A dangerous book

choosing-good-portion-2
Choosing the Good Portion is available from the OPC online store

Choosing the Good Portion: Women of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church; edited by Patricia E. Clawson & Diane L. Olinger; published by The Committee for the Historian of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church; cloth, 470 pages; © 2016

 

This is a dangerous book. Like Proverbs 31, it can make women feel inferior if they begin to think they somehow don’t measure up. But we know that Proverbs 31, like all Scripture, is profitable (2 Timothy 3:16) and Choosing the Good Portion is not only profitable, but also enjoyable and encouraging.

Yes, some of the women described in these stories seem almost superhuman, traveling to far countries and difficult situations, giving birth or raising children while husbands are distant or busy with other kingdom work. But if you read this book and come away feeling like a sub-par Christian, you’ve missed the point. The point isn’t how great these women were, but how great their God was in their lives and is in yours.

The title, Choosing the Good Portion, comes from the biblical account of Martha and Mary, which like Proverbs 31 can be dangerous. Am I a Martha or a Mary? I’ve personally struggled with the question for years. More than a decade ago, I wrote a poem confessing my affinity with Martha and my longing to be like Mary. This book is based on the premise that the featured women chose to first receive Christ’s teaching and then serve His church.

Editors Patricia E. Clawson and Diane L. Olinger deserve high praise for their excellent work in compiling and constructing these stories, as well as each writing one of them. Pat’s introduction explains the rationale and process that led to the book, while Diane’s afterword encourages readers to ask themselves: Am I Choosing the Good Portion?

Fifty-five women wrote these stories about ninety-three women who invested themselves in Christ’s kingdom, specifically as it has been expressed through the eighty-year history of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church (OPC).

What a job it must have been to determine who to write about and the women to write the stories! But what wisdom (if not pure practicality) to tackle the project with broad delegation. In the hands of different editors, the book could well have fallen into a boring litany of what began to sound like similar stories with only the names changed. As it is, the different styles and author voices add richness and variety that capture and keep reader interest.

While OPC readers will find the stories fascinating and recognize many familiar names, Christians from any federation will appreciate the accounts of sacrificial service for the Lord.

How wonderfully the Lord sustained women like Debbie Dortzbach, four months pregnant when kidnapped with Anna Strikwerda from a medical clinic by armed Eritrean guerillas in 1974. Debbie survived the ordeal, which included witnessing Anna die from a gunshot to the head.

Eritrea had long been an inhospitable mission field. Bandits, armed with AR-15s, nearly attacked the Francis and Arlena Mahaffy family, who arrived in 1944 and stayed 22 years. Arlena’s seven children were born in primitive and unsterile conditions. Feeding them involved boiling sour and dirty milk as well as soaking vegetables in chlorinated water before cooking them with the stalks.

Other stories describe women who served the church on the home front by giving time, money, or sound advice. Women like Betty Wallace, who helped found Franklin Square OPC in New York and taught Sunday school for many years. She hosted missionaries in her home and viewed life as a wonderful adventure: “Any better, I couldn’t stand it!”

Not all the profiles focus on positive productivity. The women are portrayed as real people with human frailties. Donna McIlhenny bravely pens a transparent narrative about how alcohol helped her cope with stresses few of us will ever experience—until it stopped being her helper and became her tyrant. She eventually overcame her addiction, but this story shows that being a Christian doesn’t automatically deliver a person from deep and long-lasting struggles.

Choosing the Good Portion could be a dangerous book, but only if you read it with a focus on the human instead of the divine.

The above book review by Glenda Mathes appeared on page 43 of the March 1, 2017, issue of Christian Renewal.

 

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Redeemer Reader reviews Matthew Muddles Through

PrintGreetings, readers!

