Treasure in Dark Places, by Liz Carter: a review

Treasure in Dark Places book on a cosy wooden table with a hot drink.

Maybe, like me, you enjoy a fresh angle on a familiar story. A fresh perspective to help you find a good way forward in life. Maybe you yearn for a way to express your frustration at your pain and want assurance of hope.

Liz Carter has a gift in doing just that in short story and poetry form. Her latest book is called Treasure in Dark Places and I jumped at the chance to read an early copy ahead of its release this weekend. I had found Liz’s Catching Contentment powerfully written and worth spending time in when I read it last year, and she kindly agreed to be interviewed for my blog to talk about this new book and why she wrote it.

If you are not familiar with Liz’s work, take a look at this short clip, featuring one of the poems in the new book:

Lucy: Tell me a little about your health, what lockdown was like for you as a family and the impact shielding had on you.

Liz: I’ve suffered from a rare chronic lung disease all my life, with times of intense pain and infections that render me frequently housebound and in hospital. When I first received the shielding letter I felt the shock like a punch in the gut; the words ‘may become severely ill’ due to Covid-19 hit me hard. I went into shielding thinking I would be okay, used to isolation, but found being separated from my family incredibly challenging, my mental health took a hit I wasn’t expecting. Shielding has ‘paused’ for now, but this year has taken its toll, as it has on most of us.

Lucy: Your poems speak of a God who is powerful and good, relatable yet mysterious. What characteristic of God do you find most comforting at times of deepest darkness?

Liz: There are so many, but I think that one that ministers to me so much within pain is the Holy Spirit as the paraclete – literally the helper, counsellor, comforter. To know that God is within the depths of it all, by my side, the tangible yet intangible Spirit. God with us in the mystery of trinity; Jesus as Immanuel, incarnate and suffering for and with us, God as Father, loving and compassionate, all beautifully expressed in the helper God gave to each one of us. Sometimes I just like to think upon the Spirit as Ruach, the breath of God, the creative force and the rhythm of life, yet here with us, breathing upon us.

Lucy: There is something strangely sacred about the meeting of brokenness and divinity; would you say that the experience of pain and hardship is a necessary part of a close walk with God?

Liz: I love the way you phrase this truth. I have definitely discovered that it’s sometimes in the darkest places I have found the treasure, the depths of God, that suffering can somehow allow the heights of joy. I think that so often Christians have been led to believe that a walk with God should somehow be pain-free, as if God is merely there to bow to our needs and wants, and yet this prosperity story has not stood up against the ravages of suffering – or, indeed, against the truths expressed in scripture. I love how the apostle Paul shared the enticing reality that God’s power is made perfect in weakness (2 Corinthians 12:9). Paul, of course, was hardly an example of someone living a life free of struggle – far from it. I think that when we learn to untether the idea of wholeness with getting all that we want, or even with healing, we stumble into God’s great spacious places even where our spaces seem caged. Maybe it’s not so much that we have to go through great hardship as a necessary part of our faith, as much that the raw experience of hurting can move us closer to the heart of a God who knows what it is to go through the starkest agony.

Lucy: Many of your poems weave in biblical phrases and you note these references at the end of the book. The Bible contains many forms of writing, including lament and praise. Many biblical characters experience crushing lows and disappointments – do you have any characters you identify with closely, or favourite parts of the Bible you turn to when you need God’s comfort?

Liz: So many. I find much resonance in Scripture when it comes to living with any kind of struggle, which gives us a real sense of permission to express our own. I love the lament and yet hope of Psalm 42, and the yearning for home of Psalm 84 always calls to the deep places of my spirit (two of the poems are based around these Psalms.) For me, the words of Paul are always places I go to when I am looking for hope, knowing that he spoke out of some of the greatest darkness. I love how he calls us to ‘overflow with hope’ in Romans 15, even though he has been persecuted and imprisoned and sick and shipwrecked.

