The leaves have danced off the trees and the turkey is cold again; in its place comes the Christmas season. Here comes a herald of holly and gift wrap, of warm greetings and jingle bells.
On our drive beneath the Tennessee sunset on our way to a small Thanksgiving dinner a couple days ago, advent came up. We were just at the crest of a hill, the pink and orange sky outstretched above lanes of highway, when Travis said, “Celebrating Christmas before Thanksgiving makes me feel like I’m bought into consumerism.”
As the sky rolled on above us, we unpacked it. We found words for what we just naturally do in our home. Our desire is to spend November thanking God for the good things in our life. We participate in a season of reworking gratitude into our every day, because in doing so, we see our Father’s goodness all the more (James 1:17).
But when December comes, we spend it in thanking God specifically for the good gift of His Son. We ponder on the mystery of salvation. We marvel at the story of Jesus’s humble human entrance into this world. We wait.
Well, don’t let me be the one to start a debate on when the appropriate time to celebrate Christmas is. You’re welcome here, even if you’ve been listening to Christmas music since October. I’m not here to cause division, I’m simply saying that either way –
It’s time to prepare.
There are gifts to find and cards of red and green to write. We have presents to wrap, recipes to perfect, party dresses to purchase – we’re all still doing that this year, even though we’re staying home, right?
The American Christmas really does roll out quite the red carpet for this holiday season. But for the Christian, the hallmark of this season is humbly spiritual.
Our preparation is not only hanging beautiful décor and rocking around the Christmas tree. We participate in those things because it’s fun and laughable, and God has made us to enjoy life (Ecclesiastes 9:7-10).
But when the lights go out, we have more to celebrate. We prepare not merely for lights and dollars, but for a gift that will never taken away: the birth of our Life and Joy. Advent is a sacred few weeks worked into our calendar so we can wait for coming of Jesus. There’s a quiet groan aching within us as we reset our vision back on Him.
How are you waiting for Jesus to arrive? It’s a question I’m asking myself today.
I’ve found that these weeks of waiting, or advent, look different for every season of my Christian walk. There have been a few resources I’ve used more than once that have enriched the days of waiting for me. You can explore some of my recommended options below.
As we step into this beautiful, somber season of waiting, let’s cling tight to what we know to be most true: that God loved humanity in all its brokenness so much that He gave us His Son as a baby to serve and teach us. Let’s marvel at this miracle and dare to trust all the more deeply in this wonderful story.
Advent Project 2020
Provided by Biola University’s Center for Christianity Culture and the Arts, this Advent series features a daily Scripture, devotion, a work of visual art, a poem, and a piece of music.
There are two things I most love about the Advent Project, and why I continually come back to this resource:
001. Integration of art. Creation and our created projects glorify a Creator God. God loves when we create beautiful things. The art and music provided each day only enhances the beauty of the written word.
002.Different teachers, one salvation. Because each essay is written by a different professor, theologian, or friend of the university, there is a wide range of voice. But the remarkable thing is how regardless of whether the Episcopalian or the Baptist are sharing, or somewhere in between, all rest their faith in Jesus.
What a diverse, creative, beautiful universal church we get to be a part of. I look forward to the Advent Project every year. The Advent Project follows the full Advent calendar, so you get daily essays emailed from November 29 – January 6. This unique plan is rich and fulfilling.
Jesus Storybook Bible by Sally Lloyd Jones
Is this a kid’s book? Yes.
Have I used this devotionally before? Also yes.
The older I get and messier life becomes, the more I hunger to sit in the simple presence of my Savior. This children’s book is an all-time favorite, completed with lyrical wording and adorable pictures. Every story points us back to Jesus – exactly what we need day in and day out.
25 Days of Advent
Provided by Hannah Brencher, this 25-day daily email devotional is packed full of truth and beauty. The queen of storytelling and breaking the Bible down into bite-sized chunks, while not minimizing the deep theological truths of the Word, this series is a delightful read paired best with coffee in the morning.
Honest Advent by Scott Erickson
Travis and I purchased this book to read through this season, so I can’t give an honest review about Honest Advent yet. However, we chose this book for 3 main reasons:
001. The feminine perspective on the birth story that we’ve never heard before.
002. The honest, descriptive account of the outright scandal of Jesus’ birth.
003. The reflective artwork.
My prayer is that this book will take us on a journey to reclaiming the wonder of Christ afresh as we behold Him in all the goopy mess. In a world of striving and beautifying, my soul is ready to crash into the honesty of the advent season.
My students and I have been engaging in conversations about civil rights this summer.
It’s no coincidence that right now, during a wave of civil rights movements and a stronger push for equality, that all my students are African kids.
We’ve been reading a lot of books inspired by civil rights activists and leaders to guide our discussion. Several weeks ago, some of them and I read this one together – an illustrated graphic memoir about the early life of John Lewis.
This book left me in awe.
It’s set in Representative John Lewis’s office in Washington DC. It’s the day of Barack Obama’s inauguration, and as Lewis meets a couple of kids. The boys are intrigued by his story, and Lewis shares his journey through flashbacks to his own childhood.
In these flashbacks, I learned of his earliest days in rural Alabama. I scoffed at the school situation he grew up in as a black boy, especially compared to white students.
I read about his first road trip to the north, and how strange he felt to have a white neighbor for a summer. I felt his hurt when his parents urged him to stay home, keep quiet, and not to cause a trouble.
I heard his retelling a meeting with Martin Luther King Jr. that would set him on a life-changing trajectory to fight for civil rights. I read and really understood the challenges he was faced as a black man. I celebrated with him at the victories he and his colleagues made for equality.
As we read some of the injustices he faced, my kids asked – genuinely confused –
“What? Why? But that’s not fair.”
And how do you really answer when they ask why black kids couldn’t buy ice cream that was as good as the white kids’?
How do you explain to them why black schools were smaller and older, with broken playgrounds – if they were even lucky enough to have one in the first place? How do you tell them that black people weren’t treated fairly just because of the color of their skin?
It struck a chord in me because I learned that much of Senator Lewis’ activism was birthed in Nashville. It’s here, in my city, that he sparked a movement as a college student decades ago. He collaborated with other students to form the Nashville Student Movement, a battle to tear down segregation through nonviolent lunch counter sit-ins.
The book mentions roads and places, universities and landmarks, that I’ve been near my whole life. These places I’ve seen and where John Lewis participated in change all those years ago are one and the same. I marveled at the courage it took for people to stand up to make lasting change in our community.
It sounds crazy, but these little photo boxes and word bubbles shook me up.
John Lewis was on the front lines courageously facilitating change.
He played an integral part in changing my city for the better, and I had no clue until just a few weeks ago. I’m grateful for his courage to not only stand up decades ago, but to continue working for justice until his last day.
You probably know how this story turns out. Lewis’ work doesn’t stop in Nashville. It continues on, eventually leading him to seat in Congress.
I’m ashamed to admit it, but this graphic novel was my first time really hearing the story of John Lewis.
Although I’m disappointed to only now begin to understand it, I’m grateful that his legacy will continue on. So this weekend, as we mourn the loss of this leader, I can’t help but whisper a word of thanks for his work.
He stood up in adversity. He cast vision when he was told it was impossible. He believed in the possibility that every person, regardless of skin color, can be equally loved and treated.
This particular page I photographed weeks ago is of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr’s address to Nashville. I’ve read this inspiring quote before and nearly bought the t-shirt to prove it. What I didn’t know prior to reading this story is that this “great movement” that took place in the community was worked by John Lewis. This was the movement that Dr. King drew inspiration from and had to see for himself.
This was a movement that changed Nashville forever. I’m forever grateful for it and for Senator John Lewis’ vision to lead.
I’m patiently waiting to pick up the next books in the series from the library. I’m learning a lot this summer. I hope you are too.
My ministry to refugees was hurtful when I began 3 years ago.
