Monday, August 28, 2023

Being the Bad Guys

Being the Bad Guys, Stephen McAlpine (The Good Book Company, 2021)

This is another book that resided on my shelf unread for a few years as people around me sang its praises. I am glad to have finally gotten to it!

McAlpine exploring what Christians in the Western world know to be increasingly true: over the last 50 years we have shifted from being the good guys (well respected in communities), to just one of the guys (one of many neutral options), to being the bad guys (rejected, disdained, and considered almost evil by secular culture). McAlpine doesn’t suggest we fight this reality - how could we?
“This book isn't about how to stop being the bad guys; it's about how to be the bad guys. It's about how to be the best bad guy you can be – to refuse to be surprised, confused, despairing, and mad about it, and to find a way to be calm, clear-sighted, confident and even joyful in it.” (p. 11)
He begins by outlining the cultural shifts that have brought this about, noting how quickly ideas move: “massive technological progress is fast-tracking the age of authenticity” (p.21). Yet we should not be surprised, God never promises a life of ease; suffering and pain for Jesus are expected. Part of this is understanding that God is using these times to refine and purify his church, which is a good thing. 

He then explores what it looks like today to be the bad guys, through themes of diversity, power and victim narratives, and self-denial and self-actualisation. His observations about culture changes, Christian responses (both helpful and unhelpful) will help believers put words and explanation around their experiences. While exposing the flimsy foundations of a world built on self- actualisation and personal fulfilment, he also outlines where the church has failed to understand, care or support those who most need it. He warns about the church playing the victim, or retreating into cloistered seclusion.

Rather, “the way we live must be shocking in a way that is also compelling” (p. 58). We need to admit our mistakes, the reality of the world in which we live, and embrace those who are seeking a deeper, more satisfying identity that one the world defines:
“When the actual victims of our culture start looking for grace and solace from its bruising brutality, we should make it easy for them to conclude we have been the ones to provide that all along.” (p. 76)
“We must say no to both secular and sacred self-fulfilment agendas, and contest any vision of the good life that is grounded and self-fulfilment and self-expression rather than self-denial. The gospel will lead to human flourishing; but it has a different understanding of how to achieve such flourishing.” (p. 85)
McAlpine finishes by considering how to be the best bad guy you can be in three areas:
  • church - keep meeting with God’s people, promising his praise and promoting his promises to others 
  • the workplace - there is practical wisdom here for those who are negotiating increasingly hostile work (and less diverse in thought) work environments. This includes being known for the right things: our character, our love and care of others, our attitude, etc. There is apt guidance for pastors “if you are a church leader, prepare your people for the week they will be having, not the week you will be having (p.115). 
  • the reality of living in two worlds at the same time - our Christian community and society in general - and how to do both well. 
McAlpine states from the outset that much of the discussion and examples are connected to sexuality and gender, not because he is obsessed with it, but because our culture is. So while very relevant now, it will be interesting to see whether it still is in 5-10 years for the cultural landscape and key issues change very quickly. For the moment though, many Christians will find this a very helpful and accessible book that puts into words what they experience on a daily basis, and then encourages us to live God-honouring lives that respect and love those around us, despite our different beliefs.
“in this time and place in history, we might just have to put up with being the bad guys. And that can drive you back into the community of God's people and to all the richness that dwells there, thanks to the unity gifted to it by the Holy Spirit… And you can go forward together to engage with the world bravely and courageously, and with love and concern: to continue to be all that Jesus has called us to be [and] … humbly, but resolutely to hold out a different story and a better way and a happier ending” (p.142)

Monday, August 21, 2023

Mental Health and Your Church

Mental Health and Your Church: A Handbook for Biblical Care, Helen Thorne & Dr Steve Midgley (The Good Book Company, 2023)

I had the privilege of attending a day conference recently where Steve Midgley spoke about mental health and the church. It was excellent - biblical, psychologically informed, thoughtful, and nuanced. So, I was pleased to get a copy of this new book he has written with Helen Thorne.

