I was privileged to lead a reflection on Saturday, for a group of Christian writers who would have spent the weekend at Scargill House in Yorkshire. Although our weekend had been cancelled, a number of us wanted to use the opportunity to meet virtually, so we did some writing challenges together and encouraged each other with reflections. Philip Davies gave a great reflection on calling as a writer. I decided to do something on character, and this is a summary of the reflection I gave.
What is your character?
Has lock-down given you the chance to become more aware of your own strengths and weaknesses?
Has the rhythm of lock-down highlighted aspects of your personality?
Has it revealed areas for growth? If so, are you considering how to grow?
If you were a character in a story, how would the author write about you?
I’ve certainly become aware of parts of my own personality through the past three months or so. Areas where I need more patience, or action, or humility, or wisdom, or grace. Areas where I’ve been improving, and areas which still need a lot of work doing. I want to grow and learn and be the best character I can be. Lock-down is certainly showing up my true character.
I got to thinking about Bible verses and some of the stories that are told within the Bible which use vivid metaphors for characters. Take one of my favourite verses, Daniel 8:21, for example. A verse many people should know by heart, I believe:
A super verse to take out of context, and a bizarre one in any event. It forms part of an explanation for a vision, where the character of a person is described in terms of a violent animal. The animal metaphor is a punchy and descriptive.
It is not the only time metaphors are used in the Old Testament to describe people’s characters. There is a lovely fable in Judges 9:8-15 where the people of Shechem want to appoint a particular king, but are strongly advised not to. Jotham tells them a story to get his point across, and compares their situation to a group of trees trying to choose a king. The obvious candidates (olive, fig, vine) decline, and a wholly unsuitable thorn-bush is offered the position instead. Jotham uses the idea of a thorn-bush: unfruitful, undesirable for protection and unsafe, to make his point about his political opponent.
Fables concerning trees representing people may well have been a thing in the ancient Near East. There is a tiny story tucked into 2 Kings 14:9 along similar lines. The kings of Israel and Judah are squaring up to each other and the good king – Jehoash of Israel – sends a story to Amaziah that his intentions compare to a thistle wanting to marry the daughter of a cedar of Lebanon; a thistle which immediately gets trodden underfoot by a wild beast. Ouch.
Plants, Planets and Patroni
Being compared to a plant is one thing. Apocalyptic passages in the Old and New Testaments compare people to animals (real and imaginary) to make their points. Jesus uses the idea of wheat and weeds growing together in the same field in his parable in Matthew 13 and explains that the weeds are metaphors for those who belong to the evil one. To be compared to weeds is a grim indictment: these people are nuisances, sucking nourishment from the growing ‘wheat’ and holding no value in making bread (future blessing). However, though they try to prevent the good purposes from becoming established and succeeding, they will not win in the end. It is a great metaphor and the parable inspires hope.
Others have also used natural phenomena to enrich their stories and characters. I was thrilled when I learned about C.S. Lewis’ planet-based inspiration for each of the seven Narnia stories and how he extended and wove the characteristics through clever metaphors through each book. It is so subtle that the themes were not discovered until 2003 (see Michael Ward’s Planet Narnia).
Similarly, J.K. Rowling applies the characteristics of each patronus to the characters in her Harry Potter series:
There are subtle cross-references and hints about the motives, qualities and strengths of each character in what Rowling writes.
I humorously queried the correct form of the plural of patronus with ACW friends and am very grateful to Susan Sanderson, who pointed out that ‘patroni’ should be the Latin plural. She looked it up in the Oxford Latin mini dictionary, where she found this definition: ‘protector, patron; pleader, advocate’. Amazingly, there seems to be a link with The Holy Spirit as our Patronus.
Metaphors for people in terms of an animal, plant, planet or other phenomenon have come and gone throughout human history and literature. What about writers though? Can we identify characteristics from a plant, for example, to apply to one of our own characters?
You could describe a satsuma as:
Soft and sweet
Just a little tangy
Popular with children
Imagine a person who inhabited all these characteristics. Doing this gives me the image of a lovely nursery nurse, covered in paint and giggling with the children.
What characteristics would you associate with a potato?An olive? A banana?
It can be a useful exercise to start with a natural object to build up a character. To find commonalities and to extend the metaphor where that helps. Almost anything can be a muse, if you don’t take yourself too seriously.
God as Author
As a Christian, I believe God is the Creator of everything (Isaiah 40:28) and Author of salvation (Hebrews 2:10). Along with everything else in creation, I am merely a player in it; a created being with a role to play and a set of characteristics I didn’t get to choose. I have giftings and I have limits.
God writes the setting of creation, chooses my character identity and places me in the story. Along the way, my character is worked on and refined. Sometimes the Author is involved, sometimes not. I become who I become, either through my own giftings and limits, or my responses to them in the circumstances which arise. God does not write the fine detail – that is for me to create and edit myself, but he does assist with my character building when I ask. And sometimes, as in lock-down, external events mean that a lot of work is done on my character in a short space of time, a bit like living in a pressure cooker.
So, how has God written your character?
Has lock-down given you the chance to become more aware of God’s giftings and limits on your life?
Has the rhythm of lock-down highlighted who God has created you to be?
Has this time revealed areas for spiritual growth? If so, are you considering how to grow?
Has it revealed and evidenced God’s purposes being worked out in your life? Confirmed a calling? Challenged you?
How is God writing about you?
What metaphor(s) might God choose to identify who you are?
Lord God, I recognise that I have unique strengths and weaknesses, passions, abilities and limits, each of which you have given me.
I thank you for all of them. I thank you for making me who I am.
