Wednesday, November 29, 2023

The Pastor's Kid

The Pastor’s Kid, Barnabus Piper (The Good Book Company, 2020)

This honest book about pastors kids (PKs) was recommended to us by one of our children. Barnabus Piper, son of John Piper (of Desiring God), has written about the unique challenges PKs face as the children of ministers. While he does talk about opportunities and positives, his purpose is really to explore the harder parts.
“The life of a PK is complex, occasionally messy, often frustrating, and sometimes downright maddening. It can be a curse and a bain. But being a PK can also be a profound blessing and provide wonderful grounding for a godly life. Often the greatest challenges are the greatest grounding, and the biggest falls are the best blessings.” (p.16)
His premise is that “PKs face unique obstacles that create an environment that can lead to signification spiritual, identity, and lifestyle challenges.” (p26). He has three audiences in mind - PKs, pastors, and people in churches. So the focus changes at points, with specific attention given to each. He wants the PK to feel understood, and to truly know and love Jesus. He wants pastor parents to grasp the challenges their children may experience by virtue of them being in ministry. And he wants those in our churches to realise the expectations and pressures on PKs and how they might contribute to them.

Some pastors (and their wives) will find this hard reading. Some church members might think it’s too critical and misreads good intentions. Some might feel like his comments are overstated, or too negative, or too harsh. Or perhaps too simplistic and one-sided. At points it feels like it’s been written by an angry or disillusioned teenager still grappling with the issues, rather than someone who has been able to process and synthesise their experience from a broader perspective.

Yet, much of it rings true. Piper speaks of pain and misunderstanding that many PKs experience, which is worth hearing and exploring. He is honest about the challenges PKs face, how they want to be known, want to be allowed to be normal, and not to be assessed by who their parents are. In the end, all have a deep need to know the gospel of grace personally.

He notes that pastors and their wives are called to ministry, but their kids are dragged along for the ride. He exposes the fishbowl lifestyle where so many know about them, but do not truly know them. “Even the sheer number of people who greet the PK by name is constricting. It all adds up to a feeling of being watched.” (p.31)

He names assumptions that PK’s deal with: that they have a great relationship with God and their family, that they love the church, are confident in their faith and are leaders. This, combined with unrealistic expectations, can set many up for either false morality or a sense of failure:
“There is a straightforward, blunt, in-your face-expectation that PKs will behave better than our peers. We will have inherently better judgement, avoid temptations common to our age and gender, express none of our baser thoughts or feelings, and generally reflect positively on our parents and their position. Which is total nonsense.” (p.44)
“These three expectations - perfect angel, biblical superstar, and theological extraordinaire - are ingredients to a pressure that many PKs feel.” (p.48)
Piper concludes that PKs need to know they are sinners in need of Jesus and grace: “Only in the person of Jesus is there power enough to free the PK to know who she is” (p.66). He spends a fair bit of time expanding on what grace will look like from the pastor parent to the PK. Pastor parents could find this both insightful and personally challenging. But those with humble hearts and a willingness to consider things from their kids’ perspective could come away with much to think about, and hopefully talk about with their wives and kids.

He finishes with encouragement about the blessings of being a PK - how they are raised in God’s word, how they see ministry up close, and how they have parents who love and serve Jesus. What was missing was the acknowledgement of the positive aspects of being known by many: you are also loved, cared for, helped, and prayed for by many in the church. You are more likely to be mentored by young adults, and church members are more likely to invest time in you. You are not likely to be a youth who falls through the cracks or doesn't get followed up.

This is thought-provoking reading for pastors who are parents (noting it is really about dad being the full-time minister). It could be helpful for PKs (teenagers and older) who want to read something that relates to their own experience, although it would be a shame if it led to further bitterness. As for those in our churches - it’s useful for everyone - but perhaps specifically those who minister to PKs - be they children’s or youth group leaders.

We all need to hear the gospel of grace, but Piper suggests that some PKs need to hear it a little more strongly. If this is a way to assist with that through understanding or conversations, he has done PKs a good service.

Wednesday, November 22, 2023

Something Scary Happened

Something Scary Happened: Comfort for Children in Hard Times, Darby A. Strickland (New Growth Press, 2023) 

This picture is for a specific situation - when something scary has happened to a young child and you want to help them process it and understand that God and his good shepherd Jesus are with them in their pain. 

