Madeleine L’Engle and the Practice of Believing

A week of teaching children in a backyard Bible club can have a clarifying effect on one’s theology. Just exactly what is it that happened in Zaccheus’s heart when he changed from being a dirty rotten tax collector to a repentant and honorable Christ-follower? When Jesus spoke to Saul on the road to Damascus, how did he just stop believing one thing and start believing something quite the opposite? However it happened, it would appear that both of these iconic New Testament characters became really good at believing. But how to describe this in terms that are meaningful to an eight-year-old . . . ?  Practice.

Children know about practice, because there is so much in this world that they need to master:  reading and writing; throwing a baseball into the strike zone; making a foul shot most of the time; playing scales; fingering an instrument.
But it’s not only children who need practice in believing, and in A Light So Lovely: The Spiritual Legacy of Madeleine L’Engle, Author of A Wrinkle in Time, Sarah Arthur has reached into the store house of accumulated wisdom from Madeleine L’Engle’s life to help readers along in the practice of believing. Always a champion of the genius of “and” — and a detractor of the tyranny of “or”– L’Engle’s life story is framed around some of the seeming contradictions she embraced in her writing as well as in her own practice of believing:

Icon and Iconoclast

It is ironic with her tremendous word count on the difference between idols and icons that Madeleine L’Engle managed to become both in her 88 year sojourn on this planet. As an icon, she pointed her readers’ hearts toward the God she also loved, but her prodigious output and her words of wisdom on the writing life made her, unwittingly, an idol to many. As an iconoclast, she seemed to delight in exposing the uncomfortable places around faith as she explored the troubling questions and invited  everyone from the “fundalits” to the practical atheists into a reasoned and imaginative place to stand.

Sacred and Secular

“There is nothing so secular that it cannot be sacred, and that is one of the deepest messages of the Incarnation.”  (35)

Madeleine’s fictional characters quoted Scripture, and she was noted in the publishing world as a “practicing Christian,” and yet A Wrinkle in Time ended up on the banned books list–as well as receiving the Newbery. She was both lionized and pilloried by both secular and sacred audiences. This must be the price for having set her sights on setting people free “from binary thinking about how God chooses to engage the world.” (45)

Story and Truth

Coming from a family of story tellers, story was a powerful element in L’Engle’s life, and her understanding of the Bible as truth was shaped by her gratitude that she “was able to read the Book with the same wonder and joy with which [she had] read The Ice Princess or The Tempest.” (55) She embraced passionately the idea that truth is embodied in story and lived out in our own personal narratives through our use of language and imagination.

Faith and Science

L’Engle readers are well-acquainted with the story of her first exposure to the night sky, being lifted from her crib and taken outside to behold the stars. She was profoundly shaped by the moment, which led to a life time of “star-gazing rocks,” and a mindset that allowed science to inform her faith and to enhance her (and her readers’!) understanding that the heavens really do declare the glory of God.

Religion and Art

L’Engle’s compelling plot lines carried theological questions, explored issues around the meaning of life, and in many ways, her art was the vehicle through which she worked out her own “cosmic questions.” As a mother who still finds it difficult to fit writing into my life as either a ministry or as an art form, I have been encouraged by the way she found writing to be a form of worship, a thought which has impacted my own view of writing as an offering to God.

Fact and Fiction

Sarah Arthur references a 2004 New Yorker profile of Madeleine L’Engle in which the memoir of her marriage (Two-Part Invention), is debunked as wishful thinking. I had also read the article, and at the time I mourned — for the loss of a beautiful story and for the sadness of L’Engle’s wanting. The fervency of her belief in the rock solidness of her marriage and the fidelity of her husband (in the face of all evidence to the contrary) communicates something of the intensity of her longing for it. Her willing embrace of a fictionalized personal reality spilled over into her mothering as well:  Could her son just please stay a precocious five-year-old with an amusing vocabulary and stop being a middle-aged alcoholic with a depleted liver?

Readers have a choice at this point: Let Madeleine-the-idol crash to the ground — or make of her failing an icon. My own writing and ministry life have been formed by her cautionary tale, purposefully delaying any substantive foray into writing until my children were older and forcing myself to ask hard questions before sharing my life on this country hill:  Am I idealizing things here? Would my husband and kids recognize the life I’m describing? Would they recognize me?

I was not prepared for my visceral response to A Light So Lovely. Reading with shallow breath and a lump in my throat, I turned pages as if reading news of a loved one, gone for a long season and greatly missed. As Meg declared in The Wind in the Door, believing does take practice. Like finger exercises on the piano, Madeleine L’Engle wrote her way toward a deep belief in some ideas that were false, but many more that were true and admirable. Drawn by her words toward the Light so lovely, let’s commit ourselves to showing up, to serving the work to which we are called, and to anchoring our souls in the practice of believing.

 

Many thanks to Zondervan for providing this book to facilitate my review, which, of course, is offered freely and with complete honesty.

