Thursday, January 28, 2016

"To Heaven and Back: A Doctor's Extraordinary Account of Her Death, Heaven, Angels and Life Again (A True Story)" by Mary C. Neal, MD

  Several years ago an acquaintance of mine, that I have a lot of respect for, recommended this book to me.  The book had really spoken to her and captivated her by the fact that here was a DOCTOR... a real M.D. with a background in science and had every reason to be skeptical... who was talking about her experience of momentary death and visiting heaven.  For my friend, this helped confirm her belief in heaven and in God, and she wanted to share that with others.  I totally get that.
  I on the other hand was pretty skeptical.  So skeptical in fact that it's been over three years since my friend made the recommendation and it's taken me until now to crack the pages of this book.  I can't deny it's an interesting story.  Is it hard to believe visits to heaven and post-visit conversations with angels and/or Jesus himself?  Yes.  But who am I to say it can't/didn't happen.  What do I know.  Plus there are so many things in the story that seem like divine intervention (especially during the author's accident in Chile when she drowned and died... which is the focal point of the book).  It's hard not to see the hand of God or at least acknowledge the miracle of it all.
  The author talks a lot about how we can view much of life as coincidence or miracles, quoting Ralph Waldo Emerson in saying that people only see what they are prepared to see. While I agree that we can choose how we view things, and as Albert Einstein said live as if nothing is a miracle or that everything is, as I read this account of near death, I tended to see both.
  I believe God divinely intervenes in our lives sometimes.  The author  shares multiple stories in this book of what seems to be His intervention in her life.  She talks about the time she and a group were stuck in mud and stranded on a deserted road in Mexico and out of the blue rescue showed up after they prayed.  She talks about a scuba diving incident where she and another man should have in many ways died, but seemingly were directed to safety by fish after turning it to God.  Then of course how when she was dying on the banks of the rapids of  a river in Chile, random strangers came to carry her out through a forest to the exact road a ambulance and her husband all happen to meet up on.  Things like that can't be explained and with a lack of explanation I tend to believe it was God.
  Yet, from my own personal experiences and stories of other peoples lives, I also know that sometimes God chooses not to intervene... case in point in this book, when the authors son was killed.  So it was in some instances hard for me to really breathe into what the author was saying about everything being God directed. On top of that, while she has been in the medical world for majority of her life, much more of her life seemed to have been bundled under the tapestry of religion and faith.  While there is nothing wrong with that and it doesn't change the details of the stories she shares, it does give her a different perspective on it all, one that I makes me wonder if it would produce the same outcome from someone who hadn't grown up under the cloak of some kind of faith.  I guess what I am trying to say is I  think I would have been more captivated by the "heaven" moments, had these things happened to someone with no understanding, no-background, no prior-propensity to believe in it.  But that's really more my issue than anything having to do with the book.
  The author states herself in the Q&A section at the back of the book that many of the things that she shares she probably would not have believed herself if they had not happened to her and that she wrote the story not for fame or for notoriety, but rather just to share her experience, which is what she feels God has called her to do...and that I think is what keeps me from tossing out this book with the many other "heaven is for real" stories that have come out (not to say that I don't believe in heaven, because as skeptical as I come across, I do).  I genuinely believe that the author isn't trying to sell anyone faith or trying to convince people of heaven.... although those things could happen... I think she's just trying to be faithful to God.  For that I would recommend this book.