Lucy: Two recurring images for me when reading this book are ‘water’ and ‘depth’. In the poem ‘The Skies Proclaim’, which I associate with Psalm 19, you’ve written the following beautiful lines:

Join me,
barefoot in the sand
tiptoe into edges of blue
and the untamed edges of a secret

Deep magic in deeper waters
deep mystery in great oceans
deep soul-rest in turquoise ripples of expansive grandeur.

Image by StockSnap from Pixabay

Although depth might feel like a place of isolation, imprisonment and darkness, you remind us that the deep is a place of wildness, mystery, beauty and healing as well. Is there a particular resonance for you in the redemptive aspects of water and depth? And do you find yourself more in the role of Peter wanting to walk on the surface, the disabled crowds in John 5, or Jonah, terrified in the depths yet crying out to God?

Liz: I think it’s the concepts of the great heights and depths of God that call out to me so; a God who cannot be contained. Scripture is bursting with the deeps of God; Ephesians 3:18 speaks of the width, length, height and depth of God’s love, and Psalm 139 of how there is no depth too deep where God will not find you and hold you. In Psalm 42 the mysterious and alluring phrase ‘deep calls to deep in the roar of your waterfalls’ always resounds somewhere in the depths of me. I want to run into those deeps, to dive into them, to be submerged in them until they close over my head, further down until this love that cannot be described is pressing in upon me. I want to walk on the water and yet plunge the depths all at the same time, much as Hillsong’s song ‘Oceans’ describes so beautifully.

Lucy: This is a book you cannot rush; it needs to be reflected on and is ideal for quiet time study. It also has sections which map out the year, so could be used at any time. How easy is it to get hold of a copy?

Treasure in Dark Places book shown against a background of a treasure map with a compass.

Liz: From this weekend you will be able to buy it on Amazon in paperback or kindle edition, and as an ebook on Kobo. A little later it will be available in other online bookstores such as Waterstones and Barnes & Noble.

Thank you Liz! I’ll be ordering my own paper copy to use in quiet times, and look forward to seeing Caroline Gwilliam’s illustrations. I pray this new book blesses many people, especially those struggling in the dark depths of difficult situations; that God uses your words to speak treasure and hope to people who need it.

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

The bits of time

True story: whenever I don’t know what day it is, it is almost always Wednesday.

The reasons for this are simple. My life is weekend-centric. You have Saturday (first day of weekend) and Sunday (church day of weekend). So the rest are Monday and Friday (days next to the weekend) and Tuesday and Thursday (days next to days next to the weekend). It stands to reason that Wednesday is What-Day-Is-It? and I am frankly amazed that this is not a thing for everyone else.

I never seem to know what day it is on Wednesday. Usefully, I can assume it is probably Wednesday if I don’t know what day it is. Wednesday has become a sort of Sabbath for me: a rest day in the hurricane of the week. I slow down and take stock before getting on with life again.

Are you ready for this? Experts issue (very) early ...

These days of weathering Covid-19, most days are When’s? Days. Who knows? It might even be Wednesday today.

Time is a little blurry now.

Instead, I am learning to think in Bits of Time.

There is the Bit of Time after waking up, when I remember life is not normal right now. Not yet. It will get normal. Then it will change again. But it is not normal, because the news on the radio is wrong. First, there is no news to wake me, because they streamlined it and it no longer runs as often. Secondly, the news is shared across several stations on BBC Radio and this means that when it does come on it is different. Thirdly, all the news centres on one story, and that is just wrong. Other stories are happening, but I am not hearing enough about them. Sometimes throughout my day I look up Different News Stories.

