Faith, Strength and Weakness: Guest Blog by YouBelong

(Please note: I have used the term ‘He’ to describe God because this is a pronoun I am comfortable using but please replace it with whatever pronoun/s you feel more comfortable with when reading it that enables you understand God in all their fullness). 

When Rachael asked me to write something for the blog, she asked that I write something on the topic of faith and strength/ weakness. At first, this felt impossible because strength and weakness are opposites. 

You might be familiar with the words of 2 Corinthians 12:10 which say, ‘That’s why I take pleasure in my weaknesses, and in the insults, hardships, persecutions, and the troubles that I suffer for Christ. For when I am weak, then I am strong’. This reminds us that although there might be times we feel strong, for example after a good gym session, or when we are able to overcome a mental challenge, we are only truly strong enough to overcome the hard things that life throws at us when we acknowledge our weakness. When we do this, we allow God to step in and be our strength and even the world’s strongest person cannot compete with God!

When I became unwell back in Spring 2014, I was unable to eat or drink and lost lots of weight which eventually led to me becoming too weak to stay awake more than a couple of hours at a time or walk up and down the stairs in my house without being exhausted! At the time, I was spending all my free time being involved and serving in my local church and this meant that my faith was filled to the brim and overflowing which enabled me to give my weakness to God. Although my body remained physically weak, my faith never failed and even during the worst of tests, procedures and operations, I felt God with me and felt His strength working in and through me. 

Thankfully, I had an operation in the December of that same year which enabled me to gain weight back and start to become a bit stronger. A few months on and I still wasn’t back to where I had been before becoming unwell but every doctor I saw told me it would just take time. Almost 5 years on, I have faced more medical issues and spend more time in bed and resting or asleep than I have ever done before. As someone who loves ticking off items on a to do list and puts a huge amount of my worth into productivity and getting things done, I really struggle to work out my purpose and love myself as I am on days when I can’t do things I need or want to do.

 I am reliant on those around me to deal with a lot of the household chores and to cover the financial costs of the household as I am unable to do those things which as someone in their late 20s, is really hard to deal with. I am heavily reliant on other people and even if I really wanted to, there are some things I just can’t do anymore. The Free Dictionary defines ‘weak’ as ‘lacking’ – lacking in physical strength, emotional strength, mental strength, spiritual strength etc.

In Psalm 23 we read, ‘The Lord is my shepherd, I lack nothing. He makes me lie down in green pastures, He leads me beside quiet waters, He refreshes my soul.’ Worldly speaking, I lack quite a lot. I lack relationships, independence and freedom (from pain, to choose what I eat, to go out and do what I want, when I want and more), but I know that when I put my faith and trust in God and follow Him, He leads me into a life of fullness, peace, provision, protection and more. 

When we depend on God, we do not lack. I reckon you know this all already though. I knew this before I became chronically ill but it’s not very easy to put into practise.

So how do we go about trusting God and allowing His strength to become ours in our weakness?

YouBelong, which I have founded and manage, as a community are currently doing a bible study which is taking us through the Psalms in chronological order (as close to it as we can anyway). Some of the earlier Psalms are written by David and tell us about his time running away from Saul and other dangerous people. David felt weak in those moments. He knew there was nothing he could do to save himself but God could. He recognised his weakness and God’s strength, he recalled scripture, worshipped God in his victories, connected and shared with other believers and asked God to help and save him… and God showed up. God gave David the strength to get through those times because David accepted he was weak and leaned into God. 

Nehemiah 8:10 reads, ‘The joy of the Lord is our strength’. Happiness is something that we feel when we receive a nice gift, eat something tasty, spend time with good friends or watch our favourite film but joy is different. Joy isn’t circumstantial – it is a choice. We can choose to be joyful even when life is full of difficult things. When we feel unwell, when we are upset, sad or angry, when the year doesn’t turn out the way we wanted (hello 2020!), we can still choose joy when our joy comes from knowing Jesus. I could never say that I feel happy Jesus endured great suffering and died a horrendous death but I am joyful because He did it for me to give me eternal life. Life can be very hard and there’s no denying that, even Jesus said, “In this world you will have trouble…”. Becoming a follower of Jesus doesn’t make life easy but we have something that unbelievers don’t have and it is through knowing God that we can find joy and through the joy of our relationship with Him that we can find strength in our human weaknesses.

