Category Archives: Health, Wellbeing, Spirituality

The Sound of Silence

“Speech is silver, but silence is golden.”

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The older I become the more I yearn for silence and the more I am aware how noise suffocates our lives and our world. For many of us, from the time we wake up to the buzzing, cantankerous noise of an alarm, to the time we fall exhausted into bed, with the neighbourhood dog serenading us to sleep, we are accosted by noise. Pleasant noises, loud noises, terrifying noises, annoying noises at home, work, school and restaurants. Noise surrounds us. Most of the time we are not even aware how noise has defined who we are.

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Most of us contribute thousands of words to the atmosphere every day. We also have thousands of words come at us. Words that tell us who we are, how we are, why we are. Words that shape us. The noises that we have listened to from a young age have greatly contributed to the people we are today. The noise of our environment – our family, friends, the space we live and work, entertainment and media (and let’s not forget the very loud, non-decibel noise of social media), all shape our thoughts and actions.

Psychologist Marilyn Price-Mitchell is concerned about the noise and lack of silence in the lives of a younger generation. She writes, “The reason we should ask the question, and encourage teens to explore silent spaces, is because we know that self-reflection is important to human development and learning. John Dewey, a renowned psychologist and education reformer, claimed that experiences alone were not enough. What is critical is an ability to perceive and then weave meaning from the threads of our experiences. The function of self-reflection is to make meaning. The creation of meaning is at the heart of what it means to be human.” The discipline of silence assists in learning and in discovering meaning. Sadly, this is often missing from many of our lives. For a younger generation growing up in the hustle and bustle of modern life, noise is as natural as breathing.

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I suggest that our modern world is actually addicted to noise. Silence, the idea of being left with our own thoughts, often terrifies us. The sense of loneliness or melancholy that we may feel, yet dull with noise, becomes deafening and acute with silence. However, if we learn to negotiate and immerse ourselves in the discipline and pleasure of regular silence it has great benefits, including preventing burnout. Silence and solitude provides a much needed break from productivity. It heightens our sensitivity and addresses our anxiety, which often stems from worrying about the future. Silence bring our awareness back to the present. Silence improves memory and cultivates a form of mindful intention that later motivates us to action.

In silence and solitude we became self-aware and begin to take ownership and responsibility of our lives and actions. Some of the brightest ideas are formed in silence. The discipline of learning to face something as uncomfortable as silence has great benefits for the rest of our lives. It takes courage as it does expose our muted pain and helps us reflect on our past. Silence also fosters compassion because it equips us to be patient and mindful of the other.

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Many religions have embraced the discipline of silence in one way or another, although it is rarely a common practice in much of modern-day Christianity. In my own faith tradition, silence is rarely practiced in a communal sense and when it is, it is most often accompanied by instrumental music. Silence makes us feel awkward. If we manage to push past this awkwardness and begin the slow journey of regularly allowing for silence during our day, it will change us. Silence brings peace. Silence allows for God to speak. Silence transforms us. However, it should not be entered into carelessly because silence is confronting. Henri Nouwen writes, “Solitude is not a private therapeutic place. Rather, it is the place of conversion, the place where the old self dies and the new self is born …  In solitude, I get rid of my scaffolding: no friends to talk with, no telephone calls to make, no meetings to attend, no music to entertain, no books to distract, just me – naked, vulnerable, weak, sinful, deprived, broken – nothing. It is this nothingness that I have to face in my solitude, a nothingness so dreadful that everything in me wants to run to my friends, my work, and my distractions so that I can forget my nothingness and make myself believe that I am worth something.”

It has now been several years since I first started the discipline of silence. First, I made room in my day, then I ventured to silent retreats. At first I found them terrifying – I was fidgety and anxious about all the things I needed to do! Now, years later, I yearn for silence. It has changed my life, my perspective and my journey with God. In a few weeks I will again go to a place of silence for several days. It no longer holds any fear. I drive into its gates and it welcomes me like a loving friend. I rest in its embrace – the sound of Silence is a healer.

