Finding God in Unexpected Places. Philip Yancey. [book]


Figured I’d ease back into blogging with a book review or two.  My aim this year has been to read 52 books over the course of the year.  I’ve slightly lost track (as with so many resolutions) but I know I need to pick the pace up a little (or choose shorter, easier books!).

This book, however, is eminently readable.  It’s a collection of writings, rather than a book in the sense we might normally understand it.  Having been first published in 1995, it strikes me that it was pretty avant-garde, in that it is basically the book equivalent of a blog.  The edition I read was a 2002 version, with updates including chapters related to the attack on the Twin Towers.  There are 49 ‘chapters’, spread across 276 pages.  This makes it very easy indeed to pick up and read a chunk.  I guess the downside to this is that you can breeze through a number of chapters without really grappling with the contents.

The premise of the book is beautiful.  It is, as the title suggests, that God can be found in the most unexpected of places, if only we look.  In the introduction, Yancey quotes a lady who had started to work in a violent South African prison (the one where Mandela had spent some time!).  She says, “… God was already present in the prison.  I just had to make him visible”.  The book goes on to consider a wide range of places in which God can be found, under the headings:
“Finding God without really looking”
“Finding God on the Job”
“Finding God in the rubble”
“Finding God in a fractured society”
“Finding God among the Headlines”
“Finding God in the cracks”
“Finding God within the church”

The result is a collection of thoughts that are at times amusing, at times heart-warming, at times tear-jerking, and much more.  Some of his stories of letters he’s received (in the chapter “Letter Bombs”) are laugh-out-loud.  There are stories of hope in struggle, light in darkness, and the common thread is the one of finding God in all these places.  As he says more than once, “God goes where He is wanted”.  Read the book, discover where God can be found, and then look for Him in those unexpected places in your own life.

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Wounded hands.

Every week during term time, a group of us from church go into a couple of local schools to do assemblies.  It’s part of Bible Society’s Open the Book programme.  It’s fun.  Apart from the weekly difficulties of remembering which kids have recently volunteered and which haven’t (in their eagerness, they sometimes ‘forget’ that they took part last week, and it’s really not their turn this week!), it’s a very enjoyable experience.  It starts with the classic ‘Good Morning everyone’ type opening, then there’s a little intro, followed by an acted story from the Bible, and rounded off with a summing-up, a prayer and a song. Last term, our go-to song was ‘Our God is a great big God’.

It goes like this:

Our God is a great big God
Our God is a great big God
Our God is a great big God
And He holds us in His hands

He’s higher than a skyscraper
He’s deeper than a submarine
He’s wider than the universe
And beyond my wildest dreams
He’s known me and He’s loved me
Since before the world began
How wonderful to be a part of
God’s amazing plan

(c) Nigel and Jo Hemming, 2000

And as we’ve sung it over the course of a few weeks, and we’ve joined in with the actions, I’ve been struck by that line, ‘And He holds us in His hands’.  The way the song is traditionally (?!) sung, it includes that line being almost whispered towards the end – as we were facing a group of 4-8 year olds, all with hands cupped in front of them, singing ‘And he holds us in His hands’, I was struck by the tenderness of God.  I was also struck by how much He’d enjoy the rendition!  A mighty God, a Great Big God, who tenderly holds us in His hands.

And then a new depth was added to this as I was doing Morning Prayer a little while ago. This daily service includes prayers and Bible readings.  After Psalm 31 came this prayer:

Lord Jesus Christ,
when scorn and shame besiege us
and hope is veiled in grief,
hold us in your wounded hands
and make your face shine on us again,
for you are our Lord and God.

“… your wounded hands …”

That really hit me.  When you have wounded hands, holding onto something hurts.  The holding makes you more aware of the wounds.  The wounded hands were, of course, wounded on the cross.  The one who loves us is the one who was wounded for us, and yet He is the one who still holds us in His hands.  We see His love in the wounds, and we feel His love in the holding.


In many ways, I could just stop typing there.  But I won’t, because I want to make one more link.  To me, this prayer is an encouragement to the wounded pastor.  I know some pastors who hide from their wounds, and conceal their wounds from others.  But it seems that often the pastor who is visibly wounded is the one who in turn offers the greatest and most meaningful help to others who are wounded.  Compassion is, at its root, suffering with others.  In the pastoral realm, it seems to me that those who acknowledge their own wounds seem often to be those who are best at treating the wounds of others.  So thank you to all those pastors in my life who have travelled wounded, and brought hope to many on their journey.

And my prayer for those of you who are wounded is that our Great Big God would hold you in His wounded hands.

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Fearfully and Wonderfully Made [book]

In a sense, this sort of starts as a book review and ends as a blog post…

Fearfully Wonderfully Made

I first read this book quite some time ago.  It is by Paul Brand (and Philip Yancey – my impression is that Paul provides the knowledge of the body, while Philip provides the knowledge of words).  Paul Brand is one of my heroes.  The book Ten Fingers for God will get a review at some point – it’s biographical.  To sum up his life, Paul Brand was an absolute giant in his field.  A hand surgeon and leprosy specialist, this man knew a thing or two about the human body.  He also know a lot about pain, even writing another book, Pain:  the Gift Nobody Wants.

