Monday, February 28, 2022

The Hawk and the Dove

The Hawk and the Dove, Penelope Wilcock  

This delightful fiction series of 9 books is set in 14th Century Yorkshire and is about the monastery community of St Alcuins. The first book starts with the appointment of a new Abbot, Father Columba (which means dove). Acknowledging that their Abbot is hardly like a dove, this steely eyed, serious and devout though not compassionate man, continues to be known by the community by his baptismal name of Peregrine (the hawk):
“Of course, it’s one thing to love Jesus and quite another to follow him; and poverty, chastity and obedience sat about as comfortably on Peregrine as his hair shirt. Still, the brothers saw promise in him, and as much from stubbornness as anything else he grimly struggled through his novitiate year, finally making his vows and being professed as Brother Columba - a name which shows that either his abbot had a wry sense of humour or else that he had a greater faith than most men and no sense of humour at all.” (The Hawk and the Dove)
Each book explores a different aspect of the monastery or wider community. It is written in a lovely, winsome style, yet deals with some serious and sobering issues. The first book contains a shocking act of violence perpetrated on one man and how it changed him and his fellow brothers. Later books explore the realities of disability and the descent into needing loving palliative care, what true repentance and forgiveness can look like, and the impact of serious trauma and grief. I appreciated how the early books on monastery community life explored how the men learned (sometimes by trial and mistake) how to live graciously with one another with friendship and care. By removing romance from the early books, the focus was on other aspects of the Christian life. Later books did explore love and marriage outside the monastery, and these also showed a wisdom and depth of insight of the author. One quote was very amusing (although I note that this marriage improved with time and the gaining of wisdom):
“Married life... is like a precarious walk along the top of a hurdle never made to bear a man’s weight, while one person pelts you with cabbages and another intermittently takes you by surprise throwing a bucket of cold water in your face. Never dull.” (The Breath of Peace, p. 98).
The first two books are a collation of general stories, and Wilcock herself notes that she tried to make them similar to something like Chaucer’s Canterbury tales, which are from the same time. So, there are parallel stories, one in more modern times of Melissa with family life. Then the monastery stories are those her mother told her. From the third book onwards, Melissa’s mother no longer features as the narrator, it is just the chronological stories of the lives of the monks.

To call them charming makes them sounds light. They are not light - they contain significant emotion and experiences, expressions of God’s goodness and mercy, as well as despair at sin and failings. Yet they are also charming, written with skill, humour, and self-awareness. Highly recommended.

Monday, February 21, 2022

Gentle and Lowly

Gentle and Lowly: The Heart of Christ for Sufferers and Sinners, Dale Ortlund (Crossway, 2020)

This book has become popular quite quickly, and I can see why. With a gentle, pastoral tone that matches his subject, Dale Ortlund dwells on the character of Jesus as being gentle and lowly, anchoring his exploration in Matthew 11:28-30:
28 Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. 29 Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. 30 For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” (ESV)
Throughout the book, he considers who Christ is, rather than what he has done:
“You might know that Christ died and rose again on your behalf to rinse you clean of all your sin; but do you know his deepest heart for you? Do you live with an awareness not only of his atoning work for your sinfulness but also of his longing heart amid your sinfulness? (p. 15-16)
So he wants to bring us to the heart of Christ for us:
“It is one thing to know the doctrines of the incarnation and the atonement and a hundred other vital doctrines. It is another, more searching matter to know his heart for you.” (p. 16)
Each chapter considers an aspect of Christ, as given in Scripture, and then expounded, often with the input of some Puritan writers. These include:
  • his very heart being gentle and lowly. "For the penitent, his heart of gentle embrace is never out matched by our sins and foibles and insecurities and doubts and anxieties and failures." (p. 21) 
  • he is able to sympathise with us (Heb 4:15) 
  • he can deal gently with us (Heb 5:2). “Looking inside ourselves, we can anticipate only harshness from heaven. Looking out to Christ, we can anticipate only gentleness.” (p. 57) 
  • he will never cast us out (Jn 6:37). This was a chapter of great comfort and assurance. 
  • he is an advocate, a tender friend, and more. 
There is no avoidance of the reality of Christ’s wrath, anger, or desire for justice and judgement. Yet, Ortlund keeps stressing that Christ errs towards mercy, and that his righteous anger stems from his compassion, being a right response from the one who truly cares.

