Friday, March 29, 2019

And the Shofar Blew

And the Shofar Blew, Francine Rivers

In this book Rivers tackles the risks and pitfalls of ministry. Paul Hudson is a keen young pastor, excited about preaching the word of God and bringing people to saving faith. Recently graduated from bible college, with his wife Eunice and infant son Timothy, he is called by the small and dying congregation at Centreville Christian Church to replace their beloved ill pastor who has faithfully served for over 40 years.

Paul and Eunice are thrilled and after prayer and consideration take up the post moving across the country.

Things are great in the beginning: Paul builds a youth group, takes time to get to know locals and preaches faithfully. Eunice joyfully leads the singing with her extensive music gifts and meets with elderly congregation members.

Paul, however, is driven to succeed and to prove himself to his father who runs a mega church, who had no time for Paul when he was younger, and is never pleased with him no matter what he does.

In time, Paul starts chafing against the older elders he has inherited and their grumbles about the way he is changing things. These are faithful godly men, somewhat set in their ways, but also prayerful and wise. Paul feels constantly questioned and challenged, they feel unheard and ignored.

In time, the desire for a large church and a larger building mean that Paul has to cut things people no longer want to hear. The gospel becomes watered down. Big donors are chased regardless of their belief. New elders are appointed without ensuring they are truly men of faith.

Meanwhile, Eunice is faithfully standing by her husband, but increasingly concerned about his change of direction and behaviour. Once he had time for his family, but now they always come last. He counsels everyone in his congregation with love and patience except his wife and son, with whom he is abrupt and harsh.

Some of the most encouraging characters are the elder Samuel and his wife Abby. Married about 60 years they encourage each other to godly living and prayer, and also have fun together. Samuel prays constantly for Paul over the whole 15 years, first with eager joy and expectation, then with disappointment and later pleading with God to change him and bring him to repentance. This example of long term prayer in the face of changing circumstances, but a reliance on a sovereign God is very edifying.

Being a minister’s wife myself, I found Eunice an interesting character. Paul stops listening to her opinion, and changes her involvement at church. She is aware of the damage he is causing to their son. While she maintains her own faith and devotion, she struggles with whether to speak up about what Paul is doing, whether as the minister’s wife it is her role to do so, and if anyone would really hear her. Her mother in law, Lois (note the numerous name echoes of biblical characters throughout this book) tells her: “When you live with a faithless man, you learn to lean on a faithful God.” Eunice knows the damage that revealing Paul’s sin would do to the church, and so she battles with how to manage.

In many ways, it’s a depressing account of a ministry skewered in a faithless direction. Sadly what is portrayed here reflects some people’s reality. Yet, it is still a story of God’s faithfulness despite our faithlessness, and a reminder to all that no one in ministry is exempt from sin or temptation. Both challenging and encouraging at the same time.

Monday, March 25, 2019

Parenting First Aid

Parenting First Aid, Marty Machowski

One day every parent will need to read this type of book. It may be when your child leaves home in anger. Perhaps it will be when they are caught for drug use. It might be when your child is the church kid found stealing beer from friend’s garages. Perhaps when worry and anxiety have gotten the better of you. Or when you start to wonder if God really is sovereign and good when it comes to your child and their salvation. With the subtitle being: Hope for the Discouraged, Machowski enters where many other parenting books leave off: what do you do when things get hard? Are you going to turn to God or are you going to try your own strength? Are you going to trust him and his good plans, or reject them when things seem to be falling apart?
“I’ve written Parenting First Aid as a wartime medical kit for parents in the thick of the battle... The goal is to encourage your soul with the Scriptures, to help you gain strength to trust in a God who can capture the heart of the most rebellious son or daughter, and to help you through the most heart-rending parenting situations.”
Machowski writes from his own experience, and that of others, in realising that parenting was not quite as simple as he thought it would be:
“How difficult could parenting be? I planned to simply drive the foolishness from my children with consistent, loving discipline. I firmly believed the Bible verse that promised that if I simply trained my children up in the way they should go, they would not depart from it.”
What he came to realise is that:
[no book or method could] “prepare us for the trials God had planned for us to go through. God wasn’t just after the hearts of our children; he was after our hearts too.”
Rather than another parenting manual which gives advice and suggestions for how to do things better, Machowski has written a devotional. Each of the 20 themed chapters is anchored in a section of the bible, which is expanded in three parts, and finishes with a personal story. Each part raises questions to consider and things to pray about. For parents who take the time to dwell over them, it could become a way to read the bible over a few months as you consider God’s promises and live in light of his grace, mercy and patience. His goal is to drive parents to scripture and prayer through all stages of parenting, especially in the challenges. Parents who are looking for a list of dos and don’ts may not be interested, but they will miss out on a chance to soak themselves in God’s promises and care throughout this stage of life.