I  am a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to Amazon.com. If you should decide to purchase A Light So Lovely: The Spiritual Legacy of Madeleine L’Engle, Author of A Wrinkle in Time, simply click on the title (or the image) here or within the text, and you’ll be taken directly to Amazon. If you decide to buy, I’ll make a small commission at no extra cost to you.

Ever pursuing the Loveliest of Lights,

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The Missionary Experience: A Path of Faith in the Midst of Paradox

Starting in the book of Acts, the history of missions is characterized by controversy. It may have begun when Paul and company set out with freshly-minted instructions from the Jerusalem Council, defining the parameters of the message they were sharing. It was certainly evident when the citizens of Lystra decided to fold Paul and Barnabas into their eclectic assortment of deities–and then to take up stones against them. And remember the story of New Testament heroes of the faith clashing over personnel issues and going their separate ways for a season? Throughout history, according to His own counsel and sovereign wisdom, God has chosen to put the transmission of the Gospel into the hands of His fallen and often short-sighted children, and the effects of that have made for some fascinating reading.

A Train-Wreck of Two Cultures Colliding

Over fifty years ago, Eleanor Vandevort came home from South Sudan in the wake of political unrest. Her thirteen years of language acquisition, Bible translation, literacy work, and relationship building were cut short with no certainty as to their effect or ultimate impact. When she set down the account of her struggle and her achievements in A Leopard Tamed, she was a woman ahead of her time, asking questions few in the golden age of U.S. missions were asking and even fewer wanted to entertain.

Vandevort’s narrative centers around her work among the Nuer, a remote and primitive culture eking out a living on dry, flat, hard-packed land bordering on the Sobat River in South Sudan. She was fortunate, early on, to connect with Kuac (pronounced /kwich/, rhyming with quite), a young man who had been educated at the mission-sponsored village school and was, therefore, a valuable informant for learning the language and reducing it to print.

What followed from Kuac’s conversion, subsequent education, and eventual call to pastor the church in Nasir is a glorious triumph of light over darkness–and it is also the story of a train wreck of two cultures colliding in one frail human soul. With vivid descriptions of the Nuer way of life, this 50th anniversary edition transported me to a land of unique beauty alongside unimaginable hardship and hopelessness.

As Eleanor learned to respect and collaborate with national believers who did not share her affinity for logic, efficiency, or planning, she also gained a sharper image of God in the context of heathenism, for He has made it clear that He loves the entire world, even the parts a North American Christian cannot comprehend:

“Try, if you can, to fathom Him, to draw His picture with clear, solid lines, to pin Him down. Just when you think you have God in focus, He moves, and the picture blurs.” (11)

A Bridge that Spanned Two Cultures

In 1949, at the tender age of 24, Eleanor Vandevort embarked upon her career as a Bible translator, joining the ranks of Wheaton College classmate Elisabeth Elliot and her peers who put their hands to the plow with no thought of turning back. It was an era in which the boundary between Christian culture and Western culture was decidedly blurred, so Vandevort was nonplussed to find that she had arrived in Africa bearing a message that would meet a need the Nuer did not even know existed.

With Kuac’s help, Eleanor slowly acquired a working command of the language with its fourteen vowels, three levels of tone, and absolutely no Christian jargon. Learning her way into those speech patterns helped in building the bridge that spanned the two cultures. However, observations throughout the book reveal a growing awareness that along with the Gospel, she and her fellow missionaries were sharing a full menu of lesser messages, some merely lamentable and others disastrous:

  • “I was incredulous that after fifty years of missionary work among these people, there was no striking hunger on the villager’s part to hear the Gospel. I wondered where the people were who reportedly were crying out for the Word of God.” (34)
  • “As far as I could ever tell, Christian behavior patterns were outlined by the missionaries and were not born out of the Africans’ own experience with God.” (22)
  • “It was painful and disappointing to be making friends with people for whom my ideas were nonsense. The more I came to know them, the more I realized the barrier of taboos between us. But my disappointment went deeper. It stemmed from the fact that God was not shining in the darkness as I had prayed and hoped for and expected.” (39)
  • “Is my scientific orientation to life, which has removed me from the constant threat of death, the factor which stabilizes my faith? Or, in that I need not fear God physically as the heathen do, has this freedom set me adrift from God, missing Him altogether?” (46)
  • “How does a person decide that he’s not going to be afraid of death?” (83)
  • “The many problems of translation exploded my theories of Bible translating, and precluded the possibility of producing an exact and therefore inerrant–as Evangelicals used the term–translation of the Scriptures. (95)
  • “We did not foresee that our things would become more important to the people than our Gospel, that they would want them. No one was to be blamed for this, but as it was turning out, were we not becoming more of a stumbling block than a help to the people?” (187)

Leaving the Results in God’s Hands

As a young missionary, Eleanor Vandevort began to realize that the methods she had inherited from her forebears were an imposition upon the culture. From the tone of voice used when speaking aloud in prayer to the denominational distinctives around church government, Christianity and its trappings became an ill-fitting garment in a world that required Christians to address issues such as polygamy, marriage to the dead, animal sacrifice, and grisly coming-of-age ceremonies.

