The ‘Actually Read’ Pile

As arbitrary as a year-end can be, having a project and a date to work towards always motivates me. One ongoing project I have is writing down all the books I finish reading; a task which gets progressively more satisfying as the year passes. Rather than counting down to Christmas, I measure the month by the number of books I believe I can read. I’ve learned that my wellbeing is enriched with a ‘done’ list, and writing it all down helps me to see where I may go next.

Is there another book in the series? What else has the author written? And what am I not reading?

I can tell you a little about what I have read. 2022 included a range of fiction, non-fiction, autobiography, poetry and children’s titles. Perhaps my range has not been as wide as usual, but this year was one for exploring more languages.

Alongside English (I must admit, quite literally alongside), I have tentatively explored books written in Welsh, German, the Shetland dialect, Hebrew (lots) and Aramaic (a little).

So, did my dog learn Welsh this year?

Or did I?

Read on to find out…

'Teach Your Dog Welsh'

Many of the books this year were mood-lifters, and although some were long, most were shorter than average. Most books I finished scored highly for me out of ten; perhaps this is because I am getting older. Or more discriminating. Or less concerned when a book isn’t what I’m in the mood for. If I feel stronger in 2023 I’ll go back and complete some of the books I’ve left halfway this year.

I love well-written or evocative prose, cleverly rounded characters and a plot thick enough to rest a spoon on. (Briefly, I mean). I also thrive on originality and wit (in either order).

Some of my reading highlights from 2022 follow. Do you agree with these recommendations?

If you’ve not already read my offerings from 2021, 2020 or 2019, do check those out too.

Fiction

'The Song of Achilles'

The Song of Achilles had been on my ‘must read’ list since I read Madeline Miller’s Circe a few years back and it did not disappoint.

Miller knows Greek mythology and she knows how to spin a story.

Whether you are familiar or not with the originals, there is much drama, spice and inspired evocative writing here.

***

I have read a number of Rachel Joyce’s works and love her writing. She takes people so ordinary you think you know them and puts them in progressively extraordinary situations. In Miss Benson’s Beetle, two unlikely companions take a quest to New Caledonia to look for an elusive gold beetle.

I had to look up New Caledonia. It’s a French overseas territory east of Australia. Joyce must have had a lot of fun writing this and I hope she got to visit the place.

(Author aspirations… must write about somewhere exotic myself, hmm…)

I do recommend this, particularly as my plot-predictor radar must have been off and I didn’t see all the clever twists coming.

***

'Miss Benson's Beetle'
'Blood Water Paint'

Joy McCullough’s Blood Water Paint is written in free verse, one of my favourite forms.

The seventeenth century painter Artemisia Gentileschi may have been used and forgotten, but her paintings of Susanna and Judith still challenge the violent unfair patriarchal system she lived in.

In McCullough’s artful retelling, Artemisia’s father is passing her work off as his own, but the young girl has bigger worries to deal with. Stories of injustice and pain are not new, but this tale of stories within stories deserves to be retold; this book does it exquisitely.

***

I picked up The Lion and The Saint by Laura E. Wolfe as I was intrigued by the concept and reviews. It was a stunning read.

This is a novella, so relatively quick to get through; it is told in first person by a lion, a hamadryas baboon and St Gerasim. Compelling and powerful, a well-crafted parable for all ages.

***

'The Lion and The Saint'
'Louisa Freya, Dragon Slayer'

Amy Scott Robinson has chosen and retold a number of international folk tales in Louisa Freya, Dragon Slayer, all with female heroes, for this book. It is perfect for children and certainly shouldn’t be limited to a female readership. I loved the artwork as well as the writing and recommend it as a great gift option for young readers. Incidentally, if you can stretch to the sister-book, Queen Esther, Nation Saver, I highly recommend that too.

***

Ruth Leigh is ridiculously witty and her poor heroine, the influencer Issy Smugge, is now established both in her Suffolk manor house and in the hearts of readers around the world. This is the third book in the series and the best so far in my opinion.

Smugge (it rhymes with Brugge) is unaware of how she really appears to regular folk, some of whom hate her, but life has been very difficult despite appearances. Underneath the glamour there are deeper issues lurking. And upstairs Mummy has come to stay.

Leigh’s clever observational humour made me chuckle frequently. If you’ve not yet discovered Issy Smugge you’re missing out.

***

'The Continued Times of Isabella M Smugge'

I met Ruth through our connections with the Association of Christian Writers and we had wonderful chats in her car when we travelled together to a conference in May. We bonded over Frasier quotes, families and comedy writing and recommended books to each other. Ruth was astonished that I had not heard of the Australian writer, Graeme Simsion. She told me to get hold of The Rose Project without delay and, as fate would have it, I saw it on sale second-hand at a village fete shortly afterwards. She was right, of course.

Graeme Simsion

The Rosie Project is the first in a trilogy about Don Tillman, a genetics scientist who decides to find himself a wife using science. Don’s attempts are truly laughable but the story resolves beautifully, works through various adventures and creates a memorable, if utterly naive, protagonist.

Simsion’s strength is his assiduous planning. The books in this series are each poignant, funny and captivating, but it is the thoroughly prepared characters and plot that really work for me.

In The Rosie Effect we see Don and Rosie move to New York, and in The Rosie Result Don has to confront various truths about himself and his family, including questioning whether he is autistic.

