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Review – ‘Every Third Thought – on Life, Death and the Endgame’ by Robert McCrum

An exceptional book, even though it’s written by someone at the other end of the belief spectrum! I had my own medium stroke in March 2016, and this book was published in 2017.

It brings home the absolute finality of life, and of death. You cannot get around this, death will come anyway – regardless of how you feel. Death is on its way to all of us, ouch!

‘Witty, lucid and provocative, Every Third Thought is an enthralling exploration of what it means to approach the ‘endgame’, and begin to recognise, perhaps reluctantly, that we are not immortal’.

The TitleEvery third thought shall be my grave’, comes from The Tempest by William Shakespeare.

‘In 1995, at the age of 42, Robert McCrum suffered a dramatic and near fatal stroke. Ever since that life changing event, McCrum has lived in the shadow of death, unavoidably aware of his own mortality. And now 21 years on, he is noticing a change: his friends are joining him there. Death has become his contemporaries ‘every third thought’.

In the Introduction, Robert McCrum quotes William Goldman in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid – ‘Every day, you get older. Now that’s a law’.

McCrum states, ‘I felt it then, and still feel some 21 years later, a powerful need to explore the consequences, and perhaps the meaning of this very close call …. The event that I was learning to call ‘my stroke’ was an emergency that would not only transform my life, but also change my thoughts about dying and death for ever’.

In this chapter, Matter of Life and Death, McCrum quotes John Donne, Meditations 17 regarding ‘No Man is an Island’, and then describes his stroke: ‘In my head I could never go back to my old self. In darker moments I would mourn a former life. Now, each day is a reminder of human frailty’.

McCrum states later, ‘a self-assured generation, which has lived so well for so long, is having to come to terms with a complex but universal truth: make peace with death and dying, or find the inhibitions of everyday life in your final years becoming a special kind of torment’.

I know these feelings all too well. Going back to a former life is virtually impossible.

‘The endgame is a journey down a one-way street towards an inevitable destination that’s remains as mysterious and terrifying as it is well known … Empathy might be one key to unnecessary rapprochement with the terrors of imminent oblivion, just as personal candour will help to make peace with threats of extinction …. Sixty, they say is the new forty. Actually, sixty is still the old sixty’.

In chapter 2, Injury Time, McCrum describes ‘an emergent occasion’ on 27 June 2014 when he ‘tripped and fell’ in the street in London. He describes the fall, and of being taken into hospital by ambulance (again!). He talks about his life, of how he had ‘eaten paper and drunk ink’, both at the publishers, Faber and Faber and also at The Observer.

McCrum started to think about writing this book during that time: ‘Since 2014, and during 2015/16, the year in which I have completed the book, there have been sudden deaths, irruptions of pain and loss, unanticipated afflictions, and the nagging intrusion of what I now think as ‘the third thought’. My fall had dumped me, metaphorically, outside an almost tangible, and imminently dreadful, threshold …. From which there can be no turning away’.

In Forever Young, McCrum looks at the final years of his life and works them out to be ‘around 3650 days, 87,000 hours and 5.25 million minutes‘ of his life left! It’s quite scary to look at life in this way. But I have to say that when you have had a stroke that is precisely how life works. You actually need to know just how long you have got left. Will I have a stroke tomorrow, next year or a few years hence? No one knows. Quite scary.

McCrum goes on to say: ‘In truth, I am always a spectator. Now, reluctantly, I am also a couch potato’.

McCrum writes in The Skull of Man about the Brain – and how extraordinary the brain actually is: ‘it’s both banal and magical’. I never thought about my brain until I had had my stroke. Now, on most days, I often think about my thoughts and feelings, and how the brain is working to basically improve my life, even though sometimes it doesn’t feel like it! It truly is an astonishing part of the body.

McCrum then goes on to look at the Alzheimer’s disease, ‘going mad’ (in his terms) and then dementia. He picks this up in the next chapter, Silly of Me, and talks about how ‘the assault of old age on the brain can radically change the terms of the endgame: it can transform the physical encounter with ageing, death and dying into a crisis of consciousness and an attack on the Self …. The self is a fragile vessel at the best of times, and (whatever else it might be) old age is no longer seen as part of the ‘best of times’, if it ever was’.  Here McCrum speaks about Terry Pratchett and Prunella Scales, both of whom succumbed to their own dementia. All very sad.

In Losing the Plot, McCrum speaks about Dr Andrew Lees and his work on Alzheimer’s and dementia. Next, in ‘Do No Harm, McCrum talks to Henry Marsh, the ‘eminent brain surgeon’. Marsh writes, ’much of what happens in hospitals is a matter of luck, both good and bad; success and failure are often out of the doctor’s control’. Marsh goes on later to say: ‘the truth is that even now we don’t begin to understand how ‘matter’ (the brain) becomes ‘mind’ (consciousness). Quite a thought.

McCrum in Astride of a Grave writes about being ‘a patient’. He describes himself as ‘a bad patient’, and mentions that ‘a sick person is more restless, angry and difficult – ‘im-patient’ – than you would expect’. At the end of the chapter, McCrum writes, ’and here’s the rub. The real world is both achingly precious, and at the same time, indifferent to our plight’.

In chapters 10 and 11, The Will to Live and Person who was Ill, McCrum looks at two women who are dealing with this issue of dying. Fascinating stories. Then in Where are We Going (chapter 12), he looks with Max at Parkinson’s disease.

