The Marks of a Sinner’s Saintly Story

Story has a way of capturing the imagination. Biography brings theological principles, life lessons, and spiritual wisdom to life as I bear witness to the grittiness, lived-out in a transformed journey. Poor choices and besetting sins become cautionary sign posts that might just keep me from going over the same cliff.

Karen Wright Marsh shares 25 open windows into the lives of saintly sinners who have loved God and served Him imperfectly throughout history. Her chief means of conveying Truth happens on the campus of the University of Virginia at the Bonhoeffer House where she presides over a weekly gathering called “Vintage.” There, she shares the lessons she has discovered in the flesh and blood that once belonged to historical brothers and sisters in the faith.

Vintage Saints and Sinners: 25 Christians Who Transformed My Faith is a collection of these conversations with the historical details reinforced by bracing accounts from Karen’s own winding pilgrim life. She makes it clear that a saintly title does not disqualify a believer from struggles, nor does it make one immune to the slippage that plagues us all.

What these 25 historical figures (spanning some 16 centuries of church history) have in common is the faithfulness of their search for Jeremiah’s “good way” and their dogged determination to walk its restful path. What characterizes the life of a sinner who has “stood at the crossroads” and chosen the path of a saint? I’ve been challenged by four characteristics that recurred throughout Karen’s biographical sketches:

Settling into Belovedness

Author and professor Henri Nouwen found himself caught in a cycle of work, depression, insomnia, and doubt that left him wondering if anyone would listen to his wisdom if they knew how much he struggled. His pursuit of significance ended with his embrace of the truth that, as God’s child, God’s favor already rested on him. He learned a willingness to hear God’s calling him “beloved” as the loudest voice in his head and heart.

John Wesley’s following life was one of “fighting continually, but not conquering,” (114) until he felt his heart “strangely warmed” by the spirit and entered into a life with God that was characterized by relationship rather than rules.

Twelfth-century monk, Aelred of Rievaulx delighted in relationships as a youthful extrovert, but found his heart’s desire to be fulfilled only by the knowledge of God’s love for him which infused meaning into all other human relationships.

Sinners who long to be saints will let go of their bent toward doing and turn their hearts toward a glorious being that rests in the knowledge of their own belovedness to the God of the universe.

Embracing the Strangeness

Flannery O’Connor, well-known for the portrayal of “large and startling figures” in her writing, lamented the fact that “people who believe vigorously in Christ are wholly odd to most readers.” (45) Her awareness of the total “otherness” of God led her to pray:

“Please help me to get down under things and find where You are.”

Only one of many followers who chose a non-traditional life style, Francis of Assisi walked hundreds of miles, dressed in rags, and lived hard-and-inconvenient because he heard the voice of God calling him to a non-traditional path.

Modern day saints are called to life of radical forgiveness as the norm, and “strangeness” may abound in varying degrees in the following life. Karen Wright Marsh examines her own commitment to WWJD with new eyes because of vintage saints and sinners’ example in embracing “the joy, the risk, the wholeness of taking Jesus at his word.”

The Brilliance of Practicality

When I picture medieval saints who committed themselves to a monastic life, the phrase “cutting edge” does not leap to my lips, but then, Julian of Norwich ratcheted her own vows up a notch and became an anchoress, enclosed in a small chamber within the church for the remainder of her lifetime. (Anyone else feeling claustrophobic right now?) Narrow of room but wide of life, one of Julian’s three windows in her little nook faced onto the streets of Norwich where she was able to provide counsel and spiritual insight to those who walked the streets of 14th century England.

Ignatius of Loyola approached the faith-life with a strategic confidence that would rival the Pentagon, and approached all decisions with the brilliant question:  “What will bring the greatest glory to God?” (164) This lifts the heavy burden of looking for X-marks-the-spot answers to our requests for God’s guidance, and emboldens the believer to take risks, leaning into a trust in God’s ability to work through Scripture and the wise counsel of friends, family, and mentors.

