Meals for April

Having just created another month’s menu and trying to be creative with new meals Mark has requested an opportunity for some favourite meals to feature again so maybe I might do a month of favourite meals at some point, but for now it’s another month of new meals to try. I am learning though that it means that there can be more misses than success as far as the younger members of the family are concerned as new ingredients or combinations are placed before them but over all they are doing well trying new meals and I am enjoying the pleasure of discovering new combinations and dishes. DSCN1333

April 2014

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Thoughts as I try to make sense of the place I am in as a Mum to three.

Yes, we chose to have three.  We chose to be outnumbered by the bundles of energy, discovery, tears, laughter, determination, curiosity and love that children are.  We entered into parenthood knowing as much as anyone can who has not yet had children can know. And with each sibling we have entered into parenting siblings as well prepared as one can when one has not yet had that many children. But in so doing I did not realise that I was also opening the door for the flow of comments when we dare raise our heads above the parapets and say how hard it is. The truth is I am finding it harder and harder to admit to others how hard it is, how exhausted we really are, how often the tears have flowed, how short my temper has become, how prickly I am now to live with. 

There is the cross, there is mercy and there is grace. And as I look back over past four months to just before Ruth was born it could be very easy to think that God has been absent, that it has been a barren time in my journey of faith but as I reflect back I see how far God has brought me because I look back on it as a time and is continuing to be a time of sustained mercy and grace. It has not been a season for loud voices, for God calling for my attention, trying to get me to listen. It has been a season when He has faithfully got on with His work in our lives, in pouring out mercy and grace each day upon us, of providing for us, of sustaining and keeping us. He has not asked more from us than to keep trusting in Him by putting one foot in front of the other. It has not been a season for big decisions, for tackling areas of my character in a conscious manner. It has simply been a season when He and I have simply got on with our roles of His being the God of mercy and grace and me trusting Him with each step. My trusting has not been without its tumbles and bumps but in His mercy He has kept me.

I knew we were still tired and had still not really come to terms with everything surrounding Ruth’s arrival but with all the passing comments ‘ well she is fine now’, ‘ that is behind you now’ there seemed little room to explore and journey through those early days and come through them. Then two weeks ago I saw a beautiful photo of a friend who had just had her second daughter at home and she, her newborn daughter and older daughter were all on the bed. I was filled with so much joy for them as I knew what this meant for them but my heart broke. It reflected everything we had hoped for ourselves with Ruth’s birth but was not. Finally I realised I needed to grief. It may seem strange to say that I needed to grief when we have Ruth, Ruth did not die, she seems to have come through unscathed in one sense of the word. But there is still a journey of grief I need to walk through of what was not. Of what was lost in that day. Of what was broken.