Janie over at Redeemed Reader has posted a review of the first book of my Matthew in the Middle series, Matthew Muddles Through

Her review captures the spirit and time frame of the novel as she describes Matthew and his problems in creative ways. She notes that any reader with siblings can relate to some of them. She also mentions his struggle with how to grow up as a Christian “without necessarily thinking in those terms.” She writes:

As the son of a pastor he knows the expectations of his community, but his inclinations don’t always match up. He’s at the age where kids are beginning to question of what they’ve always been taught and how it applies to them personally. Matthew has no hidden supernatural abilities and will not be chosen to save the world, but the Holy Spirit is at work in him anyway, and it’s a struggle worth watching.

Check out the entire review here!

Discovering Delight blog tour

Discovering-Delight-front (1)I recently received news about an amazing Cross Focused blog tour of Discovering Delight: 31 Meditations on Loving God’s Law.

I’m thankful to David Woollin and the other folks at Reformation Heritage Books for their efforts in promoting my work. And I especially thank God for these wonderful reviews!

Writing & Living – a book review

Letters & Life: on being a writer, on being a Christian by Bret Lott
Crossway; hard cover; 192 pages; © 2013
Book review by Glenda Mathes

You have to admire a writer who admits to having received over 600 rejections. And who repeatedly confesses that he knows nothing about writing.

Bret Lott’s work always strikes me as humble and honest. In Letters & Life, those characteristics emanate from his faith and fuse reflections on writing and living  into one cohesive book.

In the first five essays, Lott explores literary fiction, the public square, precision, the workshop model, and the humility of Flannery O’Conner. The second half of the book is an extended reflection on the death of his father, “At Some Point in the Future, What Has Not Happened Will Be in the Past.” In both parts of the book, Lott looks at his subject with the keen eye of faith as well as the observant eye of the writer.

One of my favorite quotes comes from his first essay, in which Lott offers what may be the best published definition of that most-difficult-to-label genre, literary fiction. This is what he tells students:

“I tell them that literary fiction is fiction that examines the character of the people involved in the story, and that popular fiction is driven by plot. Whereas popular fiction, I tell them, is meant primarily as a means of escape, one way or another, from this present life, a kind of book equivalent of comfort food, literary fiction confronts us with who we are and makes us look deeply at the human condition” (p. 14).

By humbly and honestly sharing his faith-based explorations, Lott leads readers and writers to more authentic living and writing.

New reviews of Little One Lost

While doing some marketing research this morning, I discovered a few new online references to my recently published Little One Lost: Living with Early Infant Loss.

First, I found a positive review of Little One Lost: Living with Early Infant Loss at the Reformed Reader blog. Andrew Compton (URCNA minister) writes that he attended Synod Nyack 2012 where he purchased Little One Lost. He calls it “a very timely and powerful book” and adds, “I was deeply moved.”

He notes that every death is a tragic reminder of the curse, but that the death of a child “brings a unique set of emotions.  Ministers and lay-people alike are often poorly equipped to empathize with grieving mothers and fathers.  This is why Little One Lost is such a valuable new contribution.”

Compton adds, “I believe that this book will benefit all of us.  It will help those of us who are ministers to preach the gospel in more intentional and sensitive ways to those carrying these sorrows.  It will help friends and family to lovingly bear the burdens of those who have suffered early infant loss.  Perhaps most importantly, it will remind us that the taboo itself – the code of silence – is a horrible tragedy.”

He concludes: “Glenda Mathes’ Little One Lost powerfully directs our attention to the One who suffered the loss of his own Son.  It draws our thoughts and affections to the One who Himself suffered to the utmost.”

Second, I discovered that the Three R’s blog is offering a free copy of Little One Lost to someone willing to review it for The Standard Bearer.

Third, in a great new review on Amazon, John Mahaffy (OPC minister) concludes: “I purchased multiple copies, so as to be able to give a copy of this book to someone who needs it. The target readership of this book is apparently the Christian community. Mrs. Mathes, however, points so clearly to Christ as the source of comfort that this sensitively written book may be an appropriate gift to a griever who does not yet know the Lord.”

Fourth, Nick Smith has published on his blog and on Amazon some excerpts from a longer review essay he’s written.

