My Year in Books, 2018

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From a very young age, reading has been one of my deepest loves. A favourite photo from my childhood is a picture of me, aged six, having fallen asleep with an open copy of The Hobbit resting against my chest. I love to be swept up in a story, transported into another world, to get lost amid pages and my vivid imagination. As an adult, this love of reading hasn’t waned (as anyone who has stood mouth agape at the overflowing bookcases and piles of books scattered around my bedroom can attest to). My choice of genre has switched from a love of fantasy in my youth to a broader fascination with contemporary and historical fiction, theology, poetry and nonfiction. This year in particular, I challenged myself to read outside of my comfort zone – to explore periods of history I knew little about and to read authors from countries far different than my own.

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In 2018 (so far) I’ve read 15,680 pages across 51 books – significantly less than the 20,463 pages across 80 books that I completed last year. I’ve traveled to Nepal, Pakistan, Sweden, Nigeria, France, Ireland, England, Singapore, Germany and the US, all without catching a plane. I’ve been challenged in my understanding of the world, what shapes a person’s identity, how loss leaves irrevocable marks on one’s life, and how people endure (or fall apart) through tragedy. I’ve read books that have deepened my understanding of how to relate to God and live a life that glorifies Him in a world that rejects Him. I’ve also read my entire Bible over the course of this year, a challenging undertaking, but one that has deepened my love for God’s word and desire to share it. It’s difficult to select the books that have most challenged my thinking, but here are short reviews of the top 5 books I’ve read this year (in no particular order):

12 Ways Your Phone is Changing You by Tony Reinke (2017, Crossway Books)

“We forget how to meet God, yet we defend our smartphones, unwilling to admit that we are more concerned with controlling the mechanics of our lives than in worshiping the God mdewhose sovereign power directs our every breath.”

There are lots of books popping up lately that address the ever-increasing role smartphones and the internet play in our daily lives. 12 Ways Your Phone is Changing You isn’t anti-technology – as many of these books are – but rather, a call to think deeply about how the way we use our phones impacts our relationships with others, our view of self, and as Christians, our relationship with God. Reinke offers, as the title suggests, twelve ways smartphone use challenges our relationships and spiritual life – notably distracting us and distorting our perception of reality, encouraging superficial rather than meaningful communication, feeding our need for approval and fostering FOMO, ultimately distorting our identity. However, laced within these warnings are clearly outlined suggestions for developing self-discipline to foster a healthy relationship with our phones, in order to savor Christ and find our identity in Him. This is a book I think I’ll keep coming back to, full of wisdom I personally need in a world where I find myself constantly distracted by that buzzing block of wires and metal in my pocket.

Chasing Contentment: Trusting God in a Discontented Age by Erik Raymond (2017, Crossway Books)

“Ever since the garden of Eden the world has been discontent, and ever since then God has been pursuing people to make them content in him…”

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Chasing Contentment: Trusting God in a Discontented Age is one of the clearest theological accounts of contentment I’ve read. Contentment seems like an elusive, impossible to grasp art. We live in a world consumed by the search for more, gripped by a fear of missing out. We are discontent because we are “restless, unhappy, unsatisfied and curious”…”having learned in whatever situation [we] are in to be discontent.” Yet Raymond explains how contentment is to be found in God, who made us to glorify Him, who has provided a solution in Christ for the source of our discontentment (sin). He outlines how contentment can be ours when we deny ourselves, see through the temporary pleasures of this world, live in light of God’s providence and recognise that we are not yet home. This is a book filled with wisdom, rooted in biblical truth and grounded in a deep understanding of God’s grace.

Prayer: Experiencing Awe and Intimacy With God by Timothy Keller (2014, Hodder & Stoughton)

cof“To pray is to accept that we are, and always will be, wholly dependent on God for everything.”