Once during my earliest days as an intern on the field, I stopped by a newly settled family’s home to check in. They’d been in the States for just a couple weeks at this point, and the woman told me she needed some tomatoes. That’s what was pressing to her. She needed tomatoes. It could have been worse.
Mostly, she needed a way to get the tomatoes. She had the money, but no car. Wanting to be helpful and meet a need, I drove to the market less than a mile down the road to buy her tomatoes. She stayed home. I think I used my own money to be reimbursed by the agency, since her money was on a card and she didn’t tag along.
I chose the tomatoes, waited in line to purchase, bought them and dropped the tomatoes back off to her within 15 minutes. When I got back to the office, I thought it was strange when my supervisor told me that the woman could get her own tomatoes next time.
Ouch. I thought to myself, “But wait, I thought we were here to help? What’s wrong with buying tomatoes? She’s been through so much, surely just a few tomatoes didn’t hurt that much?”
I’ve watched other leaders serve refugee families on the field better than I did (and still do). I’ve learned from them. And one thing they all have in common: they don’t buy tomatoes for their refugee friends when it could do more harm than good.
When Helping Hurts by Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert has been recommended to me by multiple people in the nonprofit sector.
It didn’t take long once I started reading to learn why this book is revered in this line of work.
When Helping Hurts defines poverty, and then lays a foundational understanding of how to alleviate poverty. The book teaches best practices for long-term poverty alleviation, restoration of human dignity, and propelling leaders into culturally relevant, long-term modules of work.
This book challenged and changed my perspective about poverty. It gave words I didn’t have to describe the hope of my work with refugees. It also gave framework for many of the practices and philosophies I have learned to practice. And yes, it showed me why buying those tomatoes that day wasn’t the best choice.
There were many points to take away from this book, but let me share the top 3.
001: we work to restore human dignity, and yes, it takes a long time.
The point of helping others is not to fix it for them. The point is to seek solutions with them.
Your role is to work together with them. They are called to participate in their own rebuilding. Why? Because there is a sweet reward in allowing someone to accomplish something on their own. We are made to work and be satisfied.
Deep down, no one really loves things to simple be done for us. Actually, we crave the satisfaction of providing for our families and accomplishing tasks ourselves. We are wired this way. This is dignifying and shows us a better way of helping others.
Because of this, there are no quick fixes. One of the stories in the book talks about a church that spent years working to get its feet on the ground in an inner city community. One of the church’s first projects was to build a house. A single house. And it took years.
But by the end of it, you know who was leading the congregation? You know who had grown into the facilitators? The people in the community – those who had originally been helped. They were now leading and working in the church body, growing as individuals and meeting unique needs in their community. It took longer, but the fruit was richer.
002: You might think you have the best idea, but look again.
What works in America won’t work in other countries. Actually, what works in your neighborhood may not work in the neighborhood you are reaching out to. It is so important to recognize the role that culture plays; it affects our entire worldview.
The most powerful thing you can do when stepping into new places is to invite your neighbor into their own rebuilding. Give a voice to the voiceless. Recognize that the very people you are helping have ideas and skills that are perfect for their situation, and the most empowering thing you can do is to point that out to them.
I cringed throughout the book as I came to face to face with my privilege. So many times.
This point is only one way that reared its ugly head. I had to confess that I don’t always have the best ideas, and it’s my responsibility to hear what my refugee neighbors have to say too. They are thinking, living, breathing individuals too. Why should I think my ideas are law? I can’t help but wonder what ideas they’d share if I gave them the voice and listened.
003: I am just as broken as the neighbor I’m helping.
Above all, I am no better than my poor, addicted neighbor.
I am broken too. I’ve got my own wild views of the world and experiences. When we learn to see ourselves on this same level as the people we are helping, it completely changes the way that we approach them. It banishes the idea of “us and them.” It gets rid of my pride to do it for, but to instead rebuild with.
Recognizing this key commonality re-centers me to focus on the heart of my work: to lead others closer into living in right relationship with God, others, self, and creation. I can supply physical needs, like tomatoes all day, but at the end of it there is a deep spiritual need within us all that can’t be satisfied by tomatoes. That’s the impact I want to have in others’ lives.
Now I understand why buying the tomatoes was not my best move.
The woman was capable of going herself. Maybe she was nervous about going to the market herself, but I did not help her overcome that fear by doing it for her.
Instead, I affirmed her mindset that she is incapable of overcoming, and too weak to adjust to life in America. Obviously, that is not what I wanted to communicate to this woman. But, now that I’ve read When Helping Hurts, I can see how I did do that.
If you are a person who wants to help other people, this is the book for you. Whether you are a pastor or missionary, social worker or teacher, or preparing for a short term trip, this is a must read.
The authors provide invaluable insight, and each page is packed with so much information. You might not agree with every principle or approach outlined, but the main point remains: we seek to restore humanity back to the broken, of which we are too.
As I read, I found it most beneficial to have my journal handy. Each chapter starts and ends with discussion questions, and as each chapter moves, different thoughts and ideas popped up. Because there was so much for me to reflect on as I read, it took longer to read; I couldn’t just fly through it.
But really, those are the best books. The books that shake our norms, and correct gaps in our thinking on a certain topic are not to be ignored. When Helping Hurts is not to be ignored because dealing with poverty cannot be ignored.
And if we’re going to step into the lives of others, helping and teaching along the way, we better have a solid foundation. I’m deeply appreciative of the painstaking efforts the authors went through to lead us through When Helping Hurts. There are lots of facts, stories and statistics, but hold tight.
This is the practical playbook we need as we seek long-term restoration for all people. I highly recommend reading this with a curious perspective about the true reality of poverty, and an open heart about the true cycle and response to helping people.
“God is great not just because nothing is too big for him; God is great because nothing is too small for Him.”
The Circle Maker, page 113
I mark up my books. Mostly with underlines, sometimes with a star or asterisk to the side. It drives my husband crazy, but it helps me to learn. It helps me to not miss the message woven in the writing that I most need to hear in that season of reading.
Without a doubt, the book I’ve marked up the most recently is Circle Maker by Mark Batterson. Inspired by a first-century BC man who drew a circle of prayer in the middle of a drought and refused to leave until the rain came, Batterson describes a method of prayer that completely circles around and through our requests. The book, which is an entire testimony to the prayer walk of Batterson and his congregation, introduces believers to a different mindset to prayer.
Now, I need to pause here.
The premise of the book is not to literally draw a circle and to sit in it while you pray. Actually, it’s a book about persistence and patience. It’s about perseverance and boldly seeking a heavenly kingdom, even here. The book invites us to participate in a walk with the Lord marked by bold and faithful prayers, and requires a kind of stubborn faith that is dedicated to the practice of praying until the end.
I almost couldn’t stop underlining, and there’s so much that could be said about this book. But for today, let me leave you with 3 main takeaways.
001: “It takes 10,000 hours of practice to achieve the level of mastery associated with being a world-class expert.” Circle Maker, page 86
I think one of the woes of living as a sinful human is that prayer is hard. It just is. It’s hard to find focus, to sit down to it, and to be faithful to showing up to it. I don’t know that I’ve ever met a believer who admits to having a perfect prayer life without any flaw.
Taken from research on world class athletes, musicians, and writers, Batterson brings up that it takes 10,000 hours to develop world-class mastery. Drawing from the implied practice and determination it takes to get there, he makes the point that prayer is the same.
No, it’s not about logging hours. It’s not that when I reach my 10,000th hour of prayer that I’ll be some expert. No, not even close. But he is saying that a solid prayer life takes time. His point remind us, “It is a habit to be cultivated. It is a discipline to be developed. It is a skill to be practiced.”
This gives me hope. I’m just as broken as the person who seems to pray so effortlessly and often, and the difference between me and that person is simple. They’ve committed themselves to the practice of prayer. That’s it. They’ve taken the plunge of faith it takes to show up to pray to an unseen God every day. They have stretched their patience, focused on the Lord, and continued meeting with Him.