In The Good Death and Necessity of Dying, McCrum looks at ‘how to die well’ and then talks to Adam Phillips, a British physiotherapist and essayist, and a biographer of Sigmund Freud.

McCrum in Last Words talks about how many people that he has known have died during the writing of this book, and of how many are dealing with issues regarding their own deaths. It’s quite a long list!

In One Foot in the Grave, he writes about the late Clive James, and the details about James’s life. Clive was from Australia, and was a broadcaster and writer here in the UK. He was often on the television and I remember him quite well. James had an eight-year affair with someone in Australia, and was evicted from his home as a result. There were several reports of him being close to death, but he lived until November 2019. A probing chapter.

Staring at the Sun is a chapter about the Hospice movement, including Arthur Rank, culminating in the question, ‘What about assisted dying’? The final answer to this is, ‘they will have to go to Switzerland’. Quite a curious chapter!

In the Dying of the Light, McCrum talks to the novelist Salley Vickers, culminating in ‘Paschal’s Wager’; this starts from the ‘assumption that the stakes are infinite if there is even a small possibility that God does, in fact, exist’. McCrum does not believe this fact, and points to Richard Dawkins and ends with Montaigne’s advice, ‘We know not where death awaits us: so let us wait for it everywhere. To practice death is to practice freedom’.

McCrum in the penultimate chapter, Nowness of Everything is reading the King James Bible for ‘the music of its language and the thrilling arrests of its narrative. Here is a cathedral of words whose expression of faith has no meaning for me, but whose sonorous periods make you want to weep’.

McCrum later states, ‘When I started to write Every Third Thought, I imagined that, through the putting of words on paper, I would arrive at the conclusion, as if at well-mapped destination. Vain hope: in the end, questions of life, death, and consciousness baffle and defeat the search for clarification. With no possible report from beyond the grave, and no other resolution available, we are left with this one basic option: to live in the moment while the moment lasts, and to become reconciled to the acceptance of our fate. Once upon a time, writing My Year Off provided a kind of resolution. This time, my investigation has yielded just one intransigent outcome: that there are only more questions, and an ever-deepening mystery’.

Later in the same chapter, McCrum turns to a new reading of A Grief Observed by C.S. Lewis. It’s fascinating to read this, by someone who clearly does not believe in God; ‘a confused non-believer’. I found these thoughts helpful as the author explains them in this book – Lewis’s book is capable of different interpretations. McCrum finds it very helpful, but it does not lead him to faith. Interesting. McCrum finishes by saying, ‘as a non-believer, I am glad to entertain the possibility of being pleasantly surprised. I have lived with the mystery of the brain, and I think I am happy to fade into a mystery beyond the magic of the cortex’.

In the final chapter, A Month in the Country, McCrum details his short list of ‘dos and don’ts’: 1. Try to keep fit, 2. Accept your fate and insignificance and 3. Live in the moment. It’s a short list, but somehow I feel that he is quite right.

McCrum celebrates the idea of ‘now-ness’, and ‘living in the moment’. To him, ‘the mystery of death and dying is only equalled by the mystery of life and living’. He ends up by saying, ‘in truth, there is no other sensible narrative available. Unless you believe in an afterlife – which I don’t – then this must be the only way forward’.

McCrum does speak about the sad end of his marriage to Sarah Lyall; ‘our love died, for no obvious reason, a painful admission’. This, I found, terribly heart-breaking.

In conclusion – last Sunday, we were eating lunch in a pub in Somerset and this quote was up on one of the walls: ‘What the caterpillar calls ‘the end of the world’, the master calls a butterfly’.

‘Every Third Thought’ is a lovely book, if somewhat bleak. I truly appreciated reading it. It helped me work through everything I have experienced, since March 2016, when I had my own stroke. Always hard to get over.


‘Every Third Thought – on Life, Death and the Endgame’

Robert McCrum

245pp, 2017, Picador

Hardback, ISBN: 978-1-5098-1528-9

Review – ‘The Face Pressed Against a Window – The Bookseller Who Built Waterstones’.

October 3, 2020 Leave a comment

This is a fine book, particularly if you want to know more about how ‘Waterstone’s the Bookseller’ was built. Waterstones is a great business, and despite many earlier difficulties, it continues to be very good at its business. I do trust that this will continue well into the future.

The book is well written, and the author is keen to speak quite a lot about his own background before the growth of Waterstone’s. I don’t think I’d realised before, but the Waterstone’s book chain was being established from 1982-1993, whilst I was at STL Distribution in Carlisle, Cumbria.

In my view, Sir Tim (81) is first a businessman and then a bookseller. However, his bookshops are extremely good, and have stood the test of time for a very long while. Tim sold Waterstone’s to WH Smith’s eleven years later (they had sacked him previously). Wonderful!

Happily, Sir Tim Waterstone gave me a foreword to my own book on ‘Your Christian Bookshop – A Complete Resource’ (Jay Books) in 1992. I was clearly aware of him, but I had no idea that Waterstones would become the extensive business that now covers the whole of our country.

He says in the foreword, ‘I believe that the world of Christian bookselling is ready to go through the same revolution that general bookselling has been going through in the last few years. There is nothing to fear’.

Tim’s book is in two parts. Firstly, there is the overview of his own life – from his childhood in Crowborough (he didn’t get on with his own father at all), as a colonial boarder in Warden House, onto Hawkeshurst Court and then to Tonbridge School. Onwards to St Catharine’s College in Cambridge, and then some time in India to join a Calcutta broking firm, before then embarking on his own Bookshop chain, Waterstone’s.

