Monday, July 16, 2018

Her Story

Her Story, Diana Lynn Severance

This collection of 366 readings is a mostly chronological covering of women of faith from Mary, the mother of Jesus, to present day. Severance has sorted and collated a massive amount of historical material, and made each reading one page of basic information about the woman and how her faith played out in her life.

I did indeed read one day for a year and found it to be an encouragement and challenge to consider how other women have lived in various times and places and circumstances, yet remained faithful to the Lord.

If a collection is made of women of faith, you can tend to pick the women who will be there: Sarah Edwards, Hannah More, Monica (mother of Augustine), Susanna Wesley and Joni Eareckson Tada. Most collections cover the same women again and again. All are great to learn about, but the advantage of this is the breadth of women included. Even if you are reasonably well versed in biographies of Christian women, chances are there will be hundreds here you have never heard of.

The early readings about women of antiquity and the Middle Ages were so encouraging: women who were queens, or faithful mothers, or early authors. Of course, there is less information for these ages, so by February you are into the Reformation and that becomes harder reading, with numerous accounts of persecution and martyrdom. We are into the 1800s by July and well into the 1900s by October. Only a handful of women included are still alive.

It was an encouraging way to spend a year, learning more about faithful women from over two millenia. There is a joy to see people who have chosen to live for Christ in every age and this is a wonderful example for us to follow. At the same time, because each account was so brief, and much of it presented in a measured, factual way, it felt like a surface treatment. Many truly tragic circumstances were presented so baldly that it didn’t give you chance to fully appreciate the gravity of what was being described. I would have loved more details for many. For those who would like to delve further into historical writing covering more details of some women, you could try Severance’s other work Feminine Threads: Women in the Tapestry of Christian History.

There wasn’t enough time to analyse real faults and failings, many were presented with an awkward sort of perfection, and so increasingly they set a standard that many women would struggle to emulate. Many of the women of the reformation onwards were highly educated, very pious, spoke numerous languages, translated the bible and still had families, which could well leave the modern women thinking: how is that even possible?

It is true that numerous women who struggled with ill health and hard circumstances were included, but the challenges of sin and maintaining godly living weren’t really present. I didn’t get the sense that these women struggled with the same sins I do.

I imagine collating any list of women of faith over that time would require limits. I was surprised some women warranted two entries, for example Queen Elizabeth I, Florence Nightingale and Sarah Edwards, yet some were obviously missed out such as Queen Elizabeth II or perhaps Nancy Guthrie. I wonder whether permission was needed to include women who are still alive, because I suspect more could be found for the current ages. It also felt like a very Europe and America centred list. Few women from Asia or Africa rated a mention, I think there was one Pacific Islander and one woman who was born in Australia.

The final month or so were mainly missionaries, which is a great encouragement. However, surely there are also many faithful women living in the 20-21st centuries who did not end up on the mission field? It felt a little unbalanced. Admittedly, these are the women that are known and able to be researched, rather than your average faithful Christian women known only in her local context.

One of the real blessings for me was the collections of hymns and poems that were included, written by various women over the ages. I now have a list of these written out for my own encouragement and for use in prayer. I feel very indebted to anyone who can express the truths of the gospel in poetic form, something that I feel very ill equipped to even try. That has been one of the benefits for me personally.

In summary, it’s an encouraging book that reminds us that women, and of course men, have carried their crosses for Christ in faith from his death and ascension for two thousand years to today. We can read and be encouraged, as well as educated and inspired by those who have come before us. But we should also read with a sense of reality, these are just snippets of information and only represent each woman in part. If you want to find women to truly emulate and model your life on, find a godly Christian woman in your context, talk to her, and get to know her story.

This was first published on The Gospel Coalition, Australia website.

Monday, July 9, 2018

Me and Rory Macbeath

Me and Rory Macbeath, Richard Beasley

This excellent story is set in Adelaide in 1977, where 12-year old Jake Taylor and his barrister mum, Harry, live on Rose Avenue, somewhere along the Torrens river. His summers are spent with the friends of the street playing cricket, swimming in the local pool, wandering around the suburb at night and occasionally going fishing with friends and their dad.

Rory moves into the house at the top of the street, and quickly joins the group of neighbourhood kids. While he can’t play cricket, he can certainly stand up for himself, and while he doesn’t seem to know much about the things they are taught in school, he can fish like a pro. A strong friendship develops between the boys.

But these marvellous days can’t last forever, especially as it seems that Rory’s family have secrets they are hiding. The story quickly changes about the halfway point from the account of a boyhood life and friendship to the legal drama of a courtroom battle. It seems fair to warn readers that there are some reasonably descriptive scenes regarding domestic violence.

How the story plays out is not very surprising, and it’s relentless as it does so. Beasley has managed to write both the idyll of boyhood life and the gritty reality of the more unpleasant parts of suburban life. He is a barrister himself, which becomes increasingly obvious as the legal drama unfolds.

I enjoyed it. It rings true to the childhood many of my generation had in Australia: that carefree life, where you played with the neighbourhood kids, knew their parents and some of each family’s quirks, but raises the question: did you really know what went on in their homes? Also, I really liked reading a book set in Adelaide and trying to nut out more details from the hints in the story. That doesn’t mean it’s exclusive at all, it just gave me an extra level of interest and attention to detail.

Monday, July 2, 2018


After having enjoyed Clementine Rose, Miss 10 turned to Alice-Miranda, also by Jacqueline Harvey. She has been completely absorbed in them for a while now. I hadn’t managed to read them until recently (just the first 2) and I’m so glad I did. They are utterly charming.

Alice-Miranda Highton-Smith-Kennington-Jones has decided at age 7 and a quarter that it’s time for her to start boarding school at Winchesterfield-Downsfordvale Academy for Proper Young Ladies. Her parents have reluctantly and weepingly agreed, acknowledging that Alice-Miranda often does know best. Alice-Miranda is delighted to be there, and quickly charms the staff and students, being unfailingly polite and disarmingly friendly. Within 24 hours she has sent the cook off on a well-earned holiday, convinced the gardener to plant flowers all over the grounds, and befriended the second-best tantrum thrower at the school. However, one person is not at all charmed: headmistress Miss Grimm, who has for 10 years managed to avoid any contact with students. She is determined to get rid of Alice-Miranda before she changes anything else.

There are echoes of Roald Dahl’s Matilda, but Alice-Miranda comes from an extremely wealthy family and has travelled all over the world meeting many famous people. Rather than being stuck-up, her parents have raised to both take care of herself and to care for others. She speaks her mind plainly but politely, and so will give many a young girl some hints as to how to deal with bullies and challenging situations.

There are so many books (and TV shows) where characters have traits that you would prefer your own children didn’t emulate. It’s a nice treat to have a heroine who is charming, friendly, polite and clever, all without any guile. I imagine it would be a challenge to write such a character without her becoming tiring, boring and trite, but Jacqueline Harvey has managed that balance point well.

I’m glad I dipped into them and am very happy for my Miss 10 to keep reading them. With 16 already written (each around the 300-page mark) and more underway, it’s a series that is very likely to appeal to (mainly) girls aged 7-10. They would also be quite fun to read aloud to less confident readers, or indeed to anyone who was willing to listen!

It seems Harvey has a new series starting this year too, Kensy and Max, we’ll be looking out for that one too.

Monday, June 25, 2018

Girl Wise

Girl Wise, Sharon Witt

I find myself on the lookout for resources for my kids addressing the various stages they are up to, and so discovered the Girl Wise series by Sharon Witt. She’s an Australian author and speaker who regularly addresses the issues of childhood and adolescence. She has four books for girls aged about 7-12:

  • A girl’s guide to friends
  • A guide to being YOU!
  • A girl’s guide to life
  • A guide to taking care of your body

With pretty fonts, illustrations and graphics, they are likely to appeal to numerous girls as they give advice on various topics. They are full of quotes and stories from real girls, and so read very naturally. In fact, the entire look of them means they are more likely to appeal to more ‘girly’ girls, being in pastel colours with twirly fonts. Having read all four, there are two I would prefer to recommend, the one on friends and the one on caring for your body.

