Monday, October 15, 2018

A Bright Tomorrow

A Bright Tomorrow, Jared Mellinger 

What do you worry about? What really gives you unease: illness and suffering? Your kids going astray? The state of the world? Aging and dying?

More specifically why do you worry about these things? We believe Jesus’ words: “which of you by being anxious can add a single hour to his span of life?” (Luke 12:25) We know God calls us to cast all our anxieties on him because he cares for us (1 Peter 5:7). But sometimes we can’t figure out what this looks like in practice, and so tend to apathy, pretending all is fine or constantly worrying about what might happen.

In his new offering, A Bright Tomorrow, Jared Mellinger proposes that it is only when we fully grasp God’s sure and precious promises about the future that we are enabled to live in hope today:
“This book presents the message of Christian optimism, with the voice of confidence in Christ, grounded in his finished work in the past and in the promise of future grace.”
This is a book for the believer. Both the believer who worries about the future and the believer who avoids thinking about it. It is balm for the soul. It could certainly be helpful for those seeking to understanding why Christians have a confident hope, but it is not evangelistic. It assumes a scriptural, Christ-centred faith.

Some books are written for when you are in the midst of challenges and worries. Others help prepare you for those days to come. This might be one of the rare ones that does both. It is short, easy to read, and contains both promise and comfort.

In the first half of the book, Mellinger brings the reader on a journey of hope and promise. While acknowledging the challenges of facing the future with confidence (drawing on his experience of having a young child with cancer), he brings us back to Jesus and how our future is secure in him. He then directs us through the biblical truths that can ground us in times of worry – the future grace we are promised, the hope that we are given for the times ahead, the promises of God that never fail, and the love of Christ that we can never be separated from.

These chapters were edifying, Christ-focussed, soaked in scripture and very encouraging. As someone who tends to ‘catastrophise’ her way through potential future scenarios, I personally found the reminder that God will always provide for our future needs by providing future grace both comforting and reassuring:
“Grace is greater than we know, and we should learn to mine the riches of God’s future grace. The benefits of grace that you have experienced thus far are glorious, but are surpassed by the benefits yet to come (…) Grace is amazing, as John Newton observes, not only because it has brought us safe thus far, but also because it will lead us home.”
Listing God’s great promises that will not fail, Mellinger rightly asserts that solid knowledge of God’s character and acts will indeed bring hope:
“Every promise God has made should take a great deal of worry off our minds. Sound theology, including all that God has promised, is intended to make a difference in our lives. So many of the problems we face can be traced back to our failure to live as though the promises of God are true. If we lose sight of God’s promises, we will inevitably lose our sense of courage.”
The second half of the book turns to more specific areas of life that we tend to worry about. Starting with future trials and struggles, he reminds that “the worst that the waves of hardship can do is throw you against the Rock of Ages, work for your good, and prepare for you an eternal weight of glory”.

For parents who worry and are driven by “what ifs”, he challenges that:
“Anxious parenting is the result of being more aware of our weaknesses than God’s power, more aware of sin than grace, more aware of human folly than divine wisdom, more aware of rebellion than rescue, more aware of death than life.”
Jesus loves our children, he meets parents in their distress, he can do for our children what we cannot (save them), and gives us faith to do what he asks.

Rather than agonising about the state of the world, we can instead live realistically, understanding that the brokenness of sin seeps into every area of life on earth. We continue in social engagement yet hang on to the promises of a perfect world one day – with love, peace, justice, beauty, abundance, safety, health and praise. “We know the world is not as it should be, and so we pray, lament, create beauty, do good, and care for the needy as acts of hope-filled protest, witnessing to a kingdom that is sure to come.”

Finally turning to aging well and facing death with confidence, we can continue to see the beauty of God at work in the lives of those around us:
“What is aging to us? Aging is the accumulation of more stories of the faithfulness of God. It is a visible display of God’s determination to love and care for his own.”
Perhaps in summary it seems like the answers are pat at points. But that was never the feeling reading it. Mellinger dwells in the word of God, and shows us the confidence we can have in his promises, through hope in Christ and in the grace to come. All of it is anchored in the character of God, not our own strength, giving us assurance of the bright future that awaits:
“The Promise-Keeper has spoken. His grace and goodness will follow us. Fear and anxiety are behind us. The glory of heaven is in our eyes. The kingdom will be consummated. Death will be defeated. Eternal comfort and good hope belong to us by grace.”

Monday, October 8, 2018

The Bible in Australia

The Bible in Australia, Meredith Lake

This recently awarded 2018 Australian Christian Book of the Year gives all Australians a record of our nation through the lens of the bible and its role in our society.

Substantial research has gone into Meredith Lake’s work, which covers the use of the bible from its arrival in the possession of Captain Cook (1765 King James Version) to present day, and its various translations, uses, forms and interpretations along the way.

At the outset, Lake identifies the bible “has mattered to Australia in three main guises – the globalising Bible, the cultural Bible and the theological Bible”. As such she establishes this is not just an analysis of biblical belief in Australia but the many ways the bible has been used, misused, culturally appropriated and held as a key tenet of faith across two centuries in this country.

In doing so, Lake challenges two often held beliefs: that we are a “doggedly secular society and culture” or that “Australia is (or was, or should be) a straightforwardly Christian nation”. Rather, “the story of the Bible in Australia offers us a fresh perspective (…) The often surprising history of the Bible here disrupts both assumptions. It enables a richer, more interesting and expansive story.”

Broken into four parts, Lake addresses the bible’s role in Australia through a chronological timeline. Starting with colonial foundations, we learn of the bible’s history prior to its arrival in Australia, including the impact of Protestantism and the printing press. Biblical language infused daily life and informed the decisions, thoughts and values of the time, and so it influenced the life of the early colony. Yet, this does not mean that those who knew the Bible’s language necessarily lived out its meaning and there is an honesty reflecting upon settlers’ interactions with Indigenous populations. At the same time, it was really only those who truly believed the scriptures and that all men are created in the image of God who made any effort to treat Aboriginal people with dignity, to learn their languages or to respect their lives and lands.
“For all its considerable shortcomings, Christian humanitarianism was the most radical, most powerful critique of colonialism advanced among whites. It illustrates how the Bible, interpreted in certain ways, could provide a platform for criticising the worst of settler behaviour and nurture a vision for a more human interaction with indigenous Australians.”

Part 2: The Great Age of the Bible covers the mid 1800s and the impact of legislation like the Church Act which provided grants for new churches and clergyman, explaining the prevalence of old church buildings in nearly all Australian towns and cities. This was also the time that many banks, building societies, the press and government education were being established. Many today would be surprised to discover the overtly Christian beliefs of the founders of AMP and Westpac, and the early Sydney Morning Herald contributors, as well as the intention to include Christian teaching in government schooling.

Lake identifies the 1880s as the time when “Australians were engaged with issues of scripture and theology as never before or since”. Christian clergy “were among the best educated people in early European Australia, and played a leading role in colonial science”, for “scientific research was generally seen as a pursuit that led people to the knowledge and contemplation of God.”

Part 3: Bible and Nation leads the reader through the late 19th century to the early 1900s, outlining federation, the formation of political parties and the impact of war on the nation. These were all strongly impacted by biblical language, themes and morality that continue to today. The trade unions arose from distinctly Christian ideals of fair work and fair pay. The Women’s Christian Temperance Union were key in championing the vote for women, realising that women and children
were most affected by excessive alcohol use, and that women should be able to vote for legal change to protect the family way of life. Small versions of scripture provided by the Bible Society were cherished by many on overseas battlefields, and biblical texts adorn memorials to soldiers around the country.

Even “lest we forget” has biblical origins in Deuteronomy 6:12: “then take care lest you forget the Lord, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.” As Lake observes, this “illustrates how biblical ideas can move through a culture, becoming less theological and widely influential in the process”. By this time, often we see “the secularisation of the Bible’s presence in culture. It was usually used in public the highlight ideals of human virtue, rather than to provide divine exhortation or instruction.”

