Bittersweet: Thoughts on Change, Grace, and Learning the Hard Way

Bittersweet by Shauna NiequistBittersweet: Thoughts on Change, Grace, and Learning the Hard Way by Shauna Niequist
Publisher: Zondervan
Number of pages:
252

My copy: Kindle edition

‘The idea of bittersweet is changing the way I live, unraveling and re-weaving the way I understand life. Bittersweet is the idea that in all things there is both something broken and something beautiful, that there is a moment of lightness on even the darkest of nights, a shadow of hope in every heartbreak, and that rejoicing is no less rich even when it contains a splinter of sadness.

‘It’s the practice of believing that we really do need both the bitter and the sweet, and that a life of nothing but sweetness rots both your teeth and your soul. Bitter is what makes us strong, what forces us to push through, what helps us earn the lines on our faces and the calluses on our hands. Sweet is nice enough, but bittersweet is beautiful, nuanced, full of depth and complexity. Bittersweet is courageous, gutsy, audacious, earthy.

‘This is what I’ve come to believe about change: it’s good, in the way that childbirth is good, and heartbreak is good, and failure is good. By that I mean that it’s incredibly painful, exponentially more so if you fight it, and also that it has the potential to open you up, to open life up, to deliver you right into the palm of God’s hand, which is where you wanted to be all long, except that you were too busy pushing and pulling your life into exactly what you thought it should be.

‘I’ve learned the hard way that change is one of God’s greatest gifts, and most useful tools. Change can push us, pull us, rebuke and remake us. It can show us who we’ve become, in the worst ways, and also in the best ways. I’ve learned that it’s not something to run away from, as though we could, and that in many cases, change is a function of God’s graciousness, not life’s cruelty.

Niequist, a keen observer of life with a lyrical voice, writes with the characteristic warmth and honesty of a dear friend: always engaging, sometimes challenging, but always with a kind heart. You will find Bittersweet savory reading, indeed.

‘This is the work I’m doing now, and the work I invite you into: when life is sweet, say thank you, and celebrate. And when life is bitter, say thank you, and grow.’

* * *

If it were any other time, any other season, I probably wouldn’t have picked this up from the Kindle store. I wouldn’t have looked at this twice, because I don’t think it’s for me, or I would be interested. When was the last time I read a non-fiction, self-help book like this? I can’t remember. But I know for sure that if it were any other time early this year, or if it were any other season in my life, I wouldn’t have decided to get Bittersweet by Shauna Niequist and read it immediately after it loaded on Hannah the Kindle.

Oh, I guess it helped that the ebook was on sale when I saw it, so I bought it. But still, I wouldn’t have gotten it and enjoyed it as much as I did if it were any other time of my life.

Bittersweet: Thoughts on Change, Grace and Learning the Hard Way by Shauna Niequist is about so many things, but mostly, about how life is bittersweet. How life isn’t always happy or sweet but we shouldn’t let the bitterness of it get to us. There is such a thing as bittersweet, and it’s the kind of life that we should appreciate, especially because all the learning and the changes and (most importantly) grace is seen in the bittersweet parts of life. This is a collection of essays and realizations about her life, and what she learned from them — from her fights with her husband to moving to a new place, from meeting new friends, having parties and serving them food and these friends moving away. From her problems getting pregnant again to broken hearts, family members dying and babies being born. The book is an honest collection of stories that the reader will definitely relate to at some point, and drives the point that life is really bittersweet.

Like I said, if I read this at any other time, I don’t think it would have made as much of a big impact as it did now. Bittersweet kept me company during the hard days, and spoke to me over and over and over again about grace and God’s faithfulness. I couldn’t relate to some of the stories Niequist wrote because I don’t have a family, and I haven’t moved away yet, but the lessons she talked about were universal, and somehow I felt like she really knew what heartache is, and she can relate to me. Her words served like a balm to my soul, and some passages made me cry several times because it felt like they were exactly what I needed to read.