There is then the Bit of Time after the morning dog walk and before the main challenges of my own work where I smash out as many household tasks as I can (with or without help) and then get the kids learning as independently as possible. This is the Best Bit of Time for Learning in the day, and must be optimised. Thankfully both of their schools are sending work for them and it is usually clear what is (supposed) to be done each day. After I have pointed them both in the right directions, I get a Bit of Time for catching up on things I can only focus on well in the mornings. This currently includes my Bit of Quiet Time, a Bit of  Zoom Time (volunteering, church or colleagues), a Bit of Hebrew Time (currently working through the book of Numbers), a Bit of Admin Time and several Bits of Interruption Time. I don’t begrudge my kids interrupting me; it isn’t always easy to see how to answer questions when you can’t put your hand up, or to hold motivation levels when you cannot lean back on your chair.

Today during an important meeting I discovered that I could make some funky Mobius Loops with sticky notes, tape and scissors. It did help me concentrate better, if I am honest.

5850FC86-70BA-4A6A-902B-CC79AD781B97

There is the Bit of Time between the children each finishing their Allotted Learning and a parent actually being Fully Available, when the children show their initiative by logging into a device and amusing themselves with computer games. This is Not a Bit of Time to ask them to complete the daily chores, I have learned, if I want Proper Results and Good Mental Health for All.

After lunch, there is an excellent Bit of Time for harnessing the children’s energy and availability to get one of their daily chores completed. This is maximised if I only try and harness the energy of one child.

Then, as they drift magnetically back to digital indoor pursuits, there is the Bit of Time where I try and regroup mentally, step away from machines and catch up on Actual Things that need doing, at home, out in the garden, or in the community. I may have to stand in a queue or peer into a shop or pharmacy window to try and count heads and see whether I am allowed in. I may have to wander the aisles of the Big Shop looking in vain for such essentials as Rich Tea Biscuits for my elderly neighbour. I may try and get the next task of my Work in Progress completed, if my brain is not hurting too much and the Bit of Time is sufficient.

There is a Bit of Time where the second dog walk of the day happens – usually my walk – with a child (sometimes two) using the opportunity to share their allotted and unspent daily allowance of words with me. The dog, thankfully, doesn’t mind this.

There is the Bit of Time when the screen time limits kick in and children find they are available again for chores. This Bit of Time is less likely to come with extra added enthusiasm, but sometimes it can be bought, with appropriate funny internet videos (Holderness Family or TwoSet Violin often help here).

After tea there is another Bit of Time for getting things done, which usually means they aren’t. Sometimes my children will suggest that they are bored. They have been learning through Consistent Teaching from us that we will not fix this for them. As a result, my daughter has discovered how to dye her hair with tissue paper and my son has researched a new craft: making a stress ball.

He has also been working on a valuable life skill: persuasion.

This meant that a couple of evenings ago, he and I took a birthday balloon, filled it with cornflour and water and tied it. Actually, although I did the filling and tying, he did take a close interest and made many observations. When we realised that the balloon was leaking our non-Newtonian fluid we decided as a team to add an extra layer of balloon.

The error, I now realise, was not in trusting my son’s judgement or management skills, or even in watching the not-at-all-messy youtube mom. The error was in making a stress ball. Reader, we had no need of a stress ball. We already knew what stress feels like.

IMG_3215 (Edited)

What we needed was a destress ball, and if you happen to know how to make one, do kindly send me instructions. The ball did not survive 24 hours.

In the meantime, I am considering marking the VE Day 75th anniversary celebrations by taking my daughter’s tissue paper hair dye method and covering my roots in a Union Jack design.

It’s all going to depend on whether I can find a long enough Bit of Time to fit it in, to be honest.

Because, after the Bit of Time where I run around chasing all the Other Jobs on My List and Insisting that Other People Need to Finish Chores and Get Ready for Bed, I want a little Bit of Time for me. And a Bit of Time for my husband, if he’s available and not getting an early night after a day working from home in the same room as people who have finished their schoolwork hours earlier. And a Bit of Time for some light TV. And maybe a Glass of Something.

And before I know it, it’s When’s? Day again and the radio is coming on to wake me, and it is still not the right news.

But all these Bits of Time matter. The mundane and the memorable. The trivial and the triumphant. The Bits of Clapping and Cheering, and the Bits of Gritting Teeth and Wailing.