They say each birth is so very different even for the same mum. And I will affirm that. With our first born it was not as the books or our NCT course had indicated. We did not have hours to pace up and down and get our heads around it. But we did not have any other children. Our house was still a grown ups place. It was ordered and tidy and laundry mountains were an unknown part of our landscape. It was Mark and myself and the help of two amazing midwives, Winnie and Joan, who welcomed our eldest Matthew into the world at home in the early hours of the 11th March 2009. It was a fast and intense labour mostly made up of 2 hours of pushing. After a brief visit to the hospital due to some damage done we came home as a family of three and settled down to a cooked breakfast and entered into a blissful two weeks of afternoon family naps and doable nights. He loved his food during the day and often a drive was necessary in the evening to give me a break but the house was still tidy and laundry though some undulating hills were appearing, they were always mastered. We also moved half way round the world when he was 3 months old. Our second son  kindly gave us warning he was on his way so before bedtime we were able to take Matthew to our neighbours to spend the night with them. With the wonderful support of our midwives, Kate and Carol we welcomed Jonathan into the world early on the morning of the 19th November 2011 and we all celebrated with freshly baked brownies and raspberries.  Due to low blood pressure I was encouraged to spend the next 48 hours in bed and delighted to do so getting to know our second son in the company of Mark and Matthew. The whole experience had been gentle and relaxed.  Having completely missed the fact that my waters had broken with Matthew and having had them broken for Jonathan, I was slightly taken back when I woke on the morning of the 24th November 2013 to realise that my waters had broken.  As contractions did not start I was invited to go to the birthing centre to get checked out and so our neighbour came to watch the boys for us.  While there it was discovered that Ruth had disengaged and so we were sent across to the hospital to be assessed, where I had a scan. We were sent home assured that all was fine but if nothing had happened by the next morning we would have to return to the hospital to be induced. By this stage Mark’s parents had come across to be around as we knew Ruth was going to be arriving within a given time frame. Mark and I went for a walk and we all waited the day out waiting for that first contraction. After another rough night with Jonathan who had a hideous cold and croup which had ensured Mark had had minimal sleep that week I got up at 6am with not a single contraction to be had and accepted that this time round a homebirth was not to be. I got into the shower to get ready to head to the hospital and stood there praying and asking God for strength to let go of what I had hoped for and to release my fears of all that being induced would mean. And then labour started and as with Matthew within minutes it became apparent that there was not going to be hours of pacing the floor, quite simply there was going to be a baby coming now. Mark’s mum entertained the boys downstairs and while she would have like industrial earplugs the boys never seemed to bat an eyelid to what was happening upstairs. Within an hour and half our daughter Ruth was born with the help of the midwives Debbie and Val. As with her eldest brother it was hard and intense (both have top of the scale head circumferences) We were shattered, we had had no sleep and the tension and uncertainty of the previous 24hours gave way to relief and a longing to hibernate and curl up and get to know our daughter in quiet. But 40 minutes later our life was turned upside down when I looked down at Ruth who had been suckling but now felt limp in my arms to see she was grey/blue and non responsive.  The midwives took her and got work with her on our desk while Mark had to call 999 and I was left mid-stitch in an eerie silence. Suddenly there were 5 paramedics, mums are no longer allowed to travel in the same ambulance as their new born children so we had to have two ambulances a long with the rapid response car, providing drama for the neighbours.  It was at this point I now know I shut down. I stopped the bonding process. I dared not love. I lay there imaging raising our two boys and what that would look like, I told myself that we could be complete as a family of four even though I knew we had wanted Ruth because we always felt there was to be one more round our table. But I shut those thoughts out and imagined us as a family of four.

They got Ruth stabilised and we were taken to hospital. Mark following in the car, scared and exhausted while my incredible mum (in law) stayed with the boys shell shocked. Mark had yet to hold his daughter, she to see her first granddaughter.  That first day in hospital was a blur. We started on the delivery ward and then I was moved to the maternity ward while Ruth was in NICU. I did not get to hold her till later that afternoon or feed her till that evening.  Mark journeyed between home and the hospital trying to be there for me and for the boys who were totally lost at sea.  It was Tuesday before Mark got to hold his daughter, now out of NICU but still in the neonatal ward.  Because the boys had colds they were not allowed in to see us which broke my heart and I felt torn between desperately wanting to be with them, to hold them and see them and listen to them and being in hospital with my daughter who I longed to love, to bond with, to feed with joy but was so scared of what any of that meant. There were too many ‘what if’ questions in my head to let me go there. What if I had not noticed soon enough? What if I had done something that had caused her to stop breathing? What if, what if what if. Amazingly newborns are created to survive without oxygen for up to 9 minutes in way we as adults could not do and the doctors were confident that they had got her breathing again within that time frame. I would not let myself hope. Blood sugar level issues kept us in for another day or so but finally we were allowed to come home. No one was able to tell us why she stopped breathing so while we were told there was no reason for it to happen again we could not relax. If it happened once then why not again. The most likely reason they put forward was because of her size (9lb 14oz) and the speed at which she came. That that can cause shock and the lungs did not get squeezed enough during labour to really get going.

