Monday, January 31, 2022

Fiction mini-reviews

One Hundred Days, Alice Pung 

This is a pretty searing read. Set in the 1980s, sixteen year old Karuna writes to her unborn baby. She lives under the very protective eye of her Chinese mother from the Philippines, Grand Mar. Since her father Grand Pa left (an older Australian man who Grand Mar came to Australia to marry), they live in housing commission flats in Melbourne and struggle to make ends meet. One summer, almost because she is bored, Karuna ends up pregnant. Once discovered, it becomes a battle of wills with her mother, who tries to control every aspect of her life. Those who have Asian heritage might recognise the numerous comments Grand Ma makes about the impending risks to the baby with every thing Karuna might do, eat or think, and her ignoring of all medical advice. It’s funny, but also sad and depressing. Grand Ma is threatening to raise the baby as her own, and Karuna is figuring out how to stand up for herself. I began to wonder if there would be any positive resolution at all. Without giving the ending away, there is certainly hope that begins to grow as to how this might all be sorted out. Not a relaxing read, but an excellent book nonetheless. 

Sorrow and Bliss, Meg Mason

Like the one above, this also confronts some significant topics, but with humour and insight along the way. Set in the UK, Martha has just turned 40, and her husband Patrick has moved out after years of love and strife. The reader then travels back to Martha’s early years and her onset of significant depression and mental illness at age 17, which impacts her at points over the following two decades. Her bohemian mother is mostly drunk, her loving poet father is trying to write again, and she and her sister Ingrid are devoted to each other. Alongside their aunt, uncle and cousins, and Patrick, all the stories of their lives are woven together. Feeling the range of emotions more than most, Martha moves between ecstasy at the wonders of life, and deep despondence and despair. Patrick’s love stands as the rock alongside her waves. It’s an insightful view into mental illness, and how it can shape people but does not need to define them. I read Mason’s humorous biography of motherhood (Say it Again in a Nice Voice) 10 years ago, and really enjoyed it. I am keen to turn to her other book You Be Mother now too. 

Go Tell the Bees that I am Gone, Diana Gabaldon 

Long term readers will be aware I am a Gabaldon fan, having read all her books over the last 15 years or so. This is the ninth in a now intended series of ten, and it’s been seven years since the publication of the last. So fans have to be in this for the long haul, not only time wise between book publications, but for the length of book - this one is almost 900 pages, with small font. It picks up exactly where Written in My Own Heart’s Blood left off, continuing the story of Jamie and Claire, and numerous family members including Roger & Brianna, Fergus & Marsali, Ian & Rachel, William, Lord John, etc. There’s no point in giving more details for fans will be keen to read it, and those who want to start need to go right back to Outlander. I imagine Gabaldon has more fans since the release of the Netflix series, but there is so much more detail in the books than the TV series can manage. (As with the TV series, there is a fair amount of sex and violence, and sometimes both together). I enjoyed it, having been long invested in the series, and I partularly like the details she includes of history, medicine, and people. (The last two books are partially set in the American Revolution, with some overlap of events covered in Hamilton). Having said that, it is getting overblown and starting to feel a little indulgent. I’m hoping she doesn’t take another seven years to write the final! One particular quote that I did like: 
“One of the benefits of long marriage is that you can see quite clearly where some conversations are likely to lead - and occasionally you can sidestep the booby traps and choose another path by silent mutual assent.”

Monday, January 24, 2022

Sacred Marriage

Sacred Marriage, Gary Thomas (Revised ed. Zondervan, 2015)

Most marriage books fall into one of two categories:
Sacred Marriage is in the first category - exploring how marriage can make us more godly, and what it means to live in a way that honours Christ in our marriage. Thomas espouses a high, God-honouring view of marriage that esteems love, grace, forgiveness, and patience, as well as recognising the realities of sin, pain, and conflict.
“I believe that much of the dissatisfaction we experience in marriage comes from expecting too much from it.… God didn’t design marriage to compete with himself but to point us to himself.” (p. 27)
Christians are encouraged to see how God is using their marriage to grow them in Christ, in both the joys and the challenges.

It is not structured around the usual marriage topics (e.g. communication, conflict, intimacy), but rather around the ways we are shaped in marriage, e.g.:
  • marriage teaches us to love 
  • marriage teaches us to respect others 
  • marriage exposes our sin 
  • marriage builds perseverance 
  • marriage teaches us to forgive 
“What’s so fascinating about all of this is that what we need to develop to enjoy an intimate marriage – commitment, tenacity, perseverance – is exactly what scripture says we need to develop as faithful servants of God.“ (p. 103)
One things that struck me about this book was its applicability across the entire range of Christian marriage - new or mature, strong or struggling, growing well or close to shattering. It is relevant to each.

