Can’t wait to finish school?

Exploring the heart of discipleship, for a seminar stream I was teaching at Bible By the Beach, I was surprised (OK, I’ll be honest, disappointed) to find the word disciple didn’t mean what I thought. It actually means, “learner.” Urgh. Bad news for anyone who can’t wait to leave school?

I always thought the word disciple meant follower. Of course, following is a huge part of discipleship, see Matt 4, when Jesus calls the disciples, saying, “follow me.” Their reaction perhaps should have given me a clue that “following” in the Bible is not just clicking like and occasionally glancing at a feed when I’m bored, late at night. In our culture, you can follow as many people as you like, in fact the more, the better. Clearly in Matt 4, this was not the case as “immediately [James and John] left the boat and their father and followed him.” Matt 4:22. They literally ‘unfollowed’ everything to exclusively follow Jesus. Why?

Well, the heart of it lies in the meaning of the word disciple. It means learner. That is evidently true by a quick perusal of Matthew’s gospel – the first thing the disciples do is follow Jesus up a mountain and sit and listen to him reveal the Kingdom of God to them (sound familiar, God up a mountain revealing his good laws to his people?! See Ex 19.) Throughout the gospel we see him teaching, teaching, teaching, and the disciples asking endless questions.

Why do I struggle with that word, “learner”? Because I hated school. I chose my A Levels buy picking the subjects I hatred the least and used the same process of elimination to decide my degree. I watch my kids counting down the days until they finish school and are finally free. School is a huge blessing, education is inherently good but to be honest at 14 it is boring, something to be endured! And that ruins the word learner for many of us.

In fact Jesus couldn’t be more unlike a secondary school teacher, for a start, he claims the exclusive right to be their only teacher: “Do not be called Rabbi; for only One is your Teacher, and you are all brothers and sisters.” Matt 23:8. Further than that, Matthew concludes his gospel with Jesus’ commanding us to go and “make disciples…teaching them to follow all that I commanded you.” 28:20. What’s going on with the obsessively exclusive teaching thing?

The answer is in Matthew 11, and no, I’m not going to our favourite verse, but the one that comes just before and provides the context: “Jesus declared, “I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that you have hidden these things from the wise and understanding and revealed them to little children; yes, Father, for such was your gracious will. All things have been handed over to me by my Father, and no one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him.” Matt 11:25-27

All other teachers teach us what they see and know of this world and how it works. Jesus comes from above this world. He has come to reveal the Father. So that we can know the One who made everything and loves us enough to reveal himself to us so we can be in relationship with him through his Son.

Throughout history this verse has been of fundamental significance. (Ironically I went back to school, to study Theology recently, so apologies that church history is going to make more of an appearance. Actually no apologies, church history is awesomely interesting! Turns out school is way more fun when you’ve chosen to be there). In the second century, a form of teaching known as Gnosticism was popular, which sought to explain from what humans observed how God could possibly exist alongside this evil world full of suffering. The Church’s answer (through a Christian teacher called Irenaeus, explaining Matt 11:27) was that you cannot understand what God is like from your own reasoning, the only way to understand the Father is to allow Jesus to reveal him. This happened again in the fourth century, the Arians did a similar thing, seeking to understand God by reasoning from what they could see. A Christian teacher called Athanasius challenged their reasoning, writing from Matt 11:27: “it is more godly and true to signify God from the Son and call him Father, than to name him God from his works alone and call him Unoriginate.” Athanasius against the Arians, 335 AD. The only way to know God is through his Son revealing the Father to us. This is profoundly important. We cannot know God any other way, only by coming to Jesus. By learning this, we are joining the world’s greatest learning community – stretching back through history!

And the coolest thing is it is nothing to do with being wise or learned – see that in Matt 11. Jesus REVEALS the Father. The reason the “ordinary, unschooled” fishermen gave up their career and family to follow a man they hardly knew is because God was revealing himself to them through his Son.

Great news for those who hate school!