We are almost 4 months down the road now and Ruth is doing well and as the most wonderful smile that lights up her whole face and draws everyone in. She is teaching me to bond, she is inviting me to love her and I am falling in love with her.  But we are exhausted. It was as if we found ourselves forced into a world of NIC however briefly like a cork being pushed under water and then released and shot back to the surface and left to simply carry on as if none of that had happened. Our midwife Debbie was lovely and came back a week later to talk things through with us but I almost think that point it was too soon. It is only now I am willing to admit to how I responded, to my fears.

Nursing the boys while it had its moments was something I enjoyed. But not being able to feed Ruth for most of the first day and then my first proper feed was on a plastic chair behind a screen in NICU does not get the nursing hormones flowing. And because she had stopped breathing while nursing every time I latched on I had the image of her limp and grey and I dreaded feeding her. I wanted some else to be responsible, I did not want to be responsible and have it happen again.

While Ruth has come away unscathed in so many important physiological ways for which we are very thankful  she has a deep fear in her and startles and scares easily which makes falling asleep for her a great battle and she has a high need for me to hold and nurse her. What she loves most is to be attached to me while stretched out on the bed in peace and quiet for an hour and half feeds at a time. This is not dissimilar to her eldest brother, which was fine when it was him as no one else was needing me but those undulating laundry hills are now snow-capped mountains, and others who get hungry and want books read, craft projects, school work to be fitted in, moments (sometimes many moments) of discipline to be carried out and some sleep for the parents would be nice.

Yes we chose three and I would not change that fact. But we are exhausted and I would love to be able to say that without the comments coming that we got ourselves into this, or what did we expect.  I have responded in joking fashion to those comments and sometimes put them out there first to protect myself. We still have no rhythm to any given day, Mark has barely done a full day of study, the boys have been stretched and challenged.  But this week the weather has enabled us to put our washing out and I look and it and smile as I see clothes for three little ones who stretch us to within an inch of our being and beyond. I am thankful for friends who have stepped into our lives and entered the chaos with us to help us. I look at the black stone ornament of two figures whose heads are bowed toward each other that Mark gave me and I am reminded of the incredible blessing I have in Mark as both my husband and father of our three children and of God who is holding us and keeping us each moment.

Books III

This time I want to put up books I have found helpful over the last 10-12 years or so.  My first set was books from the formative years when I was between 16 and 26, and I want to first explain why I divided these lists at the age of 26.  The main reason for this is that I this was a particularly significant age in my life.  Following university I had worked for 3 years as an actuarial assistant (actuarial work, no exams), done a year on a course in understanding and teaching the bible and then worked for a year as a lay assistant in a church on the Essex/London border.  That year marked the boundary in several key ways.

By the end of that year as a lay assistant I had decided that it was not the right time to go into “full time” paid Christian ministry, and after applying for lots of different jobs and getting nowhere I was rather disappointedly heading back to Guildford.  One week at the church I grew up, and had attended before the move to London confirmed that I wanted to move churches, away from parents, and towards somewhere smaller.  I drew up a list of churches to visit, and the crucial visit was to one just round the corner from my parents, Guildford Park.  I knew of it, I knew that one of the town centre churches that I tried out had sent a team to restart it a few years before, and so I thought that I ought to try out the nearest gospel believing, bible preaching church.

I was very impressed.  A good solid sermon and an invite to lunch.  The inability to get out of the door without being engaged in conversation by the pastor (and several church members), the warmth, the singing of good quality hymns and songs. The remarkable range of age, family background and nationality in such a small group (around 70 or so on a Sunday morning).  I fairly quickly made it my home, and after a year or so to wrap my head around the concept of membership (a new thing as my previous churches were all Anglican), became a member.  That first term I went the pastor was preaching through 1 Samuel on a Sunday evening, and had reached David’s life.  I was in a state of some confusion, doing a “temporary” job in the civil service, looking for other jobs, not really wanting to be in Guildford and not knowing what the next step should be.  David’s life in 1 Samuel on the run from Saul and escaping from Philistines with its confusion and absence of direct divine intervention was actually the perfect reassurance about God’s sovereignty and hidden purposes that I needed at that point.