Monday, January 25, 2016

"Spiritual Misfit: A Memoir of Uneasy Faith" by Michelle DeRusha

  This book took me a while to get through...not long by normal people standards, but much longer than other books normally take me... and I have such mixed feelings about it.  First of all,  I just couldn't seem to catch the flow or connect with the author has I was reading it.  I'd read a few pages, put it down, return hour later and repeat the process. But  I never seemed to hit that moment when it all clicked and I just couldn't (or didn't want to) escape from the authors world.  Yet, after I finally finished it,  as I looked back over the things I underlined or the parts that seemingly stood out to me,  I realized that there were in fact so many moments throughout the story where for at least a moment I did connect and where I felt like I could have written similar words myself. 
   I found myself clinging to the authors ideas that the beauty of faith is that "when all else fails, when you lose control and hit the bottom, when everything you thought was true vanishes, when everything you depended on evaporates, you still have God" and also that "God condones wrestling, even encourages it, because the struggle is a catalyst for transformation".
  I took comfort in her reminder that "many of the people in the Bible, including the disciples themselves, turned out to be ordinary humans... flawed, fallible, and struggling.  Yet through those ordinary people and despite their many imperfections, God accomplished great things", which is something I know (or at least have heard before), but need to be reminded of constantly.
  I stood there beside her taking in an deep breath of awe as I began once again to relax into the belief that "I (don't) need to impress God with perfect words, fully articulated thoughts and catchy phrases.  God (doesn't) need me to come to him as someone else.  He (doesn't) need me to dress up my prayers in poetry or lace them with special sacred words.  He (wants) me, the rambling, bumbling, awkward me.  the misfit me".
  And I even felt the relief oozing out of the Rilke quote towards the end of the story that said to "live in the questions now (because) perhaps you will then without noticing it, one distant day, live right into the answers".  Which offers me some much needed relief at a time when I want order and understanding and seem to only be stumbling on more questions.
  How a book can offer so much connection only in retrospect makes no sense to me.  How I seemed to miss and yet still in some way grasp these nuggets of gold during my reading but really only find that true sense of encouragement from them after the fact, seems so strange.  But nonetheless those moments were there and no matter how slowly it seemed to take for them to move from my head to my heart, they did.  And thus, I am grateful to have found this story and to be able to stand, heart connected to a sister in Christ who  isn't afraid to show the good and bad, the ups and downs, the failures and successes of her faith journey.  I have so much to learn from that! 

Monday, January 18, 2016

"The Hardest Peace: Expecting Grace in the Midst of Life's Hard" by Kara Tippetts

  This book was really interesting as well as a little hard for me to read... but possibly for one of the most selfish, self-centered reasons that I would be willing to admit to.  Sitting there taking in page after page of wisdom and faithfulness from a women who faced a battle much greater than any or all issues I face in my own life... yet she does so with such vulnerability and brokenness... I kept having to stop myself from listening to the self-condemning voice asking me, "what is your problem?!" in order to keep reading.
  Kara's story, however, is beautifully written.  Sharing both the good and the hard with such elegance, that as a reader I couldn't help but want to champion her on and believe for her healing, since the world needs more people like her (unfortunately, through the wonders of google, I discovered Kara passed away last year in March).  I also felt the sweetness of a mother, the caring heart of a mentor, the wisdom of someone who has been schooled by the game of life, in her words and for those reasons  I couldn't help but keep pressing forward.
  From the beginning of the book and right through to the end where Kara lists page after page of 'thank you's" to those people who have made her life's community, I found myself drawn to this idea of unconditional love and acceptance even in our brokenness.  She shares of her conversion to faith and the youth pastor who opened her eyes to the gospel, showing her that "his weakness was his strength, and there was love to be known in brokenness".  She goes on to say, "He was inviting me to open wide my hands and admit my fault, make things right, love honestly, and be loved in return.  Loved not for how I performed but for who I was, exactly where I was...".   Then she followed it up with a Brennan Manning quote from the Ragamuffin Gospel that "To be alive is to be broken.  And to be broken is to stand in need of grace.  Honesty keeps us in touch with our neediness and the truth that we are saved sinners.  There is a beautiful transparency to honest disciples who never wear a false face and do not pretend to be anything but who they are".
  Then there is the theme that maybe our struggles are God's blessings in disguise (as the Laura Story song goes).  Kara questions, "what if our journey was intimately planned to be hard, and that story is the good story?  What if the glow of prosperity isn't a glow at all but a unique stink?  What if suffering isn't to be avoided but received and embraced?".  That's such a hard truth to try to come to grasps with... especially someone who is suffering in some way.  And yet here's the author, right in the midst of struggle saying she is "fighting to believe in the goodness of our story that seemed anything but good".  She follows that thought up with a quote from Nancy Guthrie's book Holding on to Hope that, "Trusting God when the miracle does not come, when the urgent prayer gets no answer, when there is only darkness... this is the kind of faith God values perhaps most of all.  This is the kind of faith that can be developed and displayed only in the midst of difficult circumstances.  This is the kind of faith that cannot be shaken because it is the result of having been shaken".  And is that not the kind of faith we all want to cultivate...
  One of the last things Kara shares in her book (before all the touching letters she leaves for her husband and children, and then her husband for all) is a heart-wrenching moment between her and one of her younger daughters who is struggling to cope with the reality that her mom may not be around until she is old and gray.  The two have this sacred moment together, one that I would take away from if I tried to re-share it here (so you'll just have to read the book and get to it for yourself) and in the end, Kara concludes that even "if the hardest is asked of us, we believe grace will be there".  Just let that soak in for a's a women who has every reason to be angry and upset and frustrated (not to say she doesn't feel those things)... and yet in the midst of cancer and facing death she has the confidence to say "Grace... will... be... there". Powerful.
  It seems weird to now say whether or not I would recommend this book to anyone... cause honestly, it seems like much more than a book, it's a life... and how can you put your own judgment on someone else's writing of their life.  It just doesn't seem right.  But for those of you interested in hearing more of this story or hearing more from this woman who still has so much to teach us from the words she left behind, check out this book and also check out her blog (mundane faithfulness).