There have been many times that I have felt weak, physically, emotionally and mentally, but each time that I recognise I am weak and that God is strong, read my bible, pray, worship and lean on Him, I can feel God’s strength seeping in. I know it’s His and not mine because it happens at times when I have no strength left. Sometimes in those moments God gives me physical strength but more often, it’s a mental, emotional or spiritual strength that enables me to get through the times of physical weakness rather than overcome it. 

As I said before, this is easier said than done. It takes time to get to know and trust God and to remember (and choose) to go to God straight away rather than rely on our own strength (or more often than not, lack of).

Today might be a day that you are feeling particularly weak. Perhaps your physical strength is gone, or you feel mentally and emotional unable to deal with the day ahead. That’s okay. I said at the start of this post that I wasn’t sure how to talk about weakness and strength because they are opposites but God’s kingdom is a place of opposites; give to receive, serve to be served, to live means to give your life and the last will be first. Being weak is often viewed as a bad thing in this world but we need to remind ourselves that in God’s kingdom everything is upside down and back to front. A weakness given to God is a great strength because in God’s kingdom, when we are weak, then we are strong, because of Him. 

Laura is the Director and Blogger for YouBelong

We Are Satellites – An Interview with Martin Saunders

Ok, obvious one to start, can you tell us a little bit about yourself and why you wrote We Are Satellites?

I enjoy an obvious question. I’m Martin, and I’ve been involved in youth ministry for the last 20 years. I guess I have dedicated my entire working life to helping young people connect with Jesus, and to resourcing the amazing people who work with teenagers up-and-down the country. I work for an organisation called Youthscape, and I’m the youth minister at my church in Surrey. I’m also a parent of two teenagers (and two younger boys) and so I am massively invested – on a lot of levels – in helping young people understand that there really is a God who loves them and wants to be in relationship with them. I suppose this book is the obvious outworking of that passion.


And why is it called We Are Satellites?

The book has a single clear metaphor at its heart. It’s the same metaphor that we are using in the Satellites youth event (www.wearesatellites.com), which is launching next summer at the East of England Showground (taking some of the place of Soul Survivor). Here’s the idea in its simplest form: we tend as humans to put ourselves at the centre of our lives, and we think the world revolves around us. But ultimately we all know that that approach to life is flawed, and fails you in the end. Life in all its fullness is only ever found when we put God at the centre of our lives – and understand that we revolve around him, not the other way around. So the metaphor is about orbit and priorities, and then the book looks at what that means in practice.


What is your dream for young people?

I actually wrote this book with an individual in mind. My daughter is almost 13 years old, and had got to a point in her life where she was asking some big questions. Even though she has grown up in church, she admitted that she just didn’t really understand what this ‘God stuff’ was all about. So I asked her one day, if I wrote it down in a book, would she read it? She said that she would, and so I spent the next six months writing We Are Satellites. My dream for young people is encapsulated in my dream for my daughter: I hope that (and the book will only make a small contribution to this) they would know that God loves them just as they are, and that the meaning of life is found in knowing God and building everything around him. That’s the secret to true contentment – and so much of what I see in young people right now is discontent.

What were you like as a young person and what would you tell your younger self about coping with adolescence?

There is a fair amount of teenage Martin in the book actually! There’s no denying that I had a pretty tough time, particularly with bullying and self esteem issues. I guess if I could talk to that poor (somewhat attention-seeking) young lad right now, I’d try to convince him that honestly, God (and often other people) accepted him just as he was. I knew that as ‘head knowledge’ back then, but it took me years to be comfortable in my own skin. Oh, and I would tell myself that you don’t always have to make a joke out of absolutely everything.


We’ve heard a lot in the news lately seeming to blame young people for rising covid rates, what’s your response to that?

In a word: Grrr (I know that’s not a word). I take no pleasure in saying that I knew this would happen (and predicted it in an article months earlier). And I only knew that because I’ve been around long enough to know that history always repeats with the demonisation of young people. Every generation of youths since the 1950s have faced it (not that I was around that long ago) – as teenagers, they are no longer innocent little darlings, and not yet contributing fully to the economy; they’re everybody’s scapegoats. Sure, some young people have been irresponsible in their disregard for restrictions. But the beaches haven’t been full of teenage holidaymakers, and the pubs and restaurants (mostly) haven’t been full of young people. Young people are the easy target.