Psalm 46:10
Be still and know that I am God
Be still and know that I am
Be still and know
Be still
Be

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Addicted to a Different Type of Speed

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If someone asked me how I spent the last 25 years, I would have to say, “In a hurry.” That is not a statement I am really proud of. In fact, it is one of the things I deeply regret about the last two decades. My husband and I were married in 1986 and very involved in a larger faith community in Melbourne. Three children later and life continued to get more and more hectic. My husband was (and is) the Senior Minister of this church, and I was on staff fulfilling various roles. Everything moved fast. I never questioned this breakneck speed because in my mind this was all part of ‘God’s will’. This pace was also something I was used to from my childhood, where both parents worked and hurry was the norm.

It takes a very long time to become conscious of the fact that the way we charge through life at great haste, is not ideal. It takes even longer to begin to start to recover from this modern malaise. We eat fast, talk fast, walk fast, hit the elevator button twice and get irritated while waiting in traffic. We have become the experts in ‘multi-tasking’ and our conversations often center around how busy we are. Look around you, especially if you live in the city, notice how everyone seems to be doing life with a great sense of hurried urgency? Even in this ‘jolly’ Christmas season, tempers flare as shoppers are on a hurried hunt to find the ‘perfect’ presents for their loved ones.

Here is the bad news: this hurry thing is killing us. Hurry sickness has been defined as ‘a behaviour pattern characterised by continual rushing and anxiousness: an overwhelming and continual sense of urgency.’

time-92897_1920Do we tolerate this rather second-rate way of life because it takes us such a long time to be truly honest with ourselves? We believe the slogans that slick marketing machines throw at us. So we work harder and longer to buy more stuff that we don’t need. Stuff, that causes us untold anxiety as we work relentlessly in order to repay the debt that we owe on the stuff we don’t need. For a split second we get a feeling of ‘pleasure’ from our possessions and this, in turn, feeds hollow ideals of ‘happiness’. So we have successfully created a contemporary world of hurry-harrowed people with bling and zing … and empty lives. Our consumer habits have won the day, or as William Wordsworth put it: “Habit rules the unreflective soul.” Slowly, like Truman Burbank, we begin to wake up to our false hyper-reality and realise the trouble we are in. No wonder there’s such an enthusiastic move towards minimalism.

Bronnie Ware is an Australian nurse who spent years of her life working in palliative care. She outlines some of her reflections in a book, The Top Five Regrets of the Dying. The five regrets she listed were:
1. I wish I had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.
2. I wish I hadn’t worked so hard.
3. I wish I had the courage to express my feelings.
4. I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends.
5. I wish that I had let myself to be happier.

The book is sobering. It serves as a reminder that these regrets share some common denominators. One of them is the speed at which we choose to live. There is little time for reflection, for mindfulness, or authenticity, when we don’t even have time to walk in the park. Just as speed is dangerous on the road, relentless speed through life kills the human heart. It turns us into a zombie life form and sometimes it is only a life crisis that wakes us up from this state.
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The great benefit of slowing down is reclaiming the time and tranquility to make meaningful connections — with people, with culture, with work, with nature, with our own bodies and minds,” writes Carl Honore. There is something about the discipline of slow that allows us to be truly human again. The popular Psalm 23 describes a Shepherd who leads his sheep by quiet waters and allows them to rest in green pastures. Unfortunately, this Psalm is often read at funerals, whereas it would serve much better as a reflection for the living.

It took me a long time to acknowledge that I was addicted to a different type of speed. Change was painful. But my life is different today. I have made choices that reflect my desire to live a more contemplative and attentive life. As a recovering hurry addict, I still at times hear the voices of my addiction. They try to tempt me back to that place. Sometimes they can be quite persuasive. But I have tasted a different life. It is in the ‘slow’ that I have learnt to see and it is in the unhurried that I have found joy. I don’t want to go back. So I have set some things in place that I practice. They include learning to listen more deeply, savouring the various moments throughout the day, expressing gratitude, saying ‘no’ without feeling guilty, freeing myself from religious cliches that promised life but brought ashes, throwing away unrealistic ‘to do’ lists and watching the sunset most evenings.