Then he turns to exploring both God the Father and the Holy Spirit to further round out the truth that our triune God cares, loves, and is merciful.

I appreciated his discussion of God as portrayed in the Old Testament and the natural progression to Christ: 
“When we see Christ unveil his deepest heart as gentle and lowly, he is continuing the natural trajectory of what God had already been revealing about himself throughout the Old Testament. Jesus provides new sharpness to who God is, but not fundamentally new content” (p. 135)
“…the Bible’s revelation of what God’s deepest heart is - that is, what he delights to is most natural to him. Mercy is natural to him. Punishment is unnatural.” (p.140)
This was an interesting discussion of the Puritan Goodwin’s conclusion that his mercy is God’s natural work, but judgment is his strange work. Judgment happens when it must, but his heart bends towards mercy.

I found this book to be both greatly encouraging and deeply comforting. I read only one chapter at a time, more as a devotional. Each gave food for thought, and another entry point into considering Jesus’ love for me and his mercy extended new every morning. As such, its gives great assurance. For those who struggle to know they are loved by Christ, valued by him, and a joy to him, this would be excellent. And for those who tend to focus on what Christ has done - rather than who he is, and how he comes near to us - this is a great reminder of who Christ really is, the one we worship and adore.

Monday, February 14, 2022

Is it Abuse?

Is it Abuse? A Biblical Guide to Identifying Domestic Abuse and Helping Victims, Darby A. Strickland (P&R Publishing, 2020)

This book falls into that sad category that while being excellent, Christ-centred, and extremely helpful, it is only because of deep sinfulness that it needs to be written and read. 

Darby Strickland is an experienced counsellor in the field of abuse, and brings her significant years of learning, helping, and writing to those who want to further understand domestic abuse, its impacts, and how to support those in the midst of it.

This is not for those who are experiencing domestic abuse, they would be better to start with her mini-book: Domestic Abuse: Help for the Sufferer. Those in church leadership who want to start the process of understanding this issue better would be well placed to begin with her other mini-book:

Domestic Abuse: Recognize, Response, Rescue

While this is highly recommended for all in church leadership and those in pastoral care, it is also for those who want to walk alongside women in these situations:
“I have written this book for anyone who desires to come alongside a victim, or victims, of domestic abuse. Maybe you are a church leader, friend, or counselor, and you find yourself dealing with the many layers of complexity that unfold as you encounter an abusive marriage.” (p. 15)
Strickland anchors abuse in the language of oppression:
“I want you to grow in your understanding of what is at the root of oppression and what the Bible says about it while also giving you the means to create pathways to safety and restoration for victims.” (p. 16)
She states her three goals are to prepare the helper to be able to:
  • pick up on cues that something is wrong, 
  • draw out stories to get clarity on situations and their severity, and 
  • be equipped to provide wise and Christ-centred counsel as you navigate this complex issue. 
The whole book is worded around a male perpetrator and a female victim, noting that is her area of expertise, and that statistics suggest is to be the case in >95% of situations. She does however, acknowledge it can be the reverse, and that the principles can be applied to male victims.

I’m not going  into deep level detail in this review, but will rather give readers a general overview, and some quotes. It’s a significant topic, and those that are interested in pursuing it would be much better placed to read the book.

Broken into three parts, Strickland begins by unpacking abuse: Part 1: Understanding Oppression

First, she considers “Is it Abuse?” and the complications of trying to know. One one hand “abuse is easy to miss, but it is even easier to minimise” (p. 15), yet we must go very slow, for much is at stake “for labelling something as abuse when it is not will do damage of a different kind” (p. 26). So, go slow, compile stories and examples of power and control.

