Monday, April 16, 2018

5 things to pray for your church

5 things to pray for your church, Rachel Jones

I recently discovered this excellent prayer resource by the Good Book Company. It’s one in a series which guide you in biblical, specific prayer for various things, this one obviously being for your church. It’s a little book (smaller than A5) and just under 100 pages, but it packs a punch and is chock full of ideas for prayer.

Reading the title, I thought that there would only be five main things to pray for your church, but it is so much more than that. It is actually five things to pray under each of four main categories and with extensive sub-categories under them, so you might pray for:

1. Praying that my church would:
  • Remember what we are
  • Be a body growing in maturity 
  • Love and serve one another
  • Make known God’s glory
  • Give generously
2. Praying that I would:
  • Use my gifts well 
  • Persevere when I get weary
3. Praying for people in my church:
  • For my church leader 
  • My small group
  • Children and young people
  • Not-yet Christians
  • The elderly
4.  Praying for the wider church:
  • Another church near us
  • Our mission partners
  • Churches far away
  • The unreached. 
All in all, there are 21 things to pray for, each supported by different bible verses and then five prayer points drawn from that scripture. Each prayer point is explained slightly, so you have actual specific ideas to bring to God, drawn from his word. So, there are ideas for praying for your church to keep you going over a month and then you could start all over again. Because of the way the prayer suggestions and who to pray for are worded, you could use it a little differently each time you use it. I've been praying for my church for years including people, leaders and ministry families, but this is more extensive and biblical than anything I have used before. Having said that I did notice that when praying for ministry leaders, their families were not included, which I would have liked to see. In addition, while young people, children and the elderly were prayed for – there was nothing about marrieds, singles, families, etc; and nothing about the sick, the unemployed or the marginalised. If the other books in this series as good: 5 things to pray for people you love, …for your heart, and …for your city (this last one by different authors), they would be well worth investigating. They would be a great set of resources to encourage you to biblical prayer that is wide ranging yet specific. 

Friday, April 13, 2018

The Last Jedi

Not surprisingly, the eighth episode of the 40-year-old franchise was highly anticipated by three generations of this family. It was with a sense of adventure that 2 grandparents, 2 adult daughters and 2 children saw this together. As we emerged blinking into the light 2.5 hours later, it was clear that all were satisfied.

We are fans, but not overly critical ones. So we are willing to overlook re-used plot ideas, repeated lines of dialogue, about 30 minutes too much movie, and a time sequence that further thought suggests is impossible. We overlook it because the overall idea is still captivating. Light vs darkness. Good vs evil. The strength of family bonds and a desire to understand who you are and where you come from. A fantastic music score that still grabs and haunts or excites. The familiar faces we’ve come to know and love. And always the impressive space and battle scenes on the big screen.

We pick up where we left off in Episode 7: The Force Awakens – Rey having found Luke Skywalker. Leia leads the rebellion forces, including renegade pilot Poe with BB8 as his sidekick, and Finn is wondering where Rey has gone. I was pleasantly surprised how much of the movie contained Leia (Carrie Fisher) as she died over a year prior to it's release.

It is really one very long extended chase scene as the First Order try to extinguish the Rebels for good. Will they succeed? Well, there has to be a ninth movie – so you know some good and some bad have to survive to battle it out in that one. All in all, a good addition to the collection, but probably unlikely to capture that attention of those who aren’t already fans.

Monday, April 9, 2018

Wise Up

Wise Up, Marty Machowski

This devotional by Marty Machowski adds another resource to the list for those looking for biblical material to study together as a family.

Based on the book of Proverbs, Machowski has designed a 12 week (5 days per week) set of readings, each designed to be 10 minutes long. As such, it’s very manageable. My biggest issue with family devotionals is how long they are, so something that’s planned to be used for 3 months is achievable in my opinion. It maintains interest for that time, but by the end everyone is ready to try something different. I should also add a disclaimer here - it took us over a year to get through Wise Up, by the time we had the natural breaks common to all when life is busy, as well as breaks for Easter and Christmas readings. So, we never really got a good run straight through it. Having said that, it was easy to pick up where we left off, remind ourselves what we were up to, and keep going.

While anchored in the book of Proverbs, the 12 weeks are thematic, covering topics like:

  • The Real Wise Man (Jesus)
  • Our hearts
  • God’s word – the greatest treasure
  • Listening to wisdom
  • Learning to follow your parents’ instruction
  • Welcoming correction
  • Learning diligence
  • Learning to give (generosity)
  • True friendship

Each day’s reading has a short bible passage with some comments and observations, often with illustrations that children easily connect with. There are a few questions to talk about, and an idea for prayer. The questions include indications of where you want the conversation to go, so a parent who is less confident with handling God’s word will find ample help to ensure the family stays on a gospel-centred track. Each week also has an activity suggestion and a song to listen to or sing connected with a Sovereign Grace album, Walking with the Wise). [We skipped those optional extras].

Machowski has woven the truths of Proverbs with the Jesus’ fulfilment of true wisdom and so the gospel is brought to bear through the discussion and application. As such, the family is taken through a gospel-centred guide to wise living. He suggests in the forward for parents:
“Enjoy all of the practical direction in Proverbs, but remember, don’t try this without turning to Jesus for forgiveness, help, and direction. Jesus lives in the hearts of his people, empowering them to become like him, the wisest King of all.”
This was a helpful corrective and it is clear Machowski was trying very hard to apply the wisdom and practical living of Proverbs without it becoming a book of “you should / you shouldn’t”. He kept trying to bring grace to each topic. I particularly noticed this tension in the week on diligence, when it seemed to keep building up how we should work faithfully to honour God, but gave a breath of freeing grace on the final day reminding us we cannot pay for our sin by how hard we work, it is through Jesus’ work that we are saved.

Some nights we headed into longer, deeper discussions. One reading on friendship focussed on a marriage partner being a faithful friend who shares your love of Jesus. These are conversations we need to have early and regularly with our children. Extended discussions about honesty, generosity and what it means to be obedient also came up.

We read it with Mr 14, Miss 12 and Miss 10. It was a bit old for Mr 14, by his admission and our acknowledgement; and Miss 12 was borderline. Partly this was because the some of the discussion questions were a bit repetitive, requiring only comprehension skills of the previous comments. However, there was usually one question for discussion that made us all reflect a little more on the application of wisdom in that context. So, this is a very helpful, biblical and applicable devotional resource for families, and would be of particular benefit for those with children in the primary school years.

Monday, April 2, 2018

White Fang

White Fang, Jack London

I must have read this at least once when I was young because I recalled it was good. It was very enjoyable to return to.

It tells the life of White Fang, a pup born to a runaway sled dog, and fathered by a wolf. His early days know the life of a burrow, famine and exploration into the world. A chance encounter with an Indian group reveals to White Fang that people are gods: they rule everything and even his feisty, protective mother gives her obedience to the owners she once lost.

His character is strongly affected by those around him: bullying pups, a harsh master and cruel children. In time he becomes the property of Beauty Smith, who uses his vindictive streak to turn him into a dog fighting champion.

One day Weedon Scott, a compassionate engineer breaks up a dog fight and buys White Fang outright. In the same way that cruelty and meanness shaped White Fang, now the patience, tenderness and care shown by Scott begin to change him. An incredibly close bond develops between them.

It's a very insightful book by someone who knew and understood the nature of canines, humans and the various bonds that develop between them. White Fang is never personified, although his actions are explained and detailed. This is a highly intelligent animal who has instincts as well as learned behaviours and responses.

This is definitely worth reading for adults and older children alike. Originally published in 1906, it still is very readable and understandable. There's a depth to it that children and teens may miss and it does require a certain level of vocabulary and intuition, but adults will appreciate the insights and comments throughout. I suspect it will resonate with dog lovers for it will describe things they already know and understand about canines, and those who aren't may appreciate them a little more.

Monday, March 26, 2018

Luther on Prayer

Sometimes I come across resources that are simply excellent, but I know not many people are going to attempt them. The writings of Luther could well fit into that category. However, if you are at all tempted to read some of Luther, his comments on prayer would be an excellent place to start.

Inspired by Keller's Prayer, I ordered a little book containing two of Luther's Works: Little Prayer Book, 1522 and A Simple Way to Pray, 1535. Both were treasures waiting to be discovered.  The whole volume is under 100 pages, and in a modern writing style, which I trust has retained the essence of Luther's German but in a way I can actually read, understand, savour and appreciate. They are extracted from a larger body of works, and the authorial comments (by Mary Jane Haemig and Eric Lund) help the reader to understand Luther's points and flow.

