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Review: Waves of Mercy by Lynn Austin

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It is 1897 in Holland, Michigan. Socialite Anna Nicholson has fled there to work through her feelings after being jilted by her Chicago fiancé for attending the wrong church.  In a different part of town, Geesje de Jonge has been asked to write her story for the 50th anniversary celebrations of Holland.

As Anna ponders her future and wonders about her past, she meets Derk Vander Veen who works at the hotel and is studying to become a minster.  She discovers the Bible, and her mother discovers Derk….

Geesje looks back to persecution in the Netherlands as she begins to pen her story of immigration, pioneering, and settling into a new country.  That is the official version, but there is more, her first love, unimaginable tragedies, God’s love expressed in everyday ways, and her growth in faith and joy as she learns to rely on God.

Then Austin weaves these two women’s tales together in a plot that is almost unrealistic, but somehow it works, perhaps because the story is so compelling and the characters are so believable.   Especially Geesje.  Another reason it works is because of the struggles Geesje faces as she learns to live closely to the Lord, universal struggles echoed in Anna, Derk, and each Christian reader.

With biblical wisdom and compassion, Austin stresses the distinction between love as an emotion—a gift that fills one’s world with the miraculous—and love as a verb—a choice to love, one loving action at a time.  She shows that, in the end, it is not human love that matters most or that lasts the longest.  God is the one who always holds onto us, and none can pluck us out of his hand.

Throughout, Austin also discusses God’s purpose for our lives, and the simplicity of Geesje’s conclusion belies the lifetime of learning that led up to it.  Geesje tells Anna:

Often, it’s not one great, dramatic thing that God asks us to do but hundreds of little everyday things.  If we want to be used by Him, if we’re ready to be used and aren’t all tangled up with our own plans and projects, He’ll show us the work He has for us.  He sees your heart, Anna.   You can trust Him to direct your path.

Like all Lynn Austin novels, this quality story of emotion and faith is full of substance.  Recommended both as a good read and as a gentle reminder of our good God.

Besides her novels, Lynn Austin has also written a devotional, Pilgrimage (link is to my review), in which she struggles with the unwanted changes in her life and comes to a renewed trust in God.

Disclosure: I received a review copy from Graf Martin and Bethany House and, as usual, am not compensated for this review.

Under the Butternut Trees

I spent much of my blogging break working busily ‘as unto the Lord’ in the kitchen, the garden, the car, and elsewhere, but some of the best hours were spent under our butternut trees.

It was my favorite spot this summer, a place of open-eyed prayer, read alouds, chats, and much-needed rest.  It was a summer of learning to live more deeply, of learning to receive God’s good gifts more consciously, noticing and accepting and enjoying them.  And my chair under our butternuts was a place of pondering, a place to regain strength, a place to watch the moon and the stars and the bats, to chatter with precariously perched squirrels, to ponder sermons, to spread before the Lord, like Isaiah, the suicide of a child’s friends’ friend.  It was a place where everything happened, and nothing.

Here we explored with the Swiss Family Robinson, adventured with The Sea Islanders, sailed Two Years Before the Mast.  Here I struggled with Calvin; was re-acquainted with the humble clarity and godliness of C.S. Lewis; encountered Wendell Berry, the first poet I can recommend unreservedly; learned how people change and grow; thought about science in history and in current philosophy; and pondered the frailty of human beings.

Now the lawn chairs are put away and the living room fire roars.  It is too snowy to sit under the butternut trees, even wrapped a blanket.  Yet the open-eyed prayer continues, with gratitude for increased stamina, less dizziness, the ability to think, and no pain…and with deepened concern for others who suffer in any of the many ways we humans suffer…and with the constant quest for wisdom to know how to live each day.

May God bless you and your loved ones, daily convince you of his goodness, and fill your lives with gratitude.

Thoughts on Finding God in the Hard Times by Matt and Beth Redman

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We all face hard times sooner or later, and they can seem unbearable and never-ending.

One of the crucial questions we face then is, “Can we still praise God when life is hard?”

“Yes!” exclaim Matt and Beth Redman who wrote the song “Blessed Be Your Name.”