I was also impressed by how quickly I was drawn into the life of the church.  I was quickly on the rota for setting out chairs, and also preaching once a term or so.  On a Thursday evening on  a fortnightly basis I went to the church prayer meeting – often somewhat reluctantly, but always ending up glad I had gone, sensing that the Lord had been with us as we prayed.  The relation of all this to books is the simple observation that a switch occurred in my Christian life. Previously I had been a faithful attender and participant in church life, but it was never my main fuel for the Christian life – that had always been books, but at this point, in this new departure church became my main fuel.  Books were still vital – just slightly less so, and in a healthier context of real life relationships.

 Joshua – 2 Kings (commentaries on each, published by cfp) – Dale Ralph Davies

Don’t judge a book by its cover, these are not the most excitingly presented, but if you only read 1 commentary on these books then I think these are the ones to read – they explain and show the implications of the text really well.  I know too, that they were an important resource for the Samuel sermon series – providing many good illustrations for our pastor to use – definitely good material for preachers to plunder!  (Side note: if you are a preacher plundering I think it’s fine to use other people’s illustrations as long as you don’t start claiming experiences you never had…)

Wild at Heart – John Eldredge

This is probably one of the more controversial of the well known books on here.  I know I’m supposed to hate it.  I’ve never been hunting, shooting or fishing.  My only hiking has been done in the UK, where I know I’m not going to meet any predator I can’t squash with my walking boots.  I’m not into sports, with the possible exception of watching England collapse in the latest Test humiliation.   However, I did read the book and love its challenge.  I loved the thoughts it provoked, and the way it made me look at some critical events and relationships in my life and  evaluate the impact others had on me, and I had on others.  I know I’m not a “typical” man (whatever that is), and that is fine – but I didn’t actually think Eldridge was telling me I had to be – the outdoors, physical, fighting language all seemed to work really well for me as metaphor.  Maybe I read the books in a “spiritualising” way, but I didn’t find myself objecting in the way that many people I know do to these books.

Reframing Paul – Mark Strom

This is a really good read on reading Paul in the cultural background of the Roman Empire, with some thought provoking chapters of practical application at the end about how to create grace-filled conversation in our churches.  Well worth the hard thinking required at points.

Fruit that Last – Tim Hawkins

The best “how to book” ever!  I don’t usually like reading “how to” books, but this (and its sequel – Leaders that Last) is a really good book to read if you are wondering what the next step for your youth group might be.  The author is a youth pastor in Australia (so I was suspicious from an early stage) and writes from a long experience of youth work – he places himself in the “parent” age group as he writes.  Part of the reason I loved it was his insistence that the ultimate mission and vision for youth work is found in the Bible – to glorify God and make disciples, rather than the mission and vision being things we need to dream up, or seek special revelation on.  Another aspect I loved was that he has a chapter on different stages of youth ministry which emphasises how all age groups are needed in youth ministry – it isn’t the preserve of the young.  I think this is good in general terms because it nails the lie that youth ministry is a stepping stone to bigger (adult) things in the church.  It was also a really good reinforcement for my own role in Guilford Crusaders at the time.  When I went back to Guildford I determined to get fully involved in Crusaders, and placed Friday night small group (Keenites) at the heart of my priorities.  As I did this I realised that my lack of “coolness” was actually not a barrier to effective ministry – I realised I could be myself, and through my unique personality reach particular lads and bring a particular contribution to the group.

Eat this Book – Eugene Peterson.

Try not to take this literally.  A great book, where Eugene Peterson gets excited about the Bible.  Worth reading and pondering.  Probably my favourite book in his “spirituality” series, although Christ Plays in 10,000 places is also good too.

