Tuesday, 29 January 2013

The Good Father- Noah Hawley. Book Review

It's the old cliche about a good book, but with Noah Hawley's 'The Good Father', I really couldn't put it down!

It's easy to say what the book is about, the story of estrangement between a father and his grown up son, a relationship broken since divorce years before, now brought into the spotlight through the unexpected murder of an up and coming Senator by the lost boy. The information about the plot is not enough though, it's a book you have to feel.

The sudden reordering of the Father's emotional world is shattering, his intense introspection and the impact on his new family heartbreaking. It reads like a thriller, at times with a touch of Grisham's legal procedure, mixed with big widescreen vista roadtrip descriptions of small town America. The truth as it begins to emerge is hard to swallow and you are left googling to see if this novel is really a true story.

What is most striking is the ordinariness of the lives of this family. They look just like us and those who live around us. They are essentially good people who have made the same kind of mistakes that so many of us have. Divorce, too many hours at the office, selfish choices. If we ever think it doesn't matter or we'll catch up in the end, this story is the ice plunge pool to wake us from such a notion. In short, it's like looking in a mirror in a harsh light at the impact on society of divorce that we like to pretend isn't there, that is really doesn't affect the kids all that much. Here it does, and deep down, we know it too.

That the father is driven to breaking point to redeem himself with his broken son is painful, sad and touching. His deepest longing is to be reconciled, and he refuses to think the worst of his boy. Even when he finally accepts that the son is guilty, it's as though he takes the guilt on himself, wanting to save him, to take responsibility for shaping a son who became a killer.

Reading this review it sounds like a depressing book, but somewhere in there is a story of redemption, not of confusion and meaninglessness. I don't think it is written as an allegory, but the narrative has glimmers of hope that stretch like a shadow to the perfect father. The father that none of us ever had and none of us ever will be. The Luke 15 Father who never gives up, never stops searching, never believes the worst, and takes all the disgrace on himself to bring you home. This exceptional book leaves you broken hearted, but yearning for a true dad, the ultimate good father.

Thursday, 24 January 2013

Missions trends and the 10/40 window

The missionary movement has progressed in thinking and strategy over the last few centuries. Moving from a territorial idea – missionaries connected to trade routes and coastal areas in the previously unreached areas of India, China and Africa – to a later movement that saw daring groups push inland to the undiscovered interiors. China Inland Mission was a case in point.
The emphasis towards the end of the last century was to recognise the need to reach more than just the land, but people groups with the gospel. Simply establishing church bases in a nation was never the goal. Seeing the gospel communicated and rooted in the local populations through discipleship is the greater aim.

The big promise of the bible concerns this kind of discipleship to the ends of the earth. The colourful descriptions of Revelation show a huge number of disciples of Jesus, coming from every tribe, tongue and nation. In other words, from every people group that has developed on planet earth. In the here and now, the growing multi-ethnic church is a model of ‘one new man’ in Christ, but this is only a minimalist expression of the greater picture of multi-coloured, multi-cultured reality that will be ours to share as a part of God’s redeemed people in the new heaven on earth.

So what about these people groups? There are anywhere between 12000 and 20000 distinct people groups on the planet depending on how they are classified, of which over 5000 can be said to be unreached with the gospel.
Of these 5000 or so unreached groups, the majority live within what we call the 10/40 window. This is simply a geographical reference to the spread of land and people groups contained within the span of West Africa to East Asia – between the latitudes of 10 -40 degrees north on the map.

Again, if we are to follow the developing trend in missions and the biblical mandate, then we are concerned with the people rather than the land. Some people groups span borders, and all nations contain many distinct groups.
Here are some staggering facts about the peoples of the 10/40 window who don’t yet know Jesus.

Over 3 billion people live within this window, yet over 2.7 billion of them are part of unreached groups. Most of them have minimal, if any, knowledge of the gospel. Even if they do know something, they have little or no opportunity to hear or respond to the gospel with no living witness to the truth in their vicinity.

The three big religions of Islam, Hinduism and Buddhism are all rooted in this part of the world. Historically, their followers have been more resistant to Christian mission, far more so than in tribal regions of Africa. An understanding of these faiths, and their variations that have been syncretised to local culture is essential for those who seek to build bridges and communicate truth amongst these people.

