Tag Archives: christian books

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.

 

 

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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.

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 🙂

Replay and Regret? Responding to Shame #IThoughtThereWouldBeCake

When I first read Katharine’s book it was the chapter that had me crying “I do that too!!” So I wanted to explore a little deeper the idea of replaying conversations again and again, squirming with shame at what has been said.

Shame leaves us stuck in replaying and regretting what has gone before, preventing us from moving forward and dealing with what has passed.

Brene Brown writes that:

“Shame corrodes the very part of us that believes we are capable of change.”

I’d go a step further, because I believe that shame corrodes our belief that God can restore and redeem us.

Shame tells us that we are worthless and unredeemable; it can make us think that the very worst parts of ourselves overshadow anything good about us.

Shame fails to live up to the standards of the law – but the gospels show a new way of looking at ourselves and our sin.

It doesn’t minimise or deny our sin, but reminds us that despite our sin we are still worth dying for!

I can’t help but think of Simon Peter here; his denial of Jesus was shameful; but Jesus neither denies his sin nor shames his sin – he confronts it and forgives it.

In John 21:15 we read that Jesus refers to him as Simon; and yet when he was called from his life as a fisherman, he’d been given a new name. No longer Simon – he was Peter, the Rock. Surely Jesus was reminding him here that his faith hadn’t been so rock-like recently.

But the conversation doesn’t end with Peter stripped of his new identity; Jesus redeems each of Peter’s denials by repeatedly asking, “Simon, Son of John, do you love me.”

Jesus restores Peter’s denials, and through that He’s showing Peter that he is forgiven.

Shame keeps us stuck in our sin – forgiveness and redemption move us on – and they moved Peter on.

The latter part of Jesus’s conversation with Peter is a re-commissioning. Jesus gives him a new role as a Pastor, the imagery shifting from fisherman to shepherd, giving a fairly succinct job description!

Feed my lambs.
Take care of my sheep.
Feed my sheep.

This is the calling for Peter’s next stage of ministry – to take up the role of a shepherd, a pastor – in spite and perhaps in part because of all he had done. I personally don’t know if I would have trusted the “top job” to someone who failed me so badly.

It’s a beautiful reminder that where shame sees only sin – Jesus sees through our sin straight to our identity as sons and daughters of God – redeemed and restored by Him.

Replay and Regret is a thing of the past because in Jesus we find our Redemption.