Category Archives: Books

Book Review: Redeeming Advent

We are well and truly into November now, so I finally feel happy to start talking about the upcoming festive season (in my house, I don’t start thinking about Christmas until after my husband’s November birthday, but now that’s passed it’s time to look forward to the celebrations).

So as we do all the practical things to prepare, it’s important that we also prepare our hearts amidst all the busyness and Lucy’s book is a great way to spend a bit of time each day to reflect and reorientate ourselves back to Christ.

One of the most beautiful parts of the book is the way in which Lucy reflects on her experience of adopting her two youngest children and how that, in turn, reflects our relationship with God.

She writes:

Advent, like adoption, opens our eyes to a new place, a better place, where the sin and suffering of the last place will be no more. Advent, like adoption, reminds us not to cling to our old home – not to get too settled here – because it’s not where we belong. Advent, like adoption, tells us that the tragedies of this life are not supposed to bring us down, but to make us look up…Advent, like adoption, brings hope and a new start and a secure future. Advent, like adoption, prepares us for that glorious day when we will be with our true, heavenly Father.”

Lucy’s writing is warm and easy to read, but it is also profound and communicates some really important theological truths in a really accessible way and includes some very practical challenges.

One of the clearest examples for me, is this:

“I don’t want anyone who enters our home this season to be in any doubt about what we’re celebrating.”

As someone who loves to co-ordinate my wrapping paper with my decorations(!) I’ve been challenged to ensure that my home doesn’t just look pretty (although I still want it to look as good as it can with a one year old running amok!) Alongside the prettiness, I want it to be clear that the beauty in my home reflects the beauty of the gospel, not just my interior design skills.

On a practical level, “Redeeming Advent” is set out in short and readable chapter for every day in Advent that can be consumed with your morning coffee and advent calendar chocolate – and I think you should!

If you’d like to buy a copy of Redeeming Advent, you can get one at Eden Books, Amazon and real life christian bookshops. You can also be in with a chance to win a signed copy over on my Instagram and Facebook!

For more from Lucy you can find her at Desertmum, on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Pinterest.

 

 

 

 

 

We Need to Talk About Race – Book Review

If I was pushed to describe this book in two words it would be uncomfortable and hopeful and the challenge of the book can be summed up by the words of Augustine which are quoted:

“Hope has two beautiful daughters; their names are anger and courage. Anger that things are the way they are, and courage to see that they do not remain as they are.”

I felt uncomfortable as I read, mainly because my own conscience was pricked. I have been guilty of believing that as a mixed race woman, I wasn’t complicit in racism, but what Ben does so beautifully in this book is confront false beliefs whilst pointing to the way forward full of hope. The way forward is based not on tokenism or shows of diversity; but the kind of radical inclusion that Jesus demonstrated throughout his ministry.

This has to begin with a recognition of how the church has been complicit not only in historic racism, but in perpetuating oppression; through whitewashing of biblical characters (spoiler – Jesus was middle eastern and therefore not white!) and conforming christianity to white culture, rather than allowing it to be a diverse, inclusive movement.

He also highlights and explains the difficulties many black christians face within white majority or white led churches:

“The paradox for some black people is this: loving Jesus and understanding his amazing grace is one thing; loving the church, with its complicated racial history can be problematic.”

How can church be a safe place when it’s been so complicit in causing pain?

The best parts of “We Need to Talk About Race” are those which present how we can best serve those in minority communities – from ensuring that our leadership reflects our desire for inclusiveness (rather than having a token minority to salve our consciences), to not expecting people to leave their own cultures at the door and conform to how ‘we’ do church.

As the church, we must challenge racism in our pews and communities, because if we remain silent, we are perpetuating injustice that has been present for hundreds of years.

We have a lot of work to do, and Ben’s book is a brilliant starting point and manifesto should be on your summer reading list.

We Need To Talk About Race is published on the 18th July.