Long Wandering Prayer – David Hansen

I loved this book, I read it when I was looking for something a bit different about prayer, having found it on sale in Exeter Wesley Owen’s discount book room on the way down to Cornwall.   In the book he is essentially encouraging people to take long walks with God as a way of praying for a long time – I like this, as I’ve essentially done something similar for a number of years, taking time to walk and pray as a I walk.  Hansen’s really good point is that in this process we shouldn’t worry about the times our thoughts wander, but instead bring those wandering thoughts to God too.  I’d recommend this as a good read to refresh your prayer life.

Glory Days- Julian Hardyman and Heaven is not my home – Paul Marshall. 

I loved both these books as really refreshing reminders of the importance of all of life to God’s mission.  The Christian life, and Christian mission are about so much more than just evangelism, important though that is.  There is real significance and importance to the whole of life.  Julian Hardyman’s book is a great place to start on this theme – it is short, but packed with helpful teaching and refreshing insight into how all of life matters and has meaning in God’s mission.

The Mission of God – Chris Wright. 

This is a big book – and one which sets the ideas of the above two books on a solid biblical foundation.  I read it when I broke my foot one Whitsun Camp, and it was probably worth breaking my foot to get the uninterrupted reading time it deserves.  I would say this was well worth the time it takes to read it.  Wright seeks to read the whole bible as the product of God’s mission, and telling the story of God’s mission to redeem his world – a mission that encompasses evangelism, working for justice, creation care and all of our lives as image bearers in God’s world.  One quote that sums up his perspective is this:

“Mission is not ours; mission is God’s. Certainly, the mission of God is the prior reality out of which flows any mission that we get involved in. Or, as has been nicely put, it is not so much the case that God has a mission for his church in the world but that God has a church for his mission in the world. Mission was not made for the church; the church was made for mission—God’s mission.”

It is also worth it just for the time he takes on establishing the Old Testament basis of this – if you think that the God of the Old Testament is somehow different to the God we see in Jesus, somehow more primitive, more bloodthirsty and less loving you should read some Wright to get this idea destroyed.

If you want a concise summary of Chris Wright’s understanding, as well as really helpful discussions of tough questions Christians struggle with then “The God I don’t understand” is a really good book to begin with (discusses suffering, atonement, the brutal wars of the OT and the new creation).  Also really good is his trilogy on Knowing Father, Son and Holy Spirit through the OT (the original is Knowing  Jesus through the OT) – and his BST commentary on Ezekiel is great too.  I not only love the content of what Wright  writes, but I love the way he writes too – rooted in Scripture, gracious towards others, and clear and positive about what he thinks.  His work on OT ethics (which he was a pioneer in) is really important too, and it helped to inform groups like the Jubilee Centre in Cambridge.

Confessions – Augustine

I read this first inspired by a Sunday summer evening series on the Psalms which also had a meditation drawn from the confessions on the service sheet.  I re-read it as part of one of my courses at Regent.  It is well worth reading to get an insight into the mind of one of the greatest thinkers who ever lived.  It should be engaged critically – Augustine was brilliant, but also with several massive blind spots – and both his brilliance and blind spots have stayed with the church ever since.  His blind spots however are not the same as the blind spots of our age, while his brilliance can bear down on our blind spots and correct them.  The first 9 chapters are autobiography and then he switches into more general meditations, including some fascinating thoughts sparked by Genesis 1.  It is well worth having a go at reading some of the classics – and Augustine is so foundational to both Catholic and Reformed Protestant thinking (he’s one of the most frequent – non-biblical authors – quoted by Calvin) that it is really useful to start to understand where so many ideas come from.

