after than if you want to keep reading them you have to do it yourself. This worked with our 8 year old a few years ago – we got her started and then she was off, devouring all of them. Now at 8, she is bored with them. She will read them when our 6 year old gets them from the library, but she has realised they all follow the same plot and they don’t really hold her attention any more.

However, our 6 year old is still in the grip of the world of Rainbow Fairies. Her reading has not progressed quite to her doing it solo (and we are up to book 13), so I may relent and read another series.

The advantage of this series is that if it hooks them, they have ample reading material for at least a year, until they are willing to try other things. Then I will switch to reading aloud other books to her and she can read the Magic Fairies on her own, to her heart’s content!

Friday, September 27, 2013

The End of Your Life Book Club

The End of Your Life Book Club, Will Schwalbe

You know how sometimes you make a mistake at the library, but it turn out to be a very good one?

I picked this up having seen it around a bit and had assumed it was fiction. In the mood for such reading, I grabbed it.

Upon realising it was actually a biography and a story of a man and his mother and their love of books I quickly needed to ‘shift gear’ but did so with joy. This is a lovely book. Will Schwalbe’s mother, Mary Anne, was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. As they prepared for a journey of ill-health, treatment and dying, he and his mother decided to form a book club. They were the only two members and although had spent their lives reading, they actively read the same books and talked about them together, often during her hospital treatments.

It is a powerful testimony about how rich a life full of books can be, and how books can impact us throughout all stages of our life. At the same time it is a moving story about the close relationship between a mother and son and from his point of view, how he faced her sickness and death. It shows an obvious love for his mother, but also his respect for her as a woman who cared for others, being intimately involved with refugees, fighting for their rights and as the founding director of the Women’s Refugee Commission, as well as being behind the funding and founding of libraries in Afghanistan.

She was a believer yet it is written from the perspective of her atheist son, and it is lovely to see his respect for her faith throughout, even though he did not share it:
[about church] Mom adored warmly greeting her fellow men and women and wishing them peace. She loved the Scripture and the sermons and the music. But more than any of that, she believed. She believed that Jesus Christ was her savior. She believed in the resurrection and life everlasting. These weren’t just words to her. Her religion gave her profound pleasure and comfort.” (p95)
She steered the book club towards some books where Christian faith played an important role, which included Gilead by Marilynne Robinson. It was only later, when pointed out by Will’s brother that he realised “Mom had finally succeeded in getting me to talk about faith and religion and even Bible stories, something she’d been trying to do for years”. (p189)

The devotional Daily Strength for Daily Needs became her bedside companion and he believes it is from it that she read her last ever words “thy kingdom come”.

By no means is faith and religion a major part of the book. It is about books, cancer and families. In some ways, faith only has a passing mention in what was her extraordinary life. Yet I loved those parts.

This is a lovely book, highly recommended. And, as an added bonus, you finish it with a list of even more books you want to read! 

Monday, September 23, 2013

The Hobbit

The Hobbit, J.R.R. Tolkien

Returning to some books to read aloud with your kids, this week we come to The Hobbit.

I remember reading this myself at age 10, so it seemed the time was right to read this to our son. He loved it. Tolkien creates a wonderful imaginary world of hobbits, goblins, orcs, elves and dragons, with a quest to reach an dwarf treasure. Like many books that were written over 50 years ago, some explanation is sometimes required and some sections are rather verbose. Yet, it is a world that invites your imagination to join in the fun. It is also a great primer before attempting Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. I will not be offering to read Lord of the Rings aloud, it would take all year! But The Hobbit is a great way to whet the appetite and hopefully develop future Tolkien readers.

We loved the riddles between Bilbo and Gollum, the forest of spiders was suitably scary and the encounters with the dragon left you wondering whether they would get the treasure at all.

It is also fun to talk about how C.S. Lewis and Tolkien were friends and shared their writing with each other. It can help make an author from the past more real to today’s readers.

Another great classic to introduce to your children by reading it aloud.

Friday, September 13, 2013

Just a Little Run Around the World

Just a Little Run Around the World, Rosie Swale Pope

I spotted this one at the library and being in the mood for a biography as well as some running encouragement, I picked it up.