Thursday, January 14, 2016

"Found: A Story of Questions, Grace and Everyday Prayer" by Micha Boyett

  Can I make a confession right off the bat?  I kind of picked this book up by accident...well sort of.  I was actually looking for a book by Jason Boyett (who by the way, turns out to be the brother of this author), but while at the library, I could only seem to come up with this title and thought, "well maybe I just got the authors name wrong".  Sadly, it wasn't until I actually started reading  the book that I realized, "hey wait a minute, this is a girl writing!", and turned the book over and realized I had the wrong author. Thankfully though, the mistake ended up being a good one since for the most part I really enjoyed this book.
  Prayer is such an interesting thing.. something I think most people see as important but rarely truly understand.  I myself have gone through my own ups and downs, and moments of confusions and understandings when it comes to prayer in the past few years and thus found Micha's book pretty comforting in that "you are not alone" kind of way.
  In the very beginning of the book, Micha states, "I am a sometimes believer, in love with Jesus.  I am a mystic who can't grip tight enough to the mystical.   I long for order but can hardly make a list.  I need something ancient, not ruled by the culture that rules me, to tell me what to do... I need to know how to love God when all I have to offer is my daily chaos.  Mostly, I long to know a quietness in my soul, true contentment, despite my spiritual unimpressiveness.  I need to believe that my simple life really is a gift and really can be holy".  Reading that alone, I knew I was going to like this girl and this book.
  Micha talks through out the book about how she once was involved in ministry, leading high school students and investing in their lives, and how she had grown up with dreams of serving as a missionary overseas in Africa, holding babies in Orphanages.  Then she shares the conflict of her heart and soul when instead she took other opportunities, going to college, meeting her husband and having her son.  Having just come off the missions field myself, I could totally relate to this side of her story and the many questions she had and guilt she carried because of this.  Often times in this faith journey I sense there is this "goal line", this way in which things are suppose to go, and when my life doesn't hold up to that, I can become pretty self-condemning and distant from God.  Micha's book reminded me that "prayer is not an act I preform, words I recite, a behavior I strive to maintain.  Its a returning.  It's a broken life finding healing, a misplaced soul recognizing home". 
  I also was reminded once again that God can handle my tough questions....or the questions I have about Him and our relationship that I wouldn't normally voice to anyone else because they aren't Christian P.C. (Politically correct)!.  Micha says, "I figure if God didn't want us asking questions, he wouldn't have made everything so mysterious" and that "even in His darkest moment, Jesus had faith enough to offer God his hard question" ("my god, my god, why have you forsaken me?! ~ Matthew 27:46).
  I do have to admit though, that at first, all the talk of monks and St. Benedict kind of turned me off and made me think that maybe I would not enjoy this book as much as I did.   But the more I read and opened myself up to the wisdom and knowledge of their ancient practices, I really felt like I had grown though it.  Like in hearing how the Benedictines did things and why, I was able to see more of God from a different angle that I never took the time to look at him from before.  Which was both humbling and awesome.
 So would I recommend this book?  Yeah I would, especially to a specific audience of women who are just at the start of their family oriented life (newly married, newborn baby).  I think the author has a lot to offer, especially to those in the same place she found herself at the time of the writing.  And to those, like me, who maybe aren't in the exact same place, I think there are still things to take away from this book as well.  So I say, give the book a chance... it's worth the possible connection.  