During this time in India, Tim married but in a few years this marriage broke up. However, Tim says really nothing in the book about this time, and actually later on, the same happens again – and again nothing is said. Between all of this, Tim had a depressive breakdown, but fortunately this did not occur ever again.

The second part of the book looks at how Tim started Waterstone’s. On returning from India, Tim joined Allied Breweries followed by WH Smith. Whilst in America, working on behalf of WH Smith’s, he was dismissed by the WHS Chairman who apparently said to him, ‘We don’t really mind what you do now, though we wouldn’t want you to go straight out and open a load of bookshops in competition with us. That we would stop!  Tim writes, ‘I was angry, but at the same time I was exhilarated’.

The idea that stood out for me was just how much time he had put into growing his own Bookshop business. It was clearly part of him. Sir Tim had been looking at this idea for a long time before starting the business in 1982.

Initially, Waterstone’s was actually a ‘rollercoaster ride’ and Tim put in a lot of his own money in those early days. He was able to obtain bank lending at a time when retail was doing very well (there was no Amazon, for example), and Tim knew exactly what he wanted from his own Book chain.

His mantra was ‘perfect stock, perfect staff, perfect control’.

I guess he sold it at time when a number of factors were coming into retail, which ultimately affected how, good or bad, these businesses would become. Following that first sale to WH Smith, Waterstones went through a 10 year period – under HMV Media – when it really struggled. Tim was part of this till 2001, and eventually he had to stand down, upset by all that was happening around him.

Ultimately, in 2011, Tim became the Chairman of the new company with James Daunt as CEO, and owned by the Russian billionaire, Alexander Mamut. Interestingly, Tim still speaks very lovingly about Waterstones as a business, and his comments – now – about the Elliott Advisors involvement in the business are very illuminating (p273).

I wish Waterstones well. They have an excellent brand, and many book lovers would generally buy from them, as opposed to Amazon. Most UK towns and cities have a Waterstones present, and I trust that this will be the case for a long while yet.

——————————————————————————————————————-

The Face Pressed Against a Window – The Bookseller Who Built Waterstones

Sir Tim Waterstone

323pp, 2019, Atlantic Books

ISBN: 978-1-78649-634-4

Review – The Song of Songs: Exploring the Divine Romance

Charlie Cleverly is a fine devotional writer. As well as being Rector of the well-known St Aldates Church in Oxford, England, he is rapidly taking his rightful place among the best of our contemporary writers of faith. Every time Cleverly publishes a new book, I wait with some anticipation.

This latest book on Solomon’s Song of Songs is very good, but perhaps for me, not as impactful as his earlier, ‘Epiphanies of the Ordinary’, which to my mind was extra-ordinary – and a unique contribution to modern devotional writing.

Song of Songs

However, we should be grateful to Charlie for opening up again what, to so many, is an inaccessible book in the Bible. I was brought up on the poetry of the Song of Solomon. My father loved it, but in the tradition of his day, regarded it purely as an allegory describing Christ and His church. Of course, it’s far, far more than that and Cleverly cleverly brings allegory and reality together, ensuring that the book is once again made relevant to today’s church and to wider society.

For my part, I think I’ve always regarded the biblical book as far more than allegorical. As an adolescent growing up in a rather rigid church environment, the text of the Song of Solomon was often an exciting and (yes, I’ll admit it!) earthy distraction in an otherwise dull church service! It was possible to be seen reading the Bible, but to be enjoying it at the same time, perhaps for all the wrong reasons!

I read Charlie Cleverly’s new book on holiday whilst staying at a couple’s only resort. The upside of the many attractive qualities of human love was clearly evident around us! His celebration of human sexuality together with the divine romance as laid out in Solomon’s ancient song is very beautiful, as is the biblical text itself.

Cleverly’s writing is wise, clear, deep, evocative and contemplative, much as in the Song itself. One detects shades and hints of the Puritan Divine in his writing. Here are eighteen chapters covering the eight chapters of the Song of Solomon in some considerable depth. In strict terms, this is not really a commentary, but more a devotional exploration of the Divine Romance and the ‘Kiss of God’.

If anything, the book may be overly long, perhaps relying too much on quoting swathes of text from the Church Fathers. Cleverly is at his best here in his application of the Song of Songs to the Church in today’s culture. I valued his perceptive point that ‘society is obsessed by sex and the Church obsessed by marriage’– and that both such emphases are wrong! He is clear that true marriage is a ‘passionate monogamy’ and has ‘exclusive permanence’. However, he is sensitive to singleness and celibacy, but oddly silent on the persistent matter of homosexuality in human relationships.

Cleverly’s notion of the pressing need for ‘Finding your voice’ (or helping to express yourself intimately) in life and relationships is also powerful and telling, and worth the price of the book alone. He writes movingly of the winter of loss and bereavement, and of the ‘dark night of the absence of God’.

I appreciated his profound insight that churches may be better if ‘presence-led’ rather than ‘purpose-driven’! The final chapter is a wonderfully uplifting rehearsal of the truth of the Maranatha future return of Jesus Christ.

Could his book have been shorter? Possibly, but actually I’m glad that it isn’t as there is much to go over again in the future. Overall, a more than worthwhile book for anyone involved in the intricacy of life’s often complex relationships.

