Monday, February 24, 2020

With These Words

With These Words, Rob Flood

Marriage books abound, indeed our own shelves are loaded with them. Yet, Rob Flood has made a valuable addition to the collection, with this focussed look at communication. He opens with an honest account of the hard early years of his own marriage, that started with a dreadful fight on their honeymoon. It took a concerted effort and lots of time, but he now reports 20 years later:
“Let me be clear: God saved our marriage; we did not. God grew our communication; the tools did not. We are very much still in process...We still have struggles with communication and find ourselves still stinging every now and then from past hurts. The difference is this: There is grace now. There is charity toward one another. There is the benefit of the doubt. There are follow-up questions before there are conclusions. There is not perfection, but there is health. This is all because of God’s grace working through our devotion to the Lordship of Christ and the application of basic communication tools.”
As he started, I appreciated the wise qualifying statement that more marriage books should probably have:
“The principles and truths contained in this book are useful for most couples. However, they are not intended to be a substitute for pastoral care, for the fellowship of the saints, nor for civil authorities when that is appropriate”
He has broken the book into three section, the first Truth for Communication, covers the biblical foundation over three shortish chapters. He outlines four principles for communication:

  1. We should speak so people encounter God.
  2. We should build up with our words not tears down
  3. We should speak in a way that fits the occasion.
  4. We should give grace to others through our words

“For example, there is no room in Christianity, let alone in marriage, for venting. Venting is for the benefit of the speaker. It spews without concern for how the words land or what impact the words have.”
He examines what it means to be a fool in this area, noting that any step away from God is the step of a fool.

  1. Fools do not seek understanding
  2. Fools rush to judgement
  3. Fools look for a fight
  4. Fools sow discord

I appreciated his observation that we can be fools with our tongues while still following God in our bible reading plan. Our wisdom in some areas can blind us to our foolishness in others.

Section 2: Tools for Communication is where it starts to get more practical. Flood introduces 5 tools, and fleshes them out in practical ways.

1. The tool of first response

He notes that “the course of a conflict is determined by the person who responds, not the one who initiates.” He also notes that rarely do we want to respond well, but we need to acknowledge that offences will happen, but escalating never helps and God is greater that the degree of offence..
“An eternal focus empowers you to respond to your husband or wife with mercy, kindness, humility, understanding, compassion, and patience. It acknowledges that the world neither rises nor falls on how each specific issue gets played out.” 
“Purposeful marital communication plays the long game. You’re going to be spending the rest of your lives together. A time will come when emotions are not quite as charged, when the stakes are not quite as high. As husbands or wives, our focus is on the long haul. As Christians, our focus is eternal. We willingly embrace the reality that we all are being sanctified and will be ever changing, as we are ever in need of change.”
2. The tool of prayer. He recommends prayer before an important conversation, but even more so, to stop and pray when things starts to get heated. I suspect this is one that will be the most challenging for many couples, especially those who do not pray regularly together. In order to combat that, he says: “The beginning of successful marital prayer is this: pray as a married couple. Just start praying.”

3. The tool of physical touch. The idea here is that you start a conversation actually touching. This will also be a challenging idea for some couples. It’s true that if you physically start to pull away from each, that is a sign that conversation is not going well. Indeed, many couples probably know that a disagreement is dealt with when you can touch:
“How will you know you’ve been reconciled and the unity of your relationship has been restored? It is often not in the moment one spouse extends forgiveness. That may be the most important part, but it is not the clearest way to know. You’ll know when you can affectionately touch again.
4. The tool of mirroring. This is the idea of reflective listening. I’ll be honest, I’m not a big fan of this (and neither is Gottman), but I know it can work well for some people.

