Well (review)

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Well: Healing Our Beautiful, Broken World from a Hospital in West AfricaWell: Healing Our Beautiful, Broken World from a Hospital in West Africa by Sarah Thebarge

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

In Well, Sarah Thebarge immerses us in her three-month experience of working as a Physicians’ Assistant in a missionary hospital in Togo, West Africa. From her first days of climate and culture shock to her trip back home, she shares not only what she sees, hears, and smells, but also what she feels on many levels—physically, emotionally, and spiritually.

Many chapters are short. Some are narrative—wonderful storytelling. Others read like essays that speak to large themes of love and the meaning and purpose of life in the shadow of unspeakable suffering and the inequality of the developed versus the developing world. Scattered throughout her chronological account of her Togo experience are flashback stories about her medical training, her battle with breast cancer, and her experiences in Portland.

Thebarge is an excellent writer and a delight to read. She remembers events in amazing detail—though I’m sure some credit goes to her journals, which she repeatedly refers to keeping. However, many of the stories are hard to read because of their content. The book is heavy with heartbreaking tales of death disease, and primitive conditions. Over and over Thebarge refers to Togo as the saddest place on earth. She is deeply affected by the inability of the medical staff to help more people and prevent what appear to be the meaningless deaths of newborns, children, mothers and fathers needed as parents.

Thebarge’s dedication and love are Mother Teresa-esque. One of the most beautiful passages in the book for me was this short exchange between her and Omari, her Togolese work partner:

“I want to see patients like you do.”
‘You already said that,’ I teased him.
“No, no, I mean, I want to look at people like you do.”
“What do you mean? How do I look at people?”
“You look at people with love,” Omari said.
O thought about Massiko’s words, that love looks around.
And the father’s words, “There is love in your eyes.”
And now Omari’s words, ”You look at people with love.” – Well, p. 219.

I would like to recommend this book without reservation, but can’t quite do that. For Thebarge’s theology does not, as I’ve picked it up from Well, agree completely with the Bible. She seems to take a Universalist approach toward the mostly Muslim patients that come to the hospital, implying that in death all will find themselves transported in love to the same loving God.

She is sharply critical of what she calls the “fundamentalist” Baptists who support and run the hospital, offended that the chaplains speak to the dying of hell and how to avoid it.

I found her explanation of the Incarnation interesting as well.

I wondered what, if anything, was the point of Jesus being physically present in our world. What was the significance of Emmanuel—of God being With Us?

If we look at everything Jesus left undone when he departed from the earth, then his presence hardly mattered at all. People were still sick, they still died, they were still oppressed, and they still suffered.

So why did it matter that Emmanuel was here?

As I thought about it, the question became its own answer. Emmanuel’s value did not lie in what he did or didn’t accomplish while he walked the earth. What mattered was that he was here. – p. 294

Maybe I missed it, but in Well I never came across the crux of the Gospel—that Jesus came to earth to show the Father’s love and be with us, yes, but to also die in our stead, to pay the death penalty our sins deserve. His atoning sacrifice is the reason we can look forward to spending eternity with Him and God the Father. Though this is a free gift, it’s a gift we receive when we, with our volition, accept it.

I have nothing but praise for Thebarge’s loving empathetic heart and tireless work. I have much to learn from her. The theological critique notwithstanding, this book is a worthwhile read because of the part of the world it shares and the way it challenges the reader to grapple with issues that Thebarge has faced and worked out in her way.

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

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Casting out Fear #BibleJournaling

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Hi! It’s Tuesday again–already!– and time for another Bible art journaling project.

The challenge:

In the Rebekah Jones Original Bible Art Journaling Challenges that I’ve been getting, Week 7 focused on a verse from 1 John that I’ve always struggled with: 1 John 4:18:

“There is no fear in love; but perfect love casts out fear, because fear involves torment. But he who fears has not been made perfect in love” (1 John 4:18 NKJV).