What do you think has been the effect of 2020 on young people, and how can we go forward?I honestly don’t think we know the full effects yet, and in the future we may be dealing with issues like PTSD when it comes to COVID-19. But right now I know that young people have serious emotional well-being needs which need to be on everybody’s agenda. Young people already felt betrayed by Brexit and hung out to dry by climate change – they are growing up believing they’re a forgotten generation. Everyone needs to be investing in our young people right now.


Out of your 13 books – which is your favourite?

I don’t want to be that guy, but ahem, it’s 15. But maybe you’re letting me forget my pre-evangelistic football novel, England’s Messiah. I feel pretty proud of the new book, but apart from that it’s probably my previous one – The Man You’re Made to Be, which is all about facing extended adolescence as a young man. I’ve had a lot of lovely messages about that over the past year – I think it connects with people who don’t identify with traditional masculine stereotypes. It’s also got more jokes in it. Maybe I haven’t grown up quite as much as I’d thought. 

Martin Saunders is the Director of Satellites, a new event for young people launching August 2021, and Director of Innovation at Youthscape. You can buy Martin’s book from all good christian bookshops, amazon and if you buy it from BookshopUK I get a tiny percentage!

Two candles and a copy of Treasures in Dark Places by Liz Carter

The Riches of Darkness Guest Post by Liz Carter

When the clocks go back and the evenings draw in, so often life can seem murkier for many of us. Never more so, perhaps, than this year, with seemingly so little to look forward to, hope removed with anticipation ripped away from us. The world can feel a dark place for us. The world may have felt a dark place for some of us over years already – but the question is this: can good things come out of darkness?

I live with long-term lung disease and it’s always worse over the winter, so this season often ushers in a sense of dread for me, a sense of resignation and disappointment for all that I will miss. I’m often in hospital around Christmas or in January, and many times I’ve missed out on all the loveliness of Christmas I so crave, too sick to join in and be a part of it, sitting instead on the edges looking in. Now this year I’m finding the whole world joining me out there on the edges and I’m longing to journey with everyone to discover the hope that still lurks within the shadows, the hope that sometimes breaks through in dazzling light. The hope of knowing that God is here within the darkness with us. Because Jesus suffered the greatest agony we could imagine, darkness is not unfamiliar to God – in fact, as it says in Psalm 139, 

‘Even the darkness will not be dark to you;

    the night will shine like the day,

    for darkness is as light to you.’ (v12)

I’m so captured by this imagery of the night shining like the day. This weekend is Halloween, which so often seems to prioritise the celebration of darker things, yet originates in the celebration of All Saints Day and those who have gone before. In the gloom of All Hallows Eve we find glimpses of the light of God’s glorious kingdom, which seem all the more bursting with luminosity for the darker backdrop.

I love the little book The Cloud of Unknowing which is by an unknown author, written in the fourteenth century. The central theme of this work is that we encounter God more in the dark, in the unknown places, as we surrender our control and take God out of the boxes we put him in:

“For if ever thou shalt see him or feel him, as it may be here, it must always be in this cloud and in this darkness.”

Is it possible that the darkness isn’t always a bad thing, but in fact becomes a place to meet with God, to encounter the shekinah presence of God, to be filled once again with the Spirit of God who breathes through that darkness? Is it possible that it is actually in the very darkest places we more easily catch hold of the glimmers of light – and encounter the God who holds us within that darkness?

I think that it is when we admit to the darkness and the pain that we begin to journey into freedom. Too often as Christians we have been led to believe that our lives should look all sorted out, we should look healed and whole, mentally and physically – and so when we are still in distress we hide it away, ashamed before God and others. But the Bible does not allow for this falsehood and instead calls us to honesty and lament when times are tough. I think the Church is waking up to this and we are beginning to share our despair in ever more helpful and creative ways, and as we share it encourages others that they are not alone, either. So many of the Psalms give us a model for lament, using words that are stark in their agony – such as Psalm 42 where the author grieves that he is alone in the desert, away from the temple where he loved to worship (Psalm 42 is a wonderful song to reflect on during the pandemic – you’ll see why.) Scripture is full of lament, of groans too deep for words, of rage and weariness and confusion before God, and we would do well to not only notice them, but to use them to help us in our own depths of emotions and pain. I have found countless times, that in the very centre of the worst pain God is still there, abiding, sometimes silently and with very little tangible presence, but there, constant and unchanging, a rock and a fortress, my home when I am at the end of myself. 

