Monday, March 28, 2022

A Brief Theology of Periods (Yes, Really)

A Brief Theology of Periods (Yes, Really), Rachel Jones (The Good Book Company, 2021)

Bet you didn’t see that one coming! This is such a great book. Yes, it’s anchored in a rather specific topic, but as all women (and many sensible men) know - this impacts a large amount of our lives. Whether it’s the onset of menarche and how girls learn to adjust, or the practicality of tracking your cycle (either for life planning or fertility reasons) for an average of 40 years, to the onset of menopause and the relief or sadness this can bring.

Yet it’s rarely spoken about, even amongst women. So, Jones decided to face that head on, because this is part of who women are, with our bodies given to us by a loving creator and yet with all the complications that come with inhabiting our fallen world:
“Whoever you are, my aim is that you reach the end of this book celebrating who God has made you and how God has saved you, and the fact that he speaks liberating and positive truth into all of life’s experiences - even the bloody ones.” (p. 17)
Jones writes with a strong desire to look at all of life theologically. She begins by explaining how periods work (Chapter 1: So Much Potential). This is done so well, with a mix of facts and humour. I loved her comments on various hormones:
“Progesterone is a nurturing soul who's there to support a pregnancy if you need her to, but she's got great health benefits too, like building bone tissue. She's the kind of hormone who would prefer a “gathering” to a house party, and who can sometimes be found crying in the bathroom."
Moving on she considers how amazing it is that God has created the human body, including the wonder that a women can grow a baby. All of this means that periods are part of God’s plan and his creation:
“[Periods] are not beyond the scope of theology; nor are they somehow so gross as to be beneath the category of a discipleship issue. Since our bodies are important, and since our female bodies are doing something particular…we should expect that this will affect us physically, emotionally and spiritually, to one degree or another.” (p. 30)
The pain and discomfort of periods and childbirth, and the struggles and grief of infertility remind us that our bodies are finite and affected by the fall (Ch 2: So Much Pain). We are weak, and we suffer, and we can find comfort that Jesus enters into our suffering and he takes away our sin. He is beside us in our weakness, yet he also redeems us, and uses our weakness for good.

Jones then turns to the reality that many women feel: it’s not often about the pain, but rather about the shame (Ch 3: So Much Mess). Most women have a horror period story, and it’s all shame related: what someone saw, or what happened when you were unprepared. Here she explores Leviticus and the law on women and discharges, offering some ideas about why God made the law this way. She has wise things to say here, about cleanness vs uncleanness vs holiness; and then takes us to the New Testament to see that true uncleanness comes from our hearts, not our bodies. She also interacts with the Period Pride movement, showing both its value and its limitations.

Throughout Jones makes some helpful links about how a period can be a reminder of other truths, here is one she suggests: a period is a reminder that our true uncleanness comes from our hearts and what we say and do, not what comes out of our bodies. Do we stop each month and consider our hearts?

Chapter 4 (So Many Feelings) celebrates that we are created to feel a range of emotions, and there can be a wonderful variety to them. Yet, the reality is that hormones do impact women, and we need to consider our behaviour and how we act at these times. One of my own personal statements around this in our household is “it might be an explanation, but it’s not an excuse”.
"Turn to Google for wisdom on managing hormone-related emotions or outbursts and the majority of advice you'll find essentially boils down to self-care, self-justification and self-acceptance.

The Bible would have us start in a different place. What it offers is no less comforting than any of those things, but rather a whole lot more: Christ's care, Christ’s justification and Christ's acceptance of us. That's the place to start, whatever the struggle or seen that we’re dealing with and on whatever day of the month we are facing it." (p. 77)
Finally (5: So little time) considers menopause and the reminder it is of our mortality and that our time on earth is short. I like where she goes with this, leading us to consider how seriously we taking Jesus’ commission to make disciples of all nations with the time that God gives us. A period could be a cause for reflection:
"What disciple making have I done this month? Where have I nurtured spiritual life? Have I played a part in bringing new spiritual life into the world? …