Part 4: A Secular Australia? covers the mid twentieth century to current day with the vast changes in culture that have seen decline in church attendance, a more multi-cultural church, and a reduction in faith and belief overall. With various interpretations recasting the bible, varying from feminist and environmental offerings to ocker bibles, as well the exciting release of the Kriol bible and other translation efforts into Aboriginal languages, Lake shows how it retains cultural applications across the country and is still the bedrock of faith for many.

Her conclusion for a way forward is insightful and informed:
“In all this, the Bible has been intricately bound up with the way contemporary Australian society has taken shape. It has had social, cultural and institutional impacts that we continue to live with today. This does not make the Bible, or certain interpretations of it, somehow normative for contemporary Australia. Australia is not, and never has been, a straightforwardly Christian society. But an intelligent pluralism requires good historical memory – a substantial and nuanced understanding of the past as the background to the conversation which present generations are joining and continuing. As such, a degree of biblical literacy – along with critical skill in evaluating how the Bible has been taken up and interpreted in our history – can only help Australians grapple well with the choices that society faces.”
It’s hard to know with a book of this breadth how much had to be kept out. It is not a history of Christianity in Australia. I found myself thinking there wasn’t a lot about mission to the inland, with organisations like Bush Church Aid or the Australian Inland Mission. Linked to this, no reference to the Christian origins of organisations like Qantas and the Australian Flying Doctor Service. But again, perhaps these are not as relevant when the bible is the focus rather than Christian outreach and ministry. (Full disclosure also means I am aware of my own bias towards these organisations with my own family’s Christian history rooted in them). As there was an extensive look at Menzies’ bible based faith, some interactions with more recent Prime Ministers could also have been interesting.

This is an excellent history of Australia through the lens of the bible and its uses. It shows that faith and scripture did play a key role in the settling, expansion, and multicultural changes this nation has faced. It deals openly with Indigenous history. It reads honestly and thoughtfully, willing to critique as necessary where fault should be found, but also willing to challenge some oft held beliefs about our nation’s so-called secularism.

This is worth reading for all Australians, especially those who hold to the bible as key to their faith. It will expand your understanding of our nation, the bible’s role in shaping it and will probably give you a humble pride in the powerful word of God in our country.

Monday, October 1, 2018

Rediscovering Humility

Rediscovering Humility, Christopher A. Hutchinson

I am so proud of my humility. Really, I am a very humble person. And I congratulate you on your humility too, let me tell everyone about it so that we can praise you.

Ahh, humility: the call of the Christian life but a great challenge to live out. What is true humility? Christ humbled himself becoming a man, and dying on a cross (Philippians 2:6-8). The bible calls us to humility (Philippians 1:3, Colossians 3:12), but what does that look like? What would it mean for our gatherings to be humble in their message, practice and outreach? How about with the wider church and how we live in the world?

Christopher Hutchinson’s insightful new book Rediscovering Humility builds a convicting case that humility is key to the believer’s life:
“I wish to advance humility as the central paradigm of the Christian life ( … ) Humility is the greatest prerequisite to faith in Christ and its most telling result. It is the alpha and omega of the gospel at work in God’s people. Humility ought to be the most prominent centerpiece of any Christian worldview.”
Why are there so few treatments on humility? Like Matthew’s Payne’s recent observations on godliness: we have stopped valuing it, it doesn’t draw a crowd, and we’re uncertain what it might even look like.

I have read one other in the last 15 years, C. J. Mahaney’s Humility: True Greatness. This book is similarly challenging but on a broader scale. Where Mahaney kept it personal and related to the individual, Hutchinson has made the application wider covering the personal Christian life, the way our churches operate, relationships amongst denominations, and then most broadly in light of the non Christian world in which we live.

Hutchinson posits that “modern Christians have not basked deeply in humility’s beauty, nor studied much its logic, nor practised well its ethics”; few value humility either within or outside the church. He touches on the traps of seeking humility (it’s a long process, it’s not just speech or demeanour, nor is it self-deprecation), and proposes that Christ is central to the pursuit of humility. In fact, we focus on Christ, not our own humility at all, reminding that “for every look at yourself, take ten looks at Christ” (M’Cheyne).

The first section Humility Found – Faith reminds us of the core truths of the gospel, and how no-one can boast, except in Christ. We approach God humbly, in repentance, and accept his grace. Insightfully, Hutchinson addresses the tension many feel: “May Christians confidently assert that Jesus is the only way of salvation and remain humble?” and shows how this is indeed possible: embracing truth requires humility, we must proclaim truth humbly, we can celebrate mystery and allow for disagreement, and maintain a healthy distrust in ourselves. He looks at Christ’s humility in the Trinity, in his offices of prophet, priest and king (where he is also subject, sacrifice and servant) and in his character. Christ was humble and he was humbled, giving us a model to rest in.

Humility Embraced – Hope examines humility for the individual believer. Hutchinson exposes the prevalence of pride and challenges us to consider being “bold nobodies” for Christ. There is comfort that we grow in humility through suffering and challenges as we wait in hope for eternity. Finally, personal humility is displayed through how we love others, for “humility towards God is nothing if not proven in humility towards men” (Andrew Murray). We should settle at the bottom of totem pole, desiring to lift others up: serving in menial tasks, deferring our own agenda, not glorying in success, speaking only to bless and willingly forgiving others. He challenges: do we categorise key people or precious souls? Do we give special treatment to some, because of their high or low station?

Humility Applied – Love considers humility from various aspects of the Christian community: an incredibly helpful perspective and possibly unique in this area. We might expect application to be in family relationships or in our workplace, and those areas are worth attending to. But Hutchinson has applied it to the church, and our relationships within the body of Christ.

Humble churches house people willing to make a public declaration of faith and publicly sit under the leadership of others, alongside others. They are based around the word of God, are prayerful, and value the sacraments:
“A church that has abandoned the Bible as its authority, either formally or practically, is, by definition, proud. They lean on their own understanding, are wise in their own eyes, and will not be spiritually healthy until they turn again to the authority of the written Word (Proverbs 3:5–8).”
Turning to church leaders, using the rebukes of Matthew 23, he encourages them to serve menially as well as up the front, to be careful with praise and titles that elevate, and espouses the wisdom of a plurality of leadership so that one person doesn’t have all the power or praise.

Hutchinson suggests churches should operate in humility across denominations and larger groupings. Unity is important, as is maintaining truth but it takes great humility to do both well. I appreciated the use of J. I. Packer’s suggestion that there are trunk, branch and twig doctrines (or essential, important and indifferent doctrines). Truth requires you to maintain the essential, you can agree to disagree on the indifferent, but most conflict comes with the important. While not giving clear advice on how a church will define which doctrines fit into each category, he posits that how we deal with the “important” category is the most significant for how well we pursue unity humbly:
“True unity takes more than good intentions or doctrinal agreement or hard work. It takes gospel-wrought humility. So where unity is lacking, chances are, so is meekness toward one another.”
Next, comes the question: “what does humility look like as the church interacts with the fallen world?” Using the woes of Matthew 23, Hutchinson unpacks numerous areas, such as the message our church sends when people attend: what do they see up the front, a cross or a massive sign with the church’s name and motto? Is the photo of the minister the largest on the website? He considers whether people pray and give privately to the Lord or publicly for people to admire. I appreciated his thoughts on how to interact wisely and humbly with culture, for “whenever churches address the sins of society, they almost always mean someone else’s sins, not their own”. This may be an area the Australian church needs to think through a little more.

Finishing with the encouragement that our churches should be places of respite, not factories churning out programs, he gives an interesting final plug for church planting, suggesting that when done in a humble framework it spreads out people and resources and stops churches staying large for the sake of their own name and glory.

