In His Strength, by Noriko Dethlefs

Letters from Afghanistan 2005-2009.

A journal-like record of life in Afghanistan as observed and experienced by a Japanese-Australian teacher.

Noriko Dethlefs’ husband was posted to Afghanistan to serve with the Christian Blind Mission.

This account of her life in Afghanistan between 2005 and 2009 gives an insight into the different cultural attitudes and religious beliefs she encountered as well as the daily dangers faced by both locals and foreigners.

She also writes about the lack of comforts that we in the “west” take for granted that Afghans do without throughout their lives.

The book shows that despite all of those differences, there is a shared, vulnerable humanity.

That’s something too often forgotten or purposely avoided when it becomes politically expedient.

Read more here:
https://onesimusfiles.wordpress.com/2017/07/10/across-the-cultures-a-shared-need-of-god/

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In the Land of the Blue Burqas by Kate McCord

burqasIn the Land of the Blue Burqas by Kate McCord gives a fascinating insight into the people of Afghanistan, particularly the women, and how Islam affects their lives and relationships.

While Islam and Christianity embrace very different views of God, McCord makes use of a few common areas of belief to build a bridge to share the gospel.

McCord writes of how “Afghans almost universally believe in the concept of kismet, fate. Whatever happens happens because Allah wills it, no matter whose hand has accomplished the thing”.

She addresses this with a group of Afghan women while discussing a deadly car bombing in Kabul that destroyed a bus and killed many including a young mother:

“God told us not to kill. We cannot disobey God in the name of God. That is a lie. God told us to love Him with all our hearts, all our minds, and all our strength. Then He told us to love our neighbours. If a man kills his neighbour, he is disobeying God. This man who blew up the bus and killed that mother did not do the will of God. He did the work of Satan. God will judge him”

One woman in the room responded by sharing another story.

“Our town was at peace. We didn’t know war. We were happy. One day my cousins and aunts were gathered in the house preparing [food] for a wedding party. A bomb fell. We found pieces of dough, bundles of meat, hair ties, scarves, and scraps of bloody fabric. Even the part of the ceiling that didn’t fall was covered with blood and pieces of bodies”

… we all looked at the swirling red carpet . Each woman muttered “Tobah” repent.

After a long pause I restated what I absolutely believe to be the truth: “That was not the will of God, either”
“No,” the women agreed. “That is not the will of God.”

McCord gives the Christian reader a lot of food for thought.
She writes:

“For many Westerners, the question of who God is and what He wants for and from us is simply not relevant. We are, after all, wealthy and busy. For Afghans, it may be the most important question of all.”

And she confesses to something that I think affects most western Christians to one degree or another:

“Sometimes I forget to differentiate between what I believe as an American woman and what I believe the Bible teaches. America is my culture, and Jesus is my Saviour and Lord. Sometimes it’s hard to untangle the two. Afghans challenged me to try.

McCord compares various aspects of her Christians beliefs with those of her Afghan neighbours to show how the vastly different cultural beliefs affect Afghan views of God and as a result their society.

One example she describes is the Afghan view of temptation and sin.

I learned that in Afghanistan, the influences that cause or encourage a person to do what the society defines as wrong are the real sin, not the person who actually does the wrong. People are weak and must be protected. The society provides that protection. Any influence that tempts a member of the community must be eradicated, silenced, or walled out.

McCord also found that her time in Afghanistan gave her a new perspective on some very familiar parts of scripture.

Afghans helped me understand the teachings of Jesus more completely. The culture of Afghanistan today is much more similar to the first century Judea of Jesus’ day than my own Western culture is…

As an example of this, she writes:

I was often amazed when an Afghan heard a Jesus story for the first time and then told me what it means. Jesus spoke to a woman at a well, a woman who had had several husbands and was not married to her current partner. My Afghan women friends immediately saw the woman’s shame. No woman in Afghanistan can arrange her own marriage. The woman at the well had been used by five men, and the last didn’t even have the decency to marry her.

I found the book to be a an effective eye-opener, not only to an unbelievably foreign culture and religion, but also to the unbelievably naïve view that Western Christians have developed concerning the life and teachings of Jesus and how we’ve been taught to view them.

One Light Still Shines by Marie Monville

The shooting of ten Amish girls in their school house created more victims than just those who were killed or injured. There were the families who lost their daughters or whose daughters survived with various physical and mental scars. And there is the family of the man who shot them before taking his own life.

One Light Still Shines, written by the killer’s widow, tells the story of their family, those left behind to deal with the aftermath of what he did. It also tells of the unexpected reaction of the Amish victims.

LightThe Amish response was the most moving part of this book. Families who could be expected to display a degree of bitterness instead responded with love and grace, showing concern for the wife left without a husband and the children without a father. Their response contrasts greatly from that often shown by people affected by lesser wrongs.