It was clear the stories at the end of every chapter were included to be an encouragement about how God can work for good in every circumstance. There were a few times though that I found them a little too neat. So I was relieved to read these words at the end:
“I’ve written the real-life accounts at the end of each chapter to encourage parents with stories of hope and rescue, they are only snapshots into lives of real people who continue to struggle and endure… There are other stories I have not included in this book—ongoing tales of sorrow and heartbreak that God has yet to resolve. I know parents whose children have not yet returned home and remain prodigals. There are parents whose children claim a relationship with Christ but are living for the treasures of this world. Still other parents are estranged from their children and are fervently praying for a restored relationship. In short, this world we live in is broken. Our hope is not in this life, but in a life yet to come. If God has not yet answered your prayers, do not give up. There is no hope in giving up, but there is great hope in trusting God for the salvation of our children and the restoration of our relationship with them.”
This book is suitable for any parent at any stage, including single parents and parents of adult children. There is no assumption in this book that life is neat and ordered for anyone, but that we are all fallen and need grace. If you’re struggling as a parent, there is much in here to remind you of the truths you already know but perhaps may have forgotten: God is sovereign, he loves your children, and he is working for good both in your heart and theirs.

I received an e-copy of this book from New Growth Press in exchange for an honest review.

Friday, March 22, 2019

Mansfield Park

Mansfield Park, Jane Austen

While I did see the movie of this some years ago and really enjoyed it, I don’t think I have ever read the book. As per usual, its better than the movie adaptation, with a lot more detail and depth to characters. In addition, a movie always adds levels of interpretation that aren’t in the original text, which I realised after reading it.

Young Miss Fanny Price is one of nine children born to her poor parents at Portsmouth. The mother has two sisters who married much better, one is now Lady of Mansfield Park (Lady Bertram) and the other is wife of the local rector (Mrs Norris). It strikes these two families that perhaps they should do something to support their dear sister, so an offer is made to take on one of her children and bring them up at Mansfield. Poor Miss Price, at age 10, is chosen, and uprooted from the only family she has known and transported to Mansfield. Being a shy, sensitive creature, she struggles with terrible homesickness, and the family are a little indifferent to her struggles. Sir Thomas seems severe, Lady Bertram kind but vague and disinterested, Aunt Norris is mean, eldest son Tom indifferent, and sisters Maria and Julia are proud and dismissive.

About Julia and Maria who are constantly told they are wonderful and superior to Fanny by their Aunt Norris: “It is not very wonderful that, with all their promising talents and early information, they should be entirely deficient in the less common acquirements of self knowledge, generosity and humility.”

Only the son Edmund is kind and considerate and a close friendship forms between them.

Fast forward seven years and siblings Mr and Miss Crawford come to the area. They are fun, modern and keen to ingratiate themselves into the household at Mansfield. As the uncle is away in Antigua on business, the youngsters are pretty much left to their own devices and a fair amount of mischief is achieved. Mr Crawford flirts openly with both Julia and Maria, notwithstanding Maria’s engagement to Mr Rushford. They convince the group to put on a play called ‘Lovers Vows’, immediately known to Edmund and Fanny to be highly inappropriate, yet even Edmund decides to allay his scruples by acting in it, partly as a concession to Miss Crawford.

Fanny looks on with increasing agitation as Edmund develops clear feelings for Miss Crawford, while Mr Crawford plays with the hearts of the girls. It is not always clear exactly what is going on with the Crawfords, sometimes they seem to be using the family as sport, other times their friendship and affections seem genuine. Fanny is the only one never taken in by it all (again different in the movie version I saw).

Austen makes some very insightful observations about people and circumstances in this book, which I enjoyed, about topics such as parenting, clergy and society, many of which are still valid today. An enjoyable read.

Monday, March 18, 2019

Tying Their Shoes

43986797Tying Their Shoes, Rob and Stephanie Green

How do you prepare when a baby is on the way? Where do you turn to consider the issues and questions that face a new parent? Husband and I have the privilege of having some couples around for a chat before their first child arrives, usually those we have also helped prepare for marriage. We cover various topics, including your identity as mum and dad, your relationship with God, your relationship with each other and some practical things to consider. In the years we have been doing so, there has only been one book I have found that covers similar ground (Expectant Parents).

For while there are numerous books covering every aspect and stage of parenting, there are less written about preparing for parenthood. Not pregnancy and birth (many exist on that topic as well!), but rather what it means to be a parent and how to think proactively, biblically and Christianly about entering this new stage of life.