With numerous references to the Psalms of lament, the Redmans show that worship is a choice, based on who God is, not on our life’s circumstances.

Modern Christian praise music doesn’t say much about suffering, which is one of the reasons the Redmans wrote their popular song.  They became convinced that the church needs lament music for times of communal sorrow and also to identify with those who are suffering.  The church needs to learn, again, to be honest about suffering in a biblical way.

Finding God in the Hard Times, earlier published as Blessed Be Your Name, “provides the reader with the tools for lament—how to mourn in the presence of God.  The book is, in effect, a framework of Christian thinking to help us filter and view life’s pain.”  The Redmans want to show, in their song and in this little book, that, “come pain or joy, to worship God is always the best decision to make.”

You see, the enemy tries to use bad circumstances to contradict the goodness of God in our minds and hearts.   Sometimes we live in a deep tension between what we know about God’s goodness and the pain and horror that seems to contradict it.  When the enemy tempts us to doubt the goodness of God, the solution is to open the Bible and read, to study what it says about His faithfulness, and to cling desperately to him.

In five short chapters we learn about the choice Christians can—and must—make, to praise God  even in hard circumstances, just as Jeremiah did in Lamentations and as David did in Psalm 13.  We must encourage ourselves as David did in Psalms 42 and 43:

Why are you cast down, O my soul,

and why are you in turmoil within me? 

hope in God; for I shall again praise him,

my salvation and my God.   

The New Testament, too, discusses suffering extensively, again with an undercurrent of hope.  Although we will not always understand the meaning of our suffering, we do need to realize that God uses it in our lives to teach and train us.  Without understanding the ‘why’, we can still turn to God, in both song and prayer.

Strangely enough, we not only have difficulty praising God when life is hard.   Many of us also tend to forget him when things go well!  This should not be.  Instead our lives should overflow with gratitude, and that, too, is a heart attitude that requires training and discipline.  We must learn to recognize and respond to the many kindnesses, small and great, that God pours upon us.  The Redmans guide us in this as well.

Really, what it all comes down to, the Redmans remind us, is recognizing God’s sovereignty.  If God does truly love us and if he is powerful enough to shape our lives for our good and his glory, praise during hard times begins to make sense.  Somehow, in ways that we, like Job, cannot understand, it is all good.  And thus we can praise God because of who he is no matter what is happening in our lives.

This little book contains questions for reflection, a discussion guide for small groups, and a complete list of Bible references, printed out, that were used in the book.  The authors say, “We hope these verses will propel you to further study, and to worship.”  That, to me, sums up their goal in this entire book.

Finding God in the Hard Times will bring comfort and clarity to those who read it and even more to those who use it as an impetus to turn to the Bible. For, especially in hard times, we cannot be reminded too often to turn to God and his Word.  This book is that kind of a reminder, summarizing aspects of the Bible, encouraging us to read it more, and reminding us that God is with us.  Recommended.

Related Resources (not mentioned in Finding God in the Hard Times):

The Heidelberg Catechism, one of the greatest confessions of Reformation times is devoted to answering the question:  What is your only comfort in life and death?  This topic is explored in question and answer format in a themed guide to the Bible.  I highly recommend it to help you make sense of the hard times, the good times, and the meaning of it all.

A few weeks after I read this book, I was at a service where the Redman’s song “Blessed Be Your Name” was sung.  It was moving, indeed, but I still prefer the Psalms themselves. Our congregation uses the beautiful words found in the New Genevan Psalter, and there are many other sung versions of the Psalms, including some of our greatest hymns (e.g. those by Isaac Watts, or Martin Luther’s “A Mighty Fortress is our God,” based on Psalm 46).

For training in gratitude, even in hard times, see One Thousand Gifts by Ann Voskamp (link to my review).  You will discover that learning to notice and be grateful for good things leads to acceptance and even joy.

If, in your hard times, you are struggling with a victim’s attitude, this review of Mindsight by Siegel may encourage you.

Note:  The above review links to some articles I wrote while struggling to make sense of suffering.

For more encouragement see Raising Homemakers, Titus 2 Tuesday, Tell it to Me Tuesday, Finishing Strong, and Trivium Tuesdays.