THE SONG OF SONGS: EXPLORING THE DIVINE ROMANCE

CHARLIE CLEVERLY (HODDER FAITH)

ISBN 978-1-444-70204-0

Review – Latest Spirituality Titles: 10 to Watch – Summer 2015

Here is a personal selection of my top ten ‘to watch’ Christian titles from the many hundreds published in the current sales period:

BLESSING 

To ‘bless’ someone is spiritually powerful, but what does it actually signify? In this accessible paperback (part of the Faith Going Deeper series), Andrew Davison lays out a comprehensive framework covering the theology and practicalities of Blessing. Superb – I loved it – if with a rather unimaginative jacket!

Blessing (2)

DEEP CALLS TO DEEP – SPIRITUAL FORMATION IN THE HARD PLACES OF LIFE

Tony Horsfall is a past speaker at CRT, and an accomplished leader of spiritual retreats. This new book of reflections is based on the Jewish Psalms, and of particular help to anyone going through difficult times. It’s also a book for group use, with material and questions designed for this purpose.

Deep calls to Deep

DELIGHTED IN GOD: GEORGE MULLER

Roger Steer’s biography of Muller is a classic. Published again as part of CFP’s HistoryMakers series, this book recounts the amazing story of this Victorian Christian who built five large orphanages in Bristol, relying on the scriptural principle of faith to raise the necessary funds.  A ‘must-read’.

George Muller

THE GOOD SHEPHERD: A THOUSAND YEAR JOURNEY FROM PSALM 23 TO THE NEW TESTAMENT

Magisterial – the only word to describe Kenneth Bailey’s books. Now this very welcome addition. Bailey writes in a unique way looking at scripture through Middle Eastern eyes. He’s one of those few authors who, in whatever they write, are always worth reading. Simply wonderful. I loved it.

good shepherd

HILDA OF WHITBY – A SPIRITUALITY FOR NOW

The North Yorkshire fishing port of Whitby rates as one of my favourite UK places. I’ve long been fascinated by the haunting ruins of its vast cliff-top Abbey. Nearly 1400 years ago, St Hilda, a Celtic nun, established the northern centre of Christianity here. This is Hilda’s inspiring story, expertly told and a pleasure to read.

Hilda of Whitby

JESUS WITHOUT BORDERS

I enjoyed this book although it’s terribly American.  However, that’s the point. This is a collection of travel stories as the author journeys from the USA Bible belt to a dozen different countries, looking at Church life and meeting with Christians. The chapter on his visit to England will make you smile!

Jesus without Borders

POPE FRANCIS: THE AUTHORISED BIOGRAPHY

Jorge Bergoglio or Pope Francis has been in office for two years. The only authorised biography to date, this book fleshes out the man and his ministry in a series of revealing conversations. Written by two journalists, it provides a clear and comprehensive picture of this most unconventional of Popes.

Pope Francis

THE THIRD TARGET

Written by a New York Times best-selling author, and in the style of Spooks and Homeland, this novel pushes all the buttons for a gripping read. Highly topical; ISIS, Al Qaeda, Israel, America and Syria are all in the story. There is not that much fiction on our shelves that appeals to men, but this is one such novel that can be recommended with confidence.

978-1-4964-0531-9

THE THOMAS THE TANK ENGINE MAN

2015 marks the 70th anniversary of TTTE. Who doesn’t love these stories and who cannot recite the names of most of the engines? Yet we know a lot less about Thomas’s creator, Reverend W Awdry. Here Brian Sibley, the best-selling biographer of C.S. Lewis, unlocks Awdry; train enthusiast, storyteller, family man, eccentric, pacifist and pastor.

TTTEM lion

WHERE IS GOD AT WORK?

Has the Church given the world of work short shrift over the years? This book explores the importance, indeed the imperative, of taking your faith to work with you. The author, an ordained C of E priest, is also a tax specialist in a major corporation. He reflects on the challenges and opportunities provided to Christians by their working environment. Innovative and practical.

Where is God

Metadata for these titles: Author ISBN
Blessing (Faith Going Deeper) Andrew Davison 978-1-84825-642-2
Deep Calls to Deep Tony Horsfall 978-1-84101-731-0
George Muller: Delighted in God Roger Steer 978-1-84550-120-4
Hilda of Whitby: A Spirituality for Now Ray Simpson 978-1-84101-728-0
Jesus without Borders Chad Gibbs 978-0-310-32554-3
Pope Francis: The Authorised Biography Rubin / Ambrogetti 978-1-444-75251-9
The Good Shepherd: from Psalm 23 to NT Kenneth Bailey 978-0-281-07350-4
The Third Target Joel C. Rosenberg 978-1-4964-0531-9
The Thomas the Tank Engine Man Brian Sibley 978-0-7459-7027-1
Where is God at Work? William Morris 978-0-85721-628-1

This article was written in March for publication in Together Magazine (May to June 2015).

These titles can be purchased via any good Bookshop or from clcbookshops.com

Review – Latest Spirituality Titles: 10 to Watch – Spring 2015

January 11, 2015 2 comments

Whoever said that Christian books are boring? Not so . … here is a personal selection of my ‘Ten to Note’ Christian titles from the many hundreds published in the current period:

40 Days, 40 Bites: A Family Guide to Pray for the World

Simply superb! If you missed this, you’ve missed a treat. This is Operation World Lite for all the family. Colourful and informative, a really outstanding package which deserves to do well. The maps, charts and prayer points enable adults and children to learn together whilst praying for the world.