It is an incredible story. At 52, Rosie Swale Pope set out to run around the world after losing her beloved husband to cancer in the hope to raise cancer support and early screening awareness as well as raising money for a Russian orphanage. What followed was a 33,000 kms trek taking 5 years over some of the most inhospitable terrain on earth including Siberia, Alaska and Iceland. She did it solo, with no official support crew, but much loving care from various running companies, shoe manufacturers and extreme adventure equipment suppliers. She met bears, wolves and the occasional snake, battled frostbite and rib fractures, and faced the real risk to survival that persistent sub-zero temperatures (up to -60°C) brings.

It’s a fascinating read. She has a real love for the world, enjoying everything she sees and the people she meets along the way. Of all the hundreds of people she meets along the way and the majority of time she spent camped in the wild, she had only a handful of unpleasant experiences with people. Overwhelmingly, people gave her incredible support and protection despite sometimes their own need and poverty (eg. in Siberia).

This is not a woman who does things by half! She has also circumnavigated the world by boat with her first husband and young children, sailed the Atlantic solo, trekked through Chile on horseback and run numerous ultramarathons and long distances.

There is a hint throughout that she may have some faith, at least a theistic faith, recognising that “There are no atheists on an adventure or in battle, I reckon it’s time to say thank you to God”.

All in all, it’s a great read about people, the beauty of the earth and one woman’s determination to keep going.

And it makes it much harder to complain when I struggle to run 5km!

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Heading Home

Heading Home, Naomi Reed

Naomi Reed was a missionary in Nepal and has written a number of books about that experience. Many readers I know, including myself, especially enjoyed her first book: My Seventh Monsoon, which is written about their life in Nepal and delves into how we should views the season of life that God brings. It was a very open and challenging read, as I discussed previously. Her second book, No Ordinary View, took you to their final years in Nepal and the things she learnt about God during that time.

Now, we come to the third in the series: Heading Home: My Search for Purpose in a Temporary World. Just like her other books it is a great story about their life, but more than that it is again a reflection on what God taught her in that time. It covers the years after they returned to Sydney from Nepal and faced the challenges of re-entry many missionaries face. The cultural changes and uncertainty, the materialism in the west, the commercialisation of Christmas, the feeling their neither Sydney nor Nepal was truly home and neither were they completely comfortable in either. It also charts how her books came to be written and published and how it affected her life and perspective.

I found this was a book you could read on two levels.

1. You could just read it as the next instalment into her life story. The challenges they faced, decisions to be made and what it was like to re-enter life in Australia. Just like her two previous books, it is highly personal and very open and so is a very helpful insight, especially for those of us who want to understand what life is like for returning overseas workers. It is also an insight into what it is like to have a book published.

2. However, it can also be read on a much more ‘devotional’ level. Each chapter addresses some sort of issue, such as trusting in God, where we find our value, where our home is, wanting to be liked, etc. At the end of each chapter is a prayer she has written that was her response to the situation. Each prayer is reasonably specific, but at the same time could be easily adapted to suit your own personal situation. As you know, I am a fan of written prayers, yet it wasn’t until I was a few chapters in that I realise what a gift these prayers are. They help us to stop, think about the point of the chapter in our own situation and then turn to God in responsive prayer, whether it be confession, thanksgiving, praise or request. For this reason I think I read this book too fast. I should go back and read it again, thinking about it responsively, not just learning more about her story.

There are very helpful reflections throughout this book, certain ones which I personally found very helpful. However, I’ll leave that for now and encourage you to read it yourself, for your own edification and encouragement. 

Monday, August 26, 2013

Emily Rodda

Today’s author to read aloud is Emily Rodda.  Rodda has written numerous books and series for children and all are fun to read aloud.

The series my son and I started with was Deltora Quest. When he was 7-8 I read the first series to him (which contains 9 books). We both loved them. They were a great adventure story about a boy Leif who has to search the land of Deltora to fill a belt with special jewels in order to find the rightful heir to the throne and overthrow the Shadow Lord. It has great characters (the grumpy minder Barda and a feisty girl Jasmine) and it is full of puzzles and plays on words which are printed in the book and you can look at together to see if you can figure them out. There are fight scenes, evil characters and real problems.

We both loved this series and were both genuinely excited to discover who the true heir to Deltora was at the end. He then went on to read the subsequent two Deltora series himself.

He has then gone on to read the Rowan of Rin series and loved them too. There are also the Three Doors series and the Rondo series (also aimed at 8-12s). Then there is the Fairy Realm books for girls and for very young ones (new readers), the Squeak Street series is quite cute, about a street of mice who each have an individual book.

