The Danger of Light and Joy

Quote

Tell me, Legolas, why did I come on this Quest? Little did I know where the chief peril lay! True Elrond spoke, saying that we could not foresee what we might meet upon our road. Torment in the dark was the danger that I feared, and it did not hold me back. But I would not have come, had I known the danger of light and joy. Now I have taken my worst wound in this parting, even if I were to go this night straight to the Dark Lord.

– Gimli on leaving Galadriel in Lothlorien, in The Fellowhip of the Ring, J.R.R Tolkien, 1954

The Hunger Games

Many, many people I know have read these books now so I thought it was about time I jumped on the bandwagon. I managed to read all three (they’re each about 450 pages long) in just five days – I’m not sure if that says more about the books or my vast amount of free time pre-semester – and am torn between loving them and writing them off as more Twlilight-esque drivel. Or maybe that’s the same thing?

*Spoiler Alert*

So the similarities with Twilight are pretty obvious. Teenage female central character who strops a lot. Weird love triangle where female central character can’t decide who she loves. Continuous build up of suspense to be thoroughly disappointed by lack of action (usually as female central character blacks out). I just hope Jennifer Lawrence can pull off moody female protagonist better than Kristen Stewart when the movie comes out in March.

But the books do point to something deeper. Set in a futuristic North America, where the majority of the human race has been wiped out through civil war, those in command in the Capitol keep their subjects in the outlying districts under control by forcing them to sacrifice two of their young people to the deadliest form reality TV has ever taken. The Hunger Games. Twenty-four teenagers must fight to the death for the entertainment of the Capitol citizens and to remind the districts that the Capitol is in control. Eventually, partly due to the actions of the main characters as they fight for their lives in the arena, a rebellion begins as the districts try to overthrow the corrupt regime.

An interesting comment on reality TV and the perverse ends such forms of “entertainment” might one day be used for, has become much more, I think, in light of the Arab Spring this past year. Suzanne Collins presents different reactions to such situations of oppression – do you subvert the system with acts of non-violent rebellion or resort to militarization and force? And does one necessarily lead to the next if there is to be true liberation? She also conveys the corrupting nature of power and the dangers of trying to establish a democracy, especially when a rebellion has a clear leader who wishes to step in to the power seat.

Though the books were clever and entertaining and just the break from reality that I needed before the craziness of semester begins, there were moments of disappointment. Such as the numerous times when the protagonist would black out or be injured just at the climax of an event and we would have to hear about it hurriedly through its retelling by another character. There were also moments, in the last few chapters of the third book in particular, where I actually laughed out loud at the stupidity of the characters or the predictability of the plot.

I’m still really looking forward to the movie though.

Room

The second of three books I bought in the middle of last semester (the first being One Day), Room by Emma Donaghue is the story of Jack and his Ma, who live in Room.

I bought this because of the blurb, which simply says:

Jack is five.
He lives in a single, locked room with his Ma.

And that was it!! I had to read it to find out about this poor wee boy, not caring or knowing what the plotline was. It turned out, however, that the story was as haunting as the blurb.

I don’t want to ruin it for you but I will say that I thought the way it was written from Jack’s perspective was very clever. It’s a fascinating exercise in understanding the mind of a child who accepts everything you tell them and cannot think beyond what you tell them. Then, to see the only world which they have ever known shattered and them have to rebuild their entire system of understanding is so interesting.
(I read a book written on a similar premise called Milkweed by Jerry Spinelli a number of years ago. It’s a child’s perspective on the Holocaust and another book I’d thoroughly recommend. )

I thought that it was well written and an engaging idea but it just lacked something. I guess I wanted more than Jack could give me. I wanted a grown-up perspective, to understand all the drama in the background. But I suppose that’s the point. This is Jack’s story and Jack is five years old so you see it as simply as he does.

I would definitely recommend it.

One Day – A Review

With three essays handed in and only two weeks left of the semester my workload was looking pretty light and suddenly had free time again. I didn’t want to just fill it with watching ridiculous things on iPlayer but every book on my shelf was non-fiction and couldn’t face reading any more theology! So, with book tokens and gift card in hand, I went to Waterstones and bought three novels. Actual fictional, reading for the sheer joy, novels. The first was One Day.