80% of the worlds poorest people live here, with millions living on less than $500 per year. Most of the worlds biggest cities are growing rapidly here, generating a culture all of their own, and exacerbating the huge crisis for the urban poor. Over half of the worlds least evangelised mega-cities are within the 10/40 window. A discipleship that is good news to the poor and is practical and physical in providing helps that lift the poor from the scrap heap is essential in these massive urban areas.

In the 21st Century more than ever, a new generation of missionaries is being called out. We must work out our call to engage, to be those who will not only go to the interior, but who will connect with groups within groups, cities within cities, cultures within cultures with the unchanging, life transforming gospel. To finish with Hudson Taylor, speaking of the needs of China in his day: 'It will not do to say that you have no special call to go to China. With these facts before you and with the command of the Lord Jesus to go and preach the gospel to every creature, you need rather to ascertain whether you have a special call to stay at home.'

Wednesday, 16 January 2013

Cain, culture and religious rights.

There is now an assumption amongst Christians that the prevailing culture is either the enemy : So we fight against it and talk of eroding rights and standards as with the BA discrimination case yesterday. Or the alternative is that we make our modern culture the primary reference point and reinterpret our theology in the light of this, getting shaped by and submerged in culture: Like Steve Chalke appears to have done with his developing views on homosexuality.

Neither extreme is appropriate or necessary, but a polarisation amongst believers has occurred. Since words like ‘contextualisation’ and ‘ecumenicalism’ entered our vocabulary 40 years ago we have begun to move in opposing directions which now see us split down pretty well defined lines of evangelical and liberal. Strangely enough, the Evangelicals amongst us often find ourselves in closer accord with the Orthodox(again, as with the Coptic Christian and BA),than with the liberal.

The scriptures don’t require a leaning in either direction, nor do they ask for a delicate ‘Anglican’ balancing act. Culture is not the enemy – God invented it. In Genesis 1.26-28 we see men and women created in the image of God, male and female, carrying His imprint and ideas out into the world, leading, stewarding, filling out and spreading.
So by the time of Genesis 4 Cain is building a city, presumably inhabited by others, and at that the time the most concentrated crowd of people on the planet. Alongside this emerging city culture are those who live in tents and raise livestock. There are musicians, toolmakers, young and older generations, lovers, murderers and worshippers! All these differing cultures, preferences and worldviews are already developed by Genesis 4.

So God designed culture and released it like a seed in us – but it is a culture spoiled by the contamination of sin. All cultures that flowed out of Eden show something of the spark of God’s creativity but were tainted. Some were totally opposed – nothing in a culture of violence which leads to murder reflects the heart or image of God for example.

What does this foundation mean for us today as 21st Century believers?
All the competing worldviews around us stand in need of redemption through the unchanging gospel of Jesus Christ. Of course we walk sensitively and wisely through the cultural assumptions of our generation, our desire is to build bridges to biblical truth and reach lost people, not repel them with inflammatory dogma!
Ultimately our role is to contrast the emptiness of life and any culture which is outside the original mandate given by God to fill the earth with men and women bearing His image.

Just as in Cain’s day, even the best aspects of worldly culture only manage to point dimly towards the greater biblical worldview. Our purpose with the gospel then is to create a contrast, to cause an appetite of desire in those who are submerged – by laying a new foundation of a kingdom culture with our lives and community. In the end, looking and sounding like people who have been with Jesus in itself exposes the lies and bankrupt assumptions of the ideas behind our generation.

We don’t need a court case that fights for external dress codes or religious rights, any more than we just begin aping local ideas and customs. We model an inside out reality of changed hearts which releases a different kind of fragrance to religious rights or cultural submission – a fragrance which stirs a hunger deep in the hearts of Cain’s lost descendants for the image of God to be discovered and restored in them.

Wednesday, 9 January 2013

Paternoster Promise!

