In a Foreign Land (review)

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In a Foreign Land (In Search of Freedom Book 2)In a Foreign Land by Janice L. Dick

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Daniel and Luise Martens have built up a successful farm in northern China. The year is 1945 and fifteen years have passed since the Mennonite villagers from Slavgorod Colony of Western Siberia have escaped their Russian oppressors (story told in The Other Side of the River: Search for Freedom Book 1 – reviewed here).

Alarm bells ring from the opening pages when we discover Daniel’s Russian nemesis, Leonid Dubrowsky, is still alive and hot on Daniel’s heels for revenge.

The political unrest in Russia and China after WWII makes for a time of unrest in northern China. Daniel and other Russians who fled the Soviet Union are soon arrested and returned there as traitors. This leaves Luise and her 15-year-old bright but hot-tempered son Danny in charge of the farm.

The story takes us through the six years that follow. The fractured Martens family and their white neighbours, the Giesingers, become persona non grata in the now racially charged climate of Communist China. Danny’s temper gets him into trouble more than once. And then there’s the ever-looming shadow of Dubrowsky, who nurses the dream of wreaking vengeance on Daniel by destroying Danny and having his way with Luise.

The interesting historical plot is enhanced by the strong Christian faith of Luise and Rachel (Danny’s special childhood friend). It anchors the two families, while Danny’s questions and inability to believe that God even exists in all this turmoil adds realism to the faith aspect of the story.

I found this tale captivating from beginning to end. Dick tells the story through various viewpoints but chapters are titled with location and date so we’re always clear about when and where the incident takes place. Characters are realistic and complex. The plot is full of tension and suspense.

There is one more installment in the In Search of Freedom series. Book 3, Far Side of the Sea, is due to be released in the fall / winter of 2017.

This is a series not to be missed for historical fiction lovers, especially those with Mennonite roots.

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#BibleJournaling about Job

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The Meditation

About six weeks go I signed up for Rebekah R. Jones’ Bible journaling instructional videos. A few days ago Lesson 4 in the Deeper Still series (2017) arrived by email. This tutorial is a meditation and art journal project on the book of Job.

Rebekah is uniquely positioned to hold forth on Job considering her own mysterious multi-year illness. Much of that time she was bedridden and her case seemed hopeless. You can read the story of her illness and healing HERE.

I appreciated her faith and tenacity in holding onto her belief in the goodness and love of God in spite of how she felt and how bad her circumstances looked. Her conclusion was to look at how God’s love shines through even in our suffering. Here’s her sum-up from the project meditation:

“… let’s use this study as a moment in personal history to step into a new understanding of God’s beautiful love for us. Let’s go deeper still with Him and invite Him into areas of our lives that seemed scary to trust Him with before today” (read the entire devotion HERE).

The Project

I used the drawing of the girl looking at a heart that Rebekah provided as a free download. But because my Bible doesn’t have any empty space at the end of Job (like hers did) and because I try to keep as much of my Bible’s text readable as possible, I transferred the drawing to tracing paper, colored it with pencil crayons, cut it out and taped it into my Bible as a tip-in.

I hand-lettered “LOOK AT LOVE” sideways in the margin using a letter style I liked from the Complete Guide to Bible Journaling.

Job-1

More Study

Questions from Job still niggled at me, however, and I felt I needed to search for more answers to the questions posed by Job’s suffering and how God’s love related to his suffering and ours.

One of the commentaries I read was the “Introduction to Job” in my favorite study Bible. These points from the “Personal Application” section repeated and reinforced what Rebekah said about viewing God as love, even in suffering.

I copied the points in brief on the under-side of the page as a reminder to myself of how the questions raised in Job, suffering—including ours—and God’s love fit together.

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The Price of Freedom (review)

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The Price Of Freedom (A Story Of Courage And Faith, In The Face Of Danger.)The Price Of Freedom by Simon Ivascu

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Every young man between the ages of eighteen and twenty knew from early childhood that they would be required to go into the army to give one year of their lives in military service. … it was the young men with strong Christian beliefs who faced the worst danger in army life. Many gave up their faith in order to make it through their term of service.

Those who clung to their beliefs, like Simon’s brother Stefan, were regularly ridiculed, mistreated and beaten, sometimes fatally. Stefan had landed in the army hospital after one of his beatings. While still recovering from his injuries he had chosen to escape from Romania. He’d paid the dangerous price of freedom, risking prison and death, rather than return to his duties in the army” – The Price of Freedom, p. 16,17.

The Price of Freedom begins with 18-year-old Simon, Stefan’s younger brother, having recently received a conscription notice himself, running away from home in order to avoid the same fate as his brother. We follow him as he jogs, walks, hides, watches, waits, sneaks, crawls, even crosses a river on the underside of a bridge. In this way he makes his way through Romania, Hungary, and Austria, finally reuniting with Stefan in Italy five weeks after he sets out.

A short time later Simon’s younger acquaintance Wesley Pop also sneaks away to Italy to avoid conscription. The young men meet in Italy and renew their friendship.