Rob and Stephanie Green (authors of Tying the Knot) have sought to redress that and have published a scripturally saturated guide for impending parents. They cover a mix of theological concepts, principles and practical application in a relatively short book that will give expecting couples insight, wisdom, things to ponder and decisions to make going forward.

I say couples intentionally, and even more specifically, I mean committed Christian couples. While they mention it can be applied to single parents, and there is an explanation of the gospel at the back, I would only recommend this to Christian couples. I totally agree that we want to aim high with the application of biblical principles in life and parenting, however I suspect some may feel burdened at the expectation of spiritual maturity suggested. The exercises particularly assume a level of regular prayer and biblical literacy that some may not be comfortable with. I am not suggesting that is a problem by any means; if anything it models a goal to aim for.

Yet, often unfortunately, parenting is a time of comparison where people question their ability. I would be disappointed if a book designed to encourage and exhort, ended up making couples feel discouraged about their partner’s or their own lack of scriptural knowledge, application or prayerfulness.

Having said that, there is solid wisdom found within these pages, all addressing aspects of pregnancy, birth and the early years of parenting, and much for couples to benefit from if they are keen to do it together.

Starting with the idea of identity, they remind impending parents that being a parent does not change your core identity, because first and foremost you are a child of God, redeemed and forgiven. They encourage couples to prioritise their marriage, to the extent that if they think they need to address certain issues they should stop reading this book and get help first. This is not advice you usually read in a book, but it’s wisely given and couples in that situation would do well to heed it.

They push against the idea that we can have birth situations that fit a pre-planned mould, which is wonderful advice for all those awaiting the arrival of a little one:
“As new moms prepare for their own experience in labor and delivery, comparison and judgement are easy. Women have many choices to make for birth: natural of epidural, MD or midwife, hospital or home, bed or water. There are many different options from which to choose, and no option is more godly than another.”
There are practical things to consider, such as what equipment you might actually need, framed around the idea of contentment and stewarding resources well. They talk about sex and how both parents might consider how to love one another in the early months, there is encouragement to dads to lead and be active in all areas of parenting, and a warning about becoming entitled thinking we deserve ‘me time’ or a break from parenting.

Parents are encouraged to think about what the goals of parenting actually are, and they frame it as glorifying God by encouraging children to love and worship God above all else. They expand this to be by: declaring God’s praises, teaching the truths of scripture, and disciplining without provoking.

I particularly appreciated the chapter on the blessing of parenting, identifying that every child is an image bearer of God, the Lord created each child the way they are, and God gives every child their gifts, abilities and limitations. They consider the blessings of infancy, toddlers and the early school years, and then then some of the blessings and realities of parenting children with physical and mental challenges.

A resource like this provides solid input for couples to discuss together. While there are some examples throughout, the real value is found in the principles given, which each couple will then need to figure out how to apply to their own situation.

Recommended reading for those looking forward to impending parenthood.

I received an e-copy of this book from New Growth Press in exchange for an honest review.

Friday, March 15, 2019

Nancy Mitford

I decided to try Nancy Mitford after having heard vague references to her for years, most recently in my reread of The Uncommon Reader. She wrote in the 1940s-50s and while I don’t know anything about her, a brief search has suggested she is a well known British author who both delights and annoys readers depending on their bent.

I suspect that at the time her writings were quite daring*. The Pursuit of Love is mainly about a woman’s search for affection and love through numerous husbands and relationships. Spanning the late 1920s through to WWII, it charts the lives of the Radlett family told through the narrative voice of their niece, Fanny. Harsh Uncle Matthew presides over Alconleigh with his vague, gentle wife Sadie and their numerous children. Fanny has been raised by her Aunt Emily, but spends holidays with the Radletts. Her own parents have been not been on the scene, her mother moving from man to man and hence called Bolter by the rest of the family. The first half of the book charts their life and history to her twenties and then gives the story of the various relationships Linda, Fanny’s cousin, embarks on.

It’s a meandering read, at many times there is no clear idea where the story is going, it just seems to be a string of various accounts of family life. It also requires some ability to read French, or in my case, to use google translate while reading the iBook (much easier!) At the same time, it is engaging and eminently readable, with funny anecdotes and descriptions showing Mitford’s skill with words and expression. I enjoyed my time in it.

