My Year in Books, 2018

cof

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.

cof

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…”

cof

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:

cof

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!)

Advertisements

An Unshakeable Identity

_MG_8330
Carlton Beach, Tasmania, July 2018

The world tells us that we have to achieve great things in order to be significant. Our identity is shaped by what we do, and so we strive tirelessly to make a name for ourselves by establishing a career. We study for years, work long hours, fight for the awards and the accolades and the promotions, all in the hope that we will finally feel fulfilled. We constantly compare ourselves to others, shaping our lives around their expectations or being driven by a desperate need for approval. Yet none of these things will ultimately satisfy, because we were made for so much more. All these things only, at most, bring temporary satisfaction. If this is where we find our identity, what happens when we don’t succeed – when we fall short, when we don’t get the marks we need, or get overlooked for progression. What happens when, due to discrimination or sickness or other circumstances beyond our control, we lose the career we’ve been striving for? What are the implications of the world’s model of identity for someone who has a profound intellectual disability, like my sister who has Down Syndrome?

From a young age, I bought into the world’s model of finding identity; my worth and value were measured by my achievements. I worked hard at school to be top of my grade, practiced hours each day to excel in the musical instruments I played, and trained hours each week to succeed in sport. I had my life mapped out – I would conquer high-school and music grades, get into an elite music school and go on to play in the world’s best orchestras. I had a dream, and I had a plan to fulfill it. Every hour of my day was consumed by this pursuit, so I should have been happy, right? Well, I wasn’t – I was being bullied at school, so as much as I loved everything I was doing, I was pretty miserable. I was never good enough, even when I was at the top. No matter how hard I strived, there was always someone who was better, or someone who would tear me down (in classic Australian tall-poppy style) for being too good. By the world’s standard, I had it all, but I felt so very empty.

Then one day, at the beginning of the week of my year 8 mid-term exams that I’d studied (too) hard for, everything fell apart. I couldn’t get out of bed for 6 months. I couldn’t go to school. For a while, I was still able to play my beloved instruments, but eventually sickness left me unable to breathe properly and hold up my body to play. (You can read a more detailed explanation of my now 10 year battle with Chronic Fatigue here). Overnight, everything I had worked for, the foundations that I built my identity and my life upon, had slipped out of my grasp. My dream of pursuing an international career in music was shattered. At times, I couldn’t even read. I slipped into depression, lived out my days in a state of overwhelming fatigue and pain, riddled with anxiety and confusion about what was happening to my body. Sickness stole much of my adolescent life away, and I discovered just how fragile building your life around the world’s model of identity is.

Through years of chronic sickness, I’ve wrestled with this concept of identity. If my body and my mind significantly limit me from achieving my ‘potential’, what is left for me to build my life upon? If depressive thoughts rob me of joy, if anxiety keeps me from performing well, if fatigue and pain decrease my daily capacity – what am I left with? If sickness, or death, were to limit my life even further, or take it away entirely, what hope do I have left? For me, as for my sister who has Downs, the answer to these questions is found in one man, who gave up his own life in our place 2000 years ago. Jesus Christ died for us, because there is nothing we could ever do to save ourselves (Rom 3:23); without him, we are broken sinners striving to find unattainable purpose in a world broken by sin. But in him, we have been saved – not because of who we are or what we do, but wholly because of who Christ is and what He has done (Eph 2:8-10; 2 Cor 5:21). He chose us before the creation of the world, to be called children of God, to be forgiven of all our sin, to be given the promise of an eternity with him where the disability and pain we experience now will no longer be a reality (Eph 1:3-12; Rev 21:1-4).

