The Compassion Quest by Trystan Owain Hughes

I finished reading this in the week of the Boston Marathon, a week which highlighted that for all the shock and outrage which following an attack, terror has become everyday. There were other bomb explosions around the globe  that day – in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria. The Boston bomb, as outrageous and disturbing as it was, remained the least effectual terror attack of the day … if you measure these things with the awful and simple matrix of lives lost. The shock of so many at one attack when terrorism remains a daily reality for so many suggests we’ve lost perspective, that fear and cruelty have numbed us. We have to shut it out; when it comes close to home, we allow it fill our consciousness for a few days, for as long as the news channels keep it front and centre.

This is another effect of what charity fundraisers can call ‘compassion fatigue’; you grow tired and immune to the suffering of those who aren’t right in front of you. It’s only when suffering gets right in our faces that we’re forced to pay it closer attention; the logic goes that it’s the job of the fundraiser to keep the suffering front and centre and thus to ensure the funds keep flowing.

The Compassion Quest, the wonderful new book from Trystan Owain Hughes, suggests an alternative, a way to keep compassion alive. The reason is not so much to raise more funds for charity, though if we all paid attention to the book’s suggestion that may be a positive side-effect, so much as to awake us all to life as we are meant to live it. In his first book – the concise, brilliant Finding Hope And Meaning In Suffering, Trystan Owain Hughes didn’t seek to explain suffering, but to offer us a map through it. If you we’re to summarise its endpoint – and you really shouldn’t settle for just a summary – you’d say that the book called for mindfulness. Mindfulness of who we are and the world God’s placed us in, and a resultant thankfulness and appreciation; these are things which equip us to live through suffering. This book builds on that; to take us beyond ‘just’ surviving difficulties and pain, to living well in the world around us, building good and life-giving relationships with other people, the world and the things in the world.

This, like the first book, is brilliant and accessible theology for real people. Owain Hughes, in little over 100 pages peppered with insights from all manner of books and films and music, suggests seeking and embracing a sense of our mutual interconnectedness. Relationship – with people, with the created order – leads to stability and a recognition of yourself in the other. There’s something important to grasp here – some will see in this pseudo-spiritual new age inflected tree-hugging. That would be to do this a grave disservice. The author’s orthodox (in the best sense of that word) theology of creation and the incarnation of Jesus rescues us from those to skewed theologies which sees men (humans) and men (males) as there to lord themselves over the rest. This is a theology of humble awe at the breadth of what God has made; a theology which invites us to love with a thankful awareness of everything that’s around us; a theology which sees God-reflecting life everywhere; a theology that recognises the thin margins separating us, against which we are usually more wont to build draw-bridges and moats.

There’s much more to be said about this deep and rich book, but really you should read it for yourself. Like my favourite spiritual theologian, Eugene Peterson, reading this book you feel in the company of quietly content, confident, humble wisdom grounded in good scholarship and expressed in beautiful, accessible prose. When’s all said and done, this is theology for the everyday.

I rated this book 5/5 on GoodReads.com

Lost Church by Alan Billings

For better or worse, in sickness and in health, for richer and poorer, I am a Christian called to worship in and minister in the Anglican church. I was bought up in one, I have worshipped in several, and have committed myself before God and people to ordained ministry in that context. I am also someone whose own tradition within that context is as charismatic evangelical. I am committed to the theology and practice of that; I value other traditions greatly, but that is mine. That doesn’t mean that I sign up to everything which some people associate with that label – I interpret my tradition in the may that fits and works and makes sense for me. But it is the label which fits most naturally – if imperfectly. I am also deeply committed and passionate about a movement within Anglicanism and other denominations known as Fresh Expressions (more of that later). I see none of these things as in conflict with one another. Which is not the impression I was left with after reading Lost Church by Alan Billings.

It’s an accesible and clearly constructed book calling Anglican churches and their clergy to reconsider ministry to those who may not be fully professing Christians, but have a vague sense of belonging to the established Church of England. They may not ‘believe’ as many would understand that concept, but they have a sense of attachment, loyalty and belonging to a type of religious expression which they understand the Church Of England as providing.