Friend, I am not here to tell you how to live your life. This blog is simply a tiny voice to point out that you have one magnificent life to live. Does your life truly reflect what you say you value? Maybe, like me, you have to make some changes – after all there’s a whole world of roses out there. Imagine if you didn’t make the time to smell even one?

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“A quiet secluded life in the country, with the possibility of being useful to people to whom it is easy to do good, and who are not accustomed to have it done to them; then work which one hopes may be of some use; then rest, nature, books, music, love for one’s neighbor — such is my idea of happiness.” 

Leo Tolstoy

In the Name of God: Reflections on Bullying and Religion

Bullying: the use of force, threat, or coercion to abuse, intimidate, or dominate others. If you are anything like me, you have experienced your fair share of bullying, especially through those ‘delightful’ school years. In the middle of my cyber-bullying-122156_1280first grade in Germany, they discovered I had severe astigmatism, and I became the proud owner of a rather huge pair of round glasses. My latest acquisition made me the perfect target for those seeking to “intimidate or dominate others”. The following year we relocated to South Africa and I was the immigrant kid who spoke no English or Afrikaans. I became well acquainted with the inside of the school library, as it offered the perfect refuge from bullies.

Today everyone is talking about bullying, sadly because we now need to know how to survive, and teach our children to survive, in a culture of bullying. Social media, reality TV shows, talk shows, politics, schools, workplace, the list goes on – every space has its bullies, with devastating results. People bully because there’s a rush that comes with power, they are often encouraged by others which provides positive reinforcement, they have an inability to feel empathy and may even derive pleasure from someone else’s pain, and/or they come from a background that shows no affection and may even model aggression. Bullying is a rampant social problem and I am pleased to see it addressed in many forums. However, what if that bullying is related to God?

There are a few books released on this subject of bullying and spiritual abuse. Bullying is disastrous in all situations. Yet bullying in the name of God is often tolerated for a very long time. Why? Because it is so hard to recognise. When God is attached to the rhetoric of the bully, the victim is being emotionally attacked and manipulated. However, the victim also has a desire to ‘please God’ or be ‘obedient to God’ and may feel that the bully is speaking for, or acting on, God’s behalf. This makes the whole scenario very confusing. More often than not, the person does not even realise they are being bullied. Someone can use the Bible in such a manner that it sounds correct, but rather than bringing life and comfort, the listener is being intimidated or manipulated. In this case, faith has become toxic.
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I have a dear friend who spent many years of her life in a cult. A cult that determined how she lived her life and that was involved in all major decisions she had to make. A cult that treated her with absolute abusive contempt. Yet she remained faithful and submissive to this group for many years. Brainwashing is a cult tactic. My friend believed that being submissive was ‘God’s will’ and that disobeying the ‘Fatherhood’ (elders and spiritual oversight), was the same as disobeying God. Never underestimate the power of a bully coupled with faith and religion. Some of you may be interested in reading her story.

Religion and bullying take many forms. The bullies are often motivated by sincere religious ideals. As parents we can coerce our children to believe or behave in ways that line up with our faith ideologies. However, these tactics can be soul destroying. I have been listening to the sad stories of many LGBTI young people who have been bullied by their families and/or faith communities, all in the name of God. The ex-gay moment, in their attempt to ‘straighten out’ LGBTI folk, has often resorted to all forms of bullying with devastating results (please know that if you have been a victim of this movement that there is help and information available). Religious schools can resort to a form of bullying in their disciplinary measures. I recall one of my children’s faith and character being questioned because she talked in class, insinuating her childish behaviour does not ‘please God’. This sort of manipulation on impressionable young minds can have long-term effects on a person’s confidence and self-image.
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Perhaps one of the most common forms of bullying is in faith communities themselves. Those deemed spiritual leaders can suggest various things from a place of ‘spiritual authority’ that really is a form of bullying. A friend of mine recently blogged on this topic. He wrote about the harm done to people suffering from mental illness who listen, via sermons or books, to others seeking to ‘educate’ on the subject of mental illness, who have no form of education or qualification: “What is readily apparent throughout The Power of Right Believing is that Prince has no understanding of mental illness and addiction, no awareness of its myriad causes, and no knowledge of the complex medicinal and psychological strategies that will help a person (and their family) to manage (not cure) the lifelong challenge of living with the illness.” This is gross negligence at best, and a form of bullying at its worst.

