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Review: Man of the First Hour by George Van Popta

Man of the First Hour by George Van Popta

In Man of the First Hour, George van Popta discusses the life of his father Jules from his youth in the Netherlands, through the war years, and to the end of his life in Canada.  In doing so he also portrays the roots of the Canadian Reformed churches and gives us a glimpse into the past—its everyday life and its ways of thinking—that we do well to consider today.

Jules’s father Taeke, a man so devoted to learning that he would put his feet into cold water to be able to stay awake while studying, was headmaster of a Christian school and heavily involved in various church, educational, social, and political organizations. He strenuously opposed the Nazi movement in the Netherlands which lead to his death in a concentration camp when Jules was a young man.

Jules himself was quite a character and so was his spunky wife Helen. The first time he walked home with his future wife he was too shy to speak so she said, “You are silent and I am listening.”   Later, to her frustration, he wrote her theological treatises rather than love letters.  When World War II began Jules was a student but was soon was forced into hiding.  Helen worked as a nanny in a family that sheltered fugitives, including Jews, and printed a small underground newspaper.  Had she been afraid then, her children asked her later.

Her reply was refreshing.  “We didn’t worry too much.  We just lived each day as it came.  We knew we should help if we could.  And we trusted that God would take care of us.” 

The two were engaged before the war but not married until a few years after, when Jules had a position as a minister.

The rest of the biography relates how Jules served the churches in the Netherlands and later in Canada and tells how, at one point, his burden became too heavy for him.  Like some stories about more famous Christians, this one shows a deeply human person dedicated to serving God to the limits of his strength…and what happens when that strength fails. Of course, there is much more and Man of the First Hour is actually a biography of both Jules and the young Canadian Reformed Churches.  This may sound like dry reading but the book is enjoyable, partly because Jules, Helen, and the churches are portrayed with humor and compassion as well as love and respect.

As a pastor Jules advised the immigrant community on many issues and some of these writings are presented in the book’s 11 appendices.  He discussed union membership, matters relating to the Dutch church struggle of 1944, faith and science, the state, space flight, and Descartes.  His articles show how a gifted person with a classical education approaches topics that must be addressed. As we grapple with today’s issues this clear thinking is an example to us; it is also an also encouragement to those doing the hard work of education, whether as student, parent, or teacher.

The article on the meaning of becoming a Canadian citizen is especially relevant today as we try to understand our responsibility for the sins of our predecessors from a biblical, not woke, point of view. Some might say that Man of the First Hour is worth getting just for this article, although if Jules’s point of view is indeed correct* we should all be much more enthusiastic about preventing further societal abuses such as euthanasia, abortion, and others. In any case, considering current thought, we cannot avoid this topic.

The book ends with three sermons which give an example of Jules’s spoken voice, complete with Dutchisms, and written, obviously, from the viewpoint of the ‘60s.  They are an encouragement also for us in our current philosophical, political, and cultural situation as they point us to our Lord, show us how to serve him, and show us how he is working for his church through history.  One comforting message is that difficult times are not signs that God is absent but signs that he is busy working.

Since my review of Man of the First Hour was postponed repeatedly, I read most of the book three times (not a bad thing at all) and a few thoughts stood out:

  • The world and worldview of the past are not like those of today; this book can give us 21st century Christians some lessons on how to live.
  • We need to consider human limitations, our own as well as those of our pastors, in order to live wisely in the communion of saints.
  • Helen van Popta was a remarkable woman. Or could that be because we see her through the eyes of a devoted son?
  • Difficult times are not signs that God is absent but signs that he is busy working.
  • God works through good times and bad and, despite what some would have us believe, faithful Christians can and do suffer, just as Jesus said they would.

Canada and, in particular, the Canadian Reformed Churches, can be grateful that the Lord gave Jules van Popta as a shepherd of his flock.  Although Jules was careful, when asked by little George, to answer that, no, he was not the first minister in Canada; there were many, many before him, yet he was the first minister of the Canadian Reformed Churches, and as such is worthy of note.  Even more so, then, when his life was eventful and his past dramatic. He was a blessing to these churches and through them to many others in our country, just as this book could be.

Jules Van Popta’s story will be especially valuable to members of the Canadian Reformed Churches but is also for those interested in Canadian history, Christian biographies, and Christian thought.

Man of the First Hour is available from Reformed Perspective Publishing where one can read the table of contents and the first chapter, as well as from Amazon.

*This is not a given, and there are many nuances. See, for example, the discussion of social justice in Mama Bear Apologetics or in this article.  Even if Jules is wrong and we are not personally responsible for the sins of our predecessors, we are, of course, still responsible to do what we can to oppose current evils.