Stay safe, and remember that Tomorrow will be a Good Day.

Even if it is a Wednesday.

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. 

Carrying too much?

In recent days have been acting like that removal man who believed he was being clever by carrying all the clothes from a wardrobe inside the wardrobe. You know, to save everyone the weight. 

The Peak of Très Chic: Pretty Organization: Closets

I have been asking God to carry me (this is normal, and makes a huge difference in my day when I remember to do it). I have not, however, been asking God to carry all the weight of life for me. I kept hold of much of it. Carrying all the things. You know, because someone has to.

The more I considered this, the more I realised how foolish I have been.

God is carrying it all anyway.

Why not ask God to carry my burdens, as well as myself?

Life is complex and rich and messy. It takes me days even to list all the things I am working on. (Days more to plan how to tackle the many tabs which spring open in my head). Trying to solve, resolve, own and appreciate every one of them is genuinely impossible.

Having chatted it over with a wise person, I now have a new daily schedule. It involves a rhythm to my day which develops routines I have already put in place and carves firmer boundaries for better self-discipline.

There are so many areas of life which demand attention at one time or another: children, friends, food, schools, church, reading, writing, social media, admin, housework, fitness, the dog, rest times. But I cannot carry more than one at a time. Some are hard, or emotive, or tedious. There are times I’m not even sure I can carry one all that well.

So I will let go. God’s got them. They’re not going anywhere. In his strength, beating in time with the unforced rhythms of his grace, I will tackle the ones I can as I can. One task at a time only, for 45 minutes. Forgetting the rest of it I choose to trust God to direct me, focus me and use my energy.

The process may need tweaking, but it is better I give this a go than to flounder and drown in the sea of worries and tasks. There was no way I was going to be able to continue to carry so much without sinking. The tides come and go. The waves rise and retreat. The rhythms which work now are not the rhythms which worked for me twenty years ago. In this season of life, I was not designed to carry as much as I thought I should. I was designed to let God carry me and lead me.

There are times when God leads me to rest, times when he leads me to be with others, times when he leads me to do the trivial everyday things and times when he leads me to work.

In his Message translation of Matthew 11, Eugene Peterson came up with an inspired way of explaining what it means to walk in step with God. Jesus says to a group of people:

“Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion? Come to me. Get away with me and you’ll recover your life. I’ll show you how to take a real rest. Walk with me and work with me—watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly.”

Are you carrying too much? Finding life doesn’t fit right? Just wanting to live more freely and lightly? Don’t be like the guy carrying clothes he didn’t need to carry. There’s a better way, and a better rhythm.

Rhythms of Grace - Candice Elaine

The Year I Finished 70 Books

There are always many reasons for not writing enough. Writing is hard. Writing involves sweating your soul out of your fingertips.

Reading is one way of enriching your soul and feeding those muses. Reading gets the fingertips buzzing again. Writers need to read widely to understand how to write well, to learn what is being read by others and to find their niche in a busy market. This past year I tackled my own reading by challenging myself to see how many books I could complete, noting each one down as I finished it. The rules were fairly simple. I could already have begun the book, but needed to have finished it completely within 2019. This rules out books I only read a portion of to my son, or ones which are still ‘live’, but rules in books I had almost finished at the end of last year. Magazines, articles, essays, chapters of books didn’t count, no matter how erudite or obscure. Only completed volumes could be added to the list.

As I went through the year I found more questions arising and various patterns emerging in my reading. I have been working through a number of books at any given time, but wanted to vary the genres, authors and lengths. I kept long books for trips and read short chapter books to my son or read them myself. I worked on books for my research in my morning quiet time and easy reads in bed at night. I challenged myself to complete the New Testament in Greek, which I had begun a year before (this only counted as one book, but might easily have been 23) and allowed myself to count Genesis and Exodus in Hebrew as a book each. I included Molesworth (a four-volume book) as one. I included poetry, autobiography, devotional, fiction and academic works. For the first time, I actually read the Harry Potter canon, and found that I really enjoyed the series. I’m now working through the spin-offs. I read books by friends and those I’ve met at events, and books by people with completely different world-views to mine.