Footsteps of Jesus: Pilgrim Traveller’s Guide to the Holy Land

Despite the perceived and sometimes real dangers, people still travel to Israel. I went there last year and I’m sure I would have benefited from this new BRF guide. The truth is that, alongside a Rough Guide and the Lonely Planet, you need to take a spiritual guidebook as well. This should be the one.

10 to Note 40 days 40 bites10 to Note Footsteps of Jesus

In God’s Hands – Archbishop of Canterbury’s Lent Book 2015

At the heart of Archbishop’s Tutu’s faith is an unshakeable belief in the infinite value of every individual. This, coupled with his unwavering declaration of the love of God for everyone regardless of colour or faith, makes this paperback a profound reflection for the forthcoming season of Lent.

Love so Amazing: 40 Reflections on my Favourite Hymns

I love hymns. I collect books of hymn stories. Hymns are in danger of being lost to our culture. BBC TV’s ‘Songs of Praise’ has probably done more than most churches in keeping hymns alive in the national consciousness. Presenter Pam Rhodes selects her personal choices in this small hardback.

10 to Note In Gods hands10 to Note Love so amazing

Miracles

Sub-titled, ‘What they are, why they happen and how they can change your life’. Is this rather hefty hardback the definitive work on the subject of Miracles? You must judge for yourself, but it comes with some weighty endorsements, and attempts to navigate the middle ground between the extremes of enthusiasm and scepticism.

The New Rules for Love, Sex and Dating

I heard Andy Stanley preach at his mega-church in Atlanta last year. He is the son of the better-known Charles Stanley. Above all, Andy Stanley came across as sensible, realistic and down-to-earth, with none of the usual trappings of American superstar preachers. This book deserves to do well.

10 to Note Miracles10 to Note New Rules

On Rock or Sand: Firm Foundations for Britain’s Future

The Archbishop of York always seems such a joyful, solid character, and a far better role model for this country than so many of our politicians. In this book, John Sentamu edits various contributions looking at the essential values required to build a just, sustainable and compassionate society for the Britain of the future.

Presence and Encounter

I met David Benner at a counselling conference in Singapore. He had the most extraordinary impact on my life, introducing me to the constancy and beauty of God’s presence. I view that moment as a clear spiritual turning point. Anything written by Dr Benner is well worth reading – very slowly!

10 to Note On rock or sand10 to Note Presence encounter

When God Breaks In

Yes, it’s the same Michael Green – back again with a fascinating book of how Christianity is thriving and growing around the world. For me, the interest lay in his chapter of how spiritual renewal came to Singapore. Sub-titled ‘Revival can happen again’, this is truly a faith-building and timely book.

The Wisdom House

Hodder Faith do produce attractive books. This title is elegantly packaged and makes a lovely gift. I enjoyed this book of ‘life-lessons’. As a grandparent, so much of what Rob Parsons writes resonated with me. This is vintage Parsons: thought provoking, faith-full and wise. This really is a significant book.

10 to Note When God breals in10 to Note Wisdom House

This article was written in November 2014 for publication in Together Magazine (January to February 2015).

These titles can be purchased via any good Bookshop or from clcbookshops.com.

Bibliographic Metadata        
Title Author Publisher ISBN
40 Days 40 Bites: A Family Guide to Pray for the World Trudi Parkes Christian Focus 9781781914014
Footsteps of Jesus: Pilgrim Traveller’s Guide to the Holy Land Perry Buck BRF 9780857463456
In God’s Hands (ABC Lent Book 2015) Desmond Tutu Bloomsbury 9781472908377
Love so Amazing: 40 Reflections on my Favourite Hymns Pam Rhodes Lion Hudson 9780857215703
Miracles Eric Metaxas Hodder Faith 9781473604766
The New Rules for Love, Sex and Dating Andy Stanley Thomas Nelson 9780310342199
On Rock or Sand: Firm Foundations for Britain’s Future Editor: John Sentamu SPCK 9780281071746
Presence and Encounter David Benner Brazos Press 9781587433610
When God Breaks In Michael Green Hodder Faith 9781444787962
The Wisdom House Rob Parsons Hodder Faith 9781444745665

Review – Latest Spirituality Titles: 10 to Watch – Autumn 2014

September 28, 2014 2 comments

Here is a personal selection of my top ten ‘to watch’ Christian titles from the many hundreds published in the current sales period:

EAGER TO LOVE

Spirituality writer, Richard Rohr’s books are always eagerly awaited. In this new hardback, Rohr, himself a Franciscan friar, looks closely at ‘the alternative way’ of St Francis of Assisi, one of the Christian church’s most popular saints. All in all, this is an attractive package with a stunning cover.

10 to Watch - Eager to Love10 to Watch - Gatecrashing

GATECRASHING

A remarkable book and a content-rich ministry title from one of the UK’s newest publishers. Gatecrashing is the account of the ‘24-7 Prayer Ministry’ as it has developed on the non-stop party island of Ibiza. This book deserves to do very well and is well worth stocking in some depth.

10 to Watch - Growing up socialHeartLioness_cover

GROWING UP SOCIAL

OK, so how long do you spend on a screen these days? For children, the statistics relating to screen time are astonishing. Gary Chapman (of 5 Love Languages fame) and Arlene Pellicane look at ways in which families can ‘remain relational’ despite the continuing impact of technology. A timely title.