It’s worth clarifying that I started these books expecting them to be Christian, as I bought them in a Christian bookstore. They are theistic and mention God at points, there are some bible references, and occasional suggestions to pray to God. But they aren’t really Christian, because Jesus Christ is never mentioned.  In some ways, they echo the mindset of moral therapeutic deism (a term recently used in regard to young adults (see here and here). Once I realised I couldn’t expect them to provide Christian teaching, then I was able to read them in a different frame of mind, with different expectations.

A girl’s guide to friends is a helpful manual for girls navigating the tricky reality of primary school friendships. There is helpful advice on how to make a new friend (smile, make eye contact, ask questions, be yourself). There are definitions of what makes a good friend (friendly, kind, trustworthy, respectful, etc) and tips for keeping friendships healthy. There’s a section on bullying but also about the reality of normal conflict with friends and how to talk through problems with each other. There are tips for things to do together, and ways to care for a friend who is sick, grieving or away for a while. All helpful stuff and it would be very useful for many girls in the Year 2-6 age range.  One thing I would have liked to see was a mention of being friends with boys, and that it’s normal to have boys as friends, and just friends.

A guide to taking care of your body was instructive and informative and probably provides information that they may not have to date. The details about various body systems helps girls to understand the way their bodies work, and why it’s important to keep everything working well. The instructions on eating well, getting enough sleep and taking care of your teeth and hair are all practical, as is the beginning of the discussion on some body changes that will happen. I would have liked to see some encouragement to cleaning your body well (good bathing habits) and perhaps the need to start considering deodorant.

All in all, these books offer helpful advice to younger girls. There is an encouragement to see they are special, and they can be happy to be who they are. Christian parents will want to extend the teaching and point out that yes, it is true that God made you special, you are unique and he loves you; and then temper it with reality that we are also sinful, and our hearts have turned away from God, and we can only live in a way that pleases him because of his grace, not because of who we are or what we do. You are special because you are God's child.

They will suit many girls aged about 7-10, and some older ones as well. Because they are Australian means they read quite naturally for our audience and that is often appealing. They could make good gifts too, particularly if you are looking for a positive message, but one that’s not too faith specific.

Friday, June 22, 2018

The Greatest Showman

This is a visual treat, I can fully see why so many people raved about it. Rated PG it’s suitable for almost the whole family, and with foot tapping songs, creative choreography and fabulous costuming, it’s hard to watch it without being entranced and with a constant smile on your face.

It’s based loosely on the life of P.T. Barnum, creator of the circus. Starting with his poverty stricken childhood, Phineas starts a friendship with upper society girl Charity. Here the first of the many hit songs, “A million dreams”, get the story under way. By the end of the song, they are grown up, happily married with two girls and he is still trying to earn enough to give her the life he promised.

Attempting to be a success, he buys a museum of curiosities, but his girls comment that rather than having it full of dead stuff, they need something live, something “sensational”. Phineas (Hugh Jackman) starts searching for people who are oddities in society, and those with particular gifts. Shortly he gather a troupe of performers including a bearded lady, an obese man, a dwarf, some conjoined twins and albinos, as well as trapeze artists and other performers. Nothing is always quite what it seems, as many of the ‘oddities’ aren’t completely real. While acclaim is coming and the building is filling for the fantastic show, a rough groups of locals is starting to protest, not wanting these types of people around. A newspaper critic for the Times challenges him “does it bother you that everything you are selling is fake?”

While success and money are flowing in, what Phinneas really wants is to be accepted by New York society, for they only see him as lowborn and crass. He enlists the help of Phillip Carlyle (Zac Efron), upper class playwright, and what follows was one of my favourite scenes with he and Jackman in a bar with the snappy song “To the other side”.

Carlyle manages to get them an audience in London with Queen Victoria and they convince opera singer Jenny Lind to come and tour under Barnum’s name. It seems that all of Barnum’s dreams are coming true. Meanwhile Carlyle is falling in love with the trapeze artist, Anne (Zendaya) and we all loved the scene with two of them on the trapeze, “Rewrite the stars”.

In the end Barnum has to decide what matters - chasing the acceptance of others, or the friendship of those around him? Does he strive for success or does he choose to look after his family?

Every song in this movie is a hit: strongly performed, crisply choreographed and lavishly costumed. I like every one, and we often now have the album on in the car.

I was very hesitant when I first saw the shorts for this movie. My gut reaction was: they are going to take a story of a man with some very shady actions and turn it into a celebration of humanity and all its diversity. And that is exactly what has happened. 

Having said that, the story they have created is great. So my feeling is: it’s worth seeing and you will enjoy it. Your kids will most likely love the grand show, the songs and the acting. But then make sure you let them know that while it’s based on real people, it’s not real and the circus really did have pretty shady beginnings. Enjoy the movie and the show for what it is, but don’t imagine it’s a history lesson.

And then, just maybe, if they are a bit older and enjoyed seeing Hugh Jackman sing and dance, you might move on to much a deeper, richer story in musical format, Les Miserables.

Monday, June 18, 2018

The After Wife

The After Wife, Cass Hunter 

Imagine you are a brilliant scientist, designing the new robots of the future: incredibly lifelike, humanoids that learn and build on information using data gathered. Hopefully they could be a new type of carer, able to work almost around the clock, tracking the biometrics of their clients and then adapting their responses and speaking with them in conversation. You are also very happily married to the love of your life and have a teenage daughter. And you know you are going to die. What do you do? Dr Rachel Comfort decided to use her technology and coding skills to create a back-up Rachel (iRachel).

Aidan and Chloe find themselves in a sea of grief, reeling after the sudden death of their wife & mother. Luke, Rachel’s grumpy, uncommunicative co-worker, reveals that he & Rachel’s work has come to a complete standstill as her death set off a chain of code in iRachel. She insists she must now live with Aidan and Chloe and assist them, or all her data containing years of work will be deleted.

Both are initially horrified at the thought of having iRachel in the house, who has been designed to look and speak exactly like Rachel. She has been loaded with their memories, photos and instructions for how to look after them. But she has been programmed very, very well. At various points, she retells stories they have forgotten, she gives letters to them pre-written from Rachel, and as time passes, a functional relationship develops between them all.

But time is ticking by, Chloe is aching to tell her friends about the top-secret robot in her home and Aidan’s mother is ill and needs to live with them. It’s getting harder and harder to keep iRachel a secret.

I really enjoyed this book. Hunter has written a compelling tale, which makes you consider the implications of creating such intelligent AI, and what the essence of a person actually is. I thought I could predict where the book was likely to head, but I was pleasantly surprised to discover I couldn’t and I enjoyed what Hunter did with the story. The cover tempted me with the suggestion that if you are a fan of The Lovely Bones and The Time Traveler’s Wife, you are likely to enjoy this, and I agree. In addition, for those who have enjoyed these types of idea in movies such as Simone and Her, there are overlapping ideas here too. An enjoyable read that makes you think a bit.

Monday, June 11, 2018

Made for More

Made for More, Emily Cobb

Do you ever find yourself wondering, "Is there more to this life?" When you talk to your neighbours, family members and colleagues, do you hear the same question in their never-ending search for satisfaction? As the next holiday is booked, or pleasure found in kids’ achievements, or the next recipe is mastered, is there a voice that says, "Surely there is more?"

For those of us with a Christian faith, the answer is yes. For while this life can be wonderful, exciting and interesting, we know this isn’t all there is. In fact, it's this certainty that helps us find joy and purpose in this life, not only in the pleasures and satisfactions, but also in the challenges and sorrows. We want our friends to know this truth too, to understand we are made for more than this life offers: a relationship with the living God.

So it's with great thankfulness that we can welcome Emily Cobb's book Made for More to the marketplace.

She starts by raising the question of longing, and observes that sadly the busyness of life prevents us from really searching for meaning:
“Most of the time I don’t notice it—as life has grown busier, responsibilities greater and I’m immersed in so much noise, my longings often get drowned out. Maybe that’s true for you too; the busyness, the chaos and even the delights of life suppress any deep sense of a longing for more. But if we unplug for a moment, and press pause on the busy, what drives who we are? What deep burdens and desires of our heart bubble to the surface? 
What do you long for?” (p8)
She states her own perspective: that it's a real relationship with God, who can be known, that gives life meaning, and that is what we are all longing for.

