Monday, December 16, 2019

Conqueror

Conn Iggulden’s Conqueror series

I have been drawn in again by Iggulden’s writing. Having previously enjoyed his Wars of the Roses and Julius Caesar Emperor series, I have now delved into the 12th and 13th century of Mongolia and the empire of Genghis Khan. I have read a bit of historical fiction about the women around Genghis Kahn before, so had a rough idea of some events, but this was excellent.

As I worked my way through the five books, I was regularly astonished at the discoveries within. The empire that Genghis Khan and his sons established is truly astonishing. I don’t think there has ever been anything like it.

Wolf of the Plains starts with Genghis (named Temujin) as a small boy, son of a local Khan (tribal leader). When he dies, his wife and 6 children are turned out by the clan, as other men claim the leadership. Through pure dedication and wits, their mother Hoelin keeps the children alive and they slowly re-establish themselves. But anger drives Genghis, and a desire for revenge. He has realised just how many tribes of the Mongol lands fight one another in a desire for power, as well as how many people exist without a clan. He decides to unite them all. He seems to have had a truly impressive force of personality, as well as a cutthroat willingness to destroy all things in his path. By the end of Book 1, he has gathered most of the local tribes together to make a great nation.

In Lords of the Bow, he has come to realise that the Chin empires to the East have subtly controlled and corralled the powers of his people for centuries. He sets out to change it and forces his way into Chin lands, past their great walls and mountain passes, making numerous cities his vassals and forcing the emperor to his knees.

In Bones of the Hills while on the brink of complete control of the Chin lands, Genghis withdraws and sends the bulk of his armies west to fight against the Arabic nations who have dared to oppose him.

Throughout there are detailed and extended accounts of the way battles worked and how the fighting forces moved and operated. It was fascinating. At the same time, there are many personal details about Genghis’ own family life and the struggles within. His eldest son Jochi was never certainly his, as his wife was captured by invaders at the time she fell pregnant, so he never warmed to him and his second son Chagatai was the one he favoured.

In time though the rivalry between the two older boys leads him to name his third son, Ogedai as heir. In the fourth, Empire of Silver, we see what happens when the khanate has passed from father to son. As extensive as the exploits of Genghis were, I was continually surprised to see just how far the Mongolian raiders went over this time. They headed north and routed Moscow, and then crossed the Carpathian mountains and invaded Poland and Hungary. It seems they were on the brink of completing overtaking Europe. Book 5 (Conqueror) tells the tale of the next few khans, which was equally fascinating.

In his book Human Race, Ian Mortimer acknowledges that if the scope of his research has extended beyond the west, Genghis Khan would have been included as one of the key agents of change of the whole period. His complete scope of influence on the Asian continent was almost unmeasurable. Mortimer also noted that the introduction of projectile weapons (arrows, guns and cannons) completely changed warfare. It seems that the Mongolians were unparalleled in their bowmanship. All were trained from a young age and could shoot arrows on horseback with unparalleled precision. They literally mowed down an enemy before every reaching them in hand-to-hand combat.

I appreciate Iggulden’s acknowledgement of facts vs fiction at the end of each book. It is clear from the copyright pages that the events and people referred to are real, but this is indeed historical fiction. Iggulden clearly has filled in many gaps with his own creativity, yet you are still left with a sense of awe at what this dynasty achieved.

Monday, December 9, 2019

CrossTalk

CrossTalk, Michael R. Emlet

I read this book as part of one of my CCEF courses and I am very glad I did. Emlet has brought together in a skilled and nuanced way several key factors in biblical interpretation and application:

  1. The ability to read a text in its redemptive-historical framework, understanding it’s literary genre, initial purpose and initial readers.
  2. The way to interpret that passage in light of Jesus work of saving grace.
  3. How to then apply that passage today in ways that both do justice to the original purpose of the text, and also make it ‘living and active’ for today reader.

Up front he is clear about his purpose:
“Consider this book a hybrid of sorts, a resource to help you understand both people and the bible thoroughly. This book gives attention to interpreting the biblical text and interpreting the person.”
His goal is to deal with what he terms “microethics”: “how we use Scripture to meaningfully intersect with a particular person’s life as we minister to him or her.”

This book is aimed at anyone who wants to make these two aspects work well together. I felt that he summed up my own experience from a strong bible learning tradition in a nutshell: “If you’re like me, you have probably received more instruction on how to study the Bible than you have on how to practically use it in your life and ministry.”
“This book should help you interpret people as well as Scripture and suggest relevant biblical applications that will benefit those around you. This should be true whether you are involved in a formal teaching or discipling ministry, in professional counseling, or in impromptu discussions at the local cafĂ©.”
The early chapters address how to read the bible and spend the time ensuring that you understand the passage as it was written. What is also crucial is to read it in a historical-salvation framework:
“Knowing how the story ends, we ask, “What difference does the death and resurrection of Jesus make for how I understand this passage?” The death and resurrection of Jesus Christ is the climax of redemption initiated in the Old Testament and the sure foundation for the life of the newly formed church.”
Later chapters look more at understanding people, for as Emlet says:
“To apply Scripture to our contemporary lives, we also need to understand people.… I want to give some overarching categories for understanding and approaching people.”
Using the ideas of Walsh and Middleton he says there are four basic worldview questions we can ask of people:

  1. Where are we?
  2. Who are we?
  3. What’s wrong? 
  4. What’s the remedy?

Another way forward is to approach people as saints, sufferers and sinners. Each person has aspects of all three, and being balanced in our understanding of their faithfulness, struggles and temptations enables us to be more nuanced in our counsel:
“God’s redemptive words confirm our identity as the chosen people of God, console and comfort his afflicted people, and confront the ways we turn away from his character and redemptive work.”
Emlet then turns to combining our understanding of the bible with our understanding of people.
“Reading the Bible without reading the person is a recipe for irrelevance in ministry. Reading the person without reading the Bible is a recipe for ministry lacking the life-changing power of the Spirit working through his Word…Rather, the goal of reading Scripture and reading people together is so that we can help others increasingly reflect the character and kingdom priorities of Jesus Christ.”
He starts with some overarching principles, and then uses extended examples of two different people to assist with his explanations, showing how he would counsel them from a passage in the Old Testament and the New, neither of which would have been passages most people would first turn to.

If you want to get the most of this book, you will have to do some work alongside it. Emlet has put a lot of thought into how to guide the reader along the process of learning, and so the explanations, exercises and questions at the end of every chapter will assist greatly for those that invest the time.

Many people I know already take this approach seriously, that is, reading the bible in the context it is in, the finding the larger context in the frame of biblical history and how it relates to Christ, and then bringing it to appropriate application for today. I am part of a church tradition that highly values this method in preaching, bible study and personal counselling. I do this myself in these areas. But I was reminded and challenged again of how important it is to do this well. By well, I mean accurately: actually getting to the heart of what the bible passage meant for those readers, how it is fulfilled in Christ and what that means now. But, I also mean, how we talk to people about the bible in ways that are natural, encouraging and challenging. How we really bring God’s word to bear appropriately in people’s lives today.

So, this is a very helpful book that takes seriously the claim that the bible contains everything we need for life and salvation. By encouraging the reader to take the bible very seriously and properly use it in a redemptive-historical way, Emlet paves the way for those who minister the word to do so in ways that are accurate, sensitive, and truly founded on Christ and his gospel.

Monday, December 2, 2019

A Small Book for the Anxious Heart

A Small Book for the Anxious Heart, Edward T. Welch

Edward Welch has followed up his small meditative book on anger with this one on anxiety, A Small Book for the Anxious Heart: Meditations on Fear, Worry and Trust.

Many of my comments about that book also apply to this one, so feel free to go back to that review.

Each short chapter is 2-3 pages, and as such it’s a primer for hearts that worry. It will start to address the issues you face, and where your heart is in it, but it won’t be extensive. Some chapters are 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 works for many. I strongly prefer a clear structure, but not everyone does. And with the format used, it needs to and does have continual grace, teaching and challenge scattered throughout.