They practice prayer. And it’s not always easy, but they do it in anyways.
And you know what, anyone can get in on that. The only failure in prayer is to stop praying. Establishing a prayer rhythm isn’t happenstance, and that means that all of us have the power to start healthier prayer habits and approaches even today.
002: “When you know you are praying the promises of God, you can pray with holy confidence.” Circle Maker, page 91
Did you know that conservative estimates say there are more than 3,000 promises in Scripture? And because of the work of Jesus, those promises belong to those who believe in Him.
James 1:5, ours.
1 John 1:9, ours.
Psalm 37:4, ours.
Romans 8:28, ours.
Did you hear that? God made Scripture. God made incredible promises. And we have permission to approach Him with those promises.
Some of the Christians I most respect and look up to have talked about praying Scripture right back to God. Hey, if He wrote it then surely it is the most reliable set of words we can read back to Him. Batterson coins it as “God’s grammar.” It’s His own language and set of terms. Why wouldn’t we bring that up in our talks with Him? Not to mention the words He promises are beautiful and plenty to sustain us.
We can read our way through the Bible, but prayer through the Bible plants its words deep within us. We learn how to cling to His promises by heart when we’re speaking those words back to Him, counting on Him to come through with it. My faith in Him heightens when He answers. And He will answer because He’s God and it’s not in His nature to break a promise.
003: “You’ll never achieve the goals you don’t set.” Circle Maker, page 176
Something I started praying about and seeking earlier this year are goals for the coming years. I sat down more than once to my Bible and a composition book that I’ve deemed as my Life Goals journal. This inspiration came from the He Restores My Soul podcast by Jani Ortlund, where she unpacks the value and how-to of casting vision.
One of the final chapters of Circle Maker, “Life Goal List,” could have not have come at a more appropriate time. Just like Jani, Batterson also unpacks the value of setting goals, why it’s important to prayer, and 10 steps for writing them down.
In his goal-setting guide, Batterson walks us through the practical elements of a good goal while above all recognizing that the chief end of a good goal is make God’s name famous. Not only does he give us practical steps for setting a good goal, but the entire list hinges on prayer. Beginning, middle, and end.
The rest of the book aside, this chapter alone was enough to remind me that we are not made to live on auto-pilot. We have been given opportunities and imagination that we’ve barely tapped into. One of the greatest opportunities of goal-setting is getting to marvel at the goodness of God to not only let us dream so big, but to provide incredible ways for those dreams to unfold. The bigger we pray, the more God’s name is magnified when He answers.
Batterson’s passion for prayer is contagious. He believes deeply in the power of prayer, and loves to tell the stories of how the Lord has provided for him; it’s evident on every page.
If you are looking for encouragement as to why you should be praying more and creative ideas on how to do that, you will enjoy this book. Batterson shares some incredible, specific stories in which the Lord came through for him. I loved reading his narrative on how he prays, and was moved to believe that anyone can do this. It just requires practice. Anyone can pray with this level of faith. You just have to start and see it through.
If you are looking for a highly academic, scholarly discourse then this is probably not the book you want to read. Certainly we can all glean some inspiration from this work, but I think it’s important to come in with this mindset that this is ultimately a narrative of one man’s testimony of how he has seen prayer make a difference in his walk.
I have to add that caveat because I think it would be very easy to be disappointed by this book if you come in with the wrong expectations. Instead, I encourage you to start with this simple question: what does a life of prayer look like and how can I practice it?
Much of what Batterson describes are practices and rhythms that I have heard other Christians I look up to say and do. And I feel like if I have heard this message, or similar to it, from the mouths of multiple, well-trusted people, then I can listen to Batterson’s message too.
The heart of Circle Maker is that 100% of the prayers we don’t pray don’t get answered, and if we want something to change, we have to do something different. Batterson’s message is simple: try a new thing. Try a new prayer model. Try a different mindset. Whatever it takes to get closer to seeing the kingdom of God unfold in our world, try it.
Ultimately, are any one of us going to damage ourselves further by praying more? Are any of us going to waste our time by finding different ways to refresh our spirit in Christ? Is anyone really going to be reprimanded for coming to God and saying, “This might look crazy, and it’s sacrificing new portions of my energy, and I feel a little clumsy about it, but it’s worth it because I just want to be nearer to You.”
I’m deeply indebted to historical fiction as an entire genre, and owe a hearty thanks to some of these books that have reintroduced me to the wonder of storytelling this last year.
Among these more recent, great historical-fiction reads is Beneath a Scarlet Sky by Mark Sullivan. Set in Italy near the end of World War II, this tale sends readers on a journey through the eyes of Pino Lella, an Italian teenager.
Pino. The boy who led a Jewish underground railroad movement and acted as a spy for Allied forces. Pino, the unsung hero who helped end a World War and lived most his life after quiet about it.
Pino Lella is only a teenager when Nazis overtake his home Milan. As the hand of the German forces grows stronger in his community, Pino is sent to live at a Catholic convent in the mountains.
Just after arriving to the convent, Pino is asked to lead Jewish refugees on secretive, strenuous hikes through the dangerous passes over the Alps and into the safe zone of Switzerland. For months, all though the winter and beyond, Pino operates this underground railroad leading dozens of people to safety over the treacherous passes of the mountains.
When Pino is summoned back home to be drafted for service, his family forces him to join German efforts in order to ride out the nearing end of the War. He protests at first, but what he soon discovers is an opportunity to serve as a spy for Allied forces as Pino becomes a personal driver for a Nazi general.
In this remarkable journey of courage and hope, Pino Lella affects the entire trajectory of the War by daily putting his life on the line for a cause bigger than himself. He falls in love, fiercely protects, and never gives up on the good that can be found in the world.
Here’s the Wild Thing: It’s a True Story
Beneath a Scarlet Sky was born after 11 years of extensive research by author Mark Sullivan, who estimates that 80%-90% of the story true. Over a decade of study, interviews, and simply being in Pino Lella’s presence culminated into this book. This is a treasure for us as there is a not a lot of written documentation of World War II in Italy. Who knows how many stories we’ve missed; even for Mr. Lella, his story had gone untold for decades.
This is Why I Love Historical Fiction
We can pick up a history textbook if we want to learn about WWII. But, there is something about storytelling that affects our brains in totally different ways. Suddenly we’re not just reading facts and summaries crammed on a few pages, but we’re in the story too.
We’re on our way to the market, walking past Nazi generals with guns in hands and swastikas banded. We’re knocked to the ground, covering our ears at the ear-splitting sound of explosion around us. We’re hiking snow trails across the Alps, leading refugees to safety. Suddenly, we are the refugee, fleeing for safety while wearing a target on our back.
I gained more empathy for the effects of WWII in this book than I ever did reading countless textbook pages. By delving into Pino’s story, I met Nazis and Jewish refugees. My tears fell at the weight of it all, and I rejoiced at the victories. No longer was WWII a black and white stain on our world’s story, but it became this nuanced tapestry made up of real people who fought for its end in indescribable ways.
You can’t learn that in a textbook. It takes the patience of hearing a story to gain that sort of understanding.
Retracing the Steps: a Guide for Reading
As I read, I retraced the steps of Pino by looking at maps and searching photos. I found what I believe is the Catholic convent he lived in (or dang close to it). I saw the lake he led his underground railroad around. I saw his home city, and the cathedral that represented hope and safety for him. I saw the same streets where Pino Lella fell in love, wept, witnessed atrocities, and fought for restoration.
With each discovery, as I looked at each picture and Google earth image, I thought, “He was there. He stood there. He stood up for his country and for peace there.”
This is another beautiful opportunity historical fiction grants us. I created a Pinterest board of photos and links that I found helpful while reading. For me, it made the reading so much richer as I really delved into Italy in WWII. If that sounds fun and nerdy to you too, check out the board to see some of the sights referenced in the story.