There are wonderful positive encouragements about what a God-honouring, long term, maturing marriage can be like:
  • “It’s wonderful when a husband and wife enjoy rich, fulfilling, and even exciting for sexual relations. And there is nothing wrong with having this as one of your goals. But alongside this goal – in fact, above this goal – should be the desire to become a better Christian. Use the marriage bed to learn how to serve another and how to deny yourself, and the spiritual benefits will be many“. (p. 181) 
  • “if we engage in marriage thoughtfully, purposefully, and with godly intentions, our wedlock will shape us in a way that few other life experiences can. It will usher us into God’s own presence.“ (p. 227) 
  • “It’s a journey that never really ends, but it takes at least the span of a decade for the sense of intimacy to really display itself in the marriage relationship.” (p. 102) 
  • “The stronger we grow as spouses, persevering and pressing further into our marriage, the more we’ll develop the very character traits we need to become mature believers” (p. 104) 
  • “If there is one thing young engaged couples need to hear, it’s that a good marriage is not something you find; it’s something you work for. It takes struggle. You must crucify your selfishness. You must at times confront and at other times confess. The practice of forgiveness is essential.” (p. 128) 
He is clear about how we are to treat each other, with love and respect, and is quite direct towards men (and women) who fail in this regard.
  • He argues that there is a case for viewing God as your heavenly father-in-law, because your spouse is a child of God. So, are we treating them that way? Aware of how much God loves them and cares for them, and notices how we treat them. 
  • In a marriage breakdown, to say “I never loved you”, is essentially to say, “I’ve never acted as a Christian”. (p. 41) 
  • “There are times when I must sacrifice my ambition to succeed in God service so I can be fully present and involved in the lives of my wife and children. Most assuredly, the tension should lead us to ask the question, “if I ignore God’s daughter (God’s son) to do God’s work, am I honouring God?”” (p. 231) 
His honesty about hard marriage could help those who struggle with whether it is worth it. He addresses many complex situations, including major conflict, betrayal, divorce and remarriage, and notes that a hard marriage can drive one to personal growth and reliance on Christ. He deals with these situations frankly but sensitively, also acknowledging that some marriages will rightfully end because of abuse, addition or adultery.
  • “Suffering is a necessary part of the Christian life… yet most of those who leave marriage and break its sacred history do so precisely because it’s tough… This tendency to avoid difficulty is a grave spiritual failing that can and often does keep us in Christian infancy.” (p. 124) 
  • “If your marriage is tough, get down on your knees and thank God that he has given you an opportunity for unparalleled spiritual growth. You have the prime potential to excel in Christian character and obedience.” (p. 125) 
  • The mature response “is not to leave a sinner (our spouse); it’s to change a sinner (ourselves). (p. 95) 
  • Second and later marriages are hard because “You’re not just marrying a new person; you’re neurologically trying to unmarry the previous spouse.” (p. 103) 
I realise these quotes might sound harsh, but they are not while reading in context. Some may want to hear that this season of struggle could still bear fruit.

While Thomas is real and honest about challenges, he overwhelmingly presents a positive view of marriage, hoping to increase our desire to serve Christ and grow in him, as we serve our spouse. It’s probably a touch on the long side, including numerous other writers and their opinions, sometimes at length. However, I found it easy to read, and very applicable. Obviously, it’s really only relevant for believers and those that are committed to their own spiritual growth as well as that of their spouses. Overall, an excellent encouragement that marriage is worth it, and that persisting through the joys and struggles will bear fruit now and into eternity.

Monday, January 17, 2022

Sensible Shoes

Sensible Shoes, Sharon Garlough Brown

Do you long for a fiction book to refresh you? To leave you desiring a deeper and closer relationship with God and understanding of what Christ has done for you?

You may find that the Sensible Shoes series by Sharon Garlough Brown could be that gift to you. It has been to me.

I have been interested in various spiritual disciplines and self-examination for a while, aware that while my faith is cognitively very strong, I can nervously steer away from the experiential. I think this is a tendency some evangelicals can have, which I suspect leaves us all the poorer for it.

Yet, I want to know God deeply, and the power of Christ’s resurrection in both my mind and my heart, and be challenged and encouraged in both.

The books are anchored around four main characters who meet in at a spiritual formation course at a retreat centre:
  • Meg, widowed young, now 46, whose controlling mother has recently died and daughter moved overseas for university. 
  • Mara, 50, struggling in a loveless marriage with two angry teenage sons 
  • Hannah, 39, pastor in a church who has worked so hard over 15 years to serve others she doesn’t realise just how spent she is, and 
  • Charissa, 26, newly married and a high-achieving doctoral major 
Over the weeks, they develop a friendship, open up and share their stories. All have their own challenges in trusting God in their situations, as well as coming face to face with their own areas of sin and struggle. I won’t expand on the storylines explored over the four books, lest I give it away to those who choose to read them, but everything is there - major illness, grief, relationship joys and breakdowns, friendships and family. (One major life experience not included in this series in mental ill health, although it is in her newer series Shades of Light).

The books weave the story with the various spiritual practices they are taught at the centre, and those readers who would like to engage with them could do at their own leisure. Each book contains different ones, some are a detailed bible study with reflection questions, some are a way of praying or bringing things to God, or a particular prayer to work through. I have been using some personally and finding them to be of great benefit. (It also seems that each book has a companion study guide for those that are interested).