Cobb proceeds to logically and clearly present the gospel in concise, pithy chapters. She starts with creation, acknowledges sin and what went wrong, and then clarifies how God has always had a plan to deal with our longing. I appreciated how she faces head on our rebellion at being told we are sinners:
“You may feel like a pretty good person, and on the whole I think a lot of people on earth seem like fairly decent people. You may love others, you may care for the sick and downtrodden, you may work hard, you might even take that extra change back to the checkout if they give you too much. So this whole thing of you and me being sinners doesn’t sit well with you. Surely sinners are murderers and people like that, people who do really terrible things—not ordinary people like you and me. 
But the Bible defines sin differently. It says that every single person (apart from one) who has ever walked the earth is a sinner. Sin isn’t a specific action. It’s an attitude of the heart that de-thrones God and puts ourselves centre-stage.” (p29-30)
From this we move to four different emphases on Jesus: he is the son, the life giver, the saviour and the King. In doing so, Scripture is used to explain and expand. Included is how Jesus was obedient even though he was tempted (Matthew 4), and that he gives life using the example of the bleeding woman (Luke 8:43-48) and the Samaritan woman (John 4:1-42). The account of Mary leads into a clear explanation of Jesus’ death, why it had to happen and what it accomplished. These finish with a discussion of the realities of heaven and hell, under the banner of explaining why Jesus hasn’t returned yet: God is giving more people more time to come to him. Very helpfully, she openly acknowledges that we would prefer not to talk about hell, but we need to face its reality.

After laying this groundwork with explanations, engaging examples, and many Bible references, Cobb calls on the reader for a response. With a somewhat risky but helpful illustration, she likens what she’s presented to something a salesman at your door might offer and your various responses: usually disregard, but sometimes interest because you can see that what’s on offer is something you might actually need. She gives a fair summary of people’s reactions to the message of the gospel: avoidance, shutting down discussion, unwillingness to change, or a real desire to know more. Winsomely, she is respectful of all four options. She then guides the reader who wants to respond through the process of repentance, putting faith in Christ and notes the costs of following Jesus, all the while encouraging that it’s worth it.

In the final chapter, the reader is guided through the results of living the life you were made for including: you aren't alone (you have the Spirit), you’re a new person, you’re forgiven, and you no longer need to fear death. Life changes for you as you get to know God more (through the Bible), he hears you (through prayer) and you have a new family (through church). Now you can live your life with purpose.

At just on 100 pages this book is an easy read. The chapters are succinct, but without skimping, so that anyone who is searching can find answers to their main questions.

It’s aimed at women. The biblical examples often use women, and the formatting and publishing look have a softer feminine feel. So, while the content is entirely suitable for men, and I’m not always convinced about the need to separate readers, this will be a book that women will probably give to other women. I can think of several women in ministry who will use it as a resource. Cobb has a chatty, open writing style and her illustrations will connect with various ages and stages, from teens right through to mature readers. In addition, her stories about herself have an honest humility that resonates.

This is a great primer book about the gospel to have on hand to give to your enquiring friends. When they start to wonder “Is there more to this life?”, you can, with conversation and this book in hand, answer convincingly, “yes”.

This review was also published on TGCA. 

Monday, June 4, 2018

Letters to a Romantic: On Dating

Letters to a Romantic: on dating, Sean Perron and Spencer Harmon

As we prepare couples for marriage and run marriage enrichment, we’re often asked if we know any good resources for couples who are dating or pre-engagement. To this point there has been little I have been able to recommend. 101 Questions to Ask Before You Get Engaged is a good option for couples who are getting serious and want some prompts to ensure they have talked through most important topics prior to marriage.

However, I been stumped for resources for people considering a godly approach to dating. Thankfully that is no longer the case, for friends Perron and Harmon (with their wives) have teamed together to create a resource for those who are in the dating stage of life. They openly state that “the point of this book is to start a conversation, not to have the whole conversation for you” (p15). As such each chapter is pretty short, raising each issue clearly and with biblical support, and leaving questions at the end for you to think though for your own situation.

It covers 20 different topics including:

  • Marriage and singleness and considerations of both
  • Practicalities of dating - the purpose of dating, how to decline a date and considering whether to be in a relationship
  • Warning flags to consider in a dating relationship including use of pornography, and signs of obsession or abuse 
  • How to break up well and analyse an ended relationship
  • Considerations of a physical relationship including past sexual sin, dealing with sinning sexually in the current relationship, and how to think about physical affection 

I liked its gospel and biblical focus, it keeps drawing the reader back to the grace of God for salvation and reminds that in all stages of life, serving and worshipping God is our priority, whatever stage of relationship we are in.

One of the most helpful chapters was the one on preparing for romance, which encourages the reader to consider the following:

  1. What is my foundation?  Am I operating out of fear (eg fear of loneliness or of commitment) or am I operating in faith that God provides all we need in every situation?
  2. What is my vision?  Do I value man’s world or God’s word?  Do I value outward appearance or the inner heart? Do I care about pleasing them vs pleasing God?
  3. What are my expectations? Am I always comparing against other relationships or situations, or I am seeking contentment in my own situation and who God made each of us to be?

I also appreciated the more ‘realistic’ chapters, the ones that frankly dealt with how to say no graciously to a date request, how to break up (with charity and clarity) and how to talk through sexual sins of the past and present.  There was an acceptance of the reality of differences between two people and also the reality of sin, and both were dealt with well. There was a strong message to avoid pornography and to seek help if you struggle with it.

The chapter on whether to date a non-Christian was direct and honest, with the clear answer being no. Their reasoning brings a helpful corrective to the issue: if you date a non-Christian, even if you are hoping to bring them to Christ the act of dating them says “I value you more than I value what Christ says” and so you undermine your own message.

There was an encouragement to see that dating should have a purpose, for too often these days it’s “an escapade aimed at nothing”. It should actually be a way to find out more about their character and Christian growth, and keep open the possibility of knowing more. But if you know you could not or would not marry them, do not keep dating.

There were a couple of areas that weren’t as strong. Unfortunately, the first chapter was one of the weakest, particularly the discussion of the gift of marriage and singleness. It seems simplistic to me that if you are content being single, you have the gift of singleness.  While this is true, what about people who are not content with singleness? It doesn’t mean they have the gift of marriage either. I think it’s more helpful to see that the current life stage you are in is what you currently have the gift of, so if you are single you currently have that gift but perhaps in time (if you marry) you are given the gift of marriage. It irked me that they encouraged people who hope to be married to do cooking courses or learn a trade so they can manage a household in the future. Those are skills all people need whether married or single.

Having said that, they later addressed well the sorrow and joy of singleness, acknowledging that it’s not sinful to feel the sting of unwanted singleness, but it is sinful to let that become a heart that grumbles against the Lord and others.  Also timely was the warning that if you are discontent as a single, marriage won’t change that for “discontent singles become discontent marrieds”. We are to seek contentment in all circumstances as we follow Christ.

The chapter on declining a date was aimed at women, and I’m OK with that, although I don’t think all Christian relationships have started with the guy making the first move. What I would have liked to see was a matching chapter to the men of how to ask a woman on a date. There was one comment to the women “if a guy doesn’t have the courage to ask you out in person, he’s not worth your time”. Boy is that true, but I’m not sure in this era of texting that all young men have got that message. I do often point out dating couples to my kids - the ones that are sitting together at a food court but both on their own phones - and suggest to them that’s not how a relationship is supposed to work. If they don’t put down their phone and talk to you, they are not worth it!

The chapter of gauging parents’ reactions to a relationship was helpful, but dealt mainly with when parents have concerns. There is wisdom in advising people to listen to their parents’ concerns, but to also find ways to evaluate what they are saying. I would have liked to see an encouragement to the dating couple to take time to get to know both sets of parents well.

There was a strong emphasis throughout the book to have wise older mentors/ couples that you can talk to about things. They even suggest having a mentor present for discussions about past sexual sin. I wasn’t sure about that; these difficult conversations are the things that couples need to learn how to manage together and on their own. Having said that it does give the couple permission to seek help if needed.

The advice most likely to challenge dating couples is the suggestion to consider not kissing prior to marriage. They present a strong case for their opinion and are clear it’s not a rule. These are good conversations for couples to have and to make wise decisions about, rather than just assuming you do what everyone else seems to be doing. I would have liked to know what they thought about holding hands or hugging; it wasn’t clear.