I was shielding over almost five months earlier this year, living in my room, unable to touch or hug my family. In this time lament became even more important for me as I poured out my sadness and frailty before a God who understands. I was living in the shadows, yet was reminded that shadows cannot exist without light and darkness itself is not malevolent, but can instead be where we discover great treasure troves that lift us and fire us with hope. I found that my sadness began to come out in poetry and short re-imaginings of encounters with Jesus, and so my new book Treasure in Dark Places was born. My prayer is that it will draw you closer to God even when you are hurting, and resonate with you in your struggle. I’d like to share a poem from it written for All Hallows Eve, reminding us of the importance of laying out our pain before God and then turning to him within it.

REMEMBER

Walls press in on me

fear is a gag, biting my flesh

dread shrinks me into cages of terror

shakes my grounds as hope impounds

in my night of despair

Lost in labyrinths of what might be

pinned under roaring anxiety

I pray and call, but do you hear?

I pray and cry, but are you here?

Adrift in a fog of bitter despond

a heavy cloak of gloom’s dejection

nothing lives here but agony’s grief

horror’s dancers escaping my dreams,

and mocking my screams

I turn and remember with anguish of soul

laid out in a pit of shadows in murk

where monsters lurk

I turn and remember and 

wait for the Lord

I sink to my knees and

praise in the storm

Your breath sweeps my silence and 

soars through my veins 

I sit with the pain

and remember again.

Liz Carter writes about finding gold in the pain and struggles of life, and is the author of Catching Contentment and Treasure in Dark Places. (affiliate links)

A Familiar Fog

I could feel the lump solidifying in my throat, my eyes burned and brimmed with tears, the exhaustion had settled upon me like a leaden cloak.

It was all too familiar.

I have been acquainted with this fog for over half of my life, and yet it still catches me unawares.

It’s different now, though. Instead of retreating to sleep to let it pass, there is my gorgeous pint sized whirlwind dancing around. He’s spinning in circles until he collapses in a fit of giggles, clutching his model met line train and pointing at every bird he glimpses. He does not understand why Mummy is slower, tireder and more short tempered; he makes no allowances and doesn’t adjust his expectations.

It is a terrifying gift, his living in each and every moment.

I worry often about the effect of these weeks in the fog will have on him. Will he live under his own fog? Or will it enlarge his kindness? Is this is the answer to my prayer that he would be kind before anything else, something he will learn best when I am at my worst?

In reality, if he remembers anything, he will remember more time with his beloved Daddy, train trips with his Nana and Granddad, train watching with his Grandma.

I am unreservedly grateful for those around me who stepped up and stepped in so that I could step back and recover. It is a privilege; this chance to rest and I’m all too aware of those who parent alone under the fog, who cannot step back.

I understand this fog too well, I know that it passes swiftest when I let it roll; that when I attempt to hold it all back, to stem the flow that it will inevitably fell me.

The fog is receding now, clarity rising like the morning sun, tears drying like the dew.

It is less dramatic today, than it once was, but no less exhausting.

Depression does not always scream, sometimes it lays its heaviness upon the shoulders of those who have been battling in the war for far too long.

There are no real lessons to be wrung from days like these, but my prayer as I share is that someone may reach in to another engulfed by the fog with a prayer, a text or a gift.

That those under mental illness’ tyranny will not be left to fight alone, but be met by those who may not understand, but who commit to care.

A copy of the book "Deborah and Jael' on a shelf

How Do You Teach ‘difficult’ Bible Stories to Children? Guest Post by Lucy Rycroft

“She put WHAT through his forehead?!”

“The FAT closed over the SWORD??!!

The Bible is full of colourful stories. Some of them seem to have ended up in a sort of ‘children’s canon’, a repertoire we are happy to teach to our kids, stories which publishers are eager to bring to life again and again and again.

But some of them have not.

I wonder who decided which stories made acceptable reading for children? And who decided that certain stories should Absolutely Never Ever Be Told?

I’m sure that part of the answer is blood and guts. 