I’ve always loved Timothy Keller’s writing and Prayer: Experiencing Awe and Intimacy with God is no exception. It is a rich theological resource, drawing on the wisdom of theologians like Calvin, Luther and Augustine. The book begins with an appeal to recognise the necessity of prayer as the means of knowing God better, which “is what we must have above all if we are to face life in any circumstance”. Keller analyses various perspectives on prayer across the ages, comparing how different religions have treated prayer – an approach I haven’t encountered in other books on prayer. In doing so, he highlights how Christian prayer is unique in that we are communicating with a God who is personally involved in the lives of his people. The strength of Keller’s exploration of prayer is his use of Scripture to show how God has made himself known to us, and through Jesus, has given us the means to prayer and modeled for us how to pray. It is highly practical, academically stimulating and biblically grounded, ultimately reflecting the unique privilege we have to pray to a God who knows us intimately and hears and answers our prayers according to his perfect will.

A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman (2014, Atria Books)

“We always think there’s enough time to do things with other people. Time to say things to them. And then something happens, and we stand there holding on to words like ‘if’…”cof

A Man Called Ove is by far the best novel I’ve read this year. It tells the story of Ove, the grumpy old man next door who has no tolerance for the world being anything other than what he deems it should be. As we learn more about Ove’s life and character through interactions with a colorful cast of neighbours, we realise that behind his bitter exterior is a man trying to live in the midst of overwhelming grief. Backman has painted a portrait of a complex man, portraying the pains of late life with elegance and warmth. The heart of the book are interactions between Ove and his new neighbour Parvaneh and the flashback’s to Ove’s early life and romance with his wife Sonia:

“She just smiled, said that she loved books more than anything, and started telling him excitedly what each of the ones in her lap was about. And Ove realised that he wanted to hear her talking about the things she loved for the rest of his life.”

I can’t recommend this book enough – it made me laugh and cry in a way no book has done for a while.

Stay With Me by Ayobami Adebayo (2017, Canongate)

“But even then, I could trap those thoughts and keep them caged in a corner of my mind, in amde place where they could not spread their wings and take over my life…”

Stay With Me is a poignant, painful but beautifully written story of loss, betrayal and the unbreakable bond between mother and child. Yejide has known the pain of being motherless and unwanted from birth. Married to Akin for several years, she has not yet fallen pregnant, seen as a personal disgrace by her family and peers. When her mother-in-law arranges for her husband to marry a second wife in order to continue his family line, Yejide feels betrayed and outraged. This one act will lead to a series of choices that will have devastating impact on her marriage. Stay With Me articulates with heart wrenching clarity the pain of desperately wanting children (to the point of developing pseudocyesis) and the all-consuming nature of loss. The story is interwoven with insight into Nigerian cultural/religious beliefs and the chaotic upheaval in the political landscape of 1980s Nigeria. The final pages of the book left me with goosebumps and burgeoning tears.

Other books I’ve enjoyed this year:

Theology:

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Nothing In My Hand I Bring by Ray Galea (2007, Matthias Media)

Living Without Worry by Timothy S. Lane (2015, The Good Book Company)

Women and God: Hard Questions, Beautiful Truth by Kathleen Nielson (2018, The Good Book Company)

Hope Beyond Cure by David McDonald (2013, Matthias Media)

Fiction:

The Tattooist of Auschwitz by Heather Morris (2018, Bonnier Publishing)

Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie (2017, Bloomsbury)

Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (2007, Harper)

The Heart’s Invisible Furies by John Boyne (2017, Hogarth Press)

Non-Fiction/Autobiography:

LRM_EXPORT_20180127_130917Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race by Reni Eddo-Lodge (2017, Bloomsbury)

Becoming by Michelle Obama (2018, Crown)

Any Ordinary Day: What Happens After the Worst Day of Your Life? by Leigh Sales (2018, Penguin)

Undying: A Love Story by Michel Faber (2018, Canongate Books)


I’d love to know what your favourite books have been this year – I’m always looking for recommendations! If you’d like to see all the books I’ve read this year, check out my Goodreads reading wrap up  or have a look at my bookstagram: @e_lismariereads (which I haven’t updated since August…oops!)