And this gave Jesus great joy, when he saw those like ‘little children’ coming to know God. The truth is that we learn by being like a little child, simply coming to Jesus and receiving from him the revelation of the Father. What do we immediately learn? That he came not to weary and burden us but to lift the burden of sin from our weary, heavily laden shoulders and give us life forever with him (Matt 11:28-30). We could never have worked that out for ourselves, never have dreamed that our God would be like that – gentle and humble in heart, giving rest to our souls. Wow. No surprise the disciples left everything.

This makes sense of so much of Christianity – why would we pass on the invite of a leisurely Sunday roast at the local Carvery, preferring to sit in a church and listen for thirty minutes to someone teaching? Because through the Word, the Father is revealed to us. Wow! The one who lifts burdens, who made everything, who commands us to give our lives to follow him. It explains why we give up a week of our summer to go on camp with a bunch of smelly, annoying teenagers who keep us awake at night by drinking far too much Red Bull and stringing their sheets together to escape out of the dormitory window. Because we want them to learn about the Father through the Son! It explains why when everyone else spends their money on a week by the sea, we go to a field and congregate in a tent to hear God’s word explained. Because Jesus tells us about the Father who made us, loves us and commands our worship. So rejoice in this weirdness, reminded afresh as to why!

And let’s make learning a lifelong thing. The best way to learn – I have discovered by going back to school – is to ask questions. In an article in the 1950s, Life magazine ran an article entitled ‘Death of a Genius,’ in which Einstein is recorded as saying “The important thing is not to stop questioning.’ This would be a great summary of Jesus’ disciples – see 13:10 “Why do You speak to them in parables?” 13:36 His disciples came to Him and said, “Explain to us…”17:13 His disciples asked Him, “Why then do the scribes say that Elijah must come first?” 18:1, 19:23-5, 24:3, 26:8. Never stop questioning.

We get so used to walking into church and leaving our brain at the door. Don’t! Take your Bible and notebook, check what’s being said, ask questions, read further, ask the Lord about it, talk to others and above all, allow what you learn to change you. Jesus says in Matt 7:24 “everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock.” (Suffice to say you don’t want to listen and then walk away unchanged, didn’t end well for the dude with the sand-castle). Throughout history, God has given us church and preachers who spend all week studying so they can explain what Jesus reveals of the Father to us, with the help of the Spirit who opens our hearts to receive. Make the most of that each Sunday and spend the week remembering it, sharing it with others and living it out.

It seems ironic that having spent years of our life trying to grow up and leave school, Jesus essentially says sit like a little child and let me teach you! But this is like no school you’ve ever known – Jesus teaches what we could never learn anywhere else, from anyone else. Why would we follow anyone else?

Beautiful and Useful

Have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful, said William Morris in 1882. Read on to see why this advice resonates, and why breaking this rule is the best news ever.

Living in a small Central London flat, I have grown to appreciate William Morris’ golden rule: ‘If you want a golden rule that will fit everybody, this is it: “Have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful.“‘ Morris, William. Hopes and Fears for Art. United Kingdom, Roberts, 1882. p107-8.

An extremely useful guide when tidying out a drawer, sorting through clothes, slightly different when it comes to working out which of the kid’s schoolwork to keep 😉

“Have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful

William Morris

Why Beauty and utility resonates so deeply

I was thrilled in my reading for a recent essay to discover that William Morris did not originate this sage advice, advice that seems so in tune with my heart. Augustine wrote in his epic work ‘City of God‘, early in the fifth century AD: “How can I tell of the rest of creation, with all its beauty and utility, which the divine goodness has given to man to please his eye and serve his purposes, condemned though he is, and hurled into these labours and miseries?”

“How can I tell of the rest of creation, with all its beauty and utility, which the divine goodness has given to man to please his eye and serve his purposes, condemned though he is, and hurled into these labours and miseries?”