There are parts of my personality I am especially grateful for. There are other parts which sadden me. Sometimes I see myself as a minor, insignificant character and I forget you are my author. You create me, form me, inspire and celebrate me.
Reveal today where you want to develop my character next, and how you want to use me in my situation. Enable me to bless others in their own callings.
May my life and character reflect you, Lord Jesus, to all I interact with.
Well, this is truly unprecedented. The family have been stockpiling every conceivable edible thing and for the past week we’ve been taking in more and more foster animals. Ham asked me how much food I thought we’d need for us and all the animals, but I have no idea how long we need to lockdown. ‘It’s not my idea’, I told him. I’m just following official guidelines. Meanwhile, Shem has filled a whole cabin with toilet paper. Strange lad. No one has brought a corkscrew, so it looks like we won’t be cracking open any wine for the foreseeable.
I’m grateful that the family are rallying round now anyway. They do take up the room: maybe I should have measured a bit more carefully. Suddenly there’s elbows everywhere. We’ve divided up our limited area and everyone gets a bit of outdoor time each day, although there’s not a lot we can do about the smell indoors. I blame the pets. Mostly.
We have strict instructions not to leave, and I hope we will get through this without mishap.
Sounds like the rain has started.
Well, that was a storm and a half.
I say was, but it’s still going. Decidedly soggy out.
Various neighbours have knocked on the door over the past few days. It’s a bit hard to hear them, so I climbed out on deck to call down and tell them they weren’t supposed to leave their own homes. Lots of shouting followed. It’s quite high up on deck, so pretty hard to tell what they are saying. If they are complaining about the smell, there’s not a lot I can do. If they are checking we are ok for food and toilet paper, that’s very kind, but really not necessary. Tried to explain this, but the near constant rain really interfered with communicating.
Haven’t seen any neighbours for days. Probably for the best: they really ought to take this isolation thing seriously. Actually I’ve not been outside for a while. Rain was getting me down, and not enough space to dry out clothes inside.
Everyone is on a rota for the jobs that need doing. I was a little concerned to see quite how much I’d have to get done, as well as teaching my sons animal welfare, geography and woodwork. Am tempted to adjust the rota when no one else is looking.
Finally, a day with no rain.
Looked out during my exercise hour and saw a rainbow. Had a little think and wondered what it all means.
Was startled by a runaway piglet splashing about on deck and spent most of my free time trying to catch the thing.
Jay said it was Ham. Ham said Shem let it loose. Shem blamed someone else, but I forget who; I had stern words and sent them all to their rooms. Five minutes later their mum told them to get back to their chores. I would have said something, but I realised that I would be doing extra jobs if I didn’t keep my mouth shut.
I’m really missing my friends. I used to meet up with several of them before all this started. The whole landscape has changed since then.
Also, I could really do with a haircut. Kids are joking I look like a yak.
This is really getting tedious and most days just feel the same. Jay developed a cough, so is keeping to himself in his quarters. More work for the rest of us. Hmmph.
The wife pointed out that we are almost out of flour and she won’t be able to make any more bread soon. I didn’t want to mention that I don’t think there will be any more flour for quite a while. Even planting seed looks to be off the menu, so next year’s bread will be unusual. Might have to ration what’s left, or start eating some of the rabbits. I’m sure we didn’t start with that many.
The wife has taken to knitting special beard masks for those of us who can still smell the animals. You put it over your mouth and nose when you feed or clean the animals. Can’t see it working, but I don’t like to upset her, now we are right out of flour. I didn’t ask where she got the wool from, although I noticed the llamas looked a little chilly last week.
I have been doing a spot of DIY and have designed and built a magnificent flagpole. Gets me outdoors and away from the lads – they will not stop squabbling! Might ask Mrs N to knit a flag if she gets time. You’d think you’d have lots of time in lockdown, but the days are all so busy.
What a day! Ham went for a swim and we nearly lost him. How many times do I have to tell the boys ‘Stay Safe – Stay Indoors’? It’s not a suggestion: it’s a strict instruction. He did look a little drippy when we fished him out. Said he regretted it, but that he was feeling so claustrophobic. I do understand, of course. Being stuck inside so much, I have taken to eating more. Good thing I like rabbit.
The wife made me a flag. It took her a while, as she wanted it to be colourful – like a rainbow, she told me. ‘What do you mean?’ I asked her, but she went zooming off to do something else. Sat and talked with God a bit: the only part of the day which is making any sense now.
It does feel like things are going to be very different after all this. The sky has been bluer, the stars clearer and water around us is cleaner. Except of course when Jay and Ham empty the buckets from the stalls. You do not want to be downwind of that!
Am getting rather fed up with rabbit stew, if I’m honest.
Tried plaiting my beard. Not really helping. I keep tripping over it. The yak doesn’t have this problem, I noticed.
We are no longer floating, but it’s not clear why.
My beard is now so long the wife is talking about using it for making some new vests. Three-piece suit, more like!
It might be our imagination, but it does look as though there are some little islands emerging around us. Jay said they must be the tops of mountains. Ham disagreed, as mountains have snow on the top. Shem laughed at him. Another squabble ensued. I will be glad to see the back of this lot and have a nice quiet drink when this is all over. Saw another rainbow as the sun was setting – wish I knew what God was up to. Asked, but all was quiet.
Jay was right. The islands look much more like the tops of mountains now, although these are no mountains I can ever remember seeing. Not that I ever travelled much.
Still, before all this I was quite a different person I suppose. These things change you.
