The Story Unfolds Guest Post by Luke Maxted

My friend Luke Maxted is the Children and Families minister for the Chalfont St Peter Parish Churches and has self-published an amazing fold out book with his own translation of the creation story. This post originally appeared on his blog – you can find it and buy his book “In The Beginning” here.


The process of designing, making, and sharing In the Beginning has been surprisingly painful and vulnerable.

Really I should have seen it coming. I should have known that it would be incredibly hard and gut-wrenchingly hurtful, but I didn’t.

It’s been nearly a year since I first received a completed copy of the book and it went live for sale online. It’s not been an easy journey. There was a long time in which I didn’t even look at it because I felt an overwhelming sense of shame.

How strange that something which I poured my heart and soul into, took a fair financial risk on, and has largely (although not completely) been received with resounding praise and positivity, could lead me to such self-loathing.

Now on the one hand I know this of myself, that I have always been hyper-critical of the things that I do. Anyone who has heard me preach knows that almost everything I say is couched in self-deprecation. It seems only natural that I would feel pain at the prospect of sharing something that I have made. On the other hand I think it might be deeper than that. There is an apparent trend of depression, anxiety, and self-doubt that pervades the creative community. I have found myself asking why that is.

Why are creativity and the paralysing sense of vulnerability so closely linked? And what can I do about it?

Creativity and Humanity

I believe that at the core of humanity we are creative and compassionate. We are fundamentally relational and seek to express ourselves and our experiences to our communities. That belief is a significant part of why the creation narrative is special to me and why I wanted to find a unique way to share it with others. Rather than being an historical account of how the world was made I think Genesis 1 is a poem of identity, it is a lyrical expression of our spiritual DNA.

In days 1-5 we see God’s joyful self-expression in bringing everything-ness out of nothingness. He speaks and everything starts, each time adding an extra layer and increasing the complexity. He loves what he makes and calls it good (Genesis 1:4, 10, 12, 18, and 21). On day 6 God makes humanity and in doing so says that he is making men and women in his own image (v27), describing his creation finally as ‘very good’ (v31).

Now assuming that this is the start of the book and the first thing that you hear/learn about God you have to wonder what that image is. He hasn’t been described yet, we have no way of imagining his appearance, we only have his actions. His actions tell us that he is joyful, creative, and expressive. It seems to make sense that if that is all we know of God at this point and we are made in his image then that is what is true of us.

It makes little sense, however, if this creativity and joy of expression is inherent in us to find that it is also the cause of so much pain. So why is creativity so difficult?

Creativity, Vulnerability, and Risk

The clue to this, I think, is in in the rejection God experiences at the hands of his creation. Beginning in Genesis 3 and continuing throughout the Bible God is rejected by the ones he loves the most and is proudest of. We see it perhaps most strongly in the histories and the prophets where the people reject God and go their own way – Hosea is a great example of this.

Hosea is commissioned by God to marry a prostitute as a representation of Israel’s unfaithfulness (Hosea 1:2). This seems painful and cruel, but perhaps that’s the point. Whether using the metaphor of the unfaithful wife or that of the wandering child (Hosea 11:1-3)The pain of unfaithfulness and rejection is a pain that God feels as part of the result of his creativity. Worse for him is that his desire is to have her back. God is not giving up on the unfaithful wife but calls her back to himself (Hosea 2:14-3:1) and hopes for the return of the ungrateful child (Hosea 11:8-11).

Loving something, being proud of it, taking joy in it, comes with risk and vulnerability. If one cares about nothing one cannot be hurt. If one has no joy then one’s pain is reduced. Creativity, then, creates vulnerability and a possibility of hurt, pain, rejection, and all its accompanying emotions. We become anxious because we fear rejection, we feel ashamed because we experience ridicule. These feelings do not come because what we make has little value, but rather because we place such great value on them and the reflection that they are at the core of ourselves.

Perhaps, then, if the risk and fear are part and parcel of creativity then it really isn’t worth the effort…

Keeping Going

But that would make the word a really boring place…and there are a few good reasons that I can think of the keep going.