Also short and worth reading for any involved in teaching/preaching is On Christian Teaching, which is a kind of 5th century preaching handbook. Worth playing “spot the difference” between this and our “how-to” books on preaching – one of the main differences being that he lays the ground work for the context of our exegesis and hermeneutics for preaching in the commandments to love God and neighbour rather more thoroughly than we would.  The other is that difficult sections in the Bible seem to be a challenge to his ingenuity rather than problems for his faith – which can sometimes be a good thing, and other times just lead to some rather bizarre exegesis…

Jonathan Edwards – George Marsden

I had to read this for an excellent course at Regent on The Pastor in Christian History, and I loved it.  I’d read Murray’s biography of Edwards previously which I’d enjoyed and I’ve read lots of John Piper, and had finally got round to reading his mini biography of Edwards combined with Edwards on “The End for which God created the world” one sunny morning outside Blenz Coffee shop down near Save-On-Foods (a remarkably empty supermarket by UK standards!) on UBC campus watching the towers growing around me.  Marsden’s biography is fantastic at putting Edwards in his wider context, and at being “critical” in the right sense of asking questions of what Edwards was doing and how, although still broadly sympathetic to Edwards wider agenda.  It is really fascinating in our “post-modern” (whatever that label might actually mean) context to see how Edwards tried to integrate everything at the start of the “modern” era – even where he didn’t really succeed it’s still worth seeing how he tried and the lessons we can learn.

I want to close this with an extensive quote from Chris Wright (again) – from the final chapter of his big book – and again it sums up something else I love about Wright – the integration of hard study and personal application – something that really, really needs to be integrated more in the lives of our churches (rant for another blog post sometime… )

  • We ask, ‘Where does God fit into the story of my life?’ when the real question is where does my little life fit into this great story of God’s mission.

  • We want to be driven by a purpose that has been tailored just right for our own individual lives, when we should be seeing the purpose of all life, including our own, wrapped up in the great mission of God for the whole of creation.

  • We talk about ‘applying the Bible to our lives’. What would it mean to apply our lives to the Bible instead, assuming the Bible to be the reality — the real story — to which we are called to conform ourselves?

  • We wrestle with ‘making the gospel relevant to the world’. But in this story, God is about the business of transforming the world to fit the shape of the gospel.

  • We argue about what can legitimately be included in the mission that God expects from the church, when we should ask what kind of church God wants for the whole range of his mission.

  • I may wonder what kind of mission God has for me, when I should be asking what kind of me God wants for his mission.

Point 2 and point 3 above strike me as so fundamental, and so utterly radically perspective changing.  So read the Bible.  If you are not convinced by the above quotes read Isaiah 40-55.  Over and over again. Read it.  Read it until you get the point.  God is God, and there is no other. God is God and he will act to save. Some highlights:

Isaiah 40

18 With whom, then, will you compare God?
To what image will you liken him?
19 As for an idol, a metalworker casts it,
and a goldsmith overlays it with gold
and fashions silver chains for it.
20 A person too poor to present such an offering
selects wood that will not rot;
they look for a skilled worker
to set up an idol that will not topple.

21 Do you not know?
Have you not heard?
Has it not been told you from the beginning?
Have you not understood since the earth was founded?
22 He sits enthroned above the circle of the earth,
and its people are like grasshoppers.
He stretches out the heavens like a canopy,
and spreads them out like a tent to live in.
23 He brings princes to naught
and reduces the rulers of this world to nothing.
24 No sooner are they planted,
no sooner are they sown,
no sooner do they take root in the ground,
than he blows on them and they wither,
and a whirlwind sweeps them away like chaff.

25 ‘To whom will you compare me?
Or who is my equal?’ says the Holy One.
26 Lift up your eyes and look to the heavens:
who created all these?
He who brings out the starry host one by one
and calls forth each of them by name.
Because of his great power and mighty strength,
not one of them is missing.