I released a raven. It didn’t come back; the boys thought it was rather foolish of me, so I let out a dove as well. Poor thing couldn’t find anything it wanted, and got tired, so flew back to the safety of lockdown with the rest of us. I wonder what it saw. Probably should have sent a parrot.
Tried another release today with Joanie, my favourite dove. She didn’t disappoint; she returned an hour or so later with a fresh branch of olive in her beak. I realise now that I should have spent the last year training at least one type of bird to retrieve things for us. It would have come in especially handy. I’d love an actual olive. Haven’t had proper fresh food for months.
I’m not upset though. The branch is important – the wife will no doubt stick it in the scrap book.
You can’t train a dove in seven days, it turns out. Joanie flew off today and didn’t return. I suppose this is a good thing, but I had hoped she would try and bring some proper fresh olives for us.
The boys are constantly asking how much longer until we leave this place. I’m not sure – still waiting on official guidance on that. Also I need to flatten my curve, as I don’t seem to fit into all my clothes any more. Can’t be seen out looking like this!
Must say, it is looking a lot safer out there. Land is lovely and fresh, very few puddles.
Lockdown is over – Praise God!
We got official notice today that we could leave here. Also all the animals we brought with us and haven’t yet eaten.
Feels so weird to be back out again.
Some bright spark suggested a barbecue. I thought it would be a good time to honour God for rescuing us from harm, so we sacrificed some animals on there. After the stinky animal pens (and family) it smelt particularly good.
Spent some time praying while the others walked about and when I looked up I saw another rainbow. Felt strangely satisfied. It occurred to me that God will restore the world and will look after all of us – people, animals, plants, everything he has created. I finally realised what the rainbow is about. It is like a gate between harm and salvation, a door from fear to joy. God wanted me to understand that he cares about all living creatures and won’t allow us to be utterly destroyed. He rescued us, even though it took a while and the journey was hard. He has good plans in the days to come and is far more powerful and beautiful than I previously realised. I can see that he was present with us throughout our difficult time.
I still have problems, mind. No idea what to do with the massive pile of remaining toilet paper, now there’s no one to sell it all on to. And my curve hasn’t flattened enough. It’s not going to help that I do think the olives down the hill might now be ready to pick…
True story: whenever I don’t know what day it is, it is almost always Wednesday.
The reasons for this are simple. My life is weekend-centric. You have Saturday (first day of weekend) and Sunday (church day of weekend). So the rest are Monday and Friday (days next to the weekend) and Tuesday and Thursday (days next to days next to the weekend). It stands to reason that Wednesday is What-Day-Is-It? and I am frankly amazed that this is not a thing for everyone else.
I never seem to know what day it is on Wednesday. Usefully, I can assume it is probably Wednesday if I don’t know what day it is. Wednesday has become a sort of Sabbath for me: a rest day in the hurricane of the week. I slow down and take stock before getting on with life again.
These days of weathering Covid-19, most days are When’s? Days. Who knows? It might even be Wednesday today.
Time is a little blurry now.
Instead, I am learning to think in Bits of Time.
There is the Bit of Time after waking up, when I remember life is not normal right now. Not yet. It will get normal. Then it will change again. But it is not normal, because the news on the radio is wrong. First, there is no news to wake me, because they streamlined it and it no longer runs as often. Secondly, the news is shared across several stations on BBC Radio and this means that when it does come on it is different. Thirdly, all the news centres on one story, and that is just wrong. Other stories are happening, but I am not hearing enough about them. Sometimes throughout my day I look up Different News Stories.
There is then the Bit of Time after the morning dog walk and before the main challenges of my own work where I smash out as many household tasks as I can (with or without help) and then get the kids learning as independently as possible. This is the Best Bit of Time for Learning in the day, and must be optimised. Thankfully both of their schools are sending work for them and it is usually clear what is (supposed) to be done each day. After I have pointed them both in the right directions, I get a Bit of Time for catching up on things I can only focus on well in the mornings. This currently includes my Bit of Quiet Time, a Bit of Zoom Time (volunteering, church or colleagues), a Bit of Hebrew Time (currently working through the book of Numbers), a Bit of Admin Time and several Bits of Interruption Time. I don’t begrudge my kids interrupting me; it isn’t always easy to see how to answer questions when you can’t put your hand up, or to hold motivation levels when you cannot lean back on your chair.
Today during an important meeting I discovered that I could make some funky Mobius Loops with sticky notes, tape and scissors. It did help me concentrate better, if I am honest.
There is the Bit of Time between the children each finishing their Allotted Learning and a parent actually being Fully Available, when the children show their initiative by logging into a device and amusing themselves with computer games. This is Not a Bit of Time to ask them to complete the daily chores, I have learned, if I want Proper Results and Good Mental Health for All.
After lunch, there is an excellent Bit of Time for harnessing the children’s energy and availability to get one of their daily chores completed. This is maximised if I only try and harness the energy of one child.
Then, as they drift magnetically back to digital indoor pursuits, there is the Bit of Time where I try and regroup mentally, step away from machines and catch up on Actual Things that need doing, at home, out in the garden, or in the community. I may have to stand in a queue or peer into a shop or pharmacy window to try and count heads and see whether I am allowed in. I may have to wander the aisles of the Big Shop looking in vain for such essentials as Rich Tea Biscuits for my elderly neighbour. I may try and get the next task of my Work in Progress completed, if my brain is not hurting too much and the Bit of Time is sufficient.
There is a Bit of Time where the second dog walk of the day happens – usually my walk – with a child (sometimes two) using the opportunity to share their allotted and unspent daily allowance of words with me. The dog, thankfully, doesn’t mind this.