Augustne, City of God 22.24

This in turn was a reflection on the earliest of texts, Genesis 2 where God gave Adam and Eve all the provision they could need in their garden home: “The Lord God made all kinds of trees grow out of the ground—trees that were pleasing to the eye and good for food.” Genesis 2:9

All kinds of trees, pleasing to the eye – so much beauty to enjoy. All kinds of trees, good for food. As Augustine reflects further on God’s bountiful provision in creation, he celebrates the goodness of food: “What shall I say of the numberless kinds of food to alleviate hunger, and the variety of seasonings to stimulate appetite which are scattered everywhere by nature, and for which we are not indebted to the art of cookery?”

Turns out, this is why I love beauty and appreciate usefulness. I was created for it. And why it makes sense as a rule to manage my home by!

Beauty marred and decaying

But for those familiar with the Bible, you know that’s not how it stayed. Into the garden crept a voice that questioned whether God had really provided all that was needed. ‘Did God really say…?’ Genesis 3:1

The first man and woman turned from appreciating the beauty and bounty of God and chose to be their own rulers. As Augustine already picked up, that fatal decision led to this world being “condemned …hurled into these labours and miseries.” This beautiful and useful world has become filled with thorns and thistles, beauty marred, everything tending to disorder, decay and uselessness.

Why breaking the beautiful/useful rule is the best news ever

I’m so grateful to God that when he looked at our rebellion and saw that our beauty was marred by sin, that our usefulness had been ruined though turning away from him, he did not follow Morris’ ‘golden rule’ and throw us out of his home. He sent his Son to restore us, to cleanse us.

But probe deeper with me, for when God came into this world to restore all that was broken, he came to die the most hideous, unjust, painful death imaginable. Crucifixion. Surely there is no beauty here? What use is a dead Saviour?

God was doing something profoundly beautiful and useful, it’s just impossible for the human eye to appreciate. We need God’s Spirit to help us appreciate the real beauty and utility. The curse on this world was being poured out upon him to his utter shame and ruin. Yet even in that the ugliest of moments, there was a beauty and utility as he paid what we deserve for our rebellion. Breathtaking beauty and utility as he rose again, opening up the way for us to be saved, to be restored, to be in relationship with our beautiful Creator, if we will turn to him in repentance and trust him to rule us.

In a tiny little letter to Philemon hidden at the end of the New Testament, we learn about Onesimus. Paul describes him as having become ‘useless’, probably through some misdemeanour. But as Onesimus turned to Christ Paul describes him as wonderfully changed: “Formerly he was useless to you, but now he has become useful both to you and to me.” Philemon 1:11 This is what Jesus came to do, to restore useless, blemished humans back into the wonder and beauty of relationship with our beautiful God so we are useful to him once more.

Let us echo Augustine, as he marvels at the beauty of these things: “What blessings will He in the blessed life shower upon those for whom, even in this state of misery, He has been willing that His only-begotten Son should endure such sufferings even to death? …What blessings shall we receive in that kingdom, since already we have received as the pledge of them Christ’s dying?  In what condition shall the spirit of man be, when it has no longer any vice at all; when it neither yields to any, nor is in bondage to any, nor has to make war against any, but is perfected, and enjoys undisturbed peace with itself?  Shall it not then know all things with certainty, and without any labour or error, when unhindered and joyfully it drinks the wisdom of God at the fountain-head?”

*All Augustine quotations taken from City of God, Book 22, Chapter 24

Three ways to cultivate awe, wonder and fear this year

Scientists are beginning to discover the hugely significant impact that awe has on our wellbeing, something God has been teaching us for centuries. Read on to discover why you need more fear in your year.

‘Awe—a positive emotion elicited when in the presence of vast things not immediately understood—reduces self-focus, promotes social connection, and fosters prosocial actions by encouraging a “small self.”’

Thus reads the abstract of one – of many – articles published recently investigating the many positive effects of the emotion we call awe.

I just love when scientists discover what God has been telling us for centuries.

As we wander through the book of Proverbs in this year of wisdom’ series, January takes us right back to where wisdom starts. ‘The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom’ Proverbs tells us in the opening verses (Proverbs 1:7).