Hutchinson includes numerous quotes, as well as some wonderfully Christ-exalting responsive prayers, expanding the book’s overall impact. He has given the Christian community a valuable, biblical insight into the humility of Christ and our humble response as part of the body of Christ. I came away both challenged and encouraged, yet inspired to continue to turn to the Lord Jesus to focus on his sacrifice and humility, and seek the joy found in serving others.

Monday, September 24, 2018

Renegades

Renegades, Marissa Meyer

Another teen fiction, this time action and superheroes, and with some intelligent thought behind the concepts.

What if the world was flooded with superheroes? If hundreds of people had different types of special powers? In Renegades this is exactly the case. Years before in the Age of Anarchy those with special powers (prodigies) overthrew the government and society that was limiting them in Gatlon City. Led by Ace Anarchy, they sought to free those who had special gifts, but in doing so they overthrew all of society, leaving people at risk of gangs and outlaws. Young Nova sees her family gunned down and is cared for by Uncle Ace.

Enter the five original Renegades, led by Captain Chromium who worked together to restore law and order to the world, and overthrew Ace. Now some ten years later, the Renegades have expanded to include hundreds of prodigies, who are responsible for all aspects of managing Gatlon City, with systems, protocols and procedures for doing their work and a hotline to call if you need them. The Renegades have become symbols of hope and justice for ordinary citizens, yet at the same time, ordinary people no longer try to overcome problems or be heroic themselves, they rely on a superhero to do it for them.

Nova has always believed the Renegades were the problem, they never came to help on the day she needed them. Those who followed Ace: the Anarchists, have laid low, planning to take out the Renegades who destroyed their lives. Nova (prodigy name: Nightmare) with Queen Bee, Phobia, the Detonator and Cyanide now plan to take down the Renegades on their main parade day. When that plan fails, Nova joins the Renegades as a spy to learn how to attack them from the inside.

But Nova starts to question everything she knows about the Renegades, when she is placed in a team with Adrian (Sketch) and other prodigies who are kind, gentle and do their job well. They don’t abuse their power or mislead the public, as she has always believed. In addition, she and Adrian are drawn to each other.

Much of today’s fiction and movies are caught up in the world of superheroes. Interestingly, the Marvel Avengers series (eg. Captain America: Civil War) and The Incredibles movies have raised the question, “are the benefits of superheroes worth the cost?” This book is doing the same, asking what cost to society when superheroes are charged with the job of taking care of all the problems, and people just let them. As Nova observes “if people wanted to stand up for themselves or protect their loved ones or do what they believe in their hearts is the right thing to do, then they would do it. If they wanted to be heroic, they would find ways to be heroic, even without supernatural powers.”

It’s an enjoyable read. The range of superpowers displayed in various figures is broad and inventive. I particularly liked Sketch’s ability to draw anything into real life, and Red Monarch’s ability to split into butterflies. I did find the list of characters quite extensive and so the list at the beginning was a helpful aid. There is no bad language, and the romance is only generally implied. Adrian’s two dads are two of the original Renegades, who adopted him after his mother died; this touch seemed remarkably like a ‘let’s tick the PC’ box inclusion.

As I neared the end, it was clear it was only the beginning! So it’s a wait for the sequel book. It’s due out later this year and Mr 15 and I will be keen to read it. I’ll be interested to see where Meyer takes the story, it’s got the potential for some great, thought-provoking ideas about society and how it is viewed through different lenses based on experience and bias. We’ll just have to wait and see how life is Gatlon City turns out.

Wednesday, September 19, 2018

This is my home

Due to an odd convergence of various events I have just missed five straight weeks at our church (that’s right, over an entire month of Sundays). Aghast some may be – what? the minister’s wife was gone from church! Is that allowed? Is she OK? What poor choices was she making? Can we even ask?

Rest easy, friends; they were legitimate reasons. Some sickness, some visiting other churches, some were unusual commitments for children that made sense to prioritise.

What has my time away shown me?

1. I can be legalistic

No surprises there.

I believe church is important and that we should prioritise going weekly, with almost no exception. But I can also make it an unbreakable rule (the unforgivable sin perhaps?) “Thou shalt attend church every single week”. I felt guilty for not being there.

My husband, who sees the bigger picture, and is much better at extending grace and mercy; reminded me that of course we prioritise meeting with God’s people, but there are times when you cannot. God knows our hearts and our motivations. Our entire lives are to be lived to the glory of God, in faithfulness to him, not only for two hours on a Sunday morning.

A surprising benefit of this absence was seen in my daughter, who was annoyed at how much church she missed. Her heart was in the right place: she wanted to meet with the people of God, but understood that for a brief time she couldn’t.

2. Not going to church could easily become habitual

I have more appreciation of how easy it is to let other things creep into Sunday mornings:

  • work commitments: “I must get this job done”
  • kids’ sport: “Oh, just this season”
  • the gym class: “But it’s the best one all week, and I don’t have time elsewhere”
  • the fun run: “It’s just one Sunday” (they are all on Sundays)
  • that birthday party: “Well, she is her best friend”
  • that family lunch: “It is Mother’s Day”
  • rest: “I am so tired”

It doesn’t take long and church can easily fall way down the priority list.

3. Christian fellowship is sweet, and a gift from God

In Life Together, Bonhoeffer encourages that “the physical presence of other Christians is a source of incomparable joy and strength to the believer” and it is purely by grace that we are able to live amongst other Christians.

I first grasped this three years ago when holidaying in Dubai with a friend who was a cross-cultural worker in Central Asia. It was a priority to be there for two weeks of church so she could have as much time with the community of Christ as possible. Observing her joy at worshipping with other believers (having little opportunity in her usual location), gave me fresh eyes to appreciate the fellowship and communal worship that I experience weekly.

Bonhoeffer warns that the gift of fellowship is “easily disregarded and trodden underfoot by those who have it every day”. We know that “familiarity can breed contempt” and while I was by no means contemptuous of our gathering, there were times when I could be a little jaded.

My own time away, short as it was, meant that when I returned the singing was more uplifting, the preaching more encouraging, the prayers more Christ-exalting, and the conversation more precious. The things we do each week had become a little more significant. At what other time could I raise my voice loudly in songs of praise with multiple other believers? Why would I stand and declare my faith in the Apostle’s Creed elsewhere? What other time would I hear teaching on a passage that was not my own choosing? How would I know the news of our gathering, from farewells and illnesses, to welcoming to new babies? How else would I sit under the biblical, joyful prayers of another believer? The church is where most of these things happen, and it is a marvellous privilege to meet regularly with the people of God.

4. Other churches are not my home

I love visiting other churches and count it a remarkable privilege. I can connect with other believers, and am led to thank God for their growth in faith and love, their perseverance and faith both in trials and in joys (as per 2 Thessalonians 1:3-4). It’s a gift to spend time with the wider body of Christ.

However, I am increasingly convicted that my home church is where I should be regularly. The commitment of God’s people to one place for a long period of time, has great benefit as together we encourage, strengthen and grow the body of Christ. Time alongside people means you know each other’s struggles and joys and how you might support or challenge appropriately. Hopefully, you notice when someone is new and when someone is absent, so that people can be genuinely welcomed and followed up.

There is a special connection with these brothers and sisters. I share with them, confess to them, pray for them, pray with them, and delight to see them progressing in the faith. I see their giftings and how they use them faithfully. I grieve when they grieve and rejoice when they rejoice. They are my family.

5. I didn’t notice how much I missed my home until I returned

This is where reality hit. I knew I was not at church, I wasn’t seeing people and wasn’t worshipping with the people of God. But I didn’t truly grasp the lack until I returned. Only by again being part of the gathering did I realise what had been missing.

But what if I didn’t have to go back? Wasn’t truly convicted that it was part of my commitment to the body of Christ? [Wasn’t a minister’s wife and had to go?]