***

'Don Tillman's Standardized Meal System'

The character Don Tillman operates a cyclical meal system which sounds simple enough, but has seasonal variations, a number of more advanced recipes and allowances for visitors on certain nights.

A spin-off from the Rosie series, I have to say this is the funniest recipe book I have ever read.

***

As a confirmed ‘Plotter’ (as against a ‘Pantser’), Simsion’s writing methods are fascinating. He and his wife write together at times, but both like to plan out the details in advance to such a degree that writing a first draft of a book takes a remarkably short time within the larger plan.

Check out Simsion on Youtube if you don’t get the chance to read this but want to know how he does it. He uses details and plots from The Rosie Result and another excellent book of his, The Best of Adam Sharp to explain how he writes, so it is well worth reading those first.

***

'The Novel Project'

Non-Fiction

'Universal Principles of Design'

I love this little book, filled with all kinds of principles of design. Some are intuitive, some give you ‘aha!’ moments and some explain why buildings, or fonts, or items, look or behave the way they do.

***

Paul Kerensa is not only a comedian and comedy writer, but he really does his homework when it comes to research. He’s done a great job of researching the history of the BBC (now conveniently 100 years old) elsewhere. However, Hark! The Biography of Christmas, which I recommend for December reading, is packed with so much information on the history of Christmas you’ll be amazing at how much you didn’t know.

Yes, even you.

I finished it on Christmas Day, aptly. Altogether funny, fascinating and festive. Get a copy, for yourself or someone else. As Miranda Hart points out, it does make a great present.

***

'Hark! The Biography of Christmas'
'If God is Love, Don't be a Jerk'

Talking of presents, this one was given to me during the year.

John Pavlovitz’ If God is Love, Don’t be a Jerk was an inspired gift – I loved it. Like many Christians who don’t want to be lumped with those who carry the name but not the loving actions, I needed to hear these words.

There is hope for us – even those of us who are hypocritical messes. Pavlovitz is provocative at times and the content is US-centric, but there is still plenty to make us sit up and chew on elsewhere.

***

I bought Joanna Watson’s book Light through the Cracks in May at the writers’ conference and found her book compelling and arresting.

There are few books which detail people’s experiences of miracles and how God works directly in their lives. I believe we should all be open to listening to these, and Joanna retells the stories of people she has met with sensitivity and intelligence.

***

'Light through the Cracks'
'Wild Maps'

During the year I read a couple of infographic maps books, but Wild Maps stood out for me as one to recommend more widely, with dozens of diagrams showing where animals are, the impact of humans and positive as well as negative sides to the current state of the world.

***

Languages

Did my dog learn Welsh?

Well, as she doesn’t yet speak English, that was always going to be a tall order. I’m not even sure she understands much English to be fair. She doesn’t even know ‘walkies’ yet and she’s nearly nine. She may be a muppet, but we love her anyway.

All of which I cannot say in Welsh.

Sorry.

***

'Teach Your Dog Welsh'
'The Shetland Bible'

Over to Scotland for the final recommendation this year.

I was introduced to this book by Onesimus at the Bible Society Reading Room at Cambridge University Library. As a visitor I was asked if I wanted to request any obscure language Bibles. Onesimus found me a Cornish one for one part of my heritage, but nothing in Orcadian (see my post on Scottish Roots).

However, this book, written in Shetland dialect, was both difficult and ridiculously fascinating. It is a selection of familiar Bible passages and stories told in dialect.

‘Dunna be in a trachle’ (John 14:1)

***

In 2018 I challenged myself to read the entire Bible in the original languages. I started with the New Testament in Greek, and progressed to the Old Testament in Hebrew (and some Aramaic, which I have not studied).

As of today, I only have a few minor prophets to go to finish the lot. It will have taken over five years, but I have learned lots in the process.

I’ll then have to decide what to do next, of course. An in-depth look at one part may be the solution.

Pages and years turn. We start books and (hopefully) finish books. Who knows how the next chapter unfolds?

***

Wishing you every peace and joy for 2023. God bless you and your reading in the year ahead.
Oh, and let me know if you have recommendations for books you think I might like!

Scottish Roots

My granny was evacuated during World War II and stayed with relatives in North Ayrshire for some of that time. I learnt this as a child, but didn’t understand then that it meant Granny must have had Scottish blood in her. It feels obvious now, but back then our family connections with Scotland had lapsed as there were no close living relatives to visit.

The last generation to actually have been born in Scotland were Granny’s great-grandparents, Annie and James, who moved from Edinburgh to Manchester and Liverpool. James was a bookseller in Edinburgh and a Bible canvasser in Manchester. I learnt these things as an adult when I started looking into family histories, scouring websites for clues and verifiable family facts. Was the family rumour of a connection with George Meikle Kemp, architect of Edinburgh’s Scott Monument, based on any truth?

Scott Monument, Edinburgh, and George Meikle Kemp

Kemp was proving illusive; he had died by falling in a canal one night aged 48. We are not connected with his four children but there is little by way of verifiable ancestry further back.

Victoria Dock, Singapore, 1890s
https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/Category:Singapore_in_the_1890s#/media/File:Victoria_Dock,_Tanjong_Pagar,_in_the_1890s.jpg

The story got more complicated; James and Annie did not settle in England. For a time, in fact, the family lived in Singapore, where Annie died in 1900 in the Straits hotel. The Singapore she knew is long gone, but her children and grandchildren went on to live and work around the world.