Although bullying in faith communities is often discussed in regards to abuse from spiritual leaders, I have also observed bullying by congregation members against religious leaders. Most often, both sides believe they have God on their side and therefore the despicable behaviour and/or words are justified. Religious bullies often think themselves as ‘prophetic’, bearers of the truth, and apart from feeling persecuted, they are generally angry with this ‘wicked’ world.

Some signs of religious bullying can include:
– criticism and belittling
– intimidating others
– spreading rumours, gossip and lies
– excluding and isolating others
– never admit any wrong
– refusal to show remorse or seek forgiveness for any wrongdoing
– zero empathy or understanding of what the other feels like
– aggression (this can be in words or even print)bible-879085_1280
– domineering
– martyr complex

 

There are many helpful ideas on how to cope with religious bullies. One of the top rules: Give them no oxygen. Trust me, that sounds a lot easier than it actually is. I faced some serious bullying from religious lobby groups earlier this year and everything in me just wanted to take them out … but then I would become just like them: a bully. When we are the target of religious poison everything in us wants to dexify. Don’t. Let it go. That is horrible punishment for bullies who, often suffering from narcissistic personality disorder, crave our reaction.

In conclusion, maybe a most uncomfortable truth. Most of us, at some stage, have acted like bullies. We have intimidated others. We have coerced and manipulated others to do our bidding. No genuine conversation about bullying can happen without this recognition. I look back on my life and recognise many moments when I was the bully, when I was the oppressor, when I inflicted pain on others. To truly see social change in this area we need to recognise the human malady of insatiable hunger for power and dominance. This distorted survival mode does not exempt anyone, including, and maybe especially, religious folk who also have a God to bring into bullying tactics. We all need to be aware of the bully within, to move our lives from an ego-centric focus to one of love and grace.pogo-enemy(Please note: Links are underlined)

 

The Way We Were

There is a deeper voice of God, which you must learn to hear and obey in the second half of life. It will sound an awful lot like the voices of risk, of trust, of surrender, of soul, of “common sense,” of destiny, of love, of an intimate stranger, of our deepest self … the true faith journey only begins at this point. Up to now everything is mere preparation.

Richard Rohr

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Have you ever played Jenga? The block-stacking game that really gets exciting when you start pulling out blocks while trying not to topple the tower? The idea, of course, is not to be the one that pulls out the block that causes the whole structure to fall.

jengaJenga is a perfect example of life. Our life narrative and experience, our family, people in positions of authority in our lives, friends, books, etc, all build up our belief structure and reality. They help frame our life, behaviour, and thoughts of who we are and the world around us. We all live with certain equations of understanding. Yet for each of us there will come a time when some of our jenga towers topple, when these equations no longer add up. Some of our tightly held beliefs are contradicted by life and reality. What helped build who we were in the first half of life, no longer carries us in the second half of life.Colombia-Peru-Jenga1

Richard Rohr calls these jenga block structures our ‘loyal soldiers’ – and there comes a time when we have to learn to dismiss them. When we come to necessary endings. When the tower topples and it’s ok. When we move from ‘ego centric’ to ‘soul centric’:

In post World War II Japan some Japanese communities had the savvy to understand that many of their returning soldiers were not fit or prepared to re-enter civil or humane society. Their only identity for their formative years had been to be a ‘loyal soldier’ to their country; they needed a broader identity to once again rejoin their communities as useful citizens.”

“So these Japanese communities created a communal ritual whereby a soldier was publicly thanked and praised effusively for his service to the people. After this was done at great length, an elder would stand and announce with authority something to this effect: ‘The war is now over! The community needs you to let go of what has served you and served us well up to now. The community needs you to return as a man, a citizen, and something beyond a soldier.’ We call this process ‘discharging your loyal soldier.'”