Risking the Forbidden

If Dietrich Bonhoeffer had settled into a comfortable pastorate in England as an escape from Nazi Germany, or if he had simply played it safe and taken a post in a German university while waiting out the war, we would probably never have heard his name. Instead, discerning the Nazi danger, he founded an illegal seminary, joined the conspiracy to assassinate Hitler, and was, therefore, executed by the Nazis. Of course, the two years between Bonhoeffer’s arrest and execution were overflowing with gorgeous writing that has shaped the church with its theological insights.

The Christian life of Amanda Berry Smith began with a bold prayer:

“I will pray once more, and if there is any such thing as salvation, I am determined to have it this afternoon or die.”

Her passion to know God and to share His love with the world propelled her into a life of risk. A former slave with no formal education, she traveled the world and preached to large crowds. When she encountered protesters, she knelt in their presence and prayed. She contracted malaria as she traveled by canoe in Africa, and succeeded in founding an orphanage for African American girls despite the challenges of living as a woman of color in pre-Civil Rights America.

Sinners who long to be Saints for God’s glory will trust for grace in the midst of fear, asking God for “the strong love that casts out fear.”

Following the ancient tracks of these 25 pilgrims has been both encouraging and disturbing. Each stands alone as a memorial to a significant and exemplary life, but taken together over time, they reveal the mysterious complexity of the following life and God’s creativity in receiving whatever raw material is offered to Him — and spinning it into gold. As I stand at my own crossroads and look; as I pursue “the good way” and put my feet on the path in front of me, I’ll rest in the Truth that God has long been in the business of transforming sinners into saints and He knows the unique contours of the road this sinner needs to travel.

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This book was provided by IVP Books, an imprint of Intervarsity Press, 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.”

Additional Resources

For more information about The Bonhoeffer House or Karen Wright Marsh’s ministry through Theological Horizons, click on over to their website.

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A Day Like No Other Day

It was a day like any other day in the life-long ministry of Zacharias the priest.  With Elisabeth’s goodbye kiss still warm on his cheek, he went about his business, reporting for duty in his scheduled commitment to serve in the Temple.

It was a day like no other day when the honor of entering the most holy place fell to Zacharias, and his aging eyes found the burning incense eclipsed by angel light. Startling and strange, the heavenly messenger’s words hooked unbelief, earning Zacharias a nine-month sentence of mute pondering.  God’s four-hundred year silence was broken, leaving an elderly couple blinking and gasping at this new way of understanding the word impossible.

“Well stricken in years” is the delicate, traditional rendering, a state that would have made for a challenging pregnancy in any era — even if you are carrying the forerunner of the Messiah.  Like a spavined barn with tar paper siding, Elisabeth’s olden frame would have been covered with skin already stretched and sagging, but with joy she bore the bone-on-bone pain of an aging back and a heavy load.

Did she understand that her glorious passage from barren to fruitful was more a rending of history than a miracle of gynecology?

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It was a December day like any other.  There was dog hair that needed to be vacuumed.  There were lessons that needed to be prepared.  There were emails unanswered and dishes unwashed.  By my calculation, Advent season includes the routine preparation of at least seventy-five meals on top of all the other holiday baking and decorating.

It was a December day like none before. Sitting at the dining room table with my Bible open to the pages between the Testaments– the ones that follow the scalding prophetic words and precede the red letters of grace–I imagined myself into the sandals of the faithful. Pausing in this liminal space, I wondered about waiting and the nature of a sinewy watchfulness that keeps on trusting in the fulfillment of a centuries-old promise in spite of all evidence to the contrary.

From the outside, I think it must look like everyday life:
–Elisabeth, hands resting upon implausible roundness as she tries to decipher Zechariah’s chalkboard scribbles;
–Mary, silently pondering a secret that would rock her teenage world and send the tongues of Nazareth wagging;
–Anna, keeping her open-ended vigil, not knowing that the waiting would soon be over and her eyes would see salvation in an infant’s small appearance.