It’s worth mentioning this book is clearly aimed at younger people. While much of the advice is wise and applicable for couples dating into their thirties and perhaps forties, the inclusion of a chapter on ‘are we too young to get married?’ makes it clear who their intended audience are. Also, it doesn’t deal at all with dating after a failed marriage (which can still happen for people in their 20s and 30s), or even a failed long term relationship prior. Even the discussion about breaking up suggested a relationship of months not years. 

While I’ve written quite a detailed review outlining lots of things I wanted to think about more, overall this book is very, very good.  It fills a much-needed gap and provides solidly biblical, Christian advice which doesn’t skimp on saying hard truths when needed. I would happily recommend it to anyone in the ‘dating’ phase of life. Many couples fall into relationships without really considering what they are there for and why.  As the forward by Heath Lambert says “Dating relationships are complicated because they come at the intersection of four realities: sin, inexperience, high stakes and a lack of familiarity.” The conversations this book raises would help many people who want to serve Christ as they date, and help them to make wise decisions as they proceed through this tricky stage.

As a side note, I didn't love the title either.  However, considering the quality of this book, I may in time move on to their next similarly titled one - Letters to a Romantic: On Engagement.

Monday, May 28, 2018

A Column of Fire

A Column of Fire, Ken Follett

Finally to the third instalment of the Kingsbridge novels, and Follett has again created a captivating tale, with extensive character lists and details.

To draw in previous fans The Pillars of the Earth and World Without End, the story starts in Kingsbridge, with the scene set between the two rival families of Ned Willard and Margery Fitzgerald.

Set mostly in Elizabethan England, with some side stories in France, the real story here is no longer Kingsbridge, but rather the Catholic and Protestant power struggles of the 1500s.  There are some characters who actually believe the truths that they espouse, but the majority are willing to serve whichever religion suits their purpose, be it the faith of Rome, the new Protestants, or indeed, just money and power.

The book covers the entire Elizabethan era, and the times just prior and post as well. As such, there is a huge amount of history covered through the exploits of the characters, some fictional and some historical. Somewhat surprisingly Follett makes occasional hints throughout that are giveaways for the ensuing plot lines, taking the surprise out of a couple of key developments.

I liked it, but probably not as much as the two first Kingsbridge novels. Interestingly I thought that since the entire premise is the argument between Protestantism and Catholicism, I’m not sure that the differences between the two were ever adequately explained in a way that would help the modern reader understand what the big deal was. Having said that, most of the populace at the time also probably didn’t really care that much either, and changed religion according to the monarch of the day as was appropriate.  As you would expect there are extremists on both sides, neither behaving in a way that honours their claimed faith in God. I imagine particularly Catholic readers would be offended at their portrayal, there was really only one woman Catholic that was a redeeming character.

However, it is fair to acknowledge that perhaps many of the people fighting these battles were not really fighting about religion, but their place of power, their influence on royals and whether their business prospects would be damaged by their allegiances. No one could argue that the monarchs of the time had pure motives either in their choice of religion.

The overarching message of the book is that tolerance is the way to go and should be the way that prevails.  Read through the lens of the 21st century that is no surprise, but I wonder whether the people of the time felt that way too?

As with his other two novels, there is a level of lewdness to his references to sex and violence that are unnecessary. Someone mentioned to me recently that thought Follett was very sexist in the way he portrayed women. I have tended to think he is rather accurately portraying the common views of the time. However, having read these all again, I am starting to think they have a point. There is a crassness to his depictions of male and female relationships, and a callousness to most sexual references which isn’t necessary. In fact, the story would have been stronger without them. Sometimes I wonder if authors include these types of things to engage a wider range of readers.

So, a good read, and a satisfying third instalment of the Kingsbridge books, but not outstanding in my opinion.

Monday, May 21, 2018


Nevermoor: The Trials of Morrigan Crow, Jessica Townsend

This new book by young Australian author Jessica Townsend has shot to the top of many booklists and won numerous awards*, and it’s easy to see why. She has created a fantasy world which immediately draws children (and this adult) in. Morrigan Crow is 11 years old and lives in Jackalfax, in the Republic. Born on an unlucky day, she is a cursed child and is now blamed for everything that goes wrong. At the end of each age, all cursed children die and the day for the end of the age is fast approaching.

As she awaits this depressing fate with a family who are keen to be rid of her and the burden she brings, she is whisked away by Jupiter North to the secret city of Nevermoor. Jupiter is sponsoring her to enter the Wundrous Society, an elite membership club of the most skilled and talented people in the city. She cannot possibly see why she should be included in the Wundrous Society, but the awful fate that awaits her in Jackalfax ensures she is determined to try. There are four trials that all candidates must complete in, requiring intuition, skill, courage and bravery. Over the year, she lives with Jupiter and his friends and employees at the Deucalion Hotel, a wonderful magic building that changes to match its occupants. She makes close friends along the way, including Hawthorne, another contender for membership who is a skilled dragon rider.

It’s an original, exciting and engaging book, which promises to extend to a series. It’s full of imagination, mystery, wonder, magic and creativity. Townsend has created a world very different to our own, but with enough elements of humanity and reality to make it recognisable and understandable. There are enormous cats that talk, umbrella rail transport networks, and very scary shadows and witches. Not surprisingly Nevermoor has been compared to Harry Potter, Alice in Wonderland and Mary Poppins. While it’s a minor side note, I really liked that Jupiter was a single man who was competent, caring and friendly with children.

Both Miss 10 and Miss 12 loved it and keenly await #2 - Wundersmith: The Calling of Morrigan Crow, which seems set for release in September. I’ll be lining up to read it too!

* Winner, Book of the Year 2018 at the Indie Book Awards. 
Winner, Children's Book of the Year at the Indie Book Awards. 
Winner, Best Children's Fiction at the Aurealis Awards.
Winner, Younger Fiction at the Waterstones Children's Book Prize (UK).
According to Hachette 

Monday, May 14, 2018

A Small Book About a Big Problem

A Small Book About a Big Problem, Edward T. Welch   

Adding to the books produced by CCEF faculty on anger is this offering from Edward Welch, A Small Book About a Big Problem: Meditations on Anger, Patience, and Peace.

He describes it as a slow 50-day walk through anger, so that we can dwell in it’s reality and what it does to us.
“To be human is to get angry. Look closely at any day and we can usually find anger in either actions or attitudes. Just track those pesky inconveniences – things spilled, things misplaced, traffic problems that seem devoted to making your life more difficult, and people, so many people, who are ill-mannered and unhelpful… anger is so common, almost ordinary. To be angry is to destroy. Yet ordinary does not mean innocent. In its commonness we can overlook our anger’s volatile and destructive disposition. Everyone has both been destroyed by someone’s anger and done some destroying.” (p1-2)
Each short pithy chapter is 2-3 pages, and as such it’s a primer on anger, so it can help the person who wants to address many issues surrounding anger, but doesn’t want to read extensively. Some chapters are clearly to prompt further thought, some are explicit biblical teaching, and some are challenges to your own behaviour. There was no clear order that I could determine, it meanders through topics and seems to double back to things. Yet this will work for many. I strongly prefer a clear structure, but not everyone does. And with the format used, it need to and does have continual grace, teaching and challenge scattered throughout.

My thought with books on topics like anger is that they are excellent and needed, but do people really read them? You might if you knew you had a problem with anger and needed to deal with it, which in itself would take some humility and guiding by the Holy Spirit. Yet the reality is that all of us have anger issues. We all think things should go our way, we all can tend to grumbling, and a lack of thankfulness. We all think that everyone else should fall in line with what we want.  The is part of the universal fall of man, we all want to go our own way instead of God’s.
“Grumbling is spiritual adultery…We think we are doing fairly well because we are merely grumpy and other muttering under our breath. But our grumbling is against God. It holds him in contempt. It is a way we despise him.” (p105)
So, I am all for books like this, but I suspect they don’t get into as many hands as they should. And that’s a shame because it’s very helpful and designed to be taken in small chunks, encouraging the reader to face the realities of anger, how it affects them and the people around them. It’s peppered throughout with the refreshing news of God’s grace.