Can’t we use a better word than fear?

We would, of course, much prefer to replace the word ‘fear’ with other more positive words like awe, or wonder. Both ideas are contained within the concept of what it means to fear the Lord. But, as Mike Reeves so persuasively argues, in his excellent book, Rejoice and Tremble, that is to rob the word fear of it’s weight. The fear of the Lord is used both negatively (to mean sheer paralysing terror) and positively (marvelling at who God is) in Scripture. “The fact that the same word root can be used both positively and negatively is telling, and suggests a commonality between these otherwise very different fears…what is the common feature that enables the same word to be used for such diametrically opposed experiences? …the common feature of these fears [is] trembling…It is a startlingly physical overpowering reaction. And so, respect and reverence are simply too weak and grey to stand in as synonyms for the fear of God. Awe seems a much better fit, though even it doesn’t quite capture the physical intensity, the happy thrill or the exquisite delight.” Reeves, Rejoice and Tremble, p57-8

“even [awe] doesn’t quite capture the physical intensity, the happy thrill or the exquisite delight”

Mike Reeves

This fear of the Lord – this thrilling, terrifying experience of God – is the beginning of wisdom.

The concept of small self

And ironically the scientific definition captures the heart of why. It encourages a ‘small self.’ Which as many psychological studies has proved is an important concept, actually the key to living fully. Essentially, the key to living wisely is living knowing that God is big and I am small.

Three reasons I don’t fear

1. God has become Grampa in my pocket

I have a wonderful Jewish friend, and once in conversation I spoke about God, and I called him ‘Yahweh’, which means LORD. She looked really shocked when I said it, and explained that she was brought up to not use God’s name like that because it was so special that they treated it with fear and wouldn’t say it aloud. I was really struck by her understanding of God. I can get so overfamiliar as a Christian, with calling God ‘Father’ that I forget that his name is to be feared. He becomes smaller, I become bigger. He’s more like the little ‘Grampa in my pocket’ of the kids TV show than the God of the Universe.

I realise I need to constantly fight against this tendency. I guess that’s why Jesus taught us to pray not just ‘our Father, but ‘Our Father in heaven.’ (Matthew 6:9) Adding the descriptor, ‘in heaven’ reminds me of the way Aslan is described by the beaver in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (C.S. Lewis), ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good.’ Our Father is good, but ‘Our Father in heaven’ reminds us he is also seated in the place of all power, authority and rule. We should be afraid as we approach as well as confident.

2. I’m at the Canyon looking in the mirror

It’s like standing on the edge of the Grand Canyon and I’m looking in the mirror.

I have my Bible open in front of me, I’m supposed to be reading it but really I’m mentally adding items to my to-do list. I start to pray, and find myself scrolling whatsapp. I am trying to listen to a sermon but actually I’m thinking about what’s for dinner. The problem is not with the Grand Canyon. It’s not boring, I am just not looking at it, not giving it my full attention. Our enemy is prowling around like a Lion looking for someone to devour, says 1 Peter 5:8 and I’m easy prey. We need to pray, to fight to give God our full attention so that we really see him, and our jaw drops open and we fall on our knees trembling. We need to out our mobile far away, and fight to keep our eyes fixed on him as we open his word and turn to him in prayer.

3. I don’t persevere

We settle for too little. When I pray, I don’t pray until I really pray. I am content to go through the little method I have, say amen and head off rather than pursuing a real encounter with the King. This was something the Scottish Preachers of the 17th Century used to refer to as ‘gaining access.’ “It is related of Robert Bruce that when two visitors presented themselves before him on a certain morning, he said to them, “You must go and leave me for some time. I thought last night when I lay down I had a good measure of the Lord’s presence, and now I have wrestled this hour or two, and have not yet got access.” It may be that in his solitude there was a disproportionate subjectivity, yet the eagerness of his desire was surely commendable. To what profit is it that we dwell in Jerusalem, if we do not see the King’s face?…Jonathan Edwards resolved that whenever he should find himself “in a good frame for divine contemplation, [he would] forgo dinner, rather than be broke off.” David McIntyre, The Hidden Life of prayer, p56-7

Do I really want to see the King’s face, or am I content to reel off a list of requests out of duty, so I can get on with what I really want to do with my day?