Firstly I think the prophets help us again. They were the great dramatists of their time and were incredibly creative (or are given creativity) in how they conveyed their messages. Ezekiel 4 is my favourite example of this. Ezekiel is asked:

  • to take a brick
  • make it into a city
  • put a frying pan as a wall between him and the city
  • lie on his side for ages – until it wastes away
  • prophesy to the brick with a dead arm
  • make bread baked on top of poop and eat that for over a year

After that he has to shave himself and scatter/burn his hair and other such very normal things.

As strange as this is it’s important because the prophets were willing to look ridiculous to convey their message. If creativity causes vulnerability then these were some of the most vulnerable people in human history. They suffered great hurt – both physically and emotionally, yet they also achieved incredible things and stood before the most powerful people of their time demanding justice and a fairer society.

Much of creativity comes from having something worth saying, whether because we are expressing love and joy, or because we are sharing our sorrow and hurt in light of the pain of those people or things we love and cherish. The prophets show us that the vulnerability of that pursuit is worthwhile in what it achieves.

Secondly it is worthwhile because it enables and empowers others who are seeking to share their passions and imaginations.

Seeing that others are creating and showing their loves, fears, passions, and dreams often allows us to realise that we are not alone, either in their own experience or endeavour. That sense of commonality and solidarity is a fundamental part of the relationality that we all experience in one way or another. Sharing your creativity and imagination allows others to know that it is ok for them to do so.

Finally it is worth being creative and taking those risks because without them we are not ourselves.

If it is true that being creative, sharing joy, and expressing love are a part of our spiritual DNA then not doing those things is akin to being something you are not. You might as well try to be a chair or a turnip, because once you start to hide those things about yourself then you run the risk of stopping being a human.

Now you might be reading this thinking “Yes, but I’m not actually creative, so maybe I am a turnip.” but all of us have an imagination and something inside that is there to say. It is entirely possible that you just haven’t found a way to let it out yet. I can’t draw or paint or act or dance or anything else really, but then one day I tried folding some paper and it worked for me. There are so many things left to try… and if you find it scary then it may well be exactly the right thing for you to do.

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Treasure in the Dark?

Since the arrival of my son, I’ve seen more hours of darkness than usual, and it got me thinking about whether darkness is all bad. There is something about those silent hours in the dead of night that have a kind of peace to them (except when the baby is screaming!)

So often, darkness is demonised, and yet we need it. We need the darkness of night as much as we need the light of day and many beautiful things have their beginnings in the darkness. As Barbara Taylor Brown writes in her excellent book “Learning to Walk in the Dark”

“New life starts in the dark whether it is a seed in the ground, a baby in the womb, or Jesus in the tomb.”

It seems obvious when you think about it, Jesus wasn’t resurrected in the sunshine, but in the darkness of the tomb, flowers need the darkness of the ground to bloom, babies need the comforting darkness of the womb to grow before they face the light of the world.

Darkness wasn’t created, it’s an absence not a presence – but God didn’t eliminate it from the creation He called ‘good’. Perhaps it’s because, as Psalm 139 recounts, “Even the darkness is not dark to You, And the night is as bright as the day Darkness and light are alike to You.”

So I wonder if it’s time to rethink darkness, to the wonder and potential that it holds. The late poet Mary Oliver understood a little of this I think when she wrote the words:

“Someone I loved once gave me a box full of darkness. It took me years to understand that this too, was a gift.”

What can we learn in the darkness, that we couldn’t learn in the light?

In the darkest days of depression, I learned to lean on God in ways I never would have done without it and I’m reminded of the things that are revealed in the darkness throughout the Bible.

Jonah in the darkness in the belly of the whale, David in the cave at Adullam – God transforms people in their darkness.

And I wonder what treasure can be found in whatever darkness you face? (Isaiah 43:5)

 

Catching Contentment

Liz Carter is the author of Catching Contentment and she was kind enough to answer a few of my questions about life, lament, writing, faith and living with a chronic illness.

Can you tell us a bit about yourself and how you came to write the book?