Stories like Jael putting a tent peg through Sisera’s forehead, or Ehud plunging a sword into the belly of Fat King Eglon (that’s how the Bible describes him, anyway) are likely to induce nightmares in sensitive children.

But I think there’s another reason. Many of the most interesting and lesser-known stories in the Bible raise questions which are difficult for adults to comprehend, let alone children.

  • Why does God kill Uzzah, simply for steadying the ark of the covenant on its journey back to Jerusalem? Is He a cruel and vengeful God?
  • Why does God command Joshua and his army to kill, destroy and plunder those who are living in the land God has set aside for the Israelites? Does God have favourites?
  • Why is the servant who hides his one talent thrown ‘into the darkness’ with ‘weeping and gnashing of teeth’? Does God value risky investment over safe stewardship?
  • Why does Jesus send demons into the pigs, which cause them to fall into water and drown? Does God not care for the animals He has created?

Let’s be honest – when do busy parents have time to wrestle with these questions for themselves, let alone with their children? As an exhausted, time-starved mum of four, I can tell you it’s not an appealing prospect.

And yet I wonder whether we’re missing a trick with sticking to the ‘safe’ stories? I wonder whether our children need to hear a fuller story of God’s movements through history, in order to grow in their love for, and relationship with, Him?

With that in mind, here are some thoughts about how we can approach the teaching of difficult Bible stories:

  1. Get to know them yourself

It’s slowly dawned on me that most Bible reading notes or devotional books focus on the New Testament, or well-known passages of the Old Testament like Psalms and Isaiah. Fair enough – these are more easily applied to our lives.

But if we never expose ourselves to the difficult historical books of Samuel, Kings and Chronicles, we’re not going to be able to share these stories with our children. So: read some different parts of the Bible. Learn a new story or two. Share with your kids what you’ve been reading.

  1. Seek out books which tell these stories

Of course, when family busyness and parent fatigue kick in (like, when do they not kick in?), it’s helpful just to have a few ‘go-to’ Bible story books which can do the heavy lifting for us.

So deliberately look for children’s books which tell the hard, or lesser known, stories! My book, Deborah and Jael, is a retelling of this heroic and exciting story from Judges, written in rhyme with beautiful illustrations. It’s not the only book you could get to redress the balance, but it’s a start.

  1. Go with your kids’ interests and personalities

Sometimes we assume that children are super-sensitive. But children are just like adults – they have varying trigger levels when it comes to graphic scenes.

I was persuaded, when writing Deborah and Jael, to gloss over the tent-peg scene, and I think this was a good call. After all, I don’t want any child to be excluded from enjoying this story, and parents can decide whether or not to share more detail. But my kids love a bit of gruesome; their eyes light up whenever we share with them a particularly yucky bit of Scripture!

  1. Edits are OK

Likewise, it is fine to edit out the more extreme details of a difficult Bible story if you know it will upset your child. It’s better than not telling a story at all!

Remember, your children probably have plenty of years ahead of them to revisit Bible stories, going deeper each time. They don’t need to know all the details now. Focus on the main facts of the story, gloss over any details which they might find traumatic, and share instead what we learn about God from the passage in question.

  1. It’s OK not to have the ‘answer’

As parents, we get used to answering every question, from “Why is grass green?” to “Do starfish have eyes?”. We’re expected to just know the answers. When I tell my kids I can’t explain why the tide goes in and out because I was never very good at science or geography, and my degree was in music, they look at me like I’ve been washed up in said tide. Thank goodness for Auntie Google.

But when it comes to sharing the Bible with our kids, it’s perfectly OK not to know the answer to a difficult question. We can turn it around by saying, “What do you think?” or “Maybe we should think about this over the next few days” or “Shall we chat to God about that and see if He helps us to understand?”

It’s healthy for our children to know, even from a young age, that some questions are big and don’t have easy answers. And that we, their grown-ups, are on a journey of faith too.

***

Teaching difficult Bible stories to children is not going to be easy – the clue is in the word ‘difficult’! But it’s also not something to be afraid of. 

As we explore the full richness of Scripture for ourselves – yes, even if that’s in a snatched 5 minutes, once a month – we can know God’s favour as we share these stories naturally with the next generation.

“Impress them on your children. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up.” Deuteronomy 6:7

Lucy blogs at The Hope-Filled Family and is the author of Redeeming Advent and Deborah and Jael. She lives in York with her husband and four children.