The prevailing idea among Presbyterian missionaries was that “what was good for Calvin was certainly good for the south Sudan.” Within a context of very isolated and individualized people groups, the concept of “a congregation” was strange enough, but then they must “call” a pastor and provide for him. “It would hardly have occurred to the people to pay a man just for talking about God. . . In that as Christians they were now to believe that God works by the faith of His people, it would seem likely that they would wonder at having to pay a pastor at all.” (82) Then, they must submit to the leadership of the Presbytery with decisions handed down from the UPC of the USA.

Nearing the end of her time in South Sudan, it was evident to Eleanor that Kuac was floundering in his role as “Pastor Moses.” (Upon ordination, national pastors took on a biblical name which, in Kuac’s situation, was never adopted by his people because it was unpronounceable and meaningless to them.) With the introduction of a money-based economy and the acquired need for clothing, furniture, blankets, soap, and utensils, Kuac was under pressure to become something for which there was no precedent in his experience or in his history. When the mission withdrew their support and yet continued to expect Pastor Moses to pay the expense of travel to official church meetings, it became clear that the white man was dictating “what was to be done from behind the Bible without having to submit to the discipline involved himself.”

Therefore, when Eleanor received word from the Commandant of Police in December of 1962 that she was no longer welcome in South Sudan, she wondered, with a sinking heart, what would become of her translation work and of the ministry. The Arab military government had already imprisoned Kuac numerous times in an effort to stamp out Christianity through fear. Like Elisabeth Elliot in These Strange Ashes: Is God Still in Charge?she was called upon to leave in God’s hands the results (or lack of same!) of any work to which He had called her.

To Know, to Believe, and to Understand

From her home and new career in the United States, Eleanor heard of war coming to the Sudan, and then coming again.  Her story challenges many of our western assumptions about missions, while underscoring the sovereignty of God. He is free to work in a nation –or in a young, white, and slightly perplexed former missionary–in any way He deems fitting. As believers who are committed to the fulfillment of the Great Commission, let us also read and love God’s words to Isaiah, setting forth the purpose of our witness on this planet:

“You are My witnesses,” says the Lord,
“And My servant whom I have chosen,
That you may know and believe Me,
And understand that I am He.”  (Isaiah 43:10)

In our witnessing and serving, the path of God may cut through mystery and paradox. Sometimes the greatest test of faith is to know, believe, and understand the power and presence of God, even when the evidence we receive is not what we had expected.

Many thanks to Hendrickson  Publishers for providing a copy of this book to facilitate my review, which, of course, is offered freely and with honesty.


I  am a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to Amazon.com. If you should decide to purchase A Leopard Tamed or These Strange Ashes: Is God Still in Charge?, simply click on the title (or the image) here or within the text, and you’ll be taken directly to Amazon. If you decide to buy, I’ll make a small commission at no extra cost to you.

I appreciate your joining me today in thinking through the conflicts and the joys of the missionary experience,

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The Life and Theology of Karl Barth

It should come as no surprise when a brain that has been marinating for decades in North American evangelical culture has an immediate and visceral response to the names of  prominent historical Christians:

  • C.S. Lewis:  Green light and heart emojis (but, remember, he did smoke . . .)
  • Francis Schaeffer:  Amazing intellect, but too bad about those knickers.
  • Karl Barth:  Tornado sirens and a flashing inerrancy and Neo-Orthodoxy warning light!

Thanks be to God, we are occasionally given the opportunity to step back from our preconceptions and to look at historical figures through a helpful and forgiving lens. In Karl Barth: An Introductory Biography for Evangelicals, Mark Galli has extended that gift.

A Rebel with a Cause

Born in Switzerland in 1886, Karl Barth entered the world at a time when liberalism was changing the way Christians worshiped and thought about God. Emphasis on human reason and experience led to a gradual abandonment of the primacy of revelation and to a detour around foundational truths such as the deity of Christ and the fallenness of man.

It was not until Barth  married and entered the pastorate that he began to question his liberal theological underpinnings. His heart for his working class congregation led him to seek answers in socialism, but when Germany declared war on Russia in 1914, and the falling dominoes led to World War I, Barth’s eyes were opened to significant cracks in the logic of liberalism. “If religious experience could give rise to such divergent and even contradictory conclusions, perhaps it could no longer be relied upon to provide an adequate ground and starting point for theology.” (34)

Barth was also a vocal opponent of National Socialism, writing articles that attacked right wing political dogmatism along with letters and pamphlets denouncing the heresy that blood or race had any bearing on church membership or acceptance before God. In 1935, Barth and his family were forced to return to Switzerland where his ministry was based until his death in 1968.

The “Godness” of God

Barth’s studies led him to conclude that the Bible was a “book not so much about men and women but about God,” (43) and that the only sound basis for our theology is the revelation of Jesus Christ in Scripture. In his career as a pastor, professor, and theologian, he became known for his commentary on Romans and a stalwart teaching of the complete otherness of God. By the time he reached middle age, Barth had become something of a rock star in his theological circles.