Although this Singapore link was not permanent, it was certainly colourful. Annie’s son, my great-great-grandfather James, spent time growing up there with the Sultan of Johor. He later worked as an electrical engineer with trams in Brazil and lit the Mersey tunnel.

The more I looked for answers, the more questions formed. Who were these people? How would they have regarded themselves? Where did they consider home to be?

I did stumble across an Australian newspaper source from 1928 which included an extra detail I did not know about Annie. Something I did not expect.

Orkney Islands Satellite photograph

She was born in Orkney!

This was a lovely surprise. It means that I am a wee bit Orcadian (one sixteenth Scottish if you include Annie’s husband James). This certainly justifies celebrating Scottish holidays in my experience, when considering the degree of Irish heritage much of America claims in mid March.

Annie’s maiden name Baikie was common in Orkney, but also leads to a suspicion there might be a link with famous Scottish explorer, linguist and Bible translator William Balfour Baikie. That would be another fascinating connection to make, if it can be proven. He was also surgeon, naturalist (he had a genus of beans named after him), planner and sometime commander. There is even a memorial to him at the Cathedral of St Magnus in Kirkwall. The research on Baikie can wait for now, but is certainly a line to consider.

I may not live in Scotland today but these links and histories have piqued my interest in learning more. The BBC made an interesting programme about Orkney as the Ancient Capital of Britain (for British viewers currently available here). The innovation, spirituality and wanderlust that runs in my blood may go back a lot further than I ever could have realised.

Skara Brae, Orkney
https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/9/91/Skara_Brae_passageway.jpg

Orkney Satellite Map image: Copernicus Sentinel-2, ESA – https://scihub.copernicus.eu/dhus/#/home,
CC BY-SA 3.0 igo, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=78126591

Life, Death and ..?

There is a strange bias in the news toward reporting death. I suppose if we knew what lives were going to be led every time a child was born, perhaps we would be reporting births with the same degree of importance. The non-celebrities. The ones who would create beautiful things. The people who would overturn injustices. The little people who quietly get on with life and bless so many others in the process.

Dramatic and unexpected deaths hit headlines however, and we find ourselves chasing particular grisly stories for days, eager to learn more and get some degree of distant closure. Reflecting on mortality is to be avoided, but the details are often tantalising.

When we learn that a celebrity has died, we may gasp or feel the numbness of a missed beat; a little bit of our own history just died too. The death of Queen Elizabeth II recently winded a great many of us. Deaths of people we knew personally hit us the hardest of course, particularly those we loved. They will not see us again, and we will not see them. Our story must continue but the trajectory is changed now.

Arching long exposure star trajectories over an Indonesian lagoon 
(Pixabay)

Stories are a huge part of how we make sense of the world, especially when death visits our world and alters our planned course. Some stories distil trauma so readers or listeners can relive the pain and fright. For many people, chasing these thrills and shocks enables them to feel more alive. For others, this too is senseless and harmful. What about light, and life, and hope?

We bring our cultural stories to our own understandings of death. I’ve become aware of more interest in popular culture in creating a fictional post-death world which is less unpalatable and grim.

I love watching the BBC series Ghosts, written by and starring the madly funny original cast of Horrible Histories. The premise is that ghosts from different eras linger for a period of time in the place where they died. It is made all the odder when a living person – after surviving a near death experience – discovers she can see and hear the ghosts who live in her historic home. Very witty writing and clever characterisation, although the plot is based more on very silly moments than a particular arc and resolution or philosophy. Death can be a great comedic device, but this doesn’t resolve anything – it just softens it.

Disney released the imaginative Pixar film Coco in 2017 about a boy who meets his dead relatives during the Day of the Dead and needs their help to return to the land of the living. Ultimately the message of this film is that being remembered is as important, if not more important than being alive. Death is not the end. But this implies that being forgotten is the end, which is a little unsettling. Not everyone will have a grand legacy.

Similarly, the 2020 Pixar film Soul explores the situation of a jazz pianist who dies suddenly and finds himself in a strange limbo setting. He tries to escape the tally and happens upon the place where new souls are born. It is all rather contrived, although the soundtrack is amazing. The main character has to undergo a personal transformation (in various ways, in fact) before he can make peace with what happens at the end of the film. Along the way his actions bring benefits to others. Death here explores redemption, both for the protagonist and those he meets. The details vary, but the pattern is recognisable as a story arc seen in many stories throughout history.

Maybe Disney and Pixar have an obsession with death. Apart from having characters die early in order to set the scene (Finding Nemo, Up, Frozen), there are films where characters need to connect with those who have died (Onward, Raya, The Lion King). Death is a useful gate, but also something universal; something we all need to talk about obliquely, to try and lessen its force.

Can we, though? However well we tell stories or compose soundtracks, death still has the power to kill and to separate.

A graveyard with sunlight reaching around a central tree 
(Pixabay)

Recently a lady at church died. Audrey used to keep ferrets and had a wonderful twinkle. I don’t believe she is in limbo, or a ghost. I do have reason to believe that I will meet her again one day, however.

On my social media I’ve learned of well-known Christians who have died recently. Brother Andrew, a man known for being extraordinarily ordinary and using this to smuggle many Bibles past the Iron Curtain. Jennifer Rees Larcome, who experienced real trauma and pain in her life, experienced a miraculous healing and had a powerful ministry encouraging others. Gordon Fee, who co-wrote the highly readable How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth and influenced so many in interpreting the Bible wisely and well. I have recommended his books to many students. I haven’t met any of these people myself.