I’ve been ill all of my life with a lung condition, and I struggled to cope with the reality of this in line with my Christian faith. All around me, I was hearing stories of healing and restoration, of lives turned to happiness and joy, and all I felt was a stark sense of disappointment. I wondered if I was getting it all wrong, if others were right when they told me I simply didn’t have enough faith. The word ‘contentment’ seemed far from me, an unreachable concept that only applied to those whose lives seemed more perfect than mine. For me, my reality was chronic pain, repeated infections and a career that I had to give up because I was too sick.

But when I read the book of Philippians, I noticed Paul talking about contentment which he had found in all situations, and I was intrigued, because it didn’t look like he was talking about the transient kind of contentment I’d associated with the word before. Paul wasn’t living an easy life, all mended and fixed by knowing Christ – quite the opposite, in fact. He was regularly in chains for his faith, seeing his friends persecuted and murdered. 

How did you find the writing process? What were the best parts and the most difficult?

I’ve always loved writing, and there’s nothing better than those times the ideas flow, the words spilling out in a great exhilarating tidal wave. Some of the time it was like that, but much of the time it was harder work – especially at the editing stage, when I had to go back in and get rid of all that flowery language I loved too much! For me, the best part of writing this book came when I was crafting the third section which is all about being captivated by God. Writing about worship, yearning and surrender fired me and filled me with the contentment I was trying to represent. 

I found a couple of the chapters particularly tough to write. The first was a chapter about being confident in our identity, because for so many years I thought of myself as nothing, useless, and hopeless. In this chapter I wrote about how I was bullied as a teenager, and that was a vulnerable place to write from – I found that as I wrote, some of the feelings came rushing back in, leaving me emotionally wrung out. And the other section I found more difficult to write was the chapter about focusing on God through our ‘dark nights’. When I first wrote it, I wanted to give all kinds of solutions to this problem so many of us experience – that of not being able to ‘feel’ or ‘sense’ God, of feeling almost like we have been cast out from his presence. But I found that the more I wrote about solutions, the more I realised that this was not the way to go – it somehow took any nuance away from the problem, without actually addressing the lived pain at the centre of it. So instead of taking this approach, I simply looked at Jesus in his dark night, and I found him right there in my own darkness.

What does contentment look like in the context of chronic illness?

It’s easy to think that contentment can only be for those who have perfect lives. But the biblical narrative offers something up which replaces this circumstance-based version of contentment, which can never go further than the next thing or the next relationship or the next holiday. In God’s story, contentment is on offer when we choose to chase it and catch it, because contentment doesn’t come in the form of a reward for things going our way, but as a result of looking to Christ in all we do. Paul says that he counts everything else as loss when compared to knowing Jesus (Phil 3:8), and talks about rejoicing at all times (4:4), whether things are going well for us or not. He then says that he has learned to be content, implying that it isn’t something that just happens, but something he is intentional about. So contentment in chronic illness doesn’t look like a shiny happy smile, a pretence of joy when there is pain, but a soul-level knowledge of a God who has gone through the worst of pain, and who sits with you in that deep pit, holding your hand. Contentment in chronic illness is a confidence in God’s nature and a courageous decision to pursue and love God.

You talk about a number of experiences being prayed for – some helpful and some less so! How do you think we can pray well for the healing of those with chronic illnesses?

I think that everyone who has struggled with chronic illness – whether physical or mental – has probably come across the kind of prayer which seems to lessen them as a person, and focus only on the presenting need. Instead of offering to pray for healing, I think it’s so often more helpful to listen to the person, to sit with them and understand their need, to ask what they would like. Imposing a loud healing prayer can be intimidating, or even aggressive, because it can be so very exhausting to sit through the same words, once again, and feel like you are somehow disappointing the person praying. The prayers which have blessed me most have been about praying for God to comfort me, to bless and hold me, to speak to me and to pour out the Spirit upon me, assuring me of his love and presence. Somehow, those prayers have been incredibly healing, even when ‘healing’ isn’t evident.

I love how you talk about the need for lament – how can we practice lament more fully in our churches?