He was a strong proponent for church life even throughout the chaos of Nazi persecution of the Confessing Church, arguing that “we must not . . .hold ourselves aloof from the church or break up its solidarity; but rather, participating in its responsibility and sharing the guilt of its inevitable failure, we should accept it and cling to it.” (51)

Steadfast in Faith–and Steadfast in Adultery?

It is difficult to reconcile the utter strangeness of a man who lived in awe of a holy God while subjecting his wife and children to the indignity and inappropriateness of a live-in mistress, but this also was part of the mystery of Karl Barth. His research assistant, Charlotte von Kirschbaur, was a fixture in both his professional life and in his home.

In an article written for Christianity Today after the publication of this biography, Mark Galli expressed stunned distaste over the rationale Barth used to justify his moral failure. Barth’s dialectical approach to theology emphasized the contradiction between two truths in order to gain insight into the deep truths about God. For example, Jesus is both God and man. Barth’s stretch of reason was that he and Charlotte “had no choice  but to live in this dialectical tension between obeying God’s command about marital fidelity and what felt right to them. ” The ugliness of Barth’s sin is exacerbated by his blatant use of theological arguments to justify it.

Barth for Evangelicals

Whether we choose to argue that Karl Barth’s theology supported him in poor moral choices or that his theology was terrific and truthful, but he simply failed to live up to its ideals, he is arguably one of the greatest Protestant theologians of the 20th century. One of the most helpful features of Galli’s biography is his familiarity with evangelical culture as he “translated” Barth via two doctrines that are unique to his thinking and examined their usefulness to evangelical teachers and pastors:

  1. The Word of God–  Barth viewed Scripture as a three-fold reality: the preached Word, the written Word, and the revealed Word, Jesus Christ. This is helpful, but then he goes on to insist that “Scripture is God’s Word in so far as God lets it be His Word. Therefore, the Bible . . . becomes God’s Word” as we hear it.” (111) Evangelicals can join Barth in understanding that the Bible is not a magic book, but does indeed come alive for us through the work of the Spirit. However, his rejection of inerrancy is a problem, especially when he (illogically) sets Scripture as a means of revelation and then says that it contains “historical, scientific, and even theological errors.” (113)
  2. Universal Reconciliation–  In all the church’s wranglings over election, Barth has distinguished himself by taking a very unique stance, holding that “Christ is both the only one who elects and the only one who is elected.” Therefore, humanity is chosen only in a secondary sense, and all men and women are reconciled to God through the death of His Son. Judgment and pardon are both present in Barth’s soteriology, but pardon for sin “does not depend on one’s response to Christ. . . Instead, total pardon is objectively accomplished in Jesus Christ on behalf of mankind.” This, inevitably leads to universalism, but I appreciated theologian Oliver Crisp’s rendering of Barth’s thinking:  “The Reformers say, ‘If you repent and believe, you will be saved,’ while Barth says, ‘You are saved; therefore, believe and repent!'” I see the potential for error, but this helps me to sharpen my own appreciation of what’s going on behind the scenes when someone “prays the sinner’s prayer.”

On a visit to the United States during the year I was born, church lore holds that Karl Barth summarized his theology and his life’s work in one simple sentence: “Jesus loves me this I know, for the Bible tells me so.” It’s likely that this really happened, but it’s unfortunate that Barth could not have found that great love sufficient to enable him to love his wife and his children more than he did.

His story becomes a cautionary tale for any of us who teach and study Scripture, for we will never live up to all that we know, but may we find grace to live consistently with the remarkable message of the gospel with all its provision for forgiveness. May we stand before the mirror of the Word with earnest prayer for a searching and a knowing God to reveal our sins and to hold us close to His Truth.


Many thanks to William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company for providing a copy of this book.

I  am a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to Amazon.com. If you should decide to purchase, Karl Barth: An Introductory Biography for Evangelicals simply click on the title here, and you’ll be taken directly to Amazon. If you decide to buy, I’ll make a small commission at no extra cost to you.

If you enjoy reading Living Our Days, subscribe to get regular Bible studies and book reviews delivered to your inbox. Just enter your e-mail address in the field at the top of this page.

I link-up with a number of blogging communities on a regular basis. They are listed in the left sidebar by day of the week. I hope that you will take a moment to enjoy reading the work of some of these fine writers and thinkers.

Every blessing,

Biddy Chambers: A Sacramental Life

Published in 1927, My Utmost for His Highest has sold more than 13 million copies and has never been out of print. Over the course of its 90+ year history, it has been translated into 40 different languages, and Oswald Chambers’s unique and timeless wisdom is quoted far and wide.

However, until recently, little thought has been given to the fact that My Utmost was not published until ten years after Chambers’s death, and that it was his wife, Gertrude “Biddy” Hobbs Chambers who took on the mammoth task of compiling and editing nearly twenty years’ worth of sermons and lessons. Michelle Ule has traced this process in telling the story of the woman behind the world’s best-selling devotional: Mrs. Oswald Chambers.