HEART OF A LIONESS

A moving testimony of a life lived with ‘sacrifice, courage and relentless love’ among the children of Uganda. Irene Gleeson or ‘Mama Irene’ describes an incredible journey of faith which led eventually to Africa and to her work for justice and child advocacy. A strong cover; this should do very well.

10 to Watch - Journalling the Bible10 to Watch - Killing Lions

JOURNALLING THE BIBLE

Spiritual Journalling is becoming increasingly popular. Corin Child, a Norfolk vicar and the vice-chair of ACW, demonstrates some creative ways to help engage with this spiritual discipline. It’s practical, easy-to-use and includes 40 ‘road-tested’ writing exercises. This surely is the type of book that cries out for effective hand-selling!

KILLING LIONS

There are not many books out there that appeal to younger men. Bestselling author, John Eldredge has teamed up with son, Samuel to explore what it means to be young and male in a western culture. Here is a series of meaningful conversations between a father and son. A fascinating topic.

10 to Watch - Play through the Bible10 to Watch - Running into No Man's Land

PLAY THROUGH THE BIBLE

Hurrah – it’s the sequel to Bake through the Bible which I just loved! Here are stories and activities for 20 weeks of games, crafts and play with young children which explore the Gospel of Luke. Described as fun and messy, obviously just right for a grandparent to buy for a grandchild, I think!

RUNNING INTO NO MAN’S LAND

The well known World War 1 poet, Woodbine Willie was not a soldier, but an Anglican chaplain who won the Military Cross for bravery. This account of his life is beautifully written, each chapter is engaging and it deserves to reach out to a very wide audience. Thought-provoking and well timed.

10 to Watch - Surprised by Scripture10 to Watch - Vanishing Grace

SURPRISED BY SCRIPTURE

Not another Tom Wright, I hear you say! Described as ‘thoughtful and provocative’, here is a collection of sermons and talks that seek to show how Bible principles can be applied to pressing contemporary issues. It’s sure to sell well, so you’ll need to extend your shelf space yet again for Professor Wright!

VANISHING GRACE – WHATEVER HAPPENED TO THE GOOD NEWS?

Journalist and popular writer, Philip Yancey asks why the church tends to so often stir up negative vibes in our society. Here he poses the question, ‘How is Christianity still relevant in a post-Christian culture’? Yancey is one of the best writers of our time, with his books already regarded as classics.

Killing Lions John & Sam Eldridge Thomas Nelson 9781400206704
Eager to Love Richard Rohr Hodder Faith 9781473604018
Journalling the Bible Corin Child BRF 9781841017365
Surprised by Scripture Tom Wright SPCK 9780281069859
Running into No Man’s Land Jonathan Brant CWR 9781782592655
Vanishing Grace Philip Yancey Hodder Faith 9781444789027
Heart of a Lioness Irene Gleeson Authentic 9781780780474
Growing up Social Gary Chapman Moody Publishers 9780802411235
Gatecrashing Brian Heasley Muddy Pearl 9781910012093
Play through the Bible Alice Buckley Good Book Co. 9781909559196

This article was written in August for publication in Together Magazine (September to October 2014).

These titles can be purchased via any good Bookshop or from clcbookshops.com.

Reflection: All shall be well and all shall be well …

March 28, 2014 Leave a comment

I am, by nature, an optimist. I tend to approach life and spirituality through the lens of hopefulness, which is why I am very fond of these faith-filled words written by someone known to history as Julian of Norwich, probably not her actual name which may have been unknown. These words have the ability to change the atmosphere of faith. They are a reminder of just how important words are in dealing with life’s challenges and circumstances.

 ‘It is true that sin is the cause of all this pain; but all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well’.

Revelations of Divine Love, recorded by Julian, Anchoress of Norwich.

Revelations of Divine Love - Hodder Faith

The Lady Julian, an English mystic from the 14th Century, was an anchoress, a type of nun, living in East Anglia. An anchoress (or recluse) was someone who had withdrawn from the world into the life of prayer, often spending that time in solitude. Born c. 1343, Julian lived possibly into her 70’s, a good age for that time. She spent much of her life in a timber or stone cell nearby to the church at Conisford near Norwich, and was a source of spiritual counsel and advice for local people. The Lady Julian was clearly an educated woman with a good understanding of languages and theology. From what we read, she was well regarded in the Norfolk area, but little else is known of her life, except from her own writings which have passed down through the years, and which are still read and widely appreciated today.

The turning point in her life came on 13th May 1373. Whilst seriously ill and very possibly dying, she received sixteen ‘shewings’ or visions over two days, which she attributed to God. She recovered and was restored to full health. These showings became the basis of her own contemplative life. Twenty years later she set down her account of the event. Her book, ‘Revelations of Divine Love’ is delightful; full of spiritual truth, hope and thoughtful reflection. There are shades here of Thomas a Kempis and his ‘Imitation of Christ.’

Incredibly, Lady Julian’s book has the distinction of being the earliest surviving book written in English by a woman. The earlier book – or the ‘short text’ – was later expanded by Lady Julian into a much longer volume, consisting of some 86 chapters and known as the ‘Long Text’. The short text exists in only one 15th century manuscript, copied from an original written in 1413 and now held in the British Library. The first printed version of the long text was made in 1670, and this is the volume that most of us have access to in the updated English editions.

