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.

Top of the Pile

Reading is my escape.

Last year I finished reading more books than the previous year, and I wanted to share some of the highlights and a few recommendations.

Mornings include escape time to centre and regroup before work. This means reading a chapter of something positive and a devotional thought to challenge me. I was encouraged to learn of some black authors I had not already read and these two stood out for me:

More Than Enchanting by Jo Saxton is encouraging, thoughtful and relatable. It was written to empower women – most women in my experience – who face barriers which prevent them achieving their God-given potential.

Still Standing by Tola Doll Fisher, editor of Woman Alive magazine, is a series of 100 ‘thoughts for the day’ on matters as wide-ranging as ‘How to spend a pre-payday weekend’ to ‘Imposter syndrome’ and ‘Why I’m not here for religion’. Tola has a fascinating life-story and uses her experiences, both good and bad, to connect honestly and powerfully.

Other morning books that connected well with me were:

Cathy Madavan’s Irrepressible, which champions resilience and lays out some excellent and timely principles to grow in it and Charlie Mackesy’s The Boy, the Mole, the Fox and the Horse, which speaks truth and kindness to readers of all ages and is already a classic in its own right.

Afternoons for me are for working on teaching tasks. As well as writing, I teach Biblical Studies so I try to read a chapter of the Bible in an original language during the day if I can fit it in. I’m working through Old Testament narratives now and finding things I haven’t seen in the English versions. I have found biblehub.com to be a valuable resource here; using an interlinear version is much faster than parsing and remembering every word (especially now that my memory is not what it used to be). It still gives my brain a workout though and I can click on the words for more information on pronunciation, roots, meanings and cross-references.

Evenings are for fiction, beginning with reading to my son when I put him to bed. One of the highlights of last year reading to a 10-year-old was The Murderer’s Ape by Jakob Wegelius.

This story pulls you in to an absurd journey of twists and adventures centred on the wonderful main character, Sally Jones. Gorillas may not always have fared well in fiction, but Sally Jones is a highly intelligent and gentle ship’s engineer and out to prove the innocence of Captain Koskela. Will she succeed? Written originally in Swedish but translated with real fluency and pace, this page-turner leaves the reader curious to explore Portuguese fada music, Indian palaces and even how ships work. Great for adventurers aged 7 and up.

Other books I would recommend to children from my own reading last year:

Kiran Millwood Hargrave’s fantastical The Girl of Ink and Stars has a female protagonist mapmaker searching for answers and evocative writing. The dystopian world comes alive a piece at a time, like a map being unfolded. You never know quite where the adventure will go next.

I love A.A. Milne’s Winnie the Pooh for its wit and warmth. The photo is of the 1931 copy I inherited from my grandpa. A.A. Milne’s writing stands the test of time and the characters are so familiar you miss them when you finish the books. I think I am most like Rabbit myself. Milne has written other great stuff too, but Pooh is timeless and works for all ages. A great mood-lifter: innocent and silly but intelligent with it.

For young adults:

If you have not read anything by Stephen Davies, you are missing out. He has a knack for stories no one else is telling but which are gripping and gutsy. Chessboxer convinced me that a book about chess really could be interesting, with a flawed and feisty main character Leah Baxter, imaginative style and original plot.

Kwame Alexander’s Solo is told in free verse and engages the mind, heart and soul. The story of Blade, the son of a washed-up rock star, takes you in all kinds of directions and riffs on musical themes and ideas. Look out for other books by these authors too; you won’t be disappointed.

For older readers:

These all suit a slightly older readership for different reasons. Fran Hill’s Miss, What Does Incomprehensible Mean? connected with me on various levels but I especially recommend it to anyone who’s taught at secondary level. Built on her own life experiences, this fictional diary contains astute observations on life, literature and loss, told with practised humour and intrigue. I lent out my copy and might need to replace it!

Annie Try’s Red Cabbage Blue tells the story of Adelle Merchant, a girl who only eats blue food and who has an overprotective mother. Her psychologist Mike Lewis is trying to solve the puzzles this raises, but he is also dealing with his own issues and relationships. Annie’s background in clinical psychology means this reads very convincingly – there are other books which feature Mike Lewis but I found this one the most engaging so far. A great story with a satisfying ending.

Manacle by Chris Aslan is arresting and provocative. This is the second of three books of his which tell stories from the Bible from a very different angle. Unlike many biblical retellings, I found this well-researched and well-written and without sugar-coating or preaching. I am eagerly looking forward to his next publication and highly recommend both this and Alabaster which overlaps a few of the characters: the content may be tragic and bittersweet in places but the settings are powerful and create a compelling view of people’s lives in the times they are set.

There are other books I read which don’t fit into any of these categories. They might fit into any time of day and they are generally curious, theological or both, so I might read them whenever I get a moment.