We can take Day One as a moment to check our priorities and re-commit ourselves to the great commission." (pp. 96-97)
She finishes with the reminder that Christ’s blood shed for us will wash us clean:
"Blood speaks. Right through this book we have seen how our periods speak both of curse and blessing, of groaning and gift, of pain and beauty, of Abel and Christ, of sin and salvation. They are, in a way, a jarring picture of what it means to live in a mixed-up world on its way to redemption… Life in a woman's body might sometimes make us weep; but from that day onwards, our tears will turn into joy." (p. 109)
An appendix addresses questions and answers. Two that stood out to me was to include discussion about periods and how they affect a woman in marriage preparation for couples, and for pastors to be willing to speak about women’s health issues from the pulpit. Wise advice.

All in all, this is an excellent book. Jones has the right balance of Biblical and theological consideration, wisdom, honesty, humour and challenge. It will have obvious appeal for many women, and there would be great benefit for teenage girls as well, although some aspects of it may go over their heads. Of course, men will also benefit from reading this. All of us should long to understand more of the lives of those around us, with a God-honouring framework that both encourages and challenges.

Monday, March 21, 2022

Finding Grace in the Face of Dementia

Finding Grace in the Face of Dementia, John Dunlop, MD (Crossway, 2017)

What a helpful, wise and compassionate book this is. 

John Dunlop writes with decades of experience as a geriatrician, personal experience of the dementia of three of his and his wife’s parents, and his own longstanding Christian faith.
“Over the years as I have been confronted with dementia, I have failed to recognise any purpose for it, yet I believe it is my responsibility to search out what God’s reason may be. This book is my attempt to explore God’s possible purposes in allowing this horrible disease. But even when I do not fully understand, I have learned I can still trust him.“ (p. 16)
The overarching message is that all people are made in the image of God, and therefore possess inherent dignity and worth. God does not have a gradation of his image: “Human dignity is equally as true of the Nobel Laureate as of the most severe dementia sufferer who is totally dependent on others.” (p. 24) There is great value in the fact that people with dementia still experience feeling and are capable of relationships.
“The experience of dementia can help teach us what our true value is, and embracing it may make the prospect of dementia less threatening and fearful.” (pp. 15-16)
Dunlop explains the facts of dementia: its various types, how diagnosis is made and when it should be made, what some treatment options are, and when to consider medical care directives.

He describes what it feels like for the person with dementia, and then the experience of being a caregiver, acknowledging “the patient is not the only victim of this dreadful disease; caregivers are just as much, if not more, affected by it.” He doesn’t shy away from or avoid the challenges that many face.

Dunlop then considers what he believes is the heart of the issue: “honouring God in and through the tragedy of dementia”. These aspects include:
  • recognising the things that God values - such as people, feelings, relationships, and the present moment. 
  • respecting the dignity of those with dementia - with our time and energy, respecting their autonomy as much as possible, preserving their dignity, and entering their world. 
  • meeting the physical, social, emotional and spiritual needs of those with dementia, as well as their carers. 
  • how the church should respond. Importantly the church must teach the gospel, be honest that we all will suffer and what it means to be fully human. Obviously serving and caring for those with dementia and their carers should be high on the list, particularly spiritual needs. 
One particular comment of Dunlop’s struck me:
“Allow me to share with you one of my dreams: picture a local church taking time to commission a caregiver to the ministry to which God has called them. We commission our missionaries, our pastors, and our Sunday School teachers. How about our caregivers?” (p. 150)
He wants us all to grow through the experience of dementia - growth in prayer life for all as they lament, ask, give thanks, and trust God. There can be growth for those with dementia, for caregivers, for the church and for our wider community as we seek to care for, love, and honour those who live with this difficult and heart-wrenching disease.

Dunlop finishes by practically addressing end of life issues, and then leads the reader to the promises of God and life eternal, where there will be no more dementia, no more death, or mourning, or crying, or pain.