Disclosure: I received a review copy from Graf Martin and Bethany House and, as usual, am not compensated for this review.

Planning an Unusual High School Credit—A Horsey Example

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Miss 14 almost had the saddle on the horse when the barn door opened and a stranger walked in.  He turned out to be the co-op co-ordinator for the local high school looking for one of his students, and suddenly a lightbulb turned on in my head. Perhaps I could give Miss 14 a high school credit for her work as a therapeutic riding volunteer!  Despite our family being involved with therapeutic riding for years, this thought had never occurred to us.

So I asked some questions and this is what I learned.  I’m sharing it because both the ideas and the subsequent brainstorming process may benefit some of you.

Ontario students can earn up to 12 high school credits doing a co-op placement in the adult workplace. 

That is more credits than I would allow, since school is about academics, but it gives a lot of leeway for those who really want to explore a career or gain work experience to enhance their chances of being admitted to a specific college or university program.

The benefits for students are significant, from learning skills and exploring careers to learning about themselves and developing character. 

Yes, and of course that was also the day I pointed out that it was necessary to clean up the barn, even if it maybe wasn’t her horse that caused the mess.  My thoughtless statement, “The barn doesn’t have to look like your bedroom, you know,” drew giggles from my daughter….

“Cooperative Education is a planned learning experience…that integrates classroom theory and learning experiences at a workplace to enable students to apply and refine the knowledge and skills acquired in a related curriculum course….” 

Here is where I began brainstorming, and I’m sharing my thoughts with you, because I so often wish other homeschool moms would share their thought processes with me.

What ‘classroom experiences’ (for homeschoolers that would likely mean ‘book learning’) would apply to a credit in therapeutic riding volunteer work and horsemanship?  Perhaps reading a few nonfiction books about horses (done already), or about therapeutic riding, or about various illnesses helped by therapeutic riding?  Perhaps writing a report about the work she does as a volunteer?  Perhaps learning more about the uses of horses and dogs (she also loves dogs) in therapy for physical and mental illness? This could lead to a career path that would suit her amazingly well, so it’s worth exploring a bit.

(And, onto a completely different thought, how about cheering up sick kids or nursing home residents with chickens or bunnies?)

What ‘related curriculum course’ could be involved?  How about Introduction to Psychology if the focus is on horses and mental development or mental health?  Perhaps this approach could include a field trip to one of the three equine PTSD programs in the area or an interview with the instructor of the therapeutic riding program she works with.  Alternatively, if the focus is on physical disabilities, how about studying them as part of a biology course? Or if the focus is on horsemanship, which is where it currently is, would learning to ride fit count as part of a PE credit?

In any case, we should probably visit the RCMP Musical Ride stables to learn more about animals as ambassadors and about horsemanship, and also just for the sheer beauty of the horses.

So there’s a small menu of ideas; we’ll go through them, see what intrigues Miss 14 and what else she comes up with, and then I will make plans.  Which will, of course, change several times.  Also I have learned that presenting all my ideas at once is overwhelming and hinders the process, so I try to be wise about that, too, just suggesting an idea here or there when it is suitable…. It’s a balance between providing help, supporting, and being willing to accept that interests change, all parts of a parent’s role in self-directed learning.

Finally, when all is said and done and it’s time to apply to post-secondary institutions, I will try to tie all the different elements together (and from now on I’ll record anything relevant she does), write a course description for her high school records , figure out a grade, and determine the number of credits.

In my experience, self-directed learning usually earns an A because teens are so interested that they do very well.

As for the number of credits, I will guess the amount of time spent.  A credit is 100-180 hours of classroom time in schools; if learning is going on most of the time, I will veer toward the lower number of hours, and if there is a lot of downtime, I will aim for the full 180 hours.  Considering Miss 14 has already spent well over 150 hours, this project will likely lead to two credits, or maybe more.

So, to sum up, here is the credit brainstorming and planning process I went through as I considered this unusual high school course. The process always seems to be similar, at least for our family.