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In 2009, I wrote a piece that helped me put words to my Jenga experience of the previous several yearsSome of my tightly held ideologies, especially concerning my faith, had fallen on their face. What followed were seasons of unease, discomfort and pain – yet now I would not change any of it. It was time to let go of some of my ‘loyal soldiers’. So here is that piece, dedicated to all whose carefully crafted Jenga Tower has toppled. To let you know that you are not alone, that there is a whole army of toppled Jenga tower survivors who are now thriving,   and to assure you that the Grace that has carried you through your first half of life is still sufficient in this new place:

The Way We Were

When I look back over my life I realise how much I have changed in thought and theology. The journey of life is certainly never boring! And the journey, in and of itself, is probably one of the main things God uses to reveal himself to us.

There was a time when I actually thought God was in sensationalism – in the goose bumps, and the atmosphere of certain songs; nowadays I see him far more clearly in the slums and the ordinary.

There was a time when I thought that the mountaintop is the right and nirvana of every Christian; nowadays I see His footprints in the muddy paths of very dark valleys.

There was a time when I thought that I had clearly mastered and understood most major doctrinal truths; nowadays I walk with a lot more contradiction as I face the fact of how little I really know.

There was a time when my god could comfortably fit into a safe box, or on a flannel board, and he would make everyone smile; nowadays I am content to simply recognise that what I worshipped was a god the way I wanted him, not the God who said his ways and thoughts are beyond mine.

There was a time when I thought triumphant victory was the reward of the strong and courageous; nowadays I feel more at home with failure, and a recognition that God is not freaked out by it either (the freaked out god belonged on my flannel board).

There was a time when I thought that suffering was a strange phenomena; now I stand at the foot of a bloody cross and wonder “what the hell was I thinking?”

There was a time when I thought God depended on my prayers; nowadays I continually pray in the face of my own helplessness.

There was a time when I looked for miracles in the supernatural and gobstopping; nowadays I realise every breath of life is a miracle and gobstopping.

There was a time when I thought that friends should be found in the community of the triumphant and all-together ones; nowadays I feel very at home with sinners, mainly because my own sinfulness stares me in the face.

There was a time when I thought God had cursed the lepers in our community; nowadays I realise He is the leper that our Christian communities often curse.

Change is painful. Pain causes us to wake up to the matrix, once woken we really don’t want to go back …

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Confessions of a Bibliophile

“There is no friend as loyal as a book”

Ernest Hemingway

I am an only child. From time to time people ask whether I missed having brothers or sisters. This is rather a peculiar question. It’s like asking someone who has never tasted eggs whether they miss quiche. In short, no. I did not miss having brothers or sisters. I am sure siblings are a marvellous treat for those who possess them, but I didn’t, and so I never missed them the slightest. How can you miss annoying homo sapiens that you have to share things with? Imagine if I had to share my books?!

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My obsession with books started at an early age. Amongst my collection of childhood books I specifically remember an ancient edition of Grimm’s Fairytales that sat on my bedside table. It was printed in Old German Fraktur font. Both my Omas could read the book at lightning speed. My book collection grew as my reading skills developed; from books on animals to old castles, fairy tales, poetry, children’s novels, and, of course, the whole collection of Asterix & Obelix. When we migrated to South Africa I learnt English and Afrikaans. This opened up a whole new set of books! I distinctly recall the first time I read Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, by Mark Twain, and bawling my way through Uncle Tom’s Cabin, by Harriet Beecher Stowe. There are some books that haunt us for a lifetime.

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Providence would have it that my path would cross with a rather tall redhead, whose love for books matched mine. He considered browsing through encyclopedias a favourite pastime in his childhood. It was a match made in heaven. The lack of a shared ‘book love’ would have most certainly been a deal breaker. So between us, we started collecting a humungous amount of books. All sorts of books. “Read all sorts of books that wound and stab us,” advises Franz Kafka (The Metamorphosis). This is good advice. Books open our thoughts and hearts. They take us to a different world and for a moment we can become part of a fantastic adventure. “A reader lives a thousand lives before he dies,” said Jojen. “The man who never reads lives only one.” (A Dance with DragonsGeorge R.R. Martin).

