Review: Loving Luther

Along the Way @ mlsgregg.com (1)

Gentle Reader,

What was it like, to live “back then?”

I began asking this question as a child and haven’t been able to stop.  There is something endlessly fascinating about history, about peering into the past. How did certain events happen? Why did certain people do what they did? How did the people respond to the events? What was it like to live and love, laugh and cry, in the midst of the great upheavals of the timeline?

As a daughter of the Reformation, I know all about both the brilliance and the deep, often horrifying flaws of Martin Luther. He cried out against the excesses and corruption of the late medieval Catholic church. He taught salvation by grace, through faith. He translated the Bible into the common tongue of his people. He wrote hymns. At the same time, Luther failed to support a leveling of the class system, essentially ordering the peasants to stay in “their place.” He was anti-Semitic, though not in a racist sense. Rather, his prejudice was theological, arising from conclusion that God had rejected the Jews. (Let me be clear: Hate is hate, whatever the reason). Love him or loathe him, Luther is a seminal figure in history. The transition from medieval to modern cannot be understood without him.

What would it have been like to love such a complicated, intense man?

This is the question Allison Pittman addresses in her novel Loving Luther. Instead of focusing on the man who lit the match, she turns her attention to a woman who lived in the explosion: Katharina von Bora.

As was common practice at the time, Katharina was taken to the Benedictine convent at Brenha around the age of five. For the next 19 years, her world was one of women and walls. She took the veil as part of the Cistercian order, at the convent of Marienthron in Grimma (eastern Germany). It was a life of deprivation and duty; never quite enough to eat, cold in winter and hot in summer, the clanging of bells interrupting the few hours of precious sleep. Leaving was unthinkable.

Until it wasn’t.

Katharina somehow became aware of Luther and the growing reform movement. (Pittman has her reading messages smuggled into the cloister). A large part of the novel centers around Katharina’s dissatisfaction with life as a nun and her growing spiritual awareness, therefore I won’t go into great detail and so spoil the story for you. Suffice it to say, on Easter Eve, 1523, Katharina and eleven other nuns staged a jailbreak of sorts, assisted by Luther and his friends. (Don’t tell me I should have #spoileralerted you. This happened almost 500 years ago).

It was difficult for her to adjust to life on “the outside.” A woman without fortune, family or marriage occupied a tenuous place in society, dependent upon the goodwill of friends, or, in Katharina’s case, strangers. By the time she left the convent, Katharina was old by the standards of the day (24; I mean, can you even?) and, by all accounts, possessed a sharp intellect and a witty tongue, neither of which were considered attractive. (Glad I am that I was not born centuries earlier). Luther took it upon himself to arrange a match for her, feeling responsible for her settlement.

If you know anything about the history of this pair, you know where there is headed. Even if you don’t know, you can guess, simply by glancing at the title of the book. This is where Pittman shines. She takes us through Katharina’s life, step by step. The reader may know where it will end, but the character doesn’t, and the reader is moved to sympathy for her in her struggles. Indeed, even modern women can easily relate to the struggle in seeking to please God above all, while longing for love and a meaningful place in the world.

There was a clunky transition in the book, having to do with a man named Jerome Baumgartner. I can’t delve too deeply into this as it is integral to the plot, but you will notice the shift as you read, almost as if an engine moves from first gear to third, skipping over second completely. There’s just a shudder and grind to it. Not enough to ruin the narrative and, honestly, I’m not sure how Pittman could have handled it better. Due to a lack of resources on Katharina’s life, no doubt certain choices had to be made in telling her story.

Loving Luther was an enjoyable read, particularly in these weeks leading up to the celebration of Reformation Day. So often church history focuses on the great heroes of the faith. It was a lovely change of pace to read about a heroine instead. I want to know more about Katharina now and am confident that she will be a source of inspiration for years to come.

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I received a free copy of this book in exchange for my fair and honest review.
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Review: Emerald Isle

Along the Way @ mlsgregg.com

Gentle Reader,

Mike Trainor’s life is mere existence since a terrorist bomb killed his beloved Mary the week before their wedding. Then an overbooked airplane forces him to sit by a beautiful young Irishwoman who is the spitting image of his dead fiancé….

Sometimes I write lengthy reviews.

Other times I simply tell you, “Read this book.”

This is one of those times.

Andrew Budek-Schmeisser is a beloved friend, one of the few brave men who actively participate in the Five Minute Friday writing community. His humor, intelligence and faith reach across the miles through his words, drawing the reader into reflection. He is unfailingly generous in his encouragement, always finding ways to cheer on anyone with whom he crosses paths. Having developed a real camaraderie with him over the last couple of years, I was in no way surprised that his fiction is as deep and surprise-filled as his blog posts.

Emerald Isle tells the story of Mike, Annie and Mary. From the rolling green hills of Ireland to the heat of Austin to the concrete jungle that is Chicago, with many stops between, this is a story of secrets, vengeance, love lost, hopes shattered and faith tested. It is a tale of a man caught between two women – but not in the way you expect.

While much Christian fiction is saccharine and formulaic, Emerald Isle is refreshingly different. There’s enough action to keep the plot rolling and enough character development to keep the reader attached. In some places, I laughed out loud. Others, my heart ached. If this book were made into a movie, Liam Neeson would easily have a role (I won’t tell you who he’d play). He’d kick butt and take names.

But not as a lone wolf. What I really appreciated about the action elements is that Andrew knows what he’s talking about. He’s been in battle. There are no superheroes in this novel. Results are achieved only through teamwork. Andrew carries this principle beyond the comrades in arms and, in a fascinating exploration of culture, family ties are forged through means other than blood and marriage.