Attending to the faithfulness of these women of Christmas puts parentheses around a moment, as I try to identify with the generations who lived their days in the in-between. Sure, God had promised that a Messiah would come, and those who knew the Scriptures seemed to have a lot of details about it. Even so, for those who held the promise close to their hearts, it must have seemed as if God had pressed history’s pause button, and they had been left standing in a freeze frame, waiting for deliverance.

Fast forward over two thousand years from the dawn of Anno Domini, and we’ve lost that connection between expectation and faith. High-speed internet and Amazon one-day shipping are relics of my forward-leaning Religion of Next. I wear my hurry like an ill-fitting cassock, proclaiming by my words and deeds the counterfeit gospel that God is in the slowest hurry I’ve ever seen. In a fast-forward life, anticipation fades like childhood memory and the long-forgotten sound of Christmas bells.

When Christmas becomes separated from Truth, it lands in my December like a burden–just one more thing in the multitude of things that need to be checked off my list. But, if I stay present to the wonder of Word made flesh, my blunted perception is sharpened just enough to hear God’s present-day proclamation in words that bypass angel lips and star song, but land in power on the believing heart:

Nothing shall be impossible.”
God is with us.”

Words spoken into that long ago in-between resonate for today’s waiting.
Simple Truth schools me in the authentic gospel of expectation in which the power and the presence of God bursts through all the shallow frippery and hoopla of a holiday run amuck.
Entering the holy place of the in-between, Truth feeds an advent of belief. For, like Elisabeth, I, too, live in hope for that which is yet unseen, my heart pregnant with anticipation of the Coming that is yet to come.

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This post appeared first at SheLoves Magazine.

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Thanksgiving Prayer

For those of us in the United States, this is a day of thanksgiving. However, gratitude is not circumscribed by geographic boundaries. Nor do we need a calendar’s permission to leave room for gratitude, so . . .

LORD, we thank you!
We confess that our hearts are often full of ourselves, for we mistake self-importance for self-worth and make much of every burden, so today we thank you for all the good that you have piled into our lives by your grace.

Thank you for the successes and the victories that embolden us to risk more.
Thank you for the setbacks and disappointments that send us in new directions.

Thank you for the people we enjoy who bless us and enrich our days.
Thank you for the folks who require a concerted effort and Outside Help in order to love them as we should.

Thank you for the steady stream of blessing that comes to us through your love: healing, forgiveness, redemption, mercy, renewal, welcome, peace.  May we “enter Your gates with thanksgiving and Your courts with praise” no matter what the season of the year.

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Faith, Family, and the Adoption Journey

Last summer, we canoed down the Saco River.  With kayaks, canoes, and colorful life jackets, we were a festive family flotilla bobbing along in the gentle current. On the way to our destination, we swam, sunned ourselves on sandbars, and the kids played a rousing game of gunwale wars. It was the kind of day that becomes a better memory every year, except . . .

We received some misinformation along the way and our end point was actually further down the river than we had thought — by several hours. Wild with a quiet panic, I paddled and fretted. As the sun began to set and I pictured us navigating around fallen trees and exposed granite in the dark, I announced to my husband, “I’m not a process person!  I’m a destination person, and I want this journey to be over!”

Kristin Hill Taylor found herself navigating a similar course in her journey of infertility and the decision to adopt.  Steering around the discomfort and inconvenience of fertility treatments, enduring the open-ended waiting process, and keeping one eye on the sunset that comes with aging ovaries, she found herself returning to Daniel’s Old Testament anthem to God’s sovereignty:

“Blessed be the name of God forever and ever,
For wisdom and might are His.
And He changes the times and the seasons;
He removes kings and raises up kings;
He gives wisdom to the wise
And knowledge to those who have understanding.
 He reveals deep and secret things;
He knows what is in the darkness,
And light dwells with Him.  (Daniel 2:20-23)

God graciously allowed Kristin to stay close to the truth that waiting is an opportunity for growth — but that does not mean it was easy! Once Kristin and her husband Greg entered the adoption process, they faced an entirely new set of circumstances that were beyond their control. Even so, they could see the hand of God at work when a young mum made the brave choice to continue her pregnancy and selected the Taylors as an adoptive family for her baby.