“It Is God Who Engineers Circumstances”

Trained as a stenographer, Biddy learned to type as well with the goal of financial stability and the lofty hope of one day becoming the first female secretary to England’s prime minister. While she remained very private about her spiritual life, it’s clear that her spiritual journey began under the ministry of Oswald Chambers’s brother Arthur. At some point after she was baptized, Oswald led a week-long mission at his big brother’s church, representing an early interdenominational para-church organization, the League of Prayer.

To riff on Jane Austen, “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a [budding ministry], must be in want of a wife,” and although Chambers did not come seeking, he found, and to frame it with his own words:

“Love is not premeditated, it is spontaneous, i.e., it bursts up in extraordinary ways.”

The “bursting up” was followed by a long distance courtship which evolved into an on-the-road marriage in which Oswald and Biddy crossed the Atlantic and covered the Eastern U.S. as far south as Maryland, as far north as Maine (!), and as far west as Ohio, with Oswald speaking at camp meetings and Biddy faithfully taking shorthand at every venue.

When the newlyweds returned to England, they soon took up residence and took on leadership roles in a Bible Training College started by the League of Prayer.  While Oswald lectured, Biddy served as the school’s superintendent and together they grew into the kind of wisdom that taught them the folly of playing the role of “amateur providence” in other lives and the deep faith that comes with depending upon God for every need to be met.

A man of “perpetual motion” (55), Chambers became a bit of a celebrity in his small circle with everyone wanting a piece of his day. In quietly cherishing his words and in unraveling the administrative nightmares of life together in an educational setting, Biddy began to live her way into a calling of her own in an era when a Christian woman was largely seen as an adornment for the arm of her more influential husband. After the birth of their daughter Kathleen in 1913, summer traveling and school-year activities resumed in full force with a small, blonde curly-haired addition to the ministry team.

“God’s Purpose Is Never Man’s Purpose”

When England entered World War I, the Bible Training College era come to an end, and the Chambers family traveled together to Egypt where Oswald served as a YMCA chaplain. Early in their parenting life, they committed themselves to raising Kathleen themselves and keeping her with them, rather then sending her off to boarding school as was the custom of that day.

Life in Egypt was characterized by a “ministry of interruptions” in which Biddy Biddy Chambers: A Sacramental Lifeand Oswald made themselves available to anyone who needed to hear the Truth. “Washing the disciples’ feet” often meant feeding hordes of service men under challenging circumstances, and, for Biddy, it always meant patiently recording every word of her husband’s many sermons and devotionals. With amazing prescience for this time, Oswald referred to Biddy’s great contribution to their ministry in his letters:

“As for Biddy I love her and I am her husband, but I do not believe it is possible to exaggerate what she has been in the way of a Sacrament out here — God conveying His presence through the common elements of an ordinary life.”

When Oswald passed away in Egypt on November 15, 1917, from complications following a ruptured appendix, God’s Word to Joshua became a comfort to Biddy:

“As I was with Moses, so will I be with thee. I will not fail thee, nor forsake thee . . .Only be strong and very courageous.” (Joshua 1:5)

Amidst the fires of sorrow, Biddy continued what Oswald had begun and was comforted by the understanding and appreciation of the servicemen she and her husband had served together. One by one, she began producing books and pamphlets taken from her careful notes and publishing them at her own expense, and this became the scaffolding of her life in England when she returned home to a “home” that did not feel like home with a young daughter who had no memory of the family there and who was used to living amidst the bustle of an Army camp.

“Faith is Deliberate Commitment to a Person Where I See No Way.”

Because Chambers had not been employed by the military, Biddy had no pension, and times were lean for her and Kathleen as they moved from one situation to another, always typing, always publishing, and always just short of enough resources to make ends meet. The notion of publishing a daily devotional work that compiled Oswald’s teaching followed on the heels of the enthusiastic response to a devotional calendar Biddy had produced. Thus, it was in October 1927, in the days when Lewis and Tolkien were lunching at the Eagle and Child pub, when Winnie the Pooh was holding court at the London Zoo, in the year that Amy Carmichael’s Dohnavur Fellowship came into being in India, and that someone made the first transatlantic phone call to North America that My Utmost for His Highest was first published in England.

Biddy went on to run a boutique publishing house, editing and launching Oswald’s writings to an enthusiastic readership that still profits from his words — and from her skill and determination. Personally, my appreciation for Chambers’s work has been heightened by this introduction to his wife’s story. Because I learned that Biddy carefully chose the meditations for Oswald’s birthday, their wedding day, and the anniversary of his death, I want to make a notation in my copy to remind me that the message for that day is specifically assigned.  As a single mum who persevered through two world wars and lived all her days under challenging circumstances, Biddy Chambers lived out the title of her husband’s book, offering her utmost in faithfulness and focus for His highest purposes in her own life and in the lives of her readers every day.


This book was provided by Baker Books, a division of Baker Publishing Group, in exchange for my review.  I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255 : “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

I have begun to experiment with including an Amazon affiliate link here in my book reviews. If you should decide to purchase Mrs. Oswald Chambers: The Woman behind the World’s Bestselling Devotional click on the title here, and you’ll be taken directly to Amazon. If you decide to buy, I’ll make a small commission at no extra cost to you.