There is the Bit of Time when the screen time limits kick in and children find they are available again for chores. This Bit of Time is less likely to come with extra added enthusiasm, but sometimes it can be bought, with appropriate funny internet videos (Holderness Family or TwoSet Violin often help here).
After tea there is another Bit of Time for getting things done, which usually means they aren’t. Sometimes my children will suggest that they are bored. They have been learning through Consistent Teaching from us that we will not fix this for them. As a result, my daughter has discovered how to dye her hair with tissue paper and my son has researched a new craft: making a stress ball.
He has also been working on a valuable life skill: persuasion.
This meant that a couple of evenings ago, he and I took a birthday balloon, filled it with cornflour and water and tied it. Actually, although I did the filling and tying, he did take a close interest and made many observations. When we realised that the balloon was leaking our non-Newtonian fluid we decided as a team to add an extra layer of balloon.
The error, I now realise, was not in trusting my son’s judgement or management skills, or even in watching the not-at-all-messy youtube mom. The error was in making a stress ball. Reader, we had no need of a stress ball. We already knew what stress feels like.
What we needed was a destress ball, and if you happen to know how to make one, do kindly send me instructions. The ball did not survive 24 hours.
In the meantime, I am considering marking the VE Day 75th anniversary celebrations by taking my daughter’s tissue paper hair dye method and covering my roots in a Union Jack design.
It’s all going to depend on whether I can find a long enough Bit of Time to fit it in, to be honest.
Because, after the Bit of Time where I run around chasing all the Other Jobs on My List and Insisting that Other People Need to Finish Chores and Get Ready for Bed, I want a little Bit of Time for me. And a Bit of Time for my husband, if he’s available and not getting an early night after a day working from home in the same room as people who have finished their schoolwork hours earlier. And a Bit of Time for some light TV. And maybe a Glass of Something.
And before I know it, it’s When’s? Day again and the radio is coming on to wake me, and it is still not the right news.
But all these Bits of Time matter. The mundane and the memorable. The trivial and the triumphant. The Bits of Clapping and Cheering, and the Bits of Gritting Teeth and Wailing.
Stay safe, and remember that Tomorrow will be a Good Day.
If you were to look closely – and I mean really closely – with a scanning electron microscope, you’d see a shape like this:
The virus is a bundle of proteins and RNA, held together with fats which dissolve when you wash with soap. It is called a coronavirus because some of the proteins stick out like the points of a crown.
Here’s the curious thing: crown is essentially the same word as corona. I hadn’t made that linguistic connection before last month. I knew that corona was a shape made around the sun in a total eclipse, and that the beer of the same name has a logo with a crown on it. But I do love learning, and I especially love words, so I investigated.
The root words
The word corona goes back a long way, and has cognates in many languages. This is becausecorona is Latin for ‘crown’,
which sounds like the ancient Greekκορώνη (korṓnē)for ‘curved’,
but meansmore like the ancient Greek κορυφή (koruphḗ): ‘garland, wreath or crown’.
The two Greek words look and sound a bit similar, but are not identical.
κορώνη sounds like corona and actually means all kinds of things which are not crowns but which have hooked or curved features. For example: crows, door handles, the tip of a bow on which the string is hooked, the curved stern of a ship, but also variousother examples.
κορυφή, which is nearer inmeaning, also indicates the top of a head or a mountain, the vertex of a triangle or a most excellent thing.
You could see how both words could combine in people’s minds to mean a physical crown. A curved reward for excellence, placed on the top of someone’s head.
I couldn’t stop there though.
As a biblical scholar, I wondered whether these Greek words appear in the New Testament at all. After all, crowns certainly do.
It turns out, they don’t.Not properly.If you want more on this, see ‘a diversion for etymologists’ below.
Perhaps the root of the word is not the way to look at this. Perhaps we should look at the word ‘crown’ itself in the Bible if we want to learn something interesting.
This is, in fact, where the studying becomes more relevant and helpful.
The Hebrew of the OT and the Greek of the NT are full of examples of crowns and references to crowning. Overwhelmingly, these crowns have positive connotations.
Kings are crowned.
Esther receives a royal crown.
Mankind is crowned with glory and honour (Psalm 8), with love and compassion (Psalm 103), with everlasting joy (Isaiah 51) and with beauty instead of ashes (Isaiah 61).
Paul and James and Peter talk of crowns of reward for those who persevere (1 Corinthians 9, 2 Timothy 2, James 1, 1 Peter 5).
The most startling crown though was the crown which Jesus wore in the gospels.
It was not an athlete’s garland or a royal circlet. It was a cruel crown.
A crown of thorns. A crown which mocked him and humbled him.
A crown I would never want to wear.
A crown, however, which arrests the attention of all who look at it. What is that doing there? A reverse crown. An anti-glory moment. Pure humiliation.
We’ve just experienced the most unusual Easter of our lifetimes. A crowned virus threatens us and mocks our normal routines. Those in power are shown to be as weak as the rest of us, and the new heroes are the small people in society. The ones who keep us alive, fed and resourced.
Coronavirus has turned society upside down and shown us where crowns truly belong.
Not with the strong, but the weak, the humble and the ones who love at all costs. Where we once wanted to celebrate the biggest and bravest, we find common respect for and applaud those who give everything for others.
A crown of thorns is not a sign of humiliation when you consider it properly. It is a sign that God comes alongside those who offer everything and does exactly the same.
A diversion for etymologists
The koine Greek of the New Testament uses two other words for ‘crown’. Most of the time στέφανος (stéphanos) indicating a reward, and a few times in Revelation διάδημα (diádēma), a royal crown.