This book is for everyone in churches who wants to care for those with mental health challenges - yet sometimes feel unsure of how to do so and what role the church could have in this space. As they say, the aim is “not to turn you into mental health professionals, but to equip you with knowledge and wisdom, and to help grow that attitude of love and compassion towards those who struggle” (p.17).

The goal is to help everyone to see that caring for one another is what we are called to, especially for those who bear more burdens in life. While mental illness is hard, it is normality for many in our church, and “despite the hardships of those struggling and the complexity for those trying to care, one thing is certain: when the local church is acting as a local church can, the results for all involved can be a delight and not a burden.” (p.14)

The first section is about understanding mental illness. Firstly, diagnosis - and the qualifier that a mental health diagnosis is more a description than an explanation. And God speaks to these situations:
“What we want to resist is the idea that mental-health disorders place people into such a distinct category that Scripture no longer has a voice there.” (p.29)
They present a biblical understanding of humanity: where our hearts (from which come our thoughts, emotions, decisions, etc) are embodied in a physical frame, located in the world (the place we are, our circumstances, society, etc).
“An understanding of mental health and mental illness that seeks to do justice to the Bible’s understanding of people must make room for all these factors: our physical bodies, our cultural and personal circumstances and the activity of our hearts.” (p.39)
They discuss medication and talking therapies, providing sensible and balanced perspectives on each (both positive and negative) and how faith intersects with them:
“If we can redeem the wisdom found is psychology and learn to apply the grace of the gospel and the power of Scripture to one another’s lives, we will have a talking therapy that surpasses all other talking therapies. We will profit from the ultimate psychotherapy - God’s own gospel plan for the healing of our souls.” (p.64)
The second section explores what a church can do. In the end - it’s neither nothing nor everything, there are a range of options and opportunities which include just loving people well in their complexity. This section focuses on what is achievable for most churches:
  • helping people feel welcomed by raising awareness - talk about mental health challenges in a way that shows it’s part of normal human experience. 
  • helping people feel loved 
  • helping people remember their identity - both in God (forgiven, secure and free) and as part of God’s people. “Understanding truth about God and themselves won’t erase mental illness, but it will provide a beacon of hope within it.” (p. 100) 
  • helping people be refined to be more like Jesus 
  • helping people persevere - including ways to practically resource 
Throughout, they also acknowledge the need to support carers and those who walk alongside those who struggle.
“The basic rule is to step toward those in need, but to do so with humility - asking them about their struggles and doing lots of listening rather than lots of advising.” (p. 131)
The final section explores through what this might look like in a church through extended examples. These consider someone struggling with depression, anxiety, addition, psychosis, and a carer.

In the end, Thorne and Midgley acknowledge that this book won’t make anyone an expert, “but we do hope it will encourage some of you who read it to turn toward those struggle when previously you might have moved away.” (187)

Highly recommended for all of us in churches - whether leaders or members - whether personally connected with mental health struggles or not. In the love of Christ and with his people, we can all walk this road better together.

Monday, August 14, 2023

Not Yet Married

Not Yet Married: The Pursuit of Joy in Singleness and Dating, Marshall Segal (Crossway, 2017) 

This is a vey helpful book for young singles who are considering what it means to be faithful & gospel focussed in their singleness, as well what dating looks like as a potential precursor to marriage.

Segal writes from his own experience of longing to be married throughout his twenties and making relationships an idol, and wants to encourage young singles to be more Christ-centred than relationship-centred. His personal sharing is both positive and negative at points. He is open and clear about his own mistakes and desires. Yet his acknowledged almost needy longing to marry may not appeal to some readers, perhaps especially some men. He notes that his goal is “that we’re in the pursuit of joy, not marriage”. Interestingly, I felt this encouragement to joy was much stronger in the first section on singleness than the second on dating.

Wisely, he explains his title choice of “Not Yet Married” - which could turn some potential readers off - for in the end, many do long for marriage, statistically most people will marry, and in the end we will all be married to Christ as his church.