Women’s Lives in Biblical Times by Jennie Ebeling is an academic book (around £20 at the moment), but it is a wonderful resource for anyone wanting to understand more about domestic life in the Old Testament – it is a perfect cross-over for me of my writing and teaching work. Jennie invents a character, Orah, who lives in ancient Israel in the Iron Age and describes her life using narrative, in addition to the non-fictional archaeological and biblical data she presents to make her case.

How Not to Write a Novel (the version by Newman and Mittelmark, not any others of the same title) is a superb read if you aspire to publish a book. By giving many examples of what not to send in to publishers, the authors hope to encourage people to give up their writing, or – failing that – to do a much better job at it. Very funny, frequently rude and full of brilliant parodies, this is one of the better works on how to write, quite possibly because it attacks the topic from an entirely different angle. No recommendations on what to do; just what not to do.

Beard Theology by The Church Mouse is the book you didn’t realise you needed. If you thought that the history of the church had no connection with facial hair, you have much to learn in this clever and very silly book. If there is one thing I’d add, it would be a chapter on the biblical stories on hairiness; but this would actually make an excellent sequel (think Absalom, Esau, Elisha, Samson, etc). Not having one’s own beard is no barrier to enjoying this and the illustrations by Dave Walker are hilarious.

Theology of Home, however, was a book I did not need. At least, not if I wanted a systematic and careful investigation of how faith and decorating a home intersect. I was curious about the concept and ordered a copy from America. The book is filled with large photos of happy and tidy rooms filled with beautiful things but not a lot of reasoning on the questions I actually had, which are along the lines of ‘how can we use our resources most wisely, and how much disposable income should we spend on our homes?’ – I still haven’t found good answers to these questions so am working it out as I go instead. This might lead to more thinking on this another time for me, so not an entirely wasted exercise.

One final book deserves a mention from those I completed last year. Another inherited title, Cornish Recipes Ancient and Modern by the Cornwall WI (1930).

Many of the recipes are not safe, several suggestions for cures are downright dangerous and the ingredients lists (where they exist) are as confusing as they are amusing: why give precise quantities? Written when powdered ammonia was still considered a rising agent and all parts of animals and plants seemed to have a domestic purpose, every page of this collection of concoctions made me smile. It may not be practical today, but it got me thinking and provided several jokes to share, so that counts as a great success.

Where will I escape in 2021? My To Be Read pile grows as fast as it shrinks and this year I am looking forward to some great releases as well as revisiting some classics. I’ve completed five so far, but have a number more on the go and this year I’m also recording when I finish books to see whether they always run in groups. I’m always on the lookout for interesting, amusing and well-written works so let me know in the comments if you have any good recommendations.

Oh, and please don’t try the pies.

Building Character

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.

Strange verses

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:

“The shaggy goat is the King of Greece”

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:

Harry Potter | Patronuses

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?

Satsuma

You could describe a satsuma as:

Colourful

Juicy

Soft and sweet

Just a little tangy

Fun

Small

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.

Give Me Faith — “Not only so, but we also glory in our ...

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?

A prayer

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.

In your precious name,

Amen

Noah’s Lockdown Diary

rainbow_9

Day 1

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.

Day 5

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.

Day 17

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.

Day 41

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.

Day 50

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.

Day 62

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.

Day 78

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.

Day 99

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.

Day 121

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.

Day 150

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!

Day 224

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.

Day 264

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.

Day 271

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.

Day 278

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!

Day 314

Must say, it is looking a lot safer out there. Land is lovely and fresh, very few puddles.

Day 370

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…

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Images (c) Quentin Blake, 2020

 

 

The Crown Virus

Do you know what COVID-19 looks like?

If you were to look closely – and I mean really closely – with a scanning electron microscope, you’d see a shape like this:

corona
Image credit NIAID-RML

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 because corona is Latin for ‘crown’,

which sounds like the ancient Greek κορώνη (korṓnē) for ‘curved’,

but means more 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 various other examples.

κορυφή, which is nearer in meaning, 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.

File:Bust woman mosaic Met 38.11.12.jpg - Wikimedia Commons
Corona glory

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. 

Crowns

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.

Personal Reflection | “believe, teach, and confess”

 

 

 


 

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 is κόρᾰξ (kórax), cognate with κορώνη – 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 root רֹאשׁ (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 with רֹאשׁ as this lemma is used 599 times in the OT, and only translated to κορυφή on six occasions. 

Giving up giving up

Ooooh, it’s Lent.

And today it’s also the Feast of St Valentine, which conveniently has Lent right there in the middle of it.

Or, if you like, A loveseat tent sniff, which is a useful anagram for the day.

Not often that Lent starts on Valentine’s Day, and as Easter Sunday falls on 1st April, this year Lent is bookended with love and joy.

I like that.