I think on reflection I preferred Powlinson’s Good & Angry, but that’s because I like a more in-depth treatment. For reflective purposes though, this one may be just right for many. It could easily be incorporated into daily reading. Each chapter takes less than 5 minutes to read, but could provide food for thought and prayer for the whole day. Therefore, it’s not so much a book about anger, but a book about personally dealing with your own anger.

It’s obviously not meant to be a full extensive treatment but I did think a little more time could have been given to victims of anger. While it was addressed in Day 22, I wondered if more was needed than this. In addition, I didn’t notice the acknowledgement that some anger hides real pain, such as grief, loss, sadness, or loneliness.

There was usually a question at the end of each chapter to prompt further thought, which was a helpful place to leave people - in reflection. I would have loved to see some suggestions for prayer as well for many chapters would have naturally led to thanksgiving or confession, and actively encouraging that response would have been beneficial.

I found there were something every few days that makes me stop and really think, something that challenged me. So, it’s worth going slowly though it each day, even if some days feel less relevant or pointed than others. Sometimes the challenge might be to your marriage, many for me were about parenting, and others may find their workplace relationships to be the area where application kicks in.

This is not a book to read on how to manage the anger of others, particularly your children. Rather, this is a book that will make you deal with your own anger – be it rage, giving the cold shoulder, grumbling or complaining. Time spend in addressing the range of anger that permeates our lives is well worth it, and this book is a recommended addition to resources on the topic.

Monday, May 7, 2018

Clementine Rose

Clementine Rose, Jacqueline Harvey

Clementine Rose was discovered as a baby in a basket of dinner rolls on delivery to Penberthy House with a note attached giving her to Lady Clarissa. Lady Clarissa is delighted and so becomes her mother, and Digby Pertwhistle, the long-serving butler of the home become an older father figure. Lady Clarissa owns the large, rambling old house, which constantly needs repairs, but she manages to stay afloat by using it as a hotel, and by her incredible luck in winning competitions.

Clementine Rose has a lovely sense of style and fashion, and a dear little pet teacup pig, Lavender. She seems prone to accidents and ‘things happening’, and is aged ~ 5, as she starts school for the first time in Book 2.

As the books progress the same characters appear and the storylines develop, as Clementine goes to school, makes friends, and goes on trips. There is also the excitement much later in the series of discovering who Clementine’s real parents are.

This cute little series will probably appeal to numerous girls aged between 6-10, and because there are already 13 books, it will keep keen readers busy for a while. Each book is about 100-150 pages making it a good solid read for younger readers, and a fun yet quick option for the slightly older, more confident reader. I only read Book 1, but Miss 10 has enjoyed them all. She assures me the series stays just as good throughout.

Friday, May 4, 2018

The Flying Optometrist

The Flying Optometrist, Joanne Anderton

This charming little book for preschoolers tells the story of the Flying Optometrist, who brings eye care to the people of outback Australia.

Poor Stephanie has broken her glasses and can no longer see properly. Other people nearby are struggling too, Reg can’t see far away anymore and other people need their regular check-ups to ensure their eyes are OK.

Unlike those of us who live in a city or town, Stephanie lives in a remote area and there is no optometrist. What are they to do? Thankfully, the Flying Optometrist is on the way in his little red plane. He only comes twice a year and if the weather is bad, he might get delayed, but when he arrives he spends all day checking people’s eyes and fitting glasses as needed.

He heads back to the city and gets the orders all ready, and Stephanie waits... until her new glasses arrive in the mail a few weeks later. Now she can see and play cricket with her friends again!

It’s accompanied with soft, clear, engaging illustrations by Karen Erasmus. The faces of the people waiting for the optometrist and Stephanie’s broken glasses are clearly portrayed for little ones to grasp, as is the vast remote feel of where Stephanie lives.

It’s a lovely little story made all the more vivid because it’s real. The author’s father is the Flying Optometrist, Phil Anderton, who has built his own little red plane and does travel to remote Australia bringing eye care and optometry services. In fact, the extra sections at the back explaining his work, the work of the Brien Holden Vision Institute, and the Royal Flying Doctor Service are great extra information for parents to help explain the story to the little ones they read it with. I have a family history with the RFDS and so having a book explain simply to young children both the need for rural healthcare and the way one problem has been creatively solved is fantastic.

While it’s clearly appropriate for every little reader, I’d particularly suggest it for any child that wears glasses (or with family members that do), whether urban or rural. If they live in a city, they’ll be amazed how hard it can be for other kids to get glasses since they walk past a Specsavers or equivalent every time they go grocery shopping. For those who are more rural, they’ll understand there are other kids like them, or some who may have to wait even longer for healthcare than they do!

I’m sure this book will make its way into many libraries, especially in schools and pre-schools, and so it should.  All of us need to be aware of the costs for those who live remotely, and appreciate those who try to bring them the variety of services we so easily take for granted.

I was given a copy of this book by Quikmark Media and asked to write an honest review.

Monday, April 30, 2018

World Without End

World Without End, Ken Follett

This is the second book by Ken Follett based around the town of Kingsbridge and its priory, and it’s just as interesting and gripping as The Pillars of the Earth. Now there are nuns as well, with the Prioress also making a valuable contribution to the town. The monks tend to hold back progress, set in their ways of old physicians training and leaving all to God's will. More forward thinking citizens are at risk of crossing them with new ideas, and the balance of power is often under threat. Combined with the events of the times which includes wars in France and the plague, it is a fascinating account of the early 1300s. Many were at the mercy of their feudal lord and all lived in fear and awe of what the church said about anything. I love learning history (or a version of it!) through historical fiction.

It starts with four children gathered in the woods one festival day: merchant’s daughter Caris; Ralph and Merthin, brothers very different in character; and young thief Gwenda, born into poverty. As the book unfolds, their lives go varied ways but remain interwoven. The story spans about 30 years and covers changes in poverty and wealth, station and status, work and unemployment, love and conflict. For those who love a long read, it certainly meets that criteria at about 1200+ pages.

As with The Pillars of the Earth, I'd wait till teens were older to suggest this one, it's interesting on many levels with a depth of many characters, but there is still a lot of actual and implied sexual violence. For adults though, it’s a good detailed read, and keeps you occupied for hours.

Friday, April 27, 2018

Jumanji – Welcome to the Jungle

We had a very enjoyable family movie night watching Jumanji – Welcome to the Jungle. Full of laughs and adventure, everyone enjoyed it, as evidenced by Miss 10.5 and Miss 13 watching it two more times in consecutive days.

Four teens end up in detention: Spencer (nerdy, over-cautious geek) has been caught submitting papers for Fridge, his old childhood friend who needs to keep up his grades to keep his place on the football team. Martha (intellectual but socially awkward) and Bethany (self-obsessed and always connected to her phone) have both managed to insult teachers. I felt there were echoes of The Breakfast Club at this point, especially with the teacher’s comment that they need to “Think about who you are and want to be. You get one life, decide how you spend it. There is no better place for self-reflection than detention.”

They find an old video game and end up dragged into the game as the players they selected. Now Spencer is strong, muscly and perfects the smouldering look as Dr Smoulder Bravestone (Dwayne Johnson). Spencer is in a constant state of amazement at what his strong body can now do, especially as the game informs him he has no weaknesses. Fringe is his side-kick Moose Finbar, delegated to carrying Bravestone’s bag. Martha has become Ruby Roundhouse, action fighter and all round cool girl. Bethany has transformed into Prof Shelley (Sheldon) Oberon, played by Jack Black

Like all good quest type video games, they have a job to finish before they can leave the game. They each have three lives, and no-one is quite certain what will happen when their lives in the game are used up. As they work their way through the increasingly harder game levels, they come up against various enemies trying to prevent them succeeding. They also discover another player, who it appears has been in the game for some time. It reflects the reality of some video games well – there are NPC (non-player characters) who explain things and how to do them, and everything is a little unrealistic. Our kids connected well to these elements having played numerous quest video games themselves.

Much of the humour is found in the characters having vastly different bodies than in real life. Bravestone can do anything and does it well. One of Ruby Roundhouse’s strengths is dance fighting, providing some very funny scenes of her trying to flirt her way out of a problem, with no knowledge how, but ending up beating all the men up. Oberon of course is an older larger man, and much of the crasser toilet level humour is about Bethany having a man’s body and figuring out what to do with it. There is some low-level swearing, a little bit of alcohol and some action level violence.