I've enjoyed reading books by the magnificently named Dutch Sheets, and the even more unlikely Preston Sprinkle this week! We just don't make names like that in the UK.
My favourite quote of the week comes from a proper, solid, sensible British name, Richard Foster. His classic on Prayer is every bit as worth reading as Dutch Sheets. Both will get you out from under the sheets earlier in the morning and onto your knees.

Writing of the Lord's prayer, Foster says:
"For sheer power and majesty, no prayer can equal the Paternoster....it really is a total prayer. Its concerns embrace the whole world, from the coming of the kingdom, to daily bread. It is lifted up to God in every conceivable setting. It rises from the altars of the great cathedrals and from obscure shanties in unknown places. It is spoken by both children and kings. It is prayed at weddings and death beds alike.
The rich and poor, the intelligent and illiterate, the simple and the wise - all speak this prayer. As I prayed it this morning, I was joining with the voices of millions around the world who pray it this way every day. It is such a complete prayer that it seems to reach all people at all times and on all places.

Here is this breathtaking prayer, from Matthew 6, in the Message paraphrase:

Our Father in heaven,
Reveal who you are.
Set the world right;
Do what's best— as above, so below.
Keep us alive with three square meals.
Keep us forgiven with you and forgiving others.
Keep us safe from ourselves and the Devil.
You're in charge!
You can do anything you want!
You're ablaze in beauty!
Yes. Yes. Yes.

Wednesday, 2 January 2013

Book of the Year 2012

Here is the annual award for my book of the year. It is totally subjective, based on my own peculiar reading habits.
Last years Book of the Year was deservedly taken by 'The Case for Working with your hands, or why office work is bad for us and fixing things feels good' by Matthew Crawford. The long title alone gives it kudos - but the book is even better than the title!

I've read lots of great fiction this year, and an honourable mention goes to the Hunger Games trilogy by Suzanne Collins. Just because something is a mainstream bestseller for teens and gets a movie franchise doesn't make it bad fiction - don't be a book snob! I also really enjoyed reading Brother Andrew's 'God's Smuggler' again, 25 years on from the first time.

If there was a golden raspberry award it would go to 'Last Train from Liguria - Christine Hickey. I persevered for a couple of hundred pages but was so bored waiting for something to happen in her depressing world that I would have thrown myself under her train....if it had ever come!

So to the list of great books- In descending order.

5/ Glocalisation - Bob Roberts Jr.
Is this a book on missions, on the gospel, on church leadership, on culture, or is it just a new joined up way of thinking for 21st century believers? This stirring book ticked so many of my boxes for how our nations work is evolving and should be read widely.

4/ Stanley. Africa's Greatest Explorer - Tim Jeal
Everyone should read at least one exploration epic biography a year, and Jeal's masterpiece on Stanley is magnificent. Setting the record straight on much of what has been written about him, but pulling no punches still, this book is magnificent boys own tough stuff, but with a surprisingly soft centre.

3/ Plague Child - Peter Ransley
A brilliantly crafted historic adventure set around the time of the English Civil war. This is more than run of the mill historical fiction, there is a superb story rooted in a well researched setting. If you enjoyed Hilary Mantel's epics, you will love Ransley.

2/ Sacred Causes - Michael Burleigh
What a stunning book, charting tyrannical politics and dictators through the 20th Century up to the present day, looking in particular at the impact on culture. If you want to understand more about why we are the way we are, read this book. Burleigh lets himself down in his chapter on Ulster and the troubles there. Obviously well researched, he betrays some prejudice perhaps, and for a few pages adopts the tone of the crazed bigot. After that it all calms down, and is worth buying regardless!

1/ Blood on the Altar - Tobias Jones
This remarkable true story account is stranger than fiction and has to be read to be believed. With a backdrop of the city of Potenza in southern Italy, Jones follows the plot of the disappearance of young Elisa Claps and the subsequent cover up that rocked the established church and the political hierarchy.
Jones also wrote the outstanding 'Dark Heart of Italy' and is a master of these tales as well as a great writer. He truly unlocks the mystery of southern Italy which is like a hall of mirrors to the uninitiated.

The fact that his story is based in a city where we are working, impacting the lives of people we know lends it extra gravitas, but it stands alone rightly as my Falling with Style Book of the Year 2012!