Most importantly, Mike, Annie and Mary’s story prompts the reader to contemplate both the large and small ways in which God is present and working. From Chapter 105:

See, and You can correct me if I’m wrong, I think You’re just too big to understand, starting cold. All that Old Testament stuff, it put me on overload. I bet a lot of people went on overload from that. Started making rules and stuff, making so if we did everything just right you’d like us.

Only, that wasn’t it at all, was it? The answer was always so simple. You loved us from the beginning to way past the end. All we had to do was turn around, see those open arms waiting for us.

Finally You couldn’t stand it anymore, and You came to prove it by dying for us. Dying, and taking all the shame and guilt and general crap we should have felt for the way we lived, ESPECIALLY the way we lived when we thought we were doing good. We protected our hearts from You by building walls of laws and rules and stupid little rituals, while You wore your heart on Your sleeve. And on the cross You bled out, that heart pumped all your blood overboard, until only water came out when the centurion stuck You with the spear.

And that blood went down to join other blood from other victims on that hill, but You made it something different. You made red robes, red for kingship, red for blood, red for love.

My soul sings, reading that.

There’s more to be said, but I won’t say it. I’d give too much away if I did. Just head on over to Amazon. You know what to do.

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I received a free electronic copy of this book in exchange for my fair and honest review.

Review: Where I End

Along the Way @ mlsgregg.com (3)

Gentle Reader,

Jesus…teaches us to put our question in a way which is meaningful. He tells us that we should not ask ‘Why?’ but ‘To what end?’ … Jesus is a true Pastor. For when we understand the change, we are no longer cloaked with terror. We can breathe again. We can cry and not be weary. We can live by the profound peace in our hearts.

Everything changes under our hands if with our hand in the hand of our Lord we are ready to march forward to the great ends of God. Our conscience is stained and we are guilty. But being in the hand of Jesus,we may ask with fear and trembling, ‘To what end?’ and we may receive the answer of Paul: In order that grace may be mightier, the cross greater, and the Lord dearer to us.

Where I End, p. 194-195, 196; quoting Helmut Thielicke’s Out of the Depths

I am tempted to end this review here, for this quote tells you all that you need to know about Where I End: a Story of Tragedy, Truth and Rebellious Hope, written by Katherine Elizabeth Clark. However, if I did this, perhaps you might be tempted to believe that Clark is somehow above it all, a perpetually-smiling, saintly figure who has nothing at all in common with you. Such a belief would drive you away from this book – a book every one of us needs to read.

In our modern, Western, sleek-and-shiny context, we don’t know how to suffer well. Unlike our brothers and sisters in hostile and war-torn countries, we are not daily confronted with dark moments of terror. Thanks to advances in medical science, we don’t have to watch loved ones die of preventable diseases like measles or scarlet fever. We are insulated. Cushioned.

Only two things can shake us out of our rose-colored haze: If we consciously choose to seek out suffering by ministering among the poor and the marginalized (which, no bones about it, we should do) or if tragedy suddenly and inexplicably strikes.

Clark and her family experienced the latter. In the briefest of moments, their entire world was transformed. A game of tag. A child who jumped. Broken vertebrae. Pain. Paralysis.

A young, healthy, active mother could no longer hold her children.

The children had to grapple with looking upon their mother lying in a hospital bed.

A husband and father forced to bear the load.

For better, for worse, we say in our marriage vows, in the covenant we make with each other and with God.

Except we never really expect the worse.

Clark details the journey in a non-linear format, which would normally drive order-bound me up the wall, but this narrative choice worked well, because this book is so much more than a story of sorrow. It is about choices. It is about figuring out how to suffer well. Not denying the pain, not ignoring the anger, but turning again and again to the Lord. Seeking the hope that is found in His presence. Releasing a sigh and resting in His arms, even when nothing makes sense, even when the world screams that He can’t be trusted.

It is a story not of praising God for pain, but praising God in the pain. Learning to sing loudly when the storm rages, the song of worship rising above the howling wind, moving the heart of the Father. Determining to be grateful for little blessings and small progress. Seeing things with new eyes.

Above all, Where I End is a very human story nestled within the awesome story of the God who sees, the God who knows. It is about accepting the very human limitations of physicality and of understanding, then choosing to love the God beyond the limits instead of allowing the limits to turn to bitterness. This is the only way that we can survive the shattering of the cocoons that we make for ourselves without bank accounts and education and white picket fences.

Where I End releases January 2018. Do head over to Amazon and pre-order your copy today.

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I received a free copy of this book in exchange for my fair and honest review.

Review: On Edge

Along the Way @ mlsgregg.com (2)

Gentle Reader,

On December 5, 1989, Andrea Petersen suffered a crippling panic attack. Over the next year, she would be in and out of doctor’s offices, attempting to figure out what was wrong. Finally, sitting in the campus health office of her college, she hears the words that will mark her life forever: anxiety disorder.

Of all the books in the world, I figured that I would relate to and appreciate this one.

Weirdly, I didn’t.

Petersen is a medical reporter for the Wall Street Journal, and this shows in her writing. Instead of straightforward memoir, she fills the chapters with an overload of background information about synapses and chemicals and medications, leading to a denseness that was difficult to get through. Having read many books on this topic, I know that there is such a thing as too much information, especially if one is reading these books in an attempt to understand and therefore battle anxiety in a more effective way.

That, perhaps, seems odd. How can there be too much information? In answer, one word: Overload. Knowledge may be power, but overload is crippling.

Petersen should have written two books: one memoir, one technical. Trying to have both forms in one volume results in a disjointed read.

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I received a free copy of this book in exchange for my fair and honest review.