Home – Jo Swinney // Book Review


A while ago I decided that I wouldn’t do any book reviews for a bit. This first year of Curacy has been a little bit bonkers, and for my own sanity I decided that was one thing that had to go. However when I had an email asking me if I’d like a pre-publication copy of Jo Swinney’s latest book, I was like, ‘err, YES’! As soon as I started reading it I knew I’d have to write about it, so for now I’m breaking my own rule.

Though I don’t know Jo well, I just like her. She’s a likeable kind of person, she’s nice, she’s funny, she’s a bit quirky and she just seems genuinely interested in the people she meets. All of which comes across in her new book ‘Home’.

As the title suggests Jo looks at the concept of where is home. In the diversity of the 21st century, easy and accessible world travel and just the huge availability of opportunity for many people, it can mean that ‘home’ is a complex subject. Well gone are the years where you grew up where you were born, stayed in the same town or village, worked in the same job for life and then died, buried in the parish church by a Vicar who’s been in post for all of the above. For Jo this is taken to the extreme though by growing up in Portugal and living in various countries before settling back in the UK (but for how long I wonder!). The themes she explores are so relevant, regardless of our geographical placement and I found myself nodding and ‘hmm- ing’ aloud as I read to myself. I was quite staggered to make a list that told me that at the age of 43 I have lived in 7 houses, 3 flats, 2 mobile homes, 1 tent, and 1 hostel; in 3 countries, 3 cities, 3 towns and 4 villages. Which of those would I have called home?

The book explores different aspects of ‘home’, like family and identity but interwoven with Jo’s own story living around the world, as well as reflections on the life of King David, framing the whole thing in a biblical context.

Jo’s own life has given her a wealth of information and experience to draw on and share, from growing up in Portugal, where she paints a wonderful picture of a loving, safe home with a vastly extended family of visitors and friends; to the pain of boarding school and homesickness; and on to the choices of adult life as to where to make or find home.

She also touches quite profoundly on the idea of identity, both culturally and personally. She writes of how hard it can be to define a home in a world that in many places is so multi-cultural. In fact in many ways what she writes is hugely prophetic and key for right now as we nationally, and worldwide, seek to understand our identity as nations. She notes:

All of us, whatever our defining cultural identity, benefit when we step out of our ghettoes and learn from each other. Our cultures will always be home in some sense, but who wants to stay at home twenty-four/seven?

Indeed.

But she also highlights the need to remember we are resident here and that we’re also inhabitants of the Kingdom of God, and just as that was comfort for David, it should be for us too. Again a timely reminder when we can easily be so bogged down in national and international negativity

I was touched as Jo writes so honestly about her own battle with depression, self worth and finding an identity of her own. As she says:

As I was discovering, wherever you go, there you are. I needed to find a home in side myself.

I wonder how many of us can say that we have truly done that – or even attempted to? How many of us have struggled with escaping from a situation or reality that was actually all about ourselves?

The book jacket asks the question:

Is home where you come from? where you live now? where the people you love are? or what?

If you’ve never pondered those things, then this book will help you draw out from your own life the ‘or what?’ things that help you call a place a home. It’s a book that asks questions of us, that might help us to seek direction, and challenges us – but in a gentle way and with the encouragement of one who has walked the journey before, and with the truth of God at it’s centre.

 

Home is published by Hodder & Stoughton, priced £14.99 and is available now.

 

Blog Giveaway !

So I’ve been clearing out my study and have some bits that I have accumulated through various means, including stuff I’ve been sent to review, so I thought I’d do a blog give away competition for anyone who fancies a few more theology/Christian books (yes I know limited audience…!)

The prize selection includes the books as pictured above, a mug, small bag and some other bits. There may well be more when I finish clearing out… I should note that everything is new, except that I have added hand written notes in the ‘Parish Handbook’ from when I was reviewing it!

How to enter //

All you have to do to enter is tell someone about my blog via social media and encourage them to sign up to it – either by subscribing via email (which can be done by filling in the box to the right under ‘join the conversation’) or by following the Facebook page.