Miles the lamb has lots of fun in the meadow with his other lamb friends: they play soccer, they eat, and they all sleep in a pile together. But one day something scary happens, and Miles is so scared that he doesn’t know what to do, and pretends it didn’t happen. 

But he can’t really forget, and he gets mad at his friends, and then he cries, and he can’t sleep - he feels all alone. But then the good Shepherd comes and promises Miles that he is with him - when he is scared, when he is mad, when he can’t sleep. 

All of this in anchored around Psalm 23, and beautifully illustrated by Carlotta Notaro. It’s a gentle book, introducing helpful concepts for little ones (2-5s) about how our bodies, emotions, and relationships can all be affected when something scary happens. Because the “scary thing” is not specified - it could be used for numerous scary circumstances or traumas, e.g., a car accident, cases of abuse, seeing a confronting thing, or challenging events in a family. There are also helpful guidelines for carers in the back of the book.

One of those books that you hope you don’t need, but will be helpful if you do.

Wednesday, November 15, 2023

You are still a mother

You are still a mother: Hope for women grieving a stillbirth or miscarriage, Jackie Gibson (New Growth Press, 2023)

In this heartfelt and honest book, Jackie Gibson reaches out to mothers who have lost a child due to stillbirth or miscarriage, and shares the comfort and love of God who is with them in their pain. She begins by sharing the devastating story of the stillbirth of her daughter Leila, and so forms an immediate connection with the reader - this is someone who knows this sadness.

Each brief chapter brings a truth about God to the fore, in light of such loss. These include:
  • Cling to God’s truths - we believe in the darkness, what we have seen in the light. 
  • We turn to Jesus, the man of sorrows, who wept at death and knows what it is to suffer. 
  • God is sovereign, even in this. This can help with the ‘what-ifs’, for God numbered this child’s days. 
  • Questioning whether God really is good, if he allowed this to happen. As Job conceded, there are things too wonderful about God for us to grasp, and sometimes we have to live with not knowing the why. 
  • The child is safe in the arms of Jesus. 
  • The child is precious in his sight (and what has happened is not a punishment for any sin). 
  • In time, you may see that God has not wasted your suffering. 
  • Suffering makes us groan for our home in heaven. 

Gibson also addresses other aspects of loss:
  • You are still a mother, for motherhood begins at conception 
  • She notes that there is a particular complexity to grief with a miscarriage before a baby’s gender is known. 
  • The pain and grief will change, but be aware of symptoms of trauma and stress. 
  • You have had a significant loss, don’t allow our society to minimise it. 

I realise starkly writing the topics out above has unhelpfully reduced them to simplistic points. While the chapters are short, there is nothing simplistic about the content. Gibson has carefully worded everything she says to represent gospel truths with compassion and care. Because it is both very short and very caring, it could be read soon after a grief. The rawness may assist some to express their own pain. It’s clearly aimed at mothers, but fathers will also find much to help them process their loss as well. It is also for Christians. I wouldn’t give this to an unbeliever with such a loss. Partly because it is only through the gospel that the truths of God’s goodness and sovereignty in this context are a comfort. But also because while she is confident that the unborn children of believers are safe in the arms of Jesus, she does not comment about the unbeliever, leaving this unspoken question unanswered.

I particularly liked her comments about the everlasting arms (from Deut 33:27).
“There was only one pair of arms that could hold me through the worst moment of my life—the everlasting arms of an eternal God.”
And the reminder from an anonymous author:
“Suffering is not a question that demands an answer. It is not a problem that requires a solution. It is a mystery that needs a presence.”

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

Wednesday, November 8, 2023

How Can I Feel Closer to God?

How Can I Feel Closer to God?, Chris Morphew (The Good Book Company, 2023)

This has always been the ache of the human heart, that God feels far away when we want him to be close:
Why, O LORD, do you stand far away?
Why do you hide yourself in times of trouble? (Ps 10:1)
O God, be not far from me;
O my God, make haste to help me! (Ps 71:12)
The quick, snappy reply has often been, “If God feels far away, who moved?”, suggesting that any distance we feel from God is more about us, than him. While there is truth in this, it’s also a cognitive response that doesn’t fully address the heart issue. Thankfully, Sydney-based chaplain Chris Morphew has taken the time to provide tweens with a fuller answer. He addresses the longing many of us experience when we have chosen to follow Jesus: “believing he loves you is one thing. Actually feeling that love is something else” (7-8).