I'm not going to give an extensive review. Not only do I feel ill-equipped to review Martin Luther, but there is a vast chasm of time and experience between my life and his. Instead, I'll share with you some of his words and main points.

Little Prayer Book, 1522

Luther encouraged all people to earn and know the Ten Commandments, the Creed and the Lord's Prayer:
"Indeed, the total content of Scripture and preaching and everything a Christian needs to know is quite fully and richly comprehended in these three items. They summarise everything with such brevity and clarity that no one can complain or make any excuse that the things necessary for salvation are too complicated or difficult to remember."
So the commandments teach us our failings, the creed shows us where to find healing (grace) through God and his plan in Christ, and the Lord's Prayer teaches how to bring all this to God in prayer.  Luther then spends considerable time expounding what it would mean to break each commandment and what it would be to keep each. These would bring any believer in humble repentance before God.

The same detail is then given to the creed in sections and the Lord's prayer (and shorter to the Hail Mary, which I chose not to spend much time in).  The depth of his thought brings the reader to a truer understanding of what it really means to trust in Jesus and follow him with your whole life.

Here is just a section on possible prayer on Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven:
"Your will is at all times the best, to be cherished and desired above everything else. Therefore have mercy upon us, O dear Father, and let nothing happen just because it is our own will. Grant and teach us a a deep patience in times when our will is preventing from happening or comes to nothing. Help when others contradict our will by what they say or do, do or leave rundown, that we not become angry or vexed, not curse, complain, protest... 
Grant us grace to bear willingly all sorts of sickness, poverty, disgrace suffering, and adversity and to recognise that in them your divine will is crucifying our will."  
Regarding the Lord's Prayer:
"I am convinced that when Christian rightly pray the Lord's Prayer at any time or use any portion of it as they may desire, their praying is more than adequate. What is important for a good prayer is not many words, as Christ says in Matthew 6, but rather a turning to God frequently and with heartfelt longing and, doing so without ceasing... get accustomed to praying this plain, ordinary, Christian prayer. The longer one devotes one's self to this kind of praying, the more sweet and joyous it becomes."

A Simple Way to Pray, 1535  

Written as a letter to his barber, this is more of a guide to prayer for a friend.  (you can view some of it online here)

With a wonderful starting line:
"I will tell you as best I can what I do personally when I pray. May our dear Lord grant to you and to everybody to do it better than I! Amen."
He proceeds to model how to pray through the Lord's Prayer and the Ten Commandments in depth. There is a richness here which is so encouraging. He evens warns people against using his actual words so that they don't become rote, but rather using it as an example from which to spur you on in your own prayer.

About the Lord's prayer:
"It is the very best prayer, even better than the Psalter, which is so very dear to me. It is surely evident that a real master composed and taught it. What a great shame that the prayer of such a master is prattled and chattered so irreverently all over the world!"
About morning prayer:
"It is a good thing to let prayer be the first business of the morning and the last at night. Diligently guard against those false, deluding ideas which tell you, “Wait a little while, I will pray in an hour; first I must attend to this or that.” Such thoughts get your away from prayer into other affairs that so hold your attention and involve you that nothing comes of prayer for that day. This is especially so in emergencies when you have some task that seems as good or better than prayer."
This letter is where the idea that Keller quotes from Luther about praying 4 ways from a passage comes from:
  • Instruction – what is the point of the passage, and what does God intend for the passage for me? This may be obvious or make take some thought.
  • Thanksgiving – praise God for it.
  • Confession – confess in response to it.
  • Petition – ask God to act, for change in me or others.
And some comments on Amen:
"Finally mark this, that you must always speak the “Amen” firmly. Never doubt that God in his mercy will surely hear you and say “yes” to your prayers. Never think that you are kneeling or standing alone, rather think that the whole of Christendom, all devout Christians, are standing there beside you and you are standing among them in a common, united petition which God cannot disdain. Do not leave your prayer without having said or thought, “Very well, God has heard my prayer, this I know as a certainty and a truth.” That is what Amen means." 
I was encouraged and refreshed by this volume.

Monday, March 19, 2018

The Pillars of the Earth

The Pillars of the Earth, Ken Follett

This is an epic tale of life in the Middle Ages in southern England. (Or if you can credit the non sequitur of our book cover "A timeless story of passion and idealism set in the midst of the Middle Ages"!)

Set around the priory of Kingsbridge, the monks rule the town and the prior Philip longs to build a cathedral. The local earl of Shiring is against the plan, wanting the money from such a project to go to his own pockets.

The story spans some 30 years from 1135 and covers the building of the church with all the challenges of architecture encountered by senior builder Tom. At the same time, there is the tale of Aliena, the previous earl's daughter as she struggles to survive and return her family to their previous state, and her spurned fiancé William, a spiteful cruel man who long bears a grudge.

The interwoven lives of all means Archer has write a captivating story of the Middle Ages and the lives of nobility, the peasants and the various levels of clergy. At the same time the real events of history are played out with various Kings seizing the throne and their rulings affecting the lives of those at Kingsbridge.

As our children get older I am reading adult fiction with an eye to whether I would recommend it to them also. I would hesitate letting younger teens read this one because of the sexual violence. There's a fair amount of rape and most of the sex scenes described or alluded to are non-consensual, with some distasteful characters persisting in such behaviour. While it is probably accurate for the times and displays the power that men and nobles had, my young teens don't need to be reading about it yet.

It's the first book in a trilogy by Archer. This one was published in 1989 and the final one was just released in 2017. Reviews of the other two still to come. Great epic reads, all of them.

Monday, March 12, 2018

Developing a Healthy Prayer Life

Developing a Healthy Prayer Life: 31 Meditations on Communing with God, James W. Beeke and Joel R. Beeke (Reformation Heritage Books, 2010)

A talk series on prayer has led me again to investigate resources for prayer. I have come across some good ones.

This very short offering (under 100 pages) is designed to be used as a devotional, with 31 brief chapters covering numerous aspects of prayer. Starting with a definition of prayer as “the act of forging a connection between two specific points: our human needs and the resources of God offered to us in Christ”, it’s then extended to include expressing desires to God, embracing God’s will, confession, and worship. The reader is invited to be both challenged and encouraged by prayer, and to be changed by it.

They begin by addressing the question: “Who should pray?” and address some excuses why people don’t think they should pray, concluding “You are too sinful not to pray; sinners are the very people who need prayer. Therefore, pray.”

The following 29 chapters focus on different aspects of prayer, such as pray in Christ’s name, pray believingly, pray humbly, pray boldly, pray intercedingly, pray thankfully, pray dependently and pray against besetting sins. Each were instructive, helpful and bible based.

Some helpful things along the way:
“Prayer requires faith: believing in God, trusting in God, and placing our expectations in God.” (Ch 3) 
“You need humble boldness – humility when viewing your sinful self and boldness when viewing a reconciling Christ.” (Ch 7) 
[Regarding praying with thankfulness] “First we are to be thankful for mercies received… Second, we are to be thankful for trials endured… Third, we are to be thankful for the absolute goodness and infinite mercy of God expressed in His actions toward us in both prosperity and adversity.” (Ch 11) 
“In our prayer, God does not note the expressiveness of our voice, the multitude of our words, or regard the eloquence of our expressions. Rather, He observes the sincerity of our heart. To pray sincerely is to pray without pretence or deceit.” (Ch 17)

“We are to pray dependently, not independently, True prayer weans the petitioner from self-reliance.” (Ch 23) 
“Unfulfilled prayer can serve as a means to produce far deeper and more valuable benefits that those we originally requested. Unfulfilled prayer can teach us patience and contentment, surrendering and bowing before God…. Unfulfilled prayer can serve to teach us humility and dependency, to trust more in God and less in self.” (Ch 24) 
“Thoughtful prayer moves us from weakness to strength and from strength to glory. It binds us to God and comforts us in distress, pray not as a last resort, but in the increasing knowledge of God and His will." (Ch 30)

There was an appendix at the end with 31 Marks of True Prayer – they were helpful to read but I would have appreciated an explanation of where they came from, they seemed to be sourced from elsewhere.