It could become easier and easier to stay away. I might feel embarrassed it had been so long. I might be frustrated no one realised I was missing. I might feel chastened if someone contacted me to find out why I had been absent.

And so, dear friends, if you are finding church hard, if you find it easy to stay away, if you think no one notices you are gone, let me encourage you from the words of Hebrews 10:19-25 that:

  • We can have confidence to approach God, because Christ has died for us.
  • We can draw near to him with a sincere heart and with full assurance of faith.
  • We can hold unswervingly to the hope of Christ that we profess, because God who promises is faithful.
  • Each one of us is needed to spur one each other to love and good deeds.

So therefore – let us not give up meeting together, but encourage one another all the more (at the very least, by turning up on Sunday), as we see the day of Christ approaching.


This was first posted on The Gospel Coalition Australia.

Monday, September 17, 2018

Teen Sex by the Book

Teen Sex by the Book, Dr Patricia Weerakoon

Over the years, I have reviewed numerous books that help teach children about puberty and sex. Now we have finally got to the appropriate age range and it’s time to review Teen Sex by the Book.

Where is your teen getting their information from about sex? Hopefully much of it has come from you as the parent already, but be assured they are learning much elsewhere as well. My son came home after a sex-ed class and told me about all the STDs and pregnancy risks with sex. When I asked, “did they tell you the 100% effective way not to get an STD or pregnant”, he insisted, “No, there is no way that is 100% effective”. After challenging that statement, he realised that at no point did the school’s education presentation include not having sex. They are being taught inferred values in many places other than the home.

Do you remember the variety of ways we gathered information at this age? Maybe our parents talked to us in detail, perhaps our school tried to teach something, but more often we shared stories & information with friends, we read magazines, we experimented with ourselves and with others, and we heard dirty jokes and tried to understand them – we all have a sexual education from somewhere. In hindsight, I would have preferred a book like this to learn from than having to try to figure it out myself.

As with all of Weerakoon’s resources, she is honest, frank and detailed in her explanations. She doesn’t shy away from answering the questions people are asking (or will ask) and does so in a clear, straightforward way. At the same time, she encourages teens to develop a framework from which to consider their choices. She is unashamedly Christian and points teens to the value of a life lived for Christ and how to make sexual choices that honour God. At the same time, she clearly acknowledges sin, errors, and regrets, and gives a picture of grace for teens that their mistakes can be forgiven by Christ.

It comes with a rating “Recommended for 15 and over” and I agree with that. 15 seems about the right age to get into this level of detail, unless you feel your children already have a high level of sexual information and possibly interaction. Some parents will read it and think, “It’s too detailed, they don’t need to know that yet”. Well maybe, but being proactive about the framework that they learn about the details of sex in is important.

The book is divided into two parts. Part One deals what sex is and how to think about it in the teen years. Part Two deals with the hot-topics of today, and the questions that teens are asking.

Part One covers topics like: what sex actually is, what range of activities are counted as sexual acts, how God views sex (positively but with a purpose in a marriage relationship). She asks teens to consider how they are managing the changes of puberty, and how they are managing their sexual desires. She addresses love and lust, and how they look different and has some great advice for how to know if you are ready to start dating, including how to consider the physical part of a dating relationship. She has a strong message that sex is a good gift of God, that it is possible to live in a way that honours him, you aren’t alone if you try, and that forgiveness is always possible. She also challenges Christians to consider how they think about those who fall sexually: are they compassionate or judgmental and unkind?

Part Two has chapters on technology, pornography and gender & identity. These are the hot topics for teens today and the areas most parents feel most ill-equipped to deal with. She even points that out to teens: parents are worried, that’s why they freak out at times, so they can understand why their parents might do what they do.

This book also contains the same tension most parents feel. I suspect the message most Christian parents want to send is: honour and respect sex, save it for marriage; but if you don’t wait, do it safely. I felt that tension here too: the overarching message is that sex is a good gift, you can make wise choices and you can wait with self-control until you might get married. Yet, at the same time there are very detailed explanations of what happens during sex and how it works. In some ways, I was surprised there wasn’t more information about contraception options.

In summary, this is highly recommended reading for older teens, especially those keen to explore sex from God’s perspective. There is no doubt it is much more explicit, specific and detailed than almost any conversation that is likely to occur with a parent, within youth group, or in a mentoring relationship. As such, it provides an invaluable resource for teens searching for answers and a way to live in this highly-sexualised world. If you are a parent or youth group leader, make sure you also read it, so you can use it as a springboard for conversation.

Monday, September 10, 2018

Life Together

Life Together, Dietrich Bonhoeffer

This book has been on my ‘to read’ list for years. It was only because it made a required reading list that I managed to get to it. I’m so glad that I did. Bonhoeffer’s book is widely acknowledged as one of the classic texts on the Christian in community and the various aspects to consider. For those that are unaware, Bonhoeffer was a German theologian who was executed towards the end of WWII by the Nazis. For those interested to find out more, Metaxas’ biography is a great read.

In five short chapters, Bonhoeffer expounds on the Christian in community and how we should consider our life together under the Word.

In Chapter 1 he considers how “the physical presence of other Christians is a source of incomparable joy and strength to the believer”, with the reminder that “it is not simply taken for granted that the Christian has the privilege of living amongst other Christians”, warning that this gift is “easily disregarded and trodden underfoot by those who have it every day”. I first grasped this three years ago when holidaying in Dubai with a friend who was a cross-cultural worker in Central Asia. It was a priority to be there for two weeks of church so she could have as much time with the community of believers as possible. Observing her joy at worshipping with other believers (having little opportunity in her usual location) reminded me that it is “grace, nothing but grace, that we are allowed to live in community with Christian brethren”. It gave me fresh eyes to appreciate the fellowship and communal worship that I experience weekly. He expounds the goal of Christian community to be that they “meet another as bringers of the message of salvation”, and that we are be thankful for the community that we have, seeing it as a group who are slowly being sanctified, rather than complain about their failings. This chapter is marvellously encouraging as well as challenging, and if you were only going to read some of this book, I think the first half of this chapter would be the part to prioritise.

Chapter 2: The Day with Others considers how we could structure our day in community around the word of God and prayer. He encourages the day to be grounded in worship together, and strongly urges morning devotion:
“For Christians the beginning of the day should not be burdened and oppressed with besetting concerns for the day’s work… Therefore, at the beginning of the day let all distraction and empty talk be silenced and let the first thought and the first word belong to him to whom our whole life belongs”.
He gives instruction for reading the Psalms, reading the bible in order, singing songs and praying together, as well as ways to prioritise the word and prayer throughout the day and into the evening. This chapter helped me to reconsider how family is an aspect of Christian community and this is the area where many of us attempt daily worship. Bonhoeffer raises such a high bar here that it would be easy to remain overwhelmed and feel it’s too hard to try. However, the encouragement to continue to see family worship as a priority is still something I need to be reminded of, and to also continue to see God’s grace when we fail.

Chapter 3: The Day Alone provides the necessary counter to community, for the Christian must also be able to be alone: “The person who comes into community because he is running away from himself is misusing it for the sake of diversion, no matter how spiritual this diversion may appear.” We come before Christ alone, humble and aware of our need, we must continue to be with Christ alone. He encourages three practices for the Christian on their own: Scripture meditation, prayer and intercession for others. This chapter echoed my own experience of silence, which I appreciate and value for the ability it gives to meditate on God’s word and write responsive prayers. Time with God in the morning means I enter the day grounded in him, rather than running into it in my own strength. I have the freedom to start the day this way (with children old enough to manage themselves and a husband who graciously enables it), yet increasingly I’m convicted it is a God-given responsibility to take that opportunity so that I can serve my family better as the day unfolds.