In a way, it seemed like a promise, too — that whatever you’re going through, whatever your situation is, God knows it, and He will take you through it. It’s not easy, but you have a choice to view your situation as bittersweet. And from her words, it seemed like she’s healed and moved on from the hard parts of her life and if she can do it, then you definitely can, too. I needed that, and as I read the book more, I realize that maybe it was meant for me to see this book on Amazon, and to see it on sale so I can buy it.

Granted, some of the stories were a little repetitive, like stories at the end had some similarities to the stories at the start, but by the time I got to that, I was far too in love with what I’ve read for me to really nitpick about it. Despite that repetitiveness, though, the stories in Bittersweet were honest and heartfelt and real, and it made me feel that I had a friend in Shauna Niequist, even if this is the first book of hers I’ve read.

I wonder now how I would’ve reacted to this if I read this on any other time, at any other season. I know I’m being repetitive on this review with that, but I can’t help but wonder. Would I even read this at all? If I did, though, I don’t think I would’ve loved it as much as I did now. But whatever — I’m just really, really glad that this book got to me at the right time. If you’re in a tough time, if you’re experiencing bitter moments, I definitely recommend this book. Bittersweet may not make your life better in a snap, but I hope it helps you heal, just like a good book ought to do. :)

Number of dog-eared pages: 114

Favorite dog-eared quote(s):

I believe that God is making all things new. I believe that Christ overcame death and that pattern is apparent all through life and history: life from death, water from stone, redemption from failure, connection from alienation. I believe suffering is part of the narrative, and that nothing really good gets built when everything’s easy. I believe that loss and emptiness and confusion often give way to new fullness and wisdom. (p. 17)

Good friendships are like breakfast. You think you’re too busy to eat breakfast, but then you find yourself exhausted and cranky halfway through the day, and discover that your attempt to save time totally backfired…because there really is nothing like good friends, like the sounds of their laughter and the tones of their voices and the things they teach us in the quietest, smallest moments. (p. 65)

That’s why travel is so important, among other reasons: to get far enough away from our everyday lives to see those lives with new clarity. When you’re literally on the other side of the world, when you’re under the silent sea, watching a bright, silent world of fish and coral, when you’re staring up at a sky so bright and dense with stars it makes you gasp, it’s in those moments that you begin to see the fullness of your life, the possibility that still prevails, that always prevails. (p. 79)

If arithmetic is numbers, and if algebra is numbers and letters, then grace is numbers, letters, sounds, and tears, feelings and dreams. Grace is smashing the calculator, and using all the broken buttons and pieces to make a mosaic. (p. 83)

Now is your time. Become, believe, try. Walk closely with the people you love, and with other people who believe that God is very good and life is a grand adventure. Don’t spend time with people who make you feel like less than you are. Don’t get stuck in the past, and don’t try to fast-forward yourself into a future you haven’t yet earned. Give today all the love and intensity and courage you can, and keep traveling honestly along life’s path. (p. 90)

I believe deeply that God does his best work in our lives during times of great heartbreak and loss, and I believe that much of that rich work is done by the hands of people who love us, who dive into the wreckage with us and show us who God is, over and over and over. (p.94)

Our hearts are more elastic than we think, and the work of forgiveness and transformation and growth can do things you can’t even imagine from where you’re standing now. (p. 223)

My life is a story about who God is and what he does in a human heart…if you have been transformed by the grace of God, then you have within you all you need to write your manifesto, your poem, your song, your battle cry, your love letter to a beautiful and broken world. Your story must be told. (p.241)

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Iscariot: A Novel of Judas

Iscariot by Tosca Lee Iscariot by Tosca Lee
Publisher: Howard Books
Number of pages: 352
My copy: ebook review copy from Netgalley

In Jesus, Judas believes he has found the One—the promised Messiah and future king of the Jews, destined to overthrow Roman rule. Galvanized, he joins the Nazarene’s followers, ready to enact the change he has waited for all his life. But soon Judas’s vision of a nation free from Rome is crushed by the inexplicable actions of the Nazarene himself, who will not bow to social or religious convention—who seems, in the end, to even turn against his own people. At last, Judas must confront the fact that the master he loves is not the liberator he hoped for, but a man bent on a drastically different agenda.