There is also a bit of self-reflection (as promised by the teacher handing out the detention). The characters think about who they are, and how they present themselves. They are challenged to see each can cope with things very differently from their reality, and they learn from it. Bethany comments after a while in the game “since I lost my phone, all my other senses are heightened”. When confronted with having only one life left, Spencer says “It’s easy to brave when you have lives to spare, not when you only have one life”, to which one of them echoes the teacher’s words: “We all have only one life, it depends show you live it. Who do you want to be?”

A fun, enjoyable movie that also just might make older kids think about who they think they are, and what they could be.

Monday, April 23, 2018

The Radical Book for Kids

The Radical Book for Kids, Champ Thornton

Your child has a birthday coming up and you want to give them a Christian book. But what? They’ve got all the good kid’s bibles, or have grown out of them. They’ve read (or aren’t interested in) biographies for their age group. They’ve exhausted the kids’ fiction section (or the ones you think are ok). They’ve dabbled in some church history, and tried some apologetics for kids. What next?

This new offering by Champ Thornton, may just be what you are looking for. The Radical Book for Kids: Exploring the Roots and Shoots of Faith doesn’t fit any clear category – and as such, it hits a whole lot of them. Overall subject themes include:

  • knowing God
  • history
  • faith questions
  • living like Jesus
  • understanding the bible
  • fun facts, info and skills to learn.

All of them are mixed up throughout 67 chapters, so you might read about how to understand the Bible, then details about some names of God, accounts of men or women who gave their lives for Christ, and then how to make your own sling.

I think the fact that there is no clear order will appeal to numerous children. It will keep them interested as to what’s coming next and they can easily flip around to find things that appeal.

  • For the historian, there are details about ancient weapons, what church was like for the early Christians, and details of men and women who have faithfully served the Lord.
  • For the numbers fan, there are explanations of money in the bible and the length of the journeys in Acts (with a table to figure out how long it took to walk places)
  • For the letters fan, there is an explanation of how the epistles travelled, and details of the Greek and Hebrew alphabets and key words in Latin.
  • For those asking questions about the bible, and the truth of its claims – there is information about the historicity of the bible, the differences between the gospels, and how to understand different writing in the bible. There are chapters about what God is like, and general & special revelation.
  • For those wanting to know how to live for Jesus, chapters address how to make good decisions, how to apply wisdom, what it means to obey your parents as well as acknowledging parents aren’t perfect, and how to read the bible daily and how to pray.
  • And then there are random things like information about jewels and animals in the bible, the meaning of the Jewish holidays, how to memorise things, and how to make a catapult.

You can see how the appeal could be very broad. It’s marketed at children aged 8-14 and I think many in these age brackets will enjoy it and keep returning to re-read sections. The colourful illustrations, diagrams, maps and charts are all engaging and assist the reader in their understanding. It’s also beautifully produced, with highly quality printing and a great embossed cover.

With all the variety on offer, there are bound to be a few things though you disagree with. Mine included:

  • While the explanations of faith, the bible and living for Jesus chapters were mostly excellent, it was the ‘extra’ type stuff that I had most issue with. For example, I could not understand why there was a chapter on how to clean your room. And chapters on things like manners could have been much better applied, rather than reading like a list of rules, it could have been more about how God wants you to live.
  • There were times where the bible verses linked were a real stretch. In particular, the chapter on fun and games in bible times was unwisely referenced, including chariot races in Phil 3:13-14, running races in 1 Cor 9:24, and going on walks in Psalm 23. A stretch at best, and inaccurate hermeneutics at worst.
  • I would have liked to see some suggestions for responsive prayer in numerous chapters, to help the reader learn how to come to God in praise, thanksgiving, confession or request based on the material covered.

What are its particular strengths?

As you can see from the descriptions above, Thornton presents biblical material and matters of faith in a fun, different and digestible way for kids. The approach is based around topics and questions, so it will helpful both for children who know their bibles well, but may not have linked it together thematically; and it will also appeal to those who want more facts and details about the bible accounts, enabling further explanation and a different angle of understanding.

The explanations of faith and the bible are very good. Kids will be drawn in with language that is appropriate to their lives, but doesn’t dumb things down. The challenges of life are recognised. The questions that we all ask are openly acknowledged. Simplistic answers aren’t given, but the reader is given the truth from the words of God.

Add The Radical Books for Kids to your gift list and the kids in your life will likely learn a lot about the bible, find an explanations for questions they didn’t even know they had, and they might just surprise you with some fun facts along the way too.

Friday, April 20, 2018

Ready Player One

We had a very enjoyable trip to the movies to see Spielberg’s new offering Ready Player One. Set in 2045, most of the world is hooked on virtual reality world Oasis, designed by brilliant recluse James Halliday. People spend their life immersed in Oasis because “you can be all the things you want to be”, and with the exception of sleeping, eating and toileting, it's all there and usually better than real life. Halliday has since died, but having no heirs, he left his game to the person who first completes the mystery hidden inside Oasis, to be solved by finding 3 hidden keys which lead to the final Easter egg prize.

After years of searching with no luck, many have given up, but those still looking are the Gunters (the egg hunters). Wade Watts, in his avatar form Parzival, along with the friends he has met in the game spend their days trying to find the keys. Their main competition is IOI (Innovative Online Industries), headed by Nolan Sorrento, who once was an intern with Halliday. IOI put all their money and resources into researching every aspect of Halliday’s life with the aim to win the game and therefore entirely control it, including its revenue and income streams. They give an insight into a world where one company monopolises the digital space, for as people get further and further into debt paying real money for power-ups and new lives, they are imprisoned in debt collection agencies. Parzival meets Art3mis and is immediately attracted to her. After winning the first key, he breaks all the rules of Oasis, and reveals his true name to Art3mis, shocking her because the whole point is that: “you know what I want you to know and you see what I want you to see”. This enables IOI to track him down in real life and so the virtual and real lives of all players begin to intersect.

While IOI are clearly out to rule the world and completely control the population through Oasis, it’s not a depressing movie. It’s upbeat, very easy to follow, the good characters are really likeable, both in real life and in their avatars; and while the bad guys are bad, it's mainly because they are greedy and controlling, but not perhaps inherently evil.

The graphics are fantastic, Oasis is real enough to be visually amazing yet digital enough to be clearly created. It’s clear why Oasis is addictive. Especially if like Wade, if your real world is a load of trailers stacked on top of each other, with both parents dead, and living with a grumpy aunt.

There is a fair amount of digital action violence, some real world violence, some romance and kissing but no sex, and minimal swearing.  Husband and I both really enjoyed it and are very happy for Mr 15 to see it too. At one level it’s an enjoyable action movie with some fun cultural references to the past, particularly the 80s music and video games.

At another level, it will make you think about the impact of the digital world on real lives and whether the costs are worth it. It will make you consider where we are headed as a society with a dependence on alternative reality. There’s an inherit warning about spending your life lost in a virtual world and the highly selective representation of ourselves that we choose there. And there’s a challenge to think about what is actually important, as Parzival says “the thing about reality is that it’s real. People need to spend time in the real world”. A good movie, well worth watching.

The movie is apparently based on a book of the same name by Ernest Cline (2011).

Monday, April 16, 2018

5 things to pray for your church

5 things to pray for your church, Rachel Jones

I recently discovered this excellent prayer resource by the Good Book Company. It’s one in a series which guide you in biblical, specific prayer for various things, this one obviously being for your church. It’s a little book (smaller than A5) and just under 100 pages, but it packs a punch and is chock full of ideas for prayer.