27 Why do you complain, Jacob?
Why do you say, Israel,
‘My way is hidden from the Lord;
my cause is disregarded by my God’?
28 Do you not know?
Have you not heard?
The Lord is the everlasting God,
the Creator of the ends of the earth.
He will not grow tired or weary,
and his understanding no one can fathom.
29 He gives strength to the weary
and increases the power of the weak.
30 Even youths grow tired and weary,
and young men stumble and fall;
31 but those who hope in the Lord
will renew their strength.
They will soar on wings like eagles;
they will run and not grow weary,
they will walk and not be faint.

Isaiah 42

42 ‘Here is my servant, whom I uphold,
my chosen one in whom I delight;
I will put my Spirit on him,
and he will bring justice to the nations.
He will not shout or cry out,
or raise his voice in the streets.
A bruised reed he will not break,
and a smouldering wick he will not snuff out.
In faithfulness he will bring forth justice;
    he will not falter or be discouraged
till he establishes justice on earth.
In his teaching the islands will put their hope.’

Isaiah 43

43 But now, this is what the Lord says –
he who created you, Jacob,
he who formed you, Israel:
‘Do not fear, for I have redeemed you;
I have summoned you by name; you are mine.
When you pass through the waters,
I will be with you;
and when you pass through the rivers,
they will not sweep over you.
When you walk through the fire,
you will not be burned;
the flames will not set you ablaze.
For I am the Lord your God,
the Holy One of Israel, your Saviour;
I give Egypt for your ransom,
Cush and Seba in your stead.
Since you are precious and honoured in my sight,
and because I love you,
I will give people in exchange for you,
nations in exchange for your life.

I could quote more – but you get the idea – go, read!

These days most of the time I get for reading is taken up with reading for PhD, so it’s harder to list books I’d recommend – many I read now are rather technical, but I hope to do a final post in this series listing books I’ve discovered in my academic studies that are helpful, either in whole or in part for the more general reader.

Books II

This section reveals some of my reading from the same formative period as the last post (aged 16-26), but this time I am sharing some of the books I read to challenge the way I thought about particular issue. Sometimes I read them knowing I would most likely profoundly disagree with the authors.  Sometimes I picked two books with opposing views deliberately to help me think through the issues.  Sometimes I read not knowing much about the author, but knowing that I want to get to grips with the issue at stake.

My reading to work out where I stood on a controversial area began just before I went up to Durham as an undergraduate I read “Baptism in the Holy Spirit” by Stott, and “Joy Unspeakable” by Martyn Lloyd Jones, knowing they took different views of what Baptism in or with the Holy Spirit is, and hoping that reading both would help me make up my own mind.  I’m very glad I did – I was most convinced by Stott’s exegesis, but “Joy Unspeakable” has really useful wisdom on spiritual experience, and reading that and some Jonathan Edwards helped me navigate the very different perspectives I encountered at uni. Also really important was a study I began, and never quite finished in my first Christmas holidays of every verse in the Bible relating to the Holy Spirit – I did manage to read every verse in the OT, and learnt a lot from that process – probably the most important  thing was that being given gifts by the Spirit, having dramatic experiences and even being used to rescue others did not necessarily mean a change of heart.

One author I encountered others talking  about a lot growing up in Guildford was David Pawson.  David Pawson had been pastor of Millmead Baptist in the 1970s, and had established a very strong teaching ministry with distinctive emphases, that slightly defy easy categorisation.  The areas where I felt most disagreement with him at the time were his views on baptism in the Holy Spirit, and his understanding of election (not to mention the whole issue of Israel).  I am glad, however, to have read some of his books.  His books on the Holy Spirit and new birth have really important things to consider – I like his emphasis on a fourfold initiation – repentance, faith, water baptism and spirit baptism, even if I’d differ somewhat at how these things relate.  Reading what he had to say about the need for perseverance in faith was a good way of sharpening my understanding of what I thought, and the challenge in his book on hell that the people Jesus spoke most often about hell to were disciples has stayed with me.