Don’t you love an author who writes numerous series for numerous age groups!

In researching Rodda, I have realised that this name is actually a pseudonym; she is actually Jennifer Rowe, author and journalist from Sydney.  That is probably why we like her writing so much, there is something about reading Australian authors that feel familiar and natural when you read them. She also has written adult fiction – anyone read any of them?

Friday, August 23, 2013

He'll be OK

He'll be OK: Growing Gorgeous Boys into Good Men, Celia Lashie

I got this recommendation from Jenny’s blog a few years ago and stored it away for me to read at a later date.  I’m so glad I did.  Our son has just turned 10 and while this book focuses on boys in the high school years of 7-12, it gave me some great ideas and things to think about as we approach that stage.

Celia Lashie is a social commentator who has worked for years in the New Zealand prison system. She then undertook this project (the Good Man Project) in single-sex boys’ schools across New Zealand. Her desire was to define what a good man is and then how we help boys to grow into them, both in educational settings and in the home.

It’s a very easy read, detailing the way she went about the project and what she found, including lots of examples of conversations she had with boys, fathers, mothers, male teachers and principals along the way.

Some of the ideas I found helpful were:
  • Boys are crossing a bridge of adolescence in the high-school years. What they need most of all is for a man (primarily their father) to walk with them over that bridge, to show them how to get there and to be alongside them. Concurrently, she claims mothers need to get off that bridge. They need to be present, of course, but they are not the ones to primarily walk that road alongside their sons (of course, she addresses what this will look for single-mothers and those mothers who will refuse to get off the bridge anyway).
  • Her advice to mothers for this stage was: chill out. Don’t sweat the small stuff. Decide what really matters and deal with those things. Don’t expect your sons to include you in their lives at this stage in the way your daughters might. Your sons know you are there no matter what and they know they can come to you, so give them space to do so.
    • I cannot imagine these are easy words for some mothers to hear and not even being at that stage yet, I imagine parts of it I would find hard. But a lot of what she said made sense.
  • Her advice to fathers was to stay involved and to be the active ones in the relationship at this point. Keep interested in what interests your sons and keep being a model of a good man. Of course, other men can fill this role too if needed.
  • She went through the different stages of Yr 7-12 and how we can keep involved with our sons, providing the boundaries they need at points and the increased freedoms they need at others, while being committed to get them through adolescence safely and into manhood.
  • Her experience in the prison system taught her that most young men end up in prison because of stupidity rather than intentionally evil or bad behaviour. (eg. “I wonder what happens if I try run the red light?” “Can I outrun the cops?” etc). Therefore providing strong boundaries and clear messages regarding good decisions can help with this.
What I found most interesting were her comments regarding mothers in regards to both their husbands and their sons. She found overwhelmingly that most women are unwilling to allow their husbands to have an active parenting role, instead correcting and challenging his decisions. Their husbands intuitively knew this and so rarely spoke up.  At the same time, many treated their sons as exceptions for whom school rules need not apply and so did not back up teachers and principals, when they were trying to enforce standards for student behaviour.

It did lead me to ponder that in the Christian families I know, where men take an active role in parenting, this seems to be less the case. Perhaps when we respect God’s model of male leadership in families, we run into less trouble in these areas?

A good book that is worth a read if you have sons approaching or currently in the high school years.

Monday, August 19, 2013

Charlotte's Web

Charlotte's Web, E. B. White

Taking a break from series in the ‘books to read aloud’ series, today I bring you a single volume book: Charlotte’s Web. Many of you will have read this yourselves as children, as may have your parents: it was originally published in 1952.

It is the story of Wilbur, a runt pig saved from an early death by a young girl Fern and raised on a barn. Even amongst the other animals on the farm, Wilbur is lonely and becomes friends with Charlotte, a large grey spider. When Wilbur discovers than most pigs end up on the dinner table, he is traumatised, until Charlotte promises to save his life by writing messages about him in her web. What ensues is a lovely story of friendship, animals that talk (which Fern can understand), farm life and fun. When Charlotte dies towards the end, our children have been quite moved and yet love to hear of her babies hatching in the final chapter.