Iscariot is the story of Judas, from his tumultuous childhood to his emergence as the man known to the world as the betrayer of Jesus. But even more, it is a singular and surprising view into the life of Jesus that forces us to reexamine everything we thought we knew about the most famous—and infamous—religious icons in history.

* * *

Ever since Tosca announced that she was writing this book in 2010, I have been eagerly waiting for this to come out. I loved her first two books, Demon and Havah: The Story of Eve, and a novel about Judas Iscariot is something that I know only Tosca can write with the same heart-wrenching clarity and sensitivity that she did in her first two books. When it came up available in Netgalley, I immediately got it and saved it in my Kindle. Of course, it took me ages to finally start it, until I decided that it would be my Holy Week read.

Judas Iscariot. The traitor. The betrayer. It’s so easy to hate him, and blame him, because if he didn’t sell Jesus for 30 silver coins, then maybe Jesus wouldn’t have died. It was simple, right? But have we ever wondered that even if Judas hadn’t done what he did, would Jesus still have died? After all, it was salvation history, and it was God the Father’s will for the Son of Man. Would someone else have betrayed him? And we always associate Judas with something evil, but if he was evil, why would he even be a part of Jesus’ closest circle? Why would Jesus even call Judas friend? 

Iscariot doesn’t attempt to answer this, but instead presents what we know of Jesus’ time in an even more clarity. Tosca brings us to the heart of that time — the social and political unrest of the Jews against the Romans, the religious customs of the Jewish and how important it is to them, and how the Pharisees just seem to be everywhere. And then there’s Jesus, who shocks everyone and speaks of a radical faith, heals people, drives out demons and resurrects the dead. We see all this in the eyes of Judas bar Simon, who came from a tumultuous childhood and is desperately wishing for a messiah. When his paths cross with Jesus the Nazarene of questionable birth and he follows him together with eleven other men, he wonders if he is the one. He wonders, and dares to hope, torn between love for his master and wanting a specific vision for the people. In Iscariot, we see Jesus through human eyes — through doubting, human eyes and a heart that is so scared to hope — and it brings the readers this question: if I were Judas at that time, would I have done the same thing if I thought it was the right thing?

What an unsettling novel. It’s kind of hard to explain what effect this novel had on me. It reminds me of the Gospel during the Palm Sunday mass — you know, the one where the priest is Jesus and the mass goers are the people and we all had speaking parts in the Gospel? My heart clenched like crazy when I had to say, “Crucify him!” The second time I had to say it, my eyes burned with tears, because I knew that at several points in my life, I had crucified Christ because of my sins. And I keep on doing it whenever I fail to be loving, when I fall into sin. In Iscariot, we see Judas and the apostles in all their humanity, and how they tried to follow Jesus even if they do not understand him. Tosca weaves a story of how everything must have been like for Judas as he fights against himself in hoping that this charismatic Nazarene could be the savior of all — and how he tries to act as a good friend when he realizes that maybe his master may not be what he expected him to be. Tosca’s writing was rich and colorful, and it puts all those miracles and stories in the Gospels in a more concrete way, so much that it felt like I was also there. Here’s a favorite part, when Jesus calmed the storm:

In a flash of lightning, I saw the sandaled feet of Jesus, flagging against the floor of the boat, loosely in the water, like the body of a dead man, floating. Had he drowned, then, there beneath the stern? Had he departed from us silently, without even a word of farewell? Soon we would all be fortunate to float like that on any water here.