I did have a couple of hesitations:

  • Chapter 29 was about praying with scripture. I wasn’t sure why this was placed so late in the order, it would have been much better to have this much earlier. Indeed, there was no real logical to the order of the chapters.
  • It was very disappointing that in 2010 they chose to use the KJV translation for all bible quotes. It makes the bible almost inaccessible to modern readers. Even the small number of suggested written prayers modelled the use thees & thys whereas all the other writing was modern. This implies you need to use different language for both bible reading and prayer than you use in daily life. It’s very unhelpful.
  • It would have been both instructive and encouraging to have a short prayer or aid to prayer at the end of each devotional. Modelling such prayer, not just talking about prayer would have been beneficial.

So as an aid to consider prayer from multiple angles, it's a very helpful book with instructive prompts and challenges. With each chapter only ~2 pages, it's very, very readable. One a day would indeed be excellent food for thought over a month, and a way to analyse your prayer life in light of the teaching of scripture.

Note: it only appears to still be easily available as an eBook.

Monday, March 5, 2018

Fitz and the Fool

Fitz and the Fool Series, Robin Hobb

The fifth and final series of Robins Hobb's world of the Elderlings was only just finished last year. Good thing I only found this series in the last 12 months, or I (like millions of other fans) would have been waiting a long time for this one!

Back we return to the Six Duchies and Fitz. About 20 years have passed, he is now happily married and living at the estate at Withywoods, and the Fool has been absent since the events of series three.

Really there isn't any point saying much more. If you aren't already reading this series (13 books in so far) you won't understand the details, and those still working their way through them won't want me to spoil anything.

It's enough to say it's a cracking end to the whole series. All our favourite characters are woven in again, not just in the Six Duchies, but in the Rain Wilds, Kelsingra and on the Liveships as well. These books occupied me completely on holidays and got me through a few rough days with a tummy upset too. It was a fitting completion to a very impressive series, which has clearly been a life's work for Hobb, who has been writing them since 1995.

I have noticed with authors that write a series over the course of their lives that you start to feel you know them a bit: what they care about, their worldview, and their value system. You also can glimpse  how their attitudes or values change as the years go on. I felt the same about Jean Auel and Diana Gabaldon. I assume any writer's values and beliefs come out in their writing. It's an interesting privilege to be allowed, just a little, into someone else's mind and how they express it creatively.

Friday, March 2, 2018

High School Musical

This fun, musical about life in high school seems like it was meant to be the clean, modern version of Grease. When I say clean, I mean really clean – no bad language, one kiss on the cheek and everyone grows in character. Even the clothing choices are mostly appropriate.

When Troy and Gabriella meet on holidays at a ski resort, they are unceremoniously shoved together and made to sing karaoke. Initial horror turns to fun and interest as it turns out that (wow!), they can both sing really well. Fast forward to the next semester and Gabriella (no way!) turns up as a new student at Troy’s school. Troy is captain of the basketball team whereas Gabriella excels in maths and science. But both start to wonder if they should try out for the high school musical. Obviously, there is a lot of romantic interest between them, but as I said, it’s all very chaste.

Friends try to convince them to stay in their own cliques (with a catchy song ‘stick to the status quo’). The overarching message of the movie though is that it's OK to be a bit different, and to do the things that you like – whether it’s singing, dancing, baking, academics or sport. Positive messages abound throughout– kids learn to encourage their friends into different interests, the teachers while caricatured at points do help the kids out, and parents are positive role models. The basketball coach / dad in particular makes it clear to his son in the end that he wants him to enjoy playing rather than concentrate on winning. The brother/ sister duo of Ryan and Sharpay who run the Drama club even learn to cope with the intrusion on their domain, and their antics are fun to watch in the process.

The songs aren’t really anything special (the music from Grease is certainly much much better). One review suggested the songs sounded like offcuts from a Paula Abdul album and the lip syncing is pretty bad. But the energy is fun, lighthearted and enjoyable.

Moving on, it's as much fun watching #2 and 3. Continuing with comparisons, it seems to me that High School Musical 2 is trying to be a conservative Dirty Dancing. It's summer and Sharpay is living at the country club. She wants Troy in the show and fixes it so he has a job there. He manages to get all of the crew from East High employed for the summer. This one is much more about Ryan and Sharpay's shenanigans and there is tension developing between Troy who is favoured, and Gabriella and the rest of the gang.

High School Musical 3 is Senior Year and while looking forward to prom and graduation, there is uncertainty about everyone's future. Where will they go to college? What will happen to Troy and Gabriella's relationship?

As with the first, there are a lot of songs and dance routines. Few will stay with you for long (unless your children listen to them on constant repeat), but they are fun to watch and the choreography of all the large dance scenes is pretty impressive.

All three (ages 10, 12 and 14) enjoyed these and laughed at the jokes. Husband and I liked the positive messages and that they were funny (sometimes laughing at, sometimes laughing with). Troy and Gabriella kiss properly in #2 & 3, but as with the first, there is no bad language, the interactions are pretty chaste, and all the characters tend to improve and learn. Definitely a bit of enjoyable family fun.

Monday, February 26, 2018

The Alice Network

The Alice Network, Kate Quinn

Kate Quinn’s writing has grabbed my attention again with The Alice Network covering the lives of women over two world wars.

Evelyn is a spy recruited by Britain to work in German-occupied Lille, France in 1915. She combines forces with other women including Lili and Violette, all key players ensuring that gathered information makes it back to their superiors. Eve is willing to do whatever it takes for the war effort, putting her body and life on the line.

The concurrent story line has Charlie St Clair searching for her cousin, whereabouts unknown since the end of WWII. A vague report on her last known details was signed off by Evelyn, and Charlie sets out to confront her to determine more details. As their stories unfold, they find increasing links to people of their past.

Because Eve is introduced very early on as having extensive hand injuries that were purposefully inflicted, there's a tension over the whole book as you wait for the inevitable to happen. And while the scene is indeed unpleasant, I had probably built it up more in my head in expectation.

The resolution when it comes is quick and not quite what I expected. It has made me reflect on the difference in denouement when a story is based around revenge or when redemption is the key theme.

I do prefer it when themes of redemption and forgiveness break through. I don’t expect it from authors, but in the end, resolution through revenge is rarely as satisfying. I realise that puts my faith perspective over my reading and I can sometimes hope for themes that authors aren’t going to write about. However, it’s been helpful for me to realise why I find some endings more satisfying than others.

Monday, February 19, 2018

The Rain Wild Chronicles

The Rain Wild Chronicles, Robin Hobb

The fourth series by Robin Hobb takes us back to the Rain Wilds, the land we learnt of in The Liveships Traders (the second one). It picks up again with similar characters and lands of those days. The events of Fitz and the Fool have no impact on this series, except that the released dragon drake Icefyre is now the mate of Tintaglia.

Dragon Keeper (Book 1) shows how the serpents that were coaxed up the Rain Wild River to form cocoons have emerged, but these baby dragons are an embarrassing lot, not fully formed, with no strength or flight, and look like they will never be the lords of the earth, sea and sky that they once were. Tintaglia has gone and the people of Trehaug are saddled with the care and responsibility of the increasingly large and irate dragons.

The dragons long to return to the lost Elderling city of Kelsingra, as their memories suggest that healing and help could come from there. So Trehaug provides each with a dragon keeper, who just happen to be the outcasts of society they would like to be rid of. With Tarman, first liveship ever made, and his crew, an expedition sets out to relocate the dragons in Book 2 (Dragon Haven). Yet the treacherous Duke of Chalced is on the trail. Lured by the hope of extending his life and curing his rapidly failing health, he believes that dragon products are the only things that will save him. His mercenaries are close behind the dragon expedition.

In City of Dragons and Blood of Dragons, the famed city of Kelsingra has been found, but can its treasures be discovered to save the dragons? Will this mighty race again rule the earth with their now altered human companions, who are slowly becoming the new race of Elderlings?

I loved this series as much as the others. It's always good to return to loved characters and see how the author has moved their stories on. She gives much food for thought about dragons and many details of the lives of the Rain Wilders. Various relationships are detailed, both functional and highly dysfunctional, heterosexual and homosexual. She has a wide range of character types, people that redeem their behaviour, people that persist in wilful violence, people that learn new ways of relating and how to love, and those that do not necessarily change for the better. This breadth gives her books a depth, for even though the people and Elderlings are very different in appearance and life than we are, the essence of what makes them people rings true to the reader.

I find it interesting to reflect on how often dragons feature in fantasy writings. Where does this human interest in mythical flying powerful serpents come from? Why are they so prevalent in human ponderings? I do not know, but I enjoyed this series, not just the dragons but also the people.

Friday, February 16, 2018

Paddington 2

This movie is absolutely charming.