It was the Amish connection that drew me to this story. I mentioned previously that I became aware of it via a TV series about the Amish, and how I was impressed by the simplicity of their approach to life. While One Light Still Shines shows the often forgotten side of events like the schoolhouse shooting (the effects on the family of the perpetrator) I found it also showed the vast difference of life styles of communities living side by side, even Christian (or at least church going) communities.

The simplicity of the Amish is contrasted with a lifestyle of cruises, Disneyland visits and material gifts all of which played a part in the recovery process undergone by the author and her family. When I see the two lifestyles side by side, I have to wonder which is most in line with the life and teachings of Jesus.

Reading Drought Breaks

Last year was a record breaker with 66 books read, the most since I started keeping a regular tally. But after that my reading seemed to hit a brick wall. In the first months of this year I finished a couple of books that I’d already started and I enjoyed Susan Meissner’s The Shape of Mercy, but after that nothing has really been able to attract and keep my attention.

Until now!

Over recent weeks I’ve been watching a TV series called “Living With the Amish”, about a group of British teens given the opportunity to live with various Amish families over a six week period. It’s one of the most interesting TV shows I’ve seen for a long time.

The simplicity and lack of materialism of the Amish was very challenging. There is a lot about them that I admired, but those things also showed up how much western Christendom has fallen for consumerism and lives based on “stuff”.

Particularly telling was an incident in the final episode when a couple of Amish women were taken along to a shopping mall so that they could catch a glimpse of the world their visitors came from. One of the women told how she was made nauseous by the atmosphere of the place.

During an earlier episode of the series one of the Amish was talking to a British girl about forgiveness and told her about a shooting in an Amish school where a gunman killed several of the young students before turning the gun on himself. And that is where I come back to this year’s reading list.

LightI found One Light Still Shines a book written by Marie Monville, who was the wife of the gunman. It’s the first book this year, since The Shape of Mercy, that makes me want to continue reading. It tells of the event that changed many lives (after ending the lives of several others) and how the tragedy led to amazing expressions of God’s love and grace as a wife, a family and a community come to terms with the outcome of the devastating acts of someone they thought they knew well.

I’m only halfway through, but it’s already a very moving book that I’ve found hard to put down, but considering most of my reading is done during tea and lunch breaks at work, it’s also been a hard book to continue reading because of the emotions it stirs. More than once I’ve had to put it aside before workmates notice the welling tears.

Mercy and Imprisonment

The Shape of Mercy by Susan Meissner

shape of mercy Gloria has a few books by Susan Meissner. She told me one of them included references to Lady Jane Grey. I’ve been fascinated with Jane since my pre-teens and in recent years I’ve read a few books (both fiction and non-fiction) about her.

A few days ago I needed a new book to read in my work lunch break and decided on the Susan Meissner book. I read three or four chapters before I started to realise something was slightly amiss. I’d picked up the wrong book, and instead of reading about Lady Jane, I was heading into the Salem witch trials.
But it was a good mistake to make. It brought me to a very enjoyable book that I might not have otherwise read.

Lauren Durough is a college student from a very well-to-do family who wants to make her own way in the world. She finds work transcribing a centuries old diary written by Mercy Hayworth, a victim of the Salem witch trials, for an elderly descendant of the Hayworth family. Her relationship with the diary and its owner challenge Lauren to face up to the way her preconceptions colour her judgement of others.

While the book was bought from a Christian book shop, it isn’t an overtly “Christian” book. God is accepted by some characters, and there are references to church going, but there is no preachiness and no blatant religious message.

The Fearless Passage of Steven Kim, by Carl Herzig with Steven Kim
Steven KimThe Fearless Passage of Steven Kim was another Christian book shop purchase bought on a recent trip to Canberra. It was one of three books I found about people practising their faith in places where there’s little room for complacency, where following Jesus can lead to persecution, imprisonment or even death.

I often feel the need to have my own complacency shaken. It’s far too easy to take our faith for granted when it’s never seriously challenged. How strong would I be if my life was on the line because I believe in Jesus?

Born in South Korea, Steven Kim moved to the United States with very few resources, but with dedication and hard work he achieved his goal of making large amounts of money, building million dollar businesses from nothing. Basing himself more and more in China, away from his wife and children in the US, Kim recognised that his pursuit of wealth didn’t bring the fulfilment he’d expected, so he looked again to the Christian faith he’d (nominally) followed in his younger days and joined an underground church in the industrial area where his business was based. When the church began to be frequented by “illegals” from Northern Korea, Kim started to work on helping them and other North Korean refugees to move out of China, towards a future in South Korea.

Unfortunately for Kim, helping “illegal immigrants” in this way, led to his arrest and imprisonment. Sentenced to prisons and work camps, Kim pushed the boundaries of Chinese hostility to religious practices to run bible studies and worship services within each prison he was sent to. He successfully shares the gospel with many leading some to faith in Jesus.