Yet.

My story for understanding death is not based on unsubstantiated spooky or weird fantasies. I have a reason to have hope. My experiences of death have certainly involved loss and grief, but there is reason for real and genuine hope when someone with solid authority tells you about it.

Empty tomb, stone rolled away, Israel
(Pixabay)

For me, and for many others around the world, that authority rests with the author of life. The one who overcame death. One whose birth was announced (despite not being born to celebrity parents), and is still celebrated every year. Jesus, who came to overturn injustice one situation at a time, inviting others to follow him and meet hatred with love. Jesus, whose love breaks the power of fear. Jesus, who understands how difficult it is to be cut off from those we love, and chose the painful path to ensure that death is not the end; that redemption and reconciliation matter.

We don’t hear of every death in the news. We hardly hear any births, unless the circumstances are particularly unusual. But life is really all the stuff in between. At least, for now.

What stories do we tell ourselves when we consider the bigger picture, and what weight do these stories hold?

He has set a day when the entire human race will be judged and everything set right. And he has already appointed the judge, confirming him before everyone by raising him from the dead.

Acts 17:31
(The Message)

If you’ve not previously considered the message of hope and life that Jesus offers, I do urge you to look into it seriously. Read the gospel of Luke, and then Acts (the story of what happened next). Ask God to reveal himself to you if he’s real and to take away your fears. The author of life has a story for you to live, and I can promise you it won’t be boring!

imperfect storms

Image of clouds with the words 'In the perfect storm you are the perfect refuge'

there are months
out of phase

when imperfect storms
collect on my mind’s horizon

griefs and glazed nights
grow clouds

wins
whip my heart

stops
and starts
and all the ups
and all the dreadful downs
unbalance my soul

whole trees
shudder

and the waters come
strong
fast
unceasing
unforgiving

and I must bend
if I am not to break

and I must hold fast

but my grip

is

loose

– shaking –

and then

then

I find that
I am found
and carried

I was not alone
I was protected
in your embrace

I watch you watch the storm

though the waters scream and rage
their song
does not frighten me

though griefs travel with me
you listen
you grieve with me
you travel too

you heal
you restore
you empower
you enable
you smile
you speak

the storms will all pass
but your love is forever

after Psalm 46
and the craziest September

Semi-skimmed Books

Are you getting your recommended daily allowance of reading?

A funny thing happened recently when I went away for a few days with my family. I took quite a few books which I wanted to finish, left several long reads at home and bought a handful more while away. One was written to teach dogs Welsh, and while it scores points for not being entirely in English, I don’t think the dog – or I – have learned a great deal from it.

Notably, I found reading for pleasure while trying to relax with others who had not brought books almost impossible. We played games. We celebrated the rain. We marvelled at the colours of nature. We wondered how to pronounce Welsh words. We ate well (and decided not to worry about holiday calories, working on the hazy theology that ‘all the fat is the LORD’s’ – Leviticus 3:16).

Perhaps I took the wrong books with me. The newer ones had greater immediate appeal, of course. They had hooked me in and were lighter on the old neurons.

A boy looking at books for sale on a table - a large industrial hook hangs just above the centre of the table.
Every book needs a good hook

New books, outside the genres I write in, do not feel like work. I love reading, but the more I write, the more I want to read, consciously learning how other writers write. Some writers I return to frequently, thirsty for comic refreshment or astute observational prose. Then there are books which are heavier or drier: some I make myself finish, but not all.

In our local reading group we are working through a book which is deeper and longer than many. It is an Olympic swimming pool of a book. Sadly, this summer, while I can manage paddling pool volumes or even the occasional lido, I do not have the strokes to complete the thing. It will not be read in full, and therefore will not make it to my annual list of ‘All The Books I Finished Reading Completely’. Part of me is angry with myself for these reading shortcomings, but another part of me – the part that loves to find new metaphors – wants to celebrate the authenticity of doing well enough without overdoing it.

I bring you the art of semi-skimmed reading.

Must we consume the introduction, acknowledgements and blurb? No!

Try semi-skimmed. This tried and tested method is best suited to non-fiction and means reading enough but not overdoing it. Semi-skimmed reading looks through the contents page, the main points at the beginning and ends of chapters and the various headers throughout the work. It notes conclusions and references and gets the gist, but is also honest enough to admit that it hasn’t read the whole thing. If every academic had read every page of every work on their own shelves, none would ever have time to mark, eat or sleep. Balance is required. Semi-skimmed reading teaches you where to find what you need in future and gives you a greater respect for the topic.

There are books suitable for reading to children at bedtime, which can be semi-skimmed with a little practice. The metaphor can be extended, I am pleased to say. Some books are suited to reading on holiday, when you need something light or fast-paced (pasteurised). There are books suitable for deep thinking, in smaller doses (condensed). There will always be people who are lectose-intolerant and insist that they cannot possibly manage a book. I am cynical about these claims for the most part. We should all be on a well-balanced reading diet.

And the occasional read of something a bit fluffy because that’s all we fancy that day doesn’t mean we failed.

Bonne lecture!

Can Five Words Change You?

Jonah’s message was only five words long.