Part 1: The Not Yet Married Life elevates singleness to a purposeful, intentional framework where God can be served in a less divided and distracted way. There was much here that was helpful, for both those who are thankful for their singleness and those who are less satisfied with it.
“God is trying to give us unconditional love, indescribable joy, and unparalleled purpose, but many of us are just trying to get married.” (p25)
Much of the advice here is applicable to everyone, whether married or single - such as living in a way that strives to wins the world for Jesus, and the things to consider in our jobs and career paths.

Segal is honest about marriage, and strikes a warning note for those who think it’s a better path - it is a high calling, but it’s a distracting and demanding one. “Marriage is a good gift and a terrible god.” (p.62)

He gives suggestions for how to live when single - doing radical, time consuming things for God, careful to avoid the distractions of this world, and loving the life you have know (even if you might prefer a different circumstance). He invites the single person to be accountable to others, not be isolated, and to connect with others: “We are to be more connected, more dependent, as we wait for Jesus to come back” (p.68). One chapter focusses in on the lies of not yet married life, and while somewhat negative, it was an honest chapter than will be challenging reading for some - especially those who long to be married, and allow it to impact their growth in godliness now.

Part 2: When the Not Yet Married Meet is really summed up with this phrase: “The heart of Christian dating is looking for clarity more than intimacy” (p.189). This helpful overriding principle helps to frame much of this section.
“A lot of the heartache and confusion we feeling dating stems from treating dating mainly as practice for marriage (clarity through intimacy), instead of his discernment towards marriage (clarity and then intimacy).” (p140)
He has numerous suggestions on how to date, which are more principles that practices. These include: wait to date until you can marry, don’t let your mind marry before the rest of you can, have boundaries, and show others Jesus through your dating. I was less certain about a chapter drawing links from the story of Isaac and Rebecca to modern dating.

He has a lot to say about purity, boundaries, and making wise choices in this areas. He suggests three boundaries: cultivate independence from one another, consider your conversations (how often and what about), and value trusting each other more than touching each other. On this he asks a very pointed question - Will you feel the need to apologise to their future spouse? - for the boundaries you crossed together. He notes particular how men need to take the lead in this area.

He encourages the dating couple to seek accountability as the wisdom of others - friends, parents, our church family, and God. I loved this call to fathers: 
“Wise dads relish the opportunity to develop a real, intentional, grace-and-truth relationship with the man who might be tasked with caring for their daughter for the rest of her life. What if a daughter's father took some responsibility, not just in vetting, a young man, but investing in him, and preparing him to make much of Jesus in dating and marriage?” (p177)
He then explores how to manage break-ups, acknowledging both the pain and the growth that it can bring.
“You won't experience many relational crossroads more intense, personal, and specific than a breakup, so it truly is a unique time, for some hopeful, healthy introspection, checked and balanced by some other believers” (p.187)
I suspect that because Segal concentrated on principles of dating, he has chosen to include less on the specifics and mechanics of dating - such as how you communicate, manage conflict, share emotions and feelings, and so on. These are still important areas to consider and work through together, just not covered here.

Recommended for those in their younger years (mainly 20s and 30s) who are thinking through what it means to live singly or in a dating relationship with honour, grace, and a gospel focus.

Tuesday, August 8, 2023

Say the Right Thing

Say the Right Thing: How your words can glorify God and encourage others, Carolyn Lacey (The Good Book Company, 2023)

The power of both the spoken and written word to cause damage has weighed on me over the years. It’s made worse by our media age, where “we communicate all day [and so] give ourselves unending opportunity to sin with our words.” (Tim Challies, The Next Story, p. 80)

Of course, this is nothing new, for the Bible gives similar warnings about the danger of the tongue:

So also the tongue is a small member, yet it boasts of great things.
How great a forest is set ablaze by such a small fire! 6 And the tongue is a fire, a world of unrighteousness. The tongue is set among our members, staining the whole body, setting on fire the entire course of life, and set on fire by hell. (Js 3:5-6)
Yet, dire warnings about the dangers of the tongue can be pretty depressing on their own. For speech can also be used in wonderfully encouraging ways—to edify, to praise, and to speak words of hope:
Gracious words are like a honeycomb,
sweetness to the soul and health to the body. (Prov 16:24)
Carolyn Lacey’s new book Say the Right Thing hits the balance well. She doesn’t hesitate to show the dangers of speech that tears down, but her goal is to explore a hopeful vision for our speech along with practical examples of how to put it into practice. For, “the Bible offers a vision for our speech that goes beyond simply being well-mannered and not causing harm” (p. 10).