Big God, small self

At the root of most of the reasons 2021 was not the year it could have been is because I was not small, God was not feared. And that is the reason why 2022 is already derailing in terms of keeping up with all those good habits I had hoped to reinstate.

To be truly wise in 2022 we need to begin on our knees in fear of our Lord. As we open up God’s word let’s ask him to move us, terrify us, thrill us by a glimpse of who He is. As we turn to him in prayer let’s expect and ask that we would rejoice and tremble. That we would get up from our time with the Lord changed. With a renewed sense of how small we are, how big he is. That is the beginning of wisdom.

Five Reflection Questions for the New Year

New Year’s is a doorway into a whole new world, the world of 2022. As we cross the threshold let’s consider carefully our ways.

‘To cross the threshold is to enter another world — whether the one on the inside or the one on the outside.’

I read this quote just the other day in one of my Christmas presents, ‘Why be happy when you could be normal,’ by Jeanette Winterson. It really got me thinking about how many ‘doorways’ we face in our lives, moments where we hover between two worlds.

New Year is one of these doorways – January is named after the Roman god, Janus, the god of doorways, because January is the month we walk through the doorway of one year into the next. In the Bible book of Haggai God instructs his people how to cross a threshold carefully. They are crossing the threshold from exile into the land God was promising them (in fact they had been stuck on this threshold for a while), and he warns them to, “Give careful thought to your ways.” (Haggai 1:7) In order to successfully navigate their way into the new world God was giving to them, they needed to pause and reflect on what had gone wrong in the past, and how this new chapter would be different. We had a very fruitful time studying this in our Globe Church Bible study groups this year, reflecting on all the ways the pandemic has changed us, and the ways we need to repent and make progress to grow in our relationship with God moving forwards.

As we hover over this threshold, preparing to cross from 2021 to 2022, let’s take some time to give careful though to our ways. Here’s some questions, to get us started.

1. How has our relationship with God been? Reading through Revelation (ok let’s be honest, racing through in two days!) to finish my Bible-in-one-year I was struck in the letters to the churches three times God’s people are rebuked for being ‘lukewarm’/ looking alive but being dead on the inside/forsaking their first love. How warm is our love for God? God gives us means of grace to fan our love into flame, notably his word, prayer and church. In what ways have these been helpful or neglected in 2021?

2. How has our prayer life been, and what single step would make the biggest difference there? In spite of our weakness in prayer what impossible things has God been doing in 2021? This is one area I have prayed to improve on for over 10 years, and finally 2021 has seen some progress, due in no small part to a small but powerful little book, ‘The Hidden Life of Prayer.’

3. Have we been concerned for people to be saved? What has this looked like in 2021, and what would make 2022 even more fruitful in this respect? This is an area I desperately want to grow in this year.

4. In what ways have we strengthened the things that are important to us, and how can we grow moving forwards? Namely the areas of:

  • ourselves, learning and growing personally
  • our family and friends
  • our church

5. What have we done that will make a long term/eternal difference? What do we regret wasting time on?

In C.S. Lewis’ allegory of the Christian life, Narnia is a whole new world, entered through stepping through the doors of the wardrobe. A picture of what it means to become a Christian, crossing over from the old world into the new. If we have stepped over that threshold, we know that all of the guilt, regret and failure of 2021 has been forgiven as Jesus died in our place, so that the curtain of the temple could be torn down, and we could be welcomed over the threshold into God’s presence. That doorway that we have entered means that every time we repent and turn back to God, we are renewed. Every moment of every day is a ‘New Year New You’ moment.

New Year in one sense is just another day. But it is also an opportunity to ask God that every day as we cross over the threshold of a new day, we would give ourselves afresh to live for him, glorifying him, serving his people and loving his world.