In Luke 12 ravens feature as a topic for consideration: even without sowing or reaping they are fed. The word used in the Greek in Luke isκόρᾰξ (kórax), cognate withκορώνη– the nearest you’ll find to corona in the New Testament.
I did find that in the Greek translation of the Old Testament – the Septuagint – which predates the New Testament writings, our two Greek corona terms are used a handful of times.
κορώνη is used in Jeremiah 3:2 where the word actually refers to a kind of highwayman. Not particularly helpful, you’d suppose. It is possible that a highwayman is being compared to a crow or raven, of course, reaping where it did not sow.
κορυφή is found six times in the Septuagint, each time used to translate the Hebrew lemma rootרֹאשׁ(rosh) demonstrating some variations in meaning found across both words:
the summit or peak of a mountain (Exodus 17: 9,10; 19:20)
top of the head (Genesis 49:26, Deuteronomy 33:16)
the head itself (Proverbs 1:9).
Lovely. What does all this prove though?
It tells me that the roots of the word ‘corona’ do not have a helpful biblical background if you want to prove anything. There is not even a clear connection withרֹאשׁas this lemma is used 599 times in the OT, and only translated toκορυφή on six occasions.
In recent days have been acting like that removal man who believed he was being clever by carrying all the clothes from a wardrobe inside the wardrobe. You know, to save everyone the weight.
I have been asking God to carry me (this is normal, and makes a huge difference in my day when I remember to do it). I have not, however, been asking God to carry all the weight of life for me. I kept hold of much of it. Carrying all the things. You know, because someone has to.
The more I considered this, the more I realised how foolish I have been.
God is carrying it all anyway.
Why not ask God to carry my burdens, as well as myself?
Life is complex and rich and messy. It takes me days even to list all the things I am working on. (Days more to plan how to tackle the many tabs which spring open in my head). Trying to solve, resolve, own and appreciate every one of them is genuinely impossible.
Having chatted it over with a wise person, I now have a new daily schedule. It involves a rhythm to my day which develops routines I have already put in place and carves firmer boundaries for better self-discipline.
There are so many areas of life which demand attention at one time or another: children, friends, food, schools, church, reading, writing, social media, admin, housework, fitness, the dog, rest times. But I cannot carry more than one at a time. Some are hard, or emotive, or tedious. There are times I’m not even sure I can carry one all that well.
So I will let go. God’s got them. They’re not going anywhere. In his strength, beating in time with the unforced rhythms of his grace, I will tackle the ones I can as I can. One task at a time only, for 45 minutes. Forgetting the rest of it I choose to trust God to direct me, focus me and use my energy.
The process may need tweaking, but it is better I give this a go than to flounder and drown in the sea of worries and tasks. There was no way I was going to be able to continue to carry so much without sinking. The tides come and go. The waves rise and retreat. The rhythms which work now are not the rhythms which worked for me twenty years ago. In this season of life, I was not designed to carry as much as I thought I should. I was designed to let God carry me and lead me.
There are times when God leads me to rest, times when he leads me to be with others, times when he leads me to do the trivial everyday things and times when he leads me to work.
In his Message translation of Matthew 11, Eugene Peterson came up with an inspired way of explaining what it means to walk in step with God. Jesus says to a group of people:
“Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion? Come to me. Get away with me and you’ll recover your life. I’ll show you how to take a real rest. Walk with me and work with me—watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly.”
Are you carrying too much? Finding life doesn’t fit right? Just wanting to live more freely and lightly? Don’t be like the guy carrying clothes he didn’t need to carry. There’s a better way, and a better rhythm.
Just over ten years ago we bought a car which thought it was a van. Or maybe it was a van which thought it was a car. It was a good car van. It was functional, utterly practical and so, so roomy inside. It was a silver Peugeot Partner, almost identical to the Citroen Berlingo and the good points about it (in no particular order) were:
sliding doors for the back seats which made it easier to unload/load young children in car parks without them opening car doors on to neighbouring cars;
you could stand a Phil&Ted’s double buggy in the boot without folding it down;
you can fit a lot of luggage, children, dog, presents for Christmas all inside the vehicle without needing a roof box;
the number plate included the letters LE……GO which I always thought was fabulous;
it had a CD player (meaning we often had dozens of CDs in the car – even some for the adult travellers);
it was so tall we could always find it in car parks;
it was so ugly no one ever tried stealing it;
you could tell where the front of the car was for parking because you could see the headlamp bars (not sure it needed them, but they did help in that regard);
most of the doors worked most of the time;
it was not a car I needed to be precious about with children in, so it was allowed to get untidy and there was so much capacity in the foot wells we could get a full load of shopping in there (much easier than opening the boot);
I have transported all kinds of large furniture in it (beds, mattresses, book cases and even a dresser);
the boot was big enough for eating fish and chips in;
pretty good visibility and a high driving position;
a glove box which held together really well with gaffer tape;
storage everywhere – practically a caravan in fact – I loaded it to the roof when I helped my mum empty her parents’ house – and we could fit all the guinea pig stuff (including the hutch) in the boot.
It was a car we took to France. A car we took our children around the UK to meet family and friends, take holidays, eat picnics. The car we brought the dog home in.
We replaced the front windscreen (several times). The battery. The starter motor. The boot door. The tyres. The cam belt. The rear bumper. The wiper blades. Various bulbs. I learned how to take a wheel off by myself on this car. It was pranged one Christmas but was very forgiving. Yes, it was noisy, bulky and boxy, but it was a car we grew very attached to. Our son would lock himself in it when he was not in the mood to leave it and go indoors. Our daughter would insist on putting the music on, even at (no, perhaps especially at) junctions when we were concentrating on traffic. We gave lifts and sang badly. Well, I did. We tried to fit a roof top box – even bought the special spanner – and then realised it wasn’t going to happen. The necessary bits had rusted through.