Kristin shares her astonishment at the great gift of insight adoption brought to her understanding of the Christian life. Understanding the depth of God’s choosing love and leaning into this faith gave Kristin peace in the process of becoming a mum and leaving a much-loved career to stay home with her first child. The Taylors went on to adopt two more babies, each story unique and each child a gift from God.

By sharing the details of each adoption and including the diverse stories of a number of friends who also adopted, Kristin prepares readers who are considering adoption for the twists and turns of the process.  Throughout the years of her story arc, it seemed that Kristin was perpetually updating a home study or weathering another round of disappointed hopes.  She learned that “few things define us more than how we struggle.” (49) And she realized that she was NOT a good struggler.  However, she was also in a process of transformation — as is every believer.

The sandpaper that God chose to use in Kristin’s situation was the adoption process and the emotionally draining job of mothering multiple children. As Kristin openly shares her moments of weakness and the ways in which God used His Word to instruct her, I was also challenged to dig into the truth of the book of James that “God wants me to live out my faith with my hands and my feet and my words and my actions and my attitudes and my relationships and my decision and my whole entire life.”

A closer examination of the adoption process pushed my understanding of being pro-life beyond a political position and into a realization that children are worth the level of effort, investment, and inconvenience that adoption can sometimes create. The formation of a family is worth the risk and the vulnerability.

The Taylor family has come together through adoption, and although the journey was not predictable or planned, the result is all that Kristin could have hoped for. The uniqueness of their family’s growth served as the occasion for witnessing God’s glory on display as He brought order to brokenness and wove together a network of love and connections in the making of a family.

Raymond Kayak
And, yes, the journey down the river was worth it, too!

//

This book was provided by the author 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.”

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.

God Moves Mountains When Women Pray

Last year, I started keeping a list of prayer requests, dated and described, and then, to my great surprise — answers!  Clear direction for a son, help and success in a ministry opportunity, a new and wonderful job for my husband.  Reviewing the list from time to time, I’m reminded to give thanks, and I’m reinforced in my thinking that when it comes to prayer, there is always something new and fresh God wants me to know.

Women Who Move Mountains by Sue Detweiler is clear and comprehensive enough to serve as a primer on prayer for the uninitiated, but Sue has shared so many deeply insightful stories and has woven them so beautifully with Scripture that those who are further along on the journey will also find a rewarding read.  Twice in the gospels, Jesus talks with His disciples about mountains moving at their command.  Of course, this is not a matter of showcasing the disciples’ great faith, but rather, the power of God at work on behalf of those who believe.

I have been guilty of praying small and safe, so it was a challenge to hear Sue’s rallying cry to pray with confidence, boldness, and grace.  The book is set up with odd-numbered chapters covering real and raw stories of women who witnessed mountain-moving responses to their prayers, while even-numbered chapters pose questions based on living the principles here at ground level.

Belief in the ever-present, always-available Maker of Heaven and Earth is the foundation for a vibrant prayer life.  Unfortunately, fear, shame, anxiety, perfectionism, entitlement, and timidity often derail us in the mountain-moving life.  Staying close to Truth is transformational, and this becomes evident in the lives of women whose childhood wounds have been healed and whose “orphan mindset” has been replaced with assurance that in God’s eyes, they are a much-loved daughter.

Sue hammers on one truth about this following life that almost cannot be overstated:

“Just because you obey God does not mean that it will be smooth sailing forever and ever.”

Our obedience opens the door to God’s help and connects us to God’s plan, but prayer requires trust at every level.  Offsetting the vending-machine-God mentality, Sue reminds readers that Jesus suffered greatly in His time on this planet.  The following life is not lived above emotional pain and loss.  Women who feel like the walking wounded are encouraged to turn to God rather than blaming God for their wounds.