Thinking about: Richard Osman’s Thursday Murder Club

When it comes to the themes of death, community, ageing and justice, Osman’s book, Thursday Murder Club is hilarious, intriguing, and a great way to open up a conversation about God’s verdict on these issues.

‘Smart, funny, deplorably good,’ writes one reviewer. ‘Compassionate, moving and very funny,’ writes a second. Richard’s Thursday Murder Club is all of these. From the outset it’s a page turner. His insights are simply hilarious, e.g., “because you know that getting out of a garden chair at our age is a military operation. Once you are in one, you can be in it for the day.”

So it’s funny. Which is a big win for me. But more than that, it also has a fascinating setting: a retirement home for the rich. I took slight offense at the implication that because it cost a fortune to live in Coopers Chase Retirement Village, that meant it selected for the individuals who’d led really interesting lives. But I’m going to forgive Osman for that because he is from a working class background, was raised by a single Mum, slogged his way to Cambridge then fell in with Alexander Armstrong which catalysed his rise to fame. I actually think this is one of his USPs – he knows ordinary but he’s benefitted along with the elite. So he has ideas for TV series – and it turns out, books, and soon to be, films (the right’s to Thursday Murder Club have already been snatched up by Steven Spielberg) – that are simultaneously clever and ordinary. This combination of extraordinary/ordinary is almost certainly what earns his book the accolade, ‘smart.’

It’s also smart because the characters have little to lose. And so they can act in outrageous ways, they don’t fear prison, and can do what they like. As one of the main characters notes, “After a certain age, you can pretty much do whatever takes your fancy.” And they certainly do. They have formed a club, which meets on a Thursday because that is when the room is free, though when Conversational French is cancelled they can have extra time. It rather reminds me of Secret Seven or Famous Five, the plot being not dissimilar. An interesting touch, since ageing is often likened to a return to childhood – mainly in terms of one’s dependence on others. But in this book the childlikeness is also conveyed in the fact that older people have the time and the desire for friendship that one normally associates with youngsters. This childlike element to elderly people is one of those subtle observations so prevalent in the book.

It’s smart precisely because of the beautiful friendships he depicts. It’s a rather utopian view of old age but it really resonates given the (perhaps more destructive?) pandemic of loneliness so prevalent among the older generation that became apparent in the Covid pandemic. “It was a community, and in Ibrahim’s opinion that was how human beings were designed to live. At Coopers Chase, anytime you wanted to be alone, you would simply close your front door, and anytime you wanted to be with people, you would open it up again. If there was a better recipe for happiness than that, then Ibrahim was yet to hear it.” It genuinely is a compassionate book.

I loved this element of it simply for the fact that it reflects the way God created us to live. Osman’s reverent admiration for the older generation is also striking, unusual and worthy of the term, ‘moving’ in the commendations. It’s even more moving as you read the acknowledgements. He got the idea for the book in visiting his Mum’s retirement village. His esteem for his Mum oozes out of the acknowledgements in an stunning way.

It’s smart because it genuinely does convey the reality of death, it’s inevitability and it’s nearness. “Many years ago, everybody here would wake early because there was much to do and only so many hours in the day. Now they wake early because there is much to do and only so many days left.” A rare quality in an age where generally we act as if we are invincible and rarely give a second thought to the fact that we will one day die.

But herein lies the flaw. That death is something we can legitimately control. There are a number of ways in which this plays out in the story. I don’t think it’s a spoiler, or perhaps even a surprise, to find that suicide and euthanasia are described rather matter of factly, as if death is generally a welcome release. Whilst I understand how one could think that especially in a setting where people have very poor quality of life, the Christian view of death and judgement could not be more different. Understanding the gospel makes it abundantly plain that we could never welcome death without Christ. God is the one who sets the times and places for us and Osman has overreached here, handing not just this but the definition of justice into our hands. (I can’t explore that theme because it definitely would be a plot spoiler!)