I do not live a fear-free life and have often berated myself with this verse. What’s wrong with me!? My imperfect love notwithstanding, I welcomed a chance to meditate on this verse in a visual way.

The project:

Rebekah’s blog post and video lesson is HERE

If you check it out, you’ll see that her visual is a set of tags (like one would find attached to new clothes), with the words “Perfect love casts out fear” on them. The word “fear” is untied from the rest, and about to slip to the ground. It’s simple and beautiful.

As at other times, I didn’t have her supplies but loved the idea of getting rid of fear in some way. As I pondered this, a picture came to mind of “Love” as a heart, pushing “Fear” off the page.

I sketched it with pencil, outlined with Pigma Micron pens, and used pencil crayon to do the coloring.

I added the house at the top, from which fear was cast, as a symbol of my life. For in verse 16 I see:

“God is love and he who abides in love abides in God and God abides in him.”

That tells me that God lives in me and if He is there, there is no room for fear in the same house.

Fear’s chain and leg irons symbolize Fear’s torment, which are thrown out together with their master.

1John4_16,18

As I worked through the process of illustrating these verses, I believe I came to a better understanding of this difficult (to-me) passage than I ever have before. I continue to be surprised by how art journaling is adding life, color, and relevance to my Bible study.

Messy Grace – review

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Messy Grace: How a Pastor with Gay Parents Learned to Love Others Without Sacrificing ConvictionMessy Grace: How a Pastor with Gay Parents Learned to Love Others Without Sacrificing Conviction by Caleb Kaltenbach
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Caleb Kaltenbach’s story of how he came to faith in Christ while being raised by two lesbian moms and a closet-gay dad is fascinating in its own right. The biblical teaching on homosexuality and the church that he weaves through the telling make this a must-read for 21st century Christians grappling with current cultural norms of sexual identity.

Though Kaltenbach never strays from supporting what the Bible says about homosexuality (he spends an entire chapter reviewing what both the Old and New Testaments say), neither does he minimize the difficulty of living by its culturally unpopular position. The word “messy” probably occurs more than any other adjective in the book. Again and again Kaltenbach reminds us that God’s dealings with all us flawed, sinful people is a messy business and a church’s grace-filled response to people within the LGBT community will be no different:

“Messiness is what happens when you try to live out God’s perfect grace as a flawed person in a flawed world” – Kindle Location 212.

The book is easy to read. Kaltenbach’s tone is one of a fellow traveler who is on the road to the same place as the reader. The narrative and teaching parts are interspersed in such a way as to maintain the story’s pace and keep our interest.

In my opinion, several aspects of Messy Grace make it an important book:

* Kaltenbach’s unique perspective of having grown up in and thus understanding of the LGBT community. His mom and her partner routinely took him to parties, marches, and Gay Pride parades. Both sets of parents were devastated when he “came out” as a Christian—an experience he likens to what LGBT folks experience when they come out to their families.

* Kaltenbach’s exemplary treatment of his parents. Even though he didn’t approve of their lifestyle, he never broke off his relationship with them, but instead loved and supported them through their ups and downs.

* The pastoral perspective Kaltenbach brings to the issue. As a pastor himself, he makes a passionate and compassionate case for the church to welcome, love, and care for members of the LGBT community. In this department he also challenges pastors and church leaders to think through their responses to twenty questions that pose difficult but relevant scenarios: E.g.:

“Would you allow a same-sex couple to attend your church?”

and

“If a man who had a sex change to be a women started attending your church, could that person attend your women’s ministry?”

and

“What is the plan for the student ministry staff and volunteers when a teenager comes out or expresses same-sex attraction?” – Kindle Location 2365-2390.

Messy Grace is moving and timely. Kaltenbach’s insistence on supporting the truth of Scripture while maintaining a loving attitude toward LGBT individuals is an example of how the church can break down walls of denial, isolationism, verbal abuse, hatred, and fear—even though the process is guaranteed to be messy.