Miss 7 was a bit scared by Paddington; Nicole Kidman was a very convincing evil museum curator trying to stuff the loveable bear.

This time the enemy is Phoenix Buchanan, wonderfully played by Hugh Grant, he is marvellous: funny, over the top and completely believable as a self absorbed actor needing quick money so that's he can stage his own one man play at the West End.

Unfortunately for Paddington, the planned source of Phoenix's money is the valuable pop-up book of London that he wants to buy for his aunt Lucy. Working hard as a window cleaner (giving some very funny scenes) Paddington almost has enough to buy the book, but then a masked bandit steals it.

Mistaken work by police has Paddington put in prison for the crime. These scenes turn out to be some of the funniest in the movie as Paddington's determined kindness turns the prison around.

This is a gorgeous movie to look at. It is really picture book London at its best, and the scenes which incorporate the pop-up book are dazzlingly clever.

Miss 10, my mother and I all loved this movie. It was charming, never scary and never felt like it dragged. It operates wonderfully on two levels, so much so that in a moment where all the adults were laughing out loud, a small voice in our showing piped up and said "why is everyone laughing? It's not funny."

Highly recommended for all, especially those who enjoyed #1.

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Being Involved at School

[This article went up on TGCA last week, and is an updated version of a previous post] 

As we dive into yet another school year, have you considered what your involvement as a parent might be?

We’re now into our 11th consecutive year at the same local primary school. It’s been a great opportunity to develop long-term relationships with students, parents, teachers and staff. Our school is multi-lingual and multi-cultural with immigrant families, as well as the usual mix of born and bred Australians. It’s also a bastion of secular, inclusive thought. Jesus calls us to be salt and light to those around us (Matt 5:13-15), and for our ministry family, the local school is the only place where we regularly spend time with unbelievers.

There are many ways a parent could be involved, but as with all things, no-one can or should do everything. Our involvement has varied greatly over the years. We reassess annually and also consider it a ‘joint task’: sometimes my husband has been more involved with a sports team or on the council, which means I do less; other times it’s reversed.

Here’s what we’ve prioritised:

1. Get to know the teachers

We ask about their families, weekend, holidays, so that not every conversation is about our child. It acknowledges their humanity: they aren’t just there to teach our child, they have a life with ups and downs just like we do. To our children, it models respect as well as understanding for those in authority.

I’ve realised this isn’t what all parents do. Each year, teachers have thanked us for being so supportive of them and the class. We just thought we were taking an interest, but apparently, it stands out.

As they progress through the years, this is trickier as I go into the classroom less. But I’ve observed most teachers really appreciate it when you occasionally come into the classroom in the senior years.

2. Get involved in the school community

We’ve been involved in various ways: committees, Governing Council, sports coaching, listening to reading, testing times tables, going on excursions, and hosting events for class parents. When senior management change, I make an effort to meet them. I try to know the office staff by name, and again being a friendly, cheerful face with no agenda appears to be a refreshing change.

In the early years, I committed to more than I could manage and ended up feeling guilty about pulling out of something. These days I do less and feel guilty for not getting more involved! It’s always a bit of a balancing act. But God gives grace, and we are reminded it’s a privilege to serve the school community, even when it can be time-consuming and challenging.

3. Get to know the children

When I went into the classroom, the main benefit was meeting the children, as well as understanding the class dynamics. In later years, an excursion can help fill in the knowledge gap. Even one day spent with a class gives you an insight into relationships and dynamics.

I pray that my children will be good friends (Prov 17:17, 18:24) and have helpful friendships (Prov 27:17). Observing these interactions can help identify friendships to encourage, both for the sake of my child and for other children.

4. Get to know the parents and families

This is easier in the first few years. When each child began we hosted get-to-know-you events for parents. Having them in our home started many friendships that continue today. We are called to hospitality (Heb 13:2, 1 Pet 4:9), and the school community is included in that.

In later years, this happened through sporting teams. For a while, we knew all the soccer families, and now it’s the netball families.

I think we should prioritise looking out for people that aren’t already connected. It’s a funny thing, primary school. The parents seem to be in cliques too: cool parents, sporty parents, committee parents, and others. As Christian parents, we want to be welcoming, inclusive and hospitable. This should include migrant families, who in my observation are often not included by Australian parents. Let’s be the friendly ones—some of these parents are very lonely. Secondly, let’s be helpful—there’s a certain culture to any school, which takes everyone time to figure out. Throw in some ethnic differences and I imagine some are left wondering what’s going on (eg. lunch orders, swimming lessons, how excursions work). One of my friends has just started a part-time job in her children’s school to do exactly these things—help the international parents assimilate.

5. Pray for the school

We certainly pray for the school, students, teachers and families privately and as a family.

For a time, a group of Christians mums from school met once a term to pray and it was very encouraging. While we no longer meet, we’ve seen God answer those prayers in two amazing ways:

  1. Our school now has a Pastoral Care Worker funded 2 days-a-week. She is a cheerful presence amongst the staff and students and is greatly valued by management. We started praying for this when our son started, that prayer was answered when he was in his final year!
  2. A group of Christian families have run an out-of-hours gingerbread house event for three years. We can speak about being Christian and advertise the churches we attend. It is fast becoming a highlight annual event for school families.

We’ve loved being involved in our school community. It certainly takes time and effort, but it’s worth it—for our kids, for us, and hopefully, for the people we meet and support along the way.

How might you consider being involved in your school community?

(We have two children in upper primary. Our eldest is now in the wilds of Year 10 at high school. We've chosen to keep our main involvement at primary school, rather than split our efforts between two schools!)

Monday, February 12, 2018

The Beginner's Gospel Story Bible

The Beginner’s Gospel Story Bible (Jared Kennedy, Illustrated by Trish Mahoney)

Sometimes I wish I still had very young children. It’s not because I loved the baby and preschool phase and want to return to it. No, this is one mother who celebrated those first days of school quite openly!

It’s because of the great books being produced for little ones. There were good books 10-15 years ago, absolutely. But sometimes it seems like some very good material came out just when we had passed that stage.

This is exactly how I feel about The Beginner’s Gospel Story Bible. I want to sit down with little friends who are 1-5 years old and read this aloud with them. It’s an excellent bible for the early years firmly grounded in Jesus Christ from beginning to end. It shows how the Old Testament (subtitled Promises Made) continually points to him and the New Testament (Promises Kept) speaks the truth of his life and our response to it.

I have read legion children’s bibles in the last decade and I have increasingly come to appreciate the challenge it is to make God’s word available to very young children in a logical, accessible, accurate and clear format. Jared Kennedy has done an admirable job of doing exactly that, combined with the eye-catching, appealing illustrations of Trish Mahoney.

Each of the 52 stories are about 6 pages. There is always a question at the end to talk about together and a brief explanation of how Jesus fits into the story and how that relates to our relationship with him.

An example double page spread

Overall the stories are excellent, and are united by theme of promise - God is either making promises or keeping them. It’s the way we should read and understand our own bibles and so presenting it to children via the theme of promise is not only helpful, it’s correct.

I did take minor issue with a few choices in interpretation, such as:

  • It’s not absolutely clear the statue Nebuchadnezzar built was of himself.
  • The implication that Jesus physically covered his face to prevent the disciples on the Emmaus Road identifying him.
  • Jesus says to Saul, “Why are you hurting my friends?” whereas Jesus actually says, “Why do you persecute me?”.
  • The story about Peter and Cornelius didn’t sit quite right. The emphasis made is that it was about food people could eat. But it’s really an illustration to show Peter that Christ brought Gentiles as well as Jews to salvation. (and I was very surprised that the blanket indicating the animals Peter could now eat included a camel, lion and rabbit. I think young kids could take issue with that!)

Also, I’m not sure why it was chosen to only have 52 stories. It makes it neat with 26 from each Testament, but this isn’t a book you would only read once a week, so it seemed a random choice. Indeed, as a result, I thought it was a shame some things were missing.

  • There was nothing about David once he was King. Since this book is based around promise, it could have included 2 Sam 7 where David wants to build a house for God, but God instead promises him a dynasty.
  • Inclusion of the Psalms and how they show us how to praise God would have been worthwhile.
  • Interestingly there were no Jonah, Elisha or Elijah accounts.
  • The New Testament went straight from the first missionary journey in Acts to Revelation, so there was very little about the early church and nothing from the epistles at all.

