What I have been reading: winter 2015/16

As well as a few titles that I have kept returning to week after week, I saved up some of the books that I’d been sent in the latter part of 2015 to enjoy over the Christmas period, and during my recuperation from a minor op. Here’s my thoughts on the selection:

outofsortscover

Out of Sorts By Sarah Bessey

This was a book that I read in order to interview Sarah for an author profile in a magazine. I knew she was a great writer, but I wasn’t prepared for how much the book was going to resonate with where I was at, or how much it would challenge me. I love the way that Sarah gives us permission to feel out of sorts – as a pastor’s wife I often feel I need to hide my struggles for the benefit of those around me – but at the same time have a conviction that sharing those same struggles would help others. She talks of how a period of growth often includes feeling out of sorts as we re-navigate our assumptions about our faith. I didn’t agree with absolutely everything, but I think Sarah would be okay with that – after all she indicates that her desire in writing the book is not so others will go on the same journey that she has, but will find their own way deeper with God. Amen to that.

resilient cover

Resilient By Sheridan Voysey

This book was born out of Sheridan’s own experiment: to spend a month in the Sermon on the Mount. Written as a devotional, I really took my time with this one as I found the bite-size chapters were packed with challenges and insights. Sheridan doesn’t just stick with a verse by verse walk through the Sermon – each section has a chunk of the Sermon at the start but then he includes other scriptures that have resonated with him on the particular subject in question. I found this a very honest and enriching devotional, which has given me much to ponder and work through for myself.

 

findingmyselfinbritain

Finding myself in Britain By Amy Boucher Pye

I was really excited to delve into the pages of this one: I have known Amy and worked for her for a few years in our editorial capacities, so I was intrigued to find out what Amy’s book would be like. And I wasn’t disappointed. Charming, witty, honest and with an openness that only an American would have, Amy introduces the British year to the reader, describing each season and event in the calendar though her American eyes. As an American married to a British vicar she has lived here for many years so has great insight. She also introduces us to some of her childhood delights and other native joys – as a Brit who grew up in America it was lovely to go down memory lane as I recognised so much of what she described from ‘back home’. This is a perfect book to give as a gift to a friend.

 

the scent of waterThe Scent of Water By Elizabeth Goudge

I saved this book to take into hospital with me, and I have to say it was the perfect choice. Gentle, tender, poetic and beautifully descriptive, the book is about a middle-aged woman from London who is left a house in the country when her father’s cousin dies. She decides to leave the city and move there, and, in doing so, embarks on a journey of discovery – about herself, her distant relative, her lost love and the people she lives near in the country. The pace is slow and meandering – at another time I may have got impatient with that but it was just what I needed. I enjoyed the moments of spiritual insights too, jotting down many of them.

 

twosteps forward

Two Steps Forward By Sharon Garlough Brown

This is the sequel to Sensible Shoes. Again a title I had had for ages, I saved it for the Christmas break. The first book introduced us to four women who met during a spiritual formation journey at a retreat centre. They are all very different, but strike up a friendship that lasts beyond the retreat. With sequels I am always concerned that I won’t get as caught up in the story, or won’t care as much about the characters as I did first time round, but Sharon did a brilliant job of moving their stories on and I was gripped. I loved reading about how the characters were learning to use the things they discovered on retreat back in their everyday lives, with all the difficulties and struggles they contain.

As she did in the first book, Sharon also includes great spiritual insights, many of which are highlighted ready to be transferred into my journal as they spoke to me personally. I love it when a novel is more than a mere escape – although that is obviously a big role novels play in our lives. This book left me challenged, with new spiritual disciplines and exercises to try. I heartily recommend it – and the whole series if you haven’t read the first book. I’m excited to learn that Sharon is already working on the fourth book in the series…

Slowing down during Advent

Bible_study___Advent_419658179

I love Christmas. I love the preparations, the waiting, the build up of excitement, the putting up of decorations, the time spent devising menus. I love being involved in the music for carol services, watching our children’s excitement as they prepare for the nativity play. But, if I’m honest, I also struggle with the stress.

I see the start of Advent, and know that it’s a time of reflection – and I long to have the time and space to really enjoy it. However, I’m sad to say, the busyness of life so often crowds in as I rush to finish deadlines before the kids break up from school.