He notes:
“The aim of this book is to help us become more skillful in how we identify our fears and anxieties, hear God’s good words, and grow. You could say that our goal is wisdom. Wisdom is another name for skill in living.”
He wisely observes at several points that this wisdom takes time, anxiety works now. Change is slow and gradual, but worries are now and immediate.

Some comments that I found helpful:
“The dilemma is that worries tell you to take matters into your own hands, but that message needs to be altered to say, “What a perfect opportunity to trust the God who is strong, loving, and faithful.” 
“Faith in Jesus will not replace your fears. Instead your faith will coexist with your fears and begin to quiet them. You will learn, by faith, to see your life from Jesus’s perspective and to trust that he is your ever-present help in trouble (Psalm 46:1).”
Regarding the power of prayer:
“Left to myself I spin out doomsday scenarios, hoping that my frenetic mind will stumble into some answers. But when I go to my heavenly Father and tell him my worries, when I remember his words to me (an ever-present help in trouble), and when I thank him for his care, the peace of Christ does begin to rule my heart and mind. It’s a miracle that still takes me by surprise.”
Comments about worrying about death and the future:
“In response, we remember that today has enough troubles of its own, and we live in the grace that the Lord liberally gives us today. Don’t try to imagine a diagnosis of cancer. You do not yet have tomorrow’s grace, so your imagination will tell an incomplete story of the future. If you are going to venture out into the future, continue far enough out so that the story ends with you welcomed into heaven for an eternity of no more sorrow, tears, and fears (Revelation 21:4)”
Overall, it’s a helpful way for someone facing worries and challenges to come before God regularly for a period of time to consider the promises of God and what it means to work through anxieties and cast our worries on the Lord. As habits are formed by daily repetition, this could help someone with worries and fears to daily stop, and consider God’s place in their worries. However, this is probably not a book for someone with chronic anxiety, at least not on their own.

Because it's really only a simple treatment, some readers will be left wanting. For example, Day 6 notes that your past can shape your present worries. This is a pretty light approach to dealing with potentially major issues, with the only answer seeming to be ‘go to Jesus more’. Many people need much more help with their past than this.

As with his book on anger, there were reflection questions at the end of each chapter to prompt further thought, which is a helpful place to leave people - if they make the effort to use it. I would have loved to see more suggestions for prayer for many chapters would have naturally led to thanksgiving or confession, and actively encouraging that response would have been beneficial.

A book of little reflections that those struggling with worries and anxieties may well find helpful.

I was given an ecopy of this book in exchange for an honest review. 

Monday, November 25, 2019

Diary of a Teenage Girl

Diary of a Teenage Girl: Caitlin series, Melody Carlson

I have been challenged again recently to reflect how teenagers learn, in fact how we all learn. While logic has a strong place and reason can appeal, by and large what appeals to most of us is a story. A tale we can get caught up in and relate to, and then ponder how we would react in similar circumstances.

This is one of the best arguments for providing our children with Christian fiction. They could spend their lives reading only secular fiction, and that would stretch their minds, but that also would constantly reinforce some world views that we might want to challenge. Christian fiction can be a way to help reset some of the persistent secular narrative and remind youth that there are other people asking the same questions about what it means to live a life of faith today.

In Becoming Me, Caitlin is 16, and it’s the final 6 months of Year 11. She decides to write a diary from January 1 to the end of the school year. She’s living your average (American) teenage life, with a vague commitment to a church and youth group. What she really cares about is being popular and so is excited to be noticed by Jenny, one of the cool girls, and thrilled to get to know some of the boys they are friends with, particularly Josh. She ends up kissing him a lot on a youth group skiiing weekend (even though he has been dating Jenny), and falling completely head over heels for him. When he proceeds to ignore her after the event, she has to ask some hard questions of herself.

She has an unease about her choices, whether she is a kind friend, how shallow everyone is, and whether she is living in a wise way. At the same time, something is going on with her parents as her Dad, who is really strict with her, is spending more and more time away from home and her mother.

She seeks advice from her Aunt Stephy, who has historically had a bit of a wild side, but to her surprise Stephy challenges her and encourages her to reconsider God and her relationship with him, and to come to the church she now attends.

In time, she comes to a real commitment of faith, but it’s still hard to make wise choices. She gets in the car with a driver who has been drinking, and she nearly gets into major trouble with a boy at an unsupervised party. Realising how much danger she was nearly in makes her reassess everything.

The youth grouper leader Clay is a real encouragement and in time Caitlin makes some hard decisions about how she wants to live, as she responds to faithful biblical teaching.

It’s a wild ride of emotion. In five months she becomes a Christian, has to deal with major family problems, a school shooting, and a friend’s teenage pregnancy. She comes to her own personal convictions about dating and premarital sex, and makes a vow to God to abstain from both. While I haven’t read it, it seemed like there was an overlap with I Kissed Dating Goodbye here. (Each book even has a ‘contract’ to abstain until marriage at the end, so Carlson clearly has this as a high priority agenda).

This is a very honest story about teenage girls. It talks about the desire to be included, the desire to love a boy, and the attractions and temptations that such desires bring. Because it’s a diary format, Caitlin can be really honest, as she records her thoughts, reactions, worries and prayers. I found it quite realistic.

Miss 14 loved it and continued with the others in the series which have similar dramatic events. It’s My Life is that summer, which includes a mission trip to Mexico with youth group friends, in which Caitlin is challenged by the poverty she sees. She starts Year 12 and has a friend struggling with anorexia. Who I Am is placed over the final half Year 12 and making major decisions about college. At the same time there are tensions at school over racial differences, and she continues to wonder about friends’ choices relating to boys. She comes to understand her tendency to be judgemental and faces some of her own prejudices.

On My Own is the first year of college at the state university. The biggest issue here is the relationship with a moody and roommate who rebuffs Caitlin’s offers of friendship. At the same time a close male friendship is tending towards a relationship of commitment, but she isn’t sure about the right way forward, navigating conflicting advice from friends and mentors.

There is a fifth book, named I Do (wonder what happens in that!?), but it’s placed a few years later and I haven’t read it yet.

I had not realised how prolific a writer Melody Carlson is until I started to research her. She has written dozens of books for children, teens and women, all with a strong Christian focus. There are another two series of diaries of teenage girls too, and those characters play minor roles in the Caitlin books.

I think they are a good offering for teen girls, they are honest, open and help them think about what it can mean to live in ways that honour God over these years. Of course, it’s very American, and she is clearly pushing a non-dating prior to marriage agenda, but even that’s something for teens to think about. I could be more picky about them theologically, for example there is a strong sense of morality rather than a high sense of grace, and they are more theocentric than Christocentric, but overall I think they encourage readers to godliness and promote values that many parents would encourage. I suspect these are stories that teenage girls of faith will be interested in and that will also make them consider the wisdom of choices they make.

Monday, November 18, 2019

Why Do We Say Good Night?

Why Do We Say Good Night? Champ Thornton

In simple, rhyming verse, Thornton uses this story with a little girl and her mum to acknowledge the fears young children have about darkness and going to bed. It’s bedtime, but she isn’t sure night time is good, and so asks “why do we say goodnight?”

Her mum points out that the monsters and scary things she imagines in the dark aren’t real, but more than that, there are three promises about God that the little girl can cling to:

  • God made the night “so even dark is good and right”
  • God sees everything, so “dark is like bright light to him”, and when it is dark, “God is watching through the night”
  • God is near, “Just like a shepherd guards his sheep, the Lord protects while we’re asleep”


It’s aimed at pre-schoolers, with very simple language. Rommel Ruiz is the illustrator, and there is a cartoony, art-deco sort of quality to them, and since it’s night-time, lots of dark colour with blues and purples throughout. The scenes start with her simple normal bedroom, but then various shapes and toys come alive to be bigger and scarier in the little girl’s imagination.