In essence, that’s Billings’ call. There’s a lot that’s helpful here. He speaks as an experienced parish priest and trainer of clergy, so this is coming from a position of first hand experience. His variety of ministry contexts and  engagement with research leaves him well placed to analyse societal trends. There’s much that’s helpful and challenging for me and for people like me – I need to own the fact, as he does suggest, that evangelical Anglicans can put as many barriers as we think we are taking down for people. It’s just that we’re keeping out, sometimes, a different sort of person. There’s also a tendency amongst some in our tradition to cut ourselves off from our historical moorings and fellowship within the broader church. All of that is true, and the book was a helpful reminder and corrective to me  – even now, serving a long way from England, but still an Anglican. Societal trends in South Africa are likely to follow a similar path to that seen over recent times in the UK, so these are apposite warnings.

I had problems with the book, though. First is that I was struck by what felt to me a certain meanness of spirit. I own some of these criticisms of the traditions of which I am a part; but some of the language and tone felt at times snide and at others unfair. As a former priest in Sheffield he criticises, for instance, the high profile St Thomas’ Crookes church in that city. In the late 1980s/early 90s the church experimented with an usunaual form of worship which came out of nightclub culture. This met with initial success, before a very public moral failure, the fall of the leader and accusations (almost certainly justified) of cult-like behaviour. Billings criticises St Thomas’ for sitting outside normal Anglican structures – without mentioning the reality of the the church having been a joint Anglican and Baptist project since 1982. So of course it was going to sit outside normal structures; that’s not to excuse the failures or mistakes, but he’d have done well to point out that it wasn’t fully Anglican because that would have been to deny the essence of what that church was meant to be.  He suggests that ‘perhaps’ lessons have been learned at St Thomas’ and in similar contexts – the reality is that if you read books to emerge from St Thomas, listen to the leaders and speak to people in the Fresh Expressions movement, then they manifestly have. In the case of St Thomas’, the church has continued to grow and move into innovative, exciting models of leadership, mission and discipleship – without a hint of moral failure. That tragic series of mistakes has been learned from, but will remain fallen Churches are led for sinners by sinners so failures will still occur, but you can’t move far in these circles without hearing these lessons rehearsed.

There is the problem. For all his no doubt deep experience and valuable, committed ministry Alan Billings seems to spend time lobbing criticisms at something he doesn’t show he’s engaged with. Evangelicals do not all try to argue people through reason into a propositional set of ideas, as he suggests. Many evangelical churches are profoundly, deeply, prophetically tolerant and welcoming; not all are cold and unfriendly. Some are not, of course. Some are, though. Fresh Expressions is not ‘about meeting in any sort of building other than a church, as if a church building could only be of interest to the already committed‘; it’s about creating a ‘mixed economy’ church (to use former Archbishop Rowan Williams’ phrase in his support of the movement) which uses BOTH traditional and new models of church. It takes inspiration from the vows all priests ordained in England take ‘to proclaim the gospel afresh in this generation’; it’s rooted in Anglicanism and committed to ecumenism – so naturally it will contain elements that are not Anglican so much as reflective of other approaches. Many within the movement – as the aformentioned sinners we all are – will come across as arrogant or dismissive or loaners. Many, though, are humble, Godly people who love the church and their fellow ministers. Which is why they want to see the church grow, and even more invited into the variety of her beauty.

Lost Church blessed, challenged, encouraged, saddened and angered me. I liked it. It has an urgent message. Many who love the church should read it; I fear though that a lack of thought and understanding in places will lead to offence and regression rather than the forward movement Allan Billings clearly longs to see in the church he loves.

I rated this book 3/5 on goodreads.com

What We Talk About When We Talk About God by Rob Bell

It’s tempting and probably a little lazy to suggest that the digital era discourages nuanced thinking. It is, though, at least partly true. Certainly there’s enough evidence in social media and comment sections of (some) blogs to lead us to that conclusion – it’s easy to take a tweet out of context because there is so little context to read it in. When it’s straightforward to publish an opinion to a broad audience, it’s easy to publish that opinion without really thinking it through – and then find yourself defending something out of pride rather than because you really think that way after giving due consideration.

It seems to me that mega-church pastors are lightening rods for precisely such unguarded thinking. Infamously, Rob Bell had been dismissed by some as no longer part of the evangelical movement by many based on the pre-publicity for his book Love Wins (in fairness some maintained that viewpoint after reading the book). There were all sorts of implications to that – not least that there exists a set of guardians who get to say who’s an evangelical and who isn’t; and that Bell himself wanted to be understood as part of that camp.

In the case of Rob Bell, or more precisely opinions held about him, we see this lack of nuanced thinking writ large. The implication of much of the debate around his work seems to be that either you accept his whole body of work or you don’t. In the heat of debate it can seem as if there’s no space to agree with some of his points but not the rest; no space to be open to the idea that Bell himself may actually change his opinion on some issues over time (don’t we all?); no space for those who just find the fact that he airs certain questions helpful even if we end up with different answers as a result of the same process.

