Reviews – December 2012/January 2013
From “lost boy” to Olympic athlete
News stories come and go, and are all too soon forgotten. But for some people involved, lives are changed forever. This book brings to life one such story, from one of the ìlost boysî of Sudan. During the long years of civil war in that country, large numbers of young boys were forcibly taken by the rebel soldiers. Those who were old enough were trained to fight; those who were not, were imprisoned in cramped conditions where food was scarce and disease was rife. Lopez Lomong was snatched from his parents at the age of six. Being too young to fight, he was locked in a tiny hut with other boys and effectively left to die.
Lopez tells his story very much from a perspective of faith; he clearly feels that God’s hand was upon him on the long journey through escape to Kenya and a UN refugee camp, and then adoption by a family in the United States. Throughout his life he has been a runner. He ran to escape from his captors, to be allowed to play football in the refugee camp and finally, once his potential had been realised, he began to run competitively in his new country. He qualified for the 2008 Olympic Games and had the honour of carrying the American flag in the opening ceremony. Although he didn’t win a medal on that occasion, he continues to be amongst the top athletes in his field. All of this he sees as part of God’s plan for his life, and he now uses his position to help bring new hope and support to the people of South Sudan, still suffering from the legacy of warfare and devastation.
I found this an engaging and inspiring story. At one level it is an easy and enjoyable read, yet at the same time one cannot fail to be touched by the enormity of Lopez’s experiences. I would recommend this book to anyone who would like to gain an understanding of the ongoing reality behind those soon-to-be-forgotten news stories.
Marion Thomas is a United Reformed Church minister serving the North Staffordshire group of churches
Honest, challenging Bible commentaries
The Year of the Lord’s Favor: Proclaiming Grace in the Year of Luke
What do you do when you first handle a new book? Might I guess that you look at the front cover, read the title, then turn the book over and read the blurb on the back? Sometimes, if you persevere and read the book, you feel the blurb bears little relation to the actual content of the book. Not so with Tom Arthur’s commentary. The blurb seems to me to be quotably accurate; it says the book is “a commentary on the texts of the Revised Common Lectionary that is contextualized, politically engaged and unflinchingly honest”. These reflections connect honestly and realistically with the ordinary circumstances of experience. They encourage the 21st Century Christian to live in a way that transcends sentimentality and fear and live a faith that makes things happen.”
Tom Arthur is an American (hence the title spelling) Presbyterian minister serving with the United Reformed Church in Wales. He combines erudition and an up-to-date knowledge of biblical scholarship with a canny ability to relate the lectionary’s readings with the world outside the church walls, in the best tradition of those who pray with their Bible in one hand and their newspaper in the other.
The commentaries vary in length from two to five pages, and quite considerably in style – some anecdotal and easily accessible, and some requiring a bit of mental effort. I would have appreciated an index which listed the Bible readings in canonical order, for use at other times than when one is preparing a sermon, but that is to nit-pick.
I found myself profoundly challenged by Tom Arthur’s insistence that we emerge bravely from the ghetto of church life (what the writer calls “the emasculated sentimentality of today’s church”) and become “the midwives of new possibilities the world of buying and selling cannot imagine”. These commentaries move us on from simply understanding what the words of the text are saying, to the next step of opening our eyes to the significance of what is going on around us.
Ruth Allen is a retired United Reformed Church minister based at Ilkeston United Reformed Church in Derbyshire
Advent reflections through poetry
Advent calendars were on sale in September in our local supermarket, so it seems a little late to be reviewing a book of readings and reflections for Advent. What is more, there are no chocolates on offer. Instead, the author offers us ìa wonderful chance to examine ourselves, to review our lives in a way that we seldom bother to doî. Somehow that seems a very good offer at a time when busyness can easily overshadow the message of this season. Christ can be put back into Christmas.
What makes this book any different from many other sources of Advent readings? Rachel Boulding is taken up with the insight that poetry is a powerful medium to take us into deep spiritual places. This book is full of the works of poets, from the 13th Century to the present day. But beware: the author openly admits that she has taken no account of the beliefs or lifestyle of the poets whose work she chooses and, maybe an obstacle to some, she only uses extracts from poems. That will not please the literary critic who may feel that she has not got the point of the whole work.
For me however, that was not a problem, and I commend this book to anyone looking to examine their life in God’s world at this time of wonder and joy, and yet, for many, a time of pressure and pain. It is good news that the reflections do not stop at Christmas but take us right through to Epiphany.
Any reviewer will have some criticisms. Mine are that I wish Rachel Boulding could have removed “of England” in referring to the church in one or two places, and I would have preferred her to use the New Revised Standard Version for all her biblical quotations, rather than flitting between it, the King James Version and the Book of Common Prayer. But those are small points about a book that will do you a lot more good than chocolates!
John Waller is a retired United Reformed Church minister living in Hythe, Kent
Comfort for lives under pressure
Coffee with God is a little book designed to bring a lot of comfort and strength to women. Written by 28 women with military connections (some are on active military service, others are mothers, wives, and girlfriends who wait patiently during the six long months of the deployment of their loved ones), this book provides 165 10-minute reflections of comfort and inspiration.
Designed deliberately to last the length of a standard six-month period of deployment, the daily reflections’ prime focus is the Psalms, although each day a complementary passage is given to bring an added dimension to the message of the psalm. The personal reflections that follow draw on real-life stories of women, showing how they have drawn strength, release, healing and encouragement from the Bible readings and from God as they have faced the challenges of their lives. Some reflections comment on daily life as you and I know it, whilst others lead us into the world of military life and the many challenges there. In drawing on the Psalms in particular, the reflections contain reminders of God’s abundant love, the need to trust in God, the power of prayer and faith in the most desperate times. Each reflection ends with a prayer or point to ponder.
I found the pairing of a psalm with another passage from the Bible a useful and illuminating exercise, while the personal comments that followed were of interest to me, particularly as I have friends in the forces. I found myself engaging with the military worldview and growing in my understanding of the challenges faced. Although the book says that it is written in the first place for women with a military connection so that they might meet with God through his Word, this resource has the potential to nourish anyone whose life is under pressure, whatever pressures they face, and anyone who needs daily reminders to trust in God.
Catey Morrison is a United Reformed Church minister working with the East Cleveland Group of URCs
A book to remember by Stephen Thornton
A Dangerous Fortune by Ken Follett, first published by Delacorte Press, 1993
If you are looking for a book you cannot put down, try this one. It tells a gripping story of boys who first met at boarding school, and how an event there coloured all their lives. Focusing on the Pilaster family – Methodists (though it could be any of the Victorian churches) who run a big family bank and are very rich – it goes on to reveal how ambition, greed and poor leadership brings them all crashing down.
Intermingled are stories of love, passion, heartache and hope. Truly a good read. The book asks many questions about how belonging to a church didn’t seem to affect the way many family members lived, or the decisions and choices they made. It also asks questions about how the church was involved in Victorian society, ending up supporting prejudice, bigotry and the established order.
Reading it in these days of banking troubles, crashes and dwindling Christian influence, the book challenges us as Christians to ponder how things have changed, or not, and how we should be witnessing in our own day. A good book to read for our own consideration, but even better to read with a group and ponder its messages for us as Christians today.
Stephen Thornton is a retired United Reformed Church minister
This article was published in the combined December 2012/January 2013 edition of Reform.