Biblical examples of women like Hannah who prayed for a child and Esther who prayed for the rescue of her people demonstrate that prayer is a powerful weapon, that it launches us into our destiny, and that — amazingly — it is as simple as a conversation in which we transparently come before God bearing “our stuff.”

Just as conversation builds relationship between people, prayer is a day-long interaction with God.  And since it is not simply prayer or my puny faith, but rather GOD who moves mountains, I want to press into that relationship and know the heart of this powerful God.  Indispensable to our prayer life is a right understanding of who He is, and Sue has shared rich Scriptural insights:

  1.  Jesus is uniquely equipped to comfort and strengthen us when we face rejection.  Remember what happened in Nazareth?  When He challenged the hometown crowd, they were ready to drive Jesus off a cliff!
  2. It’s an American idea that if God calls you to a task and if He is truly in it, then success always follows.  Dietrich Bonhoeffer said it well:  “When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.”  Some of our most enriching spiritual growth experiences come through failure.
  3. Jesus always had choice words of condemnation for the Pharisees in the crowd and set the example for us.  “Becoming a woman who moves mountains means you care more about what Jesus thinks than the Pharisees in your life.”

F.U.N.K. and H.O.P.E.

Sue employs a couple of creative acronyms to stimulate readers to prayer that results in renewed thinking and powerful life-change.  The next time you feel as if you are in a funk, realize that you are Floundering Under Negative Knowledge.  Everything that seems dark and wrong may be very true, but staying close to God’s truth fights the slide into the pit.

Likewise, when the dark tunnel seems endless, hope says, “Hold On, Pain Ends!”  God offers His hope when ours has long ago sputtered to a stop.

God-confidence gives perspective for the long haul of praying in light of God’s specific promises.  There is so much that He wants to do as He trains us in righteousness, so many good works, prepared beforehand, that are waiting for us who walk with Him. Thanks be to God that we have been invited to come before Him in confidence, boldness, and grace.

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This book was provided by Bethany House via Interviews and Reviews 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.”

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.

 

Loneliness: An Opportunity and a Sign of Hope

When C.S. Lewis wrote (famously) of desires unmet that set our hearts toward the journey of further up and further in, it’s obvious that he was writing in the days of snail mail and expensive long-distance phone calls.  The truth is that life on planet Earth is beset with longings of every kind, but chief among them is the feeling of loneliness.  Now that humanity has access to the blessings of Skype and email and ubiquitous cell phones, it would seem that loneliness should have been eradicated from the globe — or at least all parts of it that have reliable Internet connections.  However, it seems that no one is exempt from the sadness of feeling alone.

In Finding God in My Loneliness, Lydia Brownback argues that loneliness is a bellwether, an indicator that something is missing.  Our longing to know and be known by others is an invitation to pay attention to that feeling and to find our ultimate fulfillment in the God who created us and knows us by name.  In His days here in this broken ground, Jesus offered the pathway of finding one’s life by losing it, but when I believe the lie that finding my life is all about me and getting my needs met, I become  a very small package indeed.  Cramped and restless, my self-seeking leads only to more loneliness and an endless pursuit of serial wantings.

In her analysis of ten reasons people experience loneliness, Lydia also provides Scriptural examples that bear upon each situation and reveal the truth that God is present with us even when all we sense is absence and longing:

Abraham experienced The Loneliness of Leaving when God called him into the unknown, and he found that “through the loneliness that comes from heeding this call, the Lord redefines us and gives us a whole new identity.”  (Loc 503)  In the learning process, we begin to make our home in Him.

Those who experience The Loneliness of Night find, as Jacob did in his wrestling match with God, that a humble dependence on God changes our focus.  Nighttime struggles with fear and loneliness can lead to new hope and, over time, an abiding light that does not depend upon the time of day.