Context isn’t everything, but is important. The church of which Bell was founding pastor was established with a mission, as I understand, to reach seekers – specifically those with a vague sense of spirituality but uncomfortable with established forms of religion. These are he sort of people who would have been very at home in 1st century Athens. Bell’s written and verbal communication style reflects that – he’s not trying to reach established Christians who like church as it is; while some of them may benefit from what he’s doing, he’s after those who are searching in different places.

What’s beyond doubt is that he is a supremely skilled verbal communicator – I’ve heard him live on a few occasions and he’s in that rare category of speakers who can hold comfortably your attention for well over an hour; I was also struck by how much he deconstructs any notion of his own popularity or celebrity; he showed willingness to talk about his failings and inadequacies.

So to his first book since leaving full time church leadership to concentrate on writing and developing other projects. What We Talk About When We Talk About God bears many of the hallmarks of his written work. It’s short; it’s clearly aimed at those who are spiritually seeking or struggling; and in the introductory sections he’s very clear that this is a book which has arisen from his own struggles and issues. He’s had a profound experience of doubt and this book is the product of an attempt to re-express his faith in a way which doesn’t give up but simultaneously does justice to the reality of the doubts.

I admit that once the book really got underway I wondered where some of it was going. He takes some really interesting and easy to read byways into areas like quantum physics – at comparatively great length in a short book – to try to help us connect with how awesomely strange the universe can be. It’s great stuff and I learned a lot, but I found myself a little skeptical of someone drifting into an area which, however well researched, is not his area of specialism. There was also too much of it – he could have achieved the same with less. When he finally takes it to where he wants to get us – awe at what God has put in motion – I was right there with him. I just could have done with taking him less time to get there.

Much of the rest of the book is Bell trying to get us to see that God is fundamentally for us, with us and ahead of us – beckoning us deeper and inviting us on. It’s warm-hearted, generous spirited stuff. It raises questions too – theologically we are left to wonder how he understands the authority of Scripture, and if there is such a thing for him as a fixed morality. Those are questions I’d like to hear him address some time. What this book isn’t, though, is marshmallow centred liberalism with nothing solid at the centre. It’s a hard-bitten, bought with blood wrestle with the reality of trying to understand the unseen and the seen together.

To answer questions which I do get asked – no, I don’t agree with everything in the book. I don’t always agree with what I read myself as having written, so how could I possibly agree with everything somebody else says? I’m suspicious of anyone agreeing with everything any one person says. No, it’s not his best work – for my money that’s Jesus Wants To Save Christians. However I want to say a big, emphatic yes – to the asking of the questions, to dealing with the reality of doubt but refusing to give up on faith, to the fact that on more than one occasion in the course of reading this latest book I put it down and said prayers of thanks and sung songs of worship. Which, at end of it all, is what the book is aiming for.

I rated this book 4/5 on goodreads.com

A Year Of Biblical Womanhood by Rachel Held Evans

Like The Cross In The Closet, this book represents an experiment. For Timothy Kurek, that was consciously pretending to be something he wasn’t in order to better understand. That’s a version of what happens in A Year Of Biblical Womanhood, but it’s not the whole story.

The author – Rachel Held Evans, a blogger, evangelical in the Dayton, Tennessee and author of  this and Evolving In Monkey Town – is a woman who takes on a year-long project to take what the Bible says to and about women as literally as possible. She does this as one who is happy to wear the feminist label, so this was always going to be an uncomfortable journey, if one that naturally fits a book. All of this presupposes that it’s possible to distill what the Bible says to and out women into list of things to do and be. Which is, to a certain extent the point of the project.

The sometimes bizarre sub-sub-culture of evangelical Christianity is not short of opinion when it comes to gender. We’ll be tackling different aspects of that opinion on the blog over the next while. Gender and sexuality are increasingly issues of fracture for churches and individuals – they are straws which break the proverbial camels’ backs. This is the stuff which causes people to leave churches; it’s important, and goes to the core of our personal identity. Books like this and The Cross In The Closet represent, for me, an inevitably imperfect but ultimately hopeful attempt to reframe the debate and provide something solid to stand on for those of us who feel increasingly alienated by each wing of the arguments.