At this point in our calendar I’m focused most on getting our son’s birthday party celebrations organised, with the ever-growing list of jobs to do for Christmas weighing on my mind.

Even among all the activity, though, I can sense a longing in my soul. I am desperate to connect, to find the deeper meaning in this season. And I am desperate for our family’s experience of Advent to go beyond chocolate and calendars.

I am drawn to rediscover the meaning of waiting this Advent. Drawn to the character of Mary, and what this time meant for her. When we first meet her in the gospels she seems like a vulnerable young woman; betrothed to a respectable man in her neighbourhood. But one visit from an angel changes everything.

Mary’s response to that angel, after a few somewhat understandable questions, is simply ‘I am the Lord’s servant… May your words to me be fulfilled.’ (Luke 1:38) Incredible. I could never be that calm.

After visiting Elizabeth, Mary creates what is often referred to as the Magnificat, her song of praise (Luke 1:46-55). Through it she reveals she understands the way that God has blessed her for a special purpose. Mary recognises that God is a champion for the poor and oppressed too, and that God is fulfilling His promises to Abraham (and Israel) through what is to take place.

Whenever I look at those verses I am always taken aback. Granted, Mary has had a visitation from an angel, who has taken the time to explain things to her. Elizabeth has also recognised that the baby inside of Mary is the Lord so Mary has someone she can talk freely with. But still…

While Mary herself recognises she is highly favoured, she’s also in a time of waiting that is filled with so many unknowns. Will Joseph stand by her? If he does, will their society cast them out? And then, once the census was decreed, how will she cope with the long journey to Bethlehem and where will she give birth? (I’m sure that the idea of a stable never once entered her head!) What would her son be like? How would He make Himself known as the Messiah?

So many questions, yet the biblical account doesn’t reveal much about Mary’s state of mind. There seems to be a peace amongst the anticipation while the reality must have been messy, and deeply painful, at times. What surrounds this part of the Christmas story for me is stillness and patience; the atmosphere thick with pregnant hope.

While I pause for a moment to reflect and write this, I pray that I too can find that stillness and patience. That I too can look forward to the coming celebrations with hope, not allowing the stress and busyness that can so easily accompany this season to rob me of the precious gift behind it all.

This blog was originally published on Christian Today.

What one thing has God asked you to do today?

If you don’t know the answer to that question then perhaps, like me, you are a little too goal-orientated and focused on achieving rather than slowing down long enough to hear from God.

lady surrounded by technology

Often our priorities are not God’s, our ‘good ideas’ not ones that He’s dropped into our minds. I was really convicted by a daily devotional I read today, in which the author described herself as someone who is too busy to be interrupted. Too set on being productive and ‘useful’, she isn’t able to deal with the stress and emotions of her own life, let alone those of others.

I gulped. And then admitted to myself that she could have been describing me. So often people comment that I must be extremely busy helping others. As a pastor’s wife I do get my fair share of burdened people wanting a listening ear, a shoulder to cry on and someone willing to pray with them. And I consider that a privilege.

The problem is, I have my own ideas about what I should focus my time on, which means that the hours my kids are at school are taken up with work. Of course, the majority of us have to work in order to live, so I don’t feel that that’s a problem. What is, though, is that niggling feeling I sometimes get. The feeling that tries to tell me I don’t need to work quite so much…

To read the rest of this article please click here.

The ‘gift’ of chickenpox: slowing down

So last week chickenpox came to our house. The timing in some ways was terrible – it meant my mum couldn’t come to stay. But as the days wore on I saw how God held us and worked through the situation.

I had wanted my son to get chickenpox before he gets much older (he’s now 6). So when an outbreak happened in his class I was secretly fairly pleased. But when it actually happened I immediately started stressing – at the last minute my parents couldn’t come to be with the kids while we went to a leadership weekend (could we even go if he was really suffering with it?).

I then started stressing about how I was going to juggle my work with my son at home. My daughter is great at amusing herself – when ill she simply takes herself off to bed and reads and naps. But he is different. He doesn’t seem able to play for long on his own and wants constant attention.

After the first day of him appearing by my side constantly I was beginning to get irritated and even more stressed. So I made a conscious decision to bring it all before God and ask Him to help order our days and allow me to be there for my son and comfort him, but also get the work done that I needed to without too much difficulty. I also prayed that we would have precious moments together that we could look back on with fondness afterwards.