30 Books That Have Shaped My 30 Years

As I hurtle towards my thirtieth birthday, I decided to put aside by 1/3 life crisis (it’s not a thing – but I’m feeling it!) and think about the 30 books* which I have loved the most and which have been the most influential in my own writing. I haven’t ranked them because that would be utterly impossible, and they are a mixture of children’s books, memoirs, theology and fiction. I hope it may give you some inspiration for your next read.

The Bible: Okay, this is probably obvious, but the Bible has been the backbone of my reading for my whole life – whether it’s been read to me, I’ve read it devotionally or studied it for an essay it has more than influenced me, but been part of the trellis of my life.

The Butterfly Lion, Michael Morpurgo. When I first read this, I was yet to develop my love of butterflies, but something about the ache for home expressed by Morpurgo stuck with me and it was one of the first books I chose to re-read multiple times.

Journey to the River Sea, Eva Ibbotson. Simply a lovely story, beautifully written and one I carried around in my school bag often so that I could read it in every spare moment.

I Capture the Castle, Dodie Smith. It’s possible that this was the book which crystallised my wish to become a writer – and it certainly inspired me to start writing a diary – although never from a kitchen sink like this protagonist did – I definitely tried, though!

Soul Sista, Beth Redman. This was the first christian book I read as a teenager and I devoured it! I haven’t read it in many years, but I remember how much it pointed me to reading the Bible myself and trying to sort through the muddle of my heart as I entered my teenage years.

July, Karen Roberts. I read this story after returning from a trip to Sri Lanka with my family aged twelve; I came away still not really understanding the country half of my family were from, but this book gave me a peek. It’s not an easy read, it’s violent at times but it taught me more about the Sri Lankan civil war and enabled me to find myself in the country my Dad grew up in.

Goodnight Mister Tom, Michelle Magorian. Oh how I loved this; and it was this book which began my love affair with books set in the 1930s and 1940s. It’s also has one of the few TV adaptations which I loved as much as I loved the book.

The Magician’s Nephew, CS Lewis. A world which is sung into being was always going to resonate with me! And in later years, I have loved discovering the rich theology that underlies not just this book, but the whole Narnia chronicles.

The Harry Potter Series, J.K. Rowling. I know it’s seven books – but I refuse to pick a favourite! I have read these more times than any other, and listened to Stephen Fry reading them as I fell asleep for many years on audio cassette, CD and mp3, but I don’t get bored, it simply feels like coming home.

Mocha with Max, Max Lucado. We used to visit my local christian bookshop at least once a month, and I chose this because I thought the idea of a mocha sounded interesting! It was one I returned again and again to, as I found so much comfort and hope in the way Max shared stories of Jesus.

Cafe Theology, Michael Lloyd. The book that began my love of theology. I bought this from the aforementioned bookshop and it made me want to be a theologian – I began to read the Bible differently from then on.

God on Mute, Pete Greig. I read this the Easter after I first developed depression, and the idea of Holy Saturday, the day heaven fell silent captivated and comforted me in equal parts.

Secret Scars, Abigail Robson. I was given this memoir about self-harm after I disclosed it to my boyfriend at the time, he gave me this, signed by Abbie and years later I attended a retreat she ran and we became friends. Abbie’s honesty and hope was a beacon to me and I continue to recommend this first for a christian struggling with self-harm.

Wasted, Marya Hornbacher. If Abbie’s book gave me hope; this told me I was not alone. The writing is breathtakingly brutal and brilliant, and Marya put into words feelings I’d never been able to articulate.

A Grief Observed, CS Lewis. I credit this book for getting me my place at the London School of Theology. When asked what I thought about Lewis’ “The Problem with Pain”, I replied that it was best read in conjunction with this slim volume written in the wake of his wife’s death to best understand the breadth and depth of the problem of evil. It’s a thought I stand by over a decade later!

The Island, Victoria Hislop. A holiday read that remained with me long past turning the last page, it made me want to learn more about leprosy, about Spinalonga and I’m very excited that a sequel has been announced for later this year.

The Other Hand, Chris Cleave. This is a masterclass in writing and Cleave’s writing on scars has had a profound impact on the way I understood my scars.

A Psychology of Hope, Kaplan and Schwartz. I saw this book in Foyles the summer before I began my degree and I decided there and then that I would write my dissertation on how christians can respond to those who are suicidal – I didn’t know how much of my work this project would spark.