Image result for psalm 90 14

A lot of people I know try and discipline themselves over the season of Lent by giving something up. While their efforts are laudable, sensible and often far too health-conscious for regular humans like me, I don’t feel comfortable with the idea of refraining from something I enjoy and feel nourished or sustained by, unless I feel convicted by God to do it (i.e. fasting, from food, drink, social media or the like). There are times when God asserts his place by insisting on our attentions. Food, drink, even facebook, are not to become more important than God. But neither are those other precious things in life: partners, children or oxygen. And while I put God ahead of my husband, my children and the air I breathe, I don’t honestly think he is asking me to forgo them for six weeks. The family may be a little confused and upset, for a start.

Fasting has its place. Giving something up for Lent often has its place when God convicts us, but if it is about a personal detox, it is not a spiritual endeavour. Perhaps some people, in their earnest desires to improve themselves, have made ‘giving up’ a bigger deal than ‘getting close to God’. They want to see whether they can manage to accomplish something valuable but difficult. Great. For me though, I want a closer relationship with God. Sometimes he will want me to give something up. Sometimes he will want me to take something up.

For me, Jesus took up human flesh and frailty. For me, he took up the cross. In my experience, God has been wonderfully generous through the many ups and downs of life; multiplying grace and love over and over. He has sometimes put barriers up, but these have been wise and reasonable, even when I did not like them. He has sometimes allowed times of pain, but his presence has been close and his promises have endured.

In Jewish thought, the idea of stopping on the Sabbath and not working is not viewed as negative, but positive. The Sabbath rest is a proactive feasting and renewing time. Our best celebrations do the same.

So I will give up giving up. This Lent I am going to try finishing a few tasks.

  • I want to finish sorting the children’s artwork from the past ten years.
  • I want to finish getting the garage in order.
  • I want to complete several books I am in the middle of. And get promised book reviews to Amazon.

I am a great starter of tasks. Now I am going to learn to be a great finisher of tasks too. God has shown me that he continues with me, though I am still a work in progress. He will complete the task and what he starts, he finishes.

What about you? Have you got any tasks you are hoping to complete over Lent? Or any interesting Lent activities or fasts you are taking part in? Do comment below!

 

Friday 500 -Babel

‘Hot, today, innit?’ said Nim to Ard one Monday morning as the white sun started baking the ground, their backs, their thoughts.

‘Very hot. Pass me those bricks mate, don’t hang about!’ Ard replied. ‘Any plans for this evening then?’

‘Not a lot, eat a few onions, drink my beer, usual stuff.’

‘Your wife burn the bread again today then?’ Ard joked. Nim rolled his eyes and dropped the bricks at his feet.

‘Watch it! I don’t want to have them falling off the scaffold at this height!

‘Next lot’s coming up. Get a move on!’

And there was evening. And there was morning.

‘Hoot, today, onnit?’ said Nim to Ard that Tuesday morning as the white sun started baking the ladders, their foreheads, their minds.

‘What?’ replied Ard. ‘Hoot? Hetta, doncha mean? Hetta dayday no-yes? Givvit me claycakes.’

‘Comcom?’

‘Claycakes, look there!’

‘Oh.’

‘Twilighting you foodalls dayday?’

‘Foodalls?’

‘Beer?’

‘Oh, beer! Beer happytum, laughyes. Here claycakes.’

‘Ow! You get blackbread dayday? Ha!’

‘Blackbread?’

‘Oi, watchdrop please. Not clever dropping here now. You strange dayday.’

‘Nexty nexty.’

And there was evening. And there was morning.

On Wednesday morning the white sun rose above the mountains, baking the bricks, the tools, the flies, before Nim and Ard arrived at the building site. Ard was hobbling and leaning on a crutch. Nim had hardly slept. His wife had been talking nonsense to him all evening.

‘Hoot, onnit?’ Nim said to Ard.

‘Hetta,’ Ard growled back.

‘Lookit yours leghand. Whatisit?’ Nim pointed to Ard’s foot, wrapped in rags.

Ard glared at him.

‘Claycakes me foot givvit, dimboy!’

‘Oh.’

‘Leghand yours paingreat if it now?’

Ard glared again. Nim turned and picked up a brick.

‘Up now woodroad to tippytoppy, mate.’

Ard growled again and started climbing. Nim followed, his bag of burnt bread swinging from his back. He would have to have words with his wife again. What was she thinking letting his bread burn every day this week?

And there was evening. And there was morning.

On Thursday the white sun rose high in the sky, baking the sand, the roofs, the snakes, before Nim got to the building site. Ard was nowhere to be seen. Nim loaded bricks on to the pulley and started climbing the ladder. As he reached the top he stopped for a rest and a quick drink. Nim opened his bag and looked inside. His flask of beer was getting warm. And something else was wrong. There was a stone instead of a loaf of bread. A large white stone. At least it wasn’t burnt, he thought. He took it out, scratched his head and dropped it over the side of the scaffold.

Far below, a cry of pain and indignation rang out.

meister_der_weltenchronik_001

 

‘Donkeybread!’ said Nim to himself.He stayed up the scaffold for the rest of the day.

And there was evening. And there was morning.

On Friday, the white sun climbed again and hung, baking the stones, the fields, the dry mouths.

Nim packed his bag.