Unfettered: Imagining a Childlike Faith Beyond the Baggage of Western Culture. Mandy Smith (Brazos Press) $18.99 OUR SALE PRICE = $15.19
Unfettered. I keep handling the word, twirling it around and around, wondering what to glean from its meaning. And, as you can see, it’s the title of a very good new book and I am pondering the usage of it by Mandy Smith, an honest, thoughtful, writer.
It seems to me that the word can be describing a one-time thing: one is decisively set free. The chains fall off, a debt forgiven, and joyously, off we go, no longer bound by old bondages, old weights. It is, in that sense, perhaps like salvation and it is no accident that the Apostle Paul uses freedom language in describing the essential truth of the gift God gives in Christ. Freedom.
Of course, it doesn’t take us forty years of hearing the eloquent and powerful writings of Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann – who wrote a very enthusiastic introduction to Unfettered – to know that in the great Biblical narrative those set free, God’s chosen people under the boot heel of the brick-making quotas of Pharaoh, soon enough grumble and want to go back to Egypt. Perhaps you learned that from Brueggemann in books and sermons galore or maybe you learned it from Keith Green’s late ’70s album “So You Want to Go Back to Egypt” but most of us know the story. God even commanded that we keep Sabbath, at least in one of the tellings (Deuteronomy 5:15), so that weekly we recall the ubiquitous immanence of fetters and say no to the seductive, if stupid, siren call to go back to being fettered. Apparently being free isn’t as lovely as it sounds, or as easy.
Which is where this fabulously interesting, incredibly honest, joyously invitational book gets really interesting. From my little paragraph above I might imply that being free is costly and hard. We have to work hard to keep Sabbath, to say no to consumerism and brick quotas, that our freedom is difficult to maintain. I might even imply we have to learn about it and not just receive the gift but somehow maintain it. This is serious work. It’s mature Christian discipleship, a gospel-centered life. It’s adultish.
But, as Mandy explains in prose that is sometimes poetic, sometime exceedingly vulnerable as she shares her soul’s journey, and sometimes dense with theological and philosophical meat, it is, in fact, the work of the child.
Unfettered: Imagining a Childlike Faith Beyond the Baggage of Western Culture is not silly sweet inspirational bromides about how lovely and unjaded children are; not even an study of the serious (and wrongheaded) worldview of the Romantics who think children are the innocent “pipers at the gates of dawn.” And it is not the faddish “inner child” stuff of the recovery movement from a generation ago. No; here Smith is offering a deeply considered, painfully acquired, hard-won and Biblically rooted understanding of child-like ways of being and seeing and knowing that will yield spiritual gifts of freedom. This is a guide to living unfettered, showing that child-like wonder and joy and curiosity and grace can be a way of life. I put the book down at one point – loving it, appreciating her story, savoring her well-chosen footnotes, nodding about her call to childlikeness – and wondered if I was too old for this stuff.
Mandy, though, is not. She is learning. And (forgive me, but I’ve been waiting decades to use this line properly in a book review) I’d say she can sing with the ever-allusive Bob Dylan, “I was so much older then, I’m younger than that now.” And she is inviting us into the story of how that happened.
You may know Mandy Smith’s pervious book, which I raved about here at BookNotes years ago, The Vulnerable Pastor: How Human Limitations Enhance Empower Our Ministry (IVP; $20.00.) I know it wasn’t easy to write but she leaned in to that, as they say nowadays, and wrote about being honest about one’s limitations and constraints, fears and foibles. It’s really, really good, and one both pastors and congregants should read as we think about what we want our pastors to be and do. This brand new one, Unfettered, seems in a way a much deeper look at vulnerability as a virtue. And to do that, a big ask in itself, we have to disentangle the idols and pressures that keep us fearful and unable to do that. We need to grapple with cultural assumptions and values and expectation and pressures in order to be set free from the bad habits of the age. We must, as she puts it, “detox our faith the from habits and mindsets of Western culture.”
In Brueggemann’s nice foreword he notes that much of the book is arranged around the process Pastor Mandy discovered, a cycle of resting, receiving and responding. That she came to some of these ideas while on sabbatical makes sense but she is too earnest a writer to not tell the whole truth. She was on the edge of burn-out, seriously hurting, and longing to go back to her homeland down under. (Yes, she’s Australian, but has worked in parish ministry in a thriving church in Cincinnati. In a sense she writes as an exile and refugee, loving her new home and church and calling in Ohio but increasingly wanting to be with her extended family.) It seemed that her own anguish mirrored the tailspin of Western culture. She suggests that many of us are so steeped in the ways of the culture that when it falters, we do too.