Apprentice to Jesus

In How Can I Feel Closer to God?, Morphew begins with a framework of faith—if you want to feel closer to God, you have to be friends with him first. Thankfully, Jesus has done everything we need to enable us to be friends with God: “Jesus invites us into deep, life-changing friendship with him, right here, right now, today” (18). We are to be an “apprentice”—someone who learns from Jesus how to live and be friends with God. This terminology is helpful for tweens, because disciple is no longer common vernacular, and being a follower is more associated with social media.

Morphew’s message is that the key to feeling close to God is to intentionally and diligently invest in our relationship with him though prayer, Bible reading, and meeting with God’s people. Many find this hard—it can feel awkward because we are out of practice, or we struggle with busyness and distraction. I’m not certain that busyness is one of the biggest struggles for tweens preventing them spending time with God. I wonder whether it could also be a lack of confidence, uncertainty of its value, and a general disinterest in things that take thoughtful time. However, whatever the reason, Morphew assures: “if feeling close to God doesn’t come easily to you, it’s important to realise that’s completely normal” (28).

Pray, Read, Meet

These struggles are indeed normal, yet we still want to feel closer to God. So, what does Morphew suggest it might look like for tweens to invest in their relationship with him?

1. Take 10 minutes a day to be still and thank God—for anything and everything. He encourages a daily habit of prayer, using the Lord’s prayer as a guide, and explains what it means to pray without ceasing (1 Thessalonians 5:17). “God isn’t inviting us to pray instead of living the rest of our lives. He’s inviting us to pray as we live the rest of our lives.” (46). We can talk to him throughout the day, with a simple please, sorry or thank you. Writing prayers down also helps us to see God at work over time.

2. Regular Bible reading is essential: “As apprentices of Jesus, getting to know the Bible inside and out is one of the most important, most valuable ways we can grow closer to God.” (52). The advice is obvious, yet still important for shaping young believers: read a book not random verses, write about what you learn, and talk about it with others.

3. Be part of Christian community: “If you want to feel closer to God, you need to stay connected to his people” (63). I love his encouragement here for hesitant youth to “go all in”. Sing aloud, join in prayer, follow along in the Bible, get to know people, and generally be involved. When many young people prefer to hang back to see if others will go first and no-one wants to stick their neck out, this is excellent advice. (He notes he could also have written a whole chapter on how music can help us feel closer to God. Part of me wishes he had, but his brief comments still point readers in that direction.)

The whole book is written assuming hesitation and uncertainty—I want to feel close to God, but what can I do about it? I like the way Morphew addresses questions honestly (How much time will it take? But what if I find it boring?), but also with an element of challenge. Yes, it will take time and, in fact, God wants your whole life, not just bits of it. If you find it boring, perhaps you haven’t gone all in.

Feelings Aren’t Everything

But there’s one more key answer Morphew gives: it’s not all about how we feel.

Considering the title of the book, this is a crucial point to end on. Some days we will feel incredibly close to God—loved by him and connected to him. Yet, there will also be times that he feels distant, no matter how much time we might spend in his Word, in prayer, or with his people. Feelings absolutely matter—we want to pay attention to them and have language to express them. But at the same time, feelings aren’t always true.
Your feelings are your mind’s and your body’s responses to what’s happening in your life. Sometimes those feelings match up with how things really are, and sometimes they don’t. (83)
It’s critical for young people (and all of us) to grasp this—we need to balance a healthy awareness of our feelings, with a scepticism of their accuracy.

Morphew’s style is so winsome for this upper-primary age. Direct, age-appropriate, fun, and no condescension. Just like a normal conversation with a younger person. Emma Randall’s minimal illustrations add variety and interest, and there’s Bible references throughout (though I wonder how many young people are likely to look them up – perhaps including some more in full text would have been a good idea).

The whole series is one that many tweens (and their parents) will want on their bookshelves. The six books cover numerous topics, answering questions about faith, suffering, and our identity in Christ. If you have tweens in your life—these books address the questions they are asking. if they long to feel closer to God, share your own experiences, and give them this book to help guide them along the way.

This was first posted on TGCA.
I was given a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review. 

Wednesday, November 1, 2023


Valuable, Liz Carter (The Good Book Company, 2023)

“God can use you.” 
“God will use this for his good purpose.” 
“You have great gifts—use them for God.” 
“Jesus—use me for your kingdom.”