However, those things are all minor. Some of the things I really appreciated were:

  • The Old Testament had some accounts rarely included in children’s bibles: Jeremiah, Esther and Nehemiah.
  • The honesty about the failings of some biblical characters. For example, in the story of Jacob and Esau, Jacob is described as jealous and tricky; it says “God didn’t choose the nicest brother. God chose Jacob.” And goes on to say that God’s choices might surprise us, but he chooses people who need him.
  • The crucifixion story is accurate and doesn’t shy away from the unpleasant details (there are even nails), yet it’s done appropriately for the intended age.
  • The clear way this is designed to read aloud, and it would be fun to do so. The illustrations often include extras, like counting, size differences (eg. Goliath is tall, David is short), so that you can point them out along the way. The basket is labelled empty when Hannah has no baby, and full when she has a baby. Left, right, inside and outside are marked when Jesus parents were searching everywhere for him. These are extra touches that make additional teaching moments along the way.
  • There are great nudges to evangelism, such as “We can tell our friends and neighbors about Jesus. We can share his love with the whole world” or “Think of a friend who you can tell the good news to.” What a great way to make this normal from a very early age. It even acknowledges that sometimes telling people about Jesus can be difficult and scary, but we can be brave because the Holy Spirit promises to help us.

The Beginners’ Gospel Story Bible is a ‘must-have’ for those with toddlers and pre-schoolers. With the unifying theme of promise, clear retelling of bible accounts, wonderfully creative illustrations, and a way to make each story personally applicable; this is a bible you’ll want to have in your home and to read regularly with the little ones in your life.

Friday, February 9, 2018

Why to visit a gospel partner

This January we enjoyed a trip to Cambodia, visiting friends on the field.  We have several dear friends who are gospel partners overseas (we used to call them missionaries, but this is the term now!). Some we studied at college with, some we have met at church over the years. This lovely family we have only ever known on the field, for they left Adelaide the same year we arrived, and a relationship has built up over various home assignments and connections in between.

The trip has been a long time in the planning, and finally this year we were able to make it work.

It was fantastic. We saw the sights of Phnom Penh in the capable hands of locals, ate together, spent time in their home, had them for meals at our hotel, went to church together, and had lots and lots of conversation. Our kids know their kids quite well, all being similar ages and having spent time together over the years. It took a little while on the first day for the ice to break again, but then they were like old friends - playing basketball, swimming, joking, sharing food and talking.

They emphasised that our visit was a blessing to them, and we feel the trip was exactly the same for us.  Here are some of the blessings:

  1. Understanding. Yes, it's only a very small amount, we were only with them for two full days. But we now have a glimpse of what their home, their school and their church is like. We have a feel for their city - the major traffic and driving skills required, the street vendors, the fun of riding tuk tuks, the haggling in the markets. We saw the range of poverty and wealth, the beauty of the city and the friendliness of the people.
  2. Conversation. We talked and talked and talked. The women talked, the men talked, the families talked. We learnt more about Theravadabuddhism, the monks of the city, and what living there is like. We heard the story of how they met and married. We shared about our life in Australia and what we are involved in.
  3. Fun. While the adults enjoyed all the conversations and catch ups, the kids really had fun together. Whether it was sharing food, tuk tuk rides, nerf gun wars or basketball, it was a great chance to be reminded that no matter where you live, the same things are still fun. 
  4. Connection. One of their concerns is that their children won't develop the same Christian friendships that they might if in Australia. So the time for the kids was very beneficial. We’re looking forward to them being back on home assignment, and when they are, we'll treat them as the normal friends they are, not as if they're the 'special missionaries' who generally aren't approached. Our kids are already talking about how to connect with them again when they’re next here.
  5. A wider worldview. Australia is a very egalitarian and secular culture, and we don't realise it until we come face to face with the strong contrast of wealth and poverty side by side, and the overt elements of religion all over a city. 
  6. A wider acceptance of difference. Travel the world and you encounter different languages, traditions, ways of communicating and understanding. Having to be the outsider is a good thing. Struggling to communicate teaches you how much you value being able to do so easily. Having to wear pants and longer sleeves, even when the weather is very hot, is a small price to pay to learn that we show respect in different ways. Communicating to our children that there are differences and considering why, means we are hopefully raising them to understand and analyse a variety of cultures.
  7. Insight into what they actually do. In many ways, their lives are very similar to ours: the kids go to school, the wife is involved in school management and teaching, and the husband is involved in translation work. They go to church as a family and they try to connect with locals in myriad ways. It's very normal. It's not super special and it's not super spiritual, but it's living faithfully for Jesus in their context, just as we would hope we are all doing in our own contexts.   
  8. Food for prayer. We have prayed for this family for years. Now we can pray more informed, specific prayers for this family, with an idea of what their days and weeks look like.

Both families together

Another option is to consider holidays together. A few years ago, I met a dear friend in Dubai for ten days. She worked in a country with high safety risks and was required to have regular out-of-country breaks. While I never saw her life ‘in–situ’ there were still wonderful benefits for us both: a break, encouragement, fun being tourists together, the chance to worship together, and lots of time to talk and debrief. For a single woman, there was the added bonus that she had a companion for her holidays. For me, it was a marvellous treat to be away from the responsibilities of my own family life!

Holiday fun in Dubai

Both trips have been highlights of the past few years, and times of great fun, joy, conversation and encouragement.

Do you have friends who are gospel partners?  Could you visit them or holiday together? Of course, talk about it, make sure it can work and it would be helpful, but it's definitely worth considering. Not everyone can do this (we have certainly counted it a great privilege), but if you can everyone is likely to be encouraged and blessed by the experience.

Monday, February 5, 2018

Grace in Strange Disguise

Grace in Strange Disguise, Christine Dillon

Imagine your dad is a pastor. Not just any pastor, but a mega-church pastor who has his own radio show and whose church is all about victory with Jesus. In fact it's called Victory, and his message is that we can have anything we want with Jesus, and any illness just requires more faith or the repentance of sin. Life is all about blessings and the gifts that we get when we are with God.

You are 28, love your work as a physiotherapist and are engaged to the youth pastor. You are living the Australian Christian dream and suddenly your whole world falls apart when you are diagnosed with breast cancer.

This is the world of Esther McDonald and the premise of Christine Dillon's book Grace in Strange Disguise. I was recently given this book and what a wonderful gift it was.

Through an encounter with a cleaning lady at the hospital, Esther is challenged to think about why she expects to be healed. Does God actually promise it? What follows is her decision to read the bible for herself and the astounding truths she discovers there, and how much they vary from the triumphant, world based, blessing rich, but actually empty promises preached by her father.

I have never been in a church with such misguided teaching as this, nor with such patently controlling leadership; but I suspect they certainly exist. Even so I found it hard to believe that that dad's and the fiancé's belief systems would cause them to be so clueless and lacking in compassion. In fact, I thought it was a shame that Dillon had both the key males in Esther's life react in basically the same way. However, they were the only characters that seemed stretched. The cleaning lady (Joy), her good friend Gina, her dominated and docile mother, the staff in the hospital, and the other patients she meets along the way all do an admirable job of representing the vast cross sections of beliefs and non-beliefs in Australia.

Throughout the book, Dillon models a storytelling method of sharing the gospel and the accounts from the bible. As such this book has various potential audiences:

  1. Anyone who is interested in reading something from a biblical worldview, including one that is able to critique false views of the bible.
  2. Any Christian who wants to get some ideas on how storytelling the bible could work in conversations.

It's an engaging story. Throughout I kept wondering what various characters would do, how would they react to the changes in Esther's life and her desire to talk about it. I was encouraged by her faith and her growing ability to express it. There are Christian fiction books out there that have a cringe element to them. This isn't one of them, the truths that Esther comes to believe are of the reformed evangelical faith. This is a book that explains my faith in a way that expresses it much better than I often manage to. It was an encouragement to me.

It's entirely appropriate for young teens, and so I was very happy to let Miss 12 read it as well. She loved it and was fully engrossed for a few days.  Husband and Mr 14 also read it, they enjoyed it and found it made them think.

It seems Dillon is planning at least two more books in this series. I eagerly await them.

Friday, February 2, 2018

A visit to our sponsor children

We have recently returned from a trip to Thailand, where we had the privilege of visiting our Compassion sponsor children. We had one day spent with two children, both of whom attend the same project in the slums of Bangkok. (A second day, visiting a third child had been planned. One week out however we heard he had left the project.  Sad for us, but good news for him, as his mother had found work and was able to take him back to another province.)