One of the things that is so helpful about Unfettered: Imagining a Childlike Faith… is how Smith walks us into each section with her own stories and offers some gentle guidance for her readers. This is her detoxing recovery journey and it is her gift to us all.
Since some of this is upbeat and charming, even, we could say she takes us by the hand to not just walk us, but to dance us into that particular “R” section, although some of us might not have our dancing shoes on, or we’re dragging our feet. This is part of her story and I was choked up reading the description about her surprising, uninhibited dance — yes, a literal free-form dance — once when she was alone, praying for the sick and broken.
But what is also very good, and will be helpful for many of us who like or need this sort of thing, after each one of these three chapters (resting, receiving, and responding), Ms. Smith adds a diagnostic chapter pointing out the obstacles along the way, things hindering our dance steps.
So, after the chapter called “Rest” there is the chapter “What Gets in the Way of Rest?” Then, after the chapter “Receive,” she offers an insightful chapter called “What Doesn’t Get in the Way of Receiving?” (A bit of a tweak in the flow, there, you’ll notice.) And then, after the chapter “Respond” there is chapter six called “What Keeps us From Responding.”
It is my sense that this is deeper and more profound than other good books that pull us somewhat in the same direction. Part of it is her poetry, her tender stories, her honesty in naming what worked and what didn’t in her way to freedom. Some of it is her cultural critique and the wise discernment about the need to let some typical ways of doing things, often uniquely Western ways, about mastery and rationalism and self confidence and reading the Bible in a certain way (laden with individualism and rationalism, again.) Not so many books on our interior lives talk about the body, about our senses, about being fully human (although some do, and more are realizing the dangerous of an overly spiritualized interior faith that devalues creation, our passions, our humanness.)
One quick example of influences upon Mandy as she tells her story of embracing this liberating sort of faith life. One is that she met, and tells just a bit about, our friend the philosophy prof, Dr. Esther Lightcap Meek. Dr. Meek is recently retired from Geneva College in Western Pennsylvania and is a Fujimura Institute Fellow Scholar, working with artist Makoto Fujimura . She has developed courses and programs, written books and she gives talks around what we might call a truly Biblical epistemology. That is, Meek looks at Biblical notions of the head and the heart, of covenant and wisdom, and asks how we really know something. (And, like the philosopher of science Michael Polanyi or any number of characters who populate the fiction of Wendell Berry, we realize that we can’t really “know” in the abstract; it is always real, embodied, and implicates us in being responsible with the facts at hand. Think of the notion of riding a bike – we don’t learn it by reading a book or studying a video. We have to experience in in our body. There are some very heavy and important implications of this that vex philosophers (and one of her books, Loving to Know: Covenantal Epistemology weighs in at about 550 pages!) but to get her best insights in a simple way, we love her first one, Longing to Know: The Philosophy of Knowledge for Ordinary People and the one Mandy describes, A Little Manuel for Knowing. As Mandy tells it too briefly, meeting Esther freed her from the constraints of a Western sort of rationalism and opened her to, and reaffirmed theologically her instinct about, a full-bodied, real-world sort of knowing. If this sounds a bit like James K.A. Smith’s Augustinian You Are What You Love you would be right. Jamie and Esther have much in common as philosophers writing out of a Reformed vision of the good and wise life in the secular age and Mandy’s drawing on them on her freedom way is wonderful to see.
To keep any of this from being too abstract, Smith’s book has these sidebars every few pages which she calls a “Field Guide.” These are often pointed questions to consider, good stuff to journal about or discuss together with a trusted friend. This is a real asset making the book even more valuable. (And, believe me, this is a book you very well may want to ponder and process and not merely skim.)
Other scholars have influenced Mandy and she takes seriously – although playfully, since, well, that’s part of the child-likeness she is learning about—the good stuff of Curt Thompson, Wendell Berry, N. T Wright, Simone Weil, C.S. Lewis, Eugene Peterson, and Marva Dawn, among others. Unfettered includes much of the authors personal journey and it helps us with our own faith and formation, even in our interior lives. But Smith doesn’t let it veer off into navel-gazing; she is wonderfully missional (in fact some parts of some chapters were early articles published by the good folks at Missio Alliance.) Like most of the best books, some of it developed in community at her church and in her work within broader missional networks of friends and co-conspirators, seeking a better way.