I loved it.

I have been up until the small hours of every morning this week devouring it. I haven’t read 80 pages in an hour and half  of anything for months but this had me gripped from the beginning. I’ve brought it up in just about every conversation I’ve had this week (I know my friends are getting sick of it). Basically, YOU HAVE TO READ IT!

It’s about one life in the day of these two people, every day for 20 years. And it’s so cleverly written because even though you’re only really getting one day you know exactly how they got there from the day you just read about a year ago. (I’m not certain I’m explaining this very well).

The weirdest thing for me was that it starts in 1988 on the night of the graduation from Edinburgh University. Creepy! You essentially get to grow up with them and go through all their highs and lows. The characters captivate your heart from the beginning so that when they triumph you’re elated and when they do something stupid you feel like slapping them across the back of the head.

I loved his cultural references. Even I, born three years after the book starts could pick up on and relate to things. I think my favourite was “talk to the hand” – do you remember that?! Or the “Rachel” haircut. Good times.

It’s funny, heart breaking, easy to read and brilliant.

You’re gorgeous, you old hag and if I cold give you just one gift ever for the rest of your life it would be this. Confidence. It would be the gift of confidence. Either that or a scented candle.

Common Prayer

One of the wonderful gifts I was given for Christmas (amongst many pairs of socks and thermal under-layers) was Common Prayer:

Written by Shane Claiborne (who I’m sure you remember I am a bit of a fan of), Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove (quite like him too) and Enuma Okoro ( who I’m afraid I’d never heard of  but who I’m sure I would like) it’s pretty much what it says on the cover there: “A liturgy for ordinary radicals”.

Instead of following the standard 3 year plan of the traditional Book of Common Prayer this follows a one year cycle with prayers for morning, noon and night. They’ve used prayers and songs from all kinds of traditions and included saints days for all kinds of heroes of the faith. And at the end of every month there’s a little “Becoming the Answer to our Prayers” idea box.

I often get accused of being all about “mixing it up” in worship and getting away from tradition – in Aberdeen at least, the folks in Edinburgh probably think I’m pretty conservative! – so when I mentioned this to friends they were a little shocked that I’d be enthusiastic about something that is so structured. Yes, I love the idea of worship taking many forms and being a little spontaneous but I also think there is something incredible about a rhythm of prayer and breathing life into prayers spoken centuries ago and joining with brothers and sisters around the world in a common prayer. Liturgy is an amazing heritage which, in the Church of Scotland and many other congregations, we have forgotten about but it is most definitely one of the powerful forms that worship can take.

I’ve used it a little already and I’m really looking forward to using it once life resumes some kind of order again.

 

 

From Head to Foot

My bloggy friend Annie wrote and published a book: From Head to Foot.

As the subtitle says, it’s about “All of you living for all of Him” and Annie considers how we use various body parts to glorify and serve God.

The reading is easy, the subject is not. Annie gets straight to the heart of issues that I think many young women face as they attempt to live out their faith. However, Annie’s personal examples, conversational style and use of biblical examples encourages you to not only read through and brush over these issues but pause to think and apply.

You should buy the book, primarily because it’s brilliant and secondly because Annie self-published. You’ll note the sentence on the “self-publishing” wikipedia page that says “It is generally done entirely at the expense of the author”. Yup. You read it right. God gave Annie a dream, she wrote it down and then took a huge risk in getting it into our hands. This makes her one of my heroes. And makes me think, maybe, one day, I’ll do something similar.

So, buy her book or, ask me for my copy (which is signed by the way . . . just putting that out there . . . )

God on Campus

I have managed to read a whole one non-uni book this semester.

(Oops. Nope. Wait. I read Harry Potter 7 when I went home for the weekend)

Okay, so I’ve read, beginning to end, two non-uni books in the past 3 months. Solid.

The non-Harry-Potter, non-uni, non-fiction book which I read is called God on Campus.

 

Great read.