In the case of Rachel Held Evans her project has her focus on a different theme every month: October (month 1) is gentleness, November is domesticity, March is modesty, June is submission. Naturally division by title makes things seems more tidy than they are in reality; there’s overflow and blurred edges all the way. Rachel is married to Dan, and they are people who approach marriage as a mutual, equal partnership; so inevitably there’s going to be some bumpy places along the way. There’s also a good deal of interesting conversation with people and exploration of texts to discover what the Bible may actually be saying or not saying. Take, for instance, Proverbs chapter 31:10-31, a section often titled ‘A Wife Of Noble Character’. So often this has been seen as a list of what women in general should aspire to be as wives, or should be working towards. Held Evans, tellingly, suggests that Jewish tradition sees the passage in a quite different way: it’s aimed at husbands, as a list of general strengths and achievements to honour and celebrate when they are seen and demonstrated in a woman. She reframes this as, for her culture, ‘woman of valour’, a blessing for a man or woman to speak over a woman. A throw-away example: her husband Dan greeting her tired arrival home,  bearing take-away having not been able to cook that day, with ‘Pizza? Woman Of Valour!’. Burden becomes blessing. Who could possibly thought men could have got it so (wilfully?) wrong?

It’s at moments like that, and in describing the unlikely friendships she forms over year, that the book is at its strongest points. I got a little frustrated by not hearing more from her husband – there are excerpts from his journal, but for me not enough. I’d love to hear his view of his wife’s journey in parallel detail. Necessarily it’s a personal book, but given the profound impact such a journey is likely to have on a significant relationship, it would have been instructive to hear more from him. None of us, ever, exist in a vacuum; the conclusion of the book handles this well. I just would have liked a little more from Dan peppered throughout. Bizarrely, I was also a little annoyed by the photographs. Rachel’s usually pictured holding something she’s just described herself making; often that process has featured frustration, tears, anger. Yet in the photos she’s almost always smiling. Maybe there’s a cultural thing going on here, but to me the photos of a smiling Rachel near a passage where she describes sobbing on the kitchen floor seem a little incongruous.

I and my wife Bev have long been people who have held ‘traditional’ Christian interpretations of gender roles and characteristics at arm’s length. We don’t find ourselves as isolated from the evangelical community as Rachel Held Evans does, but we do often feel like we’re swimming upstream. Books like this give people like me hope .I don’t agree with everything she writes, but certainly I do with most of it. It’s oxygen  – proof that we’re not mad, that there are other people who want to be faithful to the Bible but don’t want to assume that a ‘Biblical’ view of some issues is always what the vocally dominant say it is. The book shed light on some things and confirmed as viable what I had often suspected may be the case but hadn’t gone to the trouble of exploring. I’m humbled by Held Evans reaching the end of her year and finding herself confronting her sense of judgement and grudge-holding against those who feel differently. Given how suffocating it can be to hold views which aren’t recognised by the majority, that’s admirable. Experience suggests that the majority may not always be the majority – that when oxygen is offered, there are plenty there ready to breathe more deeply. May we do so – and speak. There’s more to people than a 2,000+ year-old list culled from carelessly applied texts.

You can find Rachel Held Evans’ excellent blog by clicking here. I rated this book 4/5 on goodreads.com

Redeeming The Past by Michael Lapsley

Michael Lapsley is a white Anglican priest from New Zealand who became embroiled in the anti-apartheid struggle when his order sent him there in 1973. By his own admission he was a difficult character, one whose strength of opinion and conviction that he was right did not always sit as easily as it could have with authority.

It was in this that a defining aspect of his life found. He joined the ANC and eventually found himself exiled from South Africa, where he was the target of an assassination attempt in the form of a letter bomb. This left him devastatingly injured – two hands blown off being the longest lasting physical effect. On recovery he eventually connected with the next stage of his calling – to help the traumatised confront and experience healing for their memories. Running weekend workshops under the title ‘Healing of Memories’, stories are told, experiences understood and healing sought.

Redeeming the Past: From Freedom Fighter To Healer is, effectively, Michael Lapsely’s autobiography co-written with Stephen Karakashian. It’s difficult to respond to an autobiography sometimes; you feel you’re reviewing the person, which isn’t a healthy place to be. How do you separate the book from the man? I was at one of the launches for this book in Cape Town. Desmond Tutu spoke and Lapsley was lauded. Understandably he’s a significant and valued figure in South Africa. Lapsely’s talk that day was humbling and compelling; being in the presence of one who has carried his cross so vividly does something to you. Tutu, of course, was Tutu. Funny, compelling, heart-rending, impassioned.

