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Friday, July 25, 2014

Red sweatshirt days

My mom's been gone seven months now. Although the funeral is now a poignant distant memory, there are days when the loss of her hits me like a hurricane and I am immediately out-of-breath overcome with sorrow. It can be a John Denver song in the grocery store or the fragment of a poem that I hear her say in my mind. And in that moment, all the grief is fresh and I just miss her, brand new, all over again.

Going through her belongings, in her house, was the hardest thing I've ever done. It was even harder than the funeral, because the only experiences I've had in the Oregon house are--experiences with her. To walk in that house and see her place on the couch empty, forever, was devastating. To walk through the kitchen and realize I would never hear her sing while preparing a meal or doing dishes ever again on this earth, was like a sock in the gut. To go into her bedroom and open up her drawers was to ache in a way that can't be consoled.

My brother had thrown away or donated most of her clothes in the past few months, but he'd kept some items he thought my sister and I would like. When he offered me an unremarkable, rather tattered red sweatshirt, I turned him down, because not only was I trying not to take home more than I really "needed," but also because I couldn't imagine a purpose for it. Then he explained: whenever Mom felt lonely or sad, my Dad would say, "It's a red sweatshirt day." That meant she should put on one of the red sweatshirts he always made sure she had, as kind of a security blanket that meant he loved her and would be close to her in spirit all day. My brother said, you need a red sweatshirt. I took it.

It took me about three weeks to open up the boxes I brought home from Oregon. When I did, I was overwhelmed with memories of her and of my father in pictures, love letters, and tiny memorabilia. But it was when I lifted out the linens and clothes I'd brought home that I lost it, because they smelled like her house..and again the grief hit me like the waves at WindanSea when I was 17 and Alan was teaching me how to body surf.

A red sweatshirt day. The only problem? Here in San Diego it was 85 degrees, and a sweatshirt wasn't called for.

But I get the point, and the red sweatshirt is easily accessible for when the weather cools. I have a feeling there will be a lot of red sweatshirt days before the Lord calls me home and my mom and I see each other again. Until then, aside from the tangibility of a piece of clothing, is the growing sense I have that, as I've said before, heaven really isn't that far away. Sometimes as I read my Bible and pray, I feel like it's really just on the other side of me--like just a shroud of unseen substance separates me from her. Like she's really actually looking over my shoulder, or my dad is sitting on the chair next to me--we just can't touch each other.

Heaven is real, and it's close, and when we get there
     "God will wipe away every tear from their eyes; there shall be no more death, nor sorrow, nor crying. There shall be no more pain, for the former things have passed away. Then He who sat on the throne said, 'Behold, I make all things new." Revelation 21:4, 5a

"...there shall be no more red sweatshirt days."

Monday, July 14, 2014

BOOK REVIEW: All for a Sister

What a delightful book!

This is the first time I have read a book by Allison Pittman, but it won't be the last. All for a Sister is a truly fun story about two women whose lives are woven together by their parents' a heartwarming end.

The book is told through a refreshing mix of viewpoints and genres (memoir, current events, and the occasional screenplay vignette) that left me unable to predict around the next turn--which is unusual in many of today's novels. It truly illustrates the truth of Romans 8:28, that "all things work together for good to those who love God and are called according to His purpose." Although God is not a frequent reference in this book, the plot nonetheless highlights His goodness to those whose lives have been determined by others' sins.

I received a free copy of this book for review purposes from Tyndale Publishing.

Saturday, July 5, 2014

BOOK REVIEW: Strangers at My Door

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"I was a stranger, and you invited Me into your home." Matthew 25:35, NLT

Have you ever wondered what it would like if you truly welcomed into your home anyone who happened to knock? That's exactly what Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove did, and Strangers at My Door is the book that tells about his experiences in doing so.

Organized thematically rather than chronologically, Wilson-Hartgrove takes us through what it looks like to "Open the Door," "Lean(ing) In," and experience "Gifts From Beyond." We are reminded that when we look into the face of those who have been cast out by society, we have to confront our own part in that as members of society. Are we willing to truly look into the eyes of those who are homeless...truly get involved and be Jesus' hands and feet? Or do we simply walk up the steps to our homes and close the doors behind us?

I appreciate Wilson-Hartgrove's honesty. He reminds us that the knock at the door is "always an interruption," and that he doesn't always answer it when he should. He quotes Dostoevsky: "Love in action is a harsh and dreadful thing compared with love in dreams." Yet he has opened his door hundreds of times over the years and has been Jesus to those who needed to eat, or drink, or be given clothing, or receive friendship.

The knock at the door also brings us into a shared experience of hurt with hurting people. He says, "Prayer isn't the power to stand down the waves of suffering that crash over all of us. Prayer is holding the hands of those who will stay with you, being present. It's learning to trust that a way will open." As the leader of an intercessory prayer team, sometimes I want to pray a solution into someone's life when really, I'm supposed to sit beside them and pray with them, waiting together for the answer.

However, in two other roles of my life I have to push back a bit against Wilson-Hartgrove's book. First, as a wife and mom I find myself wanting to know more about his wife and children's experiences as he has run Rutba House over the years. As the protector of my children, I do have reservations about the wisdom of taking in men right from prison into the home where my kids sleep. I would like to know if there were ever adverse events that arose through the years of this ministry.

Second, as someone who worked for years with the homeless in my big city, I am perhaps a bit calloused to the approach that those without homes simply need unconditional love to set them back on their feet. I know that sometimes the homeless really need to show an investment in rehabilitation to make it valuable to them. While I don't think Wilson-Hartgrove is naive--I do hear wisdom in his words--I would have liked to hear more about ways he holds his houseguests to a certain degree of accountability; where are the checks and balances?