In ‘Revelations of Divine Love’, The Lady Julian tells of how God, ‘our courteous Lord’ showed her,

a little thing, and the size of a hazelnut, on the palm of my hand’. God tells her that, ‘it is all that is made’.

From this, Julian realises that, just as this small object exists because God loves it, so each individual is created and loved by God himself.  She was clearly troubled, as we all are at times, by the mystery of how such a loving God could have allowed sin and evil to enter the world. She came to see that sin is known in our lives through the pain that it causes us. God uses this pain to move us towards him for mercy and to receive his love. In this He assures us that,

All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well’.

When bad ‘stuff’ happens, it will often (not always, I realise) push us closer to God himself. This is surely the essence of Christianity, as summed up by another writer in the final chapter of the Revelation of St John: at the end of time, God will bring all things together under Christ the son; there will be a new reality. All shall be well …

Lady Julian died c. 1420 and was contemporary with another English mystic and eccentric, Margery Kempe, herself the author of the first known autobiography written in English. This was quite an extraordinary period for English literature and for written spiritual meditation.

Hopefulness or a confident expectation is an empowering quality and a Christian virtue. God loves and God forgives. He knows the end from the beginning. No matter what is happening to us, no matter the magnitude or the origin of the disasters around us, ultimately all shall be well. I sometimes think the great sin of our age is the need to know everything, to be like God himself.

Lady Julian reminds us that some things will only be known to us in heaven. It’s a matter of our trust; it’s also a matter of divine love.

Julian of Norwich again;

We hope that God has forgiven our sins, and that is true. Then our courteous Lord shows himself to the soulmost merrily and with a glad expression’.

Review – These 25 Books have shaped my spiritual life …

November 12, 2012 3 comments

Over the years I have built up quite an extensive library. Occasionally I’m informed of a potential clear-out coming my way but the threat has yet to materialise! However, if I did have to select my top 25 titles, which books would be the most important for me to keep? 

I’ve thought long and hard and here is that list – these are the books which have fed my soul, impressed my spirit and directed my life as opposed to simply informing my theology.

The main 10 – in order of priority

Celebration of Discipline               Richard Foster                Hodder 

Return of the Prodigal Son           Henri Nouwen                 DLT 

The Wonder of Worship               David McKee                     Faith Mission 

Enjoying Intimacy with God         Oswald Sanders             Moody Press 

Border Lands                               David Adam                      SPCK

In the Name of Jesus                   Henri Nouwen                  DLT

Awake my Heart                            J. Sidlow Baxter               MMS

The Glory Man – Billy Bray            Cyril Davey                      Hodder 

An Unfading Vision                         Edward England               Hodder 

Literature Evangelism                    George Verwer                 Authentic

Those next in significance

Unlocking the Bible                         David Pawson                    HarperCollins

Dynamics of Spiritual Life              Richard Lovelace             Paternoster

Knowing God                                     James Packer                   Hodder

The Church on the Way                 Jack Hayford                      Chosen Books

Wisdom                                               Larry Lee                          Highland

The Life God Blesses                      Gordon MacDonald          Word Books

Circle of Love                                     Anne Persson                    BRF

Ruthless Trust                                   Brennan Manning            SPCK

A Glimpse of Jesus                          Brennan Manning            SPCK

Soul Survivor                                     Philip Yancey                   Hodder

Those too hard to leave out!

Finding Sanctuary                         Christopher Jamison       Orion

Purpose Driven Life                        Rick Warren                        Zondervan

Walking the Edges                          David Adam                        SPCK

Epiphanies of the Ordinary            Charlie Cleverley              Hodder

Soulful Spirituality                            David Benner                     Baker

If you were hoping to find here a Guide to the 25 Essential Spiritual Classics, that book has already been written (25 Books Every Christian Should Read : Harper One : 2011) and is in itself highly recommended. It contains all the major Christian writers from past centuries and has been put together by a specially selected group of advisors by Renovare.

As a personal exercise, why not post here which books are important to you?  What titles would your own list include?

 

Travel – Review of J.G. Farrell’s, The Hill Station (1981) : Shimla in India

May 12, 2012 3 comments

I’ve just finished reading J G Farrell’s half-completed novel, The Hill Station.  Farrell, a past Booker prize winner (1973) for The Siege of Krishnapur; recently picked out by UK Broadcaster, Jeremy Paxman as one of the nine books which have made him who he is, calling it a ‘stunning novel’. Farrell died in 1979 aged 44 after being washed away by a freak wave in a beach fishing accident in Ireland.

Between 1970 and 1978, Farrell wrote his Empire Trilogy: Troubles, The Siege of Krishnapur and The Singapore Grip. The Hill Station was supposed to be the final book of a quartet (similar to those of Paul Scott) but remained unfinished due to his untimely death.

Farrell had said in an Observer Magazine article,

‘The really interesting thing that’s happened during my lifetime has been the decline of the British Empire’.

In his writings, an absorbing collection of post-colonial fiction, he explored the economics and ethics of empire doing much to dismantle the staple elements of the British imperial story. This particular story is excellent in pointing up the hypocrisy and double-standards of the Raj, especially in a place like Simla, a cultural pressure cooker which many of those living there found ultimately unbearable.