In Hebrew, I mean. In English it stretches a bit. That’s an excellent word-to-action ratio however, whichever language you look at it in.

image of a man in prophetwear with a crowd, speech bubble says 'yet / forty / days / and Nineveh / shall be overthrown' with Hebrew.

According to Jonah 3, the overturning transformed things. A dramatic change in behaviour throughout the city led to God changing his plans. Lots of about turns.

You might have your own five word horror story. Did you ever join in some meeting, nervously sipping bad coffee and fiddling with a sweaty pen before the leader turned to you and said brightly,

‘tell us something about yourself’

and the ground did not open up beneath you and the entire story of your life fizzed out of your memory? Fun times.

Or perhaps you found yourself driving in some remote State of America and spotted this:

Road sign stating 'hitchhikers may be escaping inmates'

…which, according to the chap in orange you just picked up, is just fake news, y’all.

Five words can spell disaster. Most disasters don’t need many words to be conveyed. Bad news punches hard. But – and this is my point – five words can also be used for good. Five words can turn things around.

I gave a talk on this topic this week and tried to come up with ideas.

‘Tell me how you’re doing’

seemed to me a universal way of checking in with someone, valuing them and being ready to listen and support. We all need this from time to time.

Other ideas included connecting spiritually:

‘Let me pray with you’

‘Are you free on Sunday?’

A lovely friend messaged me to say that:

‘How can I practically help?’

were her powerful five words. And she meant it. She is a kind and generous person who loves to support people.

Compassion is not cheap, and neither is grace.

Five words –
like five well chosen stones –
or five loaves of bread –
can go a long way when they are used for good purposes.
For God’s purposes.

A boy grins at his grandmother while showing her how to use a laptop - both sitting on grass outdoors in SE Asia region

Who is God asking you to listen to?

Who is God sending you to?

What five words are going to change you – and perhaps those you meet?

Memory work

I live near Cambridge and I teach the Bible, so today I had to make time in my diary to visit the Tyndale House Open Day. Tyndale is a library dedicated to biblical studies and serves as “an international centre for research that specialises in the languages, history and cultural context of the Bible”. Visiting is always a real treat, whether for a lecture or to do my own research.

Front of Tyndale House, Cambridge

I raced through housework and morning study, checked and memorised where the elusive car parking spots might be found today and popped over for an hour at lunchtime.

Leningrad Codex (copy) on a table with other Codices

Of course, it was not going to be enough time to really explore properly, but I did get to look at some copies of ancient codices and meet some interesting people.

It’s not often I can chat about polyglots, nominative determinism or Agatha Christie’s archaeological poems with like-minded Bible enthusiasts and it is very useful to engage academically to keep my brain working well.

Remembering words in other languages seems more straightforward – even normal – at places like Tyndale. While I was visiting I had the chance to hear from Fausto, a visiting student who is working on transmitting the Bible to cultures without written language. There was then a short talk on ‘Manuscripts and Scripture Memorisation’ by Dr Kim Phillips. I found this intriguing. We talk about ancient people having very good memories, but don’t seem to be able to show hard evidence for it. I suspect that our technology-reliant generation are not using our memory muscles sufficiently and are the poorer for it in any case, but working on memory skills certainly brings a sharper mind. Memorising Psalms, even hundreds of years ago, was a matter of a lot of hard work, with or without tunes.

Some of the fascinating work Kim has been doing concerns ancient shorthand versions. The writers were not always male – in one text the scribe apologises at the end for smudges incurred as a result of breastfeeding while writing! Even 1000 years ago there were some who multi-tasked motherhood and biblical study. I was surprised at how reassured I felt to learn this.

Each passage was shortened to key words, letters or phrases. Accuracy mattered, but how much needed to be recorded varied. For well-rehearsed Psalms only a few words might have been enough.

I wondered if this might mirror how I learned some verses back in Holiday Clubs, where the individual words were removed one at a time while the group repeated the entire passage:

For ….. so ….. ….. ……
that …. …… ….. one and …… …..
that …….. ……. in …..
would not ……
but have ……. …… .

John 3:16

Or how much of this Psalm might I recall if I only had the following lines?

The Lord is my shepherd; …………………….
……………………………….. in green pastures;
he leads me beside ………………………..
he ………………………….
……………………………….. right paths
    for his ……………………….

Even though …………………………………………
I fear ……………………
for …………………………..
your ………………………………………..
they …………………………

You prepare …………………………………………….
in the presence of ………………………………
you anoint ……………………………………………
my cup ……………..
Surely ………………….. and ………….. shall follow me
    all the …………………………
and I shall ………………………………………………………….
…………………………………………………….


(See this link for the answers!)

I imagine the same task could be done with songs, or quotes from films. It is surprising how much we do learn by heart when we are motivated to. I don’t imagine I’ll be memorising the Psalms, although it is encouraging to hear about how this could be done.

Psalm 42 shorthard ancient text

The scribe would have noted down just enough to be able to recall the rest. This represents all of Psalm 42.

Psalm 42 Hebrew

The words in bold here are the only ones written down. The rest was memorised. The longer phrase (10 here) identifies a verse which was similar to a verse in the following Psalm, to keep them distinct and accurate.