Anyone who believingly follows Christ will eventually experience The Loneliness of Obedience.  In addition to feeling abandoned, Joseph could also have felt resentful during his stint in an Egyptian prison, but an aerial view of God’s redemptive plan allowed him to live and walk in forgiveness.  God is able to redeem the lonely seasons of a close-following life, not merely for my own sake, but also for the sake of “many survivors.”

Elijah was discouraged when he fled to Mt. Horeb, but what he found there was The Loneliness of Running Away.  Sitting under our own personal broom trees, if we listen carefully, we, too, will hear from God the message that there is no guarantee of a “one-to-one correspondence between effort and success.” (Loc 862)  Picking through the rubble of our disappointment, we find our true motivation, and, with this humbling truth in hand, we are ready to be sent back into our calling without the burden of a get-it-right, produce-results, and build-your-own-kingdom mentality.

When we experience sorrow over the “pain of knowing life will never be the same,” we are feeling The Loneliness of Grief.  The prophet Isaiah described Jesus as the one who can enter into our grief with us — unlike well meaning friends who spout platitudes and exude impatience.

Those who are different “in a way that offends the sensibilities of others” know the painful Loneliness of Being Different.  Lydia vividly re-tells the desperate situation of the woman Jesus healed in Mark 5.  Her gynecological malady may have been debilitating, but it was most certainly isolating, and Jesus offers spiritual cleansing to those who are desperate enough to come to Him with an open mind about what healing means.

Even in the 21st century, addiction, disease, and dysfunction usher in The Loneliness of Being Unclean.  When loved ones are swallowed up in the darkness, it feels as if they are running wild in the tombs just as the poor guy that Jesus delivered from demons in Mark 5.  Lydia offers the helpful perspective that the horror, fear, and isolation of an addiction are truly a misplaced worship and require the same kind of miraculous healing to take the victim off the road to death.

If your idol has been relationships, and your heart has led you astray, then you know The Loneliness of Misplaced Love.  Jesus walked thirsty into the hub of a Samaritan town and put His finger directly on the thirst of the town’s female outcast. Serial husbands had not freed her from the pursuit, but through her story, the thirst-quenching love of Christ is revealed as the one thing that will change the future by freeing us from being defined by the poor decision of the past.

Written from the perspective of a single woman, Finding God in My Loneliness looks at both sides of the relational coin, for there is a Loneliness in Marriage that may be more bitter than the Loneliness of Being Unmarried.  With demographic data showing that there are currently about as many single adults in America today as married ones, it’s important to understand that, while there is a loneliness particular to singleness, singleness need not be equated with loneliness.  Betrayal, spiritual mismatches, and dysfunctional relationship patterns exacerbate the loneliness that happens within marriage, but even the best and happiest of marriages prove the point that marriage was never meant to fill us up or define us.  In fact, the single life demonstrates with clarity what all believers need to grasp in our search for community:  individuals find fulfillment through intimacy with Christ, and we will “know our oneness with Him most fully when we do life together with other believers.” (Loc 1866)

Participation in a local church has a way of banishing us from the center of the universe while we come to grips with the truth that the loneliness we experience is a sign post, pointing our hearts toward another world.

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This book was provided by Crossway 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.”

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.

The Radical Simplicity of Looking Up

It’s nearly time.
Even two weeks ago, standing thigh-deep in snow beside the bush, I could see that the buds had begun to swell large, and so it won’t be long until I lop off some of the bush’s waywardness and then arrange the bare branches in a vase of water.  I will begin watching every day for the delicate, vivid yellow flowers to announce that spring is happening in my house — no matter what’s happening in the great outdoors on this country hill in Maine

It was for this:

  • the intimate observation of seasonal changes;
  • the beauty and joy of a handwritten letter in which grace comes in the letting go;
  • the thoughtful glance skyward;
  • the face-to-face rebuilding of a broken marriage — it was for this very thing that Esther Emery unplugged her life from the Internet in November 2009.  For one year, she lived a life without email, without a cell phone, and without a debit card.  No Google, no on-line shopping, no text messages.  She walked away from her blog, an encouraging Facebook community, and any trace of an on-line presence in a leap of Stop-doing-everything-you-know-and-start-doing-everything-you-don’t-know Faith.