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It would be extremely difficult for me to list the most important books to read or my most favourite books. That would feel like I am selling out on old friends by comparing their worthiness or value. I have, however, thrown out a bunch of stupid books. Most often, modern-day schmuck about how to be better in leading, speaking, praying, or peeing – yeah, the self-help genre is my least favourite. *Rant Alert*: self-help books remind me of people who have discovered some gold (to their credit), but now they are convinced that the whole frigging world will discover gold in the same place, at the same time, with the same set of tools if they dig in just the right way, whilst chanting mantras. Yes, I know, it’s an awful generalisation and I probably just managed to offend some of my blog readers … but it is a pet peeve.

Now if you are a bibliophile, or more importantly, if you have a bibliophile living under your roof, the following observations may be very helpful:

  1. Bibliophiles feel lost without books. The Apostle Paul is in a dark, damp Roman prison, writing a letter to Timothy. “Bring my cloak,” he says (ver5127556-ancient-map-scroll-Stock-Photo-map-pirate-parchmenty important), “and my scrolls, especially the parchments” (most important). Who would have thought that Paul was a bibliophile? He was having massive withdrawals from his ‘books’ (2 Tim. 4:13).
  2. Bibliophiles will take great joy in ‘cleaning’ their bookshelves. Think it nothing strange if your book addict declares they will sort their books and then spend hours taking every book off the shelf, gazing lovingly at it, cleaning the shelves, and then putting them all back in a different order. If you are lucky, they emerge with one or two books that can be given away … you never really throw away books, unless they are extremely stupid books (please refer to ‘rant’ section above).
  3. You will often lose bibliophiles when you shop – they can be retrieved from the nearest book320px-Carl_Spitzweg_021shop. If, however, that bookshop is a second-hand bookshop, you have zero chance of getting them out of there in less than three hours.
  4. Bibliophiles will judge you. They will not judge you on your clothes, looks, education, house,beauty-and-the-beast-belle-book-books-Favim.com-616270.jpg food or pet. They will judge you on your bookshelf and on the books you are reading. Prepare for judgment.
  5. They press rewind every time the Beast unveils the library in Beauty and the Beast.
  6. Most often introverted, bibliophiles are happy for you to jabber on about all things regarding ‘normal’ life until it comes to books. God help you if you misquote a book. God help you if you make a derogative comment about a classic novel. God help you if you do not ask them at that time what they are reading and why. To be forewarned is to live in harmony.
  7. Bibliophiles will have certain books they read repeatedly. This is a most bizarre behaviour for anyone who is not a book addict. It’s really hard to explain why we do this. Perhaps it has to do with relieving the experience or the feeling we received from reading the book, or simply to make triply sure that we did not miss a minute detail of the story. My repeat reads include Brennan Manning’s The Ragamuffin GospelRichard Rohr’s, Breathing Underwater, and, of course, Tolkien’s, Lord of the Rings.

book-61So, mugwumps, who of you want to raise your hands and join me in my book addiction confession moment? What books are you reading right now? Oh, and is this a good time for me to tell you what I am reading? I thought you’d never ask! On the novel side I am ploughing my way through Philippa Gregory’s excellent historical novel series, The Cousins’ WarI love historical novels and Gregory is an outstanding writer as she sheds light on the three important women of the Wars of the Roses. I am also re-reading David Gushee’s book, Changing our Mind. Gushee is the Distinguished University Professor of Christian Ethics and Director of the Center for Theology and Public Life at Mercer University. Widely regarded as one of the leading moral voices in American Christianity, he is the author or editor of 20 books and hundreds of articles in his field, including Righteous Gentiles of the HolocaustKingdom EthicsThe Sacredness of Human Life, and, most recently, Changing Our Mind. What a read! Here’s a quote: “Better is one day in the company of those bullied by Christians but loved by Jesus than thousands in the company of those wielding scripture to harm the weak and defenceless.” (Review)

Yes, I am afraid I am a bibliophile. I love big books and I cannot lie. But now it’s your turn – what books are you reading and what do you love/hate about them?

“When I get a little money I buy books; and if any is left I buy food and clothes.” 

Desiderius Erasmus