5. The tool of proper timing. Flood notes that we usually manage this well at work, or in a delicate situation with a friend, or a neighbour, but we often do it poorly in marriage. We need to learn to negotiate the times of chaos, fatigue, charged emotion, vulnerability, and be purposeful in finding times for communication.
“The principle here is simple: words are intended for moments, and the skillful communicator learns how to bring words and moments together.”
Section 3: Working It Out puts it all together- so that couples can “learn how to move forward safely, successfully, and soundly in the will of God.” As he notes:
“Solutions in marriage are not “one size fits all.” While biblical instruction and biblical wisdom are intended for all people, what that looks like in the nitty-gritty of life will vary widely from one couple to another, from one home to another, from one church to another, from one culture to another, and from one era to another.”
He essentially returns to the truths of the gospel, and how we are called to live in light of that, challenging spouses to be forgiving and compassionate and have that define their marriage, despite the realities of sin that we each face:
“Your sinful motivations will creep through and corrupt your implementation of these communication tools. Your patience will run out, and you will strike back rather than forgive. Your weaknesses will be revealed as you feel strained by your efforts. This is true regardless of the way your spouse participates in this book or in your marriage.” 
“Your spouse has weaknesses. Your spouse has besetting sins. Those weaknesses and sins are going to overflow onto and into your life. You will respond; that much is certain. The question is how? Will you respond as someone who has never been reconciled to God, or will you respond as one who is chosen and dearly loved by God? Will we love as the rest of the world loves, or will we choose to love as Christ loves?”

There are insightful questions to work through at the end of each chapter, which will really help couples apply it and consider their own strengths and weaknesses. Couples who read it together will benefit greatly. Even one spouse who reads it and tries to apply it will find positive change can be enacted.

Overall, this is an excellent book, strongly grounding marriage communication in the truths of the gospel and how we are called to use our speech in ways that honour Christ.

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

Monday, February 17, 2020


Metanoia, Anna McGahan

I find it very hard to know how to review this book. On one hand, it’s a beautifully written, creative, honest account of a young woman’s artistic life from her teenage years to age 30. It tells of her coming to faith in Christ and how that changes all aspects of her life. At the same time, I found she expressed that faith in language and with concepts so different from my own that I struggled to connect with it.

Anna McGahan is a well known Australian actor and writer who many will recognise from shows like House Husbands and ANZAC Girls. She begins with a story of her at age 8 writing a letter to God, asking him to prove his existence to her. The next account is at age 14, which starts 10 years of eating disorders. She develops an acting career and fully submerges herself into an artistic lifestyle, which includes pursuing Buddhism, sexual expression with most both men and women, and drugtaking. The book is structured around six different sections noting different aspects of the body. This first section is called “The body is a marketplace”. It’s searingly honest but by no means salacious.

She tells how she started going to church, read the Bible in detail, and eventually came to faith. It’s an experiential and charismatic conversion as she identifies the Holy Spirit speaking to her, she speaks in tongues, and she is instantly healed from 10 years of eating disorder and body image issues. One thing that she finds particularly freeing is the realisation that she does not need to have sex any more.

It is not an easy road over the next few years, she develops a relationship with a man but is distraught to discover he lives out same-sex attraction. She continues to wonder at her own attraction to women. She explores what it means to have platonic loving friendships with women. The considerations as she works through Christian views on homosexuality are kindly measured,
“The way I had shamed and decried any religious view point on queerness as automatic hate speech felt unsubstantiated and crude. I knew now, first hand, that most Christians were gently working out how to reconcile their faith with the complexities of sexual expression, not spitting homophobia. People I had previously considered ‘bigots’ were now my friends. They had conservative views on sex, yes, but they were generous and open. They listened. They were not disgusted by gayness, and they did not mock or belittle it. They wrestled with the topic on my behalf. They make choices about their own bodies and did not impose these choices on me.”
When given money for an acting scholarship in LA, God tells her who to give it away to, how much, and when. It’s remarkably specific. She joins faith based artistic communities in Los Angeles, experiencing great joy at living with others, worshipping God and together trying to reach out to the artistic professions. It’s seems to be quite spirit-led, with prophecy and interpretive expressions of faith.