For little ones with worries about bedtime, this could be a lovely way to remind them that God is with them always, protecting, caring and in control.



I was given an ecopy of this book in exchange for an honest review.  

Friday, November 15, 2019

Good News for Little Hearts - part 2

Last year I reviewed the first three releases the Good News for Little Hearts series by New Growth Press. Now there are three more to add to the collection.

Aimed at children aged 3-8, the story creation for all is attributed to Jocelyn Flenders, with David Powlison, Edward T. Welch or Jayne V. Clark named as an editor for each book. Just as with the first series, the illustrations are by Joe Hox, who brings animals engagingly to life in situations we all can identify. Children will enjoy spotting the captivating touches that Hox has woven in: stacks of books for chairs, textas for bedposts, and trees growing through homes.


Gus Loses His Grip (When you want something too much) tells the story of little Gus, the racoon, who loves sweets. He sneaks them up to his bedroom, he thinks about them when Papa is reading about the Easter story, and when his mum takes him to the post-easter sales, he stuffs his pockets with the candy samples from the shop. His dad spots them and he is taken back to apologise to the storeowner, who forgives him. After this though, dad’s eyes light up with the shopping sales himself and he buys things at the fishing store.

Papa realises he, like little Gus, also wants many things:
Papa agreed. “Yes! You’re not alone, Gus. Mama and I struggle too. I’m beginning to see all the areas where God might want me to lose my grip! You know that’s why we need Jesus. We can’t stop eating too many sweets, buying too many trinkets at the market, or buying too many fishing lures and poles without help from him. What we think we need grips us, but our sin is not too strong for Jesus!”
Together the two of them consider all the good things God has given them: the singing birds, the lovely breeze, the fish in the stream and tasty strawberries in the field.
And once we lose our grip on what we want, we can notice all the wonderful, sweet things God has given us to enjoy. The Great Book says, ‘Taste and see that the Lord is good.’ Look around at all the things you can see that the Lord has given us.”
Like Jax’s Tail Twitches, a great thing about this book is that parents also acknowledge they struggle with wanting lots of things and have to be careful as well.


In Henry Says Good-bye (When you are sad), hedgehog Henry’s precious ladybug pet Lila has died and he is struggling without her.
That night, Henry didn’t want dinner. When Mama and Papa said goodnight and closed his bedroom door, he rolled into a prickly ball and cried. He didn’t understand why this had to happen—why to Lila, and why to him. He felt so alone. He couldn’t imagine facing tomorrow and telling his friends— let alone seeing them with their pets.
After a hard day at school, Papa tells him that God knows about his sorrows and that he counts his tears (Psalm 56:8). Together the decide to invite Henry’s friends over to remember Lila. After they all spend some time together sharing stories, Papa talks to them all about the day when they will go to heaven to be with Jesus and there will be no more tears.



It’s a genuine and honest book acknowledging the pain of grief, that people stand by us in our sorrows, and that God knows and cares about them. It would be suitable for any little one faces the sadness of losing a pet or maybe even a loved person in their life. (The Moon Is Always Round would also be a good choice for this)


In Tori Comes Out of Her Shell (When you are lonely), little turtle Tori’s family has moved and so Tori is starting a new school. Tori is shy and struggling, she doesn’t want to stick out, and so puts her head into her shell and stays out of the way. A lovely teacher tries to coax her out, sharing her own story of embarrassment when she was a young skunk at school and she got a fright and sprayed everywhere.
“What did you do?” asked Tori.
“I didn’t know what to do, so I just put my head down and jammed my hands into my pockets. But I found a card in one of them that my papa had given me. It was a verse from the Great Book that said, ‘There is a friend who sticks closer than a brother.’ It reminded me that Jesus would always be my friend no matter what.”
“I thought I would never have any friends after that, but I’ll always remember how Sally Salamander came right up to me and said, ‘Don’t worry. Everyone is afraid of being embarrassed. I’m afraid of sliming my chair.’


When they go to their new church on the weekend, the preacher says the same thing, that Jesus is with us always. Tori begins to believe it and ends up befriending little Gertie Gecko, who also admits to being lonely. When she shares what she has learnt about Jesus, Gertie seems interested and so Tori invites her to church. It’s lovely to see the modelling of sharing Christ with friends in this book.


Just like the first three in this series, each book contains notes and biblical guidance to help parents as they teach children about loneliness, grief and wanting more, which many parents will appreciate and hopefully realise to apply to themselves as well. There are also tear out bible verses for kids to keep in their pocket to remember God’s truths.

And as before, a great feature of these books is the strong parental figures. They guide their children in the truth, acknowledge their own faults and listen well. They bring their children back to God’s word as they guide and instruct, and are corrected by it themselves.

I was given ecopies of these books in exchange for an honest review. 

Monday, November 11, 2019

Grace in Deep Waters

Readers with good memories will recall how much our family enjoyed Christine Dillon’s fiction books: Grace in Strange Disguise and Grace in the Shadows, so we were lining up to get our hands on the final in the series: Grace in Deep Waters.

Again, this starts just where Book 2 left off. Because I don’t want to ruin the storyline for new readers, I will be vague with the description!

Naomi, Rachel and Blanche are coming to terms with the loss of a dear sister in Christ. Blanche is also estranged from her husband William, having come to realise just how much he clings to reputation and status, rather than Jesus. Having avoided numerous issues for years, Blanche has finally stood up to him, and has had to leave the home as a result, for William is incapable of having people around him who disagree with him.

The story shifts focus in this book, so those who are keen to hear more of Rachel’s story may be disappointed. It is William and Blanche that are on view here, and it switches between their perspectives. Blanche is working through her grief, yet also finding more of herself, with a job and a realisation she has skills that are of value to others. William, on the other hand, has lost his way and his once steady confidence has taken a hit. To avoid dealing with the problems he sees brewing, he takes a two month posting on Lord Howe Island, where he becomes friends with Reg, a key lay leaders of the local church. In time both come to question if and how God is at work in their lives.

I’ll leave the description there for those who want to read it themselves.

Dillon has again captured the key issues of our hearts in this book. What is our idea of success built on? How do we react when our carefully created lives start crumbling down around us? Can we forgive ourselves when we have done things that seem unforgivable? Will we come before God dressed up in our own achievements, or open, honest and facing our sin?

The storytelling focus is not as strong in this book, there is more of an emphasis on prayer, particularly long-term faithful prayer.

Some Christian fiction books make you uncomfortable with their message – the platitudes, the neatness, the idealized romance. I have found Dillon’s books make me uncomfortable too – but in a good and very different way. They challenge me to consider how I would react in similar circumstances. They challenge me to consider my faithfulness, my prayerfulness and how I speak of Christ to others. That’s an uncomfortable I need to feel, and I am thankful for her skills as a storyteller.

Friday, November 8, 2019

Last Christmas

I’ve found it hard to know how to review this movie.

In the beginning, it’s a funny and heartfelt story about a girl who has lost her way. Katarina, or rather Kate, as she insists (played by Emilia Clarke) lives with no regard for her health or wellbeing; she drinks, sleeps around, and keeps trying out for unlikely singing parts, while working as an elf in a all-year round Christmas shop. As her sister comments, “you are the furthest thing from an adult I know”. Even though she regularly manages to sabotage her friendships, everyone continues to give her leeway because last year Kate was sick, really sick, and in many ways she is still recovering.

Her boss at the store, aptly named Santa, is played wonderfully by Michelle Yeoh, she is both funny and acidic.The store is gorgeous, full of both charming and awful Christmas decorations and knickknacks. As Kate says, “Santa loves Christmas more than taste or sanity”.

Kate’s family emigrated from Yugoslavia and her overbearing and protective mother, Petra (cleverly acted by Emma Thompson) guilts and harangues her adult children, yet thrives to be needed. Kate describes her family: “anger, shame, resentment, embarrassment, and that’s just my mum”.