This is an openly Christian book, offering hope and solace to those to those who already cling to the promises of God, both now and in the life to come. As such, it will have very real value for those in our churches who are affected by dementia. I think it could be given to every person (and their caregivers) with a dementia diagnosis, as a way of reaching out and beginning the process of support and care, recognising the challenges that lie ahead.

Monday, March 14, 2022

Darkest Night, Brightest Day

Darkest Night, Brightest Day, Marty Machowski (New Growth Press, 2022)

Families with primary age children are often on the lookout for resources that help them explore the Easter story, balancing both the passion week and the joy of Jesus’ resurrection.

Marty Machowski has created this great book, Darkest Night, Brightest Day that does exactly that, with seven days of readings that cover the week leading up to Jesus’ crucifixion, and then seven days on Jesus’ resurrection appearances, finishing with Pentecost. The illustrations by Phil Schorr are simple, colourful and clear.

Machowski has collated all the gospel readings together to make one coherent account, so it reads simply and logically, as if straight from the bible. It’s sewn together with skill, with some aspects 
explained further to assist with understanding. Each chapter is two to three pages of text, and would probably take under 10 minutes to read aloud. There are a few questions at the end of each chapter, with answers provided in small font if needed. It’s designed to have the Darkest Night chapters as one half of the book, with its own cover. Then after seven days of readings, on Easter morning - you switch the book over and with a new cover for Brightest Day, read the next seven days. 

I really like its simplicity. There are no fancy crafts or activities, no extra things to do. God’s word is allowed to speak for itself. This also means it isn’t asking too much of busy or weary parents. While it may struggle to hold the attention of pre-schoolers, it would be great for primary age kids, and even younger high schoolers would still benefit from reading this with their family over Easter. The appeal for older kids might actually be its simplicity, my children definitely grew out of devotionals that required activities around the end of primary school. This doesn’t ask much of them, but still enables them to listen to and interact with the biblical accounts. I suspect many adult readers will also see afresh how the events around the resurrection fit together, and how through Jesus we really have moved from darkest night to brightest day.

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

Monday, March 7, 2022

The Good Guy's Guide to Great Sex

The Good Guy’s Guide to Great Sex, Sheila Wray Gregoire and Dr Keith Gregoire (Zondervan, 2022)

Warning: this is a reasonably long review, with detailed discussion of marital sex.

Regular readers will know I have read a few of Gregoire’s books in recent months. The Great Sex Rescue (2021) focussed on problems with evangelical teaching on sex and tried to change the message. It was good, but also combative, and tried to do a bit too much. That led me to Gregoire’s earlier book The Good Girl's Guide to Great Sex (2012). My review of that was very positive, but also noted that she seemed to have changed in her thinking in the intervening decade, and I would have been keen to know what she would alter now.

So, I am very pleased to hear that Gregoire is re-releasing a completely updated version of The Good Girl’s Guide next month, and has also written this companion guide for men with her husband: The Good Guy’s Guide to Great Sex.

Both Husband and I have read it and think it’s very good and has a lot to offer. There are three main sections and I’ll go through each.

Up close and personal (Part 1) - talks about what great sex is:
“Vulnerability, intimacy, orgasm – they're all designed to go together. That's what great sex is supposed to be, something that is at once physical, emotional, and spiritual. Emotional intimacy (trust and vulnerability), spiritual intimacy (feeling like you're one), and physical intimacy (the fireworks) – lose any one aspect, and you miss great sex entirely." (p.8)
They explain both the medical and practical aspects of how sex works, including a list of terms defined, details of how a woman’s monthly cycle works, and various types of contraception. I was surprised they didn’t include some basic diagrams here of male and female anatomy, obviously assuming more than just basic knowledge now exists in the general populace.

They then turn to the sexual response cycle, and how it can vary. For some (often men) desire leads to excitement, then arousal (called spontaneous desire), for others (often women) excitement leads to desire, then arousal (responsive desire). For couples to figure this out can be especially helpful. For if one is turned on and wants to have sex prior to any touch, and the other needs the touch to be interested and aroused, it can create tension if the difference is not understood.