Coming back to Australia was a rude shock, as she comes to realise the disparity between the church and the artistic communities,
“The Australian church didn’t seem to want artists. It didn’t understand them, didn’t really try to. And secular Australia certainly didn’t want Jesus. Christian artists were stuck on the bridge connecting the church and the secular, their commission to tell the truth designed to not the two worlds but instead locking them out of both. They were captives of the in-between.”
So she starts The Fireplace, a group of Australian artists on journeys of faith. Later chapters explore her marriage and birth of her first child. I found these final accounts quite arresting.

This is a book that shares experience. It tells the story of how God has been at work Anna’s life and in the lives of those around her. And it’s a powerful story. Yet at the same time, as I said, I found it tricky reading. If one was looking for the gospel explained, it is not there. If you gave it to someone who had questions about faith or was exploring Christianity, there is very little to hang on to. There is almost no bible content, beyond a few quotes and very little thought out theology. In fact, the only times she adds interpretive theological comments, it’s more in the vein of perhaps the Holy Spirit is feminine, or “God is gender neutral to me”.

It did widen my view of Christian expression and see how God can indeed work in varied and remarkable ways, sometimes expressly directly and moving his people to action. I suspect some (maybe including some in the creative arts industries) will find something here to put some words to their faith. Yet, others may find themselves wondering at the spiritual experiences she has been given, and find disparity with their own more cerebral connections to faith, God, Jesus, and scripture. That was probably my own reaction.

I read this book in response to a review on TGCA. It’s worth reading for an additional perspective.

Friday, February 14, 2020


This new movie adaptation of Jane Austen’s Emma has big shoes to fill. For those that remember it, the 1996 version starred Gwyneth Paltrow, Toni Colette, Jeremy Northam and Ewan McGregor. The year before, Clueless was released starring Alicia Silverstone and Paul Rudd, resetting the story in modern times in Beverly Hills. Both were hits, or at least were hits with me.

Part of me was surprised to see another adaptation so soon. Then I did the calculation and realised it’s been 25 years. So, yes, perhaps it is time for another one!

For those that know the storyline, it is a mostly familiar script, staying quite true to the original book (with a few odd exceptions toward the end). My guess, though, is that those who are completely unfamiliar with Austen’s storyline (or previous movie versions) will struggle a little with the large cast list and keeping track of names, especially as numerous people who are mentioned are never actually on screen.

Emma Woodhouse (Anya Taylor-Joy) is 21, beloved by her father (Bill Nighy) and rules the roost of her little town of Highbury. Her great delight is matchmaking. Her brother-in-law’s brother, Mr Knightley (Johnny Flynn) is one of the few people of situation and closeness to ever correct Emma or challenge her. Every one else marches to the beat of Emma’s drum, including her new friend of unknown parents, Harriet Smith. Humour is used cleverly throughout as characters interact with each other.

The settings, as one would expect from a quality period production, are beautiful. England’s rural elite are creatively and lavishly dressed, with some ridiculously large collars from both men and women. Sets are pastel, clear and look like structured perfection. Even farm life looks idyllic. Did life in England ever actually look this good? I particularly liked the creative soundtrack, which contained numerous, familiar hymns.

While it was a solid cast, I felt the way the characters were played was a bit lacking. Emma wasn’t quite as appealing as she could have been, although perhaps truer to Austen’s creation. Miss Bates (Miranda Hart) wasn’t quite lovely and empty enough. Both Jane Fairfax and Harriet Smith were a bit too insipid. Mr Knightley didn’t really seem to have the strength of character expected. Almost everyone could have have been a bit ‘more’ something.

So, I liked it, but I didn’t love it. Perhaps I still remember previous versions too fondly. For me, this didn’t top them - but rather reminded me why I liked them.

I was a guest of Universal Pictures

Monday, February 10, 2020

Promises in the Dark

Promises in the Dark, Eric McLaughlin

This book is for anyone working through what it means to cling to God’s promises while facing hard times, both your own and that of others.