Next was Love in a Cold Climate, still narrated by Fanny with the same cast of Radletts hanging around, and her aunt Emily and Uncle Davey. Part 1 centres on Polly Hampton, only beloved child of Lord and Lady Montdore, one of the richest families in England. Polly is a close friend of Fanny’s, and they spent their later teen years often together. This book had some details of how Fanny met her husband Alfred, but really the details here are about Polly, who shows no interest in love at all to the despair of her mother. Until, horror of horrors, as soon her aunt is dead and buried, she reveals an enduring love for her uncle Boy Dougdale. The final section of this makes for odd reading as up to this point Boy has been dismissed as the Lecherous Lecturer by the Radlett children, his being known for being quite ‘handsy’ with young girls over the years. This is flippantly dismissed as a bit of a joke throughout the book, but in our current climate adds a definite feeling of distaste and unease that one assumes was not intended by the author. In Part 2 the Montdores have found the new heir, Cedric, a distant family member, who they feared would be a provincial hick from Canada, but is in fact a stylish, gay man from Paris, who completely turns their lives upside down. The story gets even odder from this point.

What was surprising was how quickly each novel finished. They both meandered for hundreds of pages and then ended quickly and abruptly almost as if she got sick of writing them. There is no doubt that Mitford wrote quite devastating critiques of English aristocracy, and her turn of phrase, all through the narrator Fanny, is light, cheerful, gossipy and interesting. At the same time, while it very readable and I was keen to see how it played out, it wasn’t as enjoyable for me as The Pursuit of Love.

*or as I am beginning to suspect, as my literary education on English writers in high school was mainly limited to Shakespeare, Chaucer, Austen and a few others, I really don’t grasp the range of what is out there.

Monday, March 11, 2019

The Library Book

The Library Book, Susan Orlean

“Worldwide, there are 320,000 public libraries serving hundreds of millions of people in every country on the planet.” Susan Orlean has written an ode to those libraries with an account focussing on Los Angeles Library. Orlean remembers a childhood spent with her mother at the local library:
“On the ride home, my mom and I talked about the order in which we were going to read our books and how long until they had to be returned, a solemn conversation in which we decided how to pace ourselves through this charmed, evanescent period of grace until our book were due.”
After years away (spent purchasing rather than borrowing books), she rediscovered the joy of the library with her young son, and realised that much is the same in libraries as it ever was.
“It wasn’t that time stopped in the library. It was as if it were captured here, collected here, and in all libraries – and not only my time, my life, but all human time as well. In the library, time is dammed up – not just stopped but saved. The library is a gathering pool of narratives and of the people who come to find them. It is where we can glimpse immortality; in the library, we can live forever.”
Yet, libraries have also changed vastly, dealing with digitisation, and becoming of one of the last free, safe public spaces available to all people, which now often provide children’s story time, ESL classes, genealogical services, assistance with government support and help for the homeless.
“The publicness of the public library is an increasingly rare commodity. It becomes harder all the time to think of places that welcome everyone and don’t charge any money for that warm embrace... One of the few places homeless people are welcomed, given access to computers and the Internet, and permitted to dally all day (unless they act out) is a public library. Libraries have become a de facto community centre for the homeless across the globe. There is not a library in the world that hasn’t grappled with it issue of how – and how much – to provide for the homeless. Many librarians have told me they considered this the defining question facing libraries right now...”
By focussing on Los Angeles library she deals with the major fire that damaged almost 1 million books and items in April 1986. So there are many details about how the fire spread, the damage done and the investigations that followed. One man in particular, Harry Peak, was always a suspect, but never convicted. It was interesting to read about a major fire and loss that I never heard about (we were even living in the USA at the time) partly because it was overshadowed by the Chernobyl disaster.

Woven throughout is the history of the library to date, from its humble beginnings, moving around various buildings and finally the construct of the landmark building it is today. She introduces us to the various librarians who have held the post with their quirks and foibles, and gives the reader an insight into the massively complex job it is to now run a major library network in a modern city,

She also talks about the role of books in general, and since this is a book about massive damage to a library, also considers what war and a decision to burn books does to the public record and says about the values of a people.
“Taking books away from our culture is to take away its shared memory. It’s like taking away the ability to remember your dreams. Destroying our cultures books is sentencing it to something worse than death: It is sentencing it to seem as if it never lived.”
Obviously I love books, love reading and love our library system. Not only do I love the actual books I get from it, we also borrow numerous DVDs, and every single book I read on long service leave (including this one) was a digital loan on an iPad, administered by our local library. I am getting to know our librarians personally and expressed my concern to them recently that a new automated borrowing system would not affect their employment. They assured me they have plenty to do elsewhere!

An interesting and insightful read about libraries and books, and the place they hold in our society.

Friday, March 8, 2019


Cosmic, Frank Cottrell Boyce 

Cosmic is about 11-year-old Liam Digby who is unusually tall for his age and often mistaken for an adult. This, combined with his reckless nature, is often a recipe for disaster. He has managed to stay at the fairground without his school group, to test drive a Porsche and has impersonated a new school teacher.