Trent heads up this thing in the States called Campus America. A part of 24-7 Prayer, they are all about getting University Campuses across the USA to pray. I’m presuming you can see why I bought it?

The book is so clever. Trent re-tells the stories of historical academic institutions and international student mission movements and how each was completely transformed or originally started by a small but committed and passionate prayer meeting. To read story after story of how the prayers of a handful of people were heard by God, who used them in revivals that spanned the globe is inspiring and challenging.

And it never took massive organisation or even formality. It certainly wasn’t in the hands of church leadership. These were ordinary folks who simply wanted to seek God’s will for their lives, campus and country. People who have been used by God to literally change the world often come out of these little meetings of prayer.

It’s easy to read and to dip in and out of. There are application questions at the end of each chapter too. If you want a read, email/comment me and I’ll give/post you my copy. ‘Cause it’s nice to share.

Just Do Something

I’ve just read this great book by Kevin DeYoung, Just Do Something, all about finding God’s will for your life.

He rightly says that we are obsessed with “the will of God” and “finding our calling”, we want to know God’ plan for our lives and we want it to be set out like Google Map instructions, step-by-step with a little diagram to make it really clear. We’re prone to looking for “God’s will” in everything – from breakfast cereal to career moves, holidays to marriage proposals.

DeYoung says this is not how it’s meant to go. Of course, God will get His own way and what He wants will happen; God does have a desire for His creation, revealed in His commands; and God does have a specific plan for our lives that in retrospect we will be able to see how He has worked it out. However, He does not burden us with having to figure out precisely what that plan is. God “is a good God who gives us brains, shows us the way of obedience, and invites us to take risks for Him”.

He says we need to “stop pleading with God to show us the future, and start living and obeying like we are confident that He holds the future”. Jesus said, in Matthew 6:24-35,

25 “Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, nor about your body, what you will put on. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? 26 Look at the birds of the air: they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them.Are you not of more value than they? 27And which of you by being anxious can add a single hour to his span of life? 28And why are you anxious about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin, 29yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. 30But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which today is alive and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you, O you of little faith? 31Therefore do not be anxious, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ 32For the Gentiles seek after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. 33But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.

34 “Therefore do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Sufficient for the day is its own trouble.

The big idea here is pretty obvious – Jesus doesn’t want us to worry about the future, God knows exactly what we need and will take care of it. Our job is to “seek first the Kingdom of God and his righteousness”.

That’s pretty much DeYoung’s message (and, as he shows, the message of scripture) – “Live for God. Obey the Sciprtures. Think of others before yourself. Be holy. Love Jesus.”

Or as Micah puts it “act justly . . .  love mercy and . . . walk humbly with your God“.

My Sister’s Keeper

I really really want to tell you all about this book but I’m aware some of you will want to go and see the film at the cinema so I won’t give too much away.

I will say though that you have got to read the book, whether you see the film version or not. I’ve just watched the trailer and can already see lots of things they’ve changed. It is such a  powerful story which I think will definitely be best portrayed in writing.

It’s been a long time since I’ve been hooked on a book but I haven’t been able to put this one down over the past few days. It’s the story of a family who’s eldest daughter has leukemia and who had a second daughter, who was genetically engineered to be a perfect match for her sister. But, after 13 years of operations, when Kate goes into renal failure and Anna is expected to donate a kidney, she decides to sue her parents for medical emancipation – the right to make her own decisions concerning her body.

It’s heart wrenching – morality and ethics get all mixed up when it comes to saving the life of someone you love. As the “right” choices are sought, this terminal illness tears a family apart. Can a judge and a legal ruling really heal that?

I haven’t cried like I did today for quite some time – it is so engaging and, even if you’re fortunate enough to never have seen a loved one seriously ill or die, we all know the reality of the fear of such events.

Read the book – I’ll lend it to you. Then tell me when you’re free to come see the film.

The Shack

I’ve been meaning to read this for a while now, having been aware of the hype surounding it, but never got round to buying it. Having been given it for Christmas, however, it’s only taken me two days to read!