Reading the title, I thought that there would only be five main things to pray for your church, but it is so much more than that. It is actually five things to pray under each of four main categories and with extensive sub-categories under them, so you might pray for:

1. Praying that my church would:
  • Remember what we are
  • Be a body growing in maturity 
  • Love and serve one another
  • Make known God’s glory
  • Give generously
2. Praying that I would:
  • Use my gifts well 
  • Persevere when I get weary
3. Praying for people in my church:
  • For my church leader 
  • My small group
  • Children and young people
  • Not-yet Christians
  • The elderly
4.  Praying for the wider church:
  • Another church near us
  • Our mission partners
  • Churches far away
  • The unreached. 
All in all, there are 21 things to pray for, each supported by different bible verses and then five prayer points drawn from that scripture. Each prayer point is explained slightly, so you have actual specific ideas to bring to God, drawn from his word. So, there are ideas for praying for your church to keep you going over a month and then you could start all over again. Because of the way the prayer suggestions and who to pray for are worded, you could use it a little differently each time you use it. I've been praying for my church for years including people, leaders and ministry families, but this is more extensive and biblical than anything I have used before. Having said that I did notice that when praying for ministry leaders, their families were not included, which I would have liked to see. In addition, while young people, children and the elderly were prayed for – there was nothing about marrieds, singles, families, etc; and nothing about the sick, the unemployed or the marginalised. If the other books in this series as good: 5 things to pray for people you love, …for your heart, and …for your city (this last one by different authors), they would be well worth investigating. They would be a great set of resources to encourage you to biblical prayer that is wide ranging yet specific. 

Friday, April 13, 2018

The Last Jedi

Not surprisingly, the eighth episode of the 40-year-old franchise was highly anticipated by three generations of this family. It was with a sense of adventure that 2 grandparents, 2 adult daughters and 2 children saw this together. As we emerged blinking into the light 2.5 hours later, it was clear that all were satisfied.

We are fans, but not overly critical ones. So we are willing to overlook re-used plot ideas, repeated lines of dialogue, about 30 minutes too much movie, and a time sequence that further thought suggests is impossible. We overlook it because the overall idea is still captivating. Light vs darkness. Good vs evil. The strength of family bonds and a desire to understand who you are and where you come from. A fantastic music score that still grabs and haunts or excites. The familiar faces we’ve come to know and love. And always the impressive space and battle scenes on the big screen.

We pick up where we left off in Episode 7: The Force Awakens – Rey having found Luke Skywalker. Leia leads the rebellion forces, including renegade pilot Poe with BB8 as his sidekick, and Finn is wondering where Rey has gone. I was pleasantly surprised how much of the movie contained Leia (Carrie Fisher) as she died over a year prior to it's release.

It is really one very long extended chase scene as the First Order try to extinguish the Rebels for good. Will they succeed? Well, there has to be a ninth movie – so you know some good and some bad have to survive to battle it out in that one. All in all, a good addition to the collection, but probably unlikely to capture that attention of those who aren’t already fans.

Monday, April 9, 2018

Wise Up

Wise Up, Marty Machowski

This devotional by Marty Machowski adds another resource to the list for those looking for biblical material to study together as a family.

Based on the book of Proverbs, Machowski has designed a 12 week (5 days per week) set of readings, each designed to be 10 minutes long. As such, it’s very manageable. My biggest issue with family devotionals is how long they are, so something that’s planned to be used for 3 months is achievable in my opinion. It maintains interest for that time, but by the end everyone is ready to try something different. I should also add a disclaimer here - it took us over a year to get through Wise Up, by the time we had the natural breaks common to all when life is busy, as well as breaks for Easter and Christmas readings. So, we never really got a good run straight through it. Having said that, it was easy to pick up where we left off, remind ourselves what we were up to, and keep going.

While anchored in the book of Proverbs, the 12 weeks are thematic, covering topics like:

  • The Real Wise Man (Jesus)
  • Our hearts
  • God’s word – the greatest treasure
  • Listening to wisdom
  • Learning to follow your parents’ instruction
  • Welcoming correction
  • Learning diligence
  • Learning to give (generosity)
  • True friendship

Each day’s reading has a short bible passage with some comments and observations, often with illustrations that children easily connect with. There are a few questions to talk about, and an idea for prayer. The questions include indications of where you want the conversation to go, so a parent who is less confident with handling God’s word will find ample help to ensure the family stays on a gospel-centred track. Each week also has an activity suggestion and a song to listen to or sing connected with a Sovereign Grace album, Walking with the Wise). [We skipped those optional extras].

Machowski has woven the truths of Proverbs with the Jesus’ fulfilment of true wisdom and so the gospel is brought to bear through the discussion and application. As such, the family is taken through a gospel-centred guide to wise living. He suggests in the forward for parents:
“Enjoy all of the practical direction in Proverbs, but remember, don’t try this without turning to Jesus for forgiveness, help, and direction. Jesus lives in the hearts of his people, empowering them to become like him, the wisest King of all.”
This was a helpful corrective and it is clear Machowski was trying very hard to apply the wisdom and practical living of Proverbs without it becoming a book of “you should / you shouldn’t”. He kept trying to bring grace to each topic. I particularly noticed this tension in the week on diligence, when it seemed to keep building up how we should work faithfully to honour God, but gave a breath of freeing grace on the final day reminding us we cannot pay for our sin by how hard we work, it is through Jesus’ work that we are saved.

Some nights we headed into longer, deeper discussions. One reading on friendship focussed on a marriage partner being a faithful friend who shares your love of Jesus. These are conversations we need to have early and regularly with our children. Extended discussions about honesty, generosity and what it means to be obedient also came up.

We read it with Mr 14, Miss 12 and Miss 10. It was a bit old for Mr 14, by his admission and our acknowledgement; and Miss 12 was borderline. Partly this was because the some of the discussion questions were a bit repetitive, requiring only comprehension skills of the previous comments. However, there was usually one question for discussion that made us all reflect a little more on the application of wisdom in that context. So, this is a very helpful, biblical and applicable devotional resource for families, and would be of particular benefit for those with children in the primary school years.

Monday, April 2, 2018

White Fang

White Fang, Jack London

I must have read this at least once when I was young because I recalled it was good. It was very enjoyable to return to.

It tells the life of White Fang, a pup born to a runaway sled dog, and fathered by a wolf. His early days know the life of a burrow, famine and exploration into the world. A chance encounter with an Indian group reveals to White Fang that people are gods: they rule everything and even his feisty, protective mother gives her obedience to the owners she once lost.

His character is strongly affected by those around him: bullying pups, a harsh master and cruel children. In time he becomes the property of Beauty Smith, who uses his vindictive streak to turn him into a dog fighting champion.

One day Weedon Scott, a compassionate engineer breaks up a dog fight and buys White Fang outright. In the same way that cruelty and meanness shaped White Fang, now the patience, tenderness and care shown by Scott begin to change him. An incredibly close bond develops between them.

It's a very insightful book by someone who knew and understood the nature of canines, humans and the various bonds that develop between them. White Fang is never personified, although his actions are explained and detailed. This is a highly intelligent animal who has instincts as well as learned behaviours and responses.

This is definitely worth reading for adults and older children alike. Originally published in 1906, it still is very readable and understandable. There's a depth to it that children and teens may miss and it does require a certain level of vocabulary and intuition, but adults will appreciate the insights and comments throughout. I suspect it will resonate with dog lovers for it will describe things they already know and understand about canines, and those who aren't may appreciate them a little more.

Monday, March 26, 2018

Luther on Prayer

Sometimes I come across resources that are simply excellent, but I know not many people are going to attempt them. The writings of Luther could well fit into that category. However, if you are at all tempted to read some of Luther, his comments on prayer would be an excellent place to start.

Inspired by Keller's Prayer, I ordered a little book containing two of Luther's Works: Little Prayer Book, 1522 and A Simple Way to Pray, 1535. Both were treasures waiting to be discovered.  The whole volume is under 100 pages, and in a modern writing style, which I trust has retained the essence of Luther's German but in a way I can actually read, understand, savour and appreciate. They are extracted from a larger body of works, and the authorial comments (by Mary Jane Haemig and Eric Lund) help the reader to understand Luther's points and flow.

I'm not going to give an extensive review. Not only do I feel ill-equipped to review Martin Luther, but there is a vast chasm of time and experience between my life and his. Instead, I'll share with you some of his words and main points.

Little Prayer Book, 1522

Luther encouraged all people to earn and know the Ten Commandments, the Creed and the Lord's Prayer:
"Indeed, the total content of Scripture and preaching and everything a Christian needs to know is quite fully and richly comprehended in these three items. They summarise everything with such brevity and clarity that no one can complain or make any excuse that the things necessary for salvation are too complicated or difficult to remember."
So the commandments teach us our failings, the creed shows us where to find healing (grace) through God and his plan in Christ, and the Lord's Prayer teaches how to bring all this to God in prayer.  Luther then spends considerable time expounding what it would mean to break each commandment and what it would be to keep each. These would bring any believer in humble repentance before God.