It was a workhorse of a car, and the only one we’ve had for several years now, but it was getting more unreliable, and besides, we wanted to move on from diesel.
So, in the usual way with these things, we spent the past few years assessing what our next car should be, and settled on a Golf SV. We then made a longer shortlist. A long list. Shortened it. Consulted the children. Consulted the dog. Reduced the list. Settled on a Golf SV again. It is not a trendy car. Jeremy Clarkson has nothing nice to say about it. This stands in its favour in my opinion. When one came up which met our specification, we went and saw it last weekend, and part exchanged yesterday.
Our boxy brute of a car is sold.
Ready for auction (well, aside from the glove box, the dodgy door and the necessary deep clean). It may have enough life in it for someone to make good use of it for a while – I hope so. And I hope they have use of the official dog guard, which we won’t be needing any more as it doesn’t fit the Golf.
I do love the new car though. All the doors open. It has many buttons, and I already know what some of them do. I finally found the CD player – in the glove box. Which opens. It has a sun-roof (the car, not the glove box, as far as I know), which was high on my list for years. It has enough cup holders for a sports team. We bought it from a dealership in Essex, it has a Suffolk number plate and now lives in Cambridgeshire. Who knows how long we’ll have it? Perhaps it will also take us on many adventures.
New year, new car. But, to move forward, we have had to let go. It’s a lesson I think my old car had been trying to teach me for some time.
Or, maybe it wanted to go to a car wash, to let go of the winter muck.
Or, maybe it wanted a part in Frozen. And just couldn’t let it go.
There are always many reasons for not writing enough. Writing is hard. Writing involves sweating your soul out of your fingertips.
Reading is one way of enriching your soul and feeding those muses. Reading gets the fingertips buzzing again. Writers need to read widely to understand how to write well, to learn what is being read by others and to find their niche in a busy market. This past year I tackled my own reading by challenging myself to see how many books I could complete, noting each one down as I finished it. The rules were fairly simple. I could already have begun the book, but needed to have finished it completely within 2019. This rules out books I only read a portion of to my son, or ones which are still ‘live’, but rules in books I had almost finished at the end of last year. Magazines, articles, essays, chapters of books didn’t count, no matter how erudite or obscure. Only completed volumes could be added to the list.
As I went through the year I found more questions arising and various patterns emerging in my reading. I have been working through a number of books at any given time, but wanted to vary the genres, authors and lengths. I kept long books for trips and read short chapter books to my son or read them myself. I worked on books for my research in my morning quiet time and easy reads in bed at night. I challenged myself to complete the New Testament in Greek, which I had begun a year before (this only counted as one book, but might easily have been 23) and allowed myself to count Genesis and Exodus in Hebrew as a book each. I included Molesworth (a four-volume book) as one. I included poetry, autobiography, devotional, fiction and academic works. For the first time, I actually read the Harry Potter canon, and found that I really enjoyed the series. I’m now working through the spin-offs. I read books by friends and those I’ve met at events, and books by people with completely different world-views to mine.
Today I finished three books, taking the total for 2019 to 70 completed volumes.
Of these, half were fiction, 29 were children’s books and 6 were poetry. I read 14 autobiographies and a couple more biographies, 28 books by Christian writers and 6 which were definitely academic or theological. The number of ‘live’ current reads is, I think, another 6-10. In all this, I am not aware that my ‘to be read’ pile has shrunk in any way.
I rated each book out of 10 for how much it impressed me, and 26 of those I finished scored a 10. The others varied a lot, but generally did very well.
Here are my 12 recommended reading highlights from 2019. Links take you to Amazon, but there are many alternative and very worthy sellers: I recommend buying from independent sellers wherever possible. See these links for reviews and information on each.
Eye Can Write, written against the odds, challenges the reader on a number of levels. Jonathan Bryan is a poet, deep thinker and baker of cakes. He also lives with severe cerebral palsy and was thought not to be able to communicate at all.
I am amazed that Jonathan wrote this while only 12 years old.
I want to be as good a writer as he is one day.
Rooftoppers is #1 in ‘Home Improvement Roofing’ on the Big A, but that’s not all.
This page-turner has rich characters, a clever plot and amazing writing.
Great for children and those reading to them.
Wonder is worth reading before you watch the film adaptation: it is told beautifully and is a great way to get children (and adults) thinking about how we act when we encounter difference.
For People Needing Purpose:
Liz Carter has managed a great feat in producing this book: Catching Contentment is readable and full of empowering truths. Satisfaction is hard to come by, and Liz knows a thing or two about that. She shares her story and challenges and encourages us to look at what contentment really means and how we can experience it ourselves.
Lysa TerKeurst is another woman with a powerful testimony of huge disappointment and how to find strength to rebuild a life. It’s Not Supposed to Be This Way may be a bestseller, but its popularity demonstrates how important this topic is for so many of us.
Disclaimer: I’ve not finished reading Image of the Invisible, but that is because the daily readings last until 6th January. So far it’s been excellent
I was drawn to Amy’s book because I like to be challenged when I have devotional readings and Amy has an intelligent, godly and articulate voice. She connects biblical truths intuitively with experiences many of us resonate with, and I highly recommend this book for future Advent readers.
For Those Who Love Wit:
Brian Bilston signed my copy of Diary of a Somebody when he came to Cambridge recently. I love his marvellous wit, original ideas and allusions to works of literature, films and music. His tweets made him famous through his clever poetry; this longer book is great fun and a super read whether or not you like poetry.