(I have taken these two images from Kim Phillips’ twitter account: https://twitter.com/K_L_Phillips)

A good number of people had turned up and there was plenty to see and discuss. Hopefully there will be future events, ideally on days people are more likely to be able to visit, so that others can get excited about the work going on. Children (young and old) may well enjoy trying out cuneiform in clay. Chatting to some of the staff, trustees and researchers proved that they are not ivory tower Bible nerds but fascinating people with faith, humour and intelligence. I enjoyed talking with one of the researchers I’ve been following on social media (https://twitter.com/JamesBejon) as his work on names and literary patterns in the Bible feeds into my own writing and thinking.

I’ll hopefully remember the things I learned today for some time to come. I am also reassured that what I do is interesting to many people and that there are folk through history, across the world and even in my own town who share my passion for exploring the depths of the Bible, even in the craziness of everyday life.

Front of Tyndale House (taken from Twitter)

Seeing the Positives

I sent my son to school today. For the previous eight days he had had to isolate in his room with Covid-19. He nearly escaped on day six, but we saw a faint positive stripe on his test that day, so he had to be confined to solitary for 48 more hours. See the joy on his face as he sets off, knowing that the first lesson is PE.

During this last week my emotions as a mum steered naturally toward disappointment and frustration. Missed clubs and hugs and time together. Far too much time for the boy watching YouTube and playing computer games, before a last-minute scramble to catch up on school work, much of which needed me loitering in the hallway explaining or translating.

But there were positives to be spotted too, and not just the annoying kind on a stick that send you to your room for two more days. Battling depression has taught me to look for the positives frequently, in order not to get overwhelmed by missed opportunities and disappointments. I was utterly aware that Joe’s experience of Covid-19, being particularly mild, was a blessing in disguise. The rest of the household are fully vaccinated (he is not yet old enough), but hopefully he’ll now have a measure of immunity for a time. We have the resources here in our home to isolate him, to feed him and provide him with all he needed, as well as enjoy a few treats such as homemade cake or a takeaway to lift all our spirits. One of our family traditions is Pop Tart Week. The last week in any half term when everyone’s stamina is usually waning is the best time for a fun breakfast week. Joe lit up when I brought him breakfast on Monday, having forgotten all about it. I heartily recommend occasional fun breakfast weeks!

There were other positives too. The timing was really not so bad for us and no major events had to be cancelled. Joseph was very grateful for all our efforts and enjoyed playing battleships (shouting across rooms) and listening to his bedtime story from a distance. The really lovely thing was when he and his best friend made up, having fallen out quite seriously a few months back. Who would have thought that they would both be ill at the same time? They played a few games together online and discussed plans for future careers (currently Joe is interested in the idea of being an aviation engineer for MAF). Having more time and attention for my daughter has also proven valuable and she has appreciated family meals with just mum and dad. We have gelled as a team over this time and had to reconsider each other more closely, including food needs, washing, bathroom use, wellbeing and emotional support.

I am grateful for the positives and the way this played out did get me thinking significantly. There are times when it is appropriate to count your blessings and recognise the good in situations which may otherwise be viewed as bad. The positive moments within the suffering. The people that come alongside, sometimes as a consequence of it. The good things going on in the wider world. Previous joys. Future hopes. However any of these things, if applied unlovingly, can be deemed cruel.

Jimmy Carr

Recently a British comedian caused something of a stir when he said that one positive of the Holocaust was that thousands of Gypsies were murdered. His appeal to hatred aligned him with the perpetrators of the evil actions and mocked the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people. It was selfish; he was after the buzz of the laugh. It was thoughtless and untrue; in no way were these killings positive. And this did nothing to identify any true positives relating to the grim chapter of our past. Precious positive moments such as self-sacrifice, bravery, forgiveness, contrition and lessons learned. Even these, however, cannot in any way undo the trauma and evil. (If you want to read more about how it was possible for victims of concentration camps to forgive, do read about Corrie ten Boom).

Job’s Comforters

It is necessary to come alongside people who are suffering. To sit with those in pain or distress. Most of us find ourselves in this situation at one time or another. Many of us will understand the feeling that our own comforters have missed the point, rather like Job’s friends in the Old Testament. They see that he has lost everything and is in physical pain and try to blame him. I can just imagine them trying to take his scarred hands in their own, looking him closely in the eye and saying that he just needs to see the positives.

Really? Job replies, dropping his face. The positives of losing all ten of my children, all my financial security, my health, dignity and good name? The positives of not knowing what brought this on and how to restore it?

Ah yes, they suggest, clueless and tactless. You still have your wife!

He raises his head and whispers, But she wants me to die!

Ah, but your donkey-herder and shepherd and camel-herder and one other servant lived!

With no animals to tend! What are you talking about?

At this point friends who realise that they are doing more harm than good leave. Others of us plough on, preaching nonsense and not listening.

There are times when acknowledging grief and pain and lamenting with our peers is far more important than looking to find positives.

Jesus Christ

When your friends die, it stinks. Even with the hope of Heaven loss is real, physically painful often and emotionally overwhelming in recurring waves.

When Jesus turned up to Lazarus’ home four days after his friend died, he was absolutely certain of two things:
The power of resurrection.
And the pain of death.

Jesus wailed with the crowd in John 11, moved hugely at their grief and mourning at the loss of Lazarus. Of course it was not the end of the story, but it was a critical part of it. Jesus identified utterly with the distress of death and the stench of sorrow. Jesus knew how to lament honestly. He could see the negatives and react in love. This too was part of the healing for those nearby.