As Smith explores this way of knowing the world in a manner that she thinks of as child-like-ness, and wants to respond in a way that is attractive to the increasingly secularized and power-mad world, she draws on Keller’s famous article “How to Reach the West Again.” Many of us will appreciate her concern about ecology, justice, race relations, and other important aspects of our hurting society. Following in the footsteps of the likes of Brueggemann she names as “Empire” the worldly configurations of power and might that are nearly “principalities and powers,” to use New Testament language. As Brueggemann puts it in the forward she “names and effectively resists ‘empire,’ a stand-in for the seductions of modernity that view for control, certitude, and predictability.” And then he adds, “It is clear that this mode of life cannot deliver on our hopes for humanness.
The last two chapters were my favorites and I will let you discover their depth and joy yourself. Just know they approach the question of childlikeness more thoroughly. In a way, the whole book was leading up to this. She is bravely honest about what approached serious depression, about an “aching void” and her own feelings of failure. She writes about shame, about trauma, about what spiritual director Janet Hagberg in The Critical Journey calls hitting a wall. Being feed from this to live unfettered in a way that is honest and faithful is the goal, and honoring our own “incompleteness” is part of the process.
Again, here is how Brueggemann succinctly puts it in the foreword:
Smith has seen that in her own life, her previous practice of faith seduced her into certitude and control that denied her the freedom, joy, and grace to which such “imperial” faith often attested. She found that her imagination has been occupied by and limited to the rigidities of orthodoxy that had become the very enemy of that which it advocated.
Ms. Mandy Smith reminds us – at times gently and at times firmly, but never scolding – that our very way of doing the Christian life and our practices (including how we read the Bible, how we pray, the ways in which we formulate theology, the way we tend to share the gospel) need to be shaped themselves by a Kingdom vision. We follow the Way of Jesus in the way of Jesus. That is, just going to church or reading the Bible is no guarantee we are doing those things well or wisely or faithfully. (She thinks this is particularly urgent as we read and interpret the Bible and she gives some examples of more generative, fruitful, coherent, wise, Bible readings.) She mentions this throughout the book, but this line is from near the end and says it well: “It is so tempting to do Kingdom (of God) things in empire way so that even our approach to understanding and explaining the Kingdom has been touched by this inclination. It leaves the good news,” she says, “drained of goodness.”
I hope you consider ordering this new paperback from us because there’s much to like about this book – her child-like faith, adopted haltingly as she learned to shed some of the Western “empire” assumptions about power and might, her memoirish candor, her poems and journal entries that she candidly reveals. For those of us that want redemptive, whole-bodied fresh theology, she brings it. In another way, perhaps, than typical theology tomes but she does bring some serious content.
There are moments in Unfettered: Imagining a Childlike Faith when she sounds like an Orthodox monk, other times like a charismatic anointed with the favor of the Spirit, sometimes like a really fresh, creative Bible teacher. Mostly she sounds like a very honest woman just wanting her faith and her leadership to be honoring to God and authentic, truly Christ-like and full of wonder and gratitude. Like those wild geese she writes about who fly free in concert relying on others and trusting the flow of the wind, Mandy Smith shares the Wind’s lift and the unfettered life of trusting it well.
From Burned Out to Beloved: Soul Care for Wounded Healers Bethany Dearborn Hiser (IVP) $18.00. OUR SALE PRICE = $14.40
This is a stunning book in many ways, and I know more than one person who said it was the most important book they’ve read all year. It is fairly new and I’ve been wanting to describe it, knowing it will be a God-send to many. The title is a great indication of what it is about (and the phrase popularized by Henri Nouwen, “wounded healers” is spot on. She is working in that interplay of social work, ministry, burn out, self-care and soul care informed by the deeper contemplative tradition. It isn’t every book that draws on social justice activism and great titles like The Body Keeps the Score by Bessel Van der Kolk and Sacred Rhythms: Arranging Our Lives for Spiritual Transformation by Ruth Haley Barton.