You can do that either by sharing this post, retweeting or tweeting about it, sharing the Facebook post or just generally sharing info about my blog on social media and pointing people to it (feel free to tag me in any posts). Then, and here’s the thing, you must tell me you’ve done it, either via Twitter, email or FB message. I’ll draw a winner at random on Friday evening and post out next week.  

One entry per person but feel free to share as much as you like!

Sorry but entries are limited to mainland UK because of postage costs.

 

Any questions do let me know!

 

 

Book Review // Songs for Suffering by Simon Stocks


It’s great to be asked to review this book as Simon was my biblical studies tutor at college during my ministerial training. I am a big fan of the Psalms, but I also recognise that they are a bit like marmite, with some people choosing to read them as infrequently as possible. But I would say, don’t let that put you off, this might just be the book that helps you combat that!

Songs for Suffering is a wonderful guide for those in a season of struggling or as Stocks notes ‘for anyone who is going through tough times, whatever form that takes’. And it really is for anyone, written simply and not full of theological jargon, making it hugely accessible, but with a depth of knowledge evident from Stocks’ own academic experience.

Focussing on psalms of lament, the book takes us on a journey. Using personal reflections and stories from peoples lives, the author encourages the reader to deal with questions in their own lives, from personal failure, to issues of identity, and deeper still to despair, grief and personal suffering.

Each chapter guides us though a particular theme, asking questions for the reader to consider and pointing us to specific psalms for individual needs or circumstances. It is written in a very practical way, addressing how we can personally use the words of the psalms to deepen our own prayer life and each chapter finishes with some suggestions for what to do next.

However this is not just a practical guide, but a book filled with the authors own experience of life and pastoral ministry, written with compassion and a deep understanding of what it is to encounter personally, and come alongside those who suffer.

Stocks doesn’t shy away from difficult themes like shame, doubt and anger, but on the contrary embraces them with confidence, bringing a sense of assurance for the reader, encouraging them to engage with the themes for themselves.

Although my sense is that this is a book to work through from start to finish, it could also be something to dip into in particular times of trouble, or in supporting others facing difficult times, and in fact a helpful index at the end points to specific psalms for different circumstances.

Stocks reminds us afresh that The Psalms are a wonderful resource, passed down through the ages and used as the bedrock of Christian prayer for centuries, that are just as useful today, giving us the tools to pray in ‘just about any situation imaginable’ keeping us in touch with God even when pressures threaten to stop us.

The author notes: ‘may you find deeper connection to God, as you do so, even in the toughest of times…’ and this truly is a book that will help you do that.

Songs for Suffering will be published by Hendrickson Publishers Inc in April 2017. and can be pre-ordered at most good book stores online including Eden (priced £12.99) and Amazon (priced £11.99). There is also a website that goes alongside the book and will host other resources linked to lament at: www.cryhard.org

 

Simon Stocks

The Rev’d Dr Simon Stocks teaches Biblical Studies at St Augustine’s College of Theology, England (formerly known as SEITE). He is Chair of the Theological Educators’ Network and also ministers in the Anglican parish of Christ Church, Purley. After a career in civil engineering, he trained for ministry and worked in parish ministry in the Diocese of Southwark, before undertaking doctoral studies. His research interests include the interactions between poetic form and interpretation in Hebrew poetry, and the theology of lament.

Book Review // ‘Cross the Line’

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‘Cross the Line’ by Ollie Baines and Liam Flint

Another fab book from SPCK and this is the first one I requested to review as I knew it was the perfect book for my son. So this time the review is from him… 

 

 

What is the book about?

Professional footballers talking about their faith

 

Did any of them stand out to you?

Kaka! Kaka was the best player in the world. In 2007 he won the Balon d’Or which is the award for best player in the world.

In the Champions League Final with Liverpool, when he scored he revealed a top underneath his kit which said ‘I belong to Jesus’. That’s pretty cool. It’s bold because not many people would that do and he’s really putting his faith out there, at such a big event. I wonder if anyone saw that and thought I am going to find out about Jesus?