Eric and his wife serve as medical missionaries in Africa, first Kenya, and now Burundi. He has written this book as a reflection on what it means to walk with those in need without losing heart.
“I want to tell stories from my life and work these last several years. Stories of joy and pain, beauty and tragedy, redemption and lament. In the end, they are mostly stories of trying to find God’s light in dark places, both in the world and in my own heart. They are stories of struggling to understand and remember the promises God has given. The storytelling is very intentional because while both theoretical discussions and practical advice have important roles to play, my hope is that the narratives add something else. I hope you can feel the tension and identify with it.”
And this is exactly what he has done. Each chapter starts with a story that introduces the point, and then he leads the reader to God’s word and God’s character, fleshing out the implications, both in his own situation but also further afield. Each chapter finishes with some questions for reflection, which bring the reader very closely to the issue, considering their own response to God, who he is and and how he acts.

Chapters address topics such as: promise, despair, hope, time, ordinary, prayer, suffering, mystery, consolation, resurrection and redemption.

I appreciated his observations on the ordinariness of life and sometimes how we just keep going. He openly acknowledged the reality that we know there is always more to do, more that could be done, but sometimes a line has to be drawn. I valued the comments about coming to peace with boundaries and that a tender heart shows that you aware of the tension.

His comments on prayer remind that we come to God in our insufficiencies, and turn to him more when we truly know we are incapable. And, yet, we do still live with the pain of unanswered prayer.

I really liked his question when considering evil. So many people ask, “If there is a God, why is there evil?” McLaughlin says:
“Yes, there is great evil in the world, but there is also all this goodness in the world. It’s everywhere, and it’s palpably real. If God isn’t there or he isn’t good, then where did all the goodness come from? Its presence also cries out for explanation. If we would speak of the “problem of evil,” could we also speak of a philosophical “problem of good”?”
I copied numerous quotes as I read, and I include a few here to give you a taste:

Considering his calling to serve his neighbour:
“What does the reaction of my heart reveal? Well, it seems I like this calling more in theory than in practice. I like serving, but not serving this guy. I want to love, but when it comes to loving someone right in front of me, I so often come up short. I know my calling, but I don’t want to do it. Thus, this realization is also a calling to repentance.”
The reality of our insufficiency for our task:
“We can dress up our skills. We can train for decades. We can try and style the circumstances to capitalize on our strengths. Those aren’t bad things, but they don’t erase the inescapable truth that we are and will always be insufficient to the task in front of us. The needs around us will always outstrip us. We will always be utterly reliant on the action of God in our relationships, in our work, and in the world. In this we follow the way of Jesus.”
Considering lament:
“Lament is a means of grace to us in some of our most desperate times. Lament offers the freedom to come as we are and bare our hearts. Lament offers the comfort that our crushed hearts do not repel God, but rather that “the Lord is near to the brokenhearted and saves the crushed in spirit” We can even pray “The Lord has become like an enemy” or “O Lord, why do you cast my soul away?” or “Why do you forget our affliction and oppression?” Whatever the state of our hearts, the Bible has been there before us. These are the words of Scripture in the mouth of one who is brokenhearted. The Lord is near to such as these.”
On suffering:
“Since moving to Africa, there’s probably no single theme that has felt so urgent to me. No other problem has felt so pressing: if I can’t find some way to at least think about all the suffering around me, then I won’t last long here... Hunger, pain, disability, and death are everywhere. How can we go forward with all this suffering? I knew it could be bad, but feeling how pervasive and destructive suffering really is has challenged me on a whole new level. Where is God in all this suffering? Is there any promise that can sustain us?” 
“If we want to be present when we can help, then we must also be present when we can’t. We can’t know ahead of time whom we can help. Sometimes, we can make a great impact. Other times, we can’t. The two are inextricably linked, and situations don’t sort themselves out ahead of time into categories of “able to help” and “unable to help.” We follow Jesus into the darkness, and it is here that the light can shine the brightest.”