But life in the free world is not at all what they expect. Because they are both in Italy illegally it’s nearly impossible for them to find work, landlords don’t want to rent to them, and the attitude of the Italian people is cold and suspicious. Eventually both receive notices that they must leave the country within 15 days or face jail and deportation. Desperate to leave but not back home, they consider all means of escape and end up in a shipping container. A story that is harsh to this point, now becomes deadly.

The events are told alternately from Simon’s and Wesley’s points of view. Co-writer Bev Ellen Clarke’s use of creative non-fiction techniques makes the book read like a gripping adventure. I found it both hard to put down and hard to read because its descriptive style had me right there in that dark, airless container on those bundles of ceramic tile with Simon and Wesley, facing lack of oxygen, heat, thirst, sea-sickness, and starvation while heading to who knows where?

However, the inclusion of wonderful coincidences and amazing answers to prayer transform this book from a story about the resilience, tenacity and courage of the human spirit (which it is) to more—a story about prayer, faith in God, and miracles.

Obviously the young men survived. Simon and his brother currently live in Kelowna B.C. and are part of the singing group Freedom Singers (I enjoyed their singing this summer at the Gospel Music Celebration in Red Deer, Alberta).

This true story did more for me than just than illustrate God’s care for His children and entertain. It also opened my eyes to the plight of refugees giving me worthwhile insights for these refugee-filled times. Highly recommended.

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Overload (review)

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Overload: How to Unplug, Unwind and Free Yourself from the Pressure of StressOverload: How to Unplug, Unwind and Free Yourself from the Pressure of Stress by Joyce Meyer

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Overload by Joyce Meyer is a book on how to handle stress. In fifteen chapters, Meyer discusses:
– what stress is and what causes it;
– how putting God in charge of life eases stress;
– how to handle unavoidable stressful situations;
– how to control thoughts to minimize stress;
– advice about decision-making;
– how humor can ease stress;
– warnings against stress-producing activities like comparing ourselves with others, speaking negatively, and tolerating constant low-level dread. The book ends with several chapters of practical advice for how to deal with and eliminate stress from our lives.

Overload is easy to understand and encouraging. If you’ve listened to or watched Meyer’s Enjoying Everyday Life show, you’ll recognize her no-nonsense, with-God-you-can-do-it tone coming through the written word.

I like how Meyer includes lots of examples from her life and concludes each chapter with a brief summary of the points made and an interesting fact about stress. Typical of all of her teaching, Meyer emphasizes the spiritual aspect of stress management.

If you’re at a place where life is too busy, overwhelming, and stressful to be enjoyed, give this book a read!

I received Overload as a gift from the publisher for the purpose of writing a review.

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If (review)

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If: Trading Your If Only Regrets for God's What If PossibilitiesIf: Trading Your If Only Regrets for God’s What If Possibilities by Mark Batterson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

In his newest book If, author Mark Batterson uses Romans 8 and the powerful little word “if” to challenge readers to live the Christian life with more obedience, faith, and abandonment.

Section headings “If only,” “As if,” “What if?” and “No ifs ands or buts” focus on four sides of the idea. In the “If only” section Batterson challenges us to live without regrets. In the “As if” part, the gauntlet is to live as if the unseen and invisible were true. The “What if?” parts are about dreams coming true, about the bigger-than-we-expected results of giving ourselves to God and the working of the Holy Spirit. In the “No ifs, ands or buts” Batterson gives us his bottom line—the things about which he feels there are no ifs, ands, or buts, and challenges us to name and live by our own.

Batterson explores these facets of “if” through a slice-and-dice of Romans 8 and stories (taken from history, his early life, and his experiences as a pastor of the multi-campus National Community Church of Washington DC). Each of If’s 30 chapters begins with a verse or part of a verse from Romans 8 and he also draws our attention to the prominent themes and “if” phrases of this chapter.

The writing is lively with a chummy tone that lends itself to cliché and trendy expressions. In other words, it doesn’t read like a textbook or theology tome.

The exegetical feature does make the book feel a bit rabbit-trailish as far as idea flow is concerned. Perhaps that was by design, for Batterson says in the Introduction: “If is not a systematic theology … If is not a commentary; it’s more of an impressionist painting … a landscape of faith, hope and love with right brain brush strokes” – Kindle Location (KL) 246.

I enjoyed the stories and illustration though numerous times here too I found myself puzzling over exactly how the story I was reading related to the idea or principle being discussed.

Batterson excels, though, at inventing catchy phrases and sayings. My ebook is full of highlighted passages. Here are a few:

“God has blessings for us in categories we don’t even know exist” – KL 2798.

“Our destiny has far less to do with what we do than who we become” – KL 3292.

“For better or for worse, your deepest held beliefs will define who you become” – KL 4142.

“Convictions are lessons learned from experiences we’d never want to go through again, but we wouldn’t trade for anything in the world” – KL 4161.

Full of energy, enthusiasm, faith, and challenge, If is recommended for Christians in the 20-40 crowd—or those finding themselves at a life crossroad or stuck in a backwater.

I received an ebook version of If as a gift from the publisher for the purpose of writing a review.