People could read these chapters and think, “oh no, here are more laws to follow to be faithful Christian” and despair at them. However, a much more helpful mindset would be to approach them as wise advice from a godly man, and think about how the principles apply in your own life and situation. There is much of value to take from these chapters, if we are willing to read them humbly and with hearts open to be challenged and changed.

Chapter 4: Ministry addresses the very real issue of comparison in community. Everyone either looks up or down at those around them, and so the community is put in danger from discord and jealousy. Bonhoeffer addresses several ways that members of the Christian community must actively counter this: holding our tongues, aiming for meekness, listening, helping, bearing burdens and speaking the Word of God to one another. Personally, I found the comments regarding meekness very challenging, for my tendency is towards pride and self-sufficiency. The exhortation that I, like Paul, should regard myself as the worst of sinners (1 Tim 1:15) was confronting. His reasoning was that I should regard myself as worst because while I would be willing to forgive any other Christian their failings, I should be fully aware, cognisant and saddened by my own, for I can give no excuse. This requires real repentance of any attitude of superiority towards others, asking God to convince me that I am the worst of sinners, and to be able to move towards people with more meekness and humility. This also would include a desire to understand the failings of others and to encourage them towards Christlikeness, as we travel that path together.

Chapter 5: Confession and Communion makes the striking warning about community: “The pious fellowship permits no one to be a sinner. So everybody must conceal his sin from himself and from the fellowship. We dare not be sinners.” A community that is willing to confess together appropriately, willing to name sin, acknowledges each person’s need for grace, and to bring into the light what is tempting to hide in the darkness. It cuts at our self righteousness and pride and ensures we are under standing under the grace of God. “A man who confesses his sins in the presence of a brother knows that he is no longer alone with himself; he experiences the presence of God in the reality of the other person. As long as I am by myself in the confession of my sins everything remains in the dark, but in the presence of a brother the sin has to be brought into the light.” I was challenged to see that more willing confession of sin with other believers would be a helpful way forward, and something I am exploring with a small group of ministry wives.

I have very much appreciated the time spent in this short yet very valuable book. Highly recommended reading for anyone who wants to think further about what true community in the body of Christ could look like.

Monday, September 3, 2018

Twilight

Twilight, Stephenie Meyers

Obviously these books garnered a lot of followers when first released in 2005. As I was in the midst of bearing children, clearly teenage vampire fiction didn’t really grab me in at the time. Now in an attempt to keep up with my own teenage readers, they have come across my path.

I sort of wish they hadn’t. I mentioned to another mother I was reading them and she said, “oh they’re just so boring”. I have to agree. I don’t understand the hype.

Bella moves to gloomy Forks, a rainy cold town in Washington state to live with her father after her mother has followed her new husband on his road to baseball glory. Having spent many holidays there over the years, she is dreading the trip. But things with Charlie seem ok and early interactions at school meeting new friends are fine.

That is until she meets Edward Cullen, one of the odd outsiders of the town, a perfect looking gorgeous teen with foster siblings who all keep to themselves. At first Edward seems to despise Bella, but then he starts to approach her. But something doesn’t add up: why do the Cullens go away regularly, never eat and are able to move at great speed? When Edward saves Bella’s life inexplicably in a car accident, some vague internet searches convince her Edward is a vampire.

As things unfold, it is indeed revealed that Edward and his family are all vampires, trying to live in community and not feed on humans, choosing to hunt animals as sustenance. Some of them also have other special powers: to see into the future, read minds and change people’s moods.

Bella and Edward find themselves falling irretrievably in love with each other. Edward is horrified because he knows that if he loses self-control he could kill Bella. Bella seems incapable of realising she could be in real danger not only from Edward but also other vampires in the area.

Now I read a lot of ‘what if’ type books. What if someone time-travelled 200 years and ended up in the past. What if people were immortal? What if plants took over the world? Those are all enjoyable stories because they are believable, even if unrealistic. You get lost in the drama, the great story, the narrative that the author has created. That just doesn’t happen here. It’s not believable. Edward moves between smirking and superior to overwhelmed with protective love for Bella. Bella is na├»ve, clueless and refuses to see that falling for a vampire could really be a problem. There’s no reason to explain her complete infatuation with him, except that he is powerfully in control of her. Except for his remarkable good looks, I really can’t see what’s so appealing about him.

Edward, who has no need for sleep, regularly sneaks into her room after her dad has gone to bed and watches Bella sleep. Bella is incapable of imagining an existence without Edward. Why do girls go for this type of thing? It’s self-absorbed infatuation and a remarkably unhealthy power dynamic.

Mr 15 and I went on to read the other 3 books in the series.

Note: spoilers ahead.

In New Moon (Book 2) we are given an insight into yet another unhelpful model for girls for when Edward leaves Bella she is completely unable to function: she is depressed, withdrawn, and soon starts seeking out dangerous, adrenalin rushes so she can ‘hear’ Edward’s warnings. She becomes close friends with another boy, Jacob, who we discover has become a werewolf. Of course, vampires and werewolves are mortal enemies, creating some conflict in Bella’s life.

By Eclipse, events have taken such a turn that to save Bella’s life from the ruling vampires of the world (and others who are out to get her), she has decided she will become a vampire. Of course, this was what she wanted all along, once she realised that she was aging and Edward wasn’t. Oh no, the trial of being 19 when your boyfriend remains 17. Edward wants them to marry before he ‘turns’ her to a vampire, which she is horrified by, because she can’t imagine herself as one of those country hicks who marries at 19. At this point I am laughing out loud, because really – you are happy to give up your soul, life and entire family to become a vampire, but you aren’t willing to publicly marry him because of what people might think?

In Breaking Dawn, we kick off with the wedding and honeymoon. Some people emphasise ‘well at least they don’t sleep together’ until they are married, as though it is a redeeming feature of these books. But, even though they don’t consummate their relationship until the rings are on their fingers, there is a still a sensuality and overwhelming desire between the two of them that seeps through the pages. And once they are married, there is a still a danger to their consummation and Bella ends up black and blue with bruises the first time (again, incredibly unhelpful for either boys or girls to think is OK). I won’t give away the real question on everyone’s lips at this point (if you care) – does Bella actually become a vampire? There were a few twists and turns in this one to keep it interesting, and keep you wondering where the story was headed. However, the sensuality between the two of them only increases as the book unfolds (giving entirely unrealistic expectations of intimacy between two people).

As I have reflected on these books, I think there are two main problems with them.

1. The definition of love. In these books, love is self-absorbed, mind-numbing, all-consuming and out of our control. Love justifies disobeying your parents, making dangerous choices and manipulating people to get what you want. But we know that:

Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonour others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. (1 Cor 13:4-7)

Or, using Bonhoeffer's words: "Human love lives by uncontrolled and uncontrollable dark desires; spiritual love lives in the clear light of service ordered by the truth." (Life Together)

2. The ends justify the means. All decisions are made based on what Bella wants, and she wants her eternity with Edward. So, whatever is needed to do that is considered a valid choice.

Mr 15 and I read all four books, because even if you are laughing at them, you still want to know what happens; we both wanted to know how it all ended. And even considering my concerns with the overall messages, the ending is satisfying in the context of the story. Mr 15 identified that he thought they were written for girls and showed a very odd relationship dynamic. I will not be recommending them to my girls to read (and they have already heard me discussing many of my issues with them). However, if they do read them in the next few years, I will make sure I discuss with them all the problems there are with the messages they send.

Monday, August 27, 2018

Biblical Counseling Basics

Biblical Counseling Basics: Roots, Beliefs, and Future, Jeremy Lelek

Having taken two biblical counselling* subjects over the last 2 years with the CCEF, I was very interested to turn to this offering by Lelek, which has come from his PhD study as well as 20 years counselling experience in private practice.

While probably aimed more to those in more professional biblical counselling roles, there is much to offer for someone like me who is highly committed to the concept of biblical counselling, mostly in casual and informal settings, and keen to gain experience, wisdom and insight.