For me, having visited Shimla (note post-independence name change) in northern India by hill railway from Kalka last year, this book brought back some wonderful memories. For the first three chapters I was back on the train: such marvellous detail and excellent descriptions for the journey up to Kalka; which was then the railhead for Simla. Anyone who’s travelled on a hill train in India will recognise it from this book. The remainder of the journey to Simla in those days was simply punishing. The 58 miles up into the hills were covered by Landau or by Kabul ponies pulling a ‘Tonga’.  

The novel evocatively recreates the Simla of the British Raj, something it shares with Kipling’s Kim.  If you’ve been to Shimla, you’ll recognise many of the places in the novel although interestingly Farrell never visited. He was due to go there in the autumn of 1979. Sadly, Farrell’s book finishes in mid-stream after just 150 wonderful pages, leaving one feeling bereft and a little short-changed. It ends just as it is getting into its stride but, thankfully, one of the author’s acquaintances has attempted to fill in the gaps and make sense of Farrell’s silence by developing the story further using his detailed research notes.

Not only is the book set in the India of the Victorian era but is one with a fascinating religious theme; the heated 19th century dispute between High Church Ritualism and Low Church Protestantism which led to the Public Worship Regulation Act 1874 (repealed in 1965).

The Hill Station is not kind to institutional Christianity. The Bishop of Simla goes not emerge from this very well, being as he is, more interested in maintaining the party line. However, Revd Kingston, the Anglican ritualist priest cast as the outsider, is given generous treatment by the author on account of the fact that his beliefs are actually central to the way he lives his life.

In the book, the arguments on both sides of this now ancient debate are superbly presented, predominately through the riveting dialogue given to the central characters. The characterisation is strong particularly in the case of the vaguely agnostic Scottish Doctor, McNabb. I loved the underlying tension developed by his longstanding attempt to write a treatise on Indian medicine when all along he was investigating the unexplained effects of religion on the human spirit.

These photographs of Shimla were taken on a visit to India in October 2011. The now fast fading Victorian architecture reflect something of Godalming High Street incongruously set 4,000 miles away in the Shivalik foothills of the Himalayas.

Review – Operation World; 7th Edition (2010)

November 7, 2010 3 comments

This is a BIG book in more ways than one; big in size and huge in vision. For many Christians, myself included, this latest and seventh revision of Operation World – THE definitive Christian prayer and reference guide – represents a major publishing event; one which should be applauded by all those committed to Christian mission and the advancement of the Gospel.

Such a project is either extremely foolhardy or a publishing triumph depending on your point of view, given the demise of reference material across world publishing at present! The Publisher’s blurb describes this book as a ‘must for every Christian’s library’. I think they are right in this assessment as its stated purpose is ‘to inform for prayer and to mobilise for ministry’. 

The genesis of this book lies firmly within the Protestant missionary movement. Work commenced in 1974 through the auspices of the Dorothea Mission, then from 1976 its cause was championed (and still is) by George Verwer of Operation Mobilisation; and throughout it has had strong WEC International involvement. Patrick Johnstone will be forever linked with the project and without him I doubt it would have come to fruition.

I too can personally look back with a sense of privilege in my own small involvement with the distribution of the 1993 and 2001 editions whilst working with Send the Light Ltd. No-one who has been involved with Operation World can fail to have been impressed by the sheer magnitude of the task of producing this book. However, as with all reference works, it is inevitably out-of-date as soon as it is printed!

The endorsements at the front of the completely revised 7th edition read like a veritable ‘who’s who’ of the global Evangelical community.

George Verwer says OW is ‘one of the most important missionary tools in the entire history of missions’. Quite a claim but I guess he should know!

Operation World was born out of the Evangelical view of the strategic importance of prayer in the conversion of nations in order to ‘Hasten the coming of the Day of the Lord’ – a missiological urgency which may not be quite so prevalent in the UK today. This view is described on the very last page of the book, where this important theological perspective – the return of Christ – is noted.

For me, what the book does is to throw into sharp focus the mystery of all such intercessory prayer. If God is all-knowing, why on earth (literally) do we need to rehearse to Him in our prayers all the points from this book concerning the 190+ countries which make up His world? One answer from the book is that every prayer we pray is described as ‘a tiny piece of a great cosmic puzzle’. We are not merely to pray ‘about’ such facts but to pray ‘towards’ something; ‘the ultimate fulfilment of the Father’s purpose’.

I suggest that you keep Operation World next to your Bible. Along with daily devotional materials, these are the primary aids for building our spiritual lives. I’m fully committed to all types of Christian literature but I regard the Bible, Operation World and a Daily Bible Reading Guide as being the irreducible minimum for our spiritual formation.

The design of the overall package is very attractive; the statistics, charts, maps and data-points are all clear and compelling. Young people will also find it practical (if you can prise them away from checking with Google!) and it presents far more realistic information for holiday and business travel than the average travel guide can provide. The sections on ‘Global Hot-spots’ and ‘Global Trends’ are extremely up-to-the-minute and read as well as anything out of The Economist.

This is truly an astonishing book and it deserves to succeed. Buy the hardback (preferably) for yourself – and as a gift for others this Christmas – from your local Christian bookshop. If that’s not possible go online to order it – but try not to use Amazon if you can possibly help it! Why? Because a project of this size, which comes around only periodically, means a great deal in terms of income generation for the struggling Christian retail trade.

‘Maranatha;, even so come Lord Jesus’

For more details, click here for the Operation World website.

Biblica Publishing : 2010 : 978pp

Hardback ISBN 978-1-85078-861-4

Paperback ISBN 978-1-85078-862-1

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