The blurb reads:

 

Mackenzie Allen Philips’ youngest daughter, Missy, has been abducted during a family vacation and evidence that she may have been brutally murdered is found in an abandoned shack deep in the Oregon wilderness.
Four years later in the midst of his great sadness, Mack receives a suspicious note, apparently from God, inviting him back to that shack for a weekend.
Against Mackenzie Allen Philips’ better judgement he arrives at the shack on a wintry afternoon and walks back into his darkest nightmare. What he finds there will change Mack’s world forever.  

In a world where religion seems to grow increasingly irrelevant The Shack wrestles with the timeless question, ‘Where is God in a world so filled with unspeakable pain?’ The answers Mack gets will astound you and perhaps transform you as much as it did him. You’ll want everyone you know to read this book!

 

I certainly wouldn’t say it was an easy read, the first few chapter about how the daughter is abducted make your stomach churn – it’s not graphic or anything, it’s just that the thought of what you know is happening is so terrible – and then when you get into the theological bit some of it’s a little abstract/ different to what you’re used to and I had to re-read a couple of bits a couple of times.

The points which Wm Paul Young puts forward about God, our relationship with Him, our relationships with one another and where God is in all the world’s suffering are challenging and well worth reading. There isn’t much of a narrative – at times it feels more like a sermon – but it’s certainly a sermon worth listening to. I wouldn’t call it a page turner (despite the contrary evidence in my devouring it in two days), it didn’t grip me like some books I’ve read, but it is an engaging read which is well worth the little perseverence required.

Before I start rambling, why not take a look at Scott Lindsey’s great review/critique of the book  from the Resurgence Blog (the pdf is available here).

So it has some pitfalls, some questionable theology but as Lindsey says, “those who are well-grounded in the Word won’t be harmed by the weaknesses and deficiencies of the book”. If we remember that this is one guy’s interpretation and not the inspired and infallible word of God, I think it can be useful to help us better understand and relate to some of the most difficult doctrines and concepts within Christianity. I particularly think that if it makes us turn to scripture to better understand the God it describes and learn more about our relationship with Him then it can be considered a very positive influence.

The first thing which Paul Young adresses is the Trinity. God is presented as three people: the Father as  a large African-American woman, Jesus as a middle eastern guy wearing flannel; and the Holy Spirit as an Asian woman who “seemed to shimmer in the light”. Some people take issue with this straight away but I can cope. What struck me was the one-ness of the three. I can understand these three aspects of God separately quite easily, they make sense to me, as does their role in my life. But reconciling them as one being is tough – it’s not something that really computes in a human mind because it’s not something we can experience. The book puts it across very well though. Every converstion which Mack has with one character is heard and later referred to by the others. They always refer to themselves as “we”. When they’re eating together Mack describes it as “never [having] seen three people share with such simplicity and beauty. Each seemed more aware of the others than of themself”. It is said that there is no hierarchy amongst the three (which doesn’t seem Biblical) but that they are in a circle of relationship and intrinsically one – and it’s a better understanding of that closeness which I took away with me.

And when we begin to comprehend the relationship God is in within Himself we can understand better the relationship we are supposed to have with Him. God exists in community and, being created in His image, we are supposed to exists as such too – with Him and one another. Jesus tells Mack: “We’re meant to experience this life, your life, together, in dialogue, sharing the journey”.  And He makes the point that God’s not looking “to be first amngst a list of values” but longs to be “at the centre of everything”. Rather than Jesus slotting into our lives and becoming a part of what already exists, He should become life itself – the one whom we live through. 

The book also speaks a lot about our human relationships and our attitudes within them. The need for us to be selfless, servant like. The way we shouldn’t place expectations upon them but should instead live in expectancy: “expectancy is . . . alive and dynamic and everything that emeres from our being together is a unique gift shared by no one else”; because when there are expectations it creates a law and becomes about what friends are supposed to do: “You are now expected to perform in a certain way that meets my expectation”. And it also considers the need for us to be willing to forgive one another – Mack is encouraged to forgive his daughter’s murderer.

There’s a lot of other good stuff in there – about the depth of God’s love for us, the immensity of his character and it’s unfathomability, the way God works in our world – through the pain and suffering and our own sinfulness – and the depth of his forgiveness.