Final Word: an Excellent Five Stars
If you look for them, you’ll certainly find the critics of this book. But as far as I’m concerned, this was an excellent read and I plan to keep it on my shelf and recommend to others for years to come. Mark Sullivan honored the story of Pino Lella with his careful crafting of this quiet hero’s journey; he did the world a service by sharing it.
I will admit: it wasn’t Sullivan’s writing style that captivated me. I wasn’t drawn to this book because it boasts incredible dialogue or beautifully moving poetic style. Actually, what drew me in was the unavoidable message at the center of every page that every breathe we have left is a breath of purpose.
Even the ordinary breaths.
Pino Lella thought his story was ordinary. Plain. Not worth rehashing. But here is the truth: there are no ordinary days that don’t make a difference. He showed us that the most remarkable stories happen by taking one step after another, making decisions one at a time. We could be living in the middle of a World War, saving lives and communicating critical information, and never realize the impact we’re making.
Pino Lella’s story promises us that even in the darkest of days love is there. His story is evidence that there is more good at work than bad. Don’t get me wrong – times are tough. But, we have a choice to make. We can either be victimized by it, or fight courageously to see the good.
Every step we walk has the power to change the entire trajectory of someone’s future. Let’s dare believe that. And as we take our steps, one after the other, we follow that young Italian’s example. We continue –
to have faith,
to do what is right,
and above all,
find the strength to believe there is good woven in every day
I do not have a great relationship with technology.
I either surpass my screen time limits for social media, or I just avoid social media altogether. I’ll attempt to take notes or make lists on my phone, but then get tired of looking at the screen and revert back to paper – making a mess of keeping multiple things in multiple places. I take too many pictures, attempting to get the right angle, and then waste time trying to muddle through them later. I usually feel more like a social media stalker than I do socialite. And I usually leave a long day at the office with groggy eyes from staring at the screen for hours.
But, I’ve also been able to use my phone to reserve books at the library and find my way without getting lost. I’ve often taken out my phone to document a sunset or a coffee date with a friend, moments that will later go in an album. I’ve heard wonderful sermons, songs, and podcasts that have changed an entire day for me. On the days when I do make the calls I know I need, I always feel encouraged.
Technology has been both good and bad for me. A blessing and a curse.
Technology is a language I am struggling with.
If I’m very honest, I struggle with knowing how to use technology to the glory of God.
I often feel like a slave to something I barely understand. I see the ways its value, but I also see its power over us. Like, I feel so overwhelmed by my usage, and fear that I am wasting it. Wasting the resource, and wasting my time on it.
It’s 2020. I – we – cannot avoid this conversation. We have a responsibility to seriously consider the tension of technology in our lives, because it is has woven itself into every piece of our lives, and is changing the way we live. So better get to it: how can I wisely use technology, in a way that doesn’t consume or beat me?
What if the solution I’m looking for is to deeply rest and reset by turning it off?
What if we really could just…turn it off? What if we could step away from the demands of notifications, the onstream of emails, and the never-ending roll of newsfeeds? Relinquishing my screens sounds both simple and seemingly impossible.
Tiffany Shlain, a filmmaker in California, understands this tension all too-well. She believes that developing a healthier self and relationship with technology is that simple, yet seemingly impossible answer: turn it off. For 24 hours every week.
No cell phones, not even for GPS or music. No TV shows or movies. No reminders or emails. And in the place of rings and notification pings, is a quiet that has allowed Shlain and her family to invite friends over for dinner, go on hikes, read books, journal, and ultimately, reset. Every. Single. Week.
It’s wild that such a simple action is a bold approach, but in her novel 24/6: The Power of Unplugging One Day a Week, Shlain takes us on the journey of unplugging one day a week and the extreme benefits she has found over the years. She digs into the science behind tech’s affects on us, and outlines how to use it better.
It was easy for me to enjoy this book, because I am very curious about healthier boundaries and screen time limits. I couldn’t mark enough of this book. One, because it’s the library’s copy and I wish I had my own. Two, because every page had something to say. A couple weeks after reading it, here is what is still sticking out to me:
One. We’re Addicted and Our Brains are Literally Changing
I hate to be the one to break this news, but every engineer behind our screens – every app, every service, every little icon and notification – is designed to “monetize our eyeballs.” We are literally placed on an endless loop that is made to make us lose track of time and place. Like slot machines and nicotine, our desire for stimulation has been fed the overwhelm, instant feed of the web and still feels lacking. How did they do this? Because they know how addiction works.
The developers behind our screens have not intended to make us our healthiest and best selves, although they’ll market that because it sells. The more time we’re on our screens, the more money they get. And they’ve got us because we just can’t look away.
We are no different than an addict and the web is our dealer. Our addiction to screens, like any other addiction, rewires us. It changes our attention span, our level of focus, our memory. It affects the way we connect with others, down to our ability to even maintain eye contact. Shlain gets into a lot of the research and study behind this in 24/6: The Power of Unplugging One Day a Week, and it blew me away.
This takeaway is big for me, because it re-centers me. It reminds me that my usage of technology, if left unchecked, will produce damaging effects to my life goals and relationships. Shlain writes,
“The human brain is constantly developing. Everything you do and experience is reshaping connections in your brain, strengthening some connections while weakening or pruning others. This also holds true for your online life: every link you follow, every post you read, every comment you make, is shaping the wiring of our brain.”
The freakiest part about this is not only do I suffer, but my relationships do too. When I constantly choose my screen over faces, I am saying that my screens are more important to me than connection and community. Deep in my soul though, I know that’s untrue. It’s up to me set up a different routine though.
Two. Deep Rest Comes in the Quiet
Shlain’s anecdote for the busyness of tech is the quiet of solitude. In one of my favorite chapters of the book, she gets into our deep need for silence, arguing that the best way to control our technology is by making its silence a part of our life’s rhythm.
When we make “silent sanctuaries” for ourselves, we are giving our brains the time to process the overstimulation of notifications, conversations, podcasts, lectures, music and everything else we’ve heard. Literally, we are making healthier bodies that will live longer and stronger brains that will continue positively developing. Shlain delves into the science of how people who rest in the quiet are literally healthier.
Lower blood pressure. Better memory. Longer lives. And all it takes is turning off the noise, and being brave enough to let my mind wander.
I didn’t know this, but I shouldn’t be surprised. God wants us to sit in solitude and quiet with him. Of course our bodies would feel tremendous health benefits when we obey that. Of course God knows us best, and knows that the noise of the world is damaging when it’s all we hear.
I crave his solitude. I really do.
I worry for us all, that we would become so encumbered on our screens that we would rob ourselves of the healthy minds and bodies Christ has given us. I really feel for the church. I fear that my Christian brothers and sisters will grow to love our screens so much, that we will forget how to hear the voice of God and feel his presence in our lives. I fear that we could forget how to sit in solitude with a God who can easily feel far away, and that with every phone pick up, we will distance ourselves further from him. I deeply fear that we would forget how to pray fervently and be students of the word, because we could let our addiction to screens overtake us.
Three. Everyone Needs This
Here is the craziest thing: Shlain is not a Christian. She’s of Jewish descent, but does not practice. She doesn’t read the Bible or claim any relationship with Jesus. But she has picked up on something that is wired in the very depth of our souls, and that is the need for rest. Not just sleep, but deep, soul rest. She has taken an element of Jewish culture – a Sabbath, which is a day of rest – and made it set a part. She’s consecrated it to the renewing and healing of her body by trading in the noise and busyness for solitude and community.
This speaks volumes to me. This confirms that God has designed us to be off one day every week. He’s made us to work and create and hustle most of the time, but then to have a time to reset. He’s made us to take note of our limitations.
Not just Christians. All of us.
I used to think that taking a Sabbath simply meant not working, which could include watching Netflix, Instagramming, playing Tetris (literally the only game I have on my phone). Then, several months ago, I started turning my social media off on Sundays. I’m not always perfect at it, but what I discovered is how much richer my days feel when I’m not looking at an endless roll of everyone’s highlight reels.