Mud and Stars, Robert Twycross. I was given this book before I embarked on a summer placement working alongside mental health chaplains and it struck me for perhaps the first time how beauty and pain are so often intertwined.

Night Falls Fast, Kay Redfield Jamison. A exploration on suicide, this is not what I’d call an enjoyable read, but it’s hopeful and helpful.

Wounded Healer, Henri Nouwen. This classic has underlined much of my approach to my work and theology, that the pain we live through can be used a fuel for our fire.

Lament for a Son, Nicholas Wolterstorff. A heartbreaking book written in the aftermath of his son’s death, this was the book that began my journey looking at lament.

The Message of the Psalms, Walter Brueggemann. A theologically rich reflection on my favourite book in the Bible.

Resurrecting the Person, John Swinton. Another writer who has had a huge influence on my own theology, Swinton’s concept of coming alongside someone who is drowning in their mental health problems to see them become more like themselves again is wonderful.

Faith in the Fog, Jeff Lucas. I love a lot of Jeff’s books, but this one has a special place in my heart – I particularly love the way he expounds the reinstating of Peter after that BBQ on the beach with Jesus.

When Breath Becomes Air, Paul Kalanithi. This began my love affair with memoirs, it’s a celebration of life and love in the midst of death.

Finding God in the Ruins, Matt Bays. A recommendation by Tanya Marlow, I love Bays’ writing but also how he casts a vision of God who, through Jesus delves into our deepest pain alongside us.

Those Who Wait, Tanya Marlow. This advent reflection came into my life as we were trying for a baby and then subsequently suffering a miscarriage and her pastoral and wise look at the waiting was a great comfort.

Rejoicing in Lament, J Todd Billings. A true ‘theology from the middle’, this book recounts the author’s journey with terminal illness and rich theological insight into lament.

The Girl Deconstruction Project, Rachel Gardner. Last but by no means least, this has a place not only because it’s the heart pouring of a very dear friend who writes of joy in the way she lives out joy, but also because it was the very first time my own words appeared in a real, hardback book!

*Please note, affiliate links have been used, if you’d prefer not to, don’t click on my link, but open a new tab and search from there 🙂

This is the Time to Grieve Our Losses

As a christian writer, the temptation when disaster hits, is to get to the illustration.

I want to be able to write not only “hard and clear about what hurts” as Hemingway so powerfully suggests, but I also want to write about the redemption of that hurt. I want to be able to write the beginning, the middle and the end – making sure that the end has a message, that it shows that the pain endured had some meaning. Ideally, I’d like to be summed up neatly with three points (with a bonus for including alliteration!)

However, as the coronavirus has raged through the world, leaving lives and livelihoods destroyed, we cannot rush the redemption.

There are wounds to be tended, losses to grieve and rubble to be sorted through before we get to that point.

Everyone, to a greater or lesser extent is living with loss in these strange days. But our grief is not just for ourselves: but for those losing loved ones without the chance for goodbyes, those enduring illnesses alone, those shielded but separated from the world.

We are writing from the middle of the story; we don’t know when it will end or what that ending will look like – all we have is the hope that “this too shall pass”.

And in this hinterland, we are living in a Holy Saturday, not knowing when Easter will dawn, but living with the realities of darkness.

The challenge for today, is described beautifully by Beth Allen Slevecove in her book Broken Hallelujahs.

“How can I honour the reality of brokenness without losing the memory and hope of wholeness?”

Honouring brokenness is important, but done without holding the memory of God’s redemption and the hope of seeing wholeness leaves us languishing in grief without a way forward.

It is when we honour our brokenness alongside holding our hope in Jesus, that we are able to enter into lament.


And this is the time.

This is the time for grieving

For raging against the dying of the light 

This is the time for tears

Which cleanse our souls and bring release

This is the time for anger

At the injustice pulled into sharp focus

This is the time for honesty

An end to false smiles and ‘I’m fine’

This is the time for reorientation 

For hearts fixed high

And knees bent low

This is the time for lamenting

For the thousand little losses

And the hearts broken open

This is the time

Not to rush redemption

 

Sacrifice in a Strange New Land – Guest Post by Karen Costa

We all may consider that we know what it is to sacrifice something of worth. Those of us with children and vulnerable family members make sacrifices each day, including sacrificing sleep and giving up time to ourselves to meet their care needs. During Lent we may decide to sacrifice our love of chocolate or crisps, or commit ourselves to a new activity that we feel will improve our minds. Young people in education sacrifice their usual social activities to study hard for the exams that will lead them into adult life and the career of which they dream. Many people sacrifice significant portions of their own earnings to support charities or members of their wider family living far away or in impoverished circumstances. 