It was a wonderful day. We met the children (who I'll call Mr N and Miss N, both aged 13) along with the Project Director (PD), who was our host for the day.  After learning about the project and exchanging some gifts, we walked up the back alleys and beside a waste water stream to Miss N's house - a one room wood panel structure, probably 6x3m. Her grandmother looks after five grandchildren there, of whom Miss N is the oldest. We all sat on the floor and talked, aided by the helpful translation of the PD, and then played Uno together.

After that we headed out to a restaurant for steamboat lunch, chosen by the children.  At this point the awkward barriers started to come down as the kids (Thai and Australian together) chose what they wanted from the picture menu and shared it together at their table.

However, the highlight for all the kids was the time at a waterpark for the afternoon. A large floating inflatable world where Miss N, her younger brother, Mr N and our Mr 14, Miss 12 and Miss 10 quickly learnt that play together in water is universal joy in any language. There were laughs as people fell, encouragements and urgings to climb up higher, and fun with all trying to balance on inflatables at the same time. My husband and I joined in for some and enjoyed watching as well.

When we told people in Australia about this trip there were three main reactions:

  1. The majority were interested and excited for us. Most people we know also are child sponsors or see the value of it, and while they were possibly surprised that we were going they thought it was good. 
  2. A few, particularly those not from Australia, had no idea what we were talking about. Friends from India and Singapore had never heard of child sponsorship before. 
  3. One neighbour expressed absolute surprise that the children on sponsorship pictures were real children that you could meet, not just children used in photos. 

As we reflected on our emotions and thoughts afterwards as a family, here are some of the range of things we felt and the things we can now talk about with others:

Impressed with the project and the work Compassion are doing, and particularly the PD. She has a real heart for the children, she walks the streets encouraging children to come and showing parents that the project is good for their kids. She knows the kids personally, as well as their families and situations, and cares deeply for them. Over the course of the day we learnt how she came to Christ and how it changed her life. Key staff like this are essential to Compassion's work, there will be many children in a centre, but the staff hold it together and set the tone.

Encouraged. To see the project staff so clearly love the children they are entrusted with, as well as wanting to tell them about Jesus and model Christ, is a marvellous encouragement. Our PD spent all her time on the site, which was a church and preschool as well. She ran the project on Saturdays, went to church there on Sundays, worked there mid week, and lived on site. We were reminded of 1 Thess 2:8 "We loved you so much that we were delighted to share with you not only the gospel of God but our lives as well, because you had become so dear to us." (NIV84)

Conflicted. As I walked into our shining marble hotel lobby afterwards, only about 1 km from the project, I started weeping. All I could see was Miss N's house and how about 20 of them would fit in that unused space alone. Then we came upstairs to a hotel suite that was larger than her home and a buffet dinner than probably had more food on offer than her family would see in a month (she and her brother devoured every bit of food offered on the day). It's appropriate to feel this. I knew we would. And we should.

Guilty. This is not the purpose of a trip like this, but it's inevitable that you are challenged by the marked disparity between wealth and poverty in the world and how we are those who live in wealth.

Excited. We’re even more excited about Compassion and their work. They’re doing great things, and we’re proud to stand behind them. We’re thrilled that we know these children and their families personally.  God works in every people and nation and we saw evidence of that.

Confident. I didn't really understand before the link between Compassion being Christian and how that affects who they sponsor. My conclusion is that it's a little like some Christian schools. There are Christian leaders, matters of faith are spoken of, taught about and prayed about, but there is no requirement to be Christian to participate. Our PD estimated that 10% of the children in the project had made a commitment of faith, but the benefits of the program are open to all. I am now even more confident that the help goes to families in need, the truths of Christ are taught, but receipt of the benefits does not require an expression of faith.

Prayerful. We can pray for those we do not know personally and we should bring the world and all its variety to God. But the joy now is that our prayer for Miss N and Mr N and their families will be personal.  A day is only a small taste of their reality, but it's a day more that we had before. We've laughed together, we've prayed together, and now we can keep praying for them.  More than that, we've realised the importance of the staff and particularly the PD, and will ensure we are praying for them as well.

The whole day was a remarkable privilege for which we are very thankful, and we will definitely consider going again in the future.

Our group at Miss N's home

Thursday, February 1, 2018

Welcome to 2018!

I trust readers had an encouraging Christmas and if you are in Australia, a nice and warm summer time.

No doubt your year is well under way. If you have children they are probably back at school or very close to it.

We had a lovely break, from school and from work. Husband had 4 weeks of leave all at once, something we rarely do, and we had a combination of time together, and time as a family. Just lovely.

There were two specific highlights to our time in January, which I will tell you about in coming weeks:
  1. A visit to friends who are serving Jesus overseas.
  2. A visit to our sponsor children overseas.
They were times of greatly mixed emotions and provided much food for thought.

As usual, musings for the coming year is likely to detail many book reviews, some movie reviews and some 'thinking spots' as well.

I've got a whole lot of books ready to review and you'll see them in coming weeks. I am increasingly being recommended books by others, so if you have suggestions I'd love to hear them. You can email me at musingsinadelaideATblogspotDOTcom.

Thanks and looking forward to the year ahead.

Friday, December 22, 2017

Musings break

Thanks to all out there who have continued reading musings in 2017.

I hope you all have a blessed Christmas and a good break over the summer (if you're in the Southern Hemisphere, like me!)

Musings will be back again in February 2018.

Monday, December 18, 2017

Novels of the Borgias

Novels of the Borgias, Kate Quinn

I have continued reading Kate Quinn’s books recently, enjoying her ability to combine history with a great story and interesting characters.

There are two books in these novels of the Borgias – The Serpent and the Pearl and The Lion and the Rose.

Set in Rome in the final years of the 1400s, the story revolves around 3 main characters. Giulia Farnese is a prize bride with her gorgeous beauty and floor length hair. Excited to have her marriage arranged to a handsome young man, she is shocked to realised it’s a sham set up so that Cardinal Rodrigo Borgia can have her as his mistress. As he ascends the papacy as Alexander VI, she is installed openly by his side as his lover. Knowing that such a set up will create enemies, Leonello is hired as her cynical yet powerful bodyguard, his skills hidden because he is usually ignored or ridiculed because he is a dwarf. In the kitchens is talented cook Carmelina, a runaway from her family with a devastating secret to hide.

The Pope already has numerous children by other women, openly acknowledged as Borgias and all given positions of prominence and power in the church and throughout the Holy Roman Empire. None are checked and their ruthless and callous natures are readily apparent. Giulia and her entourage need to learn to survive and thrive in such a bed of vipers.

As a story it’s fascinating, the fact it is based in truth is somewhat terrifying. It goes to show, yet again, that truth is often much stranger than fiction. Again, Quinn explains at the end what she took liberties with and what appears to be true. There is also a murder mystery to solve along the way which I didn’t love, but did certainly add to the tension.

One of the thoughts that kept returning to my mind in this 500th year anniversary of events of the Reformation was, “no wonder!” Europe was ripe for reform; the church robbed the people, lied, stole and cheated to get what it wanted with excessive preference given to those of privilege. It's no surprise Luther had a lot to say.

Some of the quotes that prompted such thoughts:
“The Borgias, in the eyes of most of the world including themselves, had been put upon the earth by God to lead sumptuous lives on behalf of the masses. Their pomp was God’s will.”

From a very stressed master of ceremonies: “Before this wedding I should have quit. Because there is no proper way to host an official wedding of the Pope’s daughter, attended by the Pope’s sons and the Pope’s concubine! None! Because by rights, none of them should exist in the first place!”
“Pope Alexander VI. I wondered if anyone else besides myself has thought it significant that he chose not an apostle’s name or a virtuous name – no Paul or John, no Innocent or Pius – but the name of a conqueror.”
One of the delights of these books is Quinn’s clear research into the cooking of the times. One of her real characters, Bartolomeo Scappi, became one of the greatest cooks of the Renaissance and was Vatican chef to two popes. Many of his recipes are included in the book. The details of cooking, food preparation and how kitchens worked at that time are both intriguing and lovely.

More impressive offerings from a very gifted writer.

Friday, December 15, 2017

Eddie the Eagle

It’s always a little odd to watch a movie about a time you clearly remember. The 1988 Winter Olympics, Calgary: Husband can remember learning the anthem in school orchestra and I sang it in choir. This is part of recent history.

Even so, memories fade and while I recalled Michael Edwards (Eddie the Eagle), the British ski jumper; the details eluded me, particularly what he actually did and did not achieve. So for me there was still some tension as the story unfolded.