And as I go deeper still, I’m learning that rest requires more than doing nothing. It requires positioning ourselves to receive what is good for us. Things like dinner with friends, hiking a trail, journaling about the week, praying – those small acts strengthen our souls in ways that picking up our phones again cannot.
I know how it feels to take a day’s hike to an incredible lookout over a river, or the warmth of curling up with a good book. I know how loved I feel when I sit with a friend, and she never once picks up her phone, because the conversation with me is enough. Seeking intentional quiet is good for our bodies and souls. I know why; this is the plan.
It’s 2020. We’re all humans. None of us can avoid this message because (1) we all use technology and (2) we’ve all been made by a God who set designed these patterns within us all the same. We might be at different journeys and levels of understanding, but none of us are excluded from the need to rest and the implications of our tech-filled society.
Final Thoughts: I Highly Recommend
At some point during reading this book, I realized that my habits make up my life. If I want to live a creative life, I have to make space for that. If I want to spend less time on my screen, I have to set limits for that. If I want to be real with people and live in community, I have to practice it.
And none of those goals will be achieved by refreshing the scroll again or binging Parks and Rec.
I have deep concerns for where we are headed as a society on screens; I have deeper concerns still for the church. We were made for more than life on a screen. 24/6: The Power of Unplugging One Day a Week showed me that my concern is well-founded, and gave me a blueprint for how to begin the arduous process of change. This book showed me that the lingering desire to do more in my life than stay on a screen, and to find deep rest to recover weekly, is not crazy; it’s innately woven within me. Within us.
If we’re not careful, we’ll live on auto-pilot. We’ll consume, but won’t create and when the time comes to sit, we won’t know how to. We’ll run ourselves dry to the bones, but friends, we were made for something so much richer. The book reminded me of that, and put words to a feeling I’ve not been able to describe.
I’m not yet on a 24/6 lifestyle yet. I am moving and preparing myself to get there though. 24/6: The Power of Unplugging One Day a Week has been my launching pad, a guide of sorts to help me begin the process. Even if you’re not quite ready for that radical change in lifestyle, I highly recommend this book.
You might surprise yourself with the ideas that come to you when you choose to turn off the tech for a day.
In None Like Him, author Jen Wilkin describes 10 ways God is different from us, and why that’s actually really good news for us. These “10 ways” are actually 10 attributes, or personality traits, of God. By devoting each chapter to a different attribute, Wilkin teaches readers the intimate details of who God actually is by using scripture and experiences.
Not only does Wilkin discuss God, she discusses how and where we – people – fit in all of this. She graciously points out that we are limited by nature, and how at the root of our every sin is a desire to be God. The only problem is we’re no God-experts. We try to be like him, and we fail. We hurt others or ourselves. Although we desire it, we cannot possess these 10 attributes of God as our flesh attempts.
Here’s where the good news is: God has already displayed himself with glory. His entire being is glory. And though we do not measure up like him, there is actually a great amount of peace in that truth. In this journey of marveling at the wonder of God, we learn to see how our limitations can actually glorify God.
In None Like Him, Wilkin teaches readers about a magnificent God, and paints a picture of what true freedom in him looks like when we people recognize our small-ness in light of his glory; she turns our eyes upwards toward him. And that is a journey we can’t afford to miss out on.
Written for Devotion
Friends, I’ll be honest: it took me months to complete this book. And I had to restart it twice.
It’s not that the writing was bad – quite the opposite.
It’s not that I didn’t enjoy the book – actually, I loved it.
But, I wasn’t prepared for how deep this book would take me on a soul search.
None Like Him is written devotionally and is intended to give readers space and time to reflect. This is not a “cozy up on a rainy Saturday and read this in a day” kind of book. This is a “grab your coffee, pen, and journal, and pull up a chair, because we’ve got work to do” kind of book. I have to tell you that because I did not realize until I reached the end of the first chapter. I had to change my reading pattern for this book, instead of plowing through it like I’d originally expected to do. I had to do some prep work and make space for the time and thought this book asked of me. And really, I wasn’t ready for that the first time I picked it up.
Each chapter hones in on a study of one attribute of God. At the end of the chapter, Wilkin provides a few Bibles verses where we can see this, and encourages readers to write them down to meditate on.
Then, there are 4 reflection questions. These are not simple yes or no questions. Actually, these questions offer plenty of room for dialogue with God; Wilkin wastes no opportunity to spur on our thoughts and to challenge our hearts.
Finally, each chapter ends with a prayer model, in which readers are encouraged to write a prayer to the Lord. These prayers are sweet, because readers get to sit in awe of God and confess where we have attempted to glory like him.
For me, it took me roughly a week or so to complete a chapter.So a couple months to completely finish the book. I would read and reread the chapter. I’d set aside a day every week to read the chapter, and then use a day to meditate on the Scriptures, and yet another day to answer however many questions I had time for. I used this in conjunction with my Bible reading, but gleaned so much from it throughout the weeks by focusing on 1 attribute for several days.
If you’re going to read this, and I highly recommend you do, you have to be prepared for the time it will take to devote to this.
3 Reasons You Should Take the Time to Devote Real Study to This Book
One. Wilkin speaks to women with rich theological truth and application.
This is not an easy, frilly Bible study; our full attention and heart are required to grasp it. One reason is that Wilkin does not express these truths quickly or by cutting corners. She esteems our God-given ability to consider and meditate, and really hones in on it.
The examples of God’s attributes she offers? Well thought-out, and providing more than one angle of him. Wilkin gets into specific, relevant examples of how we might be might attempting to outshine God himself, and I really appreciated that.
The scripture she references and meditates on? Some are short verses, others are passages of several verses. And not all of them are those feel-good, Pinterest board ones, if you know what I mean. Wilkin clearly has started with and esteemed the Bible throughout this book. She obviously believes it wholeheartedly.
The reflection questions? Certainly not yes or no questions, but real questions of us. Questions that require thought and muddling, and open important doors of conversation between us and God.
The prayer models? These walk us through adoring, confessing, thanking and asking of him. These are not simple prayers, but these are honest. Real. Bold.
The prayer and study that Wilkin has poured into this book are obvious on every page; not a line is wasted. This is not just someone telling us what she thinks. None Like Him is the product of true study that we, too, can be a part of. How beautiful it is that God has made us to think.
Two. You are not too good for this book.
Honestly, one reason I thought I’d breeze through this is because I’m familiar with the attributes of God. After all, I have a degree in theology. I know this stuff, right?
I might be familiar with his attributes, but as Wilkin shows us, we can never exhaust our potential to reflect on the wonder of God. Just when I think I might really understand him, another angle of him is revealed to me. This is the beautiful part of walking with him: there is always room to wonder and always something more to uncover.
I needed this if only to be humbled, and to be reminded that I don’t have it – life or him – all figured out and why it’s all okay. I needed to be reminded of my own limitations. It felt as though the exact personality marker of God that I was learning about had shown up in my life in unhealthy, sinful ways at the same time. Having light shed on that was tremendously helpful in helping me navigate bearing his image, and get rid of some junk and messiness in my soul and practices.
Three. The conversations you’re going to have with God are worth it.
I’ve probably scared you away from this, talking about the challenges and all that. However, here’s a wonderful not-so-secret: Jesus is not hard to find. If you come to be with him, he is thrilled to host you. If you can put aside yourself long enough to see how this God of Ages has been loved and preached by generations, you will be amazed. If you’re willing to put in the time and work, this book could change you.
My hands have filled dozens and dozens of journal pages because of the journey None Like Him took me on. It seemed that each chapter I read came at a perfect time, and spoke to a sin or misplaced desire in my heart at that very second. Most of all, I received wisdom from God to rid myself of burdens and hindrances in my walk while journeying through these pages of None Like Him.