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Reflecting on the year that was: Lessons learnt in 2017

Callala Bay, NSW / Canon EOS600D

Twenty seventeen has been a year of triumph and of failure, a year of learning to take risks and make hard decisions, a year of great highs and devastating lows. Reflecting on the year that was, I have learnt many things, but four lessons stand out most. I am still learning and growing and making many mistakes along the way, but I am thankful for the life that I have, and the God who has made it all possible.

It’s OK to say ‘NO’…

I’ve never been very good at saying ‘no’. I struggle with wanting to be available for everyone, all the time, yet not having the energy to sustain such a lifestyle. Part of this struggle is the classic FOMO (fear of missing out) on fun and potentially life-changing experiences. Yet there is also guilt accompanied with saying ‘no’ – even if that guilt is unfounded. This past year I’ve been learning that it is OK to say no from the beginning when an opportunity arises than to have to pull out at the last minute. While people may be disappointed that you turn them down with plenty of time to spare, they will be far more disappointed if you do not give them significant notice.

Part of learning to say no is recognising your limitations and may involve realigning your expectations of yourself. We have not all been given the same capacity, and life circumstances may alter your capacity to be present. For me, fluctuating health means that my capacity is fluid, and what I can do in one season may be different in another. This year I had to take a break from a ministry I loved doing – the highlight of my week – because my health and life circumstances meant that I did not have the energy to serve effectively. This was hard and I still feel a sense of loss, but it has given me the freedom to engage in a different form of ministry which better suits my capacity.

Furthermore, I have learnt that we can only control our own expectations, and fearing others’ expectations is a burden that doesn’t need to be carried. True friends love you and accept you as you are, and will be understanding when you have to say no to their plans. People who put pressure on you, or who unfairly judge you as lazy or unreliable, perhaps aren’t true friends after all. It’s important that we make it as clear as possible to people in our daily life what we can and can’t do, and why – and to not be ashamed of the capacity we have, however limited it may be.

People will be critical of what they don’t understand

We are creatures of habit and order. Part of this is our biological design – our bodies and minds function according to pattern, and when they don’t there is disease and abnormality. Children learn and develop in similar ways – with a degree of individual difference – and so we are wired to like what we like and dislike what we don’t understand. This is evident across the spectrum of human behaviour, and is fascinating to observe in our own lives and the lives of others. Yet, it also has negative effects on our relationships, and can lead to discord and, at an extreme, discrimination and injustice.

In the past I have really struggled with people being critical of aspects of my life (and the lives of loved ones) that they don’t understand. When I was younger I had kids come up to me in playgrounds and ask me why my sister – who has Down Syndrome – looked “funny”. When I developed chronic fatigue in high school, I lost friends who didn’t understand why I was sick all the time and couldn’t come to parties. I have friends now who, though I know they don’t mean to be hurtful, regularly make jokes about my diet. Working as a teacher’s aide I see kids constantly teasing each other for things that are beyond their control, and shunning those who they perceive to be ‘different’.

While these are all more serious examples, it is sad when people are critical of good, honourable things that they don’t understand – or are different to how things are “always done”. This year a group of three friends and I started up a bible study because we were, for various reasons, unable to attend the established bible studies for our church service. While some were encouraging, many of our peers were critical (though well-intended) of what we were doing – purely because it wasn’t like other bible studies. We didn’t have a designated ‘leader’, but used books written by Bible scholars that required us to do the studies ourselves during the week and come prepared to have an in-depth discussion.

Our bible study has been the highlight of my year, and has led to huge spiritual growth in all of us. We are four women simply meeting together to read and study God’s word, apply it to our lives, keep each other accountable and pray with and for each other. We took a situation that was beyond our control, and chose to not give up meeting together, but to do something different that met our needs. This is just a small example, but through it I have learnt that it is important to persevere with what is good even when people unfairly judge, and for myself – to try to be more accepting of what I don’t understand.

Failure enables you to learn and grow

As a high achiever and chronic people-pleaser, I have always been afraid of failure. My expectations of myself in the academic world, as well as in my relationships, have always been to strive for perfection – which is not healthy, as perfection is impossible. I recognise that I am sinful and broken, and no matter how hard I try, I will always make mistakes and disappoint people. Yet despite this knowledge, I regularly struggle with perfectionism and am never fully satisfied with my achievements, no matter how great.