Just a reminder: Little One Lost is available from the online store of the publisher, Reformed Fellowship. It is also available from Amazon and other online outlets.

Two brothers, just like us

The following book review by Glenda Mathes appeared on page 40 of the April 11, 2012, issue of Christian Renewal.

The Prodigal God: Recovering the Heart of the Christian Faith
Timothy Keller; Dutton: New York, NY, 139 pp.

Every Christian should read this book.

Beginning a book review like that may be bad form, but every Christian—backslidden or backboned, infant or mature, lawless or legalistic—really should read Timothy Keller’s The Prodigal God. The subtitle, Recovering the Heart of the Christian Faith, describes its purpose and explains why everyone should read it.

When someone recommended The Prodigal God by Timothy Keller, I made a mental note to read it. When a minister mentioned it in a sermon, I decided to look for it. When someone let me borrow their copy, I put it on my stack of books to read. When another pastor highly recommended it to me a little later, I moved it to the top of that stack. When I finally picked it up and read it, I understood why the Holy Spirit had been so insistent.

The parable of the Prodigal Son had always been a bit problematic for me. I easily identified with the older son, who seemed to have a legitimate gripe. And I’d never felt as if I really understood the point of the parable. Sure, we’re supposed to forgive the wayward sinner who repents. But what about that older son? Of course, he should have shown more love toward his brother, but didn’t he make some valid points?

The Prodigal God was Convicting with a capital C.

Keller explains his title by correcting the common misperception that prodigal means wayward. He provides an accurate two-fold definition of prodigal as “recklessly extravagant” and “having spent everything” (p. 2).

Pointing out that even Jesus didn’t call the parable we know as “The Prodigal Son” by that name, which focuses on only one son, Keller believes the parable is better called “The Two Lost Sons.”

Keller writes that the two brothers represent different ways “to be alienated from God” and “to seek acceptance into the kingdom of heaven” (p. 7). Feeling like alienation and acceptance aren’t your problems? Convinced you understand the gospel? Keller believes “one of the signs that you may not grasp the unique, radical nature of the gospel is that you are certain that you do” (p. xi).

“The targets of this story are not ‘wayward sinners’ but religious people who do everything the Bible requires,” Keller writes. “Jesus is pleading not so much with immoral outsiders as with moral insiders. He wants to show them their blindness, narrowness, and self-righteousness, and how these things are destroying both their own souls and the lives of the people around them” (p. 10).

Comparing the parable to a play in two acts, Keller describes how Act 1 shows the freeness of God’s grace, while Act 2 shows “the costliness of that grace and the true climax of the story” (p. 25).

Jesus uses the two brothers to demonstrate the two basic ways people try to find happiness and fulfillment: moral conformity and self-discovery (p. 29). Keller notes that the modern world seems divided into these two opposing perspectives, although some moralistic people practice both attitudes by separating public and secret aspects of their lives, and many modern liberals regard conservatives with self-righteousness to equal the worst Pharisee. Keller shows how Christ advocates a radical alternative.

“The gospel is distinct from the other two approaches: In its view, everyone is wrong, everyone is loved, and everyone is called to recognize this and change” (p. 45). Everyone really needs to read this book and truthfully examine his or her own heart.

While Keller never hesitates to confront each of us with the sickness of our hearts, he also writes the prescription: We need “the initiating love of the father, [a deep] gospel repentance… [and] the festival joy of salvation” (p. 79).

Even if you’re not a younger brother or an elder brother, you’ve got tendencies toward one or the other. We can never hope to do anything that will secure the Father’s love, but believers have an older brother who’s done it all.

“We will never stop being younger brothers or elder brothers until we acknowledge our need, rest by faith, and gaze in wonder at the work of our true elder brother, Jesus Christ” (p. 89), writes Keller. “We can only change permanently as we take the gospel more deeply into our understanding and into our hearts” (p. 115).

Don’t put off reading this book as long as I did. But don’t just read it; take it to heart.