There is a fair focus on the woman in these chapters:
“It works best for her if she can stop multitasking in her head, start concentrating on what’s happening in her own body, and just let herself experience it… For sex to work well, a women usually has to be a little “selfish” and pay attention to what’s going on in her body, and a man has to be unselfish and also pay attention to what’s going on in her body.” (pp. 25-26)
Part 2 considers in depth the three components of great sex: “sublimely pleasurable, totally mutual, and completely intimate” (p. 36), or in more words “learning how everything works physically, creating a great friendship that fuels your passion, and experiencing deep connection while you make love.” (p. 122).

The bulk of the book explores the three areas in depth.

Chapters on physical pleasure look at orgasm in detail, particularly for women. In fact, it was highly focussed on orgasm, stating women should orgasm most of the time, that it’s the husband’s job to make this a priority, and that sex works better when women orgasm first. My husband agreed that the responsibility falls to the man to ensure her pleasure, yet also wondered whether this could put more pressure on the wife to enjoy sex. There’s a careful balance point needed here, which we think they mostly got right. They also address some issues in this area, such as painful sex and erectile dysfunction.

Next, they turn to emotional companionship and closeness, and how this is much more important that the mechanics of sex. One of the helpful aspects of this discussion was the concept of the mental load that women bear. If men want to connect with their wife, help shoulder that load. You shoulder the load together because you are a team. They confront the idea that a husband should help in order to get sex - which makes sex transactional rather than relational. No, he helps because he cares, and it’s his home too:
“He isn’t doing dishes to get sex. He's doing dishes because that's what he should do. He's an adult. He eats. He dirties dishes. So he does dishes because he's a decent, mature, responsible human being – and women tend to be attracted to decent, mature, responsible human beings!” (p. 102)
They also consider how kids impact marriage, and give helpful suggestions for husbands to help in this area, enabling their wife to not always be only “mum”.
“But you can’t wait for vacations to nurture sex in marriage. If your relationship is going to be strong, sex has to be good even in the middle of the chaos. Yes, life is tiring. Yes, you have tons of competing demands on your time. Yes, kids are exhausting. But your relationship can be the anchor that helps you give you energy to handle all those other parts of your life. So grow your friendship. Shoulder your share of the load. And be thankful that, even in the chaos, you’re in this together.” (p. 109)
The third and largest section explores spiritual intimacy and oneness, noting that true connection cannot happen when there is shame or secrets between you, turning to the common areas that can be roadblocks. These include past trauma, triggers, and when we make sex sound ugly rather than loving and connected. I think the next three chapters are the most valuable and helpful for men:

1. Is sex a need? Considering the false idea that men need sex and that wives have been encouraged to make sure they provide it.
“When we make sex an obligation, then it’s no longer about a knowing. Rather, it becomes an owing. And that doesn’t build intimacy, it destroys it.” (p. 137)
Gregoire is frank here and appropriately so. He points out the complete wrongness of marital rape or any sexual coercion. In considering times when sex is off the table, such as for a period or postpartum, he notes: her pain is not a difficult time for you, this is a difficult time for her.
“If you were bleeding out of your genitals, would your first thought be how difficult it might be for your wife not to have access to them?” (p.142)
2. Considering the myths and facts of pornography. 
“Just because you used porn in the past does not mean your marriage is doomed. Keep using porn today, though? You’ll create a world of hurt.” (p. 147)
Again, bluntly, they state the realities of pornography use including: it is a betrayal of your wife, if you deflect responsibility to her you make everything worse, that the majority of Christian men experience victory over porn, and most past porn users recover. So, an equal measure of warning and hope.

3. Lust, which is often framed as problem with men’s purity but rather than an assault on women’s personhood, teaching that female bodies are sources of evil. In addition, if we say that every man lusts, we have normalised lewd behaviour.
“Men, we are capable of treating women with dignity. And when we do that, women will feel safer. Women will feel valued. And our marriages will fare better than if we portray lust as a never-ending battle that we will always be fighting - and losing.” (p. 173)

Finally, they turn to the chapter that is in every sex book - about spicing things up. There were wise boundaries here: for the key to passion in the bedroom for her is safety - knowing her comfort level matters to you, that your relationship is safe, and she doesn’t have to perform to keep your interest.
“Spicing things up has to be done not because you’re dissatisfied with her but because you want to experience more of her.” (p. 175)

Putting it all together
(part 3) focusses on libido differences, “when you want more”.