I know that many of our readers are eager to return to some sort of normalcy after the Covid vaccination rates improve. Some of us are worried that although our rates of those getting the virus are still high and people are still dying, many in our society are celebrating. As we’ve gone through nearly a year and a half of hardship and grief, our work and family stresses have been amplified and our natural capacities of staying emotionally and spiritually healthy have themselves been compromised. Things are hard in this fallen world and it’s been a very, very hard year. Add to this pandemic and quarantining difficulties and stresses, the political and cultural landscape has been (what’s the word?) Awful? Wearying? For some of us, traumatizing? It isn’t just social workers or activists who need this book, it is many of us.
And so, From Burnout to Beloved is an excellently written book, ideal for our times. Whether you are coping with burn out from caring for others or advocating for justice or working hard to keep your church, ministry, organization or workplace flourishing against all odds in these challenging times, you may need this book. Who doesn’t need to be reminded of our belovedness by God in a world that is broken?
I will describe four quick things about this book and why I recommend it so enthusiastically.
First, Bethany Dearborn Hiser is quite a writer. And she’s got a story to tell. Her own work was heroic, and as an intentionally Christian social worker serving marginalized and at-risk folks, it is natural that she would feel the hurt, experience loss and pain, even what some call second hand trauma. She worked with folks stuck in poverty, immigrants, the imprisoned, and others; she saw people chewed up by the layers of social service bureaucracy and the damage done by drug abuse and sexual violence to public policies of incarceration and disregard for the families of immigrants. She has seen up close stuff some of us have only read about on seen on TV shows.
Among other places, she worked with the amazing and deeply spiritual Tierra Nueva, a wholistic Christian community caring for and working with many wounded and oppressed people. They are a supportive and wise community and Spirit-led in beautiful ways, but even there, the work-load was intense and Bethany was – for understandable reasons! – unable to establish for herself the sorts of boundaries and sensible practices of self-care that would allow her work to be sustainable.
There is a chapter called “Co-dependency in the Workplace” which is really insightful. Her own journey of self-discovery about her workaholism and false beliefs about her duties and capacities are remarkable. (I wish she had mentioned Tyler Wiggs-Stevenson’s wise volume The World Is Not Yours to Save which would offer additional help coping with this sort of co-dependency.)
Most of us in high stress positions – medical care givers, pastors, entrepreneurs, social workers, teachers, leaders of all sorts, and those in so many other demanding vocations – know in our heads that we’ve got to take care. Alas, most of us do not or cannot. When Bethany Dearborn Hiser confesses in the first page to being a “social justice workaholic” I knew this was a book for me and for many I know. Merton wrote about it in the 60s, Nouwen did later, and numerous wise guides have warned us – especially those with a caring heart towards the burdens of this world – to not fall into this workaholic space of frenzied crusading for a better world. Many of us need help with this. Bethany was sucked in to this lifestyle of overwork and it almost destroyed her. We’re grateful for her compelling story and her big heart and the lessons learned.
Secondly, besides this author’s wisdom learned the hard way and her vulnerability in sharing her complicated story is how she is so very practical about guiding us toward the plan for recovery. The book includes some soul-work that grapples with questions of our being truly beloved, that we do not have to earn or deserve God’s love and that in Christ we are truly forgiven, restored, made new. She has this theological stuff in her evangelical heart, of course, but needed a deeper journey with spiritual directors and contemplative guides to help learn that more profound understanding in her bones of who she was in Christ and how spiritual practices can help re-shaped our deformed ways.
She has a chapter or two on false beliefs (and shares well-chosen Bible passages that are helpful along the way.) This is good stuff, moving from “shame to self- empathy” and how to explore “trauma-informed soul care.”
I am not always a big fan of the self-helpy interface of psychology and spirituality; I’m occasionally skeptical of what seems, in some books and speakers, to be talk about deeply centered prayer and union with God in Christ through the power of the Spirit (that is, the triune God who is there) but it ends up mostly about being in touch with one’s self. While there is nothing wrong with self-awareness about our interior lives, our fears and foibles, our traumas and shame, (indeed, as this book shows, it is vital) I worry that sometimes this passes for the sort of transformative spirituality that the monks and mystics have commended over their deep experiences of the gospel and the soul’s connection to God. Being aware of our false selves (and our enneagram type) is not necessarily the same as being transformed into Christlikeness with the virtues of sanctification. However, gladly, From Burned Out to Beloved really does invite us to serious interior work that might be called psychological in nature and seamlessly combines that with spiritual practices and the journey into the lived relationship with God. That is, it seems to me that Hiser gets it right, offering Biblically-informed, deeply integrated and solid, helpful, teaching about the crisis of burnout and the hope of the gospel experienced through (among other things) contemplative practices.