Lelek starts by examining the history and context of biblical soul care. Starting with Adam and Eve who were counselled by God, he moves through to the reformers and the early proponents of modern biblical counselling. It is a helpful framework and introduction, although I suspect those with existing knowledge of the main people operating in the field today would find this easier to follow that someone entirely new to the area.

The central and main section of the book looks at the beliefs and practices of biblical counselling. He addresses the central role of the bible to counselling, as well as the attributes of God the Father, Son and Spirit that influence our counsel. He notes how our theology of humanity drives the way we approach people, as well as promoting the key role that the church should play in the counsel of its people. There is so much of value here, it is hard to know what to share, so I will concentrate on two areas:

1. Chapter 6 (Counseling with God in Mind) contained a list of attributes belonging to God alone and then attributes also bestowed on humanity, and the implications of both for counselling was absolute gold. Each attribute (such as God’s omnipresence and omnipotence, or love, mercy and truth), was explained and then applied to the example of a broken marriage to show how God’s character and living word can illustrate truth, help and grace in the counselling context.

2. Chapter 14 (The Counselor and Counseling Methods) had the compelling observation that a counsellor is like a farmer, who plants truth and wait for harvest. In addition, the list of ways a counsellor should operate: humility, gentleness, patience, service and obedient to God’s word, was a helpful caution to ensure that no counsellor thinks of themselves more highly than the people they speak to. Of great help was the extensive list on methods to employ in counselling, with almost 30 principles with scriptural support, including:

  • instilling hope centred in the gospel of Jesus
  • identifying a person’s habitual response patterns and encouraging new habits
  • praying
  • fostering insight and understanding
  • examining motives (the heart)
  • developing an accurate self-image
  • offering words of hope
  • speaking redemptively, and much more.

Lelek finishes the book with a look to the future, mostly addressing how we unite a view of the sufficiency of scripture, yet are also willing to see wisdom in extrabiblical data such as modern psychological research, science and discovery. An appendix on how the biblical counsellor can care for the non-Christian in a loving, helpful and winsome way and perhaps share their faith in Christ is also very instructive.

I realise my head is very much in the biblical counselling space at the moment, and this is not a book that will appeal to everyone. But for anyone involved in Christian soul care, be it officially as a counsellor or psychologist, a pastor trying to care for congregation members, or even someone like me who tries to apply the overarching principles informally, there is a great deal of wisdom and benefit here. Lalek has given those with a heart for biblical counselling a rich theology to underpin their understanding, and numerous scriptural and God-honouring ways to apply principles and concepts to counselling practice.

I’ll finish with Lelek’s own concluding words:
“God’s Word contains everything humanity needs for life and godliness… No book, no empirical discovery, no theoretical idea, no human method will ever hold a candle to the radiance that shines forth from Scripture as is pertains to the human experience. My prayer is that pastors, parishioners, and professionals within the body of Christ would aim to become wiser stewards of God’s Word as it applies to the mental, emotional, and relational maladies of others… God has spoken, and what he has said matters. This has been the primary presupposition of biblical counseling since its inception, and may it continue to be a resounding anthem forevermore.”

*note the US spelling is counseling and the Australian is counselling. I try to stick with the two ‘l’s for my own writing but quote others with the spelling they use.

Monday, August 20, 2018

She's Got The Wrong Guy

She’s Got The Wrong Guy: Why Smart Women Settle, Deepak Reju

It’s with some hesitation that I write this review. I married young and have not experienced long term singleness, the unmet desire for companionship or the chance of not having children. Yet, having been involved in marriage ministry and walking for 15 years alongside people in pastoral ministry, I can say without hesitation that who you marry matters. It affects your happiness on earth, but much more than that, it has eternal consequences. Spouses either lead each other toward Christ or away from him, and a life lived serving the Lord can be much harder in a difficult marriage.

We trust that God’s grace is sufficient for all circumstances (including being married to a non-Christian) and he gives us the ability to live for him in life’s joy and challenges. But sometimes the reality of a book like this is needed to help people prevent making life-altering, unwise choices.

If you are a single woman (and hoping to be married), I wonder what your internal monologue tends to be regarding men and marriage. Does it include the following?
  • I deserve to be happy, to be married and to have children
  • God doesn’t want me to be miserable and single
  • My boyfriend is a new Christian but he’ll mature
  • He’ll change (I can help him)
  • He’s willing to come to church, that’s enough
  • It’s my fault he lost got angry or lost control
  • I don’t want to lose the only chance at marriage I may have
Deepak Reju, writing from years of pastoral and counselling experience, outlines the current dating landscape, noting our culture has lifted marriage and self-fulfilment to be a right all are entitled. Christian women have bought this lie, noting that “As Christian women, we teach the gospel, pray the gospel, sing the gospel - and we secretly hope for marriage”. To be clear: to hope for marriage is not a problem, but it is when marriage becomes the thing you seek first, what you long for, and you expend energy to find. Rather, we are to seek Christ first. Of course, this is not exclusively applicable for singles, everyone is called to seek Christ first, rather than our own personal idols of happiness, comfort, companionship and family. He identified numerous reasons women settle for inappropriate men: they put marriage above everything else, love is blind, they are afraid (maybe of being alone, being rejected) and they are unwilling to heed wise counsel.

He calls women not to forget Jesus, and encourages them to ask themselves two hard questions:
  1. Do I desire Jesus more than anything else?
  2. Would I settle for the wrong guy?
As Christians, our goal is to grow closer to Jesus, not to find a man. God himself has promised that we belong to him, he will love us faithfully and that he will never leave or forsake us: “Don’t build your heart around temporary treasures, like marriage to a godly husband, raising children, or the dream of a future together. Let your heart by captivated by Christ. Make Christ the greatest of all treasures.”

Reju then outlines ten types of men to be wary of: the control freak, the promiscuous guy (does he push for pre-martial sex?), the unchurched guy, the new convert, the unbeliever, the angry man, the lone ranger (unwilling to be held accountable), the commitment phobe, the passive man, and the unteachable guy. While it seemed initially like a long list, each chapter was compelling. Each of these types of men present serious issues in marriage; whether for your own growth in godliness, their own salvation, or having a relationship that is loving, gentle and mutually encouraging.

As I read through these, I was tempted to think – will any men be left at the end? Yes, there are: godly men who want to serve Jesus and their prospective spouse. This is where Reju takes us in the final chapters – in pursuit of real Christian men. Men who value what God values and love Christ more than the woman they are with. One very helpful distinctive he makes here is the difference between immaturity and the problematic man. Maturity takes time, you can’t expect the same godliness and wisdom of a mature Christ-loving, self-sacrificial 60-year-old man in a 22-year-old. But you can see the signs of where he will go.
“Choose wisely. The imperfect guy – the one who is growing in Christ and still has growing to do as he figures out how to be a boyfriend and a husband – give him a chance. Ditch the problematic man. Stay away from him.”
This is a necessary counter, because you could end up with such high goals for a Christian man, that you’re seeking perfection, which does not exist. We are all sinful and fall short of the glory of God. There could also certainly be wisdom in waiting longer to marry, to have a clearer idea of how you both are maturing in Christ.

There were insightful questions to ask about your relationship and wise guidance on how to break up. He acknowledges that for many women, the choice is between this average guy and being single (not between this average guy and that godly, wise man). He strongly encourages women not to settle for the average guy, even if he appears to be your only option, but to be content to wait upon the Lord. He closes by showing the many ways God’s grace is at work in singleness and marriage, helping us to live faithfully for Christ in various circumstances.

Single women would be advised to heed his wisdom as they consider the dating options around them. Single men should read it too, with an open and honest willingness to examine their own hearts and whether they are being willingly conformed to the image of Christ. Those with single friends or who counsel singles will also find much to recommend. Something about the title does make me wonder how many people are likely to read it though, and I wouldn't recommend it to women who are already married. This book is preventative. A whole other approach is needed for women already in difficult marriages.