Today I finished three books, taking the total for 2019 to 70 completed volumes.

Of these, half were fiction, 29 were children’s books and 6 were poetry. I read 14 autobiographies and a couple more biographies, 28 books by Christian writers and 6 which were definitely academic or theological. The number of ‘live’ current reads is, I think, another 6-10. In all this, I am not aware that my ‘to be read’ pile has shrunk in any way.

I rated each book out of 10 for how much it impressed me, and 26 of those I finished scored a 10. The others varied a lot, but generally did very well.

Here are my 12 recommended reading highlights from 2019. Links take you to Amazon, but there are many alternative and very worthy sellers: I recommend buying from independent sellers wherever possible. See these links for reviews and information on each.

For Children:

Eye Can Write, written against the odds, challenges the reader on a number of levels. Jonathan Bryan is a poet, deep thinker and baker of cakes. He also lives with severe cerebral palsy and was thought not to be able to communicate at all.

I am amazed that Jonathan wrote this while only 12 years old.

I want to be as good a writer as he is one day.

 

 

 

Rooftoppers is #1 in ‘Home Improvement Roofing’ on the Big A, but that’s not all.

This page-turner has rich characters, a clever plot and amazing writing.

Great for children and those reading to them.

 

 

 

 

Wonder is worth reading before you watch the film adaptation: it is told beautifully and is a great way to get children (and adults) thinking about how we act when we encounter difference.

 

 

 

 

For People Needing Purpose:

Liz Carter has managed a great feat in producing this book: Catching Contentment is readable and full of empowering truths. Satisfaction is hard to come by, and Liz knows a thing or two about that. She shares her story and challenges and encourages us to look at what contentment really means and how we can experience it ourselves.

 

 

 

Lysa TerKeurst is another woman with a powerful testimony of huge disappointment and how to find strength to rebuild a life. It’s Not Supposed to Be This Way may be a bestseller, but its popularity demonstrates how important this topic is for so many of us.

 

 

 

 

Disclaimer: I’ve not finished reading Image of the Invisible, but that is because the daily readings last until 6th January. So far it’s been excellent

I was drawn to Amy’s book because I like to be challenged when I have devotional readings and Amy has an intelligent, godly and articulate voice. She connects biblical truths intuitively with experiences many of us resonate with, and I highly recommend this book for future Advent readers.

 

 

For Those Who Love Wit:

Brian Bilston signed my copy of Diary of a Somebody when he came to Cambridge recently. I love his marvellous wit, original ideas and allusions to works of literature, films and music. His tweets made him famous through his clever poetry; this longer book is great fun and a super read whether or not you like poetry.

(But particularly if you do).

 

For Those Who Love a Well-Crafted Story:

 

Madeline Miller is both an academic and an astonishingly good writer. I felt drawn into her world of ancient Greek myth and I thoroughly enjoyed reading Circe. I would like to read her Song of Achilles before long. I aspire to be able to write as beautifully as Miller, and to be able to evoke the ancient mind and place so well.

 

 

 

 

Until this year I had only read the first in the Harry Potter series, but I wanted to read the set, especially now I have a child at high school.

I was spell-bound. The stories are full of adventure and the plotting is superb. The characters were mischievous and lovable and I enjoyed the names and the details. I found all of the books great in their own way, but Deathly Hallows brought everything together neatly and was the most satisfying for me, despite some scary moments.

 

For Theologians with too little time:

Peter Williams is the Principal of Tyndale House in Cambridge and a renowned New Testament scholar. This short and very readable book is a super look at the reliability of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, looking at details such as undesigned coincidences, outside sources, local knowledge and textual variant questions.