Thirdly, Hiser is deeply aware not just of the generic stresses that cause compassion-fatigue and burn-out, she is aware of how this affects those who are working for if advocating for justice, including racial justice. She draws wisely on the important book Healing Racial Trauma: The Road to Resilience by Sheila Wise Rowe (that I have commended here at BookNotes when it came out a year or so ago) and is informed by the important psychological scholarship on trauma by Judith Herman and the theological work on the subject by the likes of Serene Jones. There is much being written about trauma these days and her exploration of “secondary trauma” is really, really useful.
A fourth thing I’ll say about this book that Father Greg Boyle calls “an essential roadmap for those who want to be of service” is that it is very practical with sidebars, lists of practices, suggested activities, and helpful bibliographies. She knows the research from academic journals (many from those writing about sustaining healthy careers in the social work field) and she gives us lots of ideas and help along the way. There are self-assessment tools, prayer guides, recommended spiritual practices and prayers, and a number of resources to help you process this heavy material. Even as much of it reads as a memoir, her telling her own story, Hiser has given us a great volume to equip you to (as it says nicely on the back cover) “confess your limitations, embrace your identity as a beloved child of God, and flourish in your call to serve.” Kudos the Ms Hiser and IVP for making this powerful book that much more useful with the extra experiences and resources.
Here is another quick point: the author warns that the hard work of healing and on-going soul care (which is the very thing needed for those struggling with burnout and weariness and overwork) is often dismissed by those who need it most. Ms. Hiser herself thought she was invincible. As one reviewer put it, From Burned Out to Beloved “literally woos us as leaders to slow down, to breath deeply the knowledge that we are the Trinity’s beloved child, and to be transformed.” Indeed, it woos us, invites us, and, at times, cajoles us. And we need it. Some of us are so busy and overworked we think we don’t have time for this stuff. Some, like Hiser, may think it is superficial, a “first world problem” as some of us say. Perhaps you need this book more than you may want to admit. Please order it from us soon.
Listen to Mark Labberton:
“What Bethany Dearborn Hiser offers here is essential for every pastor, social worker, caregiver, or friend: a gaze into the groaning beauty of being human. Her vision of this mystery is candid, sustained, tender, and hopeful. Holistic life and ministry have seldom been portrayed as more inspiring, or as more daunting. Hiser gives those of us in ministry a clear reminder that human beings reflect the exquisite glory of God’s design as well as our human proclivity to be victims and perpetrators of our own worst instincts. Therein lies the glory and agony of the human journey that every teenager, young adult, client, older parishioner, family, or small group must face. Our individual and collective need for credible hope turns first on God’s gift in Jesus Christ and also on our readiness to live nothing more, but nothing less, than a truly human life–for our sake and our neighbor’s. This is the mission of God’s grace in every ministry setting. I’m grateful that Hiser helps us see why we need this ourselves and how to live it in freedom and joy, more than in exhaustion.”
The Voices We Carry: Finding Your One True Voice in a World of Clamor and Noise J. S. Park (Northfield/Moody Press) $14.99 OUR SALE PRICE = $11.99
We are on a roll here with this theme of attending to our inner lives and fears and hurts as we bravely walk that “rocky road to Kingdom come.” Alongside fresh – dare I call it somewhat postmodern? – theology about childlike freedom in the great Unfettered book by pastor and writer Mandy Smith and the raw and exceptionally valuable guide From Burned-Out to Beloved by activist Bethany Dearborn Hiser, I want to add for your consideration this recent book by J.S. Park about breaking free to find your own true voice.
Each of these books, and certainly J.S. Park’s, are rooted in the author’s own often painful stories. These are not literary memoirs or tell-all exposes and the authors are certainly not whiners. But they have learned to be honest (against all odds and their own dispositions) in teaching us what they learned the hard way. (Or as in the cool collection of essays by one of my favorite writers, David Giffels from rustbelt Akron, Ohio, maybe “the hard way on purpose.”) Some folks (most of us no doubt, maybe even in Giffels town) may be wired with certain inclinations or cultural habits to not be honest about pain, to not ask for help, to not embarrass oneself or one’s family by admitting limits, anxieties, struggles, or failures. We avoid the painful stuff. It is hard to overcome this impulse to cover up our junk and one has to be willing to do it, on purpose.
