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.
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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.

Review: As Kingfishers Catch Fire

Along the Way @ mlsgregg.com (1)

Gentle Reader,

Eugene Peterson made waves with the release of The Message in 2003, a paraphrase crafted from the original texts of Scripture without aid from other English translations and without the input of a committee. In his own words, Peterson began this work because,

“While I was teaching a class on Galatians, I began to realize that the adults in my class weren’t feeling the vitality and directness that I sensed as I read and studied the New Testament in its original Greek. Writing straight from the original text, I began to attempt to bring into English the rhythms and idioms of the original language. I knew that the early readers of the New Testament were captured and engaged by these writings and I wanted my congregation to be impacted in the same way. I hoped to bring the New Testament to life for two different types of people: those who hadn’t read the Bible because it seemed too distant and irrelevant and those who had read the Bible so much that it had become ‘old hat.'”

– from the Preface to The Message

The truth is that a large segment of the Western church is bored by Scripture. The problem that Peterson faced was not and is not unique to that particular bunch of believers. So while The Message is not my preferred translation and I disagree with some of the choices that Peterson made (though I do use it from time to time as you can see throughout this blog), I do appreciate the heart behind the work. Scripture was not written in what we see as the “high falutin'” style of early modern English. God used ordinary people who wrote in ordinary language. Poetic at times, peppered with sarcasm, often attempting to describe the indescribable, but ordinary nonetheless. There is no reason why anyone translating the Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek into any other tongue shouldn’t use terms that the reader will understand.

Thus my puzzlement regarding As Kingfishers Catch Fire.

I’m not the smartest person on the planet. Nor do I have much patience flowery-ness in the written word. Though I spend more than my fair share of time contemplating abstract concepts, I do so in a linear, analytical, orderly fashion. I prefer fifty cent words to five dollar terms. My own dabblings in poetry reveal my love of straightforwardness. Go for the jugular, as they say.

Thus more puzzlement as I attempted to read this book.

I am loathe to post a review of something I did not finish, but I couldn’t get through this book. A collection of sermons grouped under seven different topic headings (“Preaching in the Company of Moses,” “…of David,” “…of Isaiah,” “…of Solomon,” “…of Peter,” “…of Paul” and “…of John of Patmos”), it’s possible that this work is not meant to be read straight through. As with any other sermon, the hearer (or, in this case, the reader) needs time to contemplate what she has learned.

I don’t know what I learned or what I was supposed to learn.

Peterson doesn’t use the five dollar words for the most part, and when he does he provides explanation. I can make some sense of individual paragraphs, but, when strung together to make a complete essay-sermon, I can’t figure out what the main point is supposed to be. This might be attributable to the nature of reading a sermon versus hearing it; I am not privy to tone, pauses, facial expressions, all of which provide the hearer with physical context clues that can aid in understanding.

Yet I wonder if these would illuminate the murky text or not.

Consider,

The Holy Spirit descended on this old world of ours, and there’s a Psalm 29 powwow in Elmo every day of the year: a grace-revealing gestures, a fresh snow-fall, a friend’s forgiveness, the first migrating yellow warbler, a miracle conversion, a truth-telling poem, a pasqueflower in bloom, the good death of a parent, resurrection – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – all the endless permutations of life. The beauty of holiness. And we have ringside seats. Henry James once said that a writer is a person on whom nothing is ever lost. That sounds like a focused Christian identity to me: the men and women on whom nothing, at least nothing that has to do with life – and virtually everything else – is lost.

– p. 84

This is the closing paragraph from a sermon on Psalm 29 and Revelation 4:1-8. Go and read those passages, then come back and read this paragraph again.

Now tell me, is the beauty of holiness found in the creation around us or in the presence of the God who created?

For the life of me I don’t know how Peterson would answer that question.

And this business of focused Christian identity – what? Really, what does he mean here?

No sarcasm.

I’m asking because I really don’t know.

As I wrote above, I am not the smartest person on the planet and I’m aware that my mind works in a specific way. It could very well be that another person could pick up this book and find themselves deeply encouraged and inspired in their faith. In fact, I have seen these people praise this book all across the internet. Someone like me, who is task-oriented to a fault, will find herself throwing the book across the room, yelling, “What do you want me to learn?!”

Perhaps the fault here lies with me, the reader. Maybe I simply can’t hear what he’s trying to say. I don’t know. I hope someone pondering this review does read the book, because I would love to hear your thoughts.

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