We have found about age 8 is perfect for this book, it captures their imagination (animals talking!) and the story keeps moving with interest. There are serious things at stake (Wilbur could still be made into dinner), and I think for many children who often are fearful of spiders, it’s a lovely way of learning about arachnids that opens up their minds to their positive traits.
When finished it provides a great entree into a family movie night with the 2006 movie by Paramount pictures with Dakota Fanning as Fern and the voice of Julia Roberts as Charlotte. It’s a lovely film version, suitable for the whole family.

Friday, August 16, 2013

C.S. Lewis Trilogy

A number of factors have come together which suggests this is going to be a year of reading C.S. Lewis for me. First I read his biography which I reviewed last week. Secondly, I happened across his science fiction trilogy for adults on sale at the library for 50c! I snapped it up not even knowing that Lewis had ever written for adults (not having got to that point in the biography yet!)  I am also reading the Narnia series to my two oldest in the evenings (which we will come to in the ‘books to read aloud’ series soon). I found Pilgrim's Regress by chance in a second hand bookshop and want to reread The Screwtape Letters. So, a few reviews to come I think!

Today’s is the science fiction trilogy Lewis wrote in the 1930s-40s. The books being: Out of the Silent Planet, Perelandra and That Hideous Strength.

I found all three required keen attention as you read them, these are not books that flow over you easily. Perhaps that is because they were written 70 years ago and because they are dealing with issues that are not as prevalent today. Perhaps it is also because I do not read a lot of science fiction. Perhaps it was because they were so alien and odd on many levels that they really did require a lot of thought.

The first two I quite enjoyed. Out of the Silent Planet is the story of Ransom, a man forced by two other men, to travel with them to the planet of Malacandria (Mars). He escapes his captors and discovered the different life forms on Malacandria, makes friends with them and learns of the all powerful entities (eldils and others) who rule the universe. It is an interesting idea of God ruling all things everywhere and what a world would look like that respected all species equally (not just humans at the top).

The second novel Perelandra is the account of Ransom’s next interplanetary visit, this time to Perelandra (Venus). Here he meets the Lady, the woman of the planet, who lives in abundant joy in a verdant environment, enjoying what has been provided by her creator. Into this idyll comes an enemy trying to convince her to disobey the orders of her creator. It is a fascinating analogy to the Garden of Eden and sets up a situation: what would have happened if Eve set up a continued resistance to the temptation of the serpent?  As the lady beings to consider the enemy’s words, Ransom realised he has been sent to stop the enemy succeeding. This was an interesting idea which I found I enjoyed following.

I probably should have stopped there. Book 3 (That Hideous Strength) I found interminably long and confusing. I did plod through it partially out of duty to finish it (why do I feel this way??) and partially because I kept hoping they would end up in space again. In essence, That Hideous Strength is about the final battle between good and evil (in a very simplified way), set in an English university town. Lewis uses fiction to address his concern over the growing feeling in society that science was the answer to everything, along with eugenics of humanity and vivisection of animals. People who like long philosophical discourse and who can admire Lewis’ ability to write at length will be very impressed. He could certainly write well. It just never really grabbed me and got so odd that I struggled.

However, I’m glad to have read them and exposed myself to more of his writing.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

A comedy of errors

Yesterday was a day like no other – the day I am calling my ‘comedy of errors’ day. I thought I would share it with you all for three reasons. 1. It’s rather funny. 2. If there are any preconceived ideas about me being organised and in control on this blog, this could help dispel them and 3. God is amazingly kind and generous, even when I am remarkably silly.