 

Would you recommend the book?

Yes! It’s easy to read – I read it pretty quickly and isn’t too long. I think it’s really encouraging knowing that people from my favourite sport have the same beliefs as me, so it would be especially for people who like football and are Christians.

It’s also good for people who aren’t Christians too, there’s lots about football in it and some really interesting questions.

 

elz2Bio // Elliott

I am 13 and into many sports, including football! I also love music. I am an avid Brighton & Hove fan and also a Christian. I feel like Jesus supports me when I am playing sport.

 

The book is available now from SPCK here priced £9.99

 

 

‘Becoming Reverend’ by Matt Woodcock // Book review

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I’ve not met Matt Woodock, but I suspect he’s one of those instantly-likeable types. His writing is funny, honest and real, and not at all what you’d expect from a Vicar. Which is nice, because it makes me realise I am clearly not the only odd shaped one in the church of England.

‘Becoming Reverend’ is Matt’s diary of his journey from getting selected to train for ministry in the CofE, through struggling to become a Father and attempting to reconcile his party-loving football-filled lifestyle to ordination and parenthood. It is laugh out loud funny in places, but also moving and humbling as Matt’s outrageous honesty and witty self-deprecation take you along with him in his journey.

Having gone through the same process of selection and training, and feeling many of the same sentiments as Matt about ministry and the CofE (not always positive) this book really struck a chord with me. Like him I am not your average Radio 4 listening, academic, safe, ‘normal’ Vicar and agree that encouraging people into Christian leadership who ‘have an infectious, living faith and can relate Jesus to the ordinary working man and woman, should be the highest priority’.

As he notes:

I don’t feel called to fit neatly into the way church has always been done. I’m called to be a pioneering agent of change. I’m praying that God will find me the right kind of boss.

Me too. And the thing is people need to read this and understand it, both inside the church and out.

However this is not just a book for churchy types, Matt also writes about his and wife Anna’s battle to parenthood, through IVF, hormones, medication, lows and highs, whilst life attempts to carry on as normal. Egg harvesting, sperm donation, relationship tensions and tears are the norm for many people going through the IVF process and Matt’s honest but funny account of it will strike a chord with many. For Matt this is also coupled with dealing with his beloved Aunt succumbing to cancer, all on top of training to be a Vicar. One of those would be enough for anyone and reading Matt’s journey through it all is inspiring. Through it we see that it’s not just his faith that gets him though, or his wife, but he talks about his (amusingly titled) ‘Morning Glory’ group too. A bunch of fellow ordinands who pray, laugh and cry together, supporting each other through their ups and downs and it just highlights that we are all supposed to be in community. Down the pub, at church, in Iifes struggles, we need people around us – in any walk of life.

Matt also reminds us that we need to laugh. So many of us live lives that are way too busy, too exhausting and too full, to stop and laugh. Matt seems to find the funny in all situations which is an absolute gift.

For me personally, a couple of lines stand out in the book – perhaps because I could have written it about myself – and it sums up so much of who Matt seems to be:

And yet. God loves his church. He sees possibilities and opportunities everywhere. Deep down I know he calls me to do the same. It’s terrifying (but also quite comical) that he wants me to help breathe new life into it…

So, in summary, I’ll be a force for positive change in the Church of England, but could end up defrocked by my second year.

This book is inspiring, challenging, humbling and very funny. Go get it! Out now from Church House Publishing, priced £9.99.

matt-woodcock-paper-airplane

Book Review // Rhythms of Rest

41jvgn5dolI first met Shelly Miller at the HTB Leadership Conference in London a few years back, where by some quirk or fate – or rather, God – we ended up seated together. I, because I had bought my ticket alone and she because her husband, H, who was also seated next to her, actually spent much of the conference at various meetings (all to do with the big move to the UK – very exciting!). We chatted, bonded, prayed and wept together. It was really special and I know it was ordained by God.