But perhaps we are not as used to sacrifice as we like to think. The concept of sacrifice in today’s world of instant gratification, with many of us fortunate enough to have easy access to basic needs such as food and drink, as well as material possessions, gym memberships and regular holidays abroad, is not something we truly think about on a daily basis. 

In these troubling and uncertain times we are being asked to sacrifice in a way most of us have never had to contemplate. Forgoing the pleasures of eating out and spending time with friends. Isolating ourselves from others to protect them and ourselves from potential infection. And hardest of all, keeping away from beloved family members and friends who are most vulnerable to the silent enemy we are facing in Covid-19. 

As Christians we are familiar with the greatest sacrifice of all – Jesus taking our sins on His holy shoulders to death, then rising again to give us the opportunity of a life free from the burden of our own failings and the promise of eternal life with Him.

There are many other examples of sacrifice in the Bible; one of my favourites is the story of Ruth. This wonderful young woman had sacrificed much in her young life. She married into Naomi’s family sacrificing the life she lived with her own. She moved to another country with Naomi after her father-in-law died, only to lose her own husband in that strange new land. And when Naomi decided to return to her home country and offered to release Ruth from any obligation to go with her, Ruth sacrificed that opportunity and chose to remain with her mother-in-law. She travelled with her back to a land where she may not have been welcomed, to a life of uncertainty and little prospect of another marriage to secure her future, because she loved Naomi. And because she loved Naomi’s God.

Can we be more like Ruth in these unprecedented times? Not just by adhering to the government recommendations that are limiting our usual activities, but by going that little bit farther. Maybe we could we give away some of our hoard of toilet rolls and hand soap and pasta to those in greater need than us? Or perhaps we could drop a note in to a neighbour and offer to get some shopping for them? Or simply spend some time chatting on the phone to someone who is self-isolating?

Who knows what lessons we will learn from this unwanted experience?

Whatever we do, and however we are affected, we can only be enriched from remaining in contact with each other by whatever alternative means we can, being creative in protecting our mental and physical health and most especially, by keeping hold of the one who sacrificed His all for us – and who will continue to journey with us through this strange new land we find ourselves in.

 

Karen works in HR, currently with the NHS and has been involved in variety of roles within church. She also happens to be Rachael’s Mum!

Baby Change, by Anne Calver – Review

Usually these days I find myself reading books in fits and starts, frequently having to re-read the pages as I’m snatching moments when my own baby (well – racing toddler is more apt) is asleep.

As it happens however, I read this in just over a day as I was stuck in bed unwell and unable to do much else but read.

Anne eloquently echoed many of my own feelings about motherhood, especially the tensions between calling and working out what that looks like as a stay at home mum.

I found the stories of other mums really helped to shape the book – proving once again that there is no “right” way to do things – that motherhood looks as different as we all do! The only criticism I would possibly level is that there was little recognition, or inclusion of a story from a Mum who’s doing it alone, whether through family breakdown, being widowed or solo adoption – but perhaps that’s another book.

The interweaving of Anne’s own experience with her biblical reflections produced some really valuable wisdom. I loved her thoughts on 2 Corinthians 4:7-9 which reads:

“But we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all surpassing power is from God and not from us. We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed.”

Anne writes:

“Baby Change does not equal persecution, but it can make you feel perplexed, out of your depth, weak, crushed and alone…Our feelings do not limit [God’s] power.”

This served as a potent reminder for all of us, whether parents or not that God reigns, that as tough as things are (and they are feeling pretty tough this year, aren’t they?) God is stronger than anything and everything we face (although we should continue to do our part).

I’d really recommend this book for Mums in their first few years of parenting – I’ve got a 15 month old and found it a valuable read.

You can buy it anywhere that sells books including Eden and Bookshop* and SPCK currently have 50% off all ebooks on their site until 25th March.

*Affiliate link