(But particularly if you do).
For Those Who Love a Well-Crafted Story:
Madeline Miller is both an academic and an astonishingly good writer. I felt drawn into her world of ancient Greek myth and I thoroughly enjoyed reading Circe. I would like to read her Song of Achilles before long. I aspire to be able to write as beautifully as Miller, and to be able to evoke the ancient mind and place so well.
Until this year I had only read the first in the Harry Potter series, but I wanted to read the set, especially now I have a child at high school.
I was spell-bound. The stories are full of adventure and the plotting is superb. The characters were mischievous and lovable and I enjoyed the names and the details. I found all of the books great in their own way, but Deathly Hallows brought everything together neatly and was the most satisfying for me, despite some scary moments.
For Theologians with too little time:
Peter Williams is the Principal of Tyndale House in Cambridge and a renowned New Testament scholar. This short and very readable book is a super look at the reliability of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, looking at details such as undesigned coincidences, outside sources, local knowledge and textual variant questions.
Williams makes a strong case and references his points well. A good book for pastors and biblical teachers, as well as discerning seekers.
Technically, I don’t know whether I have finished reading The Marriage of Heaven and Earth: A Visual Guide to N.T. Wright so I’ve not included it in the book count, but I have read over 80% of it at various times in preparing for my most recent lectures.
If you have time, read N.T. Wright. If you have read some of Tom Wright, but don’t have much time, read this too.
Very clever. Punchy text and illustrated with diagrams to help the visual learner.
This is an amazing resource, and works best in conjunction with the free videos on Youtube. I’ve not read all of Read Scripture: Illustrated Summaries of Biblical Books but as a biblical scholar I love what the team have done. Each book of the Bible gets a large spread and there are lots of details as well as overviews. The book is actually quite big, but it comes with a cover to slot into; it needs to be big to fit some of the many details in.
If you have written a book which I haven’t reviewed here, I may not have read it (or finished it) yet – send me an email or drop a comment below and I will read and review it as soon as I am able.
In 2020 I intend to progress further with my own writing projects and will continue to note down all the books I read as I go. I wonder how many books I’ll be able to complete in the coming decade?
Well, ideally I will need to focus more time and attention on my own writing: all being well at least one of those ought to have my name on the cover.
Today I am marking World Mental Health Day by considering some important things I have learned over a number of years. Over time and with a lot of help and medication, I have acknowledged, accepted and come to accommodate the strange limits my mind puts on me.
Except when I don’t.
(Some days are better than others.)
Bad days are brain fog. Malfunctioning. Panic.
Bad days are forgettory days.
Bad days are dissolved dreams. The fear of fear.
Bad moments leaking into good days tie my words and emotions.
Bad days are full of can’ts and empty of most of the other stuff.
The world might have woken up with a bottle green sky and velcro pavements and nothing would feel alien; I would just be aware that – as usual – everything is odd again.
Then the frustration and the disappointment and the grief at so many little inadequacies and unfulfilled potential returns, so that even if the initial anxiety was inert, it is now tainted.
But. This journey is a familiar place now; a commute I know well enough to recognise.
I have learned to see that I am not alone, and not being ok at times is ok too. And, instead of letting the journey focus me on myself, my healing has involved looking outwards. How can I help others? What are other people’s stories? How can I be part of someone else’s solution?
Those around me almost all seem to be affected by hurting minds too, perhaps in different ways, and at different times. Caring people. Intelligent people. Wise people. Thoughtful people. Decent people. People carrying burdens they weren’t designed to have to carry alone.
The journey is always better when it is shared. Relief comes when you accept you are not sufficient to meet your own lack. When you can grieve this with others and release emotions as many times as you need to.
Talking helps. Honesty and truth will get you a long way.
Medication helps too.
Realistic targets help, and celebrating the wins.
Self-forgiveness and acceptance, and guts to keep on when you are blindly navigating territory you don’t want to be in.
For me, the journey hasn’t always been as bleak as the first time I made it. Familiarity means you can find and practise using tools to equip you when your brain does not want to work. It is more than 25 years since I started facing down depression and anxiety, and if you are interested in knowing some of the tools which definitely work for me and may well for you or others too, here’s a start…
Autopilot and habit forming
I make a lot of lists and plans, and fall back on routines to get through busy times of the day. Plans help me to identify the most urgent and important tasks of the day and put my mental resources into these. At times when I cannot focus well for more than a minute or so, I know I have many tasks I can do around the house on autopilot.
It has surprised me just how much my own condition has affected my concentration and mental stamina. If I know I have to be alert for a period of time, I’ll need to prepare exceptionally well and allow considerable recovery time afterwards. This has meant giving up full-time teaching and moving into part-time tutoring. This is not a problem though, as it is a job I love and which feeds into my passions.
I find that I need regular breaks on a daily and weekly basis, and when weekends fill up with activity I need to give myself a day during the week to recharge my mind. This often falls on a Wednesday, which is the day when my mind is usually least likely to be functioning.
Cups of tea or coffee
I make a point of having a quiet time every morning after the school run with a nice snack and a hot drink so I can pray and read and prepare emotionally for the day. When I don’t manage my quiet time I almost always regret it later in the day. I also make a point of noting what I did the day before in a diary, which helps stimulate my flagging memory, and to consider what the ‘best thing’ was that day.