An evangelical critiques the Evangelical Church (book review)

A Lover’s Quarrel with the Evangelical Church by Warren Cole Smith; Authentic: Colorado Springs, CO, 265 pp.

A Lover’s Quarrel with the Evangelical Church demonstrates Warren Cole Smith’s writing excellence and experience. Accurate facts complement the book’s literary quality.

An introduction titled “My Name  is Warren, and I’m a Recovering Evangelical” intrigues readers and pulls them into a personal narrative that expands into an astute analysis of today’s evangelical church.

An avid participant in the evangelical movement, Smith began to realize that evangelicalism had problems more severe than merely serving milk instead of meat.

“It was almost as if there was something toxic in the soil of the evangelical garden,” he writes. “It may be true that most churches serve milk, not meat. But it began to look to me as though even the milk was tainted. It looked rich and nourishing, and for a while, for many young Christians, it was. But it was almost as if, like milk that contains mercury or lead, the poison was building up over time” (p. 7).

Smith calls his analysis “a lover’s quarrel with the evangelical church” because he believes “it is important to speak the truth as two lovers would” within the “unity and oneness” of the body of Christ. His goal is not to “destroy, but to encourage, sharpen, and build” (p. 12). 

“All of this because there is no unity without truth,” he continues. “Looking deeply into the very nature of things and then rightly naming those things, is at the very heart of what it means to be human. It should be at the very center of any quest for the truth” (pp. 13 & 14).

Smith identifies and defines five primary problems he sees in the evangelical church: a new provincialism, the triumph of sentimentality, a Christian-industrial complex, body-count evangelism, and the Great Stereopticon.

The new provincialism is a “rejection of history” (p. 64). The triumph of sentimentality is a “deconstruction of objective reality and the construction of an alternate and subjective vision of the world” (p. 64). The Christian-industrial complex trades away “community and vocation in favor of commerce” (p. 154). Body-count evangelism employs “end justifies the means” (p. 140) methods that concentrate on numbers rather than commitment of converts. The Great Stereopticon is the destructive power of modern media (p. 162).

As Smith discusses these problems, he accurately traces their history. While describing the new provincialism, for instance, he details differences between the First and Second Great Awakenings in American history and notes modern evangelicalism’s similarities to the negative results of the Second Great Awakening. 

He demonstrates how the First Great Awakening “resulted in churches that have remained faithful to gospel truth for nearly three centuries and in an experiment in liberty—the United States—that is a light to the world.” In contrast, the Second Great Awakening created a cult-fostering environment, in which “by the end of the nineteenth century, many parts of the country that had experienced the Second Great Awakening were among the most irreligious, virtually inoculated to the preaching of the gospel (pp. 49-50). He additionally points out that premillennialism developed from the Second Great Awakening in contrast to the church’s historical amillennial position (p. 52).

Smith prescribes remedies for the diseases he identifies. When discussing the triumph of sentimentality, Smith states: “Accountability and community are essential conditions of health for both the individual Christian and the church as a whole” (p. 71).

About the Christian-industrial complex, he writes, “The church operating in koinonia, true community, is the antidote to this poisonous industrial model. The two most vital, distinguishing characteristics of those who live in koinonia are humility and accountability” (p. 122).

Smith does not “advocate a kind of modern-day pharisaism as a biblical replacement to the lively but sometimes heretical theology of the modern evangelical church.” Rather, he advocates “an understanding that in God’s economy, theology is biography. Knowing God is sovereign and acting as if God is sovereign must be the same thing for the true Christian disciple. Jesus said this when he said that to love God is to love our neighbor (Matthew 22:36-40) and to receive forgiveness we must forgive (Matthew 6:9-13)” (p. 221).

Smith bookends A Lover’s Quarrel with the Evangelical Church with allusions to Dante’s narrator who came to himself in a dark wood. His concluding reference comforts today’s church: “We return to that image knowing that when he came to himself and found his way out, the story he wrote we now call The Divine Comedy—not The Infernal Tragedy” (p. 228).