Disclosure:  I received a review copy of this book. As usual I am not compensated for this review nor was I obliged to give a positive review.  I wish to thank the author and publisher for their patience as this review was postponed repeatedly.

Review: Help I’m Drowning by Sally Clarkson

When I was a young mom one of my best homeschooling guides was a book by Sally Clarkson and her husband Clay, Educating the Wholehearted Child.  It helped me so much over the past quarter century that I’ve had a soft spot for Sally ever since.  She has gone on to write books on many other topics and here is the latest: Help! I’m Drowning: Weathering the Storms of Life with Grace and Hope.

I must confess that when I agreed to review Help! I’m Drowning I hardly looked at the title, only at the fact that it was written by Sally Clarkson. If I’d thought about the title, I would not have agreed to review it because I certainly did not feel like I was drowning or even that I needed extra help.

Yet, in God’s providence, the book arrived just before my father died unexpectedly. Even though the whole issue of being overwhelmed pales in comparison to thoughts about life and death, it has been helpful in this hard time.

Sally’s book is an extended chat with her readers, sharing her own life and how she has helped others.  Her goal is to help us learn important truths that took her a lifetime to learn. She wants to bear witness to the truth of the Bible and to teach younger women how to live, both from the Bible and from her personal experience. In Help, I’m Drowning she discusses sadness, loneliness, exhaustion, fear, and disappointment, pointing to God and sharing hard-won lessons.

Each chapter begins with two quotations, one from the Bible, and ends with an anchoring prayer, a scripture selection that is discussed, and an act to take, complete with journaling space.

It’s a privilege to walk along with Sally as she shares lessons learned during her long life of service.  One that she mentions several times was that she, as a young person and a new Christian, naively expected life to be easier, more satisfying, and more controllable.  She was not prepared or equipped for hardship because she did not expect difficult things to happen to her.  This lesson took her years to learn.

I think many of us can identify with Sally on this point. People who know the Bible, who know history, and who humbly believe that a sovereign God works all things, even terribly sad ones, for our good—such people should know better, but so often we forget. So often we are surprised when things are difficult.

Those who cannot identify with that mindset and tend to the opposite extreme, fearing disaster and assuming nothing we do matters, can also learn from Sally.

I must admit that sometimes the tone of Help, I’m Drowning jarred me.  Perhaps it was because the issue of overwhelm pales in comparison with life and death, which were what I was dealing with at the time. Perhaps because, though trying to help women who are drowning, Sally very occasionally sounds superficial.  Perhaps because Sally and I have some theological differences.  Or perhaps, since Sally is a kind person and a godly one, it was just me.

Although it may sound odd, I found that this book paired well with Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility which I was rereading at the same time.

Is Help, I’m Drowning a worthwhile book? It can be for anyone in this culture who feels pressured by the need to be perfect, to do it all, to feel fulfilled.  These are issues Sally addresses from the experience of a long life lived for God.  (A younger woman’s take on these questions, which I recommend, is You Who? by Rachel Jankovich.)

If you are keeping up with your Bible reading, Help, I’m Drowning may benefit you, although it all is based on the Bible that you are reading anyhow.  If you are not reading your Bible regularly, perhaps it will nudge you to do so.   And if you are feeling overwhelmed, misunderstood, alone, or disappointed, it will almost certainly encourage you by reminding you of biblical truths.

Although the book could be used in a group setting, it is also suitable for personal reading and contemplation.

May you be blessed by this review and, if you choose to read Help! I’m Drowning, may you be blessed by it as well.

Disclosure: I received a review copy from Graf Martin and Bethany House and, as usual, am not compensated for this review.  I want to thank Graf Martin and Bethany House for graciously extending the deadline for this review.

Homeschooling Checklists: Pros, Cautions, and Special Situations

I love homeschooling checklists but have learned over the years that they have their negative aspects as well.  One must be cautious using them, especially in certain situations.

Benefits of Homeschooling Checklists

Homeschooling checklists have kept us on track for years.  I’d plan the year out far in advance, dividing the planned schoolwork up by the available weeks.  I would set goals for various check points throughout the year and make detailed plans for each week.  By knowing exactly what we needed to do each week, we were more likely to actually do it.  Finally, daily checklists helped make this all practical.

We used all sorts of formats—tables and lists of all varieties, individualized for each child and adjusted week by week—usually made in Word and printed out a week at a time.  As the children grew older, they sometimes requested different styles of charts—some teens work well with detailed expectations, some want to be able to list just what they got done in large empty boxes.

This worked well, on the whole.  After all, “Plan your work and work your plan,” is good advice that is basic to most human endeavors.