Early this year, for the first time in my life, I failed an assessment. I was not alone, as my mark was still higher than over half the course, despite being below 50%. Needless to say, I was devastated, and couldn’t believe that the result was real. This may seem like an over-reaction, and in hindsight I can see that it was, but my confidence was crushed. I felt physically sick for days and couldn’t sleep properly due to anxiety. I had worked so hard, and yet my performance didn’t reflect this. My reaction was a combination of putting too much pressure on myself to perform to an unreachable standard, as well as a lifelong battle with placing my identity in my achievements instead of in God.

Ironically, failing that assessment was probably one of the best things that could have happened to me. Instead of giving up – which is what I felt like doing – it drove me to work harder and practice until I truly understood the content I’d stumbled over. In the past I would have adopted a fixed mindset and assumed that because I’d failed, that meant I was a failure and would never achieve anything again. Instead, failure taught me to adopt a growth mindset, to see the result as not defining my whole person, to strive after challenge and learn from my mistakes. I’m still learning, but I’m finding that when my performance/behaviour doesn’t meet my expectations, instead of falling apart, I work out how to do better next time. When I got my final results for the semester, I was more excited by my mark for that subject than the subjects I got high distinctions in – because I struggled and overcame.

You are where you are meant to be

Part of our human nature is the pull to compare our lives to the lives of others. As I approach my mid-twenties, I find it hard to not feel inadequate when I see friends my age reaching life milestones – graduating university, obtaining full time work, buying property, adventuring around the world and even getting married and having kids. I worry that I am not achieving these milestones in the same timeline too – and wonder if I am doing life right. Ironically, as I share these worries with friends, I find they too share my worries – even if they have achieved the life milestones I’m comparing myself to!

The reality is, we’re never satisfied with what we have, as there is always something more to obtain. Other people will place their expectations on you; the number of recently married friends I have talked to who are constantly asked when they’ll have kids proves this point. We need to learn to be content with what we have, and trust that the timeline of our life is exactly what it is meant to be. There is no perfect age to graduate, no perfect age to get married, no perfect age to buy a house. Our unique life circumstances may mean that certain milestones take longer to achieve than others, or maybe are never achieved, and that is totally OK. Comparison only ever leads to discontentment.

As a Christian, I find huge comfort in knowing that my life is not a series of chance events, but has been designed and ordained by a loving, wise God who has greater purposes than I can imagine for myself. I know that the purpose of my life is not to graduate uni or to travel around the world or to get married and live in a nice house. The purpose of my life is to enjoy God and glorify him, forever. He has given me everything I need to live a life of godliness right now, and has promised that my future is secure in Christ. So instead of looking at others, and feeling that my life is insignificant in comparison, I can look to God and know that everything that happens in my life – whether good or bad – has eternal significance.

Goodbye 2017…hello 2018!


My best friend is my phone: rethinking social media

My best friend is my phone. Or atleast, it would appear that way, considering how often it is attached to my hand. On a daily basis, I pay more attention to my phone than I do to the actual people in my life. When I am bored, I pick up my phone. When I am anxious, I pick up my phone. When I am lonely, I pick up my phone. When I am tired, I pick up my phone. Even when I am surrounded by people, or have important things to do, I often finding myself picking up my phone. This is not just descriptive of me; almost everyone I know is permanently attached to an electronic device at all times of the day.

In recent times I’ve realised how greatly my communication skills have depleted. I no longer call friends where I once would have; instead, I send them a message, and hope that they will receive it. Instead of taking the time to meet with a person, face to face, and actually have a conversation, I find myself instead sending long, essay length messages detailing my thoughts, emotions and activities. I do this, despite knowing that I am the type of person who needs proper communication. I am a ‘quality time’ person; if I am not able to give and receive love through spending time with and talking to people, then I suffer emotionally. Too often I have important conversations with people via messenger, where words are misunderstood and intentions are not properly conveyed. I’ve seen relationships break down because healthy communication was not established.