A cracking, warm and witty read, but don’t just read it. Think about it. And talk about it with friends. It is a great one for opening up the more difficult discussion topics, death, community, ageing and justice. The Bible tells a better story, even than Osman. So read his, but use it to talk about God’s – when it comes to community, ageing, death and judgement God’s story is smarter, more moving and infinitely compassionate.

no punctuation

if you’re someone who finds a lack of punctuation irritating you are going to love (and hate) girl, woman , other
read on to find out why it’s pure genius and downright impossible
combined

turns out i am that person who sees a spelling error on the screen at the front of church and finds it so distracting i can no longer worship

my love of proper punctuation evidenced by the fact that i recently chose to spend two hours studying the art of good punctuation through a dead poet Gerard Manley Hopkins

and loved every second

what a legend he was

so imagine my horror when the book i picked from BorrowBox that same week had more punctuation in the title than on any of the pages inside

horrified

i immediately emailed my group to express my horror

only then i started to read it

and think about it

Turns out that Bernardine Evaristo’s Girl, Woman, other is actually genius.

How did it make me, as a well-educated reader, feel? Well, you can probably answer that question if you’ve made it this far into the blog post. Discomfort, constantly having to accommodate to this unfamiliar, jarring style. 

The book explores several different black women’s experiences of growing up in Britain. Wildly different experiences, each exquisitely researched giving an authentic, fresh feel to each account. 

What did each have in common? Their experience of continual discomfort, their cultural identity jarring. Nothing straightforward or familiar to them. Always having to accommodate to a different culture.

It’s pure genius. I’ve realised that the continual jarring is part of seeing through the eyes of someone who doesn’t feel they fit in the culture in which they live, as a perpetual outsider, not enjoyed the privilege I have.

More than that it has made me reflect on what the incarnation meant (no idea what made me think of that in December ;-). Our God, so ‘other’, emptied himself and became nothing, tabernacling with us. Truly belonging to our race, born of a teenage girl. He embraced discomfort, constantly accommodating to this unfamiliar, jarring style.

The book follows some pretty dark themes, rape, abuse, and a strong LGBTQ agenda, so while I don’t think the author includes unnecessary detail, I’m hesitant to wholeheartedly recommend it. It’s one of those that’s incredible, educational but you’d want to read it carefully and critically.

The lack of punctuation continues to grate. But for me that will end when I finish the book. Millions live a life that constantly grates. Let’s be ‘incarnational’ towards those who are different to us.

Thinking about: Stay with me by Ayobami Adebayo

Stay with me explores the beauty, tragedy, pressure and pride involved in family relationships in a fascinating cultural setting.

Set in Nigeria this book is a stunning exploration of the myths, pressures and prejudices surrounding being a woman, mother and wife. Yejide is so desperate to get pregnant, she even climbs up “the Mountain of Jaw Dropping Miracles” whilst fasting to breatsfeed a goat at the hands of Prophet Josiah. A journey guaranteeing pregnancy, one of her pregnant customers at her haridressing salon assures her.

The tragic ghost pregnancy is not the first experience of loss that she suffers. Her Mother in law berates her for her failings, and insists her son take a second wife. “You have had my son between your legs for two more months and still your stomach is flat,” Moomi tells Yejide when the new wife is also not yet pregnant. “Close your thighs to him, I beg you … If you don’t he will die childless. I beg you, don’t spoil my life. He is my first son, Yejide.”

I cannot say more for fear of spoiling the story – it is a page turner, its is beautifully set, it depicts the beauty, tragedy and pressure involved in family relationships in a different cultural setting – and by the way the setting is exquisite.

What stands out the most is the sheer brilliance of the story. With an incredible plot twist, Adebayo explores not only the intricacies of expectation, crushed hope, grief and loss. She also turns on it’s head what it means to be a man and woman and explores those roles in a culturally conservative setting yet with an extraordinarily clever twist. You can tell she was tutored by Adébáyò has been tutored tutored by Atwood and Chumamanda Ngozi Adichie (two of my personal favourites) and yet her style is her own.