Here is how it went:
  • I had the day free so I headed out for a long run (11kms, which was rather a stretch)
  • When I got home I realised that I had been planning to get up on the roof for some time to check on some cracks, etc. So I got out on the roof via the balcony door.
  • Having taken my iPhone up there I proceeded to take photos of the things which I needed to ask the experts at the hardware store about.
  • After a few photos, my phone battery ran out (here is where things started to go wrong…)
  • I returned to the balcony after a complete roof inspection, rather pleased with my work and having enjoyed the view.
  • I went to re-enter the house via the balcony door to find that it was locked.
  • There is no safe way down from the balcony.
  • I toured around the roof trying to find a safe way down and could not find one that did not require me to stand on rotting wood or jump a potential ankle-breaking height.
  • It appears we have a remarkably quiet street.
  • However, we did have tradesmen in that day (God’s incredible kindness #1) and I knew they were to return to the house within the hour, so I sat down in the sun and waited.
  • Upon their return, they accessed the ladder via the garage and I was able to get down safely. (God’s incredible kindness #2)
  • However, I was still locked out of the house (the usual spare key stored outside was removed only 2 hours before because of said tradesmen!) with no phone, wallet, car keys, etc.
  • I borrowed the phone of the tradie and left a message for my husband, saying I was on my way in to get his keys.
  • I hopped on my bike and rode into town to meet him at uni.
  • I found another staffworker at uni (God’s incredible kindness #3) to call & locate my husband.
  • He met me, kindly fed me, provided me with said key and I returned home (God’s incredible kindness #4), taking the time to try and enjoy the 12km return bike ride.
  • Saga started at 11am, sorted by 1:30pm. But it felt like so much longer!
  • I was very tired last night and a little sore all over!
What I realised throughout was how much worse the whole thing could have been: there could have been no-one to help me down, I could have hurt myself doing so, my husband could have been away or unfindable, we could live much further away from his work, it could have been pouring with rain, it could have happened when I was due to pick up the kids, etc, etc.

So, even in the midst of it all (and I must say the reality of being locked out of your house and stuck on the roof at the same time was a little sobering) I realised how God was so kind in the whole situation.  I am very thankful for the reminder of his goodness on such a day.

Monday, August 12, 2013

Ranger's Apprentice

This week’s books to read aloud are the Ranger’s Apprentice series by John Flanagan. Now I have to be strictly honest here and admit we did not read them aloud. Our son (10) discovered them before we did, devoured them, decided he wanted to re-read them so often he wanted to own them and has since been buying them at second-hand bookshops or with birthday money. An online article reminded me that I want to know what my kids are reading and why it captures their attention, so I started reading them. Then my husband started. We have all enjoyed them.

It is the story of Will, an orphan raised as a ward of Redmont Castle in the country of Araluen. Having reached 15 he is to be apprenticed to learn a trade. He is chosen by the Rangers – a secretive group of men, who loyally serve the King by protecting the country. As Will comes to know and love his trainer, Halt, he is trained in archery, battle, horseriding and any skills a Ranger may need.

Reasons these books are good:

1. The author, John Flanagan, is Australian. Therefore we appreciate the humour in them. It is a dry wit and the characters don’t take themselves too seriously, most of which (I was pleased to note) my son understood and enjoyed.

2. While the entire setting is fictional, it is clearly an adaptation of England and Europe with Gallican knights over the sea, Skandian raiders over the sea to the north and Scotti raiders which come down across the land. In later books we meet nations who bear marked similarities to the Middle-East and Far East. For readers who understand the links there is humour here also. I would have loved to have read the Gallican knights voices in Book 2 with a Monty-python-esque French accent.

3. There are 11 in the series! You’ve got to love a good series for children. It has taken me weeks of solid reading to work my through them and I have really enjoyed them. Then there are three Brotherband novels set in Skandia when you finish.

4. They are very appropriate. Even though by half way through the series, the main characters are all adults and beginning to date and marry, their courtship is modest and gentle. It is also not the main part of the story, so boys stay very interested because there are lots of battles and problems to solve. I suspect this series would also appeal to girls who like some adventure, but who appreciate a little romance along the way.

5. There are strong themes of friendship, loyalty, honesty, courage and bravery. The Rangers are people you would be happy to have your children model themselves upon.

6. It seems that Flanagan first starting writing these books to encourage his son to read. There aren’t many better reasons I can think of to write children’s books.

A fun series – either to read with your children or read alongside your children.

Sunday, August 11, 2013

Preaching & Apologetics

It was a great privilege to be able to go to the SA Preaching School at our local bible college this week. This year was on ‘helping Christians become good everyday apologists’ and it was a great treat to have William Lane Craig come as part of his tour around Australia.

I always appreciate the chance to be challenged intellectually and this was definitely the way to do it.

There were three sessions on the day, all led by Dr Craig.