My only frustration is that it is a female-focussed series. Yes, there are male characters, some wonderful and some not, but it’s not really about them. I suspect that could make it harder for some men to choose to read them. Which is a real shame, because one character Nathan models deep faith, humility and grace, and is a wonderful example of a man changed by such spiritual practices.

All in all, a lovely series. 

Monday, January 10, 2022

The Imperfect Pastor

The Imperfect Pastor, Zack Eswine (Crossway, 2015)

When we turn to books on leadership, including Christian leadership, we often expect them to be full of strategies, ideas, and inspiration. That’s what many seek: a way to do the job better, in a more organised way, with less conflict, assuming that we are loving others and bringing glory to God. As such, leadership books are usually not refreshing or restorative. However, this one is. Deeply so. It is also humbling, challenging and encouraging.

Zack Eswine encourages the pastor to slow down, take their time, get to know people well, allow for sin and suffering, serve faithfully, and essentially rest in Christ and his goodness. He espouses a view of faithful, servant leadership that is embedded in the congregation in which we find ourselves, not seeking to know it all, fix it all, or be all things to all people right now.

Divided into four parts, he begins by exploring the calling we pursue. He considers the desires that hound us and should motivate us, how we need to remember we are human, finite and fallible, and that much that we do is invisible.
“One can receive accolades for preaching Jesus, yet at the same time know very little about how to follow Jesus in the living room of their ordinary lives.” (p26)

“To the important pastor doing large and famous things speedily, the brokenness of people actually feels like an intrusion keeping us from getting our important work for God done.“ (p28)
The second part considers the temptations we face: being everywhere for all, wanting to fix it all, thinking we know it all, and considering everything to be immediate and urgent.

I appreciated this insight on believing that ‘right teaching’ will solve the problems people face:
“One of the first signs that we are approaching the borders of attempting omnipotence is this: we believe that another is choosing a course of action because he or she simply isn’t clear on what is right. Therefore, we believe that if we just work hard enough to explain what is right, then he or she will obviously and immediately do the right thing. No one was more plain, true, reasonable, and clear than Jesus, and they crucified him. Clarity matters a great deal. But clarity can’t always solve or fix the broken things.“ (p93)
“You were never meant to repent because you can’t fix everything. You are meant to repent because you’ve tried. Even if we could be God for people and fix it all, the fact remains that Jesus often does not have the kind of fixing in mind that you and I want.“ (p96)
He says the same about knowledge:
“We are tempted to something like omniscience - the ability to know everything. But you were never meant to repent because you don’t know it all. You are meant to repent because you tried.” (p104)
The third section considers reshaping our inner life: letting God speak, beholding God, and finding our pace.
“For many of us, it has been a long while since we’ve heard God in the quiet, knowing that it was his voice and not ours. We stare into our detox and begin to realise that we have been like a rude spokesperson in the presence of our host.” (p138)
I appreciated his comments on pace, considering watches of the day, then weeks, and longer seasons. He thinks abut four stages of the day, morning, afternoon, evening and overnight; which can each incorporate change, prayer, reflection, repentance, as well as days off, and time off in the year. I have considered this in terms of overcommitment in the past, but not in terms of restoration and shaping my day in ways that honour God, aware of his grace and mercies, but also my tendency to sin. Actively considering a change in ‘watch’ can help us to engage in the activity we are in, wholeheartedly and less distracted whether it is work, family time, pastoral visiting, or rest.

The final section looks at reshaping the work we do: caring for the sick, caring for the sinner, having local knowledge of our congregation and community, and leadership.

I found the local knowledge chapter helpful and a bit more pointed. We must get to know our people and their history and culture. This is often where new ministers find themselves at loggerheads with a congregation, for it takes time to listen to people and understand their desires and concerns, and from that to discern strengths and weaknesses. Eswine makes two comments about entering the culture of a congregation:
  • ideally a pastor is a change agent in God’s hands for the good of a congregation. 
  • But also (and he notes this is rarely cherished among clergy) - a congregation is a change agent in God’s hands for the good of a pastor (p225-6). 
Eswine writes with a gentle entreating voice, strongly pastoral and caring. He is not strident, even though he has strong things to say. He shares his own personal wisdom and experience learned through major challenges (marriage breakdown, church conflict). You can tell a person who has lived through tough times and come out of it strengthened through the grace of God, and this is the voice of one who has learnt hard lessons and wants to humbly share them, hoping to spare others the pain of his own mistakes. His written voice reminded me of a gentle old Puritan, with echoes of Marilynne Robinson. This might grate with some, for it is almost poetic at points. At times he entreats the reader to read sections again and dwell on them. I can imagine some might find that annoying or even a little condescending, but I did not. While not referred to explicitly, he is writing this to men in ministry, there doesn’t seem to be an allowance for female pastors, or even female leaders. That’s not to say women can’t learnt much from this book and I certainly did, but it’s worth noting.

While there is excellent wisdom for new pastors here, I think it will be of most benefit for those who have been in ministry for a while. Who have felt the burdens, the sin (their own and others), the relentless pace, the desire to stay on top of everything, the wanting to know it all, and be all things to all people. This gives space for repentance, mercy, grace and a chance to reset.