This obsession with technological communication goes far deeper though, than poor communication. I feel the need to update all my friends when I am doing something…anything…out of the ordinary, instead of just enjoying the moment. A friend, who I hadn’t seen for months, once said to me, “I don’t need to ask you what you’ve been doing because I’ve seen all your pictures”. This both shocked and saddened me. When did it come to the point where we don’t need to talk about our lives because our instagram and facebook feeds tell everyone for us? Another friend told me today that when she comes home from a trip, she doesn’t feel like she can tell her housemates about it because “we’ve already had that conversation virtually.” Yet behind every picture of a sunset or roadtrip or mountainscape is a story that cannot be conveyed in megapixels. If sharing our lives through social media is stopping us from actually sharing our lives, why do we use it?

What deeply concerns me though, is the reasons behind why we use social media. Most people would say that they use social media to be connected to each other. Yet, are we really connected to each other? Does liking a person’s photo of their Bali holiday really count as connecting with them? Do any of us really feel connected to the faces that pop up on messenger? While social media may act as a means to deepen healthy, face to face communication, if it is the only type of communication we have, and what we rely on to be “connected” to our friends, is it really healthy?

The questions that I’ve raised in writing this blog post are ones that I know many of my friends are also asking. I deeply fear that my relationships have become ingenuine. I want to have deep, meaningful friendship with people who are willing to talk, to meet up, to see beyond the glossy photos I share on social media and ask me about my life, and vice versa. I want to invest in real relationships, in supporting and encouraging and walking alongside my friends through words and interaction, not characters on a screen. I fear that I use social media to communicate because I am afraid of real interaction. I can depict my life as perfect through Instagram and Facebook, yet in reality I daily struggle with fatigue, depression and sin. I want to be real.

I also want to break away from the constant stream of data that has invaded my life. A friend, who is currently on a ‘social media fast”, told me today that she has never been more productive in her use of time since she began her fast. She has more time to write, to read, to see people, and most importantly, to pray and spend time with God. She described it as a season of “restoring intimacy”. I’ve realised that I need to break the addiction I have to picking up my phone, and restore intimacy with my friends, family, with God, and with myself. I need to re-learn how to be alone, to embrace silence and rest, to use the gifts that God has given me – in writing, music, art – instead of being fixated with a screen.

I’m challenging myself to spend the next 30 days rethinking how I use social media. First step: deleting facebook, messenger and instagram off my phone. I will still use them, but I want to do so in a more healthy, God-glorifying way. I also am challenging myself to foster healthy communication with my friends, starting by calling one friend each day for the next 30 days. Hopefully, by the end of this time, I will be able to say that my relationships with people, and with my phone, have improved. I challenge you, if you are feeling the way I am, to do the same.

Chronic Fatigue and the Sufficiency of God’s Grace

storms (1 of 1)-9 Today marks seven years since the day I awoke to the pain that would develop into chronic fatigue syndrome. At 19,  just over 5 years of CFS, I shared this testimony:

Five years ago, in June, just after I turned 14, I was diagnosed with Glandular Fever. I was bedridden for 6 months, and then recovered (but not fully). But then just over a year later (which had been a year of heartache, pain, and terrible loss, but also so much blessing and grace) I got really sick again, even worse this time, and was diagnosed with Chronic Fatigue. It has now been five years since the original diagnosis, and I’m still recovering. These years have been the toughest, most painful, frustrating, heartbreaking years of my life. And yet, they have also been the most wonderful. I have lost so much, but I have gained so much more than I ever thought was possible. 

Through the midst of suffering, I have come to understand, in a way that I know would not be possible if it weren’t for what I’ve been through, what faith really is. It’s easy to trust in God when everything is going wonderfully in life; but when your whole life falls apart and everything you found worth in is stripped away, that is when your faith is really tested. And in this moment, in the midst of the blazing furnace, is where faith is refined, and God’s grace shines brightest.

