In recent times I have of course mainly just posted my Sunday sermons here on the blog. But a year or so ago, I interviewed Christian author Liz Carter about her book Treasure in Dark Places. The reaction to that interview was so positive, not least from church members asking me where they could buy Liz’s books, that when the opportunity came along to interview Jo Acharya about her new book Refresh: A Wellness Devotional for the Whole Christian Life, I couldn’t pass it up.
Hi Jo, welcome. Would you like to introduce yourself to the readers of this blog, please?
Thank you so much for having me on your blog David! I’m Jo, and I’m a writer and music therapist. I live in Sussex with my husband Dan and we also help to lead a small group at our church for adults with learning needs. I write a regular blog and also write ‘easy read’ Bible study and faith resources for Christians with learning needs, both on my website.
You’ve written a devotional book that’s just been published entitled ‘Refresh: A Wellness Devotional For The Christian Life’, and it has a different approach from many typical books of personal devotions. Do you think the Christian devotional book has become a stale format that needs re-inventing?
I don’t think the traditional devotional format is stale, but I do think there’s room for creative variations on the theme. One of the reasons I wrote ‘Refresh’ was to offer gentle encouragement to people who are struggling with their health, life circumstances or even their faith itself. I have cystic fibrosis and know how hard it can be to keep up with a daily devotional, so I decided to give ‘Refresh’ just one devotional each week, which makes it flexible enough to work through at the reader’s own pace. The other advantage of that is that it allows the reader to stay with a topic for longer rather than rushing onto a new reflection each day, which I think gives it a chance to sink in and have a deeper impact.
I note from a recent piece in Christian Writer magazine that you’re a big believer in ‘simple writing’. Have you written this book in a way that is accessible to all sorts of people, or does it have a specific narrow focus?
You’re right that one of my passions is making the Bible easy to understand, particularly for people with learning needs. ‘Refresh’ is for a general audience, but I have tried to use relatively simple language to make it accessible for people who aren’t confident readers as well as some with very mild learning needs. My next project is to adapt ‘Refresh’ into an ‘easy read’ edition which will use very simple language and be suitable for people with mild to moderate learning needs. Hopefully that should be out later this year, so I’m excited about that!
And the specific theme of ‘wellness’: did this come from all the concerns about mental health we’ve seen during the COVID-19 pandemic?
I actually began writing the book before the pandemic, when the importance of mental health and wellness was already gaining attention. But these last two years have only intensified the need to address those issues, and even many of us who haven’t struggled in those areas before have had to cope with increased stress, anxiety, illness or bereavement, as well as losing access to some of the things we usually do to look after our wellbeing. I know for myself personally the experience of lockdown and shielding has exposed all the things I was putting my hope and joy in that weren’t God! And it’s pushed me to try and realign my heart to focus on him more and hold the things of this world more loosely. ‘Refresh’ explores a lot of basic aspects of life including the practical, emotional and spiritual, and I do believe it has a lot to say to those who have suffered during this pandemic.
Yes, I found Patrick Regan’s book ‘When Faith Gets Shaken‘, which tells his own story of trusting God through suffering, really helpful to me personally. One of the big bees in my bonnet is about encouraging people to open up to God and be real about all the emotions they are feeling, and not hide from him. That’s something Patrick really emphasises in his work as well, and I’m so grateful for his kindness in endorsing my book.
With the rise in mental health issues being reported to doctors, we are seeing increased use of therapies such as Cognitive Behavioural Therapy. Do you think that your wellness devotional has something to offer in helping people reframe their circumstances and get out of their downward spirals?
I hope so. It’s certainly not a replacement for individual support like therapy, pastoral care or medication, but one area where I think ‘Refresh’ can be useful is in helping readers to identify areas where they might need that extra support. The questions each week probe a little bit into how the topic might relate to them personally and in the introduction I suggest that if particular questions are hard or painful to think about that might give clues as to areas that might be worth exploring further with someone they trust. Of course many readers won’t need further support, and for them I think ‘Refresh’ can be helpful for self-reflection, and an opportunity to discover in prayer areas where God wants to bring change or healing.
As an amateur photographer myself, I’m intrigued and pleased to see that you’ve involved your husband Dan in creating images for the book. How did that come about, and what do the images contribute to the book?
I think the aesthetic side of a devotional journal like this is really important. I wanted it to be a beautiful product that it makes you want to engage with it. So I needed some visual elements, and since I happen to be married to a talented photographer using his images seemed like the obvious choice! Dan’s photos represent each topic (usually in a somewhat abstract way) and they’re all quite different in style which I love. Images often communicate quicker than words and on a more emotional level so I think they give the book it’s feel. The book is also printed in full colour throughout which just makes it lovely to use and work through.
Is there a particular theme in the book that you think is especially relevant to our lives today as we continue to navigate the uncertainties and restrictions of the pandemic?
I guess the major theme weaving through the book is that God really wants to be involved in our whole lives, whatever they look like. For some of us our lives may have looked very different during this period, and we might have felt a bit lost in our faith too without the regular routine of in-person Sunday worship. Things may be beginning to return to normal for a lot of us now, but we still have that opportunity to keep inviting God into our lives outside of church. He really cares about our mundane everyday activities, our joys and our pain, and he wants to join us in all the messiness of life. So I hope ‘Refresh’ will be an encouragement to do that.
Thanks for taking part in this interview, Jo. Can you finally tell the readers the publication details of the book, please?
‘Refresh’ is published by Malcolm Down Publishing and it’s available now in all good bookshops. You can also get signed copies from my website, ValleyOfSprings.com/store.
Jo Acharya is a writer and music therapist. Her first book, ‘Refresh: a wellness devotional for the whole Christian life’ is available from all good bookshops. You can read more of Jo’s writing and buy signed copies of ‘Refresh’ at valleyofsprings.com, and you can follow her on social media at facebook.com/valleyofsprings and instagram.com/valleyofsprings.