Dangers of Homeschooling Checklists

After many years of struggling we also learned about the dangers of checklists, especially if they are not realistic or flexible.  They can cause enormous discouragement if they constantly point out when someone is behind.  If there is no way to ever feel on top of things, if every morning comes with the certainty that today one will get yet further behind, checklists are horrible taskmasters.  They can harm children and teens and also affect moms and relationships.

So, when you set up checklists, ensure that when Monday is over its uncompleted tasks do not carry over and get added to Tuesday’s.  Let Tuesday be a fresh start unless there will be a realistic opportunity to catch up.  If necessary, reduce the expectations mirrored on the check list so that each day the student will be able to succeed.

This, of course, means that if you have a month by month plan you must be willing to let it go if necessary.  Do not worry about being behind if you are behind for valid reasons; just focus on doing each day’s work as well possible.  Of course, if being behind is mom’s fault due to laziness or disorganization, realizing that is the first step to fixing the problem.   In that case, be strong and courageous and get to work, thankful for the opportunity to change.

It also means that you should not let your children be burdened by the monthly expectations; some children will be more sensitive to this than others.

In fact, it may mean that you need to learn to airily brush off your child’s worries about not finishing the year “properly” (whatever that means).   You may need to learn to tell your children encouraging things like, “There’s always next year,” and “You’ve learned so much and I’m very happy with that,” and “Public schools usually don’t finish the textbook either,” and “You’ve worked diligently and that is what counts,” and “God blesses what you were able to do, not what was not possible for you to do.”  You may also need to convince yourself of these things and be gentle with yourself if it was your fault.

And if you are like me, you will need to learn to consciously reduce your expectations at the beginning of each year.  No one can learn it all, no one can experience it all, and no one needs to. Gaps are inevitable because we are all finite; only God can know everything.

If you recognize yourself and your failings here, repent but be gentle with yourself as well as with your kids.  Ask for forgiveness and determine how you can fix this problem but do not beat yourself up, because that is both counterproductive and un-Christian.

Homeschooling Checklists in Unusual Situations

There’s one more thing to consider:  In unusual situations checklists can be more of a hindrance than a help.  If there is illness or injury or a major time commitment (e.g. moving, a new baby), a rigid checklist can lead to discouragement.  If concussion healing is slow, for example, there is no benefit to be gained in remembering that this is the month in which chapter 8 of the science book was to be completed.  In fact, there can be considerable health benefits in purposely taking a gap month or even a gap semester or year, because reducing the stress of being ‘behind’ (which can be enormous) will contribute towards allowing the body to heal.

Is it pleasant to say farewell to long-cherished plans and timing assumptions?  Of course not.  It’s hard for teens as well as for moms.  But we confess that God is in control and arranges all for the good of those who love him, and we must learn to believe it with our hearts as well as our minds.  As I wrote once, God can send gentle encouragement in the most unexpected ways.

“Recently I was reminded that extracurricular activities can even take the place of all formal learning if necessary. When one of our teens needed to take a gap semester due to multiple concussions and chronic pain, someone on her medical team calmed my education worries by saying, “Surely, as a homeschooler you know that learning can happen in many ways!”   So, when your teen or child cannot focus, just deal with the issues at hand and let them have the gift of slow time as they heal. They will be able to explore the world in ways that book learning can never duplicate, and all the trouble could turn out to be a blessing in disguise.”

In such situations, it is best to just record work that is done, letting a struggling teen/child do whatever they can whenever they can.  Some teens will want to keep these records themselves; in other cases, mom will need to do so unobtrusively.

Note that such situations require love, compassion, encouragement, and perseverance.  One also needs to assume that the child/teen is not purposely avoiding schoolwork, so much wisdom and prayer is required here for both student and mom.  It is also helpful for mom to regularly ponder 1 Corinthians 13:4-7 and prayerfully consider what, practically, it means for her to love her child that day.  (How I wish I had been doing that decades ago, but again, beating oneself up about the past is not a Christian response, nor is it helpful.)

And then, instead of using checklists, one could aim to simply do every day’s work every day, knowing that might mean multiple daily decisions.  It can be helpful to have priorities—do this first if possible, but if it’s a bad day try that instead, and if it’s a terrible day just focus on being patient and learning to suffer well.

Finally, even if the student cannot use checklists, Mom might need to use them for herself to ensure that flexibility and compassion do not degenerate into laziness and lack of focus on her part.

So, use checklists when you can, but do not let them abuse you or your children.  They are excellent servants but cruel masters.

May God bless you and your family as you head into the upcoming school year!

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Review: Stay by Anjuli Paschall

Stay by Anjuli Paschall

When I decided on Stay as my reflective book for the summer, I had no idea what I was getting into.  Instead of being gentle and peaceful (like The Next Right Thing I read last year), Stay is intense and raw.  Like The Next Right Thing, though, it keeps on leading the reader to God, so it’s all good and I am glad I chose it.