It’s a close collaboration with the music of George Michael and Wham! and much of the storyline hangs on the opening lines of ‘Last Christmas’. Hit song ‘Faith’ is also used, as is the Five Young Cannibals line 'She Drives me Crazy', being the ringtone Kate uses to alert that that her mother is calling.

Then there is Tom (played by Henry Golding). He appears outside the shop and hangs around to get to know her. As they spend time together, he encourages her to ‘look up’ and she begins to see all the decorations above eye level spread around London. He takes her to his own secret garden, a charming nook hidden in the city. He doesn’t have a phone, because he got sick of looking at his palm and left it in the cupboard. A friendship and then romantic relationship develops between them, but something is a bit off. He disappears for days at a time, and warns her at one point “you can’t depend on me”. Throughout the first half of the movie, I kept thinking, there is something not right about this guy, he seems both an empty character and too good to be true.

But one thing he says really does get her thinking “every action of a common day makes or breaks your character”. Slowly she starts to change, she helps others, she offers time at the local homeless shelter and she works to repair damaged family and friend relationships.

All of this makes for a story that has real potential - it was realisitic, funny, quite well-crafted and very prettily filmed.

Then comes a twist that requires you to completely suspend reality. And it’s how you feel about that that will determine how you feel when you exit the cinema.

Personally, I don’t mind silly, I don’t mind soppy romance, but what I want is something believable. I thought it might finish well, but once the story changed you had to reinterpret the whole movie. And I still can’t figure it out in a way that made any sense looking back. In the end, it was emptier than it needed to be. As my friend and I analysed it after, we thought it had great potential and could have been a great message about people growing and changing as a result of living through hard times, but in the end it was quite unsatisfying.

I was guest of Universal Pictures.

Monday, November 4, 2019

God, You and Sex

God, You and Sex, David White

This thorough book by David White considers God’s views on sexuality and what that means for believers living today. Because this is an area highly relevant for the marriage ministries we are involved in, as well as for today’s culture, this a detailed review (and also refers to some specific sexual practices).

White begins by introducing why a book like this is needed, noting four trends in the church: the rise and normalisation of pornography, the increased sexual activity amongst Christian dating couples, the confused Christian teaching about sex, and the shift in views on same-sex intimacy.
“I want Christians to have a thorough biblical understanding of why God’s design for sex is a lifelong union between a man and a woman. And I want you to be able to connect Christian sexual ethics to a broader Christian worldview.”
He states the book is for everyone, while noting,
“These pages will be easiest to read for those who are happily married and who experience a passionate and fulfilling sex life. Your experience of this good gift naturally leads to worship of the Giver. But that’s a small percentage of people who will pick up this book.”
So he acknowledges those in hard marriages, who are single, who live with same sex attraction and survivors of sexual abuse. There is a wise, gentle and understanding tone here, and he also shares his own story of sexual brokenness and redemption.

There are helpful warning words at the end of the introduction:
“Sexual experience will always be more like a piece of chocolate cake than a source of life. It is a gift to be received with thanksgiving that should lead to a heart of increasing gratitude, but it will not change your life. Only living in relationship with the Lover of your soul will do that.”
Starting with God’s work in creation, White points out how God made sex as a good gift to be enjoyed that reflects the unity within the godhead and that because of God’s trinitarian nature, love predates creation.
“From Genesis to Revelation, the Bible is unashamedly positive about marital sexuality. As we will see, a robust understanding of God’s design for human sexuality is a beautiful proclamation of the gospel promise that God will be our God and we will be his people.”
Sex in marriage is a ‘reunion’ of God’s image bearers designed to bring forth life as well as oneness and intimacy to the couple, to really be known.
“It is the coming together emotionally and spiritually, as well as physically, that makes human sexuality a reflection of our Creator.”
Chapter 2 expands what it means for God to be our lover: “God created marriage and sexuality for us to know his heart toward us”. He considers the extensive use of adultery imagery to explain Israel’s turning from God. He tells of his experience of his first wife’s death, coming to understand God’s extensive love for him which is more than any spouse, and then moving towards remarriage as he fell in love again. He asks the reader to consider:
“How would your relationship with God change if you pictured him as a lover, rather than a judge? Even if you feel more comfortable with God as your Father or Redeemer, how does it alter things to see him as your husband? What do you think is missing from your understanding if you do not have this crucial piece?”
Chapter 3 expands the idea of union with Christ and what that means for sexual union.
“Our union with Christ is the adoption into the extended family of the Godhead. Because union with Christ is at the center, marriage as a “one flesh” relationship provides a poignant metaphor to describe the wonder of our relationship with Jesus.”
It is the covenant bonds of promise and faithfulness that make sexual union a delight and a treasure:
“The issue is whether this couple is willing to make public promises committing their entire self and future to one another. Only this is good enough to merit the glory of godly sexuality because only this mirrors the radical commitment of our God who is zealous for us and longs for our sexual union to reflect his commitment of love made by promise and oath, ratified by his own blood.”
He then extends this to consider that sexual pleasures reveal a God of delight.

Chapter 5 considers sex in relationship and the damage of sexual sin, noting
“Simply put, sexual sin violates the fundamental reflection of the most glorious union—our connection to our Lord through his Spirit—which is implicit in God’s good design of marital love. That’s why God cares so much about sexuality and why sexual sin is so profoundly damaging.”
Yet sexual sin is also universal, and therefore needs to brought into the light,
“It is because sexuality is so glorious, not that sexual sinners are so despicable, that sex requires such care.”
Chapter 6 starts to examine sex as service to the other. “Sexual pleasuring in marriage is a wonderful obligation that spouses are blessed to repay each other.” I appreciated his analysis and explanation of 1 Corinthians 7, addressing the issues it can raise, especially the expectation of sex on demand. He takes the time to deal with this pastorally from a number of angles, concluding,
“God gave us 1 Corinthians 7:1–5 because spouses need to be taught that selflessness must govern the marriage bed and serving each other is the path to deep joy and fulfillment. This conforms us further to the image of our ultimate Bridegroom.”
He considers the need to talk openly about sex in a marriage. He includes oral sex and differences in desire amongst a discussion of what mutual giving would look like. He also turns to consider areas he thinks are problematic.

Chapter 8 addresses single sexuality, both the opportunities, but also the grief and loneliness that may also be present. He encourages the reader to see that singleness has a place in the kingdom of God, proclaiming to the world that the idols of companionship and sexual expression in this world can be truly found in Christ:
“Your commitment to live chastely as a single Christian proclaims to a watching world that there is another King, whose own willingness to embrace a different kind of life disarmed the lies of the enemy (see Colossians 2:15). You testify to the truth that sex is not necessary to have a rich, powerful life.”
Next he focuses on the worldview behind fallen sexuality, and then various sexual practices that he believes do not fit God’s design, including masturbation, pornography, sex outside marriage, and gay marriage, but finishes with the reminder that:
“The real problem is that broken sexuality is universal, affecting every person and community on the globe.”
All of us have a sexuality affected by the fall. He consider some of the norms of our culture today and the lies behind them, most notably the overarching view that sex is all about me and what I/we want. In the end, he encourages the reader to:
“focus on your own sexual redemption. Like me, that will keep you plenty busy. And if you have already made great strides there, ask God what new ethical issues he’d like to tackle in your life”
He turns to the challenges of parenting today and encourages all parents to be willing and ready to discuss these things often with their children. Some topics covered include masturbation, technology use, LGBTQ+ issues, and the hook up culture.
“Given the cultural messages and mounting hormonal pressure, our kids need compelling reasons to obey God in their sexuality, especially as they approach their teen years and beyond. When it comes to talking to your kids about sex, getting out of your comfort zone means being willing to have multiple conversations with your kids.”
He then considers biblical sexuality in public, “the last few decades have marked a dramatic shift toward a sexuality that wildly diverges from Christian orthodoxy.” So that “The sexual ethic once taken for granted is seen as oppressive and harmful to society, and people who uphold biblical morality are going against the flow, often ridiculed as quaint and progressive.”