Headings have been quoted from My Utmost for His Highest.

Images are shared from the Michelle Ule’s Pinterest account.

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Love, Faith, and Courage in the Killing Fields

“One death is a tragedy.
One million deaths is a statistic.”      ~Joseph Stalin

Banking on this banality of evil, the Khmer Rouge murdered or starved 1.7 million Cambodian citizens during the years in which they were in power, all with an eye toward establishing themselves and their Community ideology. Having wiped out 25% of the population, the Khmer Rouge will go down as history’s most totalitarian regime, for even though Mao and Stalin were responsible for more deaths, no dictator has ever destroyed one fourth of its citizens.

This chilling period of history forms the meta-narrative of Les Sillars’s Intended for Evil, but he has brilliantly shared the harrowing story through the eyes of one man, Radha Manickam who survived the Cambodian Killing Fields.  Of Indian ethnic descent, Radha was born into a Hindu Brahmin family, but came to faith in Christ as a young man in 1973.  Accustomed to a life of plenty, Radha’s world turned upside down in 1974 when Phnom Penh, his home city, was caught in the cross fire of the war between Vietnam and the United States.  As the violence progressed, the Khmer Rouge gained power, adding to the death and destruction.  As refugees streamed into Phnom Penh from surrounding villages, fleeing U.S. bombs and the Khmer Rouge’s reign of terror, the population more than tripled and food was very scarce.

Lee Sillars’s journalism background is evident in his skillful reconstruction of the political and historical implications of this period, the pointless movement of the masses and the evacuation of entire cities, the irony of communism’s rejection of an existing social structure only to create their own class system based on “kum, a revenge so brutal that it destroys an enemy so they never can rise again,” (79).

In 1975, year zero of Pol Pot’s “new calendar for a new era,” Radha and the entire Manickam family concluded that there was no future for them in Cambodia, and so they joined the current of bodies flowing from their makeshift camps to the next uncertain stopping point.  When their passports were confiscated, they learned the folly of trusting Khmer Rouge officials and eventually discerned that any mis-step could have devastating consequences, for even gathering food in the woods to supplement starvation rations was considered a “betrayal” and, according to Pol Pot’s brutal rule book, the guilty party “will be crushed,” (99).

Weakening the population through starvation was only one technique of the Khmer Rouge.  They undermined family bonds by separating relatives whenever possible, and they scorned (and ultimately abolished) all religions, including even those indigenous to Cambodia.  Anyone wearing glasses (the sign of an ability to read), possessing an education, owning a business, or practicing a profession was systematically eliminated, leaving behind a bankrupt culture that would take generations to recover.

Our family was introduced to the regime’s lasting effects ten years ago when we hosted a family of missionaries on home assignment following a term in Cambodia.  Arriving in our yard, their kids and our kids poured out of vehicles, mixed and mingled, and then headed straight for the woods to pursue adventure. Witness to the stricken look on their mother’s face, I was surprised at her explanation:

“Land mines.  In Cambodia, the kids can’t just go running off into the woods unless there is a well-marked trail.  For a minute, I forgot that it’s o.k. here.”

In that moment, the legacy of Khmer Rouge terror migrated into a back yard in Maine.

By grace, Radha Manickam’s life was spared because he was able to persevere in forced labor — a city boy, learning by trial and error what to do with the business end of a shovel and how to plant and harvest rice for back-breaking, spirit-crushing hours on end.  The soldiers in charge of his work details were essentially a brute squad who subjected workers to unspeakable torture and cruel indignities while overseeing canals that collapsed and agricultural projects that failed abysmally due to mismanagement and ignorance.

Disease and starvation were all that flourished until the Vietnamese ousted the Khmer Rouge in January 1979.  Tragically, most of Radha’s extended family had already perished, but grace triumphed when Radha learned that Samen, the wife he had been forced to marry in a mass wedding ceremony (set up to breed the next generation of new socialists), was also a believer.  Sponsored by Samen’s family in the U.S., they made their arduous way to California where they began to heal from the years of devastating loss and began to minister to other victims of the crisis in Cambodia.

Les Sillars’s chosen title, of course, brings to mind the biblical story of Joseph, the refugee, slave, and prisoner who found, at the end of his waiting that God had transformed the evil intentions of his brothers and all of his own suffering into a great good — for himself and for the people of Israel.  Brought face to face with the unspeakable atrocities committed by the Khmer Rouge, I am forced to question the contents of my own heart.  After all, the people who were conscripted into service as guards and soldiers were just common peasants and farmers, and following the fall of the Khmer Rouge, most of them went quietly back to their homes and families.  There is a sobering subscript to this inspiring story about Radha’s God-given courage under extreme circumstances:  a society can be plunged into evil by the removal of all that is good, and “those surprised by the evil found in human hearts don’t yet know themselves, and those terrified by the discovery have not grasped the grace of God.”