  • A new idea pops into someone’s head.
  • We gather information.
  • We try to ensure that there will be a balance between theoretical and applied learning.
  • We see if it would be related to any courses we are already involved in.
  • We start to think about credits, grades, and high school records.
  • Finally I watch things unfold, providing a book here, an idea there, and a nudge to try this or that.

You can use the same approach to develop a course based on your teen’s interests, whatever they are.  Obviously it is possible to sum up an activity at the end of four years and assign it a credit (we have done that, too), but thinking ahead can add a valuable elements to your teen’s learning.

To see how this all worked out in real life, check back in three years….  In the meantime, I’ll order some library books, find warmer clothes to wear to the horse barn, and settle back to watch, keeping all these ideas in the back of my head.  And Miss 14, well, she will keep on doing what she loves to do, learning all the while.

Homeschooling can be very flexible, and sometimes it is that flexibility that trips us up as we constantly re-invent the wheel.  Perhaps this example will save some families that effort.

Note:  It may be important to consider legal homeschooling requirements in your area.

Review: Introduction to Psychology from a Christian Perspective by Vicki Tillman

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Many teens are interested in psychology, but most psychology texts are written from a non-Christian or anti-Christian point of view.  On the other hand, Christian psychology courses, such as Sonlight’s AP course, are available for homeschools but are too difficult for many teens.

In her Introduction to Psychology from a Christian Perspective, Vicki Tillman, M.A., licenced counsellor and long-time homeschool mom, overcomes both of these problems.  As a Christian, she discusses psychology from a biblical point of view. Also, her course is accessible to the average grade 9 or 10 student, although she has included college prep, advanced, and honors level options as well.

Designed to give an overview of psychology and its various fields, from the workings of neurons to human behavior and misbehavior, Vicki’s course also explores the question, “What theories can stand next to scripture and what theories are faulty?”  In 15 chapters of varying length and complexity, she addresses the following basic topics:

  • The Brain and How it Works
  • Perception
  • Genetics
  • Learning
  • History of Psychology (2 chapters)
  • Communication
  • Needs and Motivation
  • Looking at Personality and Theory
  • Sleep and Dreams
  • Abnormal Psychology
  • Psychological Testing
  • Christian Counseling
  • Careers in Psychology
  • How to Help a Friend in Crisis

In each chapter, sidebars explain relevant vocabulary, homework questions help consolidate learning, and tests provide objective evaluation.  Clear solutions are available for both the homework and the tests.  Most chapters include enrichment exercises that often involve watching movies, reading, observation, or writing.  The writing is clear, there’s an occasional sparkle of humor, and there are frequent comments on concepts that are being studied.  Some of the chapters are technical, some historical, and some almost hands-on, giving variety to the course.

The level and credit value of the course can be altered by varying the amount of enrichment and reading activities, and a table clearly summarizes how to do this.  It would be easy to teach a group of students at different levels simultaneously using the various options, and this course could be used in homeschool co-ops as well.

We had considered using Sonlight’s AP level homeschool psychology course, but it turned out to be too advanced.  Instead, we are looking forward to studying Vicki’s course this winter.  After going through it myself, I think it will be just the right thing for Miss 14 and Miss 16.  If they are really interested, we will add more of the enrichment exercises and turn it into a higher level course.  I will also recommend it to other young people who are considering studying psychology.  The Sonlight course would, however, be a good follow up to Vicki’s course for teens who want an AP level credit or are contemplating a career in psychology.

Introduction to Psychology from a Christian Perspective is a balanced overview of the field with discussions from a Christian point of view.   The assignments are clear and helpful, the enrichment exercises have many choices, the tests are well-written, and the answer keys are easy to use.  This course is recommended for any homeschooled teen who wants to learn what psychology is all about.  It would also be a helpful Christian introduction for those teens who will need to take a psych course during their post-secondary education.

Introduction to Psychology from a Christian Perspective by Vicki Tillman is available from 7Sisters Homeschool or as a kindle text from Amazon.  Lesson plans are also available if you wish additional resources and hints.  For more information about this course and others, see 7Sisters Homeschool Helps or visit Vicki’s Homeschool Psychology Resources on Pinterest.

Disclosure:  I received a free etext for the purposes of this review and have given my own honest opinions.

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