That gift of understanding and communion of God is something I desire for not only myself, but everyone I might come across – family, friends, enemies. We all need this message. We need to know who this God of the universe really is. We do need help in making sense of him.
You can do this. You can know God. As we seek to walk as women of the Word and full of wisdom, would we start here: in knowing that we live for a God who is all we could ever hope for – perfectly, without flaw or failings. We are not victims, but are empowered to celebrate his self-existent, self-sufficient, eternal, immutable, omnipresent, omniscient, omnipotent, sovereign, infinite, and incomprehensible Being. We can actually find great peace in our limitations, and great joy in Who he is.
No matter where you stand with God, I would deeply encourage you to give this book a try, because God is all over these pages. And I know he’d want nothing more than to meet you there.
A friend and I sat on her porch in the mid-summer heat. It was barely 8:00 AM, and already, the humidity wrapped itself around us; heaviness on our skin. We clutched warm coffee mugs in our hands, and allowed the stillness of the moment to help our bodies recover from our early morning yoga.
During this summer, she and I had made a little pact between each other to get involved at church. One step we made in this decision was attending weekly Theology classes. So for several Tuesday nights, she and I would ride together and study the Word well into the evening. The other women seemed to fit in so comfortably in that room, but for us, it was a stretch of out of our comfort zone. We were glad to be there.
We’d been studying the attributes of God in this class by using Jen Wilkin’s None Like Him. And as my friend and I sat on her porch that morning, reflecting on what God had been working in our lives that summer, she offered me her copy of the book.
These were days marked by growing friendship and stepping into the often awkwardness of community, and it was all so beautiful. And what else can you do, but humbly receive such a gift?
So, thank you to my dear friend. You know who you are.
Here’s the first thing to know about The Matchmaker’s List: it’s not a holiday rom-com.
Wanting to read some sweet, Christmas funnies, I searched for a few to put on hold at the library. The Matchmaker’s List popped up in my searches, and I’m ashamed to say, I judged the book by its cover.
As it turns out, the white specks on the cover are not snowflakes. They’re just dots. And the red flowers the men are holding aren’t poinsettias. They’re just flowers.
Believe it or not, I had read the synopsis. But even so, I refused to believe it wasn’t a holiday rom-com. “The Christmas and the snow will be here somewhere!,” I told myself, holding out hope for a Christmas love story.
The *Not-So-Holiday* Story
In this story of learning to love and self-honesty, author Sonya Lalli takes readers on a journey of a 29 year-old bank analyst, Raina, who has made a deal with her Indian grandmother, Nani: if Raina isn’t married by her 30th birthday, Nani gets to arrange a marriage.
In a race against the clock, Nani chooses suitors from all over the Toronto Indian community to pair with her granddaughter. However, with each date, Raina finds herself more frustrated. And what Nani doesn’t know is that Raina is secretly holding on to hope for a man she loved (and still loves), wanting to believe that he might be ready to love her too.
Oh, and she’s internally battling with the tradition of her Indian culture too.
Throughout the journey, Raina asks hard questions. Why does she have to marry to be happy? Why does her Indian heritage leave no space for her opinion or space? What if this isn’t what she wants? Who even is she, apart from the marital expectations placed on her?
In The Matchmaker’s List, as Raina pines for a man she keeps waiting on to change, watches her best friend’s mom plan an elaborate Indian wedding, navigates the confusing dynamic of her family relationships, and of course, goes on multiple dates, Raina discovers that maybe love and life really does happen in ways that are not always arranged or planned. And maybe that’s okay.
Shout Out to All the Immigrants Making it in a New Home
One reason I chose The Matchmaker’s List as my next read – despite my reluctant doubts to believe it had nothing to do with snow or Christmas – was because of the opportunity to learn more about Indian culture and customs.
Lalli does not disappoint as she describes the textures and scents of the culture across multiple pages; I loved those moments. So often, I felt myself cooking beside Nani or sitting in her living room with tea. I heard Nani talking to the other women, and could picture myself wearing a sari in the beautiful big to-do of Raina’s best friend’s wedding.
And with each beautiful description of the culture, I saw the sacrifice that immigrant families make to come to a new home. I felt the effects of their children growing up on a different continent, and the confusion of generationally integrating in a new home.
How do you honor your history and culture, while also making a home in a new, totally different place? felt like an underlying question throughout.
The book hinges on Lalli’s description of the tension mostly between Raina and her Indian community. As a granddaughter being raised by traditional Indian culture in a progressive, large, Canadian city, Raina’s internal conflict in The Matchmaker’s List is probably a tension felt by all immigrant and refugee families resettled: seeking to make a better life, in a new home, while still honoring their heritage.
I enjoyed Lalli’s perspective into this confusing, messy, and under-told perspective of the immigrant and refugee story.
But, It Felt Like My Home
The Matchmaker’s List is not only a unique glimpse into Indian culture, but it also resonated familiar feelings of love for home within me too.
Although the underlying tension of Raina’s relationship with her Nani was the center of the plot, I adored their relationship. I love Nani like my own granny, and understood Raina’s desire to meet her expectations and make her proud. Actually, Raina’s gentle love and understanding of her grandmother convicted me, making me wonder if my love for my own grandmother’s mirror a level of grace like Raina’s.
I did love Raina and her grandmother’s relationship; their love was evident, and honestly, probably a testament to the close familial ties in Indian culture. Reading that from an individualist, American worldview was refreshing.
I Know Relationships are Hard, But…
Lalli did a wonderful job at painting images of all of Raina’s relationships. With Raina’s transient mother’s sudden coming and going, the clash with her best friend, the guy that she didn’t expect to fall for – Lalli captured the complex nuance of relationships.
She agreed with us that living with people is hard. But she also showed us that it’s beautiful and worth it, and requires hard honesty and unconditional love woven at the center of those complicated relationships.
With that, Raina came from a messed up family. Oddly, I appreciated that. Reading some of the flashbacks of her life, key points that shaped her, I was reminded of how deeply specific moments root within us – growing with us past childhood and well into adulthood. We are truly shaped by people and experiences. And not just us, but our entire worldview and outlook.
However, despite whatever childhood trauma and confusion she was going through, Raina was pretty unkind to others in her life in the novel. She really hurt a lot of people by lying to them, keeping truths from them, ignoring them, refusing to own up to her mistakes. And it messed up some relationships. She had damage to fix.
She did eventually make her wrongs, right. I applaud Lalli for that. I saw a lot of redemption in those relationships. But I just wonder how different it could have been if she had been brave enough to stand up and tell the truth in the first place, instead of waiting months to gather even more courage to own up to her mistakes.
And Oh, Yes, The Perfectionism
“She reached for my hand, and as he slight brown fingers interlocked with my own, that’s when I realized that in my silence, I was being complicit. I realized how much I truly loved this vivacious, slightly insane little woman, and what I would do to be the only person in her life never to break her heart. I would go along with it. I would live up to her expectations, and that promised I made to her two years ago – brokenhearted and desperate for my life to make sense once again – that if I wasn’t married at thirty, I’d let her make the arrangements for me.”
Sonya Lalli, The Matchmaker’s List, page 13
Probably the aspect that Lalli touched on that most resonated with me was the teaching of perfectionism. She delves into the pressure put on us, especially children of unfortunate situations, to rise and be better – in this case, better than her mother. While I don’t completely agree with Lalli’s execution of this topic, I did feel the weight of the pressure she was describing.
Raina had lived her whole life trying to be perfect, and never disappoint anyone. It took her until her 30th birthday to realize how absurd this was, and to see that actually, in her efforts to not disappoint anyone she’d actually created an even bigger mess.
Life is all about living and learning. Making mistakes and growing. We’re going to let people down. And Raina had let the pressure of believing she couldn’t for so long. I was so sad to see Raina live in this mindset. Humans are not created to be perfect, and in a lot of ways, Raina tried to be the God and Savior of her own story; it didn’t work.