3c86f445d4f5571c392fb08a7a5e6da2

What then followed were a few days of him either napping or playing for a little while so I could start some work, and then we’d snuggle up on the sofa and watch a film together. I always took a pile of reading or other work with me, but it usually stayed in a pile and I didn’t look at it at all.

One of the days this untouched work started to weigh on my mind but then I felt God really clearly tell me to stop worrying about it. The vital work was getting done – yes I didn’t feel like I had much head space but He gently reminded me that my body isn’t working at 100% at the moment and that the rest was good for me too so I should simply embrace it rather than not allowing myself to unwind and enjoy it because I thought I ‘ought to’ be doing something.

It made me think about how often we don’t allow ourselves to rest because we are in ‘do’ mode and rest seems lesser somehow – not worth as much as getting through our ‘to do’ list.

So, through my son’s illness, God was yet again gently reminding me that I need to slow down and allow myself to rest. The things I have to get done are no less important, but the way I view them and the hierarchy I so often put on the things in my life needs to change to allow me space just to ‘be’ more regularly.

 

Worshipping the King this Christmas

christmas_decorations_200592

Christmas is almost upon us. Have you wrapped all the presents, bought the turkey, and started to make up beds for family and friends that will be staying with you?

This time of year is really busy isn’t it? There are a few Christmas services still to attend/run too. And what about those films your kids are desperate to see, and the now seemingly obligatory visits to Santa available at every shopping and garden centre…

 I asked you in my last column what you would do if God wanted to interrupt your plans this Christmas. Whether He has or not, how have you made room for Him in these last couple of weeks?

I know Christmas can be a really pressurised time of year, as there is simply so much to organise and the coming together of people who don’t see each other regularly can be stressful.

But amongst all the heightened commercialisation of the season, how have you been worshipping the King?

Black Friday showed us how much our culture worships material goods – people were fighting over things they really don’t need just to get a ‘bargain’.

So, as we approach Christmas itself, I think it’s really important to slow down, just for a minute or two, and ask, ‘Am I worshipping the King in my Christmas plans?’.

To read the rest of this article please click here.

Advent remembering

It is my absolute pleasure to welcome writerly friend Lucy Mills for this brilliant guest blog about embracing a new kind of remembering this Advent:

advent candles by Stushie

Advent Candles image by Stushie.

 

I often forget about Advent until I’m in it. More accurately, I don’t realise how fast the time has gone and suddenly it’s mid December and – oh. I feel irritated; as if I’ve missed out on something. Is it worth it, now? Or have I missed the Advent bus?

This year I did at least notice when December began, which has helped. I had already made a note, in fact, that I needed to prepare myself for Advent. I know that sounds odd, as Advent is itself a preparation.

Yet I forget to make time and space for that preparing to take place.

I forget a lot of things.

These past 12 months or so have been quite significant for me. We’ve moved to a new area and a new church (my husband is a Baptist minister). I’ve made new friends as well as trying to nurture the old. The editing role I already had has now shifted to one with more responsibility and oversight. And – I appear to have created a book. And it appears to have been published.

How odd! How extraordinary! I’m a first-timer, poking it to check if it is real. I’m also a little shy of it now. After years of pouring myself into it, I feel a bit self-conscious. Reading it makes me squirm a little, like watching myself on screen.

I’m tempted to leave it on the shelf, to draw a line under it.

But that would make a mockery of what it is about. Because the book is a confession: of my own forgetfulness. My tendency towards distraction, every day and any day. And it’s also a reflection on the importance of remembering God in our daily lives – what this means.

I can’t draw a line under it; it’s part of my continuing journey and it’s as relevant to me now as it was when I started it.

Because my condition is chronic. I neglect my faith. I don’t open my bible. Then I feel guilty about how long it’s been since I opened it. So I don’t think about it, and the pages remain unread. I pray occasionally rather than continually. I reach a point where I feel empty, and I am blind enough to wonder why.

I’ve forgotten who I am. I’ve forgotten who I am because I’ve ceased remembering who God is. As a Christian, my identity is in Christ. Yet instead of focusing on him, my eyes drift. When I squint towards my faith, I do so through a fog of my own distractedness. I don’t allow times for rest and reflection – I fill them up with mediocre diversions. I’m a little scared to face myself and admit my forgetfulness. So I embrace the forgetfulness even more.

