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.