Sunday, January 10, 2016

"Man's Search for Meaning" by Viktor Frankl

  The night before last I finished Viktor Frankl's book "Man's Search for Meaning".  I read it in like 2 days, but not because I particularly enjoyed it... in fact in many ways I struggled with it... but rather I kept reading and reading hoping for some sort of resolve, some sense of "ah yes!  This is what it's all about!  This is the answer!".  I never got that.
  Frankl's book boasts that it has sold over 12 million copies and helped countless people find that elusive "meaning" in their life.  Thus I went into the book with high expectations.  Apparently though, I am not most people.  While I was certainly drawn in by the narrative of what happened in the concentration camps during Frankl's time there, I couldn't quite grasp my head around the clinical way in which he approached it all.  Maybe it was his own form of coping (in fact he admits to that at some point in the book), but my mind does not work that way, and thus the detached way in which he wrote was hard for me to take in (although I was impressed by the ability of the author to share both the good and bad of the situation and of himself so fully, unashamed and unhindered by how it might come across...which was probably only possible because of his seeming detachment).
  My best summary, of which of course I could be wrong, is that Frankl concludes that meaning of life is basically finding and doing whatever it is we were meant to do.  Yes I know how that sounds, and I guess that's why I walked away from this book a bit disappointed and still filled with so many questions without answers. 
  Frankl repeatedly says things like "Man should not ask what the meaning of life is, but rather recognize that it is he who is asked", thus implying that that we make our life have meaning based on what we do with it.... something I am not sure I fully agree with. He also says that "man is ultimately self determining (and) what he becomes, he has made out of himself", which only seems to solidify his point that our lives matter only to the extent that we make them matter...something again that I don't know that I agree with.
  Finally, I also found it confusing how Frankl could say that could say "Everyone has his own specific vocation or mission in life to carry out a concrete assignment which  demands fulfillment" and then turn around and admit "the meaning of life differs from man to man, from day to day, and from hour to hour".  How can man discover the "concrete assignment" which is meant to give his life meaning, if that assignment can change from day to day, or hour to hour?  And how can he even begin to discover something he seemingly should already know (based on Frankl's reasoning that we should not be asking what is life's meaning but rather showing that meaning by our lives).
  I have no doubts that my understanding of this book is limited and that my very own black-and-white nature probably stands in the way of me being able to really connect and accept all that the author is trying to lay out.  I will also admit that my mind was not all that interested in the scientific meanderings of logos-therapy and thus my mind tended to wander quite a bit through out the reading of this book.  However, despite those admissions, I can't honestly say that I would recommend this book.  I am sure other people have found it helpful and probably would suggest it's reading to others, but for me...I just can't and thus I give my regards to the late Viktor Frankl.