But this book is about the body.  The human body, and the body of Christ.  Noting that the Bible makes much of the metaphor of the church as a body, Paul Brand decided to run with it, and reached some wonderful conclusions.  The book is split into four sections:  Cells, Bones, Skin and Motion.  Each of these sections is then divided into chapters, each covering a different aspect.  For example, the section on Bones is split into:  A Frame, Hardness, Freedom, Growth, Adapting, Inside-Out.

Each of these chapters then explores how our knowledge of the human body can help us to consider what the church is like, or should be like.  Brand’s enviable knowledge of the body gives us fascinating insight into the metaphor, and adds layers of meaning that I’d previously not considered.

Read this book if you want to be awed by the human body.  Its complexity and intricacies are staggering.  Read this book if you want to be challenged about what the church should look like, and how it should work.

Here are a couple of snippets that made me think:

Seventy separate muscles contribute to hand movements.  I could fill a room with surgery manuals suggesting various ways to repair hands that have been injured.  But in forty years of study I have never read a technique that has succeeded in improving a normal, healthy hand.

Funny to think that we can repair our bodies, but can’t improve them.  I don’t mean exercise, obviously – that’s not an improvement of the body, that’s just better use of it!

And then there was this bit.  Bear in mind this is written by a man who knows the value of touch; a man whose life’s work has been devoted to those who have deadened physical sensations.  It illustrates well his blurring of the lines between the human body and the body of the church.

Every week my mailbox bulges with appeals for help from Christian organizations involved in feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, visiting the prisoners, healing the sick.  They describe to me that horrible condition of a hurting world and request my money to help relieve the pain.  Often I give, because I have lived and worked among the world’s suffering and because I know most of these organizations conscientiously shed love and compassion abroad.  But it saddens me that the only thread connecting millions of giving Christians to that world is the distant, frail medium of direct mail.  Ink stamped on paper, stories formula-edited to achieve the best results – there is no skin involved, no sense of touch.

What a lament – sorrow that we can’t touch the pain of others in far-flung countries.  A sadness that our response is not skin-to-skin.  He carries on:

If I only express love vicariously through a check [cheque, if you’re a Brit!], I will miss the incredible richness of response that a tactile loving summons up.  Not all of us can serve in the Third World where human needs abound.  But all of us can visit prisoners, take meals to shut-ins, and minister to unwed mothers or foster children.  If we choose to love only in a long-distance way, we will be deprived, for skin requires regular contact if it is to remain sensitive and responsive.

I can’t claim we’re doing a particularly good job of things, but one of the reasons we moved church was because we wanted to be present in the community we live in.  There’s something meaningful somehow about doing church here in our community.  Of course, that’s not a pattern that everyone has to follow, but it was certainly part of our call here.

And then he goes on:

Again, the best illustration of this truth is Jesus Christ, the embodiment of God living on this planet.  The Book of Hebrews sums up his experience on earth by declaring that we now have a leader who can be touched with the feelings of our weakness (Hebrews 4:15).  God saw the need to come alongside us … God dwelt among us and touched us.

Immanuel.  God with us.  Touching, moving, hearing, healing, speaking, feeling.  His body is able to do all these things.  Are we honouring Him with our bodies?  Are we honouring Him with His body?

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This afternoon’s sermon inspired a re-write of my post on Barabbas from a couple of years ago…

Imagine the footsteps approaching your cell.  You’re on death row.  Murder and insurrection aren’t charges that can be brushed under the carpet.  You are Barabbas.  One who deserves nothing good.  Guilty as charged.  You know what’s coming.  ‘Dead man walking’ is surely going to be one of the last phrases you hear.  And as the footsteps approach, you wonder if now is the time.  Is now the moment you will pay the price for your crimes?

The key rattles noisily in the lock.  The key turns and the door is swung open.  Your jailer greets you with two words.  Words that you will remember for the rest of your life.

“You’re free”.


We don’t know much about Barabbas.  His appearance in the gospels is fleeting. Matthew tells us he was a well-known prisoner.  Mark tells us he was with the rebels who had committed murder in an uprising.  Luke tells us he was in prison for an insurrection and murder.  John tells us he had taken part in an uprising.  Barabbas was no angel.

His name simply means, ‘Son of the Father’.  Barabbas.  He was a bad man, who deserved nothing good.

On the day Barabbas was freed, another son was taken prisoner.

“You are My Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.”

Jesus.  Son of The Father.  A good man, who deserves nothing bad.  His ministry has been love.  His miracles; love.  His relationships; love.  His teaching; love.  His prayer in the garden just a few hours ago; love.  Love has brought Him to this place, to standing before the authorities.  Love.  There is no crime that has brought Him here.  It is His love that brings Him to this place and His love that keeps Him here.

Barabbas was brought to trial because of his crimes.  Jesus was brought to trial because of His love.  Love for all.

Some people have suggested that Barabbas was about to be crucified.  There are those who suggest that the cross that Jesus struggled to carry to His crucifixion was the cross that should have carried Barabbas.  There are those who think that the exchange was Jesus’ freedom for Barabbas’ cross.