I found myself wondering if there could be a companion volume, for there are also types of women that Christian men should be wary of. Such a list might include: the passive aggressive, the controller, the change-agent, the emotional manipulator; and similarly to this book: the angry woman, the unbeliever, the unchurched, and the new believer.

This book asks: “is it OK to settle in marriage?” Some things we should be willing to settle for. If your ideal man must be good-looking, athletic and outgoing, it’s time to question what you really value. The quiet, shy, awkward man on the sideline may be the one who is growing in godliness and grace. But don’t settle for a man who is ungodly, unwilling to live in Christian community, or continues in unrepentant sin. Of course, God in his mercy can work miracles of grace and change in anyone’s life. But the message of this book is: let God start that work in him before you consider joining your lives together.

Monday, August 13, 2018

The Fault in Our Stars


The Fault in our Stars, John Green

More teen fiction, this time: all-encompassing love in the midst of terminal cancer. Unlike the ridiculous nature of teen love in Twilight (more on that in due course), this is a very good story, with solid characters and real depth. Hazel’s cancer is currently held at bay, but time is ticking by. Now 17, she has been sick since she was 14 and her cancer has begun to define her. Her main support network are other cancer kids in a support group, including friend Isaac who has just lost his second eye to cancer. New member Augustus Waters is in remission, having lost a leg to bone cancer.

Hazel and Augustus immediately hit it off. Both are well read, very intelligent and their conversation and interactions bring a spark to the page. Green includes numerous literary references along the way, including poetry by T.S. Eliot and Shakespeare to take understanding to the next level for those who have ears to hear.

Of course, throughout is the reality that for Hazel and Gus death is always nearby, and cancer recurrence is just around the corner. The threat lingers until Green reveals which way their story will go.

It’s open and raw at times. Illness and its side effects are openly described. You see the anguish of parents watching their children suffer. There is a macabre humour as each manages their illness in their own way. There are jokes about the way cancer kids are treated as angels and battlers, irrespective of how they actually behave. An honesty suffuses it all.

I was expecting it to be simpler than it was, but there was an additional story line about an author that has touched them both, who they tried to meet but who never lives up to expectation. I was expecting the romance to be exaggerated, but it was very understated. There was more description of physical illness than physical romance.

If younger readers (or adults) have known people with cancer I suspect this book could be helpful in processing some of those emotions, but whether or not cancer has personally touched your life, this book will touch the lives of those who read it. It’s addresses things that matter: life, death, what defines you, what you believe and who you care about.

Recommended reading for teens about age 15 and up.

Monday, August 6, 2018

Big Picture Parents

Big Picture Parents, Harriet Connor

When you read a parenting book, are you searching for answers to specific questions? Practical things like: what to do about toilet training or sleep time, how to get healthy food into my kids, how to tell them about sex, decide on education options or teach financial wisdom? Maybe you also search for faith-based help: how do I teach what I believe to my kids or how do I keep them wanting to live for Jesus as they get older?

There are lots of books out there that promise such things. Many are very helpful (see this link for a whole list including reviews), giving clear guidance, sage instructions and good options to try.

But, do you ever first stop and think, “Hold on, what’s driving this? Why should I care about this? Do I have a framework for parenting generally so I can apply the specifics in my setting?”

I think sadly, for most of us parents, we lurch from situation to situation, trying to find advice for the issue right now and we don’t sometimes stop, take a step back and analyse the situation in light of the bigger principles at stake.

Harriet Connor realised the same and she took a step back. She went to the bible, trying to find what wisdom God has for our parenting. In doing so, she has produced a book for all Christian parents that will help them think about the big picture of their parenting.

She has divided the book into four clear parts:

1. Our big purpose. Life is about more than seeking happiness and is rather about knowing and loving the Lord and serving him by loving others. So therefore, “parenting is not about helping my children to feel good, but to do the good that they were created to do”.

2. Our big problem. I really appreciated this section. While clearly explaining the reality of sin and how it affects all of life, her application for parents is that we need to accept our human limitations. We will get things wrong, we will make mistakes. She calls us to be a “good enough parent” – what a freedom and relief this term could be! Then applying this to our children, it helps us realise they are not, and never will be, perfect, and the world we live in is also marred by sin, so it will bring challenges and disappointment to our children. With a clear gospel focus she brings the reader back to the idea of God’s perfect fatherhood and how he brings us freedom from the problem of sin.

3. Our big values. What we need to do as parents is identify and be able to name our key values. Starting with love, she takes the reader through the Ten Commandments and the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7) in a clear, insightful way that points us to the values God has for our families. Some of the values she drills down further into are: valuing grace, marriage, heavenly treasure, truth and God’s approval.

The details Connor goes into in this section will be particularly instructive for parents looking to identify and pass on their values, as she encourages us to model, teach, and train our children with wise general principles of allowing natural consequences, having clear boundaries and prioritising time with them. After all, they are “apprentices in need of training, rather than little consumers in need of entertaining”. She encourages parents to avoid things that undermine the family’s values, which will have application for financial decision, entertainment options and the like.

4. Our big family. Parents are encouraged to be united and in charge of the family, even while acknowledging certain circumstances can make this difficult. Strong marriage should be fostered as well as commitment to a larger church community. These chapters broaden the focus and are really a discussion of the extended Christian family in community, something that in our individualistic, nuclear family age some can forget to ensure is a priority.

Connor has written a clear thorough account of the principles of Christian parenting. She uses the bible extensively to provide a framework for the gospel of grace, and has then wisely applied it to family life in a way that is accessible, accurate and understandable. For many Christian parents who are familiar with their bibles, there is unlikely to be anything particularly new here, but the way is it presented opens your eyes again and challenges you to reassess your parenting priorities and the bigger things you are trying to aim for.

Her writing style will greatly appeal to those who value logic and order, with explanations of where she is going, summaries of where she has been, and chapter divisions that are logical and clear. It is readable and succinct with enough stories and illustrations to provide some extra food for thought along the way. Connor is Australian, so it reads well for our context and is unlikely to grate on readers the way that some authors from the US do. I know people who have given copies to unbelieving friends as well, as a good entry way into discussions about parenting from a Christian context.

It is openly ‘big picture’, so while there are some examples of how to apply the principles in specific situations, they are really concepts to consider. What she does is give parents the tools to craft their parenting vision to enable them to apply it in their context. As such, I think she has done a remarkable job of presenting a biblical framework for parenting that is an encouragement and a spur for parents, rather than a list of dos and don’ts. This also means it is applicable across the broad range and spectrum of parenting ages, stages and situations. Connor herself has quite young children, but the principles she espouses can be applied right up to the late teen years.

So, are you stuck in the mire of situational parenting? Come up for a breather. Make sure you can see the big forest amongst all the little trees you climb each day. Big Picture Parents will help you clarify why you are parenting, where you want to go on that journey, and will help you plan, in God’s wisdom and with his grace, how to get there.

Monday, July 30, 2018

One of Us is Lying

One of Us is Lying, Karen M. McManus

Another great teen read for you, this time a murder mystery. Five students are sent to detention: prom queen Addy, jock Cooper, intellectual over-achiever Bronwyn, juvenile delinquent Nate and gossip monger Simon.

Within about ten minutes Simon is dead, but what seems like a simple anaphylactic reaction soon turns into a police investigation for murder. Simon ran the school gossip app releasing personally damaging information, and each of the other four had secrets they needed to hide. Which one of them decided to silence him for good?

Chapters move between different character’s points of view, each time stamped. So you know what’s going on for each of them as the investigation unfolds: their family background, what they are trying to hide, how they felt about Simon’s death, and their friends and relationships at school.