I think that lament is so crucial, and it is grounded in scripture. Somehow, in our churches we have forgotten what it means to truly lament, and instead concentrated on the ‘Jesus helps me feel better’ narrative of salvation and Christian life. While this can so often be true, and Jesus has come to heal and save, when we leave out the weeping we are at risk of a very grey brand of Christianity which doesn’t speak to the pain in our communities. Many of our worship songs have ditched lament in favour of quite a self-centred brand of worship, praising God for all he has done for us. Yet the Bible is littered with lament – there is even a book named for it. We are given permission to lay out our agony in all its stark reality, to hurl out our pain before God, to scream out our disappointment and our lack of understanding as to where God is in it all. We have all this biblical material immediately accessible to us. I love that I am hearing more songs of lament now, such as Rend Collective’s ‘Weep With Me’. 

The phrase “doubt needs room to breathe” really resonated with me; how do you think we can best make room for doubt in our faith?

I think that we all need to entertain doubt in order to build our faith. If not, our faith will be built on a kind of pretence, a shifting sand of refusal to question. Yet when we let our doubts surface and let them breathe in us, we will so often find that our faith is strengthened and underpinned with greater confidence. For me, allowing doubt room has involved voicing the doubt, perhaps writing it in my journal, and praying about it. Most of all, I find that reading – scripture and Christian books – has given me so much more of a firm foundation for my faith. I’ve become a big fan of apologetics books, and I am so grateful for the internet, when there is so much information and wisdom at the tip of our fingers. Often, through the doubt, God is teaching us so much more about who he is and who we are in him. And sometimes, those doubts will be unresolved, but they must be aired and examined in order to balance them in our minds. Sometimes, we must make a choice to live in ambiguity, always knowing God is holding on to us and knowing that God is faithful, unchanging and loves us passionately and unconditionally.

Liz’s book Catching Contentment is published by IVP and available online from Amazon* and other retailers.

*Please note this is an affiliate link.

A New Story

Our births were both induced.

Our births both spanned three days.

We were both tested in a Special Care Baby Unit.

We both had antibiotics and stayed in hospital for a while after birth.

Our stories are similar, but they are not the same.

There are undoubtedly parallels, and it’s hard not to compare the way I came into the world with the way my son came into the world twenty eight years later.

The events of the first month of my life have, in many ways, set the course for the years which followed. The multiple antibiotics affected my immune system, being woken every few hours for medication affected my sleep, the worry and uncertainty marked my family.

But that first month has not defined my life – and my son’s first days will not define his. I feared so much that his first chest infection would mean that he would always be unwell and prone to catching every infection he is exposed to – but then I was reminded that his life is not my story – he’s got a brand new one.

The life God has given to him is his own – his story only just beginning. It will have its own joys and challenges, it’s my prayer that he will know his heavenly Father and know that he is loved by us.

All too often, I’ve allowed the worst bits of my life to be defining features, but as I look at my son, I see that the best bits can be defining too. I’d forgotten that we have a God of creation, as well as a God of redemption. He gives a brand new life to each and every person.

As Don Herold so wonderfully put it:

“Babies are such a nice way to start people.”


Best Books of 2018

As 2018 ends, I’ve linked* some of the books I’ve read in the last twelve months and included the standout quotes from each book which have stayed with me, challenged me and shaped my own thinking and writing.

Luminous Dark – Alain Emerson

“The wounded places in our hearts, the silent caverns of our souls, the dark tunnels of our minds, are the hiding place of God.”

I read this book near the beginning of the year as I was trying to come to terms with miscarrying our first baby, and the idea that it was in the darkness – not despite of it – that God could be found was a great comfort to me.

Everything Happens for a Reason (And Other Lies I’ve Loved) – Kate Bowler

“Everyone is trying to Easter the crap out of my lent”

This book is worth reading for this one sentence – but it’s amazing throughout. How often do we rush people’s grief and lament because we want to get to their victory story?

The Girl Deconstruction Project – Rachel Gardner

“Our bodies matter because they are the place where are able to experience God.”

I read this book whilst I was pregnant and it made sense of my changing feelings about my body, it’s goodness and it’s purpose.