I don’t know about that.  But one thing I do know is this:

That cross was mine.

I am Barabbas.

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Surely not I, Lord?

Last night I went to a ‘Tenebrae’ service.  Tenebrae is Latin for shadows, and is a very simple service that started and ended with a hymn, but the main part of the service was devoted to the extinguishing of a series of candles as passages and prayers were read.  As a lover of visual things, and use of the senses, I found it a powerful and moving service.

But I was struck by one particular phrase in one of the readings.  Matthew 26 (probably from the NRSV) chronicles the Last Supper Jesus had with His disciples.  As they are eating, He says to them, ‘Truly I tell you, one of you will betray me.’  This comes as a shock to His disciples.  The passage continues:  “And they became greatly distressed and began to say to him one after another, ‘Surely not I, Lord?’”  Peter said it.  Judas said it.  The others said it.

Surely not I, Lord.

And that phrase just struck me.  What do we know about the people who said it?  We know that they all abandoned Him within hours.  Surely that’s a betrayal?  Peter was about to deny Him (despite his vehement protestations).  The other disciples were about to turn tail and run.  And of course Judas was The Betrayer.  Judas knew what he was about to do, and yet still said, ‘Surely, not I?’  The others uttered it too, not seeing that desertion would come so soon.  The horror of the disciples at the thought of betrayal turns to the awful realisation, that dawns with the next day, that they have done precisely that.  Their confidence in their own courage to follow their shepherd come-what-may dissolves in the heat of the moment.  Weapons are drawn in the garden and the sheep are scattered.  As the shadows from the torches in the garden dance around Jesus, His disciples flee.

What about me?  How often do I think, “Surely not I, Lord”, when abandonment is just around the corner?  How often do I think, ‘Surely not I, Lord”, when denial soon follows?

Surely not I, Lord.

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Epic Fail [Book]

This is a book review, not a self-depracating post…

(I wrote this post a while back, but forgot to publish it!)

I was given a book this week which, contrary to the rules, I read straight away.  It was a weak moment, and it’s the holidays…  And it was never going to be a long read – the subtitle is ‘The Ultimate Book of Blunders’.  The longest accounts don’t tend to be more than half a page, which makes for a lot of white space, and not much mental wrestling to do mid-read 🙂

There is a good range of stuff in there, including chapters titled: ‘Plain Bad Luck’, ‘Military Mistakes’ and ‘Celebrities Say and Do the Dumbest Things’.  And it’s a pretty amusing read, all in all.  Perhaps we just enjoy the mishaps and misadventure of others (think of TV’s You’ve Been Framed or Total Wipeout; Blooper reels on DVDs; books like The Darwin Awards)  Maybe it makes us all feel a little less silly (and appreciate that other people’s gaffes are more publicised than our own…) or a little more superior.

But it also got me thinking.  And I’ll mention two things I thought.  First of all, not all of the accounts are true.  And yet, they (probably!) haven’t been made up by the author, but found in research conducted.  This demonstrates how easy it is to perpetuate untruth.  And in this day and age, one needs only to look to the internet for ‘verification’ of untruths.  Even this week, reputable news companies have presented things that aren’t true – the one that tickled me was Alec Baldwin’s Saturday Night Live act as Donald Trump being published as a photo of Trump himself.  There is a real responsibility to establish and propogate truth.

The second thing I was thinking about was linked to the numerous references to the mishaps of otherwise unknown individuals.  Unlike the references to companies, or celebreties, snippets that relate to unknown characters often reduce an individual’s life to one event (often their untimely demise) and so give us a most unfortunate snapshot of that individual.  And how often I do that in my judgments of others?  That guy who cut me up at the roundabout, complete moron.  I take that one incident and read into it whatever I want.  I don’t consider the day they’ve had.  The worries that burden them.  The stresses that weigh down on them.  Like the book, I simply hold up one thing as the defining reality of that individual.  Perhaps some of the individuals in the book led lives of devotion and service.  Perhaps they were upstanding citizens (albeit lacking common sense at a vital juncture).  Perhaps their contribution to society was simply overshadowed by one lapse of sound judgment.  And I wondered if my willingness to fall into a similar trap was linked in a sense to unforgiveness – a preference to judge and leave it at that, rather than to try to move beyond the judgment to the future.

Or maybe I’m just over-analysing…

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Holding on.

A little while ago, I wrote about waiting for the letter from the bishop.  The letter that was going to be a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ (or, as it turned out, ‘not yet’!).  And I wrote that I was ‘holding on while holding on’.

Well, here’s what I’d been holding on to:


It’s called a ‘holding cross’ and is available from a number of places, including the Embrace the Middle East shop online, which is where I bought mine.

I bought it a little while ago, and have kept it in my pocket.  It’s nice to have a physical reminder of the hope on offer.  It hasn’t achieved anything remarkable – it’s no mystic relic, but is merely a useful trigger to help me think more frequently about the cross and all it means.  As a bit of a physical learner, I’ve found it a great investment 🙂

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