 

 

The Man I Pray You’ll Be – Reflections on Martin Saunders’ “The Man You’re Made to Be”

I’m trying to imagine the world that my son will be living in by the time he’s old enough to read a book like “The Man You’re Made to Be”. It’s probably very different to the one he’s been born in. I hope that Brexit is no longer in the news in 2024! 

I often wonder who my little boy will grow up to be; I can already see that he is funny and cheeky and often hungry, but I hope many things for him, many of which are reflected in Martin’s brilliant book. 

I hope that he grows to put his hope and trust in the Lord; that he will put God first even when times are difficult. I pray that he knows he is loved; by God, by his Dad and I, by our wider family and friends. 

When I was pregnant, the thing I prayed for the most is that he will be kind. We are so often told that we can and should be anything, and I don’t mind what career path (or paths) he chooses, but I pray that he will be known for his kindness. The Bible talks many times about God’s hesed, His loving kindness and I pray that as he grows to know God, he grows in kindness. 

I hope that by the time he’s grown, there will be no stigma around mental illness (and that I will then have found a new job to do if that is the case!) I hope that he knows there is nothing shameful about expressions of emotion; of tears and frustration and shouts of joy, but that these emotions can be expressed healthily or unhealthily – with any luck we’ll model some of the healthy expressions, but I know that if he looks to Jesus he will find a clear picture of how we can cope with our feelings. As Martin writes:

“In a culture of bottled up male emotions, Jesus is a breath of fresh air: a blue print for a healthier kind of masculinity.”

I hope that my little boy will know how incredible our bodies are and that will inform how he treats his own body and how he treats everyone else. That he will use what power he has to encourage and build people up, rather than tear them down. 

I would love him to know the joy of books and reading, his Dad would probably like him to love cycling (I’m ambivalent about that one!) 

I hope that he has friends who bring out the best of one another; that they will go on adventures together, have fun and be able to rely upon one another in harder times. 

And I’d like to echo the final words of Martin’s:

“I pray that you will be able to draw your identity as a man not from past experiences, genetics or decisions you’ve made, but from the unswerving know­ ledge that you were handmade by a God who says to you, day after day, and minute after minute of your life: I love you man.”

Martin Saunders is the Deputy CEO of Youthscape and you can buy his book from the Youthscape store exclusively for one week before general publication!

Out of Control: Book Review

I have to admit that I began reading Natalie Collins’ “Out of Control” with no small degree of trepidation. Not only is domestic abuse something outside the realm of my experience,  but it’s also something that the church has struggled to respond to well.

The first thing that struck me upon reading, however, is the gentleness with which Natalie writes. At the beginning and end of chapters the reader is given space to breathe and practice self-care which, when reading about something as harrowing as domestic abuse is not only important, but vital. She does not shy away from the horrors of abuse, including sharing her own story which enables the reader to understand the issues presented in a way that is more than theoretical.

The following sentence, quite literally took my breath away, and it’s as true for domestic abuse as it is for many other difficult issues that the church faces.

She writes:

“If we are to walk with people in their pain we have to be willing to witness the brutality, not shutting our ears when the stories are horrifying or the language offends us.”

Without doubt the strongest parts of the book are those which can be used to inform pastoral practice. First and foremost for the majority of churches is the recognition that domestic abuse is probably present in their congregations, as Natalie writes:

“Presuming that abuse is present without our congregation… is the only way to ensure that our communities become safe contexts for those subjected to abuse.”

Secondly, the importance of reviewing how our church practices and language can be used to keep women trapped in abuse. Her point about the language of redemption used is interesting; that it may help to collude with an abuser and allow them to continue their  behaviour is important, but I also think that our understanding of redemption needs to be greater. Redemption is not a free pass for what has gone before, but relies on the character of God; not an individual’s actions

Natalie’s understanding of the sociological and psychological effects of domestic abuse are incredibly useful to those wishing to understand how best to support sufferers. Her explanations of trauma theory enable us to get to grips with the way those subjected to abuse may act or respond in certain situations which we must be aware of in our churches. 