Often, when things in our Christian lives seem stuck or dry, we tend to want to fix them, try harder, or even avoid God.  Stay: Discovering Grace, Freedom, and Wholeness Where You Never Imagined Looking encourages us just to stay instead, humbly waiting for God instead of frantically trying to figure things out ourselves.

Through an abundance of detailed personal experience, Anjuli leads us to consider topics we tend to want to run away from:  mistakes, neediness, vulnerability, loneliness, pain, embarrassment, and trauma.  She talks about listening, showing up, waiting, and aging. In each case, she comes back to God, his saving goodness, his sovereignty, and his love.  He is the answer to all of our needs—sin, guilt, fear, loneliness, and the endless ponderings about how to live this life well.  In each of these, God can sanctify us and draw us closer to himself.

Anjuli Paschall’s writing is personal—sometimes even embarrassingly so—and poetic, yet her discussions are well-thought-out and logical.  In fact, I cannot imagine the amount of exhausting thought it must have taken to organize the book’s ideas so well.  Because of these things Stay shows one person’s painful journey of sanctification with both emotion and biblical accuracy.  It can do us good to consider this journey through her experience.

For example, while exploring aging and the fear of death—because even though we know that God will be with us and that Jesus has removed the sting of death we are afraid of the dying process—Anjuli confesses that gratitude is “the pathway from knowing God is with me to experiencing peace in my soul that He actually is with me.” She fleshes out this concept with a rhapsody of joy at the everyday miracles God works in our lives, ending with the declaration, “I’ll say it with every passing year and up to my dying breath. Breathe in: Savor.  Breathe out: Thank you.” (p 175)

This book is raw in places.  It discusses despair, trauma, pain, and other hard things.  However, immediately, in each chapter, Anjuli points to our loving, saving God.  She tells the reader:  do not run from the hard things into self-saving mode; stay with the hard things and because that is where “God is weaving his redemptive story into mine.” (p 204)

Although it was not intended to be a major theme in the book, Stay also shows effects of living one’s life by social and other media.  Our society does not fully realize that screen addiction can cause problems for adults as well as kids. So, to Anjuli’s message I’d add this: don’t stay with your screens, those beloved rectangular idols that are designed to distract us from real world relationships with God and others. Stay with God instead.

I highly recommend Stay by Anjuli Paschall.  Complete with discussion questions, it could be used for personal reading and reflection, a group study, or even in Christian therapy.

Trigger warning:  We live in a broken world. If you are deeply affected by that, you may wish to read this book with a loving supporter who will be able to help you face the brokenness and Stay with God.

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

Review: A Mosaic of Wings by Kimberly Duffy

Nora Shipley, entomology student at Cornell in 1885, is tied at the head of her class with Owen Epp.  Trained by her late father to understand insects, especially butterflies, she excels in both accomplishment and drive.  In fact, once she graduates she aims to rescue the scientific journal her father started because her stepfather Lucius, obviously inferior to her father, is destroying it.

But to be qualified for this great task, she needs to go to graduate school, and to do that she needs a scholarship.  To get the scholarship, she really should accept the offer of a trip to India to study butterflies but her ill mother cannot do without her. Yet without the experience and prestige of the trip, she will not win the scholarship to grad school; Owen, who hardly cares about entomology, will.

Obviously, Nora does get to India; how she gets there and what she does there make a fast-paced, emotion-filled story that is filled with butterflies and immersed in Indian culture.

I was often frustrated by Nora.  She may be an excellent student but she has a lot of growing up to do.  Added to that, she, like many people hampered by trauma and guilt, often reacts intensely. Her responses to difficult situations are frequently a source of grief for herself as well as others.  In this book she does learn, but as painfully slowly as we all do in real life.

In our homeschool we have used Anna Comstock’s Handbook of Nature Study, and Anna Comstock of Cornell is one of the characters in this book!  There’s also an oblique reference to someone similar to Amy Carmichael, although the dates don’t quite work.  And, as you can imagine, there is talk of bugs, butterflies, and suffragettes.

A Mosiac of Wings is a busy novel of academic life in the late 1800’s as well as a tender love story and an exploration of family relationships. Anyone interested in butterflies, the history of women’s education, nature study, India, or the effects of trauma and guilt will find this book especially gripping.

Related resources:

Handbook of Nature Study by Anna Comstock, a treasure trove for any homeschooling family that wishes to do nature study.  The book is available free online but can also be purchased in paperback.

Review:  The Girl Who Drew Butterflies by Joyce Sidman , a lavishly illustrated biography of Maria Merian, one of the first scientific illustrators of butterflies.

The Body Keeps The Score by Bessel Van Der Kolk (link to my mini-review ), a study of trauma and its effects.

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