The above book review by Glenda Mathes appeared on page 24 of the January 18, 2012, issue of Christian Renewal.

The Prodigal God by Timothy Keller, book review

Prodigious Love (a book review by Glenda Mathes)

The Prodigal God: Recovering the Heart of the Christian Faith by Timothy Keller; © 2008 by Timothy Keller; Dutton: New York, NY, 139 pp.

 

Every Christian should read this book.

Beginning a book review like that may be bad form, but every Christian—backslidden or backboned, infant or mature, lawless or legalistic—really should read Timothy Keller’s The Prodigal God. The subtitle, Recovering the Heart of the Christian Faith, describes its purpose and explains why everyone should read it.

When someone recommended The Prodigal God by Timothy Keller, I made a mental note to read it. When a minister mentioned it in a sermon, I decided to look for it. When someone let me borrow their copy, I put it on my stack of books to read. When another pastor highly recommended it to me a little later, I moved it to the top of that stack. When I finally picked it up and read it, I understood why the Holy Spirit had been so insistent.

The parable of the Prodigal Son had always been a bit problematic for me. I easily identified with the older son, who seemed to have a legitimate gripe. And I’d never felt as if I really understood the point of the parable. Sure, we’re supposed to forgive the wayward sinner who repents. But what about that older son? Of course, he should shown more love toward his brother, but didn’t he make some valid points?

The Prodigal God was Convicting with a capital C.

Keller explains his title by correcting the common misperception that prodigal means wayward. He provides an accurate two-fold definition of prodigal as “recklessly extravagant” and “having spent everything” (p. 2).

Pointing out that even Jesus didn’t call the parable we know as “The Prodigal Son” by that name, which focuses on only one son, Keller believes the parable is better called “The Two Lost Sons.”

Keller writes that the two brothers represent different ways “to be alienated from God” and “to seek acceptance into the kingdom of heaven” (p. 7). Feeling like alienation and acceptance aren’t your problems? Convinced you understand the gospel? Keller believes “one of the signs that you may not grasp the unique, radical nature of the gospel is that you are certain that you do” (p. xi).

“The targets of this story are not ‘wayward sinners’ but religious people who do everything the Bible requires,” Keller writes. “Jesus is pleading not so much with immoral outsiders as with moral insiders. He wants to show them their blindness, narrowness, and self-righteousness, and how these things are destroying both their own souls and the lives of the people around them” (p. 10).

Comparing the parable to a play in two acts, Keller describes how Act 1 shows the freeness of God’s grace, while Act 2 shows “the costliness of that grace and the true climax of the story” (p. 25).

Jesus uses the two brothers to demonstrate the two basic ways people try to find happiness and fulfillment: moral conformity and self-discovery (p. 29). Keller notes that the modern world seems divided into these two opposing perspectives, although some moralistic people practice both attitudes by separating public and secret aspects of their lives, and many modern liberals regard conservatives with self-righteousness to equal the worst Pharisee. Keller shows how Christ advocates a radical alternative.

“The gospel is distinct from the other two approaches: In its view, everyone is wrong, everyone is loved, and everyone is called to recognize this and change” (p. 45). Everyone really needs to read this book and truthfully examine his or her own heart.

While Keller never hesitates to confront each of us with the sickness of our hearts, he also writes the prescription: We need “the initiating love of the father, [a deep] gospel repentance… [and] the festival joy of salvation” (p. 79).

Even if you’re not a younger brother or an elder brother, you’ve got tendencies toward one or the other. We can never hope to do anything that will secure the Father’s love, but believers have an older brother who’s done it all.

“We will never stop being younger brothers or elder brothers until we acknowledge our need, rest by faith, and gaze in wonder at the work of our true elder brother, Jesus Christ” (p. 89), writes Keller. “We can only change permanently as we take the gospel more deeply into our understanding and into our hearts” (p. 115).

Don’t put off reading this book as long as I did. But don’t just read it; take it to heart.