I told myself to let go, to lunge forward and seize him by the legs. Then the boat jinked sideways, throwing us all backward. For a horrifying instant, I thought we would capsize. I opened my mouth to cry out to him, only to be slapped in the face with a crashing wave that slapped my ears and sent my head ringing.

It was John who fell down over us, grabbing me by the arm when I nearly fell over the side. “Master! Save us!”

It was a horrid sound, that scream. I would remember it for the rest of my life.

I covered my face, trying to shield my eyes. Against the dark, I saw him, the pale of his tunic in the sluicing blackness, rising up. In my deafness, I heard him when I should not have against the screeching gale:

Be still.

The words had not been shouted to the furious wind or issued to the sky, but spoken as through directly to my heart.

I’m not very good with history or theology, so I can’t speak if this book is super accurate, but for a piece of historical “fiction”, this definitely made me think. It made me feel sympathetic at the least, and it made me see Jesus in a different light. It made me see my Savior’s passion and death in a different perspective. It made me see my own humanity, and the depth of Jesus’ love even for those who He knew would betray Him.

And aren’t we all that, anyway? Haven’t be betrayed him at some point in our life? And won’t we betray him in the future, because we are human and we are weak? And Jesus knows that…still, He loves us without a doubt.

I finished reading Iscariot before 3:00pm on Good Friday, and I was a little overwhelmed with the time and how it ended. I knew how it would end, and yet…it left me somber. It left me sad. Would there have been redemption for Judas, if he had just waited? Could he have become someone like Peter, who denied Jesus but accepted mercy which led him to become the great church leader that he is? If he had just waited until Sunday, would he have believed that Jesus was indeed the person he had been waiting for his entire life?

We would never know.

I admit that I may be just a little biased because I love everything that Tosca has written, but if you would read any of her work, I think Iscariot: A Novel of Judas is the best place to start. It’s not the easiest thing to read, but it’s one that will leave you longing for your Savior.

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The Scent of Rain

The Scent of RainThe Scent of Rain by Kristin Billerbeck
Publisher: Thomas Nelson
Number of pages: 305
My copy: ebook review copy from Netgalley

Could it be that the life Daphne’s always wanted is right under her nose?

Daphne Sweeten left Paris–and a job she loved–to marry the man of her dreams in the U.S. But when he stands her up on their wedding day, she’s left reeling and senseless. Literally. She’s been trained as a perfume creator and now her sense of smell has disappeared along with her fiance.

She has to figure out why her nose isn’t working, fix it, and get back to Paris. Meanwhile, she’ll rely on her chemistry skills and just hope her new boss at Gibraltar Products, Jesse, doesn’t notice her failing senses. They’ll be working together on household fragrances, not posh perfumes. How hard can it be?

As Daphne and Jesse work on a signature scent for their new line, she feels God at work as never before. And the promise of what’s possible is as fresh as the scent of rain.

* * *

Daphne Sweeten is a professional nose — by that, we mean she’s a chemist who is trained to be a perfume creator. When she gets stood up on her wedding day, though, her sense of smell disappears. Trying to piece her life back together, she works for a small company in Ohio, hoping to get her sense of smell back and fly back to Paris, which she gave up for the supposed love of her life. But her new job requires her nose, too, and her new boss, Jesse, doesn’t seem to notice that she cannot smell anything. They’re not creating perfume anyway — she can definitely do this, right?