Like Joseph, Radha would affirm that his years of suffering are evidence that what evil men intend for harm, God was able to turn upside down for the accomplishment of His purposes and the advancement of His kingdom.

//

This book was provided by Baker Books, a division of Baker Publishing Group,  in exchange for my review.  I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255 : “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

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Joy Davidman Lewis, Author

Her story has all the makings of a melancholy fairy tale:  award-winning poet and brilliant writer caught in a disastrous marriage flees to England and meets the world-renowned author she has been pen-friends with since first reading his books.  Following her divorce, they marry and enjoy four years of bliss until her death from cancer in 1960.

C.S. Lewis’s fame has made this story a well-known part of Christian lore, but Joy Davidman’s identity as a writer is less well-known.  Lewis scholar Don W. King has honored the literary legacy of Mrs. Lewis in Yet One More Spring in which the spotlight is on Joy’s writing, including a collection of recently discovered manuscripts from the home of a family friend.  King’s chronological study of both published and unpublished works chronicles Joy’s journey from secular Judaism to atheism and Communism, and finally to Christianity.  It documents her growth as a writer, while also tracking her relationship with C.S. Lewis and her influence upon his writings.

Philosophical/Religious Development

Even as a young atheist, Joy Davidman demonstrated a subconscious interest in religious matters.  Injustices that she observed drew her into Communism, eventually writing “proletarian literature” for a magazine and cranking out movie and book reviews with the tone of an Old Testament prophet.  She was ahead of her time in calling out the movie industry on its demeaning portrayal of women.  Stalin’s World War II alignment with Hitler started Davidman on the path of disillusionment with The Party, which, ironically, was helped along by her reading of the works of Marx and Lenin.  Her troubled marriage to Bill Gresham escalated her realization of her need for Christ, and her reading of C.S. Lewis’s books led to the conversion of “the world’s most astonished atheist.”

Development as a Writer

From her earliest days, Joy Davidman wrote with intensity of emotion, often about romantic love:

This is the way to keep your soul from me;
Let the sweet lure and the entangled guile
Crumble before your tolerant clear smile;
And let your cold and lovely honesty
With my semblance made of shallow glass
Read my desires of you as they pass.

Writing poetry for college publications and political diatribes for the Communist Party gave way to a mundane adjustment to rejection slips and the pressure of having to make a living with her words.  Her first novel, Anya, was published in 1940 to mixed reviews, but a second novel (published a decade later) seemed to sacrifice art in the interest of propaganda as she attempted to incorporate her new faith into the narrative flow.  When Joy’s son, Douglas Gresham, unearthed a collection of love sonnets written to C.S. Lewis over a period of years, he brought to light a treasure that demonstrated the full range of her powers as an author.

Relationship with and Literary Influence upon C.S. Lewis

As Lewis’s brother Warnie would later say, Joy “appeared in the mail as just another American fan” on January 10, 1950.  It was her amusing and well-written letters that sorted her out from the pile, and it became clear that Joy had fallen for Lewis even before they had met.  When her husband’s infidelity put the final nail in the coffin of their already unstable marriage, Joy sailed for England with the idea that the economy there would stretch her child support checks further in the raising of her two boys.  Smoke on the Mountain:  An Interpretation of the Ten Commandments was published in 1954 and marked the beginning of literary cross-pollination between C.S.Lewis and Joy.  She cites his books nearly a dozen times and he was active in the editing process.  Joy’s beautiful prose is on display:

” . . . we are in danger of forgetting that God is not only a comfort but a joy.  He is the source of all pleasure; he is fun and light and laughter, and we are meant to enjoy him.”

However, King’s assessment is that the book was likely written more “because of Davidman’s need to make money than because of deep spiritual convictions.”

In fact, King seems to reserve his highest esteem for Joy’s collection of love sonnets, citing them as a “breathtaking” record of the roller coaster of emotion that accompanied her love for and frustration with C.S. Lewis as he was sorting out his own feelings for her.

“There was a man who found a naked tree
Sleeping in winter woods, and brought her home,
And tended her a month in charity
Until she woke, and filled his quiet room
With petals like a storm of sliver light,
Bursting, blazing, blended all of pearl
And moonshine; he, in wonder and delight,
Patted her magic boughs and said:  Good girl.
Thereafter, still obedient to the summer,
The tree worked at her trade, until behold
A summer miracle of red and gold,
Apples of the Hesperides upon her,
Sweeter than Eden and its vanished bowers . . .
He said:  No, no, I only wanted flowers.”

In huge, sweeping gusts of rage, self-pity, and devotion, Joy adores “the accidental beauty of his face,” while also portraying her future husband in decidedly unflattering terms for his indecisive non-committal air.  His ultimate commitment to Joy (in both senses of the word?) may have come as a response to these sonnets for it is almost certain that he saw them at some point prior to their civil marriage, or at least by the time of Joy’s devastating cancer diagnosis.

At this point in Joy’s life, writing gave way to survival, perhaps revealing her truest gift of all, for in brainstorming ideas together with Lewis, she stated:  “whatever my talents as an independent writer, my real gift is as a sort of editor-collaborator . . . and I’m happiest when I’m doing something like that.”