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The Silver Locket (review)

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The Silver LocketThe Silver Locket by Sophia Bar-Lev
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

“ ‘I think that there’s something special happening here—a kind of “hashgacha pratis” like the Rabbi talks about. … Oh, that’s Hebrew for “an intervention of divine providence” ’ ”The Silver Locket, p. 23.

The “something special” Rosalie Lapkin refers to in the above quote (taken from a conversation with her, Sarah Rosenfeld and the Rabbi’s wife) plays out over the next 20+ years of Sophia Bar-Lev’s novel The Silver Locket. In it Rosalie’s and Sarah’s lives intertwine at the most basic level—a shared child.

The story, that is set on opposite sides of the U.S. (Massachusetts and California), encompasses the time from the conception to the marriage of Rebecca Lapkin Silver (1941 to 1965). In it we experience the minefield of mother-love, adoption, and abortion—particularly from the mothers’ points of view. We witness the powerful aftermaths of both deceit and honesty. We see how kept secrets can sap energy and steal joy. And we watch the goodness of God playing out in mercy, love, forgiveness, and second chances.

I really enjoyed the Jewish cultural setting of this book with its emphasis on family and faith, and its distinctive holidays and ceremonies.

The background material to the book states that the story is based on a true one and its plot often had he feel of actual events to me. I liked that the location and date of the action heads most chapters—helping me to keep my bearings. In lots of ways the story also felt like a time capsule with its mention of U.S. political events and the cultural trends of the time:

August 1960 – California: “By now they were on their way stopping enroute for lunch at a relatively new restaurant that was garnering a great deal of attention in 1960 with their year long advertising campaign: ‘Look for the Golden Arches’ ” p. 167.

1960 – Massachusetts: “The key turning point of the campaign was the four Kennedy-Nixon debates, the first presidential debates ever held” – p. 182.

November 1960 – California: “Swiss Family Robinson was playing in theaters nationwide. It was the first wide screen Disney film shot with a new technology called Panavision lenses” – p. 198.

But more than these interesting historical tidbits, the book delivers some wonderful wisdom. Listen to what Sarah says when she counsels her friend who is struggling with guilt over the two abortions she’s attempted (one of them successful):

“God always forgives when we turn to Him; and He expects us to forgive ourselves as well. … we have to learn to forgive ourselves.”

and

“Has it occurred to you that maybe God didn’t let it work? That perhaps He was protecting you from yourself? … It’s about an unborn life that has a purpose and a destiny and I want you to consider that your baby’s destiny may just be more important than your emotions” – p. 92,93.

And this bit by Rabbi Lowenstein:

“It’s time to be done with secrets. Just tell the plain truth” – p. 236.

This is a beautiful, positive, and life-affirming story that renews faith in God and people.

I received The Silver Locket as a gift for the purpose of writing a review.

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Let’s Pretend We’re Normal (review)

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Let's Pretend We're Normal: Adventures in Rediscovering How to Be a FamilyLet’s Pretend We’re Normal: Adventures in Rediscovering How to Be a Family by Tricia Lott Williford

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

“Mr Responsible died, suddenly and tragically. He was sick for only twelve hours. … A thief named sepsis stole his breath and his heartbeat, and his spirit slipped right through Curly Girl’s fingers, even as she tried to save him on the floor of their bedroom only two days before Christmas.”

This grim scene from the Prologue is the background of Tricia Lott Williford’s memoir Let’s Pretend We’re Normal—Adventures in Rediscovering How to Be a Family. You’d expect the story of how Williford and her two young sons, Tucker and Tyler, get back on their feet after their husband’s/father’s death to be a bummer. But it isn’t.

That’s because Williford is a great storyteller and fabulous writer. Though there are lots of sad times, she never melodramatizes them or milks them for sympathy. The only way we know she cries a lot is because her boys mention it in their conversations—of which she has wonderful recall.

In Let’s Pretend we see a mother trying to explain to two little daddy-less boys where God is in all this. We observe the three of them working through stages of grief. And Williford lives parenting before us in ways that I, if by some miracle I found myself parenting young children again, would want to copy.

There’s lots of humor too and scenes that any modern, busy, technology-blessed North American family can relate to. Plus there are stories that tug at the heart.

One of my favorites is of Williford buying a homeless man, Dave, a Happy Meal—and him coming back at her with encouragement from the Bible. Her conclusion:

“… I wondered if perhaps I had just had lunch with an angel sent on a mission” – Kindle Location 1180.

Another is the conversation she has with her boys one night after reading the story of God testing Abraham by asking him to sacrifice Isaac. Discussing their family’s test of losing husband/father, her older son asks:

“’But Mom, do you think God has an important job for you to do? And that’s why he asked you to give up my dad? … Mommy, do you know God has picked you to write these books. He made you a writer to tell stories. And so maybe God had to know you would trust him no matter what” – Kindle Location 2275.‘”

Parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, and friends will gain insight, compassion, and wisdom from Tricia Lott Williford’s faith-saturated story of family, grief, and recovery.

I received Let’s Pretend We’re Normal as a gift from the publisher for the purpose of writing a review.

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