I didn’t feel I got the full value from this book at the time that I read it, and so I plan to return to it again later. I do believe it would be excellent reading for anyone on the mission field (whether doctors in Africa or in other roles), but also anyone who wonders what it means to continue to cling to the promises and character of God when life is challenging.

I’ll leave McLaughlin with the final comforting words:
“The promises of God are given to sustain us on this road. They are not ethereal abstractions, but rather promises as real and everyday as the dust of the path we walk. Though it’s never easy, we find, along the way, the reminders and the whispers that the promises are true and that the one who promises is faithful. He has placed these promises in the dark, precisely where he knows we need them.”

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

Monday, February 3, 2020

Unwind Series

Unwind, Neal Shusterman

We have appreciated Neal Shusterman’s writing before with Scythe, Thunderhead and Dry.

Having discovered just how well Shusterman can see the ways that humanity could behave under certain circumstances, I turned with some trepidation to his Unwind series, knowing it would be challenging reading. It certainly doesn’t disappoint, and kept me absolutely captivated.

It is years since the Unwind accord, an agreement that was reached after the Heartland Wars, fought between ProChoice and ProLife sides of the US. In order to keep both sides happy, all pregnancies and babies must be brought to full term and no terminations may occur. But between ages 13-18 teens can be retroactively terminated and unwound, with all body parts used in organ donation and medical restoration. Many people now have replacement parts from unwinds, supporting a massive healthcare and cosmetic industry.

Connor at age 16 discovers he is to be unwound, by order of his parents, so not surprisingly he runs away to avoid it. Rosa is a ward of the state, but not having achieved excellence in music, it’s a pragmatic financial decision for the state to slate her for unwinding. Lev, however, is a 'true tithe'. the tenth child of a devoted family, born to be given as an unwind and has spent his whole life knowing he had a such a purpose. All three lives intersect in the opening chapters.

Of course, with terminations no longer allowed, many babies are now born, but not all are wanted. This led to the Storking initiative, where any unwanted child could be left on any doorstep, and whoever found them was obligated to raise them. There is a very committed Juvenile Authority policing arm, as not surprisingly a lot of kids slated for unwinding need to be brought forcibly under control to make it happen. The facilities where unwinding occurs are called Harvest Camps, and when we get to an account of the medical process itself, it is truly chilling. However, there are some glimmers of hope when it’s revealed that there is an underground network taking kids to a form of safety in an aeroplane graveyard.

Later, Lev meets up with Cy, who having had 1/8th of his brain replaced, shows occasional tendencies to steal and behave differently, which is attributed to the kid whose brain he has received.

It’s worth reading the novella UnStrung at this point to fill in some of Lev’s timeline.

The second major novel, UnWholly contains the same characters as Unwind and continues their story, adding two more main characters. Starkey is a storked kid given for unwinding by his adoptive parents, because he has become a rebellious youth. Finding his way to the airplane yard, he sees opportunity for leadership and looks to challenge the status quo. Miracolina is another tithe and completely convinced of her own importance and holiness.

The next two books (UnSouled and UnDivided) continues the storylines as they get more complex and darker. Thankfully by the end, some light has begun to shine and you finish the series with much more hope.

There is also a collection of novellas all connected to the Unwind world, called UnBound. Most will only make sense after you have finished all the major books, and add extra information.

Shusterman has a way of seeing the key issues in what are creatively complex situations. He can identify current processes, policies or ideas in society (A, B or C), and take them where they could logically, but disturbingly go, all the way down the line to X, Y & Z.

As with his other books, there is almost no romantic element, or at least nothing descriptive. There is no swearing at all that I can recall, proving yet again that authors who chose to use extensive swearing really just show their lack of vocabulary and creativity. No swearing is needed here to convey the horror of what people can do to each other. Obviously there is a lot of violence, evil deeds, awful people and disturbing medical descriptions. Highly recommended for mid-older teens and adults.