We all enjoyed it: the likeability of Eddie, his never doubting determination to go to the Olympics and his working-class family background with a supportive mother and frustrated father. Once he realised he could not be a summer athlete, he turns his attentions to winter sports. Losing out on the downhill skiing team, he sets his sight on being the only British ski jumper. The British Olympic Committee want nothing to do with him and set the distance to jump higher than they think he can manage, but with perseverance and the addition of a mentor Bronson Peary (greatly acted by Hugh Jackman), Eddie goes on to prove them wrong.

There is one uncomfortable moment for family viewing, as Peary vividly describes to Eddie that a ski jump should mirror the emotions of a climax. There are mild echoes of the restaurant scene in When Harry Met Sally: younger children won’t really get it, but teens probably will.

It was obviously a memorable Olympics with the Jamaican bobsled team providing the inspiration for the 1993 film Cool Runnings (we might turn to that soon too). Rules have been changed since and we don’t seem to have these ‘outsiders’ in the Olympics anymore. Edwards has been quoted as saying that the movie is only about 5% accurate and even Peary is a completely fictional character.

I quite liked this quote from the Huffington Post:
This movie focuses on the good times in his life. It's fun and it's inspirational. A real movie reviewer would no doubt come up with better adjectives but those are the best I've got. But so what? Fun and inspirational should never be under-valued. As I said, three generations of my family loved this film. You can't believe most of it, but you can believe in it. That's a subtle but important difference.
It was a fun one.

Monday, December 11, 2017

Empress of Rome

Empress of Rome Saga, Kate Quinn

Five years ago, I reviewed the first two of four books in Kate Quinn’s Empress of Rome Saga. I always meant to return to the rest of the series and have just done so, probably because I got caught up in the Ancient Roman world of Caesar reading Iggulden’s Emperor series. That was about 50BC, this series starts about 100 years later and covers about 50 years of Emperors, their families and their courts, often told from the perspective of the women, including the Empresses. Mistress of Rome was a fascinating although disturbing read of Emperor Domitian, who was vicious, cruel and probably mad; the woman who became his mistress Thea and her love, the gladiator Arius.

Empress of the Seven Hills and Lady of the Eternal City focus on Vix (son of Thea and Arius) and Sabina, a member of the Imperial family. The first centers around beloved Emperor Trajan, who held the empire together and expanded it through large scale warfare. Vix slowly rises through the ranks of the legions, while Sabina balances the interests of her husband Hadrian, potential heir to the Emperor, while the Empress Plotina is mastermining her way through Rome. I enjoyed this one, it didn’t have same level of evil characters that many others had, although Plotina is pretty awful.

Lady of the Eternal City is darker in numerous ways. Hadrian is now Emperor, having gained the throne in suspect circumstances. His vicious side always threatens to erupt and Empress Sabina treads a careful dance trying to manage him. Hadrian’s long time enemy Vix struggles to maintain his vengeful streak when Hadrian’s love and attention turns to his son, Antinous. Quinn’s comments at the end note that much of what she has related here is confirmed in historical record, it was a passionate and long affair between two men that affected the Empire and people’s opinion of the Emperor. Numerous statues, cities and temples were erected in Antinous’ honour by Hadrian. Quinn also notes that numerous Roman Emperors lived openly homosexual lives, particularly with their attention turning to young boys and slaves. It's an acknowledged part of history. At the same time, she dwells in these details. I really enjoyed the story of Sabina, Vix and their travels around the Roman Empire. I enjoyed the explanations of the way the Empire ran, the details of the characters, both good and bad, but I didn’t need to spend that much time in the details of the relationship between Trajan and Antinous. We all have our reading preferences.

Quinn is a gifted writer, she sets a cracking pace and keeps you interested the whole way along. She has written books of other times as well, I’ll turn to them soon.

Friday, December 8, 2017


Four years ago, we were given a book which shot to the top of our favourites list: Wonder by R. J. Palacio. I read it to each of our children when they are ten, and everyone we know who has read it has loved it. It’s the story of ten-year-old August Pullman, a boy who loves his parents, his sister, his dog and Star Wars. Yet starting a new school in Year 5 presents a challenge, because Auggie has a severe facial disfigurement. It’s a book that teaches, tugs at the heart strings, and challenges and encourages children and adults alike.

So, the news that it was being turned into a movie was met with a mixture of excitement and trepidation. Could it possibly be as good? How would they portray Auggie?

I had the treat of seeing this with a Year 6 school excursion. So, even surrounded by 50 twelve-year olds all chatting and snacking, the movie experience was undiminished. And when they all cheered at certain points, it was certainly fun to be part of a larger group experience.

It is truly an excellent adaptation. The wonder of Wonder is not only the engaging story of August himself, but the depth and range of characters. Different parts of the story are told from the perspective of other people, including his sister Via and friend Jack Will. No character is one-sided. These are fully fleshed people, each with positive and negative traits.

This a family movie and families would do well to see it together. It’s ideal for ages 10 and up. While it’s mostly appropriate for kids a few years younger, they won’t really get the nuance. It’s also a great movie for teens, who will both appreciate and understand how kids behave, but also will see their own lives reflected in Via, Auggie’s older sister at high school. She adds the insight of how siblings of kids with special needs learn to manage. (“August is the Sun. Me and Mom and Dad are planets orbiting the Sun ... I’ve gotten used to not complaining, and I’ve gotten used to not bothering Mom and Dad with little stuff.”)

The parents are cast brilliantly with highly dedicated mum Isabel (Julia Roberts) and fun, caring father Nate (Owen Wilson) almost stealing the show, demonstrating a strong marriage and real parenting strengths. It’s no wonder even despite their family’s complications, Via’s friend Miranda wishes Auggie’s family were her own.

The teachers (including Mandy Patinkin) are just the type of teachers you want your kids to have: committed, fair, able to determine kids’ issues and be sensitive to them. The idea of the monthly precepts isn’t as strong in the movie as in the book, but the main one taught by Mr Browne is emphasised: “When given the choice between being right or being kind, choose kind.” This has become somewhat of a motto in our home in recent years. With kids that are very black and white, and keen to point out each other’s errors, choosing to be silent at points in order to show love has been a helpful lesson. Of course, I suspect this could be taken too far by some, being interpreted that you choose to only love rather than stand up for truth—but that is never the point of the precept in the book.

It’s full of fun cultural references. Auggie is a big Star Wars fan and this is woven beautifully into the movie with Chewbacca making a few special appearances; something that greatly appealed to my own Star Wars fan (and to be honest, to me too). When Isabel decides to return to her research thesis (put on hold when Auggie was born) she tries to recover her work from a 4” floppy disk. Of course, the kids have no idea what it is.

While there is nothing overtly Christian in the movie, the themes sing out the truth that we are loved, we have value, and that it’s who we are and how we live that matters, and nothing to do with how we look. This is a truth that God has already proclaimed: “The Lord does not look at the things people look at. People look at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.” (1 Samuel 16:7a). We are called to love our neighbours, and that includes people that look different. There is much here that could lead to honest discussion in our homes about we treat people and how we want to be treated. The messages within are ones you want your kids to think about.

There is no swearing but some insults fly between kids, there is one kiss between teenagers, one teen finishes her mother’s wine while she is asleep/passed out and Isabel jokes with Nate about getting drunk. Nate & Isabel make a few references to enjoying each other’s company (which would go over most kids’ heads) and there are a few scenes with kids fighting and bullying each other. This is what many kids see every day in their real lives.

There is however lots and lots of emotion. Numerous children in the group I saw it with were crying by the end, and all of the adults were weeping at points throughout. Be prepared to cry, even if you usually don't. I suspect parents will find it harder emotionally than kids, but be prepared for your children to react. While throughout the movie the tears may be expressing concern, grief and pain; the tears at the end are joyful. The ending is excellent.

Few movie adaptations live up to the hype, but this one definitely does. Obviously, some details had to be jettisoned, and kids who know the book well may feel the loss of those elements. But the overall message of “choose kind” and that you need to get to know people on the inside has remained.

This is a highly-recommended movie with really only one condition—make sure you and your kids read the book too.

This was posted on TGCA yesterday.

Wednesday, December 6, 2017

Getting in the Christmas Spirit

How does your family approach Christmas? Does everyone sing happy songs, cheerfully greeting each other saying “thanks for a great year and all those lunches you made Mum & Dad!” and “Wow I love this time of year, I have so much energy and joy!”?