Since then we have emailed, written, and now that she is in the UK met up for coffee too! Throughout this time we talked a lot about writing as we both love it, and now she has published her first book ‘Rhythms of Rest‘. Rest, Sabbath, Selah, whatever you call it, it’s an area that has become increasingly important to me and not least last summer when enforced rest through back surgery gave me the most wonderfully precious Sabbath time with God.

Of course Shelly’s book is focussed on Godly rest in Sabbath, as it grew out of her Sabbath society blog but it is so much more than that – it is a book of our time, a book our western world needs. We are entrenched in a society that is obsessed with working, with filling every hour, with being busy and ‘doing’.  I made a vow last year to stop saying ‘I am busy’ and not using it as an excuse. If we are too busy then that can’t be right, it can’t be what God intended, after all he is the author of time.

289793_rhythmsofrest_meme-6Shelly notes that some us attempt to find value in our measure of busyness, something I am sure many of us would recognise. But the truth is, as she points out, we are worthy, we are loved, no matter what! ‘in yoga pants, three day hair, and without make up in a room that looks like a cyclone hit…’ we are deeply loved. We don’t need to prove ourselves by being exhausted.

I love how Shelly has been intentional about Sabbath and how it has changed her life and the lives of the many who have joined her Sabbath Society. She notes how Sabbath was something that was noticeably different in her life growing up, how her grandparents reinforced this for her, not in word but in that one day was noticeably different to the other six. This reminds me of my own childhood where we would go to church and then to see my grandparents down the road, where we’d all have different parts of the newspaper and my brother and I would fight over the cartoons, whilst eating far too may biscuits (the kind that my Mum never bought). It seems such a world away now. These days Sundays are not sacred to anyone, there are too many demands on our time: sport, shopping, and working hours have changed so that Sunday is just another day. If we want a rest day, a Sabbath day, we have to be intentional about it. As Shelly says ‘choosing rest is the practice of loving yourself’.

I think the thing that has struck me most of all through reading this book, is the idea of a rhythm of rest. It may not be practical to take a whole day a week for rest (and for those of us in ‘ministry’ it’s unlikely to be a Sunday either!), but we can find regular times, even an hour here or there, to just take time out. For me that’s often in prayer but also in vegging on the sofa watching trashy telly, even though there is hoovering 289793_rhythmsofrest_meme-10to do; or maybe in painting and being creative, even though I may actually need to pop out to get something; or in just reading a book for pleasure when I could be studying. And what’s more, taking that time without feeling guilty. How many of us feel we can’t stop because there is so much to do, and if we do we spend the whole time feeling guilty! Why do we put so much pressure on ourselves?!

If any of this is touching a nerve with you, you need to read this book! Sometimes we just need someone to tell us how, or tell us it is ok, and that is exactly what Shelly does in ‘Rhythms of Rest’. I guarantee you will read it and wonder why on earth you haven’t taken time out to rest before.

Rhythms of Rest is out now, published by Bethany House, and available from Amazon here price £9.99 (or less on kindle).

 

 

The Fragment // Book Review

fragment
‘The Fragment’ by Davis Bunn is the perfect holiday read for someone like me. An easy read, with a gripping storyline, and with spiritual truth woven through it. More than that, Muriel, the main character is a young woman, refusing to fit into the social and cultural norms of her day, post war 1920s in Alexandria, Virginia. In a way her desire to escape and not conform reminds me of my own journey – refusing to settle for what was expected of me – except she does it with much more grace and humility than I ever will.
 
Then very quickly her life changes as she heads off to Paris to work for an old friend of the family, an American Senator on a quest to find a fragment of the true cross on which Christ died.
(It is worth noting that whether you are someone with a passion for relics or one who finds the whole idea of them questionable, it doesn’t take away from a good storyline, so just shelve that, ok?!)
 