And so the happiness of collaboration rolled through some of Lewis’s best-loved works which bore the fingerprints of his wife.  By the time Lewis had penned Surprised by Joy, he had read Joy’s essay about her own conversion experience “The Longest Way Round” in which she also comes to faith “kicking and screaming,” cites Invictus, alludes to imagery from “The Hound of Heaven,” and references the writing of George MacDonald.  As Joy typed and edited Lewis’s work, the exquisite characterization of Orual in Til We Have Faces (my personal favorite of all Lewis’s books) took on her intensely feminine perspective.  Reflections on the Psalms is a treatment of Old Testament literature in a colloquial style that mirrors the approach of Davidman’s Smoke on the Mountain.

Ironically, after Joy’s death, Lewis’s memoir of loss, A Grief Observed, comes forth in the raw emotion that characterized Joy’s writing.  He describes their marriage as a time that “surpassed in happiness all the rest of my life,” and in a fitting tribute to all the love and the loss, he closes a love poem to Joy with words that would bring joy to the heart of any lover:

“The pains you give me are more precious than all other gain.”

This was Joy Davidman’s gift to C.S. Lewis, and in return, she also found happiness and love — and was introduced to “the eternal Lover who took the initiative and fell in love with us.”

//

This book was provided by Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co. in exchange for my review.  I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255 : “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

Subscribe to get regular Bible studies and book reviews from Living Our Days delivered to your inbox.  Just enter your e-mail address in the box at the top of this page.

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Love Them Into Being

For the past twenty-one years, my designated occupation on our tax forms and all official (and unofficial) documents has been “domestic diva.”  Given the flashy title, my house should look a lot better than it does, but my fierce and steadfast focus within that job title has been to raise four young men to love God, each other, and the values we cherish as a family.  Therefore, I’ve been occupied, primarily, with the who and the why of making a home much more than the how, what and where.  And it shows.

In Making It Home, Emily Wierenga asks the question that has played like a steady drum beat in my mind for two decades:

“What if home is more about who you are than what you do?”

She answers her own question with a brilliant road map, leading to a destination where “home is not the house we live in, but the people whose pictures line the walls.”  For Emily, home is the place where she “loves people into being,” so in chapters that are measured off with delicious epigraphs like road signs pointing to truth, Emily traces her journey toward that place of peace and identity and purpose.

With two active little boys, a patient husband, and a desperate grasp of the truth that it is God who determines the settings on her compass, Emily chronicles days of doing life and finding Christ to be sufficient in the midst of daily brokenness, generational dysfunction, and an eating disorder that has become so much a part of her story that she mentions it casually, almost like a hairstyle:  “I was starving myself when . . .”

Although Emily Wierenga is a published author and founder of a nonprofit, she has not larded her memoir with lists of honors, successes, and the names of famous people she meets for lunch.  Making It Home includes vignettes of the train wreck collision between cancer and Christmas, the unflattering admission that mothers have temper tantrums too, and the crushing workload that lands on the open-hearted mum who welcomes foster children into an already full life.

If is from this continual pouring out and the parched desert of dependency that the power of God is most clearly seen.

10 If you extend your soul to the hungry
And satisfy the afflicted soul,
Then your light shall dawn in the darkness,
And your darkness shall be as the noonday.
11 The Lord will guide you continually,
And satisfy your soul in drought,
And strengthen your bones;
You shall be like a watered garden,
And like a spring of water, whose waters do not fail.
12 Those from among you
Shall build the old waste places;
You shall raise up the foundations of many generations;
And you shall be called the Repairer of the Breach,
The Restorer of Streets to Dwell In.”  (Isaiah 58:10-12)

These verses from the Old Testament are a timeless reassurance that amidst the Lego obstacle course and the crumbs on the dining room table, in spite of the imperfectly executed birthday parties and the missing library books, mothers are building something important and something that lasts — a path toward home.


This book was provided by BakerBooks, a division of Baker Publishing Group, in exchange for my review.  I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255 : “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

Subscribe to get regular Bible studies and book reviews from Living Our Days delivered to your inbox.  Just enter your e-mail address in the box at the top of this page.

I link-up with these communities on a regular basis:   Looking Up,   Soli Deo Gloria Connections, Inspire Me Mondays, Good Morning Mondays, Soul Survival, Testimony Tuesday, Titus 2 Tuesday, Tell His Story, Coffee for Your Heart, Live Free Thursdays, Faith-Filled Fridays, Grace and Truth, Fellowship Friday, Still Saturday, The Weekend Brew, Sunday Stillness, Faith and Fellowship, Blessing Counters, Women with Intention, Sharing His Beauty, Monday Musings, Motivate and Rejuvenate Monday, Thought Provoking Thursday, Small Wonder, A Little R & R, Beloved Brews, SusanBMead, Faith Along the Way, Cozy Reading Spot, Reflect, Literacy Musing Mondays, Purposeful Faith, The Loft, Words with Winter, Rich Faith Rising, Tuesday Talk, What to Read Wednesday