In verse 43, shouting (quite literally) loud enough to raise the dead, Jesus called to Lazarus to come out of the cave tomb. This was no magic trick or deception. The crowd knew what was what. Lazarus was definitely dead. And they believed they were well past the scope of miracles now.

But there was no denying the dead man walking, covered in cloth and stumbling in the light. No longer dead. No longer hopeless.

Jesus knew the pain of death in his mortal body and in identifying with mortal humans. But he also knew a deeper divine power. The positive power of resurrection was there, waiting to be witnessed, but not before the lament of the negative.

Let’s see positives, count blessings and recognise joys large and small every day we can. But let’s not forget to lament when we need to. It is right to wail over what is lost and weep over what is hurting. Some won’t understand this and will laugh. Some won’t understand how to help you and will say all the wrong things. But some will sit with you and weep. Or perhaps even shout at you from behind a door with hope and expectation.

Out of Context (a bass remix)

Do you laugh at yourself? I often find myself chuckling away about trivial things. My sensitivity to silliness is fairly fine-tuned these days, as I forget so much and use much effort noticing either the big picture or the tiny details of the world around me. Rarely both at once. I make many silly mistakes every day and given the choice between laughing and crying, I think finding the funny side is usually healthier.

Recently I prepared some ‘out of context’ visuals for someone’s birthday and I thought it would be fun to share them here. Bear in mind that I do study and teach the Bible and how not to use it out of context. A good way to consider this is to deliberately take verses out of context and wrap them up in free images (Pixabay). This set has a particular theme. Maybe I should do some more with different themes in future.

There is a serious side of course – it should become evident that it is easy to take anything out of context with the appropriate visual and that we should keep our brains engaged when presented with statements of any sort – but mostly this was just for fun. I hope you like them, and do comment if you’d like me to prepare any on another particular theme.

Photo descriptions:
1. ‘Find someone who plays well and bring him to me’, from 1 Samuel 16:17, on a silhouette of an electric guitarist at sunset
2. ‘Do not fret…’, from Psalm 37:1, on a high angle view of a bass guitar’s neck (with frets)
3. ‘Whoever practises…will be called great…’, from Matthew 5:19, on a bass guitar lying on a wooden floor
4. ‘What’s the meaning of all the noise in the city?’ from 1 Kings 1:41, on a crowd at a rock concert waving their arms
5. ‘And the sound was heard far away’ from Ezra 3:13, on a view of a musician on stage from behind, showing their feet, cables, pedal, laptop, foldback speakers.

Best Reading of 2021

Time to share some of the books I enjoyed reading the most in 2021. For the first time I consumed some books through Audible, although two were over 20 hours long and I don’t feel that the audio experience suits me as much as reading regular books, so am pausing that adventure for now.

My choices are geographically eclectic, with a writing and theological bias and a quest for excellence across fiction and non-fiction. I took up suggestions and read various book gifts as well as digging into the ever-growing home library. Perhaps because I chose longer books than in 2020, I did not complete quite as many as I hoped, but am still averaging 80 finished books per year, which I am pleased with . According to my rules this may not include pamphlets, magazines, books of the Bible in English, or anything left unfinished. So what were my concluding recommendations? Read on…

Fiction – children

My son (11) and I are working our way through Andrew Peterson’s Wingfeather Saga, a fast-paced fantasy world adventure about three children discovering who they are. The world of Aerwiar (pronounced ‘ere we are’) is full of danger and surprise. Towards the end of 2021 we completed the third book: The Monster in the Hollows and I think the quality of the writing is improving with each new story. We are reading the final book now and I will miss the characters when we do finish the series. The plot teases and unravels gently, the characters are rounded and intriguing and there are plenty of imaginative monsters and locations, as well as familiar animals and ideas to help younger readers. The series is ideal for bedtime story reading and for 8-12 year olds with a sense of curiosity and adventure. These books have a wholesome message without being preachy and the pictures are beautiful. There is also talk of a spin-off television adaptation in the works.

Fiction – adult

Lots of wonderful fiction this year and a theme that runs through these choices is that the telling of each story was masterful and original. These comprise well-known bestsellers as well as some which should be read more widely.

Elizabeth Acevedo’s Clap When You Land tells of two sisters who learn of each other’s existence when their father dies. The narrative is told in free verse alternately by both main characters. I particularly liked the poetic choices (for example the three line and four line stanzas which identify Camino and Yahaira) and the way that the characters kept their individualities while discovering a number of things they had in common. The descriptions of the Dominican Republic were colourful and highly evocative and the twists continue as the narrative develops.

Abi Daré’s proficiency in writing justifies her awards for her first published book, The Girl with the Louding Voice. I was gripped by the character of Adunni, the same age as my own daughter (14). Sold into marriage as a third wife in rural Nigeria, Adunni runs away when disaster strikes and has to work without pay as a housemaid in Lagos, constantly at the mercy of those around her. The narrator’s English is weak, so her first-person telling contains lots of fascinating phrasing, much of which may reflect her Yoruba mother tongue. The plot is rich, the characters more so and the ending satisfying. I look forward to more of Daré’s writing. She writes with a distinct voice of integrity and pitched this perfectly.