The picture of God which is painted is a little too cuddly and I’m one of those people who would prefer more footnotes referring to scripture but it’s a good read that’ll make you think.

You can kiss your family and friends good-bye and put miles between you, but at the same time you carry them with you in your heart, your mind, your stomach, because you do not just live in a world but a world lives in you.

– Frederick Beuchner, Telling the Truth

Under the Overpass

Just finished this amazing book, “Under the Overpass” by Mike Yankoski.

It’s about this guy Mike and his friend Sam who leave their comfortable, upper middle class lives at good Colleges to go and live on the streets of  four American cities for five months.

The idea came from a sermon about “Being the Christian you say you are” and Mike had to ask himself, “What if I stepped out of my comfortable life with nothing but God and put my faith to the test alongside of those who live with nothing every day?“. He had to consider if he could be like Paul and learn to be content in every circumstance (Philipians 4: 11-12). After a few months, talking it over with some people, getting a group of advisers together and recruiting Sam to join him, they set off and spent the next five months homeless.

Two challenges majorly stand out from this account of their experiences:

Firstly is their sheer faith! There’s that first step out of of the boat – how many of us (and I’m one of them) spend all our time dreaming and talking about what we “should” be doing but never have the guts to give everything else up and do it? Then they keep walking – everyday they had to trust in God for their every need. So few of us know faith like that, we “trust” God with stuff that’s either far too big for us to do anything  about – like the future or the salvation of others – or the little things we realistically already know about – like food and clothing and stuff. But these guys were completely reliant on God for everything – their food, their safety, finding somewhere to sleep, their health, having enough money to get from one city to the next – everything!! Do we have that kind of faith?

Second challenge comes from the reception they got from other Christians. It wasn’t those in the churches, with plenty to spare,  who welcomed them with open arms but other homeless people who would share what very little they had. Usually, no doubt with banners declaring the love of Jesus overhead, church leaders and attendees would either give these smelly, dirty, hungry guys a very wide berth and ignore them or, ask them to leave the property. What would our reaction be if two, to put it bluntly, disgusting looking homeless folk walked into our church? Would we be a congregation of hypocrites like they so often encountered? Or would we love them – welcoming them with a hug and offering them to share lunch and dinner with us? I know what I’d like to say but I’m not sure I could with certainty.

Don’t worry, I’m not running off to live on the streets . . . not yet any way 😛

Life is a Journey

I was looking up something else in Pete Greig’s “Red Moon Rising” this afternoon when this bit caught my eye. I wish I’d found it weeks, even months, ago but I guess hindsight is a wonderful thing?! I can’t put it all up but will try to include the really important bits. Of course, the best thing you could do is read it for yourself (pgs 48-51) – I’ll even lend you my copy if you want!

“We’re not good, I guess, at this “long obedience” thing. We want instant access everything – all our questions answered by return. But life is a journey with its own pace. There is often a process in God’s dealings with us that goes something like this:

1. Numb, dumb heart

. . . In order to call our independent minds and self-satisfied souls back to a place of spiritual intimacy and dependency, God must make our numb hearts begin to feel again . . . he may begin to trouble and disturb your soul . . . this is a lonely time because you are feeling something you can’t explain – even to God.

2. Wrestling

. . . trying to make sense of this inner turmoil, looking for words to describe what you are feeling . . . study Scripture, splurge in your journal, read . . . write . . . walk . . . pray,wondering why your weeping, waking or pondering taking some counter-intuitive step . . .God is biding His time.

3. Waiting

When eventually God gives you words for the things that are troubling your heart . . . the internal storm calms and you can talk with clarity . . . the chaos has a pattern . . . There may be no answers yet but at least you have questions and you will throw these at the Almighty again and again. You no longer wrestle with yourself, but like Jacob with God. This is the time of waiting and watching and it can last years or minutes.