What Falls from the Sky shares this journey in four parts that correlate with four glorious gifts from the sky:  snow, rain, sunshine, and fog.

  1.  In the season of snow, Esther quit her job and made a cross-country move to Boston with two small children in support of her husband’s career. This obvious high-intensity-tumult actually pales in comparison with the angst of her Internet withdrawal. Against the backdrop of a snowy New England winter, she began to stop looking for her significance in terms of her electronic self.  This unplugging left Esther with plenty of space for wrestling with her ambivalence toward her non-traditional up-bringing and for discovering that “the alternative to screen time is table time.”  She cut her ties with the bulimic teenager she used to be and turned her eyes away from the theater she loved; and then tied on a striped apron and began trying to decipher her husband’s recipes for cranberry muffins and lentil soup.  Like a snow globe turned upside down, her values swirled, but then re-settled into new patterns in which compassion trumps achievement and humility suddenly has equal footing with leadership.
  2. It was from this humility that Esther traced her spiritual re-awakening.  Words from the Bible fell like rain on parched ground as she gulped down the Revelation first and then watched spring come through the lenses of Genesis and Thoreau.  A celebration of Easter in community introduced her to the  beauty of “borrowed” power from the crucified and risen Christ and the truth that this is “not theoretical at all.”  The vulnerability of Good Friday left Esther defenseless against the claims of Christ upon her life, and she was captured by the forgiveness that conquers fear, the “Jesus of the brokenhearted, the Jesus of the suffering.”  Ironically, as her spiritual life came into focus, the material world also became sharper, and she and her husband, Nick, took on the joint task of digging themselves out of debt and handling their finances as a team.
  3.  Under the bright light of summer days, Esther began to examine her motives for stepping away from the Internet.  Is this really about spiritual formation?  Or is it about self validation?  As her life changed and she and her husband grew closer, they began to feel as it they were on a boat, moving further and further from the shore — and further and further from the other people in their lives.  Esther’s perspective on the church is refreshing:  I read and re-read with a smile her assessment of church meetings as “jovially disorganized.”  Too, her tenacity in sticking with her commitment to fellowship is a grace sadly lacking even in more seasoned believers.  To her surprise, “the God she believed in” directed her path to Nicaragua with its enculturated gospel and its unmitigated poverty, where she slept in a room in which the ceiling was carpeted in bats and concluded that “this is what you get, I guess, if you say ‘anything’ somewhere where God can hear you.”
  4. The fog of reverse culture shock was waiting at the airport for Esther when she returned to her ecstatic family, deepening her realization that it would not be possible to drag others, still in the center, out to her “edge” because they had not traveled her road.  Ironically, when her family’s apartment is burglarized, one of the items stolen is the laptop containing all the notes and files she was in the process of recording during her disconnected months.  A tentative foray into gardening, and a commitment to inter-dependency and to the growing health of her marriage all began singing into Esther’s life the same song in different keys: “things grown again.”

With the structure of a memoir and the tone of an Old Testament prophet, What Falls from the Sky kept me reading and curious simply from the sheer impossibility of the experiment.  How does a woman who has “walked away from her faith” and become an “outspoken critic of Christianity” with a significant online presence (and a husband who is an atheist) make a journey away from the internet and toward a following life?   How can the experience of “looking up” for an entire year — noticing the sky and the seasonal changes, delighting in the company of her children and the deepening of her own inner life — how can this bring about a transformation that heals the ragged edges of a heart that needs to forgive and to be forgiven?  Esther Emery has crafted a travelogue for any heart that longs to recognize itself from the inside out, without the aid of the electronic mirror, and to embark upon a life that has been transformed by the resurrected Jesus Christ.

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This book was provided by Zondervan through the BookLookBloggers program 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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