James Joyce is the only male writer on this fiction list and his is by far the oldest publication which made my ‘best reads’, but I had wanted to read some of Joyce’s writing for a long while. On visiting Dublin in 2019 and deciding I really didn’t feel ready for his heavier works, I bought Dubliners, a set of short stories detailing the lives of a number of characters of the city. I am glad I knew a little of the geography of the place by the time I read this and felt that Joyce described his people cleverly as they found themselves moving around and taking different trajectories in life. Several stories were quite sad but each story was complete in its own way. A great masterclass in short stories and what works well in this style.

The Beekeeper of Aleppo by Christy Lefteri tells how Nuri and Afra, a married couple, flee Syria and try to reach Britain. It is told entirely in the first person by Nuri, who is (/was) a professional beekeeper. Each chapter has two halves told in the present and then the past tense and linked by a single word. The idea of the past and present weaving together like a marriage is powerful, as are the motifs of sight, bees and death. The couple’s relationship is strained enormously by the tragedies they endure on their journey and although the topic is necessarily political and difficult to engage with at points, it is all the more powerful for it. Beautifully told and utterly moving.

Delia Owens’ Where the Crawdads Sing has split critical opinion: some people love it and others hate it. I found it compelling. Kya has grown up in the marshland of North Carolina, at one with the natural world around her and for the most part shuns people. When a body is found in the marsh, she becomes a key suspect. How this tale of murder mystery and coming of age plays out, with wide shots, flashbacks, twists and intrigue is imaginatively vivid and ripe for translation to cinema (and will in fact be released in June 2022). If reading the book before seeing the film matters to you as much as it does to me, I recommend getting hold of a copy before this summer.

Sue Russell’s book The Healing Knife tells the story of an obsessive surgeon, Rachel, whose life is upended by a grieving and angry parent after a patient of hers dies. It is set in England and France and is carefully observed and clearly well-researched. The main character has to go on a journey of her own and there are no quick fixes. I thought the story read very well and that the dialogue was strong. It is written from a Christian perspective, which means prayer and belief do feature, but only as far as they keep the story moving. I felt that the range of characters was wonderful and was able to lose myself in the story.

Biographical

Three utterly different choices here, which could each be called ‘biographical’.

Hadley Freeman’s House of Glass is a recounting of several generations of Freeman’s family through twentieth century Europe and America. The Jewish family experience segregation and difficulties in Eastern Europe and France (indeed, concentration camps feature), before taking quite different career and life directions. Freeman uses some amazing primary sources and uncovers various interesting tales about her uncles and grandparents. I wouldn’t usually choose to read a book like this, but it was promoted in the Cambridge Literary Festival and I found the premise intriguing.

The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage; The (Mostly) True Story of the First Computer by graphic novelist Sydney Padua is quite unique and despite the cartoons, is really aimed at adults with an interest in history and computing. Padua uses humour and a huge amount of historical research to convey with graphics and many, many footnotes how Ada Lovelace and Charles Babbage came to invent the Difference Engine. Along the way we learn of some ridiculous (but true) details as well as some other clever untrue details (which are no less ridiculous). All the great and the good of Victorian society seem to feature (and some of the less great/good). A super gift for that Difficult-to-Buy-For-Engineer in your life.

Tom Wright’s Paul; A Biography was a book I had hoped to read for some time. In fact, my dad’s copy had been sitting on a To Be Read pile for a while here. I was pleased when a local ecumenical theology reading group chose this for their current book and have really enjoyed working through Wright’s retelling of Paul’s life story and mission, with reference to Acts and all the Pauline letters as he understands them. Reading the biblical passages alongside this book was eye-opening and Wright – while at times overly wordy – is nevertheless a humble and diligent scholar who knows how to make a case well.

Reflective/devotional

This unusual book is one I have recommended to many friends and family. The Radical Book for Kids; Exploring the Roots and Shoots of Faith, by Champ Thornton includes dozens of short and colourful chapters in no particular order, detailing elements of the Bible and Christian history and faith. It is easy to dip into, visually exciting and a great introduction for children around 7-11 new to faith or church.

It took a year to read, as there is a short chapter for each week, but God in the Garden; Weekly Bible Reflections for the Gardener’s Year by Philip Eley was a lovely devotional for Monday mornings. I am not a great gardener and have much to learn about plants, but this book combined practical advice with teaching on gardening basics, linking themes to the Bible and giving a chance to reflect and pray.

Andrew Peterson, author of the Wingfeather Saga, is perhaps better known in other circles as a songwriter and collaborator. His apparent boundless creativity means that his own reflections on how to be creative are worth reading in their own right. He has put together his own understanding of all of this in Adorning the Dark, part autobiographical and part wisdom for aspiring creatives. I have already marked a number of places in this book which I need to go back and reflect on.

Non-fiction

This one didn’t fit in any of my other categories, although like some of the others, it is visually arresting and is not afraid to challenge traditional publishing genres. Wonders of the Living World ; Curiosity, Awe and The Meaning of Life by Ruth M. Bancewicz is a splendid overview of how science and Christian faith work beautifully together, including topics like cell development, molecule behaviour, convergent evolution and the ‘snuggle for existence’, with each chapter detailing some of the work of current scientists – all of whom have faith. If you can get hold of a version with images, do. The art is part of what makes this book so good. The science will take a little more head-scratching and it is recommended for those over 16, but the scientists and theologians make a strong case.

It has been another good year for reading and many other books did not make the cut. What books did you read in 2021 which you would recommend? Do leave a comment below!