As the story unfolds, there are insightful comments into many aspects of teen life, including how they are treated by the police and legal system, the range of healthy (or not) parent-child relationships, the impact of bullies and technology on school life, and the pressures to succeed academically and in sport. Both heterosexual and homosexual dating relationships are explored, as well as the way kids are treated according their socio-economic status.

That all sounds pretty dry and clinical in summary, but the book is very readable. You get into these kids’ minds and start to understand the nuances of each of their situations. Mr 15 and I both enjoyed it and found the ending both satisfying and believable, but not obvious. Recommended for kids about age 14 and up.

Monday, July 23, 2018

Scythe

Scythe, Neal Shusterman

This futuristic young adult thriller portrays a world where technological advances are so great that humanity is immortal, all injuries are healed by healing centre or by the body itself, and people can even choose to ‘turn the corner’, reverting to a younger version of themselves, able to have more children and loved ones.  The cloud, now containing the total input of all people’s information and memories has evolved to become the Thunderhead, which benignly and expertly solves all the world’s problems: famines, natural disasters, and crimes, and requires no government to make it happen. In essence, the world is now perfect.

But what happens when no one dies, everyone lives forever and missions to populate space have failed?  No matter how well managed the world is, overpopulation will eventually occur. Enter the Scythes, an elite worldwide unit of professional gleaners, who are are tasked with choosing who will permanently die. They are ruled by 10 commandments designed to keep them working with honour and discretion.

But (and no surprise here to those of us who believe in the sinfulness of humanity), the rot has set in and while many scythes do operate according to their original codes and beliefs, the new order is on the rise, and some of them just love killing, doing so with no compassion, care or thought.

Into this world two apprentices are taken on by the Honourable Scythe Faraday: Citra and Rowan. What starts as a friendly camaraderie as they train together takes a nasty turn as a scythe counsel declares that only one will be made a true Scythe and their first act will be to glean the other.

As the book unfolds the depth to which Shusterman has created this world becomes apparent. There is much to ponder, including:

  • What would happen if technology did overtake the world, but do it perfectly?
  • Where would people find purpose if they lived forever?
  • If the growth of civilisation is complete, what is the point of planning either for the future or learning about the past?
  • How could population control be managed in an immortal world?
  • In a world of no pain, no suffering and no death, yet also having no purpose for living, would anything cause real emotion or response anymore?
  • What does thrill seeking and adventure look like in a world where you can’t die? Here one of the past times of thrillseekers is ‘splatting’, jumping off high things to become deadish, where they are restored to health in a few days in a revival centre.

As I have reflected on it more, the heavenly hope of eternal life only has value because of the Lord God who controls and sustains it. Joy is found in him, not ourselves. We will be made complete in Him, in order to rejoice and glorify him, not just so that we can live forever.

Obviously considering the subject matter, there is a lot of killing. Some of it is compassionate and thoughtful, and some is a massacre. There are details of methods of gleaning and how each scythe goes about it. So, while there is no swearing, and just a hint of romantic interest, there is a lot of violence. It’s a book for young adults and Mr 15 really enjoyed it, but I would hesitate to recommend it to teens much younger than 15. And I think this is definitely one of those books a parent should read too, so you can talk about it together.

It almost seems strange to say considering the subject matter, but it’s an enjoyable book to read.  As I said, it’s though provoking, but it’s also very well written. It got me straight in with the opening sentence:
“The scythe arrived late on a cold November afternoon. Citra was at the dining room table, slaving over a particularly difficult algebra problem, shuffling variables, unable to solve for X or Y, when this new and far more pernicious variable entered her life’s equation.”
We moved quickly on to the sequel Thunderhead, which raises the similar questions and got Mr 15 and I wondering what Shusterman’s belief in God was and what message about deity he was trying to communicate through his writing. At one point I thought he was cleverly and persuasively trying to tear down all ideas of God, at another point I thought he was using clever allegory and illustration to raise questions of religion, worship, mortality, original sin, and codes of ethics. Whatever his own belief system, he has created two great books that ask big philosophical questions in a way that teens can grasp and interact with. I greatly enjoyed both books and how they made me think, and we had some good conversations as we thought about the concepts raised. Both of us eagerly anticipate the third in the series.

Monday, July 16, 2018

Her Story

Her Story, Diana Lynn Severance

This collection of 366 readings is a mostly chronological covering of women of faith from Mary, the mother of Jesus, to present day. Severance has sorted and collated a massive amount of historical material, and made each reading one page of basic information about the woman and how her faith played out in her life.

I did indeed read one day for a year and found it to be an encouragement and challenge to consider how other women have lived in various times and places and circumstances, yet remained faithful to the Lord.

If a collection is made of women of faith, you can tend to pick the women who will be there: Sarah Edwards, Hannah More, Monica (mother of Augustine), Susanna Wesley and Joni Eareckson Tada. Most collections cover the same women again and again. All are great to learn about, but the advantage of this is the breadth of women included. Even if you are reasonably well versed in biographies of Christian women, chances are there will be hundreds here you have never heard of.

The early readings about women of antiquity and the Middle Ages were so encouraging: women who were queens, or faithful mothers, or early authors. Of course, there is less information for these ages, so by February you are into the Reformation and that becomes harder reading, with numerous accounts of persecution and martyrdom. We are into the 1800s by July and well into the 1900s by October. Only a handful of women included are still alive.

It was an encouraging way to spend a year, learning more about faithful women from over two millenia. There is a joy to see people who have chosen to live for Christ in every age and this is a wonderful example for us to follow. At the same time, because each account was so brief, and much of it presented in a measured, factual way, it felt like a surface treatment. Many truly tragic circumstances were presented so baldly that it didn’t give you chance to fully appreciate the gravity of what was being described. I would have loved more details for many. For those who would like to delve further into historical writing covering more details of some women, you could try Severance’s other work Feminine Threads: Women in the Tapestry of Christian History.

There wasn’t enough time to analyse real faults and failings, many were presented with an awkward sort of perfection, and so increasingly they set a standard that many women would struggle to emulate. Many of the women of the reformation onwards were highly educated, very pious, spoke numerous languages, translated the bible and still had families, which could well leave the modern women thinking: how is that even possible?

It is true that numerous women who struggled with ill health and hard circumstances were included, but the challenges of sin and maintaining godly living weren’t really present. I didn’t get the sense that these women struggled with the same sins I do.

I imagine collating any list of women of faith over that time would require limits. I was surprised some women warranted two entries, for example Queen Elizabeth I, Florence Nightingale and Sarah Edwards, yet some were obviously missed out such as Queen Elizabeth II or perhaps Nancy Guthrie. I wonder whether permission was needed to include women who are still alive, because I suspect more could be found for the current ages. It also felt like a very Europe and America centred list. Few women from Asia or Africa rated a mention, I think there was one Pacific Islander and one woman who was born in Australia.

The final month or so were mainly missionaries, which is a great encouragement. However, surely there are also many faithful women living in the 20-21st centuries who did not end up on the mission field? It felt a little unbalanced. Admittedly, these are the women that are known and able to be researched, rather than your average faithful Christian women known only in her local context.

One of the real blessings for me was the collections of hymns and poems that were included, written by various women over the ages. I now have a list of these written out for my own encouragement and for use in prayer. I feel very indebted to anyone who can express the truths of the gospel in poetic form, something that I feel very ill equipped to even try. That has been one of the benefits for me personally.

In summary, it’s an encouraging book that reminds us that women, and of course men, have carried their crosses for Christ in faith from his death and ascension for two thousand years to today. We can read and be encouraged, as well as educated and inspired by those who have come before us. But we should also read with a sense of reality, these are just snippets of information and only represent each woman in part. If you want to find women to truly emulate and model your life on, find a godly Christian woman in your context, talk to her, and get to know her story.

This was first published on The Gospel Coalition, Australia website.