I’ve always considered Kristin Billerbeck books as a comfort read ever since I read and liked her Ashley Stockingdale series years ago. It’s been years since I last read a Billerbeck book, but even so, it was easy enough for me to get immersed in the book. There’s a certain familiarity in the way she writes, in her characters and her stories that makes her books easy reading, hence the comfort read label. :)

The Scent of Rain has that Billerbeck formula — a girl who has some sort of romantic fiasco, a guy who’s all bad news for her and a guy who’s obviously good for her. Then there’s the supporting cast: the best friend, the family (who, more often than not, cares for the main character in a really strange way), and the church group who will help her get back on track. And there’s the villain, who we all hate, but we will eventually understand, because of something that will happen. This book has all the common ingredients in a nice and clean chick lit novel, with the bonus factor of the main character’s job, a perfume specialist. I really liked the scent aspect of the book, and it gave me a whole new perspective with how to scents work with our senses. And I agree — scents can bring memories! I remember holding on to a perfume bottle for so long because it reminded me of this particular memorable event in my life. :)

It’s a very enjoyable read, and I found myself rooting for Daphne and wishing that Jesse would finally make that step to move their relationship forward. I liked the set-up, though, and their relationship seemed very organic despite the short time they spent. There was just the right swoon, too, but not too much that it’s too cheesy. It was fun, but not mindless and it’s clean but not too prudish.

I think my only complaint is that certain event in the end that brought about the big changes — it felt a little too convenient despite it being a bit surprising, bordering on being a deus ex machina. But other than that, I really enjoyed reading The Scent of RainIt’s not super duper amazing, but it’s good, and it makes me want to start looking for my own personal scent.

Reading this book makes me want to revisit the Ashley Stockingdale series to see if I still like it as much as I did on my first (and second) reads. Hmm.

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12 Best Books of 2012

So the 2012 reading year was interesting because I think this is the most I’ve explored different genres. I blame my book club for this, especially with our monthly discussions and their book recommendations. As a result, I didn’t reach the 150-ish book goal. However, I did enjoy exploring these other books that I wouldn’t normally read, so it’s still a pretty good year reading year.

I’ll talk about my reading stats more on another post. First, let’s get the best list out. 12 Best Books for 2012. Let’s get at it, shall we?

  1. Angelfall by Susan EeGruesome, creepy and scary but absolutely fun. I read this book because of all the good reviews I read from my Goodreads friends, and I devoured it in several days. I loved Penryn the kick-ass heroine and the equally bad-ass angels who caused the apocalypse. When is the sequel coming out again? Please make it soon?
    Angelfall by Susan Ee Continue Reading →

Mere Christianity

Mere ChristianityMere Christianity by C.S. Lewis
Publisher: HarperOne
Number of pages: 227
My copy: paperback, bought from Powerbooks (or was it a birthday gift? I can’t remember)

One of the most popular and beloved introductions to Christian faith ever written, Mere Christianity has sold millions of copies worldwide. The book brings together Lewis’s legendary broadcast talks of the war years, talks in which he set out simply to “explain and defend the belief that has been common to nearly all Christians at all times.” Rejecting the boundaries that divide Christianity’s many denominations, C.S. Lewis provides an unequaled opportunity for believers and nonbelievers alike to hear a powerful, rational case for Christian faith. It is a collection of scintillating brilliance that remains strikingly fresh for the modern reader and at the same time confirms C.S. Lewis’s reputation as one of the leading writers and thinkers of our age.

* * *

This is months overdue and at one point I wonder if I should still write one for this book because I am not sure if I still remember the important points I have noted and underlined (Yes, I underlined parts of this book — the only time I have underlined a book again since school). But then a few friends are discussing The Screwtape Letters online and for a moment there, I thought I already wrote a review for this. Turns out I haven’t yet. Suddenly, I felt like writing one again.