He wins a prize for a Father and Son trip to the “Infinity Park”, of which the main attraction is the Rocket, a real space rocket, ready for its debut launch. Rather than taking his own father, he pretends to the father of school-mate, Florida Kirby. As things unfold, it’s clear that only the children get to go into space, so will Liam still be selected after all?

Miss 10 really enjoyed it – she said it was funny and silly. Husband enjoyed reading it aloud to her, especially when Liam finds the parenting book his Dad has been reading about talking to your kids, and he realises that all the things his Dad does to start a conversation have come from that book. The silly accidents and scrapes Liam gets into are amusing, and he teaches the other kids new games and ways to have fun, when previously they have always been pushed to only succeed academically.

Recommended for age 9-11, for kids that like a bit of fun and to imagine what it would be like if they could go into space.

Monday, March 4, 2019

Leota's Garden

Leota’s Garden, Francine Rivers

Leota has lived for years in her home seeking sanctuary in her beloved garden. Now age works against her and she struggles to get through each day. Estranged from daughter Eleanor who thinks her mother abandoned her, and a son who only cares about making money, Leota is lonely.

She contacts a help agency, and is sent Corban, a sociology student who needs a case study for his term project on aged care. Corban is struggling to get to know Leota, wondering why old people are so much work.

Meanwhile Eleanor is bitter and angry and having problems with daughter Annie, whose life she has completely controlled in an effort to ‘give her everything’. Annie moves out and is led to seek out Grandmother Leota to understand what it means when Eleanor accuses Annie of being just like Leota. What follows is a beautiful relationship between Annie and Leota, two women of very different age who both follow Christ and want to serve him.

I enjoyed it. Rivers is very good at writing about women, and grasps well the potential complications of their relationships. This book had very little romance, which appealed to me. Annie longed to look after her grandmother. Leota longed to be reconciled to her children. Her daughter longed to be understood.

The themes centred around the value of life, how we see our side of the story and how much we want to be in control. There were some minor themes about pro-life and euthanasia, which were thought provoking and at times a little disturbing. This book also didn’t end neatly, which I liked. Not everything was tied up with a neat ribbon. The relationships were not all sorted out and characters had to live with disappointment and regret. I found it a little more real than some of her other books.

Friday, March 1, 2019

Flowers for Algernon

Flowers for Algernon, Daniel Keyes

This brilliant book by Keyes was written in 1966 and charts eight months in the life of Charlie Gordon. Charlie, age 32, has a very low IQ (68). He can write and spell minimally and keeps a job doing deliveries at a bakery. He attends the Beekman College Centre for retarded adults in the evenings, under the caring tutelage of his teacher Alice Kinnian.

Written in the form of daily diary entries or progress reports, Charlie reveals he is about to be the first human experiment for an operation to increase intelligence. A mouse, Algernon, has been successfully given this operation and now the trial is turning to humans.

The writing itself shows the pace of change, early entries have poor spelling, grammar, and punctuation with a clear demonstration that Charlie really does not know and understand much of what goes on around him. After the operation it is clear within days that changes are occurring; he is learning how to write, spell, and edit his entries. Within weeks he is mastering high-level theories, mathematics, numerous languages and has overtaken the experts who have subjected him to this experiment.

In addition, he is now recalling incidents in his past, childhood memories, and experiences, and is able to re-interpret them with a fuller understanding of what really happened. He develops romantic feelings and has to learn how to manage them.

Much of the book is really about what it means to be human and how much value we place on people with intelligence. Those who are performing the experiment seem to feel that they have created Charlie, forgetting to acknowledge that he was a man previously.
“it may sound like ingratitude, but that is one of the things that I resent here – the attitude that I am a guinea pig ... How can I make him understand that he did not create me?… He doesn’t realize that I was a person before I came here.”
Charlie’s personality also changes, he once was a friendly, happy man, but now he becomes proud with an air of superiority, unable to cope with all the people around him who cannot grasp everything on the level that he can.
“I’ve learned that intelligence alone doesn’t mean a damned thing. Here in your university, intelligence, education, knowledge, have all become great idols. But I know now there’s one thing you’ve all overlooked: intelligence and education that hasn’t been tempered by human affection isn’t worth a damn.”
As Algernon’s health decreases, Charlie begins to see what also may happen to him. It’s a very powerful description of both gains and losses and how that affects how we view ourselves.

This is a great book that will stay with you long after you finish it. Highly recommend for middle teens (Mr 15 found it) and up.