I was glad to see Raina peel back her scales of perfectionism and fear, and by the end of the book, be honest about who she truly is. But man, was it a frustrating journey watching her get there.
Let’s Find a Better Argument Than “Tradition Sucks”
Although Lalli delivered on her description of Indian culture, I did not sense any deep love or appreciation for the culture as a whole. Actually, I felt a sense of shame and frustration with this community. This was disappointing because I thought there could have been more said to pull the reader into a deeper understanding of Indian culture, and there could have been redemptive qualities stated. Instead, by the end of the book, Lalli seems to state through Raina: my culture is wrong and outdated, and it needs to change. She only wanted to focus on the negative.
I’m not sure what to do with that. I think the “tradition sucks” argument is old and worn out, and cheaply done. But that was the premise of the whole book. I would have loved to have seen a more well-rounded, mature approach to disagreement. Instead, I read frustration and low-key complaining throughout.
And honestly, maybe I am working through this personally too. I know that loving people does not mean always agreeing with them, and I am not claiming that Indian culture is perfect. I don’t understand Lalli’s response to her community, and tradition, through Raina though. I’m still grappling with that.
Major Eye Roll at the “BIG LIE”
Another thing I was frustrated by was the “big lie.” I’m not going to spoil it for you. But there is a huge lie that Raina allows her grandma to believe, and in turn the entire Indian community in Toronto, believe. When the lie is first mentioned, it seems so small. But soon thereafter, the entire plot of the book hinges on this lie.
I really struggled with that too. The lie itself is ridiculous, and disrespectful. I felt that it did not make for a strong plot, and I was actually really surprised to find the lie continue growing and getting bigger. What Lalli wanted to esteem with this lie was actually cheapened by it. She seemed to make a mockery of a topic that the whole premise of the book is to accept.
The Final Word: Staying at the Library (For Now)
I loved the peek into Indian life, and stepping into the shoes of an immigrant’s granddaughter. I loved seeing Raina work through hard choices. I saw redemption in Raina’s self-discovery and relationships.
I think what I’m ultimately struggling with here in The Matchmaker’s List is that Lalli and I have vastly different worldviews.
We have different beliefs on who should marry, and how situations should be handled. We disagree on what it looks like to respect others, and how to be “true to yourself.” We have different levels of respect for submission and tradition.
Sonya Lalli and Brianna Persinger are very different. But I’ve had to settle with this: it’s okay. It is good to read literature and see life from many different angles.
If your experience reading this is like mine, you won’t pick up many quotes to jot down on the back of your bookmark. You’re going to relate more to relationships between characters than you will to the characters themselves. You’ll raise your eyebrows at some of the comments and situations in the book, because you know you’d write it very different. But, you’ll try to understand where Lalli is coming from. You’ll just respectfully disagree.
Read it, because we can not wear out the reminder that everyone is fighting battles that we – that even they – might not yet understand. We all need to remember what unconditional love and respect looks like in relationships, and we certainly need to develop a deeper empathy for the nuanced struggles of the immigrant journey and acclimation.
Although Sonya Lalli arrived to those conclusions different than I would have, I appreciated her perspective to arrive there in some fashion in The Matchmaker’s List. I’m glad to have checked this one out from the library, but am going to leave it there for now. Perhaps I’ll check it out again later, and see what refreshed eyes feel about it then.
Say You’re One of Them | Author: Uwem Akpan | Genre: Fiction
Paperback: 361 | Publisher: Back Bay Books (2008) | ISBN: 978-0-316-08637-0
“It was a time just to be a human being and to celebrate that. What mattered now was how to get people to lay down their weapons and biases, and how to live together.”
Say You’re One of Them by Uwem Akpan, page 254
This book is not at all what I thought. But it had Oprah’s Book Club sticker on it, so I shouldhave expected it to pummel my heart to pieces.
In a collection of 5 short stories, Akpan guides us through an emotional journey of life as an African child in the trenches of war and conflict, running and genocide, slavery and street life. Told through the perspective of children, Akpan places us in kid shoes walking through adult situations.
In a genius, moving work, Akpan has fictionalized some of the most real, complex conflicts plaguing the African continent. In doing so, he has placed us directly into places we only see in clips on a screen or read brief headlines about.
For those of us who are hundreds and hundreds of miles away, he has made these situations real through the art of storytelling. And I both hate him and love him for that.
A Writing Style That Honors His Culture
Akpan has a unique style, and each page flows poetically. His stories have given me a higher caliber for the fiction I read. Some of the most recent ficion I’ve gotten into suddenly feels lame compared to the way Say You’re One of Them reads.
Also, if you’re interested in world languages, this one is for you. Akpan has written true to the language of the people in his story. The dialogue can be tricky to follow, as its written in broken English and certainly doesn’t follow an accurate grammar. But, the speech is true to what we might actually hear if speaking to a nonnative English speaker.
Plus, Akpan has sprinkled in plenty of phrases and words in the heart language of his characters. Which certainly makes for a more interesting read, but is also more difficult to follow at times. I love that he has chosen to honor his fellow Africans by letting us into their own language.
I Expected Happy Endings
I guess I thought this would flow through one cohesive story, or at least that each chapter would relate to one another in one way. I was several pages into the second “chapter” before I realized that there was no connection between that “chapter” and the first.
Instead, I had just read a story. And the ending to it surely didn’t feel complete. I was still looking for the ending from the first “chapter” while I was reading the second, which I eventually realized was not a chapter but a whole different story in and of itself.
This was hard to grapple with. Man, I love a good happy ending with some kind of resolution. However, this book did not deliver that. In fact, none of the stories have an ending that you’d hope for.
But I can’t blame Akpan for that.
He is simply telling us about real situations on the African continent. As hard as it is to stomach, we have been waiting for innumerable conflicts to find closure for generations; they just haven’t yet.
I Left Feeling Both Completely Built and Torn
As a Westerner living in a developed world, reading through a lens of nearly uneducated children living in total poverty was hard.
I was inspired by the resiliency of the kids, but also emotionally depleted to witness their struggles. Their innocence reigned brilliantly, and though I celebrated that, it was heart-wrenching to see that same innocence violated.
I rooted for the kids, and felt a sense of pride when they succeeded in a small victory. I soon realized that these small spurts of victory were always quickly followed by a harder to defeat.
I was amazed by the conditions in which these families live in – huts, limited food, no shoes on their feet or vehicles to drive – and felt challenged to live on less too. But then I felt their loss when what little they had was taken away. I saw what riches can do to a person, especially a poverty-stricken person, and was confused about it.
Especially in the Largest Refugee Crisis in Modern History…
As a person who works with refugee families every day, I have to say: this book is profound because of the perspective it gives to the background of a refugee.
A refugee is a person who has fled their home based on well-grounded fear of persecution, war, genocide, or natural disaster. Usually because of things out of their control, such as race, ethnicity, religious or political preferences. It’s easy to skim through that definition, until you let it sink in, and start really considering what the journey of a refugee looks like.
Especially as the U.S. commits to bringing a record low number of refugees into the States this year, I believe reading the stories of fleeing is more important now than it has ever been. I don’t have to clarify this, but I will: there is a gross misunderstanding of who a refugee actually is.
Refugees are not the enemy. They are the targeted, the unwanted, the hated, the ones pushed aside for the selfish, horrifying gain of others. They are, really, people born in the wrong place at the wrong time. Refugees are the vulnerable, making decisions from a place of survival without the time, energy, or resources to consider thriving.
And when unprotected children are placed in this number of chaos and terror, and when we read the story of kids running away totally alone from something they don’t even understand, it creates a different kind of compassion within us.
It’s a compassion that moves with an urgency to see justice against their enemies (who are really our enemies too), and a passion to bring them into a fold of protection. To guard them, and restore them back to believing that they are valuable and welcomed. Have some of the world’s children ever heard that?
