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.