I received Messy Grace as a gift from Blogging for Books for the purpose of writing a review.

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It’s time to see “God loves me”

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Photo © 2015 by V. Nesdoly

 

For the last few years, many of the clocks that I use—like the ones on my computer, ipod, kitchen stove, bedside, car, and digital photo album—display the time in a three- or four-number readout. Often when I check the time, I notice what one could call a lucky hand if playing cards—like 11:11 (four aces); 2:22, 4:44 or 5:55 (three of a kind), or 12:34 (a straight).

However, I don’t believe in luck. As someone who knows that God is present moment-by-moment in my life, I decided, a few years ago to interpret those “lucky” series of numbers as little love notes from God. So for the last few years, each time one of my digital clocks displays a good hand, I take it as a little nudge from God—His way of saying, “I see you, Violet, and I love you.”

It’s amazing how often I happen to glance at a clock at the exact moment it displays one of those times. And it’s amazing  too what a difference it makes in my day to be reminded that God sees and loves me.

 

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This post is linked to Spiritual Journey Thursday, hosted by Holly Mueller at Reading, Teaching, Learning. This week the theme is “He calls you Beloved.”

Courting Cate (review)

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Courting CateCourting Cate by Leslie Gould
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

At 23, Cate Miller is considered practically on the shelf by the Amish community of Paradise, Pennsylvania. A serious bookworm of a girl, tall, with dark hair, she lacks everything her small, blonde, happy sister Betsy has at 17, including a boyfriend. That’s something their widower father is determined to change, however, when he announces, one spring day, that Betsy will not be allowed to marry before Cate does.

Cate meets Pete Treger at the bookmobile and there’s instant interest on her part. But the way his eyes sparkle when they first light on Betsy convinces Cate he’s just another of Betsy’s potential conquests.

Lots of plot twists and turns make this an Amish fiction like no other I’ve read. There’s no focus on a Rumschpringe (an Amish teen girl or boy’s running-around time), no hankering after the non-Amish life, no Amish girl falling for an outsider or vice versa. But there are lots of complicated family dynamics in this book about loyalty, sacrifice, and love.

Courting Cate is another book I read just for fun this summer and I found it a great read!

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Scary Close (review)

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Scary Close: Dropping the Act and Acquiring a Taste for True IntimacyScary Close: Dropping the Act and Acquiring a Taste for True Intimacy by Donald Miller

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

“These are snapshots of the year I spent learning to perform less, be myself more, and overcome a complicated fear of being known,” writes Donald Miller in the first chapter of Scary Close, his latest memoir (Kindle Location 173).

The learning includes listening to the input of trusted friends and counselors, making mistakes that almost cost him his relationship with Betsy, giving up control, finding compromises, and finally understanding and embracing the new relationship paradigm he is entering: “Applause is a quick fix. And love is an acquired taste” (K.L. 118).

The journey is easy to take, delivered as it is in Miller’s personable voice. Some of his stories are funny, some poignant, some instructive, some inspirational, and a couple even made me squirm in embarrassment. For this sometimes-bumbling man is nothing if not transparent.

Though God doesn’t play an out-front role in Miller’s story, He is there in its presuppositions and moral underpinnings. The one significant God-lesson that stuck with me Miller relates near the end of the book where he writes about how his whole life has been a search to fill a hole of longing and loneliness inside. When Jesus didn’t fill that hole early in his Christian life, Miller says he nearly abandoned his faith. But now, through reading the Bible he realizes that the incompleteness he is feeling will never be satisfied on earth—not even by the most compatible partner. He says:

“What differentiates true Christianity from the pulp many people buy into is that Jesus never offers that completion here on earth. He only asks us to trust him and follow him to the metaphorical wedding we will experience in heaven” (K.L.2281).

However, he sees his marriage as key in helping him endure that longing. Instead of expecting the lover to fill that hole: “… we will comfort each other in the longing and even love it for what it is, a promise that God will someday fulfill us” (K.L.2299).

I would recommend Scary Close to anyone who loves a good memoir—but especially to singles who have had many relationships but still never found the one. The man who says he was “… rescued from my fear and insecurity that made me so frighteningly poor at relationships, rescued from isolation and from fairy-tale illusions about what love really is” (K.L.2397) might just have some clues for you.

I received Scary Close as a gift from the publisher for writing a review.

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Consider the Sunflowers (review)

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Consider the Sunflowers - Elma SchemenauerTina Janz feels torn between her parents’ wishes that she marry an upstanding (but boring) Mennonite boy and her desire for the man she loves—Frank Warkentin, the son of a Mennonite father and Gypsy mother. But the tug-of-war in Elma Schemenauer’s novel Consider the Sunflowers is more than between just Tina and her parents. For handsome, dashing, funny Frank doesn’t share Tina’s Mennonite faith. She soon discovers he has a violent temper. And his farm is far from town—something that doesn’t suit Tina well at all.

Schemenauer takes us on a literary journey that spans the years from 1940-1947 in the lives of Tina and Frank. The place is Coyote, Saskatchewan—a fictional town near Outlook, populated by a Mennonite and non-Mennonite mix. Frank is attracted to other Mennonite outcasts like Dorrie Harms and hangs out with Scandinavian friends Thor and Leif while Tina feels torn between both worlds.

Schemenauer’s familiarity with the Mennonite lifestyle, ways of thinking, and speech mannerisms is evident throughout the book (she is of Mennonite extraction). Thus from the opening words I felt I was in an authentic world. All the Na yo’s (p. 28), sentences ending in yet (“In Saskatoon yet” – p. 128), already, and nicht (“We should have your wedding on Saturday nicht?” p. 153) rang true for me, as someone who grew up in the same people group.

The story, told through Tina and Frank’s points of view, follows the ups and downs of their relationship all the while exploring many themes: how we’re molded by early experiences, what comprises love, aspects of marriage including the importance of honesty and transparency, how choices we make have consequences, what it’s like to be a Mennonite, what it’s like to be a Mennonite on the fringes, how religion and faith differ, and the overarching importance of forgiveness and trust in God no matter what the fine points of one’s creed might be.

Tina’s realization of this comes after a long crisis of faith. Told in Schemenauer’s understated yet picturesque style, it is one of my favorite passages in the book:

“Can you hear me?” she asked.

A coyote howled in the pasture. A gust of wind ruffled Slim’s coat. As it lifted Tina’s hair off her forehead, Jesus seemed to speak to her. Not in words. More like flowers opening in her heart. I love you, he said. Do you believe that?

Her reaction after she senses her brief conversation with Jesus is over is similarly subtle but full of wisdom that resonates with truth:

“…she expected to feel something like holy fireworks in her heart. Instead she felt only a new orderliness, like her thoughts were sorting themselves into new file folders. She crossed the silent kitchen, climbed the stairs, and eased herself into bed” – p. 157.

“Consider the lilies…” Jesus said, as He pointed out the necessity of a simple day-to-day faith in God to counter the fears and anxieties of life. In Consider the Sunflowers Schemenauer draws our attention, through Tina and Frank, to the God who still longs to be trusted with the minutiae of ordinary existence.

The story is supplemented by a Mennonite timeline explaining the origin and migrations of this ethnic and religious minority. Study questions at the end of the book will be helpful for reading clubs and home school study.

Author Elma Schemenauer

Author Elma Schemenauer

Title: Consider the Sunflowers
Author: Elma Schemenauer
Publisher: Borealis Press, November 10, 2014, Paperback 299 pages
ISBN 978-0-88887-575-4,

 

AVAILABLE FROM THE PUBLISHER, Borealis Press – $19.95

Also available online at Chapters Indigo  by about November 15.

E-book coming in 2015.

For more information, please visit http://elmams.wix.com/sflwrs