All of this seems like inspirational stuff – exactly the kind of thing I was hoping the book would be. But, there was something that made me uneasy at times; a discomfort that I tried to suppress. Who was I to question the experience of someone standing firm under such conditions. Who was I, in the comfort and “freedom” of the West, to find fault in what Kim experienced and what he did?
And then I came to a part in the book that perhaps brought clarity to my unease:

“…[Steven] recalled Moon, his Buddhist cell mate… Steven had tried to convert him to Christianity…and for a while Moon had joined him in prayer. But when Steven had pressed him to give up his Buddhist beliefs and practices, Moon had resisted; in the end, Steven’s pressure had pushed Moon away. Maybe I was too hard on him, Steven thought. Maybe sometimes people have to find their faith in different ways.
“He thought of Jesus’ words of comfort from John 14:1-2: ‘Do not let your hearts be troubled,’ He had told His disciples. ‘In my Father’s house are many rooms.’
“Humbled, Steven wondered for the first time if their might not be rooms in the kingdom of God for souls like Moon and Oki [another Buddhist cell-mate] too. “No one comes to the Father except through me” (verse 6), Jesus had continued, but Steven wondered whether there were many paths leading to Christ.”

I feel there is a disturbing ambiguity expressed there, suggesting that other “faiths” (like Buddhism) provide alternative ways to Christ and God.

Another three bite the dust

Over the last week I’ve been able to transfer three books from my “Reading Now” list to this year’s list of books read.

rock bottomRock Bottom (Inspired by God), by Michael Teter is only a short book, but it took me a long time to get through it. I read about half of it some time ago but didn’t get back to read the rest for several weeks. The book is a testimony of how Teter’s life was dramatically changed by an encounter with God while serving a prison sentence. It comes across as an honest and heartfelt, no-frills story that would have benefitted from some basic editing for spelling and grammar. The technical shortcomings in the writing made the book more difficult for me to get through, but maybe its lack of literary polish added to the authenticity of the book .

tina arenaNow I can Dance is Tina Arena’s autobiography. Starting her career as a child star on the once popular Australian variety show Young Talent Time, Tina Arena has been one of Australia’s most successful singers, both at “home” and also overseas. Until very recently I gave no attention at all to Arena’s music, but for some reason that changed a couple of months ago.

She’s an artist I’ve admired in the past after hearing her sing live at two separate record store promotions. I’d never before witnessed a singer putting so much emotion and power into a performance of a song. But she didn’t sing the kind of songs I liked at the time. Now it seems my musical tastes have broadened.

While she is 10 years younger than myself, the fact that her singing career started at such a young age, a lot of the book covers times that are familiar to me, from the 1970s through to the present day and I found a lot of personal memories being stirred as well as learning something about the background of Arena’s life and music.

electric edenThe last of the three was Electric Eden by Rob Young. I bought this book because it seemed to be about a history of British folk music, starting in the late 19th- early 20th centuries when a systematic collecting of folk music and songs began, through to the beginning of the 21st century. While there was a continuing thread of that historical journey, Young was more interested in the reflection of the “spiritual psyche” of the British, as portrayed through the music and perceived by the author who seemed to lean favourably to a new age/pagan/ Gnosticism.

Prophetess by Keven Newsome

prophetessProphetess is the follow-up to Keven Newsome’s Winter, a book I reviewed here on my older blog:
http://out-shadows.blogspot.co.nz/2012/01/winter-keven-newsome.html
A lot of what I wrote there could also apply to Prophetess so I recommend a look at that earlier review.

The prophetess is Winter, the title character of the earlier novel and we meet her again as she’s returning to school for another year after she and her friends survived some horrific events the year before.

At first I found myself getting a little lost at the beginning because of a few references to characters and events I’d forgotten from the earlier book, but that initial feeling of disorientation comes with many novels that are released as a series and it would have easily been avoided if I’d chosen to reread Winter before I moved on to Prophetess. Once I’d moved past that I was soon hooked by the story.

Or maybe I should say stories, because there are two main time-lines describing different periods of Winter’s life. There is the present story where Winter tries to find and protect a fellow student who is being targeted by Xaphan the occultist adversary from the earlier book. And there is also the story of a slightly younger Winter, withdrawn into a state of depression after the death of her mother. These story threads are interwoven leaving us with mini cliff-hangers as they switch from one to the other.

With Winter I had reservations about the portrayal of prophecy and I’m not convinced that it fits a biblical view in either book, but that’s something I addressed in my earlier article and the author of the book responded with comments to give his position so I won’t cover that ground again. So putting aside that theological issue, I found the book ticked a lot of entertainment boxes without pushing God to the side.

Both Winter and Prophetess are a blend of suspense and supernatural thriller with a seasoning of horror, touching on some serious issues, like the consequences of dabbling in the occult, teen depression and the real freedom that a relationship with God can bring.

I think this is the first Christian novel I’ve read this year. If I could find more of a similar quality I’d be very happy to read more. I think it’s the equal of a lot of popular fiction, but has the added quality of taking God seriously.