The first got us thinking about how we communicate and challenge people’s worldviews. This was really a challenge to pastors and church leaders to make sure we continue to value intellectual thought and academic rigour as a part of faith. As pastors are often the brokers of truth between scholars and congregations, they must be willing and able to interact with scholarly debate about the existence of God and other theological issues. He raised the challenge that much of the evangelical church has plunged into theological illiteracy, where many minds (of both pastors and laypeople) are in intellectual neutral. Then he went into some specifics of how to introduce apologetics into a ministry. These included:

  • Being an example. Model intellectual engagement yourself. Introduce historical backgrounds and details of the setting in bible passages. Use maps, details that make it real, not a story. There are many people in our churches who need these concrete evidences to continue to convince them their faith is based in fact, and this particularly includes our youth and uni students. This also includes refusing to apologise for challenging people intellectually – don’t dumb down theological terms, rather teach them well and clearly.
  • Have sermon series on the intellectual challenges to faith
  • Teach adult classes about the bible, faith and issues related to them. He said this will get men interested in learning in a way that often does not happen on a Sunday.
  • Set up scholarships for those training in ministry, but also those training in high-academia, the post-grads, etc who will shape thinking in the future and from a Christian perspective
  • Hold special apologetics events which answer certain questions or raise certain issues.

The second session was a sample talk that Dr Craig gave on how he would introduce the evidence for Christianity. This was a helpful session which pointed out that faith is rational, that there is accepted evidence for the Christian beliefs and yet only those who seek God will find him. I felt the best part of this talk was his claim that we do not live in a post-modern society and in fact it is one of the biggest lies we have been sold. No-one thinks the knowledge obtained by science and medicine are subjective. Rather, we live in a solidly modernist society, which is only relative in regards to religion and ethics. He said the claim that we are now post-modern and truth is relative is a ruse to get us to lay down our logic and reason and only ‘share stories’. As Christians, we should never give up traditional appeals to logic and reason.

The final session was pretty tough going! It was a seminar of equipping Christian to give better answers and basically ran through a number of those positive arguments for God (arguing from contingency, morals, existence, etc) and the negative arguments (answering objections to God) such as evil and suffering in the world and religious diversity. This was a very intellectual, philosophical session which reminded me why I struggled so much in Philosophy 2 at bible college!

In the end I walked away with the following thoughts:
  • I am thrilled that a man of his intellectual calibre is willing to stand up publicly for Jesus. He conducts debates around the world with leading atheists and is confident intellectually and academically that Christianity holds up to scrutiny and it has deepened and strengthened his own faith. I thank God for that.
  • It seems that the tide is turning in the US and UK and that now many of the leading philosophers of our day are professing Christians. No longer do the statements of the 1960s that ‘God is dead’ hold any weight amongst academics. I also thank God for that.
  • I think he issues an excellent challenge to those in ministry to ‘brain up’ as it were and become educated in apologetics, both for ourselves and for laypeople. We should certainly be doing that and I will be looking out for some of his books.
  • Yet I cannot imagine any conversation where I would use the ontological argument for God or the logical version to the problem of evil in speaking with an unbeliever. I just don’t know people who talk like that or who are asking those philosophical questions. Most people questions about God are strongly rooted in pastoral issues – their pain and suffering, or not wanting to believe in God because they may have to account for their lives. In our desire to be intellectually rigorous and philosophical capable, let us not forget that many people’s issues with God are pastoral. (Dr Craig never suggested such a thing, I am just drawing conclusions for myself).
A good day with lots to think about.

Dr Craig is touring the Eastern states this month and debating with Professor Lawrence Krauss at a number of events hosted by City Bible Forum – you might want to go if you are nearby.

Friday, August 9, 2013

C.S. Lewis: A Life

C.S. Lewis: A Life, Alister McGrath

A recent trip to a Christian bookstore convinced me I wanted to read a few more biographies. So I grabbed this one eagerly to read about C.S. Lewis - a man whose books I have read, who is regularly quoted in Christian books and is widely regarded amongst many believers, yet about whom I knew very little.

This is a biography that covers all aspects of Lewis’s life, from his childhood and early academic years, his coming to faith and writing, his friendships and relationships. McGrath has spent a lot of time reading Lewis’s published books as well as much personal correspondence to bring together a complete picture of the man. He has analysed many primary sources and is willing to draw conclusions about Lewis that seem at odds with previous biographies. At this level I am unable to comment, knowing nothing about Lewis myself other than what I have now read in this book.

It is a comprehensive work. I did find the first half a bit slow and will admit to putting it down with disinterest a few times. However once it got to Lewis’ conversion to Christianity, his later writings and apologetics work I found it much more interesting. McGrath has spent some time looking at the Narnia series as well as his other writings and it has inspired me to return to Lewis’ writing myself.