“The only way we can show perfect courtesy and have gracious, salty words is if we are daily aware of our own need for God’s grace.” We should invite friendships with those with whom we disagree over their sexual ethic, and we are called to love everyone.

The final chapter raises the vision for everyone, and points us towards the end times when we will glory in our complete and satisfying relationships with Christ.

We recommend numerous books on sexual intimacy for married couples. The advantage of this is the biblical basis and detail of the theological considerations and perspectives. Many focus on how to have sex in marriage, this offering adds much more, giving a reason why to have a high view of sexual expression in marriage. From there, one can consider the challenges presented for people and couples with their own issues, as they face the challenges of an ever changing sexually expressive and permissive culture.


I was given an ecopy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Monday, October 28, 2019

God Friended Me

I was drawn in by the enjoyable, clever and interesting pilot episode of this series.

Atheist podcaster Miles, who has rejected the faith of his family, is sent a friend request by God. Convinced it’s a hoax, he keeps ignoring it, but it is insistent and he finally accepts. He is immediately sent a friend suggestion for a man who just happens to be walking past him, who he follows and ends up stopping from jumping in front of a train.

The next friend recommendation is for journalist Cara who is having some family issues of her own. The two of them start to investigate what is going on, trying to hack the account and track the IP address, along with Rakesh, Miles’ coworker.

The strands get tighter between everyone as various connections are discovered between them.

***

As I continued to watch the rest of the season, I found myself intrigued. Miles’ father is a minister, his sister is a social worker who owns a local pub and is in a committed lesbian relationship, and his mother died in a car crash when he was eight. Cara has her own complicated past with a mother who deserted the family. All of the story lines become prominent at various points and are very well done.

They continue to search for the real person behind the God account, using hacking and tracking to do so. If you wanted to question the ethics, they use their workplaces to hack accounts, seem to rarely be at work and often use dodgy and deceptive methods to track people down.

Yet, each time the God account swings into operation and Miles is sent a friend request, they end up helping someone in a specific and detailed way, almost all to do with restoring relationships. Miles, Cara and Rakesh all discover they love helping people.

At one level, it’s very neat. Every episode has a storyline that ends neatly wrapped up in a bow, in a great feel good moment that often brings a tear to the eye. Yet even saying that in a somewhat cynical way, I didn’t feel cynical watching it. There is a real understanding of humankind and their struggles, the complicated lives that people have as well as their desires and dreams. The writers clearly have remarkable insights into human behaviour. Miles and Cara come to see that helping people isn’t a burden, it’s an opportunity.

At the same time, the larger mystery of who is running the God account keeps developing an overarching plot line. They are all convinced it’s a very sophisticated hacker, not that it could actually be God.

It’s an interesting premise that I have enjoyed watching. I think it could raise questions for people and be a good conversation starter. The faith represented here is not Christian (that is, Christ is never mentioned), in fact is almost entirely fits the definition of “moral therapeutic deism”. Yet, it is one of the few shows I have seen that is willing to even raise questions of faith, reason, atheism and put them together in an intelligent and even nuanced conversation. Big ideas are addressed: suffering, grand design, faith, hope, calling, unity. And over it all - why is the God account operating at all? Why operate with Miles?

Over all of this are the excellent visual effects. It’s set in New York City and the filming is fantastic. The shots are filled with beautiful light and it shows off the city in a way I haven’t seen before. The images are clean and clear and as a result the whole show feels light and positive. I don’t recall any swearing, violence or inappropriate intimacy, and I suspect you could watch it quite happily with teenagers and have some good conversations with them as a result.

I watched all of Season 1 and enjoyed both the storylines and the characters, and how they have were slowly drawn to intersect together to a quite satisfying finale.

The first series is currently available free to air on the 7Plus website, and Season 2 has just started showing.

Monday, October 21, 2019

The Moon is Always Round

The Moon Is Always Round, Jonathon Gibson

It’s not often that a children’s book brings me to tears, but that is just what The Moon Is Always Round does each time I read it. Gibson has written a heartfelt book teaching children the truth of God’s goodness, in the midst of especially hard times.

Dedicated to his son Benjamin, the little boy in the book is meant to be him. Told in the first person by the little boy, he and his dad have a game they play when they look at the moon. Whatever shape it looks at any point in time, when Daddy asks “what shape is the moon”, little Ben always replies ,“the moon is always round”, and it means that “God is always good”. It’s their little catechism to talk about no matter what things look like and though it can sometimes be hard to see, God is always good.

So:
When Dad told me I was getting a little sister, the moon looked like a banana.
But Dad said, “The moon is always round.” 


When the mummy’s tummy looks like a watermelon, the moon looked like a shrivelled orange, but dad still says that the moon is always round.
Even when I was told that my little sister wasn’t coming to live with us after all the waiting, Dad said “The moon is always round.”
When the little sister can’t come home, and little Ben asks why, Dad replies: “I don’t know why. But the moon is always round.”

When they are at the funeral they remind each other that the moon is always round, and that means that “God is always good”.



There are helpful instructions at the back to talk to children about the moon and Good Friday, explaining the story behind the book, and giving a little catechism about the moon.

The illustrations by Joe Hox perfectly match the feel of the book, and it’s particularly the mother’s face at various points of their loss that keeps moving me to tears.

I am so thankful that Gibson found a simple, yet profound way to explain God’s goodness at all times to his own son in the midst of their family’s loss, and that has now chosen to share it with others. In many ways it deals with a very specific subject (the stillbirth of an infant), and so would be a very helpful resource if that were needed for your own family situation. However, the idea of God being good in all circumstances, even if we don’t understand them, is relevant for young children across a whole range of circumstances, and many parents and children will benefit from this tender, gentle, yet honest story.

Monday, October 14, 2019

The Good Name

The Good Name: The Power of Words to Hurt or Heal, Samuel T. Logan, Jr

This book came from honest, humble beginnings, written by Logan analysing why it was right for the Westminster Theological Seminary board of trustees to dismiss him as president for ‘shading the truth and bearing false witness’ after speaking a lie in a faculty meeting. To be honest, many of us would have hardly counted it as a lie. He introduces the story and uses it to explain how it led to a lot of soul searching and analysis of the meaning of the ninth commandment.
“My purpose in writing is to show that, as Christians, our words exist to reflect Christ’s character—his holy concern for God’s good name, his constant love for others, and his absolutely reliable truth. When our words are scornful, selfish, or false, they dishonor Christ. And especially when we speak such words to or about fellow Christians, they can cause great damage in Christ’s church.”
“Perhaps this little book will help all of us to live according to what Scripture says about bearing true witness, so that Jesus is honored as he should be.”
He turns first to consider the power of words, noting:
“Serious students of Scripture simply must take account of the fact that God, in his written revelation, has even more to say about how we speak to and about one another than he does about our sexual activity or theft or murder.”
God’s word is powerful: it creates and sustains, it also judges and redeems. As we are created in the image of God, we have a responsibility with our words as well:
“Given the enormous power of words, and the way they connect us to God himself, we must take great care with them and use them for the life-giving purposes God intended.”
In God’s word we usually find follow redemptive words following judgment words:
“Perhaps that would be a good pattern for human words to image. If we ever find ourselves in situations which call for words of judgment, redemptive words should quickly follow.”
Chapter 2 addresses how scripture defines true and false witness. He deals with how words of judgment can look, and are often unloving and unkind by humans. He addresses the ninth commandment, and then explanations and interpretations of it in various catechisms. Along the way, he notes the following:
“The problem of inappropriate judgment has plagued the church since its very beginning and the results continue to be devastating.” 
“how we speak is as important as that we speak, because the good name ultimately at stake is the name of Christ.”
“The point here is really a simple one: even as we speak against the sin and error that we perceive in others, our own sin may play a significant role in how we respond to those others. There can be sin mixed in with our good motives. It is usually when we really do see someone sinning that we end up defaming them—and sinning ourselves. So it takes the utmost prayerful commitment to make sure that our response is as God-honoring as we desire the words and deeds of other people to be.”
Chapter 3 addresses some of the damage done by false witness. Starting with the first lie told in the bible (the serpent to Eve), he considers numerous cases of lying or bearing false witness in the bible, and then extends to the evidence of false witness in the early church, noting for then as we learn as now:
“The lesson is clear: how Christians talk about one another can facilitate actions by secular governments that undermine what Christians on both sides of any argument actually desire. How we use our tongues matters.”
He notes that the Reformation was an overall blessing to the church, “but its positive impact was significantly undermined by how Protestant Christians talked about one another.” He asserts the same happened in the Great Awakening in America, and continues to today when Christians argue with each other, call each other names and accuse each other of heresy.