Park captures the heavy but somewhat energizing adventure that doing this work can be in the first chapter called “I Didn’t Know How Much I Didn’t Know.” So right!
The Voices We Carry is simply a fantastic read, honest and raw and real and very encouraging to help us cope with various manifestations of the scripts and stories we’ve been given and with good tools for coping with dysfunctions and disorders from pride to self-doubt to co-dependency to control. Even those of us who may seem to have it somewhat together in public may have internal “issues” and all of us have been given less than helpful scripts. We hear a lot of voices.
J.S. Park has quite a story. He starts the book explaining that he is a hospital chaplain and will be sharing small bits of hard conversations he often has with patients. Facing critical lifestyle changes or even death, they pour out what they think and believe, often about themselves, often regurgitating stories hammered into their hurting hearts, perhaps from their youth. And within pages, I was hooked. (Okay, he had me at the wonderful Frederick Buechner epigram that starts the chapter.)
Joon, as Mr. Park sometimes goes by, learned to listen well, sometimes between the lines as a good therapist might, and realizes that many, many, folks have a jumble of narratives about the meaning of their lives that are often harmful. Some are harrowing and he retells the stories in vivid prose. Not everyone has received the full “blessing” of their parents; most of us carry voices telling us we are not good enough, our fears and expectations haunt us, (etcetera, etcetera.) As many have written in recent years, we are now facing an epidemic of loneliness and of nearly ubiquitous shame (and not some small bit of narcissism, too.) Eventually, Park realizes that he, too, has been shaped by a whole world of voices; he has been forged by what he calls “noise” or the “steady stream of internal and external messages that we gather over time” As he explains, “Some of these deafening voices arise from the events and traumas we experience, the things people tell us, and the things we tell ourselves. The noise of these voices affects our choices, relationships, and estimation of our own worth.”
The stories that patients confide to Chaplain Park – some call him, “chap” for short – are sometimes confessions, sometimes urgent last words. Although he hears some truly memorable (jarring, poignant, wise, and awful) things in these settings, he has experienced this myriad of voices himself; he admits to his own damaging self-talk, to living out of the story others have given him. In The Voices We Carry Park invites us to listen in on his own journey, hearing about his own painful past and his discernment about how to wrestle with and even befriend the voices we carry.
The book is very well written and Park, like most of the authors I appreciate the most, draws on great and sometimes surprising sources. It is always curious to me (and I think a part of the evaluation of the reliability and calibre of a nonfiction work) who an author quotes, who they like to cite, who they have been influenced by. As with the other two authors in this edition of BookNotes, Park reads widely. In his book you find some professional psychology journal citations next to fascinating Scripture quotes; references to early church fathers and insights from family systems experts Karen Horney and Murray Bowen; you’ll hear notes from Abolition of Man and Simone Weil and Brene Brown and Buber’s I and Thou. There are popular culture references (including Star Trek and the comedian Mitch Hedberg) and, wow, how the man loves novels! From J.D. Salinger to Raymond Chandler to Steinbeck and Donna Tartt (the fabulous novel The Goldfinch) to a hip quote from the short stories of Haruki Murakami, it enlivens the prose. I supposed you may guess that the very title of his book is an homage to the well-known Viet Nam war-era novel The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien. Part of Park’s resume includes “teaching pastor” — what a blessing his congregants have in somebody so very fluent in so much good writing.
Park grew up as a second-generation immigrant kid in an impoverished family, told, eventually, that he was conceived in an unwanted “accident” and was nearly aborted. As he puts it in his early teen years, “I walked around like some kind of superimposed hologram, a ghost in debt. I apologized a lot, bowing my head in short little bobs, always sorry about everything.” Middle school and high school years were not easy. It’s hard navigating life, especially in those difficult years of transitioning towards young adulthood when one thinks most deeply that one is “an interruption in the order of things.”
Another voice emerged due to his severe allergies. Those who have suffered chronic illness or childhood disease or handicapping conditions knows how it can shape, sometimes painfully so, one’s self image and very identity. Joon’s voices include the constant refrain “You are sick and there is something wrong with you.”