This language echoes across our churches. We all want to feel useful, and using our productivity to serve God feels right. I mean—isn’t it biblical? We’re all part of the body, contributing in our own unique way (1 Cor 12:12-26). God can use us weak jars of clay for his purpose (Rom 9:21, 2 Cor 4:7, 2 Tim 2:21).

But what about when we feel useless? When illness prevents any service in church? When vulnerable health means staying at home is the only option? When exhaustion overwhelms and getting out of bed is all that can be accomplished in a day? When our history leaves us struggling with triggers that could floor us at any moment?

Are we still useful? Can God still use us?

When we esteem and magnify the ideas of use and usefulness, we can move into dangerous territory. In Valuable, author Liz Carter, who suffers from chronic illness, proposes throwing out the language of “use” entirely, and instead considering “value”.

The Productivity Lie

Almost the first question we ask someone new is, “What do you do?” Even creative ways around this (“What fills your week?”, “What keeps you busy?”) suggest we need to be doing something to be worthwhile. There’s an ongoing internal question: “Do I measure up?”

How do we respond when we cannot be productive by the world’s (or even our church’s) standards? We come to Jesus and see again that he doesn’t want us for our usefulness. He wants us because he loves us. He cares for the weak, the vulnerable, the downtrodden. He turns lives upside down. This phrase is the theme of the book: God calls us into “the Upside Down”, where we have value and dignity because of who he made us to be—not because of what we do.

Carter is not speaking a new message here. This is the truth of the gospel, that he made us with dignity, and he loves us so much that he sent his Son for us. There isn’t as much on our deep need for a saviour, for sin is not the emphasis of this book, but more how those who suffer are still loved, valued, and honoured by the Lord.

Further, sharing our vulnerabilities openly with others combats the lies we’re tempted to believe: “I’d be more useful if I were whole / healed / better”. When we take off the “everything’s fine” mask, we find amongst God’s people “a place where we can safely bare our souls and bear one another’s burdens” (72). Our wholeness (in Jesus) can bloom in our brokenness:
What if instead of looking for usefulness in wholeness, we find a new and more dynamic power in God’s weakness-powered wholeness? (79)

God is Not a User

Imagine the meaning of “use” to those who have been used. This point struck me—for when we talk of one person using another, it is not positive. This language can imply manipulation, exploitation, control. But this isn’t how we should view God.

Carter considers the verses that refer to God’s people as vessels or pots. Rather than us being items of use for God, these verses show the great power of the gospel in our frailty (2 Cor 4:7); God’s sovereignty over his creation (Rom 9:21); and his call to holiness and service (2 Tim 2:21).
Let’s not fall into the trap of thinking that the desire of God’s heart is to get his children to do things for him. God’s heart is for intimacy and transformation. (58)

God Gives Hope In Our Pain

For those who suffer, another insidious message can be heard—that God is using you in your pain. if I can be useful in my weakness, I shouldn’t feel bad about it, and (more devastatingly) God must be content to see me suffer.

Carter suffers from a chronic lung condition that leaves her bed-ridden or hospitalised for days or weeks at a time. Talking about this kind of thinking, she says:
It reduced my agony to a tool and my suffering to a means to an end. It turned my sadness and disappointment into self-indulgent emotions that would not matter because I was being useful. (90)
Romans 5:2-5 gives us a different framework—that God is with us, he is helping us persevere, drawing us closer to God to make us more like him, and leading us to hope.
Maybe, instead, if we think of God at the centre of the brokenness, joining in with our pain and working in and through it to build up our hope, we can live a much more glorious story. (100)
Besides her own, Carter includes stories of others whose illness, mental health, trauma, grief or other circumstances have redefined what their usefulness for God looks like. Much of the personal application will be found by those who use the reflection questions, or the study guide at the end. Her eloquent, poetic writing style evocatively draws the reader into a deeper experience of God’s love.

For those who have been impacted by the unhelpful language of use, this book could be a balm to the soul, and enable us to shift our gaze back to the Lord who loves us, delights in us, and walks alongside us through the challenges of life. For others, it may be a necessary reminder to check our language and how it impacts others. But this message is for everyone, for while we all want to be useful and feel useless at times; what we really need is a broader, truer message of grace found in Christ’s love that goes far beyond use and leads to his glory. You are valuable because “you’re a loved child of your heavenly Father” (105).

This review first appeared on TGCA.
I was given a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.