If you are like me and know little about the man, this book would definitely give you a wealth of information and analysis covering his life. If you are already a keen follower of C.S. Lewis and are familiar with his life and writings, you may be interested in McGrath’s take and interpretation of some of the events of his life, such as proposing a different date of his conversion from even the one Lewis himself suggested.

All in all a good book about a man worth knowing about.

Monday, August 5, 2013

Harry Potter

Today’s books to read aloud are J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series. In the past two years I have started reading these to my son. He was 9 when we started the first: Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone.

He wanted to start reading them as many of his friends already were, so I went back and re-read them all again to decide whether I was happy for him to do so. I know people have varied opinions of the Harry Potter books. My personal decision was that I was happy for him to read some of them for now. The earlier ones are shorter, less dark and less evil, and the children are younger. By the end when the kids are 17 they are dating one another and the evil & magic they are facing is quite unpleasant.

So last year I started reading them to him, partly because I enjoy the books and so was happy to read them again, but also to slow down his rate of consumption! He would have sat down and read the whole book in 2 days, whereas with me reading a chapter at a time stretched it out over about a month. So last year we read the first 2 and this year we have read the 3rd. We have stopped for now. I now need to decide whether to continue reading them aloud (they do get very long from here on, so it would be a few months of reading at night for each book), to let him continue on his own, or to continue to wait a bit longer. At the moment we are tied up in other books, so we have ended up waiting. We will probably return to the fourth towards the end of the year.

Anyway, that’s a long explanation! Back to the point - they are great books to read aloud. They are exciting, fun and interesting. My son loved the quidditch matches and was always on the edge of his seat to know what happened, he loved the magic & humour and all the interactions between the students. He loved the fantasy and imaginary world that Rowling has created, yet how it still seems realistic to a boy of his age. I enjoyed reading them aloud, they are easy to do so and I loved watching his reactions and excitement.

Friday, August 2, 2013

Note to Self

Note to Self, Joe Thorn

This little book is a selection of ‘notes to yourself’ or ‘exhortations to remind yourself of’, or as the subtitle says ‘the discipline of preaching to yourself’.

Each ‘note to self’ is only 2 pages long so it can be thought through and digested in some detail. I have been reading one each day for the past 6 weeks. Some of them drive me to prayers of confession, others to praise of God and others were reminders of truths that I needed to hear again.

As his introduction says:
To preach to yourself is to challenge yourself, push yourself and point yourself to the truth. It is not so much uncovering new truth as much as it is reminding yourself of the truth you tend to forget.
To give you an idea of some of the topic areas, I have included some headings and a few quotes so you can get an idea:

The Gospel and God
  • Remember your sins
  • Jesus is big
  • Jesus is enough
  • God does not answer to you
  • Be humble in your theology: “it’s possible to be technically accurate in your theology and yet miss the mark of humility. Be passionate for God, fight for truth, contend for the faith, but be humble. Your knowledge is a cause to be humble, not a reason to boast in your insight or tradition” (p55)
The Gospel and others
  • Stop judging
  • Forgive
  • Welcome
  • Listen to others “You think of yourself as open and willing to heed God’s wisdom… What you fail to realise is that one of the primary ways in which God will answer your prayer for wisdom is by speaking to you through other people” (p83)
The Gospel and you
  • Kill your sin: “You seem to think that your sins will somehow die of old age. It’s as if you believe you can wait them out, and they will eventually grow weak and fail. But the truth is your sin ages like an oak tree. If you aren’t chopping it down, its roots are growing deeper and its branches are growing stronger.” (p103)
  • Stop complaining “You complain because you misunderstand (or just miss altogether) the grace you have received by not recognising it and receiving it with gratitude. Life, breath, and all of God’s provisions for your life are acts of his kindness and are truly wonderful, and they all seem to disappear when the smallest inconveniences of life appear.” (p109)
  • Know your idols
  • Be careful in your theology
  • Don’t be a fan boy (I did rather like this one considering it seems to be a regular current tendency)
I could have included something from every note, each was helpful.

This is a book worth having and reading through regularly to keep you sharp about your areas of potential growth or weakness. I have just gone back to the beginning and started again!

Monday, July 29, 2013

Roald Dahl

Today’s author to read aloud is Roald Dahl. Did anyone not love his writing when they were a kid?   He just seems to understand a child’s sense of humour. He gets that they love for kids to win, for the nasty people to lose and for it all to happen in a rather funny way.