Chapter 4 starts to examine principles for bearing true witness. We should analyse our hearts and consider why we speak the words we do. We need to remember that we do not know other people’s hearts and therefore cannot speak with any authority about their actions or choices. He warns about the use of labels and particularly suggests that we avoid using either liberal or conservative to categorise others. He then delves into the mire of word usage online and has some great advice and warnings for Christians as they seek to honour God in the online space. There is consideration given for now to deal with error, suggesting we should communicate with governing church bodies as appropriate, rather than use online forums to air grievances.

Chapter 5 fleshes out the guidelines in some current, specific areas of controversy: abortion, evolution, women in church leadership roles, social justice matters, same-sex marriage and dealing with sexual misconduct allegations. He starts with four preliminary points: our words matter, check your motive, stay on point and cast no aspersions, and secure slippery slopes. All of these are helpful ways to interact specifically with what he has said over the course of the book in conversations that are currently very relevant. No answers to these issues are given, but guidelines on how to have constructive conversations. As such, it is relevant and instructive, and much Christian dialogue would be greatly improved and be much more God-honouring if we all gave weight to such considerations.

A timely book that challenges the reader to consider the power of their words, the easy tendency to sin in this area, and ways to honour the Lord as we choose wisely the words that we use.

I received an ecopy of this book in exchange for an honest review.  

Monday, October 7, 2019

God Made Me books

New Growth Press have released two more children’s books in their God Made Me series.

God Made Boys and Girls by Marty Machowski is subtitled explaining it helps children understand the gift of gender.

It's set in a class when one little girl outruns all the boys and one boy suggests she might turn to a boy. The teacher uses it as an opportunity to explain the differences between boys and girls by simply explaining genetics. He uses the correct terminology of XY and XX to explain male and female genes and links it all back to God's creation in Genesis 1-2.



Variations in skills and interests among boys and girls are all explained as part of God’s creative plan. Sin is explained as us wanting our own way and not God’s way, but that God dealt with our sin by sending Jesus. In the end, we are called to love people and be kind to them, even if they are different to us.

Machowski has done an excellent job of explaining gender in a way that a 4-7 year old would grasp and understand. It is balanced in explanation, gentle in tone and does not try to do too much (eg explain gender dysphoria).

There is another book like this for slightly older readers here in Australia, Patricia Weerakoon’s Learning About Gender and they would both be good to have on a shelf when you have younger children.


God Made Me Unique is authored by Joni and Friends, the ministry group advocating for people with disabilities started by Joni Eareckson Tada. Subtitled: Helping Children See Value in Every Person, this book helps children realise that there are many differences amongst people in the world, but we are all still made by God and loved by him.

Set in a Sunday School class, one morning the teacher announces there is a new student arriving, Brie. The teacher starts an explanation of special needs and how various children in the class have some differences: Jamal has a wheelchair and Wyatt plays with toys to help him focus and keep hands to himself. Brie finds noises a bit too much sometimes and wears headphones to manage it.



The teacher goes on to explain that all parts of the body work in different ways together, and like that, the church has many members with different skills and gifts and abilities.

“Even if some parts don’t work right! We’re still important to God and never out of his sight.”

This one is in the usual rhyme format that others in series also have and for the most part it reads out loud well and easily.

Trish Mahoney is the illustrator for both (as well as God Made All of Me and God Made Me and You), and so each book has a distinct yet familiar feel, with clear, fun illustrations

The whole series is worth having for those with young children.


I was given ecopies of these books in exchange for an honest review. 

Monday, September 30, 2019

Love and Muddy Puddles

Love and Muddy Puddles, Cecily Anne Paterson

After enjoying Invisible and Invincible, and knowing that Miss 12/13 had also enjoyed them, I turned to Paterson’s two novels about twins Coco and Charlie Franks. Love and Muddy Puddles focusses on Coco, in Year 8 at an exclusive girls’ school in Sydney, where she is perfectly happy having finally made it into the popular group at school. But her Dad has taken a redundancy after years of high stress work and decided the family is going for a full tree change and moving to the Kangaroo Valley, to build their own home. Twin sister Charlie and older brother Josh are thrilled, but Coco is horrified. Such a move will be social suicide, why would she possibly want to move away from friends and the city? Refusing to talk to her father, she begrudgingly goes with them, hanging out for the promise of the chance to return to boarding school in a year. She’s pretty badly behaved and has no real idea of just how rude and condescending she can be. Not surprisingly, country life is a bit of a shock at first, but along the way Coco figures out what real friends can be like, how much she loves horse-riding, and that her family might not be so bad after all.

Charlie Franks is A-OK charts Charlie’s exploits the following year, in a new school in the Valley. She has taken up show jumping, and her usual competitive nature might just be causing some problems with the girls at school. Not only that, but things at home are all out of kilter with her mum not being well. Again, Charlie learns what matters with family and friends, and has to rise to a challenge when really needed.

As with the other books of Paterson’s these two also have some reasonably intense storylines. I was somewhat surprised by the intensity of the bullying in Love and Muddy Puddles (as with the Jazmine books) and one creepy boy and his behaviour. I did love the bullies’ names though in the popular group: Saffron and Tiger Lily. I felt it was a shame that none of the friends seemed to grow or change in a positive way, except the main characters. I would have liked to see some of the mean girls come to some realisation of what they were like, and consider change, but I understand they were backdrops to the main character. Miss 14 and I have talked about them and think that while they are well-written, descriptive and evoke heartfelt emotion at points, both the bullying and the early love infatuations were a bit over the top.

Monday, September 23, 2019

The Maze Runner Series

The Maze Runner series, James Dashner

Some books really make you stop and wonder about the imagination of the author. I have read a fair amount of dystopia in recent years: Tomorrow, When the War BeganThe Hunger Games, Scythe and so on. Most have intrigued me when their concepts, creativity and premises. But The Maze Runner series has horrified me. Dashner has created a truly awful post apocalyptic world.

I’ll give an outline of the overall story, because I think parents may want to know what it’s about before they decide to recommend it or not to their kids. (I am giving away some things now that it takes a while to figure out while reading).

Extreme sun flares have left the earth barren, boiling hot and mostly empty with rising sea levels. In the years following, as communities of survivors started to rebuild and form basic groups; remaining governments formed the Post Flares Coalition. To complicate things, a man made weapon virus made its way into the populace. Named The Flare, death rates were astronomical, but more terrifying are its effects: the slow decline of all features of humanity, so that by the end people are lower than animals with no cognitive function, turning to self harm, mutilation and cannibalism.

It seems a very small proportion of the remaining population are immune and so the race is on to develop a cure. Enter WICKED, a scientific subset of the PFC working around the clock to map the killzone (brain) by extended tests and challenges, all on teenagers.