I still struggle to not find my identity according to the world’s ways of thinking. At university especially, its hard not to buy into the competitive drive for academic success. I fall into old patterns of thinking, comparing myself to others, allowing marks to be a measure of my value. I have to fight daily against yearning for the approval of my peers and against my own self-doubt. Its in these moments I find it so helpful to look at my beautiful sister Karlie, who, despite all the difficulties she has faced in her life, by God’s grace is living a life of purpose. How can I measure my own value by such fragile, temporal things, when I see her and know her value, her identity, is one chosen and loved by God? She is a daily reminder to me that the world’s model of identity is SO very broken. To the world, she is disabled, but to God, she is made in His image, so beloved she was worth dying for! Christ offers us a secure and significant, unshakeable foundation on which to build our identity in a way the world never can.

What will you build your identity on?


If this has challenged you and you want to think through issues of identity/work more, I can’t more highly recommend this talk given by Carl Matthei at a conference I attended last week.

https://www.campusbiblestudy.org/sermons/lovingly-identified-myc18-thursday/

This Light, Momentary Affliction: Suffering and Faith

nelsonlastdays (1 of 1)-84.jpg
Location: Jervis Bay // Canon EOS 600D

In a world where suffering is an acute reality, where people struggle daily with pain, abuse and trauma, how is it possible to maintain faith? Last week I shared an article –  The Reality of Living with an Invisible Illness – seeking to honestly explore the battles people with chronic physical and mental illnesses face. Here though, I want to articulate how it is possible to have faith in the midst of chronic illness, in the loss of a loved one, in the shock of a cancer diagnosis, in the hunger of famine, in the chaos of a natural disaster. Suffering and faith are not mutually exclusive; I would argue, from my experience and the testimonies of numerous friends, that faith is essential for surviving suffering.

Whether you know God, are searching for truth or believe God can’t possibly exist, please know that I’ve wrestled with these truths for almost a decade, reading widely in the hope of finding answers to my own suffering. I’ve battled with doubt, and by no means walked in ‘blind faith’; my faith and hope have been hard won. I’ve questioned and looked for truth in other worldviews and religions, but nowhere have I found a solution to suffering, a promise in suffering and a purpose for suffering that even come close to explaining my personal experience and what I see in the world like the Bible does. I write this with certainty, and I hope that whatever your background or present circumstance, you can read this with an open mind.

The problem and solution to suffering

Many people think that the God of the Bible (if he even exists) is an impersonal being who has the power to end suffering but doesn’t. However, the biblical narrative does not ignore or minimise suffering; it unapologetically addresses the cruel reality of our world, in which suffering is an unavoidable problem, inherent to life on this earth. It explains suffering’s origin: human sin and the resulting brokenness of our world; and it provides the solution: Jesus Christ. In Jesus, God became fully human – facing all the pain and temptation we face daily, in total obedience to God. He chose to enter into our weakness, so that He could minister to our brokenness. Jesus was mocked, whipped, crowned with thorns and ultimately crucified on a Roman cross – taking all our sin upon Himself and experiencing the agony of our separation from God. He rose to life, conquering death and bringing, through His resurrection, the hope of a new creation. He did this all for us – so that we could have life and the hope of ultimately being freed from our sin and the pain and suffering of this world.

John Stott once wrote: ‘I could never myself believe in God if it were not for the cross. In the real world of pain, how could one worship a God who was immune to it?’1 No other worldview or religion provides a solution to suffering that involves a loving, relational God humbling Himself by becoming human to suffer on our behalf. In this, the God of the Bible is unique, and He is a God we can relate to personally. He understands our pain, and He does something about it. In the midst of suffering, our world questions how a good God can allow it to continue – while refusing to acknowledge that He’s already worked, through Jesus, to bring it to an end. Revelation 21:4 says: ‘…and He will wipe away every tear from their eyes; and there will no longer be any death; there will no longer be any mourning, or crying, or pain; the first things have passed away.’ God has promised a new creation free from suffering and sin, and though our present pain is very real, we can look forward to the day when it will be a distant echo of reality.