It takes discipline to pull myself back, and often it’s the tug of the Holy Spirit – not my own strength. God, in all patience, woos me into returning. I come understanding: whom have I but you? To whom else would I go?

The seasons of the Church are, in many ways, tools for remembering. Advent, focusing on the coming Christ, can be a great antidote for forgetfulness, if we dare to take more than a cursory sip of it. The incarnate Christ came as a fragile baby into a dark world; the resurrected Christ is still present with us now by the power of the Spirit. And the glorified Christ will come again.

Today, in spite of my busyness, in spite of the distractions, I choose to take a breath. I allow myself to remember. A mere moment, perhaps, but it births more moments as I form a habit of pausing.

This Advent, take a moment to pause. Breathe. Allow yourself to take a handful of stillness. It will help you get perspective on the rest of it – the hurly-burly, the ever-changing, the tugging cords of life.

Reflect on the light that came into the darkness, the light that cannot be put out. And ask for that light to shine on all your distractedness and disrepair.

You haven’t missed the bus. It’s not too late to start a new kind of remembering. Every morning is another chance to draw close to our God of mercy and grace. Seek the One who knows every part of you – the shallow and the deep – and who loves you.

I need to hear this, to reflect on it this Advent season.

Do you?

FH high res

Lucy Mills has written a wonderfully challenging book on how our hearts can be so forgetful. Here are the details – I will be reviewing it some time but, for now, I thoroughly recommend it. A good choice for a Christmas present 🙂

Forgetful Heart: Remembering God in a Distracted World is published by Darton, Longman and Todd (2014). You can read more about it on her website.

Are you willing to let God disrupt your life?

Bible_study___Advent_419658179

We are now in Advent, traditionally a time of looking forward and preparing for the coming of Christ through acts of remembrance and repentance as we get ourselves ready spiritually.

The word advent is the anglicised version of the Latin word adventus, which means ‘coming’, ‘arrival’, ‘approach’. During this time we remember the longing ancient people had for a saviour, a messiah, but also how we should be alert for His second coming.

Today, however, I’ve been pondering the consequences of one particular visit or ‘approach’ that started off the events of that first Christmas. That of the angel Gabriel visiting Mary, which I’ve been looking at in Luke 1:26-38.

I was struck afresh today what a bizarre and potentially terrifying experience it must have been for a young girl to suddenly be face to face with an angel. That itself was mind-blowing enough. And yet what about his message? To be told that you, a young, unmarried virgin, would be the mother of the Son of God?!

We obviously don’t get a blow-by-blow account of the story in the Gospels, but I wonder what your response would have been if you had been given such a life-changing message?

We are told that at the start of the conversation ‘Mary was greatly troubled at his words’ (Luke 1:29). Don’t you just love the Bible’s skill at understatement? Troubled? I think I would have either frozen stiff, screamed for help or run away. And that was before he’d even told her God’s plans…

Mary was obviously someone who sought God and made following Him a priority; that must have helped her recognise that this angelic being was indeed sent from God. I admire her courage for sticking it out, for staying long enough to hear his full message.

Pondering the passage in Luke, I do believe that God’s peace must have descended on Mary when she accepted that she was listening to His messenger. How else could she stand there and listen without having a serious freak out?

But what strikes me the most is her simple trust and obedience. Just listen to what she says when Gabriel has finished his speech: ‘I am the Lord’s servant,’ Mary answered. ‘May your word to me be fulfilled.’ (v38)

Part of me wants to shout at her: ‘Come on Mary he’s just totally disrupted your wedding plans – actually, he may well have cost you your wedding. Who is going to believe that you will become pregnant by the Holy Spirit? That just sounds crazy. Do you really think Joseph will believe you?’

And yet that side of me is silenced by the piercing effect her response has. Mary was being asked to trust an angelic being who had brought her a message that would turn her life upside down but, not only that, would change the world if the boy indeed turned out to be the Messiah they were all hoping for. What a privilege … but what an enormous upheaval that necessitated her laying down her rights to all her dreams and plans.

What this passage has made me consider, is what I would do if Jesus or an angel came to me and asked me to disrupt my plans. Not my whole life – just my week’s plans.

To read the rest of this reflection, please click here.

Feeling restless

St Augustine wrote, “[God] you have made us for yourself, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you.”

“Our hearts are restless”: that’s a great description of life today.