All of this becomes clear as Books 1 and 2 unfold. The Maze Runner starts with Thomas waking up in a large metal box which delivers him to the Glade. Greeted by the approximately 50 boys who already live there, who are maintaining their community though farming and supplies delivered from The Creators. Thomas has no memory at all and it becomes clear that no other boy did either when they arrived. They have managed to provide for their needs, and certain boys spend their days mapping the enormous maze that surrounds them. The next day Teresa is delivered to the Glade. It soon become clear that no more supplies are coming and they must escape from the as yet unsolvable maze.

Book 1 charts the final weeks of the Maze project, as they try to find their way out. They have to battle terrifying creatures called Grievers, bulbous fatty creations with numerous weapons attached that maim, sting and kill. Tensions rise between various boys and justice is meted out as necessary. They have developed their own language which has given Dashner the ability to insert a massive among of swearing among the boys, even though they are not words we would use for the purpose. (e.g. shuck). When I finished this book, the words I wrote down immediately were: action packed, extreme, violent and imaginative.

Book 2 The Scorch reveals that the vast experiment of the maze was actually only Phase 1. In this Phase 2, the kids are dropped off in an equatorial region, now blinding desert and populated only by Cranks (those infected with The Flare). They have to make their way through the region to safety on the other side. Again, it’s all part of one massive experiment. My thoughts through this book were that is was overwhelmingly, unnecessarily violent. The back of this book summed it up in three words: adrenalin-fuelled, horrifying and page-turner. That’s pretty spot on.

Book 3 is The Death Cure. As it becomes increasingly apparent that WICKED will stop at nothing to try to formulate their cure for The Flare and continue the survival of the human species, Thomas and his friends are aware that they will never escape, and their trials will never be over. It’s one very extreme version of ‘the ends justify the means’ at all costs. The conclusion was inevitable, but it took a long time to get there.

Books 4 and 5 are prequels. The Kill Order gives the back story both to the time immediately after the sun flares, as well as when the Flare virus was released. The Fever Code charts the lives of Thomas, Teresa and their friends in the years prior to going into the maze, once they are the property of WICKED. They are interesting, but just as violent and disturbing in different ways.

At this point you are possibly wondering whey I kept reading them all. I am wondering the same. They were an interesting premise and they were imaginative, but as I have said, also confronting and disturbing. I kept reading them because Miss (almost) 12 loved them. I kept asking why, but she couldn’t put her finger on it. My reflection is that the story drew her in, and she cannot conceive of a world where this could actually happen. So, it was interesting but complete fantasy. I, on the other hand, could actually see a grain of truth in much of it and therefore found it much scarier. As I thought about it further, I can see that this is an author who has a true dense of total human depravity.

Personally I think Tomorrow, When the War Began, Hunger Games and Scythe are better at opening up some larger issues, without the extreme violence (and for those that have read the others, that’s saying something). But, perhaps like my daughter, your kids may love it too! Having said that, I wouldn’t have recommended it to her, and am a little surprised it was available in the primary school library. The publisher’s website does suggest 13+. There is definitely no way either of us want to watch any visual representation of it.

Monday, September 16, 2019

Radically Different: A Student’s Guide to Community

Radically Different: A Student’s Guide to Community, Champ Thornton

This 13 week program by Champ Thornton is a guide for middle schoolers and young teens as they consider what it means to live as Christians in community and in their relationships.

Helpfully, Thornton starts with the big picture. Week one starts with considering God and who he is. The next three weeks further explain the structure of the rest of the book, looking at creation, the fall and redemption (which he terms, the good, the bad and the new). The following nine weeks look at different topic areas, all applying the lens of good, bad, new to each. These include their relationship with God under the headings of listening to God (in his word), talking to God (prayer), and worshipping God. Then it turns to earthly relationships with parents, friends, family, and church as well as difficult and broken relationships.

It is intended to be discussed as a group with a leader, but to have the youth prepare in advance. There are three short studies provided for the student each week (probably each 10 mins maximum), and there are also leader’s notes for further discussion and how to use the time spent together. As such, it would be a great resource for a Sunday School program for about 10-13 year olds. The diagrams and illustrations are probably a bit young for kids older than 13, but the concepts could be extended to promote in depth discussion across that age range as appropriate. In our Australian context, I’d be thinking a Year 5-8 group would be about the right age range.

It’s not the type of material that our kids have generally used in their programs at church, but I can see the benefit and would recommend it to groups considering options with this age range.

I received an ecopy of this book in exchange for an honest review. 

Monday, September 9, 2019

The Mission-Centered Life

The Mission-Centered Life, Bethany Ferguson

Bethany Ferguson has spent 15 years in Africa (Uganda, South Sudan & Kenya) in cross-cultural mission. She has written this bible study guide to assist those who are considering what it means to live in a mission focussed way. It’s not only for those who are considering cross-cultural mission, although there certainly is an emphasis on that. However, anyone who wants to be challenged how they consider mission in any context will benefit.

It’s designed for small group use. There are ten chapters; each starts outlining the big idea, then there is a short bible study, a few pages of written reflection and questions to discuss after reading it all. For those who want to push a little further, there is another few pages by the author at the end of each chapter, and further options for discussion or private journalling.

She describes the book as follows:
“This book is about rhythms of missional living. It is about how God meets us, moves us forward, gives us reasons to celebrate, and draws us deeper into himself. It is about finding possibilities within the impossible and being transformed as we discover grace in the broken places.”
She covers a wide range of topics, under short word headings. Starting with ‘going’, she directs the reader to reflect that: “Everywhere we look, we are confronted by the paradox of a world that is both beautiful and broken.”

Other topics addressed are prayer, service, suffering, repentance and joy. She addresses issues of identity and where we find our value:
“God didn’t need me. But I needed to witness the work of God in Bundibugyo. And to do that, I needed to be confronted by the brokenness of a world of death and loss. I needed to start by asking hard questions about suffering in the world and about a Christian’s role in a world broken by sin. And only by allowing Jesus to transform my assumptions about myself, the world, and ultimately about God could I become someone who actually participates in God’s mission in the world.” 
“One privilege of living cross-culturally is that it shakes up all of your assumptions about your identity.”
I appreciated the honesty about her own struggles with sin on the field. She judged people or made assumptions, assuming she was going there to help people and teach them, while coming to realise how much she learnt from the people she lived with. Her heart was challenged in numerous ways and she is open and realistic about it. She can see how God has used these times to grow her faith, to find her worth as his child and find less value in what she has to offer.
“It’s important for a missionary to have talent and training, but abilities are not identity. What matters is not that I am capable or incapable, having been good or having been evil, but that I have received God’s gift and was swept into his family. I have a new home.”
She considers what it is like to view suffering and poverty up close, and how you could react:
“During my years working in areas impacted by war and poverty, one of my fears is that I will move from hope to cynicism ... Cynicism also makes you miss so much of the beauty and power of redemptive grace at work in our broken world. Cynicism keeps you from working for change. Cynicism also keeps you from the cross.”
It could be used for personal reflection, but I think there would be real value in doing it with at least one other person. There would be benefit for bible study groups and the like to also work through this material together. It would be eye-opening and challenging, whether or not anyone in the group was considering overseas service. Couples or family units considering cross cultural work could do it together with great benefit as they ponder Christ, the gospel, world mission and their potential place in it. As such, it could be a resource to assist with decision making to enter the mission field and further training. At the same time, I suspect those already on the field could benefit as well as they take a step back and reconsider the truths of the gospel in light of their service, and reconsider their own hearts in it.

Something that might have made it even better would have been having others included in the writing, that is, other missionaries in other situations. We know missionaries working in countries all over the world, in various roles and circumstances and perhaps the voices of others in the essays, who are in different situations would have added to the book’s depth.

I appreciated Ferguson’s final comments:
“I don’t know where your missional life will take you. But I do know the world needs people radically transformed by the love of Jesus. I hope these weeks spent considering the mission-centered life have renewed your love for Jesus and the world he came to save. I hope you have seen in new ways the beauty and neediness of the world, the sufficiency of Christ, the power of the cross, the gift of grace, and the calling to care for the world. Through that, I hope you have a richer vision for living out a resurrection life in the midst of a dying world. As you seek to live a life on mission, may you find that God’s love and resurrection power are greater than all you could have hoped or imagined.”