‘The Fragment’ reads like a more charming and less frantic Dan Brown novel, except here the input of Christianity is more obvious and certainly woven in as spiritual truth and not just for dramatic effect. Muriel’s initial desire to leave the mundane comfort of her home town develops as she realises that this is her calling, something she feels God has prepared her for for life. Seeking a calling that is so clear is something that will resonate with many readers I am sure.
 
The faith of Muriel and her boss and family friend, the Senator, is evident throughout, woven into the storyline with ease. It’s refreshing to read a novel like this which has such spiritual truth at the heart of it. And indeed, the story of the search for the cross is made on several levels. Their quest to find the fragment, the true cross, is echoed in the journey of Charles, a young man haunted by his war experiences who Muriel attempts to bring on a journey of his own towards the cross. She sees that his life can only be transformed by Christ but he continues to fight it, in a battle of inner turmoil.
 
Set in 1923, when woman had not long gained the right to vote in the UK and US, in France it would be another 20 years, and the author conveys some of the discrimination that abounded, the childish ways women were ignored, mistrusted or put down simply because of their gender. Muriel reacts to this with grace and patience and in this story she comes out on top, partly thanks to the generous and supportive senator who believes in her.
A cleverly written novel, perfect for the beach, sitting by the pool, or just for lounging around on an autumn evening in front of the fire (which it feels like as I write now in August) ‘The Fragment’ is available now from Marylebone House, priced £8.99.
 

‘Still Emily’ book review

StillEmily

I’ve just read ‘Still Emily’ in one sitting, on holiday surrounded by people, and have had to stem the tears pricking my eyes on more than one occasion. Emily’s story touched my heart, not with tears of sympathy but of love, of admiration, and in some sense, of understanding.

Emily began life healthily and despite what could now be seen as warnings, the shock of an NF2 diagnosis at the age of 17 was huge. This condition would go on to rob Emily of her hearing, her balance, ability to walk and more, yet she has refused to give in to the condition, not willing to be defined by it, and continued in her walk with God, perhaps closer than ever might have been.

(Neurofibromatosis Type 2 (NF2) is a disorder that causes tumours to grow on the body and throughout the nervous system. Depending on where they grow they can cause conditions like deafness, severe balance problems, facial nerve paralysis, spinal cord compression and swallowing difficulties.)

‘Still Emily’ is a movingly honest memoir of Emily’s journey with NF2. Of the highs and lows – of which there are many, including the moment at age 17 when Emily’s family said goodbye to her as she lay in a coma, not expected to wake up. Like the times when she has been robbed of her sight for a period as well as hearing, in order to allow her eyes to rest and recover as they work harder than ever. I’m not sure I can begin to image the isolation and fear that must induce.

It is also a story of a family thrown into turmoil, but choosing to respond in love. Choosing to support, choosing to demonstrate the love of God in the face of adversity, united in their faith. Christian faith is of course a theme than runs through the book, not in an ‘in your face’ way, but in a gentle undercurrent, God’s presence and faithfulness the foundation in this inspiring story.

As anyone with a long term condition will know, it can be hard to remain always positive, even with God at your side, and Emily is honest about this, but also reminding herself, and us the readers, to focus on the bit that can be done, not the bit that can’t, as she recalls learning to sit again, able to do 20 mins at first but not the half hour she hoped for. The subtitle to ‘Still Emily’ is ‘seeing rainbows in the silence’ a choice that Emily has made – to always seek the moments of joy: ‘I choose rainbows. Every time. Even when they are invisible, I carry on looking…’

One of the things I love about this book is the truth that we are all worthy, no matter what we can or can’t do. A simple reminder that came to Emily when all she could do to help a fellow patient in hospital was press the ‘call nurse’ button, but in that moment, that was what was needed. This was something I too learned when recovering from back surgery last year, even in the tough times, in suffering and in the moments when we feel useless, helpless and alone, that to God we are perfect and he can use us all, whatever the circumstance.

This is a book about endurance, the faithfulness of God and above all, hope. In endless operations, physio and appointments, in pain, in disappointment, there is still hope.

 

‘Still Emily’ is available now from Malcolm Down Publishing, priced £7.99.