4. Blessing

Finally God steps in. The one who sowed those atomic seeds in your hard heart in the first place, the one who watched you cracking up and breaking down, the one who gently gave you the questions and waited and watched while you learned to pray, that same God now steps in to bless. A heart that was hard is now bruised and bleeding soft. An independent adult has become needy, humble and poor in spirit. A self-sufficient child has succumbed to a hug. You have learned to need and to heed, to wait and to watch one again. “Then he said, “I tell you the truth, unless you turn from your sins and become like little children, you will never get into the Kingdom of Heaven.” (Matthew 18:3)”

(Pete Greig and Dave Roberts – “Red Moon Rising”, Kingsway Communications LTD, 2003)

I don’t know about you but this might as well have been taken from my own head – the accuracy is scary!! I’ve been in all those places and quite often a few of them at once. Where am I now? Well that would telling . . .

Persuasion

Finally just finished “Persuasion”!! Really couldn’t stand it to begin with but have grown to like it somewhat. It’s similarity to “Pride and Prejudice” is uncanny, making it very predictable but hopefully all the easier to write about when it comes to essays.

 Just wanted to share this little bit – it’s a letter from one main character to the other – not sure why really – maybe I’m just an old romantic at heart?!

“I can listen no longer in silence. I must speak to you by such means as are within my reach. You pierce my soul. I am half agony, half hope. Tell me not that I am too late, that such precious feelings are gone for ever. I offer myself to you again with a heart even more your own than when you almost broke it, eight years and a half ago. Dare not say that man forgets sooner than woman, that his love has an earlier death. I have loved none but you. Unjust I may have been, weak and resentful I have been, but never inconstant. You alone have brought me to Bath. For you alone, I think and plan. Have you not seen this? Can you fail to have understood my wishes? I had not waited even these ten days, could I have read your feelings, as I think you must have penetrated mine. I can hardly write. I am every instant hearing something which overpowers me. You sink your voice, but I can distinguish the tones of that voice when they would be lost on others. Too good, too excellent creature! You do us justice, indeed. You do believe that there is true attachment and constancy among men. Believe it to be most fervent, most undeviating, in F. W.

“I must go, uncertain of my fate; but I shall return hither, or follow your party, as soon as possible. A word, a look, will be enough to decide whether I enter your father’s house this evening or never.”

Have you met . . .

The most recent chapter of “Mealtime habits of the Messiah” (by Conrad Gempf) is about that bit in Matthew (chapter 16 to be precise) when Jesus asks Peter who he thinks He is and Peter responds immediately “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God”. Jesus then goes on to explain to the disciples what is about to happen to Him – that He’s going to die but rise again. And they just don’t get it – Peter even reprimands the guy he’s just called Messiah!! Gempf makes the point, though, that Jesus has every oppurtunity to avoid this – if He had just not gone in to Jerusalem, or even when He was there, there are plenty examples of Him getting Himself out of sticky situations elsewhere in the gospels or even: “If worse came to worst , of course, he could blast a few fig trees and escape on foot over water . . . ” But he doesn’t. As Gempf writes: “He does it all on purpose, with his eyes wide open. Jesus was clearer about this than anything else he talked about. The unfolding events are the result of a very deliberate decision on his part”. Jesus chooses to die for us.

This morning at staff devotions we read Revelation 1 and this description of Jesus:

“When I turned to see who was speaking to me, I saw seven gold lampstands. 13 And standing in the middle of the lampstands was someone like the Son of Man. He was wearing a long robe with a gold sash across his chest.14 His head and his hair were white like wool, as white as snow. And his eyes were like flames of fire. 15 His feet were like polished bronze refined in a furnace, and his voice thundered like mighty ocean waves. 16 He held seven stars in his right hand, and a sharp two-edged sword came from his mouth. And his face was like the sun in all its brilliance.”

We can forget all too easily the reverence and awe which Jesus deserves. This description inspires fear even! We might think it’s wrong to be afraid of Jesus but actually he is so holy and so powerful . . . It can be necessary to remind ourselves of that at times. We’re used to this nice guy who wanders round Galilee in a robe and funky sandals; we forget how undeserving of His attention we are, how much above us He is. 

But this God who created all things and could destroy all things – who knows us all and will judge us all – allows us to come to Him. Forgives us. Accepts us. Loves us.