Wednesday, January 6, 2016

"Out of Sorts: Making Peace with and Evolving Faith" by Sarah Bessey

  Ah Sarah Bessey,  how I have missed you!  I use to read Sarah's blog religiously.  I looked forward to new posts like I look forward to lunch dates and hangouts with my friends, because in a way, reading her blogs made me feel like I was doing just that...meeting up with a friend, someone who got me and who gave me that sense of "you too!?  I thought I was the only one!" relief!  Yet for one reason or another, or just cause that's what happens in life and friendship, I slowly stopped reading and we grew apart.
  This past fall I heard inklings that she had put out a new book.  I hadn't actually read the previous one, Jesus Feminist (although it is still comfortably stowed away in my kindle app for someday future reading), but I had faced some minor disappointments from other blogger-turned-author writers whom I had invested in over the years who now seem to be putting out works just to produce and please the machine, so I put this knowledge of Bessey's new book on the back burner of my brain and figured I'd wait for another day, another time, to check it out.
 That time was now and it's seems that buying this book was one of those perfectly planned schemes of God and His timing.  I went to the bookstore the other day with no intention what-so-ever of getting this book, in fact I had completely forgotten about it.  Yet in scrolling the rows of endless titles, by-passing many and latching on much more to authors I had never heard of then ones I have, the one copy of Sarah's book in the whole store somehow grabbed my attention (Must be the yellow part of the cover....good job marketing people!). 
   Reading this book ended up being so a cup of cold water on a hot humid day..  I felt like I was re-kindling an old friendship and realized immediately we could pick back up right where we left off, even though we're both a little older, a little wiser, and a little more warn from the journey!  In this book Sarah talks about everything from the Church, to theology, to prayer, to justice, to calling, to community, etc.  All the things I love to talk about...or at least contemplate and wrestle with (although I am not sure I would categorize the wrestle side under love)... in one book.
  In reading I was reminded that it's okay to wade in the waters deep.  It's okay to have questions that don't have neat and tidy answers.  It's okay to look at the same issue again and again and again, refining it and shaping it into something more real in all it's complexities.  It's okay to have changing viewpoints and to grow in new understandings... in fact she says herself that, "anyone who gets to the end of their life with the same exact beliefs and opinions as they had at the beginning is doing it wrong"! 
  I have to admit too, that listening to her story weaved in and out of the pages... a story of growing up, walking away (in a sense) and returning to a more authentic faith, I was comforted.  I think it's easy in the Church now a days to swing one of two pretend like we have it all together and never struggle with or question anything, or to know you don't and thus feel unworthy, constantly trying to "gain/win" our approval from God.  In either context it can be hard to be open and vulnerable with what's really going on in us.   And yet, it's only in being honest that true healing, true redemption, true salvation can happen.  So it's okay to admit those questions and doubts and fears.  It's okay to get off the wide road and go searching for the straight and narrow.  It's okay to about-face and try and forge a new way if where your headed doesn't seem to fit just right.  Because, just as Bessey says, "Blessed are the wonderers with the courage to live into the questions".
  So would I recommend this book?  Yes, obviously yes.  But I don't just recommend it to those in the wilderness or feeling lost at sea, just trying to find someone whose been there and understands.  I also recommend this book to those who think they have all the answers and everything figured out and who will put up a fight against some of the thoughts and ideas shared in this book.  Sometimes we all need a little wrestling to help us grow!  So take a chance and see it through... who knows, maybe it won't change anything, but on the other hand, what if it helped change everything?!

Saturday, January 2, 2016

"The Gifts of Imperfection" by Brene Brown

  Several years ago now I remember a bunch of my friends reading this book.  They all had really good reviews of it, but at the time I had no interest in reading it because I thought I was above needing any "self-help".  The other day... years removed from thinking I have life figured out and I'm pretty much put together... I was walking through the bookstore and it was like a light bulb went off inside of me and I thought, "remember that book everyone was reading at some point...the imperfection book?... yeah, I should totally check that out now.
  To be fair, I was pretty confident that I would enjoy this book by the sub-title alone... "Letting go of who you think your suppose to be and embrace who you are".  I'm THAT girl.... the one who lives under "should's" and "suppose to's"... so immediately I thought this was the book for me.  Plus, with phrases like, "being enough", "letting go of perfectionism" and "letting go of always being in control" scattered throughout the table of contents, to say I was intrigued would be an understatement.
  One of the things I really like about the author was that she clearly states in the beginning of the book that this is not a "to do list"... the guideposts she points out in the book are guides, things we will continually use throughout this journey called life.  They aren't things to be checked off and moved past.  I needed to hear that, in fact I had to remind myself of that multiple times throughout reading the book.  By the end I found comfort in it.
  The other thing I really liked was that the author told stories not just about other people, but mostly about herself... she made this work personal and made herself vulnerable.  I felt connected to her and like I wanted to hear what she had to say because it was her life experience, not just some statistics that  she came up with observing and talking to others.
  I found something relevant to my own life in every chapter, but the chapter that probably resonated with me the most was about "Cultivating Self-compassion".  In it she talks about the difference between healthy striving and perfectionism and who the focus is in each...myself or others, what I think or what others think of me.  I found that very challenging and encouraging and I think others will too.
  There were a lot of great sound bites and quotes that I underlined in this book as well... things I want to hold onto has I work on each of the ten guideposts she mentions.  I also plan to continue processing what I read by "DIGging Deeper", an "activity that the author ends each chapter with (although I am sure the point what to do the activity as you read, but I was so interested in what I was reading that I just kept going).
  There's not a whole lot I didn't like about this book.  I think the author did a great job and focused on a lot of things we all need to hear/talk about but often don't.  I would certainly recommend it, as I see now why all my friends were doing the same back in the day.  If you find yourself stuck in the rhythm of life that just doesn't seem fulfilling, even though your doing "everything right" (according to other people), or you just want to explore more about who YOU are, I would suggest giving this book a try (plus it's super short read... I finished it in a day!).