But I don’t think this will be really a review, but more of a reflection of sorts on the book. I’ve wanted to have a copy of Mere Christianity since college, back when I was still very active in my Catholic community, CFC Youth for Christ, and back when I was just discovering The Chronicles of Narnia (I’m a late bloomer). I finally received a copy of this for my birthday from my brother, I think but it languished on my TBR for several reasons: I wanted to read it but I admit that I fell asleep several times when I started it, and then later, I didn’t feel that I was ready for it just yet. I did read some parts of the book back when I was in a low moment when I started working, and this quote remains a favorite until now:

We may, indeed, be sure that perfect chastity — like perfect charity — will not be attained by any merely human efforts. You can ask for God’s help. Even when you have done so, it may seem to you for a long time that no help, or less help than you need is being given. Never mind. After each failure, ask forgiveness, pick yourself up, and try again. Very often what God first helps us towards is not the virtue itself but just this power of always trying again. For however important chastity (or courage, or truthfulness, or any other virtue) may be, this process trains us in habits of the soul which are more important still. It cures our illusions about ourselves and teaches us to depend on God. We learn, on one hand, that we cannot trust ourselves even in our best moments, and, on the other, we need not despair even in our worst for our failures are forgiven. The only fatal thing is to sit down content with anything less than perfection.

The book buddy thread for Mere Christianity was the perfect opportunity to read it again, but alas, I lagged behind terribly for many, many reasons. Sorry, book buddies! ^^; I still finished the book, of course, albeit very, very late, and then I took my own sweet time thinking about how to write about it because I really had no idea where to start — not because I didn’t like it or I liked it too much. It’s just…different.

Here’s what I think about Mere Christianity (and C.S. Lewis’ other non-fiction books, for that matter): they’re not for quick reading. The C.S. Lewis books I’ve read in the past year were always the kind of books that pack a punch and would make you pause several times to reflect on what he said. Another thing is it’s not easy reading, because more often than not, Lewis’ words tend to poke at those parts of us that we hide. That’s one of the reasons why the quote above hit me a lot, because it’s the truth, and based on experience, the truth is never really comfortable at first. On the other hand, books like Mere Christianity offer a lot of wisdom, although I think I wouldn’t have understood if I read it earlier in my faith walk. Perhaps this is why I read this at this time instead of when I got it?

To cut the long story short — I liked Mere Christianity a lot. I expected it from when I first asked for this book. It wasn’t difficult to read as far as writing is concerned, because Lewis approached the topics in a very human manner and I didn’t really sense self-righteousness in any of the chapters. What he said isn’t easy to follow, but they’re actually quite practical and some of them turned out to be things that I already knew, but somehow forgot, or just denied until it was brought out into the light. Like what the introduction in my copy said: 

The Christianity Lewis espouses is humane, but not easy; it asks us to recognize that the great religious struggle is not fought on a spectacular battleground, but within the ordinary human heart, when every morning we awake and feel the pressures of the day crowding in on us, and we must decide what sort of immortals we wish to be.

In the end, this mere Christianity that Lewis wrote about is still a choice, the free will given to us by God in His infinite love and mercy. It’s a lot to think about. Mere Christianity is book that is meant to be read not just once, just like The Screwtape Letters, because this is the kind of book that hits you differently with every reading, depending on your current situation.

As much as I liked this, though, and as much as I think this offers a lot of practical advice in how to live as a Christian, I must remember that this is still nothing compared to the Bible. This is the kind of book that could easily take over the Bible because it’s really easier to read, and I think it may even end up being some sort of how-to in being a Christian. It’s not. Funny that I would have to quote another book to enforce that point, butThe Ragamuffin Gospel by Brennan Manning sums this final thought up accurately:

The Word we study has to be the Word we pray. My personal experience of the relentless tenderness of God came not from exegetes, theologians, and spiritual writers, but from sitting still in the presence of the living Word and beseeching Him to help me understand with my head and heart His written Word. Sheer scholarship alone cannot reveal to us the gospel of grace. We must never allow the authority of books, institutions, or leaders to replace the authority of knowing Jesus Christ personally and directly. When the religious views of others interpose between us and the primary experience of Jesus as the Christ, we become unconvicted and unpersuasive travel agents handing out brochures to places we have never visited.

Last: I have to admit, one of the perks I got from reading this was finally reading the source of Brooke Fraser’s C.S. Lewis Song, one of my favorite songs ever. :)

I told you this wasn’t a review.

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