And another voice: although his father was a war hero in Viet Nam war (a POW who escaped by killing his captors) as an Asian American in Florida, he and his family were harassed, his dojo desecrated with spray painted swastikas by local skinhead racists. His father reacted calmly to these assaults – 10-minute diatribes on the phone answering machine mocking his Korean accent – but young J.S. took the script to heart: “You are not welcome.” In school he heard and internalized other voices such as “You are not one us.”
And, of course, he is not the only young adult who was told by his father “You must not lose” and from other formative experiences, “You do not have what it takes.”
In The Voices We Carry: Finding Your One True Voice in a World of Clamor and Noise Dr. Park helps us understand and evaluate the influence of these sorts of stories and voices and attitudes and perceptions we’ve absorbed. He describes his model and plan in the four sections of the book as exploring “four internal voices” which he names “valuations” and four external voices” which he names as “precipitations.”
Although Park guides us through this with lots of his own story and some upbeat humor and fun writing, it is heavy stuff (although presented with impeccable clarity.) He warns – I think I see a clever smile as he writes – that:
Exploring some of these voices might be an ugly street fight. Some of this will challenging. At some point you might get tempted to think, Oh, I know a guy who does that. I wish that guy could hear this. And I bet this book would be good for that guy. But really, I’m talking to you. I promise I’m also talking to me and that other guy, too. Mainly, though, it’s for you. I’m pulling up a chair, eye-to-eye, face-to-face, and with all the grace and hope and love and anticipation in my being. Together we’ll find a way through these voices to wholeness.
It is rare to find a book so well written, so simple and clear, that is both challenging and yet charming, raw (to invite maybe melancholy self-reflection) and inviting creativity and goodness and freedom. The lovely introduction by visual artist Red Hon Yi says it so well. Hon Yi tells of meeting Park after a period of personal email correspondence and finds that he is earnest in inviting frank conversations about our inner fears and depression and such, and yet is warm and compassionate and encouraging.
I like very much how the book ends, with three ways these recovered voices can be used for good.
All of the dozen or so chapters are colorful and clear, each with clever, descriptive titles. Here are the last three:
- Hearing Voices: Unscrambling the Noise Wading Through a Sea of Everyone Else’s Ideas
- Owning Your Voice(s): What You’re Really About Finding a Voice to Call Your Own
- Giving a Voice: I Got a Story to Tell Empathy, Compassion, and Presence
A quick little note about the Northfield publishing imprint who released The Voices We Carry. It was wisely started years ago by the conservative, evangelical publisher Moody Press to distinguish books that perhaps have a wider audience than their typical “Christian bookstore” market. Many Northfield books are self-help resources (about attachment disorder in adoption, say, or a new one called The Value of Wrinkles, about why younger generations should value the old.) I think this is a great notion, sharing books that may be explicitly Christian but not all pushy or those that are deeply embedded in the gospel story but not overtly religious-sounding. This book, written by a pastor and chaplain, is overtly Christian and deeply spiritual but, really, non-religious readers shouldn’t be put off by it at all. That Moody Press put it in their Northfield line indicates their hopes that it receives a wider (ecumenical or even secular) readership. The books fluency in the scholarly literature and its savvy about contemporary writers and contemporary issues of cross-cultural hurts and hopes, makes it ideal for these days.
And, yet, also, J. S. Park, with his own painful voices, his listening skills honed in years of empathetic grief counseling, with his work as an interfaith hospital chaplain, with his community care work at Metropolitan Ministries (one of the largest nonprofit charities on the east coast) and with his M. Div from Southeastern Baptist Seminary, well, you know this guy wants to let his light shine. Through the clamor of voices that we all hear, and the ones we must attend to, many readers will be glad that Park eventually says what his model has certainly presumed — that we also get to hear God’s voice. The last several pages are nearly a fresh reminder of the gospel itself; sort of like being unfettered and beloved. After describing singing in a very small church in the Philippines, and recalling the value of love in the Bible, that he vividly experienced it in that church of joyful if marginalized people, Chaplain Park ends with this:
I hope you know you are seen and heard and loved by that same Spirit.
I hope you choose to be carried by that divine voice, the one who sings over you.
I hope you know that you’re brave enough to join the song.
You are. You really are.
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