The promise in suffering

The God of the Bible does not promise a suffering free life to those who believe in Him; in fact, He promises the opposite! We will suffer in this life; this is inevitable. John 16:33 recounts some of Jesus last words to his disciples – the men who walked alongside Him as He did his ministry on earth, the men who watched Him suffer and die on the cross, only to come back to life and appear to them. Jesus said: “I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. But take heart! I have overcome the world.” Jesus promised his disciples that they would suffer, and they did. Yet they had courage even as they faced death for preaching the gospel, knowing that Jesus had overcome death for their sake. We too have this promise, and can take heart in the midst of our own suffering!

God does not leave us to suffer alone; the Psalms speak to God being present with us in our suffering. Psalm 23 says: ‘The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not want…Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me.’ The Psalmist recognises that God provides for us in the midst of our suffering, that He walks beside us as we face death and pain and trauma, that He guides us and comforts us in our suffering. In my previous article I explored how chronic illness can be isolating, as the sufferer faces stigma and the assumptions of misguided people. The Bible reveals a God who does not leave us to suffer alone in our illness, but provides us with His word: pages filled with accounts of people who suffered in numerous ways, yet trusted in God not just to deliver them, but also to equip them to endure their suffering. This faithful God promises that no suffering – no matter how great – can separate us from His love

The apostle Paul recounts the suffering he experienced as he shared the gospel: imprisonment, beatings, shipwrecks, hunger, thirst and all kinds of danger (see 2 Cor 11:23-30). He later says that though he pleaded with God to take away his suffering, God didn’t – rather, ‘He said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness”. And how does Paul respond? ‘Therefore I will boast all the more gladly in my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Cor 12:9-10). In our weakness, like Paul we can learn to rely on God more – to recognise how much we need Him. When our bodies are weak, overwhelmed by pain and fatigue, we can look to God for strength, knowing that His grace is sufficient. When our minds are in chaos and anxiety leaves us reeling, we can pray, knowing that God not only hears our prayers but is already working for His glory in our lives.

The purpose of suffering

As well as God providing a solution to our suffering in Jesus and the sufficiency of His grace in our weakness, the Bible is clear that our suffering has purpose: both in this life and the next. 2 Corinthians 1:3-4 explains that God comforts us in our affliction so that “we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God.” I’ve seen this in my own life through the love of my family and the friendships I’ve been blessed to form with others who suffer from similar chronic illnesses. As I shared in my previous article, our experiences of suffering enable us to empathise with others who struggle; we can learn to live outwardly and comfort others even in the midst of our own pain. In a world that has no answers for those who suffer in isolation, God provides – both in Himself, and in the blessing of community with fellow sufferers.

Furthermore, God works in us in the midst of our suffering. In 2 Corinthians 4:16-17, Paul writes, ‘So we do not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day. For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison.’ When we suffer, as our bodies decay with age or sickness and our minds weaken, God is working to strengthen our character through perseverance, to prove our faith genuine, uniting us with Jesus. There is not only hope that our suffering has purpose now, but also a hope that our suffering has purpose beyond this world. Seeing our present suffering in light of eternity changes our perspective. The temporary suffering we experience in this life, however painful and frustrating and unfair it may be, is what God uses to prepare us for the eternal glory that awaits those who hope in Him.

Resources:

Here is a (by no means exhaustive) list of books I’ve read that articulate – with greater clarity and depth than I am capable – the truths I’ve sketched above. I’ve ordered them from most academic to most accessible.

How Long O Lord?: Reflections on Suffering and Evil by D. A. Carson

Making Sense of God: An Invitation to the Skeptical by Timothy Keller

Suffering and the Sovereignty of God edited by John Piper and Justin Taylor

Is God to Blame: Moving Beyond Pat Answers to the Problem of Suffering by Gregory Boyd

Where is God When It Hurts by Phillip Yancey

Glorious Ruin: How Suffering Sets You Free by Tullian Tchividjian

Suffering Well: The Predictable Surprise of Christian Suffering by Paul Grimmond

If I Were God I’d End All The Pain by John Dickson


My story: If I’m Honest: Life With Chronic Fatigue

1 Quoted in: The Reason for God by Timothy Keller, p195.

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.