“In this you greatly rejoice, though now for a little while you may have had to suffer grief in all kinds of trials. These have come so that your faith – of greater worth than gold, which perishes even though refined by fire – may be proved genuine and may result in praise, glory and honour when Jesus Christ is revealed.” (1 Peter 1:6-7)

I have days when I am still very weak (physically), where the fatigue is so strong that it hurts just to open my eyes. There are days when the pain in my body is so intense that I cannot bear to move. Today is one of those days. But these days are also the days where God is most present – when His strength fills me, lifts me; His grace overcomes my weakness. He says to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” And though I am weak, I am made strong.

Two years later, these words remain true. I am no longer enslaved by the fatigue that plagued my body for most of my adolescent life, but I do still feel tiredness beyond the norm. The days where I am unable to function at a basic human level are very rare, but pain is still an ever present reality in my body. God has healed me in incredible ways – physically, emotionally, spiritually – and I am able to do things I never thought would be possible. I look back on my years of sickness and praise God for the ways He worked in me and through me for His glory. His grace truly is sufficient.

Fearless

fearless“Courage is not the absence of fear, but rather the judgement that something is more important than fear.” – Meg Cabot

Today my best friend gave me a necklace for my 21st birthday; a golden chain with an old, worn key as the pendant. Engraved into the key is the word FEARLESS. She expressed to me that ‘fearless’ is a word that describes me – the way that I approach life, the way that I endure through suffering, the way that I love those around me and the way that I seek God. This present could not have been given to me at a more important time; of all the words I need spoken into my life right now, ‘fearless’ is the one I need most.

I do not feel fearless. Lately I have been feeling confused and overwhelmed by what has been, what is and what will be. I have felt lost and spiritually low. I have felt emotionally (and physically) exhausted. Not that I reveal any of these things to the world; only those closest to me see my brokenness. Too often I allow anxiety to consume my being, cutting me off from the people and my God who I love most. Fearless is the last word I would use to describe myself.

Reflecting on fearlessness with another dear friend this afternoon, I have realised that being fearless is not being unafraid. Being fearless is persevering in spite of and through ever-present fear. Being fearless is trusting that God is at work for His glory in every circumstance in a world that proclaims the exact opposite. Being fearless is waking up each day and surrendering each moment to God, asking Him to act through us and in us according to His will.

In the midst of change, broken relationships, sickness, spiritual warfare, financial uncertainty and the innumerable issues we face in life, it is easy to lose sight of the God in whom we trust. Being fearless is not a matter of conquering fear, but surrendering our fears to our God who is greater than our fears. Being fearless is trusting in His sovereignty and goodness, in His enduring love, no matter how deeply anxiety is gnawing at our souls. Being fearless is having confidence that God’s purposes are greater than our own, finding strength in this knowledge, and persevering through disappointment and despondency.

This morning, in a deeply fatigued, emotionally low state, I typed “fear” into my phone’s bible search tool, seeking a verse that would point me to the God of all comfort. I found this:

‘Is not your fear of God your confidence, and the integrity of your ways your hope?’ – Job 4:6

Though I don’t like to read verses out of context, this was a great encouragement. I am not fearless because I am not afraid of anything – I am afraid of many things. Fear is an important emotion to experience; our bodies and minds respond to dangerous and uncertain situations with fear. I am fearless because I place my confidence in Christ, who sacrificed His life to deliver me from bondage to sin. I find courage and strength in what He has done, what He is doing and what He will do. My ability to endure through the trials of life comes from Him alone; it is His strength at work in me. I am able to love fearlessly because He first loved me – and paid the price for my sin in love.

I experience anxiety daily, and am often consumed by it. Yet God is greater than my anxiety, and in Him I do not have to be a slave to fear. In Christ I have been set free, and though fear still overwhelms, He gives me the strength to hold on to the truth of His love and grace. In Him, fear has no power over my life. In Him, I am able to endure through fear and uncertainty. In Him, I am fearless.


 

Photo captured with a Canon Eos 600D.

Key necklace designed by The Giving Keys.