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.