Overall, I enjoyed this book. It challenges me to remember those who are hurting and hungry when I walk along the street or around my neighborhood. It challenges me to remember that Jesus wants us to remember to care for strangers, because sometimes they are angels. And it challenges me to remember that whenever we do these things to the least of these, we do them to Jesus.

I received this book for free for review purposes from Waterbrook Multnomah books. This is the author's website, and if you are interested in reading the first chapter of the book, go here.

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

BOOK REVIEW: Stand Strong

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Nick Vujicic knows a bit about bullying.

Born without arms or legs, Vujicic endured taunts and teasing from bullies as he was growing up. In his new book, Stand Strong, he reaches out to young people who are going through similarly difficult times. Drawing from his faith and writing in an easy conversational tone, Vujicic challenges kids to deal with their bullies firmly but without retaliation. He emphasizes internal confidence over external action.

With chapters such as "Owning It," "Create Your Safety Zone,"  and "Rise Above," young people are given strategic suggestions for increasing their confidence in Christ and handling unkind behavior from bullies. He encourages kids to create a "bully defense strategy" that they will use if threatened with violence by a bully. He takes on the perennial question: do I fight back?

Vujicic is kind and friendly, and isn't afraid to poke a bit of fun at himself. I believe this will help young people identify with him and therefore take his advice to heart.

To see Vujicic's video introducing the book, go here, and for more information about the author himself, go here.

I received this book for free from Blogging for Books for this review.

Friday, May 16, 2014

BOOK REVIEW: The Waiting

This is the most beautiful book I've read this year.

The Waiting, by Cathy LaGrow (with Cindy Coloma), is the story of a 17 year old girl, Minka, who gave her daughter, conceived in an assault by a stranger, up for adoption. It is the story of how Minka wrote countless letters over many years to the girls' home that facilitated the adoption, asking the staff to pass on her love to that baby--which, because it was a closed adoption, they could not. It is the story of Minka growing into a young woman, a wife, a mother, a widow, a senior citizen...and never forgetting to pray for that daughter, trusting God to watch over her. It is the story of a heart's desire that, after nearly 80 years, seemed about to go into the ground with Minka as she neared 100 years of age.

But then, Minka prayed an impossible prayer.

And, because this is also a story about God's faithfulness...He answered.

If you have ever found yourself having to trust God for something over which you have absolutely no control, you need to read this book.  If you have ever doubted that God can put impossible circumstances together for your good, you will find hope in these pages.  If you have ever wondered whether God really does answer impossible prayers, you will wonder no more. This story testifies to the fact that God knows where His kids are at all times, and that when we delight ourselves in Him, He gives us the desires of our hearts.

I received a copy of this book for free from Tyndale Publishing company for review purposes.

Monday, April 14, 2014

BOOK REVIEW: Girl at the End of the World

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Girl at the End of the World, by Elizabeth Esther, is a dramatic and sensitive look at the inner workings of a cult. Esther grew up in the fundamentalist Christian cult called The Assembly, which was founded by her paternal grandfather. She grew up with a desire to please Jesus and her family by being legalistically devoted to the teachings of the cult; however, as a teenager she found herself confronted with the unhealthy atmosphere of her home and church. The heartwrenching challenges she faced to leave the cult (and her family) as a young married mother keep the reader riveted, rooting for her to break free and find a healthy relationship with Jesus.

However, leaving the cult was only the first step of Esther's healing. Anxiety attacks that had a crippling effect on her life had to be addressed in therapy, her marriage had to be renegotiated outside the confines of the authoritative influence of the cult, and family relationships needed restoration.

I read this book in two days because of Esther's engaging style, admiring the courage it took her to reach back into difficult memories and tell her story. It is important for cult survivors to do so, in order that others may be encouraged to confront similar situations. If you have ever wondered what it is like to live in a cult, this book will give you an accurate picture; I have a friend who spent 10 years in a cult, and the story she tells is very similar to Esther's. The road to spiritual health is a long one, but it is one worth walking.

For more on the author, go here. I received this book for free for review purposes from Waterbrook Multnomah Publishers.

Sunday, March 30, 2014

BOOK REVIEW: And Life Comes Back

To read And Life Comes Back, by Tricia Lott Williford, is to hurt and heal at the same time. After her husband unexpectedly dies in her arms, 31-year-old mother of two Williford gets off the floor, turns to the process of grief, and brings us along.

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Already a writer, Williford uses her abilities to chronicle her journey through grief, from the first terrible moments to the day she is finally ready to let go and restart her life. She even pauses to give her readers some advice, whether they are encountering others who have lost loved ones or whether they are the ones who are hurting.

My mom died just a few months ago. It was also unexpected, although she was elderly and had some minor health problems. Still, I viscerally understand that feeling of--your loved one is just...gone. He or she is never coming back. Williford's emotions, thoughts, actions, are all so understandable to me, although the circumstances of my grief were different. She uses the pillars of support in her life well, from her band of close girlfriends to her therapist to the baristas at Starbucks, where she sought daily refuge.

I especially was moved by the letter she wrote to her newlywed self, giving her glimpses of what her life would hold during the 10 years she would have with her husband. I also felt the conversations she had with her young sons about their father's death were compelling, because they were marked with honesty. Kids need honesty.
What am I left with after reading this book? Exactly what I've felt since my own loss occurred: love your family every day. You don't know how long you have with them. Try to remember that when you get frustrated over things that, in the scope of eternity, do not matter. Williford did that during her marriage (although of course no marriage is perfect), and she has beautiful memories to draw from until she sees her husband again.

Interested in the book or the author? Go here.

I received this book free for review purposes from Waterbrook Multnomah Publishers.