I received an ecopy of this book in exchange for an honest review. 

Monday, September 2, 2019

Blind Spots

Blind Spots, Tim Riddle and Fil Anderson

This new offering by Tim Riddle and Fil Anderson challenges the reader to open their eyes and be aware of their blind spots. They start with a general definition.
“We finally decided that a blind spot (to us) is anything that stands in the way of being all that God has intended for our lives. Yes, many of those blind spots are sins, but others are rooted in ignorance, immaturity, circumstances, and sometimes the sins of others against us.”
Much of what this book addresses though are the blind spots that you could categorise as sin. It’s a way of defining the sin that we don’t tend to identify because we don’t realise it’s there.
“The problem with our blind spots is not just that they lead us into a life of frustration, disappointment, and feeling overwhelmed with life, others, and ourselves. They are also potent hindrances to our spiritual growth. To the extent that we are blind to what is motivating us, we aren’t free to grow. Discovering our blind spots helps us embrace the truth that God has a plan for our lives that’s better than ours.”
A later chapter elaborates that we can have blind spots in areas we are uninformed or prejudiced, areas we have been hurt, or where have a gap in perception. They can affect relationships, workplaces and our relationship with God. They continue to exist because we are in denial or we are prioritising other things over that issue. There are some analytical questions provided to help the reader begin to identify areas where their own self-perception may be lacking.

There is a perusal of some of the history of blind spots, and they bring in illustrations like the lack of binoculars on the Titanic, or Lance Armstrong’s drug use despite constant denials. Coming to scripture, there is the first blind spot in Genesis 3 as Adam and Eve think they deserve what God denied them; and later examples including the pride and entitlement of King David with Bathsheba. All of us have blind spots and people have had them since the fall:
“Blind spots start small, changing the narrative ever so slightly. Over time we lose sight of reality, which opens the door for all kinds of harmful behaviors to emerge from the shadows of our souls. Each sinful behavior creates distance from God even though God never steps away—the distance is always created by us.”
The authors identify a disconnect they see in theology today. While theologians like Calvin have noted that all of doctrine is about knowledge of God and knowledge of ourselves, they posit:
“While we have focused on knowing God, we’ve tended to overlook the importance of understanding ourselves. The consequences have been harsh and dramatic. Blind spots abound, resulting in betrayed marriages, decimated families, shipwrecked ministries, and endless numbers of people ruined.”
They make a point, but I think all humanity has tended to hide from their sin and blame others since the beginning of time. In the end, this is a book that tries to identify and name the sins we struggle to identify due to our own spiritual blindness. We do need to face our sin, particularly the sin that we are unwilling to see, and it takes courage and maturity.
“Having your sins and blind spots exposed can be shocking, humiliating, painful, and disappointing. It helps to have a tough hide and a tender heart. A direct seek-and-destroy attack on your blind spots, whether they’re the result of innocent ignorance or blatant denial, is not child’s play.”
Each chapter finished with a “Be Encouraged” and a “Get Engaged” section. The first helpfully summarises the chapter and the second prompts ways to think actively about the material, whether it be self-analysis, prayer or talking with others. Those who engage in these will obviously get much more out of the book.

I liked this book, but I didn’t love it. While the bible was used throughout, more attention was given to modern and current day examples. I felt there was an overuse of illustrations, so much that the core parts of the gospel message were almost hidden in the midst of stories and anecdotes. This is probably because the truths of the gospel were not clearly laid out at the beginning, but rather scattered throughout the book. Also, much of the language is about coming back to God and his love, which of course, we are to do. Yet it felt incomplete, because there wasn’t as much about the grace of God extended to us despite our sin. There is more emphasis on Jesus as a wise teacher who pointed out his hearers’ blind spots, than the amazing sacrifice Jesus paid to die for our sin and our blind spots. None of what they have said is wrong, I just didn’t always feel the balance was where it could have been.

As I have reflected on this further, I think it was the overall message that didn’t sit quite right. I agree we have blind spots, and much of it is sin and we need to deal with it. But, in this book, I felt the reason given to deal with them was a personal growth message: so that I can fulfil the plan God has for me.

I think the emphasis of the gospel should be a little different. I wanted to see assurance that I am made in the image of God, and he has made me to live out that image. He knows the depth of my sin, yet offers abundance grace and forgiveness in return, through his son Jesus Christ. My fulfilment comes from knowing I am a beloved child of God, forgiven and redeemed, now able in the Spirit to live in ways that honour him, which includes discovering and dealing with my blind spots.

So, it’s a helpful book, but I think there are better treatments on sin and sanctification available.

Having said that, I totally agree with their concluding statement:
“When I look back on my journey with Jesus, I’m fascinated at how much I thought I knew about God and myself when I was younger. After nearly fifty years of following Jesus, I now recognize that I’m unfinished, incomplete, imperfect, and I have a long way to go. But I’m confident that God is neither surprised nor disappointed by my need for further development. God’s work in me will never be finished until I meet Jesus face to face.”
I received an ecopy of this book in exchange for an honest review. 

Friday, August 30, 2019

Shazam!

Regular readers will know this family is rather into superhero movies. So, Husband and I were keen to check out Shazam! This one fits into the DC universe and is a fun addition to the collection. It has no connection to any others (that I could ascertain), so works well as a stand alone (unlike any offerings in the Marvel universe).

It starts in 1974 where a young boy, Thad Sivana, is magically transported to a cave where a final remaining wizard is charged with containing the captured seven deadly sins. He has to find someone who is pure in heart and strong in spirit, a champion to inherit his job. Thad is deemed unworthy and sent back to earth. Fast forward to present day and Thad is still searching for ways to get back into the wizard’s lair, to gain the power of the sins that he glimpsed while there.

Meanwhile, 14 year old Billy Batson, is a child of the state, in care since he lost his mother at a fair when a young boy. He has been searching for her ever since. After yet another failed placement, he is placed in a foster home with a lovely couple and 5 other foster children, ranging from about 5 to 17 years old. There is another boy there Freddy with a leg disability, who soon becomes a good friend.

The wizard brings Billy to him and tells him that as he is in his final days, he must choose someone. He needed a “a truly good person, strong in spirit, pure in heart”, but concludes that after years of searching, there is no one like that and Billy is all he has.

With the magic word Shazam, Billy is given the powers of the six superheros whose first letters make the name: the wisdom of Solomon, the strength of Hercules, the stamina of Atlas, the power of Zeus, the courage of Achilles and the speed of Mercury. He is now transformed into a powerful adult male (Zachary Levi, amusing for previous fans of Chuck).

Not surprisingly, quite a lot of fun ensues as Billy and Freddy figure out what Shazam can do. You can imagine what 14 year old boys get up to when given superpowers. Lots of testing skills and releasing YouTube videos, showing off and some mild abuse of power. He needs to decide if he is going to use his powers for the good of others or only for own benefit.

In time, it becomes clear that Thad has indeed harnessed the power of the seven deadly sins for himself, and becomes the arch villain that Shazam is going to need to face. The sins themselves were quite graphically scary, so that would be a warning for younger audiences.

The foster family is lovely, and the parents are caring, kind and involved. As they say: “we give them a place of love, if they want to call it a home, it’s up to them”. The siblings all learn to look out for each other, and Billy has to decide whether to invest in this family or keep searching for his mother. In time, Billy decides that “if a superhero can’t save his family, he’s not much of a superhero”. There are some fun twists and turns along the way, all is all it’s another enjoyable superhero movie, with the overlay of teenage life across it. I probably prefer the recent Spider-Man (e.g. Homecoming, Far from Home) movies that combine teenagers and superheros, but it’s still pretty good.