The Help, book review

BOOK REVIEW by Glenda Mathes 

The Help by Kathryn Stockett

© 2009 by Kathryn Stockett

Berkley Books: New York, NY, 534 pp.

 

While The Help tells about black domestics working for white housewives in Jackson, MS, during the 1960s, it also shows how a young woman loses her naiveté and her place in Southern society, but gains some soul.  

Stockton knows her subject, having grown up in a Mississippi home with a loving black woman who cooked and cleaned for the family while caring for and encouraging her.

She writes the novel primarily through believable first person accounts: two very different black women (Aibileen and Minny) who are close friends and one young socialite (Miss Skeeter) who recently returned home after graduating from college. Although the book begins and ends in Aibileen’s point of view, most of it is from Skeeter’s perspective as she fails to fit back into social circles and her mother’s expectations, while covertly interviewing domestics and writing a book about their experiences.

The genuine danger of the enterprise becomes more and more clear as the author mentions deaths, beatings, or mutilations and refers to real incidents of racial persecution during the volatile 60s.

Black women who work for white women are commonly and generically referred to as “the help,” a label that lacks both humanity and individuality. It’s no surprise that many white employers treat their black employees badly, but there are others who care about and care for them. Stocktondoesn’t ignore the good while portraying the bad, and she doesn’t sensationalize excesses while describing accepted behaviors.

Southern women are known for their gracious hospitality, but Stockton also depicts their vindictive exclusivity. One vicious young woman controls the accepted social group and exerts undue influence over her friends and their “help,” but is especially nasty to the young woman—considered poor white trash—who married her former boyfriend. The climax of that conflict appears in Chapter 25, “The Benefit,” which is an exception to the point of view rule by being written in the third person. Unusual graphic lines between text and margins help differentiate it from the other chapters.

The Help has gotten a lot of hype. It’s been a #1 bestseller on the New York Times list and been made into a movie, so it’s possible to read it with expectations that are too high. Readers who come to it with lower expectations may enjoy it more. It is definitely a story about how small efforts can make a big difference toward racial reconciliation. But like To Kill a Mockingbird, to which it is often compared, it is about much more than racial prejudice. At the risk of sounding like a literary deconstructionist (which I’m not), each reader will bring his or her own preconceptions to this narrative that will generate different nuances of meaning.

As a writer, I strongly identified with Skeeter’s clueless desire to write as well as her exhausting marathon to meet impossible deadlines and her agonizing wait to hear back from a publisher.

As a reader, who happens to be a Christian, I latched onto Skeeter’s reflection near the end of the book: “Lately I’ve found myself praying, when I’ve never been a very religious person. I find myself whispering long, never-ending sentences to God, begging for Mother to feel some relief, pleading for good news about the book, sometimes even asking for some hint of what to do about Stuart. Often I catch myself praying when I didn’t even know I was doing it” (p. 432). In my mind, these are the novel’s most crucial sentences.

I put the book down, very early one morning, with the feeling that Skeeter will be all right, not because of what she’s done or what she’s going to do, but because of who she talks to about it.

Secret of Chimneys

Mysteries were my standard reading fare during the long summer breaks between my highschool years. Ever since I’ve equated summer reading with mysteries. And although I now have several favorite authors, my first favorite mystery writer–and one who remains a favorite despite some criticisms–is Agatha Christie.

Last night I read The Secret of Chimneys, one of her early novels and one that garners decidedly mixed reviews. Some reviewers feel it lacks the depth of her later stories, while some view it as one of her best. I fall into the latter category. My daughter recently read and enjoyed it, so I picked it up this week as one of the few Christie mysteries I had not previously read. The lively dialogue of its characters and the tricky twists of its conclusion thoroughly delighted me.

Although I had solved the primary puzzles long before the last page, I prefer that to mysteries whose conclusions depend on information that has been withheld from the reader until the very end.

Fiction, especially mystery, provides a great break for my mind after a long day of trying to craft coherent writing. And Christie never fails to disappoint for a quick and fun read.