At the core of abuse, she suggests, is oppression:
“Abuse occurs in a marriage when one spouse pursues their own self interests by seeking to control and dominate the other through a pattern of coercive, controlling, and punishing behaviours… I like to use the term oppression, seeing as it provides a framework for this behaviour that is addressed in scripture and captures the domination that it involves. No matter what form the oppression takes, its intended outcome is the same: to punish and wound a victim so that an oppressor gets their world the way they want it.” (p. 24)
In the end, the assessment is for coercive control, rather than based on specific incidents, many of which could be explained away.
“Abused women tend to ask somewhat veiled questions as they try figure out if what they are experiencing is normal and if you are a safe person to talk to” (p. 22).
To be the helper we need to listen carefully, offer gentle words, restore her ability to make choices, and bring her the truth that God loves her, honours her and delights in her.

She suggests that at the root of oppression is entitlement:

“While we all struggle with entitlement, oppressors exhibit patterns of demanding and punishing that are retrenched, unbending, and unrelenting”. This person:
  • Deflects all blame 
  • Admits no wrongdoing 
  • Renationalises punishing behaviours as being an appropriate response (p. 64). 

She considers six false beliefs of an oppressor, of which some or all might be present:
  • It’s all about me 
  • You and I need only to listen to me 
  • Rules are not for me to follow, they are to keep me happy 
  • My anger is justified 
  • Other people attack me 
  • I don’t have to appreciate what you do, but you have to appreciate what I do 
She then spends time considering the wide range of impacts of abuse on a victim, and how to help her speak.

Part 2 - Uncovering Oppression explores physical, sexual, emotional, spiritual, and financial abuse in detail, expounding on what they might look like, how they might impact her, and how to help someone in this situation. There are specific inventories included, which might assist both a victim and her helper to assess the severity of her situation, and how it might have escalated over time.

She notes that emotional abuse is the hardest to quantify:
“A broad category that encapsulates many forms of non-physical control. But we do not want to wrongly expand this label or over apply it. There are many good marriages in which cruel words are sometimes exchanged, and many bad but non-abusive marriages in which couples fight in detrimental ways.“ (p. 179)
The key is to look for patterns of control and dominance. She also considers extreme neglect and gaslighting, as they are two of the most difficult situations to detect.

Part 3 - Upholding the Oppressed has a chapter on helping mothers and children, noting the danger many children are in abusive households. Most children are aware of what is happening in the home, and some women might need to teach their children how to leave the house in a violent situation, or to call the police.

The final chapter, supporting steps towards freedom, confirms much of what Strickland said throughout - change is slow, it can take months or years for women to comprehend and face the abuse they are living with, and longer to choose what to do about it, whether challenge it, ask for help, or safely leave. She sagely notes that for all these situations, women will “have to pick their pain” - because every option is hard, challenging, and potentially dangerous.

The book finishes with some excellent appendices:
  • Safety plan - for a woman to fill out, especially in cases of physical abuse, which outlines what action she might take and when. 
  • Ten ways to educate your church, concluding a reference to this online course 
  • Detecting red flags during dating 
  • Premarital abuse assessment 
  • Abusive argument inventory 

Not surprisingly, this is a very sobering read. The stories included are heart-rending, and the detailed abuse inventories are awful to imagine someone living with. Yet, there is hope here too. Strickland deeply cares about women in these situations, she longs for them to experience freedom in Christ and to have a deep knowledge of God’s love for the weak, the vulnerable, and the mistreated. She calls on us to care for abused women and walk alongside them. She encourages the church to have a role in loving and caring for victims, as well as challenging and (ideally) calling perpetrators to genuine repentance. It's worth reading, but even more so, it's worth being better equipped to walk alongside people in these very challenging situations.