I did find one part of Natalie’s argument problematic. Chapter 3 can be seen to dismiss any reasons which may lead men to abuse women. It’s true that reasons are in no way excuses, and that they should not be used to keep women trapped in abusive situations or seen to be mitigation for their crimes; but to ignore men’s own backgrounds and the way their own life experiences have led to their behaviour is troubling to me.

Exerting power may be central to men’s abusive behaviours, but I can’t help but wonder how men’s own experiences of abuse or violence inform their later choices?

The book is worth buying for chapter 10 alone in my opinion; it’s intensely practical but also highlights the difficulties people face in accessing the help they so desperately need which must inform our pastoral care. It’s all very well knowing where to signpost, but we must also be prepared to wait with people until they get what they need, not as pseudo-professionals but as the body of Christ, family.

This is a book that every church leader should read. Not only for the knowledge it imparts, but the way in which Natalie tells her story and because it broke my heart for those affected by domestic abuse and highlighted how the Church can help.

 

 

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.

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.

Mercy

Recently, as part of our church small group, we’ve been doing the Bible Course by the Bible Society which despite some questionable jokes has been a wonderful way to go back to basics, looking at the shape of the text as a whole and the glorious beauty of the story pointing to Jesus from the very beginning.

One of the weeks that struck me most was on Jonah – the reluctant prophet swallowed by a big fish – it’s  a story I can’t say I’ve studied much. It was a part of my Sunday school teaching, but as an adult, it’s not a book I can say I’ve read avidly.

In a wonderful alignment of timing, Tim Keller then released his own book on Jonah entitled “The Prodigal Prophet” and as I read it, and reflected again on the text I couldn’t help but be captivated by the mercy which sits right at the heart of Jonah’s story.

So much of my life (and probably yours) is focussed on justice; for the poor, the neglected, the wronged and yet I feel that in that pursuit I’ve forgotten mercy.

It’s so easy to be outraged – but so much more difficult to be merciful.

And yet we are here but for the glorious mercy of God. Jesus’ crucifixion was the greatest act of mercy there ever has been – because despite being deserving of God’s wrath – we received a pardon and Jesus himself took on our punishment.

Jonah is the antithesis of mercy, and, as Keller points out, very much like the older brother depicted in the parable of the Prodigal Son.

It’s a role I’ve found myself in, I’ve been a christian for well over twenty years and when bad things happen to good people, or good things happen to bad people I want to know why, I want to have a silent tantrum because it’s not fair!

But over the past few weeks, I’ve been reminded that mercy isn’t fair.

Jonah had a good point when he didn’t want to witness to the Ninevites – they’d shown themselves to be a despicable people – and his God-given mission was more than a little dangerous. Yet even when he eventually went to the Ninevah to give God’s message – he was outraged when the people believed God and were spared the promised disaster!

He rants to God and speaks of God’s mercy not as a blessing, but a curse.

“Isn’t this what I said, Lord, when I was still at home? That is what I tried to forestall by fleeing to Tarshish. I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity.”

And then the book ends, as the parable of the Prodigal Son does, with a cliffhanger, without conclusion and without mercy.

As Tim Keller writes:

“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.”

It’s in the reading and re-reading of this book that I’ve caught a glimpse of the God I’ve made in my own image; one who, like some kind of superhero swoops in and catches the bad guy, who characterises us heroes or villains.

When in actual fact, in the eyes of God there are no heroes or villains, we are simply His children.

Justice has it’s rightful place in society and theology; don’t get me wrong, and I won’t stop fighting against injustice, but I will try to remember that God is one of mercy, that Jesus died for us when we were still sinners. As Romans 5:6-8 proclaims:

“You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly. Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous person, though for a good person someone might possibly dare to die. But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”

That is mercy, and this is our God of mercy, that we might not forget the mercy shown to us.