Think carefully once you have read it – think about men and women, mothers and fathers, husbands and wives, power and pregnancy, roles and expectation, strength and weakness, pride and humility. This book has a real depth to it and will give you plenty to think about!

Second Place, by Rachel Cusk

Having been deeply challenged by Proverbs 2, and Spurgeon’s chapter on how to cope with a small library, I’m trying to think about what I’ve been reading.

I’ve just finished, Second Place, by Rachel Cusk. My initial instinct was to get straight back onto the Borrow Box homepage and borrow the next bestseller. As an aside, have you met the BorrowBox app? No more small library or budget limitations now…My wonderful dear local library that closed down in the pandemic has become an online treasure trove I can borrow ebooks from for free. I need Spurgeon to pen a new chapter on the woman with far too many books she wants to read and not enough hours in the day… The best thing about BorrowBox is you can start lots of books and not feel guilty if you don’t finish them because they are not sitting gathering dust in a pile by your bed!

Anyway, back to the point. I resisted the urge to immediately borrow the next one, and instead sat in bed and thought. I thought about the bit I didn’t understand, her vision of the devil “bloated, yellow-eyed.” I reread that bit, and although I still didn’t understand it, I realised it probably was referring to the other main character we were simultaneously being introduced to…the artist.

I stopped thinking about the bits I didn’t understand and focussed on the bits I did (sage advice for Bible reading by the way – the main things are the plain things and the plain things are the main things, our Pastor Johnny Prime used to impress upon us.) Cusk finishes the story by acknowledging that her book is a copy of a work by D.H. Lawrence, whom she calls her mentor. She doesn’t just copy Lawrence, I realised as I thought about it further. Her work explores what it means to be man and woman. It starts with a her seeing the devil. She describes herself as a “young mother on the brink of rebellion.” At risk of spoiling the story, the artist ends up painting a mural of Adam, Eve and the serpent on the wall of her home. It is at this point in the story that the penny drops for the main character (I on the other hand was much slower on the uptake). The main character (who has no name) realises she is Eve. I (finally) had a similar dawning of realisation. There are no new stories, we are all just reinventing what has happened before.

This reminded me of a stunning, fascinating piece of art in the Tate Modern, “Untitled” by Jeram Patel. He wrote of this piece “nobody can create anything, the only thing that one can do is destroy things.” He had worked on a piece of wood, making art by burning holes in it. I found his interprative panel fascinating – it really changed the way I viewed the rest of the exhibition. Are people really creating? Or are we just ‘destroying,’ reworking or copying what God has already created?

Rachel Cusk’s writing may have been a copy of what has gone before, but she is also deeply original in her writing style. I haven’t read her outline Trilogy (yet – BorrowBox here I come) but I know it’s now studied as a University English Literature text. Largely because in the trilogy she has ‘reinvented’ the novel. Her writing style is more like a stream of consciousness which makes her books compelling to read. Indeed I said to myself I’ll just read chapter 1 (they are long chapters) and finally tore myself away at chapter 5, having been utterly engrossed. Unusual for the start of a book, if that happens at all (sadly rare I find, dare I say especially with Christian books, though that is because the authors that sell are not usually primarily writers. Rant over). The New Yorker describes her trilogy as being unique because ‘the structure of the text, a mosaic of fragments, mirrors the unstable nature of memory.’ This is not unlike another author I discovered on BorrowBox, Jeanette Winterson. Watch this space for much more on her. Her reinvention of the autobiography blew my mind.

I recommend Rachel Cusk to you as an example of clever, novel (in both senses of the word), compelling writing. It’s thought-provoking, a great conversation starter and I have found the beauty of her prose stimulates me to write better. Ironic then that I’ve just penned this in one sitting. Perhaps what I’ve written could generously be described as a stream of consciousness! If only I could do both beautiful and a stream of consciousness at the same time. That’s why she’s worth a read. Especially if you can borrow her books for free!