Although I would like the family to take on more of the chores, it is not simple to teach housework to or supervise tired children when I am mentally spent – this means the kids are not doing enough around the house, but it also gives me a deeper sense of purpose when chores are all I can manage. Even these can be too much some days. I have responsibilities in various forums and would love to be able to take on more roles in the children’s schools and at church, but experience has told me (many times) that I cannot do as much as I think I ought to be able to without burning so low on resources that I need excessive recovery time, and that it is ok to share the load with others.
Three months ago I decided, rather suddenly, to stop eating chocolate for a period of time. My resolve was almost certainly connected to my expanding waistline. After a few weeks of feeling sorry for myself and inordinate amounts of salted caramel ice cream, I discovered that I had lost the desire for it.
This was proved when I visited Cadburyworld with the family during the summer; I just didn’t want any. I still have my free chocolate bars (and a lot I bought in case I change my mind), sitting on the shelf at home.
I now aim to cut out other offending junk food, one area at a time. The results are slow, but already I fit some of my clothes better.
Having Faye has meant a good routine and discipline for walking twice a day for at least 20 minutes, and more often than not a lot more. Getting outdoors is good for my mind in lots of ways, but stretching the legs and the satisfaction of hitting more than 10,000 steps in a day is a real mood-lifter.
My friends who don’t judge me, who accept me, listen and encourage me are utterly precious. I have found friends in different places and at different times who have helped walk with me in the darkest hours, and I am grateful to God for every one of them.
Friends who can distract with activity, or enrich with beauty, or enable with words.
Friends who see the me I want to be, not the me I think I am becoming.
Friends who can tell me, in the best possible way, that sometimes you need to stop, and return to something a little later, when you are ready.
Last year I was published twice in anthologies produced by the Association of Christian Writers, which was a great big step for a fledgling writer like me. It helped my writing esteem enormously and gave me a feel for some of the other elements involved in producing a book; behind the scenes several friends worked long hours proofing, editing and typesetting. When I got my copies I learned about marketing and selling dozens of copies of each.
Click on the links below for the Kindle versions. Print copies are available too, and I have one remaining copy for anyone local to me who asks quickly enough on the Christmas book.
As I was researching and writing about frankincense for Merry Christmas Everyone, I considered also writing about the other two gifts the Magi presented to Jesus in Matthew 2. Getting under the skin of a biblical passage is a real passion of mine, and presenting information in original ways. I had written a poem about frankincense, which is a dried resin used for lots of purposes, but principally known as a fragrant material for burning in religious ceremonies. If there was intended meaning behind the gift, as many believe there was, the symbolism may well have concerned priesthood.
The symbolism of gold is far easier to connect to, as we recognise its potent regal connotations across many cultures and times. Gold represents majesty, honour and treasure.
Myrrh is a more strange material; it is also a gum from a tree, and produced for medicinal and religious purposes, but it has a strong association with ancient embalming, and has traditionally been held to represent the importance of the death of Jesus as a sacrifice.
Strange gifts for a young child, and certainly things to give Mary reason to ponder. Each of these elements were present in prophecies about the coming Messiah in the Jewish scriptures, and each featured in the way Jesus lived his life on earth. A king. A priest. A sacrifice.
You’ll need to get hold of a copy of Merry Christmas Everybody to read my poem in there about frankincense, but here to complete the set are the other two poems.
May you have a blessed and joyful Epiphany!
The soldiers showed no mercy when they came
and murdered David’s sons inside our town;
the orders of an angry king to blame –
despising any who could take his crown.
The merchants saw them first, as daylight broke:
on horseback, wearing armour, wielding swords;
the little boys were sleeping. We awoke
to screams and murmured prayers and broken cords.
The mothers who had fed these sons from birth
(their hopes and futures, joys, inheritance),
traded their blessings and exchanged young mirth
for myrtle baths, and wept at the expense.
My God, my God, do not forsake these ones,
whose myrrh and tears embrace their precious sons.
We were given gold
and told to leave the land of Egypt,
so we ran from slavery
bravely, fearfully, tearfully,
carrying our treasures close to our hearts.
And journeyed into furnaces of sand.
We learned in pain that gods of gold
had not received us, saved us.
in our shame,
we learned the Name alone
– not gold –
bright, heavy, sure,
carrying His treasure close to His heart.
We built a tent and used our gold
to show our gratitude.
We covered all the wood –
made ornaments and bells,
to show our worship for our King.
He took us from the furnace to the land.
The tent came too. But,
so confused by gods of other clans
we looked to gold for answers,
carrying our hearts close to our treasures.
Measuring ourselves with others.
We want a king!
You have a King.
No – a king like all the others.
Give us a king.
With a crown.
A crown of gold.
We’ll build him a gilded palace.
We cannot see our King.
How can he save us?
I will give them a king. A boy from Bethlehem
who carries me close to his heart.
Our kings had golden crowns
and splendid rooms
and saved us sometimes.
And sometimes broke us.
There was a golden temple too
(our King was there).
But other temples grew
and who knew what was true?
Until armies came from the East.
They took our gold,
gold from our temple,
carried it close to their hearts,
back to their temples where they worshipped the stars.
We want a king!
A king who will save us.
I will give them a king. A boy from Bethlehem
who carries me close to his heart.
We journeyed from our land, as slaves again.
Our captured hearts sang songs of times of gold,
and how our King had saved us once before.
And when our hearts, refined, were moved to Him,
He took us home.
And we were given gold,
restored to us,
and told to build our land again.
Bravely, fearfully, tearfully, we went,
carrying our Treasure close to our hearts.
Humbled and tested, and tested again, and humbled.
More kings, and battles, and languages and rules
and every king so hungry
for power, wealth
Our humble heads hung low –
we didn’t see the star
that told of Treasure coming to our hearts.