The same detail is then given to the creed in sections and the Lord's prayer (and shorter to the Hail Mary, which I chose not to spend much time in).  The depth of his thought brings the reader to a truer understanding of what it really means to trust in Jesus and follow him with your whole life.

Here is just a section on possible prayer on Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven:
"Your will is at all times the best, to be cherished and desired above everything else. Therefore have mercy upon us, O dear Father, and let nothing happen just because it is our own will. Grant and teach us a a deep patience in times when our will is preventing from happening or comes to nothing. Help when others contradict our will by what they say or do, do or leave rundown, that we not become angry or vexed, not curse, complain, protest... 
Grant us grace to bear willingly all sorts of sickness, poverty, disgrace suffering, and adversity and to recognise that in them your divine will is crucifying our will."  
Regarding the Lord's Prayer:
"I am convinced that when Christian rightly pray the Lord's Prayer at any time or use any portion of it as they may desire, their praying is more than adequate. What is important for a good prayer is not many words, as Christ says in Matthew 6, but rather a turning to God frequently and with heartfelt longing and, doing so without ceasing... get accustomed to praying this plain, ordinary, Christian prayer. The longer one devotes one's self to this kind of praying, the more sweet and joyous it becomes."

A Simple Way to Pray, 1535  

Written as a letter to his barber, this is more of a guide to prayer for a friend.  (you can view some of it online here)

With a wonderful starting line:
"I will tell you as best I can what I do personally when I pray. May our dear Lord grant to you and to everybody to do it better than I! Amen."
He proceeds to model how to pray through the Lord's Prayer and the Ten Commandments in depth. There is a richness here which is so encouraging. He evens warns people against using his actual words so that they don't become rote, but rather using it as an example from which to spur you on in your own prayer.

About the Lord's prayer:
"It is the very best prayer, even better than the Psalter, which is so very dear to me. It is surely evident that a real master composed and taught it. What a great shame that the prayer of such a master is prattled and chattered so irreverently all over the world!"
About morning prayer:
"It is a good thing to let prayer be the first business of the morning and the last at night. Diligently guard against those false, deluding ideas which tell you, “Wait a little while, I will pray in an hour; first I must attend to this or that.” Such thoughts get your away from prayer into other affairs that so hold your attention and involve you that nothing comes of prayer for that day. This is especially so in emergencies when you have some task that seems as good or better than prayer."
This letter is where the idea that Keller quotes from Luther about praying 4 ways from a passage comes from:
  • Instruction – what is the point of the passage, and what does God intend for the passage for me? This may be obvious or make take some thought.
  • Thanksgiving – praise God for it.
  • Confession – confess in response to it.
  • Petition – ask God to act, for change in me or others.
And some comments on Amen:
"Finally mark this, that you must always speak the “Amen” firmly. Never doubt that God in his mercy will surely hear you and say “yes” to your prayers. Never think that you are kneeling or standing alone, rather think that the whole of Christendom, all devout Christians, are standing there beside you and you are standing among them in a common, united petition which God cannot disdain. Do not leave your prayer without having said or thought, “Very well, God has heard my prayer, this I know as a certainty and a truth.” That is what Amen means." 
I was encouraged and refreshed by this volume.

Monday, March 19, 2018

The Pillars of the Earth

The Pillars of the Earth, Ken Follett

This is an epic tale of life in the Middle Ages in southern England. (Or if you can credit the non sequitur of our book cover "A timeless story of passion and idealism set in the midst of the Middle Ages"!)

Set around the priory of Kingsbridge, the monks rule the town and the prior Philip longs to build a cathedral. The local earl of Shiring is against the plan, wanting the money from such a project to go to his own pockets.

The story spans some 30 years from 1135 and covers the building of the church with all the challenges of architecture encountered by senior builder Tom. At the same time, there is the tale of Aliena, the previous earl's daughter as she struggles to survive and return her family to their previous state, and her spurned fiancé William, a spiteful cruel man who long bears a grudge.

The interwoven lives of all means Archer has write a captivating story of the Middle Ages and the lives of nobility, the peasants and the various levels of clergy. At the same time the real events of history are played out with various Kings seizing the throne and their rulings affecting the lives of those at Kingsbridge.

As our children get older I am reading adult fiction with an eye to whether I would recommend it to them also. I would hesitate letting younger teens read this one because of the sexual violence. There's a fair amount of rape and most of the sex scenes described or alluded to are non-consensual, with some distasteful characters persisting in such behaviour. While it is probably accurate for the times and displays the power that men and nobles had, my young teens don't need to be reading about it yet.

It's the first book in a trilogy by Archer. This one was published in 1989 and the final one was just released in 2017. Reviews of the other two still to come. Great epic reads, all of them.

Monday, March 12, 2018

Developing a Healthy Prayer Life

Developing a Healthy Prayer Life: 31 Meditations on Communing with God, James W. Beeke and Joel R. Beeke (Reformation Heritage Books, 2010)

A talk series on prayer has led me again to investigate resources for prayer. I have come across some good ones.

This very short offering (under 100 pages) is designed to be used as a devotional, with 31 brief chapters covering numerous aspects of prayer. Starting with a definition of prayer as “the act of forging a connection between two specific points: our human needs and the resources of God offered to us in Christ”, it’s then extended to include expressing desires to God, embracing God’s will, confession, and worship. The reader is invited to be both challenged and encouraged by prayer, and to be changed by it.

They begin by addressing the question: “Who should pray?” and address some excuses why people don’t think they should pray, concluding “You are too sinful not to pray; sinners are the very people who need prayer. Therefore, pray.”

The following 29 chapters focus on different aspects of prayer, such as pray in Christ’s name, pray believingly, pray humbly, pray boldly, pray intercedingly, pray thankfully, pray dependently and pray against besetting sins. Each were instructive, helpful and bible based.

Some helpful things along the way:
“Prayer requires faith: believing in God, trusting in God, and placing our expectations in God.” (Ch 3) 
“You need humble boldness – humility when viewing your sinful self and boldness when viewing a reconciling Christ.” (Ch 7) 
[Regarding praying with thankfulness] “First we are to be thankful for mercies received… Second, we are to be thankful for trials endured… Third, we are to be thankful for the absolute goodness and infinite mercy of God expressed in His actions toward us in both prosperity and adversity.” (Ch 11) 
“In our prayer, God does not note the expressiveness of our voice, the multitude of our words, or regard the eloquence of our expressions. Rather, He observes the sincerity of our heart. To pray sincerely is to pray without pretence or deceit.” (Ch 17)

“We are to pray dependently, not independently, True prayer weans the petitioner from self-reliance.” (Ch 23) 
“Unfulfilled prayer can serve as a means to produce far deeper and more valuable benefits that those we originally requested. Unfulfilled prayer can teach us patience and contentment, surrendering and bowing before God…. Unfulfilled prayer can serve to teach us humility and dependency, to trust more in God and less in self.” (Ch 24) 
“Thoughtful prayer moves us from weakness to strength and from strength to glory. It binds us to God and comforts us in distress, pray not as a last resort, but in the increasing knowledge of God and His will." (Ch 30)

There was an appendix at the end with 31 Marks of True Prayer – they were helpful to read but I would have appreciated an explanation of where they came from, they seemed to be sourced from elsewhere.

I did have a couple of hesitations:

  • Chapter 29 was about praying with scripture. I wasn’t sure why this was placed so late in the order, it would have been much better to have this much earlier. Indeed, there was no real logical to the order of the chapters.
  • It was very disappointing that in 2010 they chose to use the KJV translation for all bible quotes. It makes the bible almost inaccessible to modern readers. Even the small number of suggested written prayers modelled the use thees & thys whereas all the other writing was modern. This implies you need to use different language for both bible reading and prayer than you use in daily life. It’s very unhelpful.
  • It would have been both instructive and encouraging to have a short prayer or aid to prayer at the end of each devotional. Modelling such prayer, not just talking about prayer would have been beneficial.

So as an aid to consider prayer from multiple angles, it's a very helpful book with instructive prompts and challenges. With each chapter only ~2 pages, it's very, very readable. One a day would indeed be excellent food for thought over a month, and a way to analyse your prayer life in light of the teaching of scripture.

Note: it only appears to still be easily available as an eBook.