Passport Through Darkness (review)

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Passport through Darkness: A True Story of Danger and Second ChancesPassport through Darkness: A True Story of Danger and Second Chances by Kimberly L. Smith

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Kimberly L. Smith and her husband Milton are introduced to the horrors of human trafficking almost by chance, when their missionary activity in Spain leads them to an orphanage in Portugal. There they come face to face with Uncle Buster, a man who is bringing in children from Africa, filming their abuse, and posting images on the internet. Passport Through Darkness: A True Story of Danger and Second Chances is Smith’s first person account of this event and what happened next.

On exploring trafficking in more depth, Milton and Kimberly discover that the real hotbeds for this activity are Eastern Europe and Africa. Over time they establish Make Way Partners to help raise funds for anti-trafficking work. Then, through a chain of events, Kimberly finds herself in Sudan—a place PJ (Voice of the Martyrs’ Eastern Europe and North Africa Regional Director) identified as “… the worst place on the planet for this evil” (Kindle Location 517).

The bulk of Smith’s story happens in Sudan. She falls in love with the people, especially the orphans, returns numerous times, and ends up building an orphanage in the heart of Sudan’s most dangerous and forsaken region. The sights and events she describes are often raw and heartbreaking. Her ministry is inspiring and off-the-charts of possible, as God steps in again and again to open doors, protect, and make dreams come true.

But all is not sweetness and light. The sub-plot of this memoir involves Kimberly and Milton’s relationship. When his diabetes doesn’t allow him to be part of the Sudan trips, the couple spends long stretches of time apart. Kimberly, not wanting to burden her ill husband more, keeps many details of her Sudan experience secret from him. Their own relationship comes under threat.

The book is vividly written, both in its descriptions of life in Sudan and the life of the heart. I found it a fast, sometimes horrifying though definitely relevant read (It seems anti-human trafficking initiatives are popping up all over. In the last several months, I’ve encountered two new-to-me ministries that also focus on it.)

I recommend this book to people who love kids, those interested in human trafficking, readers with a heart for missions, or anyone who enjoys a well-written memoir. I’m not the alone in recommending it. Passport Through Darkness is also endorsed by such Christian literary luminaries as Philip Yancy, Randy Alcorn, and Ken Gire.

I’ll leave you with one of my favorite quotes from the book:

“On some level, praying ‘Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done’ haunted us, though. Gradually we began to understand that God didn’t give us that prayer so much to comfort us as to mold and transform our hearts and lives.

“The more we prayed ‘Thy Kingdom come …’ the more it convicted us that God chose to use mankind—His incarnational presence in this world—to usher His Kingdom in, one fractured attempt at a time.

“But who of us wants to give up our notion of what we think our lives should look like so that we are available for Him to use?” – Kindle Location 501.

Passport Through Darkness is part of my own Kindle collection.

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Miracle at the Higher Grounds Cafe (review)

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Miracle at the Higher Grounds CafeMiracle at the Higher Grounds Cafe by Max Lucado

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

After Chelsea Chambers discovers that her NFL husband Sawyer has been cheating on her, inheriting the family café and coffee shop in San Antonia is the perfect out. She, with 12-year-old Hancock and six-year-old Emily move into the upper floor of the Victorian house above the Higher Grounds Café, determined to put new life into the family’s 40+-year-old establishment.

But just after she opens, a letter from the IRS arrives demanding back taxes. When she contacts Sawyer about releasing funds for this, she discovers he has spent all her nest egg on his own money problems. Is her dream of running her own business doomed before it ever gets underway?

Chelsea’s dilemma alerts heaven’s minions and soon Samuel, her clumsy but loveable guardian angel is up to his neck in her daily affairs.

Fantasy intersects reality in Max Lucado’s novel Miracle at the Higher Grounds Café—a book that addresses issues of family, prayer, forgiveness and second chances. It’s an easy read and Lucado’s signature deftness with words makes it a fun read as well:

“ ‘ Who’s that?’ said the young magician who had turned his smartphone into an IMAX screen. The image stretched as far as the east is from the west: Sawyer Chambers in the arms of another woman. A redheaded beauty. A triple threat—younger, thinner, and prettier” – Kindle Location 289.

Discussion questions at the end help us hone in on the timeless truths this story delivers with subtlety and grace. Readers of all ages will enjoy this inspirational, ends-well tale.