They divide libido differences here into two categories - preference differences and when it is a problem. With preference differences, especially when sex is still happening quite frequently, they encourage the practicing of contentment, for:
“lack of contentment with frequency of sex, when sex is objectively frequent can create major problems in the long run.” (p. 189)
When libido differences become a problem though, they have a useful list of tough self-analysis questions for husbands, which include:
  • do you ensure she feels pleasure?
  • has sex been depersonalising?
  • have you broken trust with your wife?
  • do you practice good hygiene?
  • are you emotionally vulnerable with your wife?

Appendix 1 helps the husband-to-be get ready for the honeymoon, with some wise and measured advice about expectations and starting out well, whether or not you have any sexual experience. Having said that, it really felt like a book aimed at those already in the married relationship.

Appendix 2 has some great questions for husbands and wives to work through together (apparently there are sets in both books). Throughout the book, they strongly encourage the use of skilled counsellors and experts (e.g., in overcoming pornography) when needed.

There are a few big picture things that could have been done better:
  1. An overarching theological framework of sex would have been a great starting point. Something like: God made sex, sex is good, it’s a gift for a couple to enjoy together. Sin has marred it, and changed it. Yet, through Christ we have both forgiveness and redemption, and our sex lives can grow as we grow in Christ. 
  2. The starting point was a little problem focussed, it started with the concerns about sex: “I don’t get enough, it’s not how I want it, my wife and I are on a different page”, etc. In fact, early on it is worded around helping your wife enjoy sex so that she wants it as much as you. And so, 
  3. Sometimes I found the different messages for him vs her less helpful, even though they may often be true. They say: the wife gets the “rah-rah” book and he gets the “here’s how you can be her knight in shining armor book - because you can be your wife’s hero in the bedroom” (p. 4). There was a tendency to make it all about her (which frankly is a nice change, but I wasn’t sure if it didn’t swing too far in that direction). 
And a few minor things that weren’t as great:
  1. Research is included to back up their position. This can be helpful, but they haven’t found the best way to present it. There are (thankfully) less tables and figures than The Great Sex Rescue, but they still aren’t easy to interpret. While some statistics are useful, quoting stats to a decimal point is overkill. (e.g. it’s much more readable to say 53% of women orgasm this way, rather than 55.3%).
  2. This is being picky - but one statement really sat uneasily with me. Talking about multiple orgasm - i.e. once you figure it out, “you can thrust to your heart’s content (or to the content of other body parts), and she can keep climaxing the whole time!” (p. 58). It still seemed to turn her pleasure into being about him, and at a deeper level creates a level of expectation on women that not all may be able to or desire to fulfil. 
Having said that, this was one of only a few statements that sat uneasily, which means that we felt the majority of the book was a helpful tone, balanced, acknowledging issues and frankly addressing them, but giving hope for change and growth in a marriage that enjoys safe and secure sex.

Overall this is a very helpful wise and measured book for husbands who want both to love and honour their wives, and to care for them in and out of the bedroom. I recommend it for all husbands and look forward to reading the new updated version for women.


Extra note:
I feel it’s important to say that while I really like and will recommended this book, and suspect I will feel the same about the updated book for women, I am uncomfortable with the way the authors speak about other people. Their blog is increasingly combative and rude. They identify other Christian authors that have spoken about sex in a way that they disagree with, and attack them frequently. I agree that much of the church’s teaching has been unhelpful and that has been exacerbated by some writings on sex in marriage, however the Gregoires now seem to be painting themselves as the saviours of the evangelical sexual message, and decrying others who have different messages. They are neither gracious nor kind, and that is disappointing.