Semi-skimmed Books

Are you getting your recommended daily allowance of reading?

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

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

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

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

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

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

I bring you the art of semi-skimmed reading.

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

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

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

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

Bonne lecture!

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)

Best Reading of 2021

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

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

Fiction – children

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

Fiction – adult

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Biographical

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

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

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

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

Reflective/devotional

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

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

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

Non-fiction

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

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

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.

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.

We Need to Talk About Goldilocks

IMG_4591

On Saturday I cut the long, long hair of my daughter
shorter.

Disentangling her
and her hair
from unfair
association with any bears.

(Or bear-related criminal activity).

Her hair long enough to sit on,
I wasn’t going to stand around
and take it lying down.

I heard the cops might profile my daughter –
might escort her,
deport her, even.

So I cut her long, long, golden hair
shorter.

(You would, too).

Her description matched
The Flaxen Attacker.

It wasn’t the bears’ fault
they were victims of crime.
At the time
they’d been out,
at a picnic,
with the Cubs,
in the woods.

No big surprise,
they’d left their door unlocked.

And at the scene of crime
this evidence was there:
one long, long, golden hair,
stuck square in a large bowl of porridge (hot).

Not only that, but
the littlest chair
had been somewhat deconstructed
(her athletic tilts).

Criminal damage, breaking and entering, hate-crime, intimidation.
It’s big, big news down at the station.

She says she wasn’t there.

To make it fair
I chopped her hair.

Took an axe to the flax.

Popped it
under some stacks
of wood
round the back,
right next to the wolf-skin
from that awful incident
with granny
last Spring.

(That would take some explaining too).

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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

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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 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.

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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.