The book itself is, at times, gripping. The story of how one life comes to carry such a public calling is a challenging one on which many of us would do well to reflect. Have I really taken up my cross, or do I sub-consciously water it down so as to save myself pain? At others points in the book I wanted to probe more – what’s the theological undergirding of healing of memories? What, when his approach is so clearly inter-faith, makes it distinctively Christian? At other points the book is troubling – and not necessarily in a good way. For a man so passionate about human right’s abuses, his attitude to Cuba is bizarre and worrying. He’s right to ask us to look behind propaganda about the country is good; his claim there is no hunger there and his effective dismissal of the well known human rights abuses in the country is staggering.

So what am I left with? A picture of a man whose life challenges me to the core; whose company I found it at times hard to endure in the form of the written word; whose commitment to live out what he seeks is admirable; whose story is one anyone interested in South Africa or justice should engage with. I’m left with a book that frustrates, challenges, engages and grips and sometimes disappoints.

A bit like every one of us, then.

I rated this book 3/5 on goodreads.com

 

The Cross In The Closet by Timothy Kurek

Take a deep breath.

Breathe in … A bit more … Let it out slowly … And relax.

The gay issue.

I told you to relax, didn’t I? Breathing just that bit faster? Teeth and fists clenched? Tension rising?

Breathe deeper.

The gay issue.

There’s the problem, why there’s so much tension in churches about this. Right there.

The clue is in one of those three words:

the           gay           issue

Did you spot it?

I lied. Sorry.

The clue’s in at least 2 of the words. Maybe a third.

‘The’ – the definite article. Making it, whatever ‘it’ is into something defined, boundaried, something you have to be fixed on. There’s not much room for manoeuvre, debate or questions there.

‘Issue’ – what is an issue, in this context? Relevant dictionary definitions talk of, for example, “a point in question or a matter that is in dispute … ” (dictionary.com). Is there a ‘point’ in dispute here? Well, yes. Maybe. Really what’s at stake is how some people relate to, have fellowship with, receive authority from, interpret the Bible with, other people. If it is an issue, then it’s a relationship one. Relationship, or a word that implies it would work better.

‘Gay’ – who does that include, actually? Those who practice same sex intercourse? Those who feel oriented that way but choose not to? What about transgendered people? We could go on. The frequent abbreviation is LGBT (Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender). Sounds more like a personality profile type, but there you have it.

I propose something like … I don’t know. The LGBT relationship dynamic.

Or not. Not quite what I was aiming for. At the moment I’m stuck in the problem.

Then along comes a book like Timothy Kurek’s The Cross In The Closet. It helps me; then again it doesn’t. The author lives in the Deep South of the USA, buckle of the Bible belt, where Christian sub-culture is often seen in one of its more conservative and vocal incarnations. He was, by his own admission, raised in and comfortable with it; he imbibed and then expressed a conservative approach to homosexuality. This book tells the story of his journey. A journey where he feels God is calling him, a single heterosexual male, to live as if he’s gay for a year.

We follow his coming out to his friends and his family, the resultant alienation from people he thought loved him, conversations with what he describes as his inner Pharisee, finding Jesus in unexpected places, being ‘re-outed’ before he was ready to his family as not really gay, the experience of what it really means to live in the closet  – as a heterosexual man in a homosexual sub-culture … and much else besides.

It’s a startlingly honest and brave book (occasionally let down by some careless editing – not the author’s fault). He willingly puts himself through all manner of stress and trauma, and ends up realising the issue of judgement runs far deeper in him than he ever dreamed. It’s a prophetic and challenging route to dealing with ‘the gay issue’, by removing the ‘issue’ and definite article, redefining it all as a series of relationships which challenge and stretch and disturb the comfort of all.

If you’re like me, you have a series of questions at this point. Is it fair, ethical, right to lie to people so deeply like this, even if it is in service of something bigger, maybe even just? How were the friendships he formed within the gay community (whatever those last 4 words mean) affected when he came out again as heterosexual at the end of it all? What’s his exegesis of key Bible passages? The first question is danced around, thought about. The second you get walked through what happened. The third – it’s not that kind of book.

Those, and a few more question besides.

The questions reverberate around my head for a time.

Then I’m reminded of a few other things.

I’m reading another book at the moment. It’s a brilliant work of more academic theology called Exclusion and Embrace, by Mirsolav Volf. He talks of the need for truth to embrace and walk in the shoes of the other in order to heal division; and he talks of not sacrificing truth to do so. That says much to those questions, as does the whole of Volf’s book (though it’s a more dense piece of theology set alongside Kurek’s narrative).