Williams makes a strong case and references his points well. A good book for pastors and biblical teachers, as well as discerning seekers.

 

 

Technically, I don’t know whether I have finished reading The Marriage of Heaven and Earth: A Visual Guide to N.T. Wright so I’ve not included it in the book count, but I have read over 80% of it at various times in preparing for my most recent lectures.

If you have time, read N.T. Wright. If you have read some of Tom Wright, but don’t have much time, read this too.

Very clever. Punchy text and illustrated with diagrams to help the visual learner.

 

The Bible Project Book: Illustrated Summaries of Biblical Books

This is an amazing resource, and works best in conjunction with the free videos on Youtube. I’ve not read all of Read Scripture: Illustrated Summaries of Biblical Books but as a biblical scholar I love what the team have done. Each book of the Bible gets a large spread and there are lots of details as well as overviews. The book is actually quite big, but it comes with a cover to slot into; it needs to be big to fit some of the many details in.

 

If you have written a book which I haven’t reviewed here, I may not have read it (or finished it) yet – send me an email or drop a comment below and I will read and review it as soon as I am able.

In 2020 I intend to progress further with my own writing projects and will continue to note down all the books I read as I go. I wonder how many books I’ll be able to complete in the coming decade?

Well, ideally I will need to focus more time and attention on my own writing: all being well at least one of those ought to have my name on the cover.

A very happy new year to you, and happy reading!

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!

 

New Life ACW Lent Book – Update

I am thrilled to announce that I am in print, and the books are out now!

The Association of Christian Writers have compiled a book of creative devotionals in the form of a Lent Book, and I am one of the contributors. This is a very exciting experience for a fledgling author.

As I was keen, naive and wanted to put all my profits toward a church link in Albania we have set up with our home church, I managed to get a large number of pre-orders, so am one of the very first to take delivery of my order. Responses have been fantastic and as my own stocks are now very low, if you are interested in a copy, do please order from Amazon, or support your local Christian bookshop and get it direct from them. 

 

Lent Book cover

 

 

International Poetry Day

I felt compelled today to edit and republish a poem I first put out three years ago on my personal blog jamandgiraffes, in honour of International Poetry Day and because Easter is coming. Spring is now here and while flowers smell of hope and joy, Easter tells a more humbling story and I had been looking back at the gospels and wondering what it all smelt like. Feel free to use this, although if you do, please do credit me.

wash

 

Smelly Week

It all started when the jar of nard parted
Jarred, barred, open-hearted, broken-hearted,
What a strange smell, filling the house from roof to foot,
Smell of treasure, smell of death (tarted up).

Then branches waving in the king, palms up, palms down
Crunching under simple hooves, hay, swaying fresh and fuzzy.

Smelly feet, incomplete, bread and the vineyard and olives and torches –
Feast or final meal, more blood, more fire and the plaintive crow crow crowing.

Unknowing. Smell of fear, of sweat, of thorns and wood,
Smell of your trade, made rough, tough nails rusty, musty dust.
Smell of pain, again, again, again, sweat, blood, vinegar and hyssop.
Hyssop? Cleanse me too – blood rolling like tears, metallic, organic to the ground.

Bound, in myrrh, in aloe, from head to toe, so so dead. No!

No.

And then you said ‘why are you crying?’

And my world of tears and mud and blood split open and I breathed a different air. It smelt of life.

And it smelt good.

Friday 500 – Christmas Pop Theology

Perhaps this is the year Chris Rea will make it all the way home in time for Christmas. We can only hope.

I like to listen in to the lyrics of songs. And, given that ‘Driving Home for Christmas’ is a popular non-religious Christmas song, I found it surprisingly full of hidden biblical references.