So often I feel restless. I’m rushing around making sure the kids get homework done, get to their after-school clubs, are fed and looked after.

I rush around with church activities, chatting issues through with my husband as he seeks to lead the church well, organising rehearsals and leading worship, trying to spot new people and welcome them as well as look after those who’ve been in the church for years.

I rush around with my work, meeting deadlines and thinking up new ideas for writing projects. Yes there is a bit of space for pondering within that, but too often it is pressurised, rather than restful.

I rush from one evening meeting to another – church meetings, governors’ meetings, music practices, even rushing to exercise classes.

I feel restless a lot of the time. I know the better way is to start by positioning myself at Jesus’ feet, learning from His wisdom rather than trying to do things in my own strength. But I find that so hard to do.

I wrote about finding the rhythm that works for me and my family recently; I’m still working on that if I’m honest!

I arrived at church a couple of Sundays ago totally at the end of myself, but with my keyboard ready to play. I could barely speak, let alone sing, so one of the guys helpfully suggested we prayed together before doing anything else. And what one of them prayed for me really stuck with me – here’s a summary of it:

‘Lord, Claire works so hard for you. Help her to learn to rest.

I’m one of those people who find it difficult to sit down and relax until all the jobs in the house are done. I simply can’t leave dirty dishes on the side or floors unvacuumed. That may be why our vacuum cleaner suddenly stopped working when I was midway through vacuuming one of the downstairs rooms that weekend. I still had the upstairs to do! But I simply couldn’t, which meant that, after church that Sunday, we were able to settle down and have a family film time.

I was forced to rest.

Does God ever make you stop, through circumstances or even illness? If only we’d rest more regularly without Him having to step in and force us.

To read the rest of this post, please click here.

Life is short…

Memorial services are great for bringing perspective.

I recently attended one for a dear guy who, at one stage of our lives, was extremely instrumental in our continuing faith journey. He was the first small group leader we had in the church we attended more than 20 years ago. We’ve since moved on from that church, moving home to help start another church in a nearby community.

What shocked us about this situation was that his death was sudden – and he was so young (just four years older than my husband). So there we were, a group of people that had come back together from various corners of the country to celebrate and acknowledge the life of this unassuming man who had had an impact on us.

He had been a somewhat clumsy, awkward guy, but so friendly and gentle. Everyone who paid tribute to him recognised those qualities. But they also talked about his absolute assurance of the truth of the gospel. Although a scientist, he had had no problem marrying his faith with scientific fact, and his faith had been the stronger for it.

As I sat listening to people speaking that day, I suddenly heard a gentle whisper:

What would people be saying if it were you? How would people describe you?

I know that the word ‘gentle’ would certainly not be among the words used. Unfortunately that’s not a natural character trait for me…

But would there be the things I would hope for, such as: kind, loyal, honest, authentic, faith-filled, inspiring, encouraging? Or would there be, as I suspect I’m viewed as currently: over-busy, stressed, aloof, overbearing, difficult to approach, emotional?

I know I’m overstating the case somewhat, but sitting there that day made me take stock:

What is it I’m investing my time and efforts in, and are they worthwhile?

To read the rest of this post please click here.

Never lose the wonder…

… That was whispered to me, ever so quietly, this morning.

My husband had taken the kids to school and I was determined to curb my natural desire to get on and tackle chores and work emails before work. Determined to have a bit of ‘you and me’ time with God.

It wasn’t long, after the overflow of song in my heart had subsided (I would call myself a musician – of sorts – so there is usually some song or other bubbling up), that God spoke that little phrase.

There wasn’t anything else. Just a flow of peace, of affirmation. And those words, again and again.

“Never lose the wonder.”

I was reminded of how He had been trying to get through to me in recent weeks. It was while I was editing a fantastic new book by Carrie Lloyd, in which I read about that quiet voice speaking to her in her ‘secret place’. I have always enjoyed little moments throughout my day in which I’ve heard God communicate with me like that, but I suddenly realised that it had been a while since that had happened. I was really taken aback – how had I not noticed?

Do you ever get to that point?

You are so busy doing things for God, that somehow you miss Him completely?

Well, maybe not completely – you can point others to Him, feel His presence in corporate worship and bring words and scriptures for people, but actually your own close relationship with Him has somehow gotten disconnected.

To read the rest of this post, please click here.