Monday, October 22, 2018

The Giver Quartet

The Giver Quarter, Lois Lowry

This quartet of books by Lois Lowry has provided some interesting reading of late for Mr 15 and me.

The Giver

In a seemingly perfect and ordered community, Jonas looks forward to the rite of passage when he turns 12 and is assigned his job; he could be a Nurturer of young children like his father, perhaps someone in the Department of Justice like his mother, or any number of roles assigned including Food Distributor, Mail Deliverer, Instructor or Laborer. In Jonas’ world there is no choice, all decisions are made for you. Couples are assigned to each other, children are produced by birth mothers and each family unit is given one boy and one girl. Those who don’t fit into the community are released, which is a celebration at the end of someone’s life, but a punishment to anyone else who doesn’t fit in properly.

Feelings and dreams must be openly shared, mistakes are apologised for quickly, and advice is often given, but there is little ability to change anything. The rules are the rules and the community keeps them rigidly.

Jonas is given a job he has never heard of, he is selected to be the new Receiver of Memory, and so begins training with an elderly man called The Giver. He is slowly given access to memories, providing an understanding of concepts long forgotten in a world of same perfection (colour, suffering, variety) and learns to feel real pain and joy for the first time. But with such understanding comes knowledge of what his community is missing out on, and what they have become. Jonas must decide whether to accept the status quo or fight for what he thinks is right.

Gathering Blue

Kira, lame and recently orphaned is worried about her future. In a village where no one is valued and only the strong survive, she is aware that she may end up left on The Field to die like other weak ones. But strangely, the leaders of the community take her in, give her comforts of food and running water that she has never known and help her to develop her talent for sewing, so that she can repair the Singer’s robe, which contains illustrations of the entire of the community’s history. There she meets Thomas, who is to be the new carver of the Singer’s staff and they discover a tiny child also kept nearby, Jo, destined to be the new singer. Like The Giver, Lowry has imagined a community with little to no love or compassion between people and where almost all adult figures end up being more corrupt than originally thought. It’s a creative yet depressing dystopian read, but should intrigue young readers as they grapple with different ways a community could look.

The Messenger

It is six years since both The Giver and Gathering Blue and Jonas is now is Leader of the community where Seer (Kira’s father) and her friend (Mattie) now live. The community has always welcomed newcomers and those who have fled or been rejected from their own communities; it is a loving and caring place. But things are changing, people are becoming more selfish and more aware of the cost of having a regular influx of those who need help. There are murmurs of stopping new people coming and the Forest surrounding is becoming malevolent and unwelcoming. This one is a little odder and harder to get your head around, as people start to trade key traits of their character for things that they want; but it seems to be considering what it is that drives a community and their values.

Son

The final instalment starts with Claire, who has been designated with the low status job of Birthmother in the community we first learnt about in The Giver. However, something goes wrong in her first product delivery, and while she produces a healthy infant (who she is not allowed to see or know), her own body is damaged in the process. Unable to continue to with her job she is relocated to work elsewhere. Yet, stirrings in Claire reveal a great sense of loss and wonder about what happened to her child. Investigations help her to find the child, number Thirty-six, who we discover is one of the children at the centre of The Giver. It’s an insightful look into the same community from a different perspective. Claire escapes and then trains for years to find the treacherous way out to go in search of her child, but what is she willing to give up to do so?

Of all of these books, numbers 1 and 4 were my favourites, yet all raised interesting questions about communities, the good and evil that drives them and the people within them. These are thought provoking books that should grab the attention and hopefully expand the minds of kids aged 11/12 and up.

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.