The Prodigal Prophet – Timothy Keller

“Jonah wants a God of his own making, a God who simply smites the bad people, for instance, the wicked Ninevites and blesses the good people, for instance, Jonah and his countrymen. When the real God—not Jonah’s counterfeit—keeps showing up, Jonah is thrown into fury or despair.”

I re-read the story of Jonah as a part of my church doing the Bible Course and I was captivated by it in a way I’d never been before. The discomfort of our desire for justice against God’s lavish mercy challenged me to be less judgemental and more merciful.

Catching Contentment – Liz Carter

“Contentment is based not on our wholeness, but on God’s holiness.”

There were many things about Liz’s book that I loved, but these words summed it up for me. The idea that contentment really isn’t about me was one which has stayed with me.

The Language of Tears – David Runcorn

“Resilience is a gift learned in the wrestling and struggling with life. It is forged through our fiercest and most vulnerable tears.”

I’ve always been fascinated by tears; namely because I’ve cried many of them and this little book was a brilliant look at the science and theology of them. It shows resilience as something more hard-fought and less shiny that I’d thought it was previously.


*I’ve used Amazon affiliate links in this post, so if you click through my links I get a small percentage of the sale; if you’d rather not, then feel free to just open a new tab to purchase them 🙂

Let There Be Light

“The people walking in darkness have seen a great light, on those living in the land of deep darkness a light has dawned.” Isaiah 9:2

Let there be light.

These words were the beginning of everything, the light came and God’s creative power was revealed in all its splendour for the first time.

They are some of the most powerful words in scripture – we cannot deny the power of light.

Sometimes its as comforting as a night light for a child, at others its a harsh glare of realisation.

In John’s gospel the account of Jesus coming to earth in human form begins with light.

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made.  In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.”

Light bids us to wait in hope for the day when the light will shine in all its fullness.

Christmas tells us that the Light of the World was and is willing to descend into the darkness of our humanity for our sake and will not be extinguished by it.

Tim Keller writes that:

“He is a light for us when all other lights go out.”

I pray that this Christmas, whatever darkness you may face, that you feel God’s presence with you as we remember that the God who formed the stars descended to us to come close – and to draw us closer to Him.

Remembering Scripture

I write this, not from the kitchen sink a la “I Capture the Castle”, but underneath a baby who has  finally decided to succumb to sleep.

He’s two weeks old and I’ve never felt more inspired and yet unable to write.

Babies do strange things to your brain.

It was a difficult start for us as a family; a long labour followed by a chest infection for the baby and soaring blood pressure for me meant a week long stay in hospital and now we’ve finally had a whole week at home, Phil’s gone back to work and we are trying to find a new normal.

And amidst the madness, I’ve relied on memorised chunks of scripture like never before. It’s not something I’ve ever done to be honest; recited scripture, I’ve always preferred to read it. But in the semi darkness of the a hospital ward at three in the morning, I leant on the words that I’d memorised by accident.

Psalm 40 (or an approximation of it) circled around my mind for hours on end and I chewed upon each verse, drawing something that looked like strength from its contents.

“I waited patiently for the Lord;
    he turned to me and heard my cry.
 He lifted me out of the slimy pit,
    out of the mud and mire;
he set my feet on a rock
    and gave me a firm place to stand.
He put a new song in my mouth,
    a hymn of praise to our God.
Many will see and fear the Lord
    and put their trust in him.”

I didn’t wait very patiently to be discharged from hospital – quite the opposite in fact – but I felt tangibly that God was hearing my cries and that He would put a new song in my mouth.

I’m beyond grateful for the scriptures my mind stored away for a rainy night and for a God who speaks through ancient words remembered in the dark of night.

And in this new phase of life; when time is both short and plentiful, I want to commit to memorising passages, not only so that I can call on them in times of need, but so that I can soak them up and experience more of the God of scripture that I may be transformed by Him.

As Eugene Peterson wrote so beautifully:

“Christians don’t simply learn or study or use Scripture; we assimilate it, take it into our lives in such a way that it gets metabolized into acts of love, cups of cold water, missions into all the world, healing and evangelism and justice in Jesus’ name, hands raised in adoration of the Father, feet washed in company with the Son.”