Taking a similar position to Pawson on the Spirit, but the complete opposite on the area of assurance of salvation is RT Kendall (Book titles: “Once Saved Always Saved” – Kendall, “Once Saved Always Saved?” – Pawson).  I think on practical Christian living Kendall is always good – he’s written on joy and thankfulness really well, and on matters to do with the Holy Spirit he has challenged me not to have a purely cerebral faith, and to be prepared for the Holy Spirit to intervene directly, and immediately in situations.

Other books I enjoyed on the work of the Holy Spirit, which I would definitely recommend were “Keep in Step with the Spirit” by Packer, “Showing the Spirit” – Don Carson (at the time I was rather surprised by how positive Carson was towards “charismatics”, reading in a very non-charismatic UK context), “4 views on Spiritual gifts” edited by Wayne Grudem and for a slightly wider ranging angle, but very thought provoking “The go between God” by John V Taylor is also very good.

Another issue that I’ve tried to read both sides of is that of what the Bible teaches, or doesn’t teach about different roles for men and women.   I enjoyed comparing “Biblical Foundations for Manhood and Womanhood” by John Piper and Wayne Grudem and  “Slaves, Women and Homosexuals” by William Webb around the end of this time period. The first book is “complementarian” in outlook, arguing that the Bible teaches that men in family and church should take the lead.  The second argues that a lot of the Bible’s teaching in this area is a concession to the culture, rather like the Bible’s teaching on slavery – but wants to state very clearly that believing this does not lead to an acceptance of homosexual activity.  The first contains the counter-cultural challenge, that  I think in our culture men in the church need to hear, and which I always need to hear, a call to take responsibility and to take the initiative rather than just being passive, even if at times the authors run the risk of imposing a 20th century US culture on the Bible.  The second contains the very real challenge, again much needed, to recognise that the Bible comes to us out of its cultures to speak to our cultures, and that reading it is not about stripping away the culture to find some nugget of truth underneath, but rather to do the hard work of discerning the implications of that cultural setting for our reading of its texts in a very different culture.

I found “After Eating the Apricot” by John Goldingay in this period too – and I loved its rather different take on a number of OT passages – I think it is a set of chapel talks from St Johns Nottingham, and it provoked lots of thought.  I like the title (picking up on some suggestions that the fruit of Genesis 2-3 is better thought of as similar to an apricot than an apple), and was hooked by the first chapter – to this day I’m not sure exactly how one is “supposed” to read it – it is clearly an exercise in a feminist reading of Genesis 2-3 – but it is possible to assume several different intentions behind the chapter – which having read more Goldingay since may be exactly the point!  The book is worth having for the line at the end of the sermon on the tragic life of Samson, who went wrong at almost every turn.  Commenting on Hebrews 11 where Samson is listed among the heroes of faith Goldingay says “and if there is room for Samson, then there is room for you and for me”…  Goldingay usually has a fresh taste and perspective on a text or issue, and usually provokes me to react and then think.  Also really good is “To the Usual Suspects” – an A-Z (in random order) of reflections on the Christian life – most moving when he reflects on the struggles of his late wife Anne with MS.

This is just a taster – I deleted a few books from this list because I started being rather critical and I wanted to keep this positive.  One of the key ways my thinking has been sharpened on various issues is by reading books by people I naturally disagree with – sometimes my mind has been changed, other times I’ve become more convinced, but it has always been a useful benefit to me.  Ultimately even our favourite authors must be tested by the Scripture.  We must always be Bereans:

Acts 17:11 Now the Berean Jews were of more noble character than those in Thessalonica, for they received the message with great eagerness and examined the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true.

Notice that the Scriptures here are what we would call the Old Testament, and notice their activity.  Paul came and taught, they read and searched the Scriptures, digging deep to see if Paul’s message and the message of the Old Testament matched.  Seeing if what Paul said shed new light on the truth they knew, or if it was actually a departure from the truth.  How many of us know our Bibles well enough to test what we hear by what we read? 

The next post will look at books I’ve enjoyed and benefited from in more recent years, and describe  something of a changing relationship to books as more of life has happened.