No, I can’t solve all the world conflicts and I can’t help all the millions of refugees displaced from their homes now. I can’t even help the thousands who will flee their homes today alone. I don’t mean to be rude, but I doubt you can either.
But, what we can do is seek to understand their story and make it known. I can tell the stories of people who have courageously left, and made impossible decisions just to take a few more breaths. I can tell you about the resiliency of the most vulnerable people in the world today, and through their journeys, show you just a glimpse of their passion for life and desire for safety.
Sometimes the most powerful, and honest, form of advocacy is storytelling.
In Short: Read It, but Read with Wisdom
The dialogue and language barriers will force you to read this more slowly. Be okay with that. Honestly, it’s a blessing because these stories are too emotionally difficult to rush through.
Every story shook me, some more violently than others. Akpan spared us many details, but still painted a picture of what it feels like to ride a refugee bus or to watch a sister fall into prostitution. He illustrated what could possibly lead an uncle to sell his family into slavery, and what it truly feels like to be a Muslim on a bus full of Christians and wizards.
We think we know about these things; we don’t have a clue.
I left each page feeling emotionally spent. When I finished the last story, I was grumpy. I gave Travis short and snappy responses, and was acting like a brat for at least an hour on a road trip with my family. Then it clicked: I have to process this. I have to give myself time to settle these feelings, and to recover from this book.
It was a hard read.
But, it’s important too. I applaud Akpan for giving us a glimpse into lives we can barely imagine. Say You’re One of Them is beautiful, stunning, awe-inspiring – it’s all of this, and more, because of the voice it gives to the unheard voices and the untold stories.
And these small – yet not so small – voices unify us with a passion to create a safer world for children to live in. I’m going to meet my own refugee kids at after school today a little more gently and compassion filled, because Akpan has told a story of their history that they’ve yet to understand. The journey to that realization is not easy, but it’s a worthwhile pursuit that has changed my perspective.
I thought I understood the journey of a refugee, but I didn’t have a clue. Thank you, Uwem Akpan, for penning these hard words. I am better for it.
Amusing Ourselves to Death | Author: Neil Postman | Genre: Nonfiction
Paperback: 184 | My Edition’s Publisher: Penguin Group (2006) | Original Publisher: Viking Penguin Inc. (1985) | ISBN: 978-0-14-303653-1
If you need a wake-up call to the ways that entertainment
has reshaped our culture, and continues to infiltrate every part of our
society, this is for you.
If you need to confirm your weary suspicions that media is
crazy and is making us crazy, this is also for you.
Neil Postman in his book, Amusing Ourselves to Death,
argues how public thought and conversation has been misshapen in an era of show
business, constant entertainment, information overload, reliance on technological
media, and ultimately, led us to an addiction us to our own deadly disease. Speaking
to Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, Postman describes how we are ruining
ourselves and our society with our addiction to being entertained.
Yeah, it’s a lot.
It’s a heavy read, and it took me several weeks. But, I think this is important for us to consider. We cannot deny the fact that our entire society has been completely infiltrated by entertainment, technology, and media.
Have we made it through the year 2019 yet? Just barely. Have
we survived next year’s presidential election? Lord, help us.
It Got Me Thinking…
Postman’s argument is not simply that TV is bad. Instead, he illustrates to us how vastly different communication has become in recent decades. Taking each chapter to discuss a different avenue – specifically politics, education, news, and religion – and how TV has changed these spheres, his overarching theme is that TV is deteriorating those spaces because it is not suitable to relay this information and to give room for conversation to follow.
In short, modern day America has become so addicted to entertainment, that we won’t even receive the news and politics and education without it.
But what if those pairs can’t coexist?
When we choose to use the screen to relay all of our news and politics and education and religion, we are choosing to receive it in a way that entertains us, and only widening the gap between our ability to have a thoughtful discussion and our desire to always be entertained. This book makes us wonder how entertainment has changed the difficult conversations.
“Television, as I have implied earlier, serves us most usefully when presenting junk entertainment. It serves us most ill when it co-opts serious modes of discourse – news, politics, science, education, commerce, religion – and turns them in to entertainment packages. We would all be better off if television got worse, not better. ‘The A-Team’ and ‘Cheers’ are no threat to our public health. ’60 Minutes,’ ‘Eye-Witness News,’ and ‘Sesame Street’ are.”
postman, pages 159-160
He says that we are teaching ourselves to love TV – not the information. We are a society of people who are being taught that if it’s not entertaining or pleasurable to me, then I don’t want to hear it. So, the only way that we receive information is by getting it in little pieces crammed between advertisements. There is no cohesion, or connection to its context. There is not background or even time for a full argument, to discuss all of its implications.
Just like our addiction to scrolling and seeing dozens of photos and bits of information in a mere minute, so is our reception to news. Just tons of tiny bits, and no glue to hold it together. Not to mention, no time to make sense of it all.
One of the most alarming chapters to me was Chapter 8 “Shuffle
Off to Bethlehem.” In this chapter, Postman discusses religion and TV. And it’s
On our screen, we have witnessed profane events and have sinful memories etched into our brains; it’s difficult to use our screen for a sacred event. I can easily turn my screen to a Preds game or Netflix. It’s no problem to click over to Instagram. What about that space is suitable for my worship? What have I truly consecrated and given up in the total adoration for the Lord that I claim to love, when I give him a bit of time between my scrolling and watching? When I rely on my screen for spiritual refreshment, I will always be let down, because there are always apps waiting on either side of my worship, rushing me back.
I should also note that Postman doesn’t claim Christianity,
or any other religion in the book. But even as he writes from a secular mindset,
he sees these problems – perhaps more clearly than my religious friends can. That’s
“The problem, in any case, does not reside in what people watch. The problem is in that we watch. The solution must be found in how we watch. For I believe it may fairly be said that we have yet to learn what television is. And the reason is that there has been no worthwhile discussion, let alone widespread public understanding, of what information is and how it gives direction to a culture.”
postman, page 160
By the way, in case you didn’t catch it above, this book was written over 3 decades ago. And he is spot. On. In a prophetic tone echoing from its original creation in 1985, Postman has presented us with a detailed warning that we are on the way to our own disaster. His message has not lost meaning over these years. Instead, it’s clearer and more relevant now than ever.
As I read, I thought of my own screens. No, for me it’s not cable television anymore. But it is Twitter and Instagram, Netflix and Crowd City. It’s mindless scrolling, wasting time numbing my brain and believing every headline I read. And after the last couple years our nation has seen, as we mock a president’s ridiculous comments on social media and receive risqué headlines that barely give us the story, who can argue that we don’t have an entertainment problem.
Actually, if I’m honest with myself, I have a hard time stomaching the news because it does feel like a joke. I can’t take the most serious news I will receive seriously, because of its packaging. And of course, the way its packaged and delivered alters the message altogether. It leaves me to wonder – what can I trust?
From a Christian, to a Christian:
Coming from a Christian worldview, brothers and sisters, we have to consider this topic. As Christ-followers, we should desire to be the most present, intentional people in all our conversations – no matter how big or small. But how often does our media get in the way of our presence? How many time have we worshipped our media and entertainment? How often do we let it rob our memory of the dignity of a person?
If the world cares about education, politics, religion, how much more should I? I know our Maker, and I know what he says about the value of people. He has dignified our position, and I call him a liar when I’m not engaging in these conversations.
Most of all, my pride is reigning when I choose entertainment first. I am saying that how I feel is more important than the person or conversation at hand. This is a woe of 2019, but that doesn’t excuse us from the damaging affects of our phones.
We would all do well to seriously consider our relationship with media, and to question our addiction to entertainment. And for that reason alone (and because I love ya and don’t want to see you waste your brain power), I believe this provocative, bold book is well worth the read.
Don’t fall asleep on this one. Put on your brave face. Brace yourself for impact. Grab a cup of coffee, and settle in. This is good. Difficult, but good.