We start our kids on Fantastic Mr Fox (~age 6-7). It’s short, easy to follow and fun to read.  Everyone hates the three farmers and wants the foxes to win.

Then we move on to James and the Giant Peach or perhaps Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. In time we include The BFG.  My daughter (8) was rather scared of The BFG for a while, until she picked it up on her own recently, got through the first few chapters and was hooked.

What’s good about Roald Dahl books is you can continue to read them into teen years and adulthood. His short stories for older readers are great, with twists and turns that few can predict. I always enjoyed The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar as a teenager, I found it so wonderful I wanted it to be real.

For those who like ‘nice’ stories, Roald Dahl is not for you. But if you are happy with dark humour, horrible adults who get what they deserve and good kids who always win in the end, his books are great fun.  Also, we should not forget the wonderful collaboration he had with Quentin Blake, the illustrator who made the books come alive.

There are also collections of his rhymes and verse, one of the presents I still remember loving as a child was Revolting Rhymes, a nastier version of many fairy tales. Great fun!

What are your favourite Roald Dahl books?

Friday, July 26, 2013

The First Casualty

The First Casualty, Ben Elton

I have read a few Ben Elton books over the years and enjoyed all of them. He has an insight into humanity at its bleakest and yet manages to infuse an idea with reality, honesty and humour.

The First Casualty is set in WWI, where Douglas Kinsey has become a conscientious objector because he thinks the war is idiotic. A public pariah as a result, he is imprisoned for his beliefs.

Over in France a British officer is murdered while convalescing for shell shock. Kinsey is sent to France during the third battle of Ypres to discover what happened. Finding himself face to face with the very war he objected to be a part of, Kinsley is forced to ask himself: what does one life count when thousands die daily? What is murder? Is there a difference between one officer being intentionally killed and the many who continue to be sent into the trenches? What will you do when you come face to face with the enemy?

Elton paints a graphic and tragic picture of war. I was struck by the inanity of fighting for years over one stretch of boggy mud. It is no wonder than men return from such warfare completely changed and unable to speak of what they have seen. His portrayal of such times and the characters who live in them (officers, police, war nurses) ring true.

Elton has written 14 novels over the years, I have read his first, Stark (incredibly bleak yet humorous) and the more recent Blind Faith (a futuristic Britain overrun by social media and compulsory faith). I will look for more, I enjoy his writing and the way it makes you think.

Monday, July 22, 2013

Patricia St John

Today’s author to read aloud is Patricia St John. St John (1919-1993) was a Christian woman who worked much of her life as a missionary nurse in Morocco. Her great gift was telling children about Jesus in a way they understood and was appropriate, yet without dumbing down gospel truths.

Having not grown up with these books, I had no idea they existed until a dear friend told me about them. We have since bought 6 of them and I have read 2 to our older children (Treasures of the Snow and Rainbow Garden).  They have worked our children in age range 7-11.

These books are a delight to read aloud. They are full of rich descriptive imagery, realistic characters, serious situations and the gospel. Children have to make real choices with serious consequences, these are not light situations. In Treasures of the Snow an older boy is responsible for an accident which permanently injures a younger boy, whose sister now hates him with a vengeance. Both must decide when presented with the truths of the gospel how they will respond – will they seek forgiveness? Will they seek restoration of the relationship? Will they try to fix what has gone wrong?

In both books we read, there were some excellent adult role models who were able to explain the gospel clearly to children and in each case, living in faith meant serious changes to the child’s life and attitude. I found myself choked up reading sections of both books, especially when the children accepted Christ as their Saviour.

My friend gave me a hint with these – just start reading them to your kids and wait until they get hooked, it takes a couple of chapters. I think the realism yet difference to their own world draws them in and they realise these are serious issues being presented. My eldest two loved these and I will continue to read St John’s books to them in the future. They are perfect for having conversations about the gospel and how it changes lives so therefore they are definitely books to read to your children, rather than give them to read alone.

Update 2016:

We have now read Star of Light, The Mystery of Pheasant Cottage, Where the River Begins, and I Needed a Neighbour.  All of these have been excellent, although Star of Light has been a clear favourite with all of us.  We have also since discovered two books aimed at a much younger audience (~5-7), Friska my Friend and The Other Kitten - these are simpler stories with animals, still good and address how to think about loving others.