The other thing I’m reminded of is something about a man who became sin yet was without sin, and who asked me to take up my cross.

Of course, for some just using the terminology ‘sin’ there is unhelpful. The heart of the issue, you might say.

The Cross In The Closet will probably not shed new light on your understanding of the Bible. It’s not trying to. It won’t make you change your mind, wherever your mind is at the moment. I don’t think it’s trying to do that either. It’s trying to make you think about how you think, which may be a much better place to start.

This book is by no means the last word. There are many, many more words written and not yet written to help us explore and define or redefine or whatever it is we need to do. What The Cross In The Closet  gives us is a very, very important new first word.

I rated this book 4/5 on GoodReads.com

Finding Hope and Meaning In Suffering by Trystan Owain Hughes

It’s often said that it’s easier to be creative about sadness and suffering than it is about joy and happiness. It’s also often said that for those who follow Jesus, the fact and presence of suffering in the world presents the most significant philosophical, ethical and practical challenges. Those two statements may be cliches, but they are cliches with a weight of truth and experience behind them; tragedies are considered higher art than comedies, and Christians have spilt a lot of theological ink confronting the issue of suffering.

Trying to explain or understand suffering, whilst it may be valuable, can obscure something important. How do we live in it and through it? How do we it do it ‘well’ as people who call themselves Christians? We may accept that it poses us theological and other types of questions, but that doesn’t necessarily help us deal with tragedy and pain when it hits home. Understanding can get us so far – but what we need alongside that are tools to help us live well through it all. That’s where a book like this one, Finding Hope And Meaning In Suffering by Trystan Owain Hughes comes in. It’s a short book, clocking in at 101 pages which seeks to do just that.

As for us all, the author has experienced his own measure of suffering and it’s from that space which he writes – he’s the Anglican Chaplain at Cardiff University who was diagnosed with a degenerative spinal condition at the age of 34. Those two realities – exercising a pastoral ministry and his own experiences of suffering – have caused him to reflect deeply on what God gives us that may enable us to flourish and grow in even the most hostile of environments. It’s a short – and brilliant  – book, which really should be required reading for anyone who suffers, cares for someone suffering or desiring to grow as an effective disciple of Jesus. I’m not sure that anyone’s left out by that. This book is a prime example of how depth and weight can go hand in hand with readability and brevity.

The structure is simple. There’s an introductory chapter on the fact of suffering itself. He then, in two chapters lays two simple but profound foundations for living well in suffering. First comes awareness: living in the present moment in such a way that we are alive to the presence of God around us. Second comes acceptance: not resignation to suffering, but the radical acceptance of God’s goodness in even the darkest of places. There then follow a series of ‘building blocks’ – chapter by chapter reflections on aspects of life which create the space for life to grow in tough contexts: an awareness of and interaction with nature, the gift of laughter, the place of memory,  the significance of art, the call to keep on helping others.

Every chapter engages with a variety of sources: these may be Biblical, more generally Christian, other faiths, or a variety of artistic expressions – from Jewish Holocaust survivor Victor Frankl to the TV show Heroes and onwards to Kylie Minogue. That’s one of the book’s real strengths – that even in such a well and concisely written book, there’s enough different perspectives for all of us to find something we ‘get’; this book may be the result of much thought, prayer and study – but it’s there to be read on the commute to work or lying lazily on the couch on a Sunday afternoon. This is a book which actively invites you in with its breadth of sources, the author’s own experience and the fact that it doesn’t so much try to explain as to give you something to go away and work into your own pattern of life and discipleship. One point on that – there’s a few spoilers in here about books and films. Place the reading of this book on hold, for example, if you’re are reading or planning to read Ian McEwen’s book Atonement or you’re saving up the DVD for a Christmas treat. You don’t want that surprise ruined.

That’s a minor quibble, really. Here’s another one, of a very different type. There’s so much richness here that to limit the book to the topic of suffering may be selling it short, limiting the impact. The suggestions – the foundations and building blocks – are valuable for living through suffering precisely because they are valuable for all of life. In other words they  (along with other practices) help us live life as God intended it to be lived – to the full. This isn’t just a book about how to live well in experiences of suffering – it’s a book about how to live life well for God in the world to which He calls us.

So this is a book to read, re-read, practice and digest, to buy and to give. Even if – or perhaps especially – you’re not really suffering. Because, as a book like this shows us, it’s worth living life well, whatever the scenery.

I rated this book 5/5 on goodreads.com