Perhaps your family is a little more like mine: everyone is tired, tests are on, reports are being finalised, end of year performances and concerts abound (does anyone else secretly cheer when the end of year school concert is cancelled due to bad weather!?). I often think the Northern Hemisphere does it better, as they aren’t also finishing the school year, and really, there is always something appealing about snow…

So, what to do?

Chances are, you like Christmas. You rejoice that God came to earth as a baby who would be the Saviour of the world. A well-sung carol can fill your heart with praise. Bible readings of the incarnation remind you again of the joy of the season and the reason we celebrate.

However, translating that into a positive family experience takes a bit of thought, when the pressures of finishing school, making meals, buying presents and planning for holiday leave all add up.

Christmas books abound and treasured ones can be found in both secular and Christian offerings. Spend some time in a bookstore reading before you buy and you’ll soon develop a collection your family will love re-reading as the years go on.

But without a doubt, the best thing to read in the lead up to Christmas is the biblical accounts of Jesus’ birth and the promises that lead to him. The Good Book Company has produced some excellent material, including Beginning with God at Christmas for pre-schoolers (designed to go with The Beginner’s Bible), XTB: Christmas Unpacked for early readers, and family advent packs such as Christmas Opened Up. I’m excited to see more high-quality material for Christmas developed in recent years. If you don’t have the energy for anything organised, just grab a kids’ Bible (or a full Bible) and read through the accounts of Jesus’ birth in the days together leading to Christmas.

When our family was very young and we were trying to figure out how to do the lead into Christmas well, there was very little material available. So, we made our own. That’s why we don’t use any pre-produced material although much of it is excellent. We have three sets of Advent material that we work through in various years. They are Genesis to Jesus (covering the background of the Old Testament and the promises leading to Jesus), The Birth of Jesus (from the gospel accounts) and Who is this man? (each bringing out a different aspect of who Jesus is). They’re available free for download and you can find more details here.

Perhaps you personally would also like to read further and reflect this time of year. I always enjoy O Come Though-Long Expected Jesus by Nancy Guthrie. There are new advent materials for adults out now from both Tim Chester and Paul David Tripp. I’m going to try to get my hands on some of those for future years.

Sometimes having music playing is what makes it Christmas in your home. For fun family Christmas music, you can’t beat Colin Buchanan’s King of Christmas album – lively, funny, illustrative and instructive, it always makes the playlist this time of year. For some more mellow reflection, we all love Third Day’s Christmas Offerings and Nathan Tasker’s A Star, A Stable, A Saviour. Perhaps Handel’s Messiah is what works better for you, or a beautifully sung choral group of carols.

Perhaps what really gets you excited is talking to people about why you love Christmas. There are usually a myriad of events to invite people to – carol services, kid’s church options, Christmas services. Perhaps even invite them into your home and show how Christmas is all about Jesus for your family.

There’s no doubt this can be a busy and hectic time of year. Yet, even in the midst of it, it can be a time of reflection, purposeful teaching, and a celebration of God’s wonderful gifts.

We want our families (and ourselves) to remember it’s not about the presents, or the food, or cleaning the house for visitors. It’s not even about time with family, or friends, or the holidays. It’s about Jesus. Jesus. God’s very precious son, sent by our Heavenly Father to fulfil all his promises to humanity. The Word made flesh who made his dwelling among us, full of grace and truth (John 1:14). That is indeed good news of great joy for all people (Luke 2:10). Let’s make sure that news is the highlight in our homes this month.

This was published on Growing Faith yesterday. 

Monday, December 4, 2017

Think Again

Think Again: Relief from the Burden of Introspection, Jared Mellinger

This great new release from New Growth Press is designed for those of us who tend towards introspection, including overthinking and analysing, and self-absorption as a result.

Jared Mellinger clearly enunciated his goal from the very first page:
The goal of this book is to show how the gospel rescues us from fruitless self-examination, false guilt, discouragement, and inaccurate thoughts of ourselves. I want to offer practical counsel on battling unhealthy introspection and give hope to all of us whose minds are stuck on ourselves. Ultimately, I’m eager to draw our attention away from self and toward the glory of Jesus Christ. (p1) 
Many of us are familiar with the problem of too much introspection. Our minds wander to our responsibilities, our spiritual growth, our appearance, or some other aspect of our lives. We spend excessive amounts of time evaluating ourselves. We overanalyze the things we say and do. We constantly second-guess ourselves and fear we might be making the wrong decisions in life. (p2)
He also outlines a clear road map of where he is headed. If only more authors would do this, it’s so appreciated by reader and reviewer.

Mellinger starts with some personal reflections and the encouragement that we only truly know ourselves by looking to Christ, for in Christ we see our dignity, sin, identity, value and destiny; and that knowing Jesus is the way out of both self-hatred and self-love.
The gospel sets us free from thinking about ourselves too much. There is an outward-focused God who delights to rescue an inward-focused people. He is leading us into a better way to live. (p13)
The next chapters look at introspection in more detail – including the reasons we do look at ourselves, dealing with the despair that comes from too much introspection and how to deal with false guilt. There were very helpful things in these chapters. There were practical suggestions – sometimes we look for a spiritual solution for introspection when what we actually need is a practical solution such as more sleep, a holiday, or time with friends.

I personally found chapter 6 on fighting false guilt very instructive. Mellinger lists six distinctions for fighting false guilt. These question whether we feel guilty or are actually guilty; and whether our guilt is a false guilt. They include thinking about whether your guilt is from man’s assessment or God’s:
We spend so much of our time and energy making negative judgments, condemning ourselves, and condemning each other. But when Christ comes, human condemnation gives way to divine commendation, and all those who are in Christ will receive personal affirmation from the King. Therefore, not only is God’s assessment of us more important than all other assessments, it is often far more gracious. (p72)
He challenges us to assess whether we have accurate self-assessments; whether something is a weakness or a sin (eg. it's not a sin that you need more rest than another person, just an acknowledgement that your body is different); whether it is a temptation or a sin; whether something is an area of responsibility for you or a wider area of concern (that you are not responsible for); and finally whether you carry guilt over the principle or the practice:
For example, a principle is to treasure God’s Word; a practice is to have a plan to read through the Bible in a year. A principle is to disciple your children; a practice is to schedule weekly one-on-one time with each of your kids. A principle is to love your wife; a practice is to write her a poem. Practices that flow from biblical principles are commendable. In fact, practices are essential if we are to faithfully apply God’s Word. But specific practices are not to be confused with biblically mandated principles. (p76)
Imagine the relief of false guilt over parenting practices and comparisons this truth could bring!

Later chapters move on to addressing self-examination well – how to evaluate yourself (ch 8) was incredibly helpful including tips such as: start with Christ, choose the right time, ask for God’s help, base your evaluations on the bible, look for grace, involve others and confess sin. He goes on to encourage us both to find the grace of God in our lives, to see that there is good; and also to confess sin willingly which will lead to greater joy in Christ.

Mellinger’s final chapters challenge us to look outside of ourselves. We can’t be too self-absorbed when looking at the wonder of the created world around us. When we are involved in community we realise that people aren’t looking at us nearly as much as we think; and we find the joy of serving makes us more outward focussed. And finally, when we look to Christ we are truly set free:
The Christian life is a life of radical extra-spection. For every look to ourselves, we should be taking ten looks to Christ. And every time we look at ourselves, what we see should lead us back to Christ. Any sin we find should drive us to the work of Christ for us. And any good we find in ourselves should reveal the work of Christ in us and through us. Any weakness we find should lead us to the power of Christ toward us. (p155) 
Sing songs that will help you consider him. Listen to sermons and read books that are full of him. Join a church that is committed more than anything to helping people look to Jesus and treasure him. Looking to Christ is not only a sight that brings joy; it is also a sight that transforms. Beholding his glory not only makes our souls happy, but it is the best and surest way to make our souls holy. (p165)
As I reflect on this book, I really only had one hesitation. I was surprised that in the ways he encouraged people to look outside themselves, in things such as worship, love, art, sport, preaching and work; there was no encouragement to prayer, particularly prayer that praises God for who he is and how he has acted. Dwelling prayerfully in praise of God will always turn our minds from ourselves to his glory.

This is a book well worth reading. It’s relevant for everyone; but especially anyone who tends to look at themselves a little more than they possibly should – either with pride or despair.  You will find it a challenge and an encouragement, but most of all, it will be a pointer to Christ.