Consider the following extracts, and some interesting parallels:

I’m driving home for Christmas

The Israelites had to drive out the nations in the land before they could possess it. But perhaps that is the wrong sense. Think instead of Elisha, driving a pair of oxen as he ploughed a field. Was he driving homewards? Probably half the time. Events overtook him and he changed plans. Like Rea, we are left wondering if there was a satisfactory outcome to this slow march. Unlike Rea, Elisha stopped, killed his oxen, cooked them and feasted with his family, before heading off for a good long time. This seems as close to a portrayal of Christmas as I can find in the Old Testament. A biblical reference about the need for a good feast time with family.

I can’t wait to see those faces

This is clearly a reference to Joseph’s brothers travelling down to Egypt. The phrase ‘seeing’ a ‘face’ occurs five times in this story. The irony of course was that there was a lot of waiting to be done. Christmas always seems like a long wait. Until you reach adulthood in my experience. Then it comes round every twelve months, whether you’ve been naughty or nice. And twelve months come round a lot more quickly than they used to.

Well I’m moving down that line

David in 1 Samuel 17:48, running to fight Goliath. “As the Philistine moved closer to attack him, David ran quickly towards the battle line to meet him.” A reference to the need for proactive Christmas preparations. David already had his ‘gift’ for Goliath and was ready to sling it over to him. Granted, the motive was not pleasant, but it was the thought that counted.

And it’s been so long

An invalid in John 5 had been a very long time waiting for his turn to be healed at the pool of Bethesda. This is clearly a reference to this passage. Jesus heals him anyway, despite it being a non-work day. Which goes to show that the wait is worth it, but you shouldn’t forget those who have to work over the holidays.

But I will be there

This reference is to the consecration of Solomon’s temple, where God tells him in 1 Kings 9:3: “I have heard the prayer and plea you have made before me; I have consecrated this temple, which you have built, by putting my Name there for ever. My eyes and my heart will always be there.” God’s presence is a rather significant part of Christmas.

I sing this song

There are many songs in the Bible, although I think the reference here is to Isaiah 44:23 where even the heavens, the earth, the mountains, forests and trees are all part of the choir. Choirs form a staple of Christmas and trees are now a prominent feature in many places to celebrate the birth of Jesus. Decorated and lit up, they too join in the great song of praise and glory.

It’s gonna take some time

This lyric refers to Nehemiah 2, where the length of his proposed journey from Persia to Jerusalem to shore up the city walls is discussed. Nehemiah is truthful. Partly because he does not have super-speed reindeer (he does have access to a donkey apparently) and partly because he needs an extended leave of absence.

Top to toe in tailbacks
Oh, I got red lights on the run

The levitical laws prescribed dabbing priests’ ear lobes and big toes with blood, which is bright red, just like tail lights. Clearly then, this is a reference to the priestly element of the Christmas story.

Get my feet on holy ground

Moses’ encounter with God at the non-burning bush is the obvious connection here. Rea sings about getting home in these terms, because he wants to be somewhere sacred and familiar. The message of Christmas is that the pitter-patter of little feet brings God nearer than ever before. We have the opportunity to really encounter God and his love ourselves.

And feel you near me

Immanuel, ‘God with us’, the classic Isaiah prophecy recalled at Christmas concerns God’s imminence and presence. Even when apart from loved ones, like Rea we sometimes feel the comfort of knowing they love us. Even when apart from God we sometimes recognise a piece of the divine Love, and when we are close to God we feel those pieces falling into place in our lives.

With a thousand memories

Psalm 105:8: “He remembers his covenant for ever / the promise he made, for a thousand generations”. Not just a thousand memories, but a thousand generations of memories. Which is figurative for ‘a very long time’, but nevertheless reassuring.

So, next time you find yourself stuck in a car, listening to this song on the radio about other drivers stuck in cars, have a think about the lyrics. Maybe there’s more I haven’t even spotted yet. Who knows? Or other Christmas pop songs?

In fact, I’ve gone way over my 500 words target for this week (I hadn’t posted so much lately so this one is longer), so it really is time I left this thought here.

Songwriters: REA, CHRISTOPHER ANTON

Driving Home For Christmas lyrics © Warner/Chappell Music, Inc.