As such, she explores speech through seven lenses—speaking wisdom, truth, beauty, comfort, kindness, hope, and praise. There is obviously overlap amongst all of these, yet this breakdown helped to tease out each in more detail.

I’ll focus on three that I found insightful, both in their challenge and encouragement.

1. Speaking truth

In our current age, speaking truth is no longer a self-evident concept. Now people talk about speaking my truth, or your truth. But the truth is the truth of Jesus, who come to earth as God’s son, and who died and rose again offering salvation to all who believe.

Lacey explores two main weaknesses in speaking truth. The first is that we confuse “speaking the truth in love” with comfort—that is, we avoid the discomfort of speaking truth. How often do we avoid speaking truth and just stay silent? Yet speaking truth is an element of spiritual maturity and part of being in community:
Therefore, having put away falsehood, let each one of you speak the truth with his neighbor, for we are members one of another. (Eph 4:25)

Our other weakness can be being so committed to speaking truth that we tear down rather than build up. Rather, our goal should be not only to call out sin, but rather to call one another to holiness.
Speaking the truth in love is less about correcting every viewpoint we disagree with or every under-developed belief another believer expresses, and everything to do with building one another up with the word of truth in a manner than is loving and reflective of Jesus. (p. 33)

2. Speaking Kindness

Lacey describes kindness as “a deliberate orienting of our hearts towards others, even when they don’t deserve it” (p. 79). God’s kindness is linked to his mercy, it is undeserved. Showing kindness to others acknowledges our shared humanity and our shared need for grace. I appreciated Lacey’s exploration here for kindness can include instruction (for example, in parenting). It calls us to remember there is another person at the other end of the text or social media post. Our kindness in words can be a witness, and it is modelled by Jesus who offers us forgiveness. I found this to be a much higher calling to kindness that the bland idea of being nice and generally getting along with people. This is a definition of kindness I can sink my teeth into.

3. Speaking Hope

Lacey comes at this in two steps. She acknowledges that many of us struggle to speak about our hope—to be a bold witness to others. We might hesitate to speak to our unbelieving friends about Jesus, concerned about offending or being awkward, so we err towards silence. The prior step however, is “always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you” (1 Pet 3:15) Lacey’s suggestion is to know where the people in our lives need hope and point them to how Jesus offers it. Practical and specific prompts help the reader to consider how they can do this in different situations.

A Dual Vision

A dual vision shapes this book: look up to Jesus, and then look out to see how it shapes our speech with others.

So, other chapters call us to speak things that are beautiful and good. Most of all, this means training ourselves to look for things that reveal God’s goodness and sharing them with others. For example, speaking comfort is anchored in an understanding of the type of comfort God gives, most ultimately that our sins are forgiven.

This dual vision which first directs us to the Lord is evident from the opening to the closing pages. Lacey starts with the call that to grow in wisdom—both in the tone and content of what we say—we need to know God more through his word. She finishes with speaking praise—that we should be people who praise others, but in the end our ultimate joy and purpose is to praise God with confidence, for Jesus is worthy.

Each chapter ends with discussion questions which would be great in a small group format, or when reading with someone one-to-one. If anything was missing, it was perhaps that there was no focus on Jesus being the Word made flesh, the “glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth” (Jn 1:14) This could raise our vision even higher. With Jesus being the Word that brings life, as his followers our own words should aim to do the same. However, it’s a minor point. Overall, it’s a very readable and accessible book that will benefit all of us who use words—that is, everyone!

This was first published on TGCA.
I received a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.