I received Miracle at the Higher Grounds Cafe as a gift from the publisher for the purpose of writing a review.

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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

No Place to Hide (review)

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No Place to Hide: A Brain Surgeon S Long Journey Home from the Iraq WarNo Place to Hide: A Brain Surgeon S Long Journey Home from the Iraq War by W. Lee Warren

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Dr. W. Lee Warren arrived at the 332nd Theater Hospital in Balad ab, Iraq in late 2004. His term of duty as a neurosurgeon ended four months later at the end of April, 2005. No Place to Hide – A Brain Surgeon’s Long Journey Home From the Iraq War is the story of those months. But it is more.

Warren went to Iraq at a time when his marriage was teetering on the edge. His experience in Iraq is framed by the turmoil in his personal life. The dangers, pressure, and extreme injuries he faces every day in his work have him yearning to hear the voices of his young children, who don’t yet know of their parents’ impending divorce. As control of his life slips from his hands on all fronts, he is forced to rely on God in new ways. His story includes his spiritual pilgrimage during his time in the combat zone and also relates significant spiritual and psychological markers on his road to recovery after returning to the States.

The book is detailed and graphic. It contains precise accounts of injuries, the surgeries Warren performed, remembered conversations, and emails home. We slog through the mud with him on the way from his sleeping quarters to the tent hospital during the rainy season, choke in dust and smoke during hot dry weather, smell the blood, sweat and unwashed bodies in the O.R., and hear mortars, shells and rockets exploding at all hours of the day and night. His explanation, at the end (when he faced the post-traumatic stress he experienced years after returning from Iraq) sheds light on his detailed recall of events. For he brought back with him, and finally unpacked, a bag of memorabilia—bullet bits, shards of shrapnel, segments of rockets—along with hundreds of photos documenting his experiences both in and out of the operating room.

I personally wanted to read No Place to Hide to understand why so many war veterans return home only to continue to suffer symptoms of stress. This book is a good one to help one gain such an understanding. It’s an intense read as Warren’s stories reflect the non-stop pressure of life as a battlefield surgeon. Though well-written and captivating it is hard enough reading through such a litany of never-ending horrors. I can’t imagine living them!

Warren’s memoir also shows a different side of the U.S. army than that broadcast by mainstream media. The 332nd Hospital had a policy of taking in friend and foe alike, treating Iraqi militants and civilians no matter whose side they were on. Though Warren doesn’t deny that mistreatment of prisoners of war happened at the hands of U.S. soldiers, his stories illustrate that U.S. doctors worked long, hard, and often to save enemy lives.

Photos at the back of the book bring to life Dr. Warren and the scenes he describes.

I recommend this book not only as a way to experience war vicariously, but also as a wonderful testimony to God’s keeping power during the toughest of times.

I received No Place to Hide as a gift from the publisher, Zondervan, for the purpose of writing a review.

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Loveology (review)

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Loveology: God. Love. Marriage. Sex. and the Never-Ending Story of Male and Female.Loveology: God. Love. Marriage. Sex. and the Never-Ending Story of Male and Female. by John Mark Comer

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Just in time for Valentine’s Day another book about love: Loveology: God. Love. Marriage. Sex. And the Never-Ending Story of Male and Female by Portland (Oregon) pastor John Mark Comer. It’s a theology of love written “… for singles, engaged couples, and the newly married who want to learn what the Scriptures have to say about sexuality and relationships” –from the back of my hardcover copy.

Loveology quote - J. M. Comer

The book addresses the gamut. It begins with the creation of the first couple. It talks about four purposes of marriage. It explains why sex is tov (good) at least if it follows the Song of Solomon pattern. It explores romance, the obstacle course of dating, the differences between male and female, how to enjoy the state of singleness, and the biblical attitude toward homosexuality. The book ends with a hefty Q&A section of real-life questions encountered when the author presented the book’s content as an event.

Comer’s writing style is savvy and casual with enough vernacular to give the sense that he knows the demographic he’s addressing. As a work of theology it’s easy to read. Comer has the instincts of a good teacher and presents his ideas logically and in an order that makes sense. His use of Hebrew and Greek word studies along with illustrations from the lives of Bible characters helps him get to the nub of what the Bible teaches.

Loveology quote - J. M. Comer

I like the way he examines 21st century ideas and assumptions about love, courtship and marriage, contrasting how the culture of Bible times differed from ours.  He goes into the history of some of our customs showing how practices like dating and choosing one’s own marriage partner are recent with a dubious track record for creating long-lasting marriages (though he doesn’t advocate arranged marriages). While he does trip all over himself trying not to give offense on socially tricky topics like men taking the leadership role in marriage and a Christian stance toward homosexuality, he does end up sticking with the orthodox biblical position (despite its current unpopularity amongst the general population).

Loveology design

Loveology design features.

My one objection to the book is its physical design (I read the hardcover edition). The beginning page of each section is hot pink with white print. Talk about hard to read in any but bright daylight! I found myself dreading another pink page—a distraction from the book’s message for sure. As well, the footnote numbers are in hot pink, making them almost invisible. Also, long quotes from the Bible (Genesis 2:15-25 and Proverbs 8) serve as front and back bookends for the body of the book. These are in huge font (pink on white) with no spacing for verses or paragraphs. Again my eyes say NO!

Loveology quote - J.M. ComerOther than those design quibbles Loveology is an excellent book for anyone who wants to understand what the Bible teaches about love, marriage, courtship, sex, and singleness. For a generation of Christian youth bombarded by messages and images saturated with sex, it’s a timely and needed book. It would make a great study for youth groups and an appropriate addition to the reading list of premarital counselors and their counselees.

I received Loveology as a gift from the publisher (Zondervan) for the purpose of writing a review.

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A Garden to Keep (review)

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A Garden to KeepA Garden to Keep by Jamie Langston Turner

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Elizabeth Landis makes the decision to become a Christian on a Sunday just hours before she discovers her husband is having an affair. Jamie Langston Turner’s novel A Garden to Keep is the story of the next four months.

It is a literary tome that delves into Elizabeth’s past and present. She probes her marriage, her mothering, her friendships, and her relationship with her parents and in-laws. In this she is often comforted by her ‘friends,’ the poems that are her companions, teachers, seers and the lenses through which she views life. As she becomes familiar with her new-found faith, Bible passages join their ranks.

The story is told in first person with our narrator anticipating the objections we’ll have to the way she’s telling the story. She says in the first paragraph:

“Let me warn you from the start that this story might make you angry.”

In another place after playing fast-and-loose with verb tenses she informs:

“In case anybody is wondering, I know my verb tenses are wildly erratic. I know all about verbs …. But verb tense is one of the most irrelevant parts of reviewing your life” Kindle Location 329.

And several times she asks for our patience as she spins out this lengthy tale:

“I’ve got something to say to anybody who’s grumbling about the slow pace of the story. And to anyone who wants to lay it aside because it’s disjointed. Don’t. A story goes forth in its own way. It takes its own sweet time to do whatever it’s going to do …” KL 4645.

I enjoyed the writing, though. Turner writes with lots of wisdom and perception:

“Every minute of every day is dragged down and held back by the heavy anchor of my broken marriage” KL 4657.

I also loved all the many references to poets and specific poems. I have highlighted a host of poem titles that I intend to check out. There are also some good insights about poetry:

“That’s what poetry does. You read it once and feel the quake, and then, as time goes on, you feel the aftershock” KL 7369.

But the slow, rambling, tangential storytelling style did tax my patience, despite the narrator’s pleas. And the longer I read, the less I liked Elizabeth herself. For someone who prided herself on how “Aware” she was (she haughtily classified people as “Aware” and “Unaware”), she was pathetically unaware and lacking in social graces (though she remarked early on about what a burden her ever-present politeness was in that it had her doing things that she would rather not just to be nice). Her possessive ways with her son while she ignored her husband and her rudeness to her mother-in-law (for which she justified herself at every turn) had me wanting to shake some common sense into her little poetic head.

Maybe I’ve prejudiced you against reading. I hope not. Because Christian literary novels are rare, this one was a prize-winner (2002 Christy Award for Contemporary Novel), and it does contain a lot of wisdom about relationships and how life with Christ makes forgiveness and extending grace (to oneself and others) possible. Of course